After a last-place finish in 1901, the Cincinnati Reds began the following season hoping for better things, but initial results didn’t offer much reason for optimism. Opening at home against the Chicago Cubs, second-year manager Bid McPhee entrusted the first two games of the campaign to a pair of 23-year-old pitchers – Len Swormstedt, a local boy making his fourth major-league appearance, and Martin Glendon, making his first. The Cubs1 had little trouble with either, walking off with easy victories by scores of 6-1 and 5-2.
That is how things stood on April 19, 1902. The Reds had taken the field twice behind two inexperienced pitchers and, in the words of sportswriter Ren Mulford Jr., “before the season was two days old they had both eyes beautifully blacked.”2 It was at this gloomy juncture, five days before his 29th birthday, after five years in the minors, that Bob Ewing was tapped to make his major-league debut. The weather was frosty and although it was a Saturday afternoon, the crowd for the third game of the Reds-Cubs series was a fraction of the estimated 10,000 who had turned out two days earlier for the season opener.3
The Cubs had finished sixth in 1901 and were a team in transition. New manager Frank Selee was systematically assembling the club that would dominate the National League through the second half of the decade. But most of those players had not yet established themselves in April 1902. Of those who would be mainstays of the Chicago dynasty in the years to come, the starting lineup facing Ewing included only center fielder Jimmy Slagle, Frank Chance behind the plate, and rookie shortstop Joe Tinker, who had made his debut two days earlier when the Cubs’ only double play went Tinker-to-Bobby Lowe-to-Hal O’Hagan. On the mound for Chicago was right-hander Jim Gardner, known as “Barrister Jim” because he practiced law in the off-season. Though he was six months younger than Ewing,4 Gardner had been in and out of the National League since 1895. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune dismissed him as “a pitcher who was supposed to have been placed on the retired list some years ago.”5
Ewing’s day started off well enough. He walked Slagle leading off, but fanned Dakin Miller on a 3-2 pitch. Then he struck out Charlie Dexter and got Germany Schaefer on a ground ball to shortstop. The Cubs went out in order in the second inning and also in the third, and when Ewing retired Miller again to open the fourth, he had set down 10 batters in a row. Meanwhile, the Reds had scored twice in the first inning and held a 2-0 lead.
Then everything went wrong. Suddenly Ewing “could not have pitched the ball over a washtub, much less the regulation-size home plate.”6 He walked Dexter and Schaefer. Chance popped up for the second out of the inning, but Ewing walked Bobby Lowe to load the bases and ran the count full on Hal O’Hagan. On the next pitch, O’Hagan “stooped like a hunchback”7 and umpire Bob Emslie called ball four, forcing home a run. From the sidelines, Chicago’s Jack Taylor “kept up a running fire of caustic shots” at the struggling pitcher.8 The Reds infielders and catcher Bill Bergen countered with shouts of encouragement, but Ewing couldn’t find the strike zone. The ball was moving all over the place on him. He walked Tinker on four pitches, forcing in another run and tying the score.
Gardner, the opposing pitcher, finally saw a pitch to hit and lifted a tantalizing little looper over first base. It fell for a single, scoring two more runs. Ewing delivered three balls to Slagle, then uncorked a wild pitch, sending him to first base while Tinker scampered home from third. After a passed ball moved the runners to second and third, Miller walked to once again load the bases. But Dexter grounded into a force play, finally bringing the nightmare inning to a close.
All told, Ewing had allowed five runs on just one hit. He had tied an ignominious National League record by walking seven batters in a single inning.9 McPhee wondered whether the rookie had had enough and asked if he wanted to come out of the game. No, Ewing replied, he was fine and would just as soon go on.10
As suddenly as Ewing’s control had deserted him, it returned. The Cubs went out one-two-three in the fifth inning. They added another run in the sixth on a walk, two infield outs and an error, but Ewing held steady and the Reds battled back. Ewing doubled and scored in the fifth, and the Reds came within a foot of tying the game in the seventh when Erve Beck lined into an inning-ending double play. The contest grew heated enough that Frank Chance was ejected for arguing a strike call by Emslie.11
The Reds scored in the eighth off relief pitcher Bob Rhoads, cutting Chicago’s lead to 6-5. Ewing had still given up only one hit. But in the last inning, the Cubs got to him for four hits and three runs. The final score was 9-5.
In his first game with the Reds, Ewing had surrendered nine runs, walked 10 batters and thrown a wild pitch. At the end of the day, Cincinnati was in last place with an 0-3 record. But the newspapers, usually unforgiving toward players who failed to measure up, were encouraged, even pleased, by his performance. True, the Cincinnati Times-Star acknowledged that Ewing’s walk total amounted to “an alarming bunch.”12 The Enquirer, bemoaning Ewing’s generosity to the Cubs, dubbed him “the new Santa Claus at the slab.”13 But McPhee defended his pitcher, asserting that if he had gotten the third strike call he should’ve gotten on O’Hagan in the fourth, he would have been out of the inning without a run scored.14
“Ewing proved to me today that he can pitch,” McPhee said. “Cut out that fourth inning, when he could not locate the plate, and he did splendid work. Ewing had good control during the exhibition season, but he was not letting his arm out then. He cut loose today and the result was that his fastball was taking all kinds of shoots.”15
All things considered, the Commercial Tribune pronounced Ewing “some pumpkins as a pitcher.”16 J. Ed Grillo, writing in The Sporting News, dismissed Ewing’s wildness as understandable and declared, “He showed … that he is a great pitcher.”17
Ewing never quite lived up to that assessment. But he survived his inauspicious debut, secured his first big-league win on May 15 and three years later, in 1905, he posted a 20-11 record for the Reds. He pitched in the National League until 1912, winning 124 games.
- Related link: Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing by Mike Lackey was the 2014 Larry Ritter Book Award winner
1 Chicago’s National League club went by a variety of nicknames at this time. The Cincinnati newspapers favored Cubs when they used any nickname at all; see for example “Ewing Couldn’t Locate Plate,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 20, 1902. Elsewhere the team was referred to as the Fledglings or Remnants (“Play!” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 17, 1902), or the Seleeites (“Generous Bob Ewing’s Gift Show,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 20, 1902). The Chicago papers went with Orphans (Charles Dryden, “Chicago Takes Three,” Chicago American, April 20, 1902) or Colts (“Three Straight for the Colts,” Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1902). Neither “Orphans” nor “Colts” appeared in any Cincinnati paper during this series.
2 Ren Mulford Jr., “Reds’ Black Eyes,” Sporting Life, April 26, 1902.
3 No official attendance was published, but the Cincinnati Enquirer estimated the turnout at 1,800. “Generous Bob Ewing’s Gift Show,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 20, 1902.
4 Though various sources long listed Gardner as being born in 1874, recent research has confirmed his birthdate as October 4, 1873. See Bill Carle, “SABR Biographical Research Committee March/April 2014 Report,” 5.
5 “Ewing Couldn’t Locate Plate,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 20, 1902.
7 “Generous Bob Ewing’s Gift Show,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 20, 1902.
9 Ewing still shares the National League record of seven walks in an inning. The record was set by George Keefe of Washington in 1889 and tied by Tony Mullane of Baltimore in 1894. The major league record was established August 28, 1909, when Washington’s Bill “Dolly” Gray walked eight Chicago White Sox, including seven in a row, in the second inning of an American League game. Gray pitched a one-hitter and held Chicago scoreless except for that one inning, but lost the game 6-4. All told, he walked 11. Craig Carter, ed., Complete Baseball Record Book, 2003 edition (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2002), 90.
10 “Ewing Couldn’t Locate Plate,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 20, 1902.
11 “Generous Bob Ewing’s Gift Show,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 20, 1902; “Base Ball Briefs,” Cincinnati Times-Star, April 21, 1902.
12 “Base Ball Briefs,” Cincinnati Times-Star, April 21, 1902.
13 “Generous Bob Ewing’s Gift Show,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 20, 1902.
15 “Ewing Couldn’t Locate Plate,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 20, 1902.
17 J. Ed Grillo, “Reds Fare Badly,” The Sporting News, April 26, 1902.