Louisville-bred Rudy Schwenck, an early spitballer,1 went from working for a whiskey distillery to working on an incredible summer scoreless streak to a major league diamond over a six-month period in 1909. He was a “one-hit wonder” during a three-game career with the second-place Chicago Cubs in September and October of that year. Unfortunately, his hard-charging ways cost him a permanent spot on future Cub rosters.
Rudolph Christian Schwenck was born on April 6, 1884, in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the three children of German-born immigrants Frederick H. Schwenck and Christine (Muhlenschlager) Schwenck. Nothing is known of his early years, before the 18-year-old did “good work” in his debut for the amateur Reccius Brothers Sporting Goods Club of Louisville in November 1902.2 The next spring, he was invited to spring training with the Birmingham Barons of the Class A Southern Association,3 before being jettisoned to the Talladega Tigers of the Class D Alabama-Georgia League. He had a tryout start with the Louisville Colonels of the Class A American Association in late June, surrendering 12 runs on 16 hits.4 Schwenck returned to Talladega, but after the team blew up in early August, he took a turn with a semipro squad from Gadsden, Alabama.5 Schwenck finished the year in late August pitching for Pulaski (Tennessee) of the Class D Tennessee-Alabama League.6 He was sidelined for the rest of the season, however, after taking a “hot line drive” to his side in early September.7
Schwenck started 1904 with the Greenville (Mississippi) Cotton Pickers of the Class D Cotton States League, with the “elongated specimen of the genius twirler by name of Schwenck” drawing the second-game assignment against the Vicksburg (Mississippi) Hill Billies.8 By July, he had joined Vicksburg,9 posting an 8-5 record for Vicksburg10 to finish with an even 12-12 league mark.11 When he wasn’t pitching, Rudy was listed in the telephone directory as a bookkeeper.
In early April 1905, Schwenck was nabbed again by the Reccius Club back in Louisville. Before the minor league season, Vicksburg attempted to re-sign Schwenck, but he initially refused. It was said Rudy “had a Micawber disposition when it came to running up bills, and he didn’t care to meet importunate creditors, and that’s why he wanted new fields and pastures green.”12 So he scampered down to the Jacksonville Jays of the Class C South Atlantic League, and shut out Charleston on four hits in early May.13 In June, Schwenck joined the Pine Bluff (Arkansas) Lumbermen of the Cotton States League, but when Pine Bluff disbanded in July, he rejoined Vicksburg (now called the Hill Climbers).14 Unfortunately, the league disbanded due to a malaria quarantine by month’s end,15 so “Windy Rudy” (for his talkative nature) latched on with the Fort Worth Panthers of the Class C Texas League.16 Two weeks later, he was “an enigma” in throwing a 13-0 no-hitter against Dallas.17 By September, Rudy was on the move again, this time to Nashville of the Class A Southern Association.18 In his second Nashville appearance, Schwenck had “stage fright” and was “something of a disappointment” in allowing 12 hits in an 8-2 setback to the Little Rock Travelers, with the prediction that he’d be sent “back to the tall uncut.”19 Released the next day, he returned to Louisville, facing his old Reccius squad as the starter for Butchertown in the Kentucky amateur championship.20
Schwenck, standing at six foot even and 174 pounds, made the 1906 opening day roster for the Mobile Sea Gulls, still within the CSL,21 where he was 4-4 before being dispatched to the last-place (30-94) Lake Charles (Louisiana) Creoles of the Class C South Texas League,22 where he was 1-7. The next year, with Columbia (South Carolina), he tied a South Atlantic League record with 15 strikeouts over the Augusta (Georgia) Tourists23 early in the season.24 He and Bugs Raymond of Charleston both “worked the spitball to a finish” in a late-June matchup, with Rudy throwing a three-hit shutout for the last-place Gamecocks.25 SAL umpire Harry Mace, a bird dog for Washington Senators manager Joe Cantillion, recommended Schwenck, who had “mastered the spit ball.” 26 It is unclear who taught Schwenck how to “master” the spitball.
Unfortunately, Rudy was arrested one night in August by the Augusta police for assaulting an umpire Brady during a game.27 Being “enraged at a decision of Brady’s, Schwenck first threw his glove, and then a quid of tobacco, which was followed with a blow in the face. Many blows were exchanged,”28 and Schwenck was later suspended by league President Charles W. Boyer.29 He finished with a 15-23 record on the year. Schwenck was named by the Charleston Evening Post as the “Most Sarcastic” player in the South Atlantic League.30 In October, he was signed by the Memphis Egyptians of the Class A Southern Association.31
In Memphis’s 1908 spring training, Schwenck pitched a complete game against the Chicago Cubs, falling, 4-0, to Ed Reulbach.32 He started strong in May with shutouts against New Orleans33 and Atlanta.34 On July 25, against Montgomery, Schwenck threw a 1-0, eight-inning no-hitter over Herb Juul, followed in the nightcap by a three-hit, 5-0, seven-inning shutout over Elmer Bliss.35 He allowed but two hits but fell, 1-0, in 13 innings, to Bliss and Montgomery in late August.36 In September, Schwenck “clinched his claim to the title of Iron Man,” winning another doubleheader, 2-1 and 5-1, against Birmingham.37 It was “a custom of the ‘Iron Man’ to use chewing gum when it came his turn to pitch, as it increased the flow of saliva for use in delivering the spit ball.”38
Schwenck signed a Memphis (now called the Turtles) contract for 1909 with a modest raise. However, he informed Manager Charlie Babb before the season that he would remain at his job as a corker in the bottling department of a whiskey distillery near Cincinnati instead of playing ball.39 As of mid-May, Schwenck was in danger of violating “the Exile Rule”40 and being banned for five years by the National Commission for refusing to report to Memphis and honor his contract.41 He finally relented and joined the team in June..42
What a six-week run he had! Schwenck “broke into the winners’ class for the first time this year with a brilliant slab performance” in a 2-0 shutout over Atlanta on June 18.43 He soon pieced together a 45 1/3-inning scoreless streak, beginning with the final two and one-third innings in a 4-1 win against Birmingham on June 23.44 Next, Schwenck earned the final out in relief of a 4-3 victory over Montgomery on June 26.45 He then shut out New Orleans, 4-0, on June 28.46 Two-and-one-third more shutout innings followed two days later, also against New Orleans.47 He then tossed a two-hit shutout against Mobile on July 3.48 Schwenck proceeded to throw 12 more shutout innings on July 8, once again against New Orleans, in a scoreless tie.49 Four days later, he shut out Mobile, 4-0.50 Finally, in his next start, Schwenck’s streak was broken with one out in the second inning on an RBI single by Little Rock’s Al Boucher, the only run scored in a 1-0 defeat to Charlie Rhodes, another spitball artist.51 Schwenck later lost a 1-0, 11-inning contest to Charlie Case and Nashville on July 29.52 In total, Schwenck tossed 45 1/3 scoreless innings, and allowed exactly two runs over a 68 2/3 inning span. Yet somehow, he finished the year with only a 7-12 record (with two ties) for the last-place squad.
In late July, Detroit Tigers scout Jack Horner recommended that team president Frank Navin and manager Hugh Jennings sign Schwenck.53 Brooklyn reportedly offered $3,000 for him.54 But Chicago Cubs owner Charley Murphy, who was doing some “gum-shoeing” of his own, scouted Schwenck in Memphis, and signed him for September delivery.55 Rudy won for last-place Memphis in their finale on September 12 against Mobile, then immediately departed for Chicago.56
On September 23, Cubs manager Frank Chance gave “Memphis recruit” Schwenck a trial at home in a 4-1 loss against the Brooklyn Superbas.57 The right-hander allowed four runs on eight hits in eight innings of work in the first game of a doubleheader. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle commented that Brooklyn “got to Schwenck in the first round, and made him wish he never had left the Southern League,” going after the lad “as though they were going to slaughter him, pounding out three runs in the opening stanza.”58 Schwenck did get out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam unscathed in the sixth inning.59
On September 28, Schwenck entered in the ninth inning against Philadelphia, surrendering two runs on three hits. He was “pie for the visitors, who clinched the battle by driving in a pair of runs through the agency of a base on balls and three hits in a row.”60 The Cubs loss, putting them nine games behind, clinched the National League pennant for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Finally, on October 6, in the last game of the season for the Cubs, in the nightcap of a doubleheader in St. Louis, Schwenck won his only major league game. He pitched five innings, allowing only one run on five hits, in front of a paltry crowd of 2,500. The lefty-swinging Rudy also collected his only major league hit, a single against Fred Beebe. The Cubs finished 104-49, six-and-a-half games behind the Pirates.
Apparently, Schwenck’s penchant for frivolity caused owner Murphy to want to release him after the season. However, after assurances from Schwenck that he would “try to reach the hotel before the witching hour every night,” Chance invited him back for spring training in 1910 in Mobile, Alabama.61 Schwenck showed promise with four shutout innings over New Orleans of the Southern Association in a March exhibition. Unfortunately, a week later, he was “fired”62 by Chance because “he would not obey the bedtime rule.”63 As the story went, Schwenck, along with Eddie Stack and Rube Kroh, visited a friend “in the [Mobile] suburbs and missed the last regular [train] car. Chance had cautioned all hands to be in the hay by midnight.”64 Murphy, Chance, Louisville Colonels owner Bill Grayson, and Louisville manager Heinie Peitz agreed, after an exhibition a week later against the Colonels of the American Association, to leave the hometown Schwenck there, with Ring Lardner of the Chicago Tribune noting that the deal “probably will please him, for there are no laws at his house about getting in before midnight.”65
The 1910 census showed that Rudy lived in Louisville with his mother Christine, sister Ophelia, and her husband. In one of his first games for Louisville, Schwenck’s left wrist was broken by a liner hit by Toledo’s opposing pitcher Earl Yingling, causing him to miss nearly two months.66 When he returned in June, Schwenck played sparingly in 14 games for Louisville, multiple times solely as a pinch-hitter.67 Due to a logjam of pitchers on the Colonels roster, Schwenck was sold by Grayson to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association in August.68 But apparently Schwenck didn’t want to report to the Pelicans, nor did manager Charlie Frank particularly want him, so the deal was called off.69 Other reports claimed Schwenck felt it was simply too hot in N’awlins, or that there was a salary disagreement.70 When Schwenck didn’t get paid by either team, he appealed to the National Commission. New Orleans claimed the deal had been “called off,” and the National Commission ruled in the Pelicans’ favor.71
Schwenck was sold (again) by Louisville, in February 1911 to the Spokane (Washington) Indians of the Class B Northwestern League.72 The Louisville Courier-Journal deemed the change of scenery good for Rudy, saying “Schwenck will work better among strangers.”73 However, Schwenck balked, claiming that unless his salary demands were met, he might pitch for a Rogers Park semipro team out of Chicago.74 Rudy eventually reported to the Pacific Northwest, and delivered a 14-7 record for the season. At season’s end, he and three teammates announced they were going into the goat breeding business on an island in Vancouver, British Columbia.75 That winter, though, Schwenck headed south, pitching for the Los Angeles Bottling Company semipro team. In April 1912, Spokane sold Schwenck to the Sacramento Sacts of the Class AA Pacific Coast League. Rudy again claimed he was going to quit, before finally reporting.76 The “spitball virtuoso”77 lost 10 of his last 11 decisions, including his last six, to end with a 5-12 mark. In August, he hit his only pro home run.78
During this period, the Little Rock Arkansas Gazette reported that Schwenck has had “quite a checkered career. Sport authorities say Rudy is one of the best mechanical pitchers in the game, but he has a thirst that is always on the job. Together with habits that are none too exemplary, this keeps him from being a star slab artist.”79 His last pro stint was with the Dallas Giants of the Class B Texas League, where he won six games in 1913 but was released in April 1914.
In 1928, Schwenck married Mabel Naomi Johnson, who had been born in Minnesota. Mabel had married previously in 1903 and had five kids. Rudy and Mabel did not have any children together. In 1930, Rudy, Mabel and her daughters Marjorie and Phyllis lived in Jefferson, Indiana, where Rudy was a mining engineer. He later worked for an insurance agency and in the real estate business.80 When the family moved back to Louisville in the mid-1930s, he was an ardent follower of the local Colonels, being “often consulted by the younger players for his advice.”81
Rudy Schwenck died on November 27, 1941, at the age of 57, in a sanatorium in Anchorage, Kentucky, of pneumonia due to alcoholism.82 He is buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. He was survived by his wife Mabel.
This bio was reviewed by Bill Lamb, edited by Norman Macht, and fact-checked by members of the SABR BioProject factchecking committee.
In addition to the sources shown in the notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com, Statscrew.com, and MyHeritage.com
1 Hugh Fullerton, Jr., “Schwenck is Credited with Spitball Throw,” Associated Press, as reprinted in the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Press-Gazette, December 6, 1941: 13.
2 “Reccius Club Beaten,” Courier-Journal, November 10, 1902: 7.
3 “Coming Game with New York,” Birmingham (Alabama) News, March 21, 1903: 12.
4 “Walters Struck Out Twenty in Yesterday’s Game,” Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), June 25, 1903: 5.
5 “Anniston, 10; Gadsden, 9,” Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, August 14, 1903: 10.
6 “Pulaski Wants the Two Gambles Formerly of Luckies,” Anniston (Alabama) Star, August 23, 1903: 8.
7 “Pulaski Defeated,” Birmingham News, September 4, 1903: 12.
8 “Greenville Outclassed in Second Game of the Series,” Vicksburg (Mississippi) Herald, April 30, 1904: 6.
9 “Pitcher Schwenck Makes Creditable Showing,” Vicksburg (Mississippi) Evening Post, July 9, 1904: 5.
10 “Summary of Third Season of League,” Vicksburg Evening Post, September 15, 1904: 5.
11 Baseball-Reference.com (as of 2021) still shows Schwenck’s league mark of 12-12 all being with Vicksburg.
12 “Baseball Gossip,” Vicksburg Evening Post, April 5, 1905: 5.
13 “Jacksonville 2, Charleston 0,” Atlanta Constitution, May 7, 1905: 2.
14 “New Men, New Schedule,” Vicksburg Herald, July 20, 1905: 3.
15 “Earle is Ordered to Report at Once,” Vicksburg Evening Post, February 6, 1906: 5.
16 “Players Scatter,” Vicksburg Herald, August 1, 1905: 3.
17 “Schwenck an Enigma,” Palestine (Texas) Herald, August 14, 1905: 2.
18 “Dope for the Fans,” Nashville Banner, September 12, 1905: 6.
19 “Must Twirl Better Ball,” Nashville Banner, September 16, 1905: 6.
20 “Last Game of Season,” Courier-Journal, November 12, 1905: 31.
21 “Oystermen Off to Montgomery,” Montgomery Advertiser, April 2, 1906: 5.
22 “Bunched the Hits off Schwenck and Lake Charles was Again Defeated,” Houston Post, August 17, 1906: 3.
23 “Columbia Pitcher Won Battle in Great Contest Yesterday,” Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, April 17, 1907: 3.
24 “Savidge and Raymond Lead Pitchers of South Atlantic,” Evening Post (Charleston, South Carolina), June 20, 1907: 3.
25 “Ruddy (sic) Schwenck Pitches Game Cocks to Victory.” Evening Post, June 20, 1907: 3.
26 “Sporting Brevities,” Atlanta Constitution, August 17, 1907: 9.
27 “Notes,” Vicksburg American, August 27, 1907: 3.
28 “Pitcher Spat on Umpire,” Pensacola (Florida) Journal, August 17, 1907: 4.
29 “Rudy Schwenck,” Evening Post, August 23, 1907: 4.
30 “Looking ‘Em Over Some,” Evening Post, September 5, 1907: 3.
31 “Kavanaugh Has His Eyes Open,” (Nashville) Tennessean, October 28, 1907: 6.
32 “Exhibition Games,” New Castle (Pennsylvania) Herald, April 6, 1908: 2.
33 “Southern League,” Pine Bluff (Arkansas) Graphic, May 2, 1908: 5.
34 “Schwenck Allows Three Hits,” Shreveport (Louisiana) Times, May 19, 1908: 5.
35 “Southern League,” Courier-Journal, July 25, 1908: 28.
36 “A Fine Game in Memphis,” Shreveport Times, August 24, 1908: 5.
37 Richmond (Indiana) Item, September 12, 1908: 6.
38 “The Turtles,” Nashville Banner, January 22, 1909: 16.
39 “Rudy Schwenck Will Not Play Baseball,” Montgomery Advertiser, March 23, 1909: 12.
40 “Schwenck Falls Victim to the Exile Rule,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 10, 1909: 5.
41 “Schwenck is Under Ban,” (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette, May 10, 1909: 6.
42 “Kieber Loses on Three Hits – Schwenck Was Wild,” Birmingham (Alabama) Age-Herald, June 05, 1909: 7.
43 “Rudy Schwenck Trims Crackers,” Atlanta Constitution, June 19, 1909: 4.
44 “Barons Outplayed,” Montgomery Advertiser, June 24, 1909: 11.
45 Houston Post, June 27, 1909: 18.
46 “Pelicans Stung by Babblers,” Nashville Banner, June 29, 1909: 10.
47 “Look What Memphis Did,” (Nashville) Tennessean, July 1, 1909: 6.
48 “Mobile Shut Out,” Pensacola News, July 4, 1909: 3.
49 “Twelve Innings to a Tie,” Journal and Tribune, July 9, 1909: 10.
50 “Southern League,” Evening Chronicle (Charlotte, North Carolina), July 13, 1909: 6.
51 “Rhodes in Form, Blanks Memphis,” (Little Rock) Arkansas Democrat, July 17, 1909: 2.
52 “Nashville 1-3, Memphis 0-2,” Courier-Journal, July 30, 1909: 6.
53 “Detroit After Atkins and Rudy,” Birmingham Age-Herald, July 22, 1909: 11.
54 “Just Dope,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Times, August 13, 1909: 6.
55 “Colonels Hit in Great Form,” Courier-Journal, July 13, 1909: 6.
56 “Memphis Pitcher Off to Join the Cubs,” Montgomery Advertiser, September 13, 1909: 7.
57 “Brooklyn Dodgers Make Cubs Divide a Double Header,” Inter Ocean (Chicago), September 24, 1909: 4.
58 “Superbas Divide with the Cubs and Are Now in Sixth Place,” Brooklyn Eagle, September 24, 1909: 20.
59 “Cub Recruits in Action,” Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1909: 8.
60 “Phillies Beat Cubs by 3 to 2 and Give Flag to Pittsburg,” Inter Ocean (Chicago), September 29, 1909: 4.
61 R.W. Lardner, “One Cub ‘Fired;’ Two Draw Fines,” Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1910: 14.
62 Same as above.
63 “Big League Notes,” Register-Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), April 7, 1910: 2.
64 “Chance Fines Players,” Times (Davenport, Iowa), March 23, 1910: 8.
65 R.W. Lardner, “Day Off for Cubs; Rain Interferes,” Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1910: 10.
66 “Another Defeat for Grayson’s Colonels,” Courier-Journal, April 19, 1910: 8.
67 “Roadsters to Get Pitcher Eastle,” (Portland) Oregonian, May 15, 1911: 8.
68 “A New Pelican Twirler,” New Orleans Item, August 18, 1910: 10.
69 “Grayson Says Schwenck Deal is Closed; Cholly Frank Said He Wouldn’t Let Demont,” New Orleans Item, August 22, 1910: 8.
70 “Schwenck Balks and May Not Come Here,” New Orleans Item, August 19, 1910: 1.
71 “In the Schwenck Case,” Arkansas Democrat, December 23, 1910: 9.
72 “Indians Get Another,” Oregonian, February 19, 1911: 8.
73 “Spokane Team Gets Schwenck,” Courier-Journal, February 7, 1911: 7.
74 “Sparks from the Sport World,” Fort Wayne (Indiana) Sentinel, March 10, 1911: 8.
75 “Spokane Players to Go Goat Breeding,” Vancouver (British Columbia) World, September 30, 1911: 13.
76 “Schwenk Says He’s Through with Baseball and Will Not Report to Sacramento,” Spokane (Washington) Chronicle, May 1, 1912: 16.
77 “Grouped Hits the Waterloo of Spitball Virtuoso Schwenck,” San Francisco Call, July 18, 1912: 13.
78 “Sports Notes,” Victoria (British Columbia) Times, August 14, 1912: 7.
79 “Sport Notes,” Arkansas Gazette, February 4, 1912: 32.
80 “Former Resident Dead,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 29, 1941: 16.
81 B.M. Atkinson, Jr., “Schwenck’s Memory Kept Alive by ‘Spitter,’” Louisville (Kentucky) Times, December 1, 1941: 10.
82 Schwenck, Rudolph, Death Certificate, as provided in the Player File from the Baseball Hall of Fame.