Russ Ford’s rookie season of 1910 was one for the ages. The New York Highlanders’ right-hander took the American League by storm, tossing five shutouts in his first 10 major-league starts. He earned his 11th victory of the season on July 14 by outpitching Cy Young, denying the 43-year-old Young his 500th career victory.
In Ford’s next start, the 27-year-old native of Brandon, Manitoba,1 took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the St. Louis Browns. He was only two outs away from throwing the first no-hitter in Highlanders/Yankees franchise history and the first by a Canadian-born hurler. But a flare off the bat of Danny Hoffman was misjudged by the Highlanders’ rookie shortstop, ending Ford’s no-hit quest.2
The reason behind Ford’s dominance was a closely guarded secret. He had been a good minor-league pitcher, relying mainly on a spitball, which was perfectly legal at the time. When he accidentally discovered the effects of scuffing the baseball in 1908 with the Class A Atlanta Crackers, his career trajectory was inexorably altered.3
Ford made the Highlanders out of spring training in 1909, only to be demoted to the Eastern League’s Jersey City Skeeters after a poor relief outing in his major-league debut on April 28. He continued to experiment with scuffing the baseball while at Jersey City, eventually hiding a piece of emery paper in his glove. Ford began using the trick pitch in games and suddenly he was a big-time prospect.4 The emery ball was born.
Ford kept the secret to himself, fearing the pitch would be banned if word got out.5 To prevent detection, Ford continued to go through the motions of loading up a “spitter” just before unleashing his emery ball. The ruse worked like a charm.
The Highlanders purchased his contract from Jersey City in July 1909, although he didn’t report to the parent club until the next spring because of an infected heel.6
Boosted by Ford’s brilliance, the much-improved 1910 Highlanders came into their July 19 matchup against the Browns in third place with a 46-32 record, 7½ games behind the first-place Philadelphia Athletics.7 The Highlanders had been in the thick of the race until the beginning of July, when they lost five of six games to the powerful Athletics, with eventual 31-game winner Colby Jack Coombs defeating Ford in the first and last games of the series.8
The cellar-dwelling Browns sported a 24-51 mark, leaving them a distant 28 games out of first. They sent veteran right-hander Jack Powell to the mound, a four-time 20-game winner. After starting the season 0-7, the 36-year-old side-armer had gotten back on track by winning his last four decisions.
Ford was victimized for an unearned run in the top of the first. Leadoff batter George Stone walked and took off for second as Roy Hartzell bunted to the left side of the infield. Third baseman Frank LaPorte threw Hartzell out at first and Stone, seeing third base unguarded, kept running.
Shortstop Roxey Roach was slow to cover third, so first baseman Hal Chase’s throw across the diamond got by him as he tried to make a running catch, allowing Stone to trot home with the game’s first run.9 It was by no means the last mistake of the game by Roach, who was playing in his first season above Class B ball.
Ford walked the next batter, Hoffman, before settling into a groove and retiring the next 19 St. Louis batters.
Powell kept the Highlanders off the scoresheet until the fifth. One run came home on a single by Birdie Cree, an error by second baseman Frank Truesdale on Roach’s grounder, and an RBI single by Ed Sweeney.10 With two out and a light rain falling, Sweeney took off for second and Truesdale, attempting to take the throw from the catcher, slipped on the wet grass and fell.11 The ball ended up in the outfield and Roach waltzed in from third base, giving New York a 2-1 lead.
The Highlanders put the game on ice in the sixth. Chase led off with a hard comebacker, but Powell’s toss to first was dropped by Pat Newnam for an error.12 New York sent nine men to the plate in a messy half-inning that also included several infield hits, three stolen bases, and an RBI single by Ford. By the time Powell finally got the third out of the stanza, the Highlanders led 5-1.
Ford’s string of 19 consecutive outs was snapped when he walked right fielder Al Schweitzer with two outs in the seventh. He retired the next four batters, taking his no-hit bid into the ninth inning.
Ford opened the ninth by issuing his fourth free pass of the game and second to Stone. The next batter, Hartzell, hit into a force play at second for the first out of the inning. Hoffman, who had walked and struck out twice in his three previous plate appearances, hit an opposite-field blooper in the direction of Roach at short.
“Roach took a step or two out, then stopped, and the ball curved gently over his head, not having been propelled hard enough to roll after it struck the hard ground,” wrote the New York Sun. “Catching the ball wouldn’t have been a hard feat if Roach had played it properly. His halting try for it queered the no-hit performance.”13
The next batter, Newnam, hit another ball to Roach.14 The rattled rookie was charged with an error, although it was deemed an “excusable” one by the New York Tribune.15 Suddenly the Browns had the bases loaded and the potential tying run at the plate with only one out.
But Highlanders left fielder Bert Daniels made a nice running catch of Schweitzer’s fly ball in foul territory for the second out of the inning.16 The Browns’ backup first baseman and primary pinch-hitter, Dode Criss, batted for Truesdale. Ford ended the game by striking out the left-handed-hitting Criss for his 11th punchout of the contest.
Ford settled for a one-hitter, raising his record to 12-4. But Roach was distraught at having let his teammate down. In an interview 44 years later, Ford recalled that Roach left the field with tears in his eyes.17
The honor of throwing the first no-hitter in Highlanders/Yankees franchise history eventually went to lanky southpaw George Mogridge in 1917. More than 35 years after Ford’s near-miss, Toronto native Dick Fowler – shortly after being discharged from the Canadian Army at the end of World War II − became the first Canuck to toss a no-hitter in the major leagues.
The Highlanders continued to play solid baseball for the remainder of the season, finishing in second place with an 88-63-5 record. Almost all of their 14-win improvement could be attributed to Ford and his mysterious trick pitch.18 He won his last 12 starts of the season, giving him a 26-6 record, a 1.65 ERA, and 209 strikeouts.
As of the end of 2022, Ford’s 11.9 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement was the highest such figure by an American or National League rookie since 1901,19 and he was one of only three rookie pitchers to win at least 20 games and strike out at least 200 batters.20 Ford’s eight shutouts also set a rookie record.21
Ford had an outstanding sophomore season in 1911, going 22-11 with a 2.27 ERA. Arm troubles brought him back to earth in 1912 and 1913, and when the Yankees wanted him to take a $2,000 pay cut, he jumped to the Federal League for a substantial raise.22
He rode his emery ball to another great season, going 21-6 with a 1.82 ERA for the Buffalo Buffeds in 1914. But Ford’s major-league career was about to go off the rails.
Ford’s secret eventually got out. His teammate in Jersey City (1909) and New York (1910-12), second baseman Earle Gardner, had figured out what Ford was up to and told Cy Falkenberg about the pitch.23
The 33-year-old Falkenberg used the emery ball to win 23 games for Cleveland in 1913. His breakout season earned him a lucrative contract with the Federal League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers, and he and Ford were two of the circuit’s top pitchers in 1914.24
News of Ford’s innovation continued to spread and by 1914 the emery ball had become commonplace in the American League.25 In late September AL President Ban Johnson banned the pitch.26 The Federal League followed suit for the 1915 season and Ford struggled without his secret weapon.27 He was released by Buffalo in late August of 1915. Ford spent two more seasons in the minors before retiring at the age of 34.
As of the start of 2023, Ford had the lowest ERA (2.54) of any Highlanders/Yankees pitcher with at least 40 starts for the team.28 His 2.59 career ERA was the lowest for any Canadian pitcher with at least 40 big-league starts.29
Ford finally admitted that he threw the emery ball in April 1935 when he wrote a tell-all piece in The Sporting News. But he held off identifying Gardner as the source of the leak until 1954, more than 11 years after his old teammate’s death.30
This article was fact-checked by Kurt Blumenau and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. Unless otherwise noted, all play-by-play information for this game was taken from the article “Giants Bat Red Pitcher Hard; Browns’ Error Said the Yanks,” on page 1 of the July 19, 1910, edition of the New York Evening Telegram.
Photo of Russ Ford courtesy the Library of Congress.
1 Ford’s family immigrated to the United States when he was 3 years old. T. Kent Morgan and David Jones, “Russ Ford,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/Russ-Ford/, accessed March 13, 2023.
2 “Hoffman Only Brown to Get a Hit and That a Fluke,” Boston Globe, July 20, 1910: 4.
3 Morgan and Jones, “Russ Ford.”
4 Morgan and Jones, “Russ Ford.”
5 Russell W. Ford, “Russell Ford Tells Inside Story of the ‘Emery’ Ball After Guarding His Secret for Quarter of a Century,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1935: 5.
6 Ford, “Russell Ford Tells Inside Story of the ‘Emery’ Ball After Guarding His Secret for Quarter of a Century.”
7 The Highlanders had finished in fifth place in 1909 with a 74-77-2 record.
8 The Philadelphia Athletics won three World Series in a four-year period from 1910 to 1913.
9 Several news articles claimed that LaPorte failed to catch the return toss from Chase, although the New York Sun and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch both said it was Roach. Given that LaPorte fielded the bunt, it is more likely that Roach was the one who attempted to catch the relay to third. “Ford Near a No-Hit Game,” New York Sun, July 20, 1910: 6; “Wray’s Column,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 20, 1910: 9.
10 The Boston Globe attributed the error to rookie shortstop Tommy Mee, but the New York Times, New York Evening Telegram, and New York Tribune all reported the error was made by Truesdale. “Hoffman Only Brown to Get a Hit and That a Fluke,” Boston Globe, July 20, 1910: 4; “Ford Holds Browns to One Hit and Run,” New York Times, July 20, 1910: 10; “Giants Bat Red Pitcher Hard; Browns’ Error Said the Yanks,” New York Evening Telegram, July 19, 1910: 1; “One Lone Hit Off Ford,” New York Tribune, July 20, 1910: 5.
11 “Hoffman Only Brown to Get a Hit and That a Fluke.”
12 “Ford Holds Browns to One Hit and Run.”
13 “Ford Near a No-Hit Game.”
14 The ball hit to Roach was described as a “drive” by the Boston Globe and a “roller” by the New York Sun.
15 “One Lone Hit Off Ford.”
16 “Hoffman Only Brown to Get a Hit and That a Fluke.”
17 Roach and Ford were also teammates on the Federal League’s Buffalo Blues in 1915. By that time, Roach had improved to become a slick-fielding shortstop. Dan Daniel, “Over the Fence,” The Sporting News, September 15, 1954: 1.
18 Ford amassed a figure of nearly 12 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement.
19 Ford’s 11.9 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) figure also included the value accrued from his batting. Ford hit .208 and knocked in seven runs in 1910. Mike Trout had the second-best rookie season in the AL/NL from 1901 to 2022 (10.5 bWAR in 2012).
21 As of the start of the 2023 season, Ford shared the record for rookie shutouts with Reb Russell of the 1913 Chicago White Sox and Fernando Valenzuela of the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Valenzuela would likely have broken the rookie shutout record had it not been for the 50-day players strike that limited him to only 25 starts.
22 Ford, “Russell Ford Tells Inside Story of the ‘Emery’ Ball After Guarding His Secret for Quarter of a Century”; Morgan and Jones, “Russ Ford.”
23 Daniel, “Over the Fence.” Gardner and Falkenberg both played for the Toledo Mudhens in the Double-A American Association in 1912. Falkenberg went 25-8 for Toledo that season.
25 Ford, “Russell Ford Tells Inside Story of the ‘Emery’ Ball After Guarding His Secret for Quarter of a Century.”
26 “Ban Bars Emery Ball,” Fall River (Massachusetts) Globe, September 21, 1914: 7.
27 Ford also had a sore arm in 1915. Morgan and Jones, “Russ Ford.”
30 Ford, “Russell Ford Tells Inside Story of the ‘Emery’ Ball After Guarding His Secret for Quarter of a Century”; Daniel, “Over the Fence.”