Ed Reulbach Remembered

This article was written by Cappy Gagnon

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

By vote of the members of the Society for American Baseball Research, Ed Reulbach is the person born in 1882 who contributed the most to baseball. One of the leading candidates for the title, “The Most Overlooked Man In Baseball History,” Reulbach accumulated numerous firsts and records during his major league pitching career. This writer is one who feels Ed’s accomplishments warrant his inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Reulbach arrived in major league baseball in 1905 with one of the most spectacular rookie seasons of any pitcher. He accumulated 292 innings in his 34 games pitched. His 18-13 record would have been better had the Cubs provided more runs to back up his 1.42 earned run average. Only Mathewson was harder to score on and nobody was stingier in surrendering base hits.

The following year, his 20-4 record helped the Cubs dominate the National League race; but Ed was overshadowed during that season by his teammate, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. This was a problem that was to haunt Ed throughout his career. Ironically, he was not even able to claim exclusive rights to the nickname of “Big Ed” since the cross-town rival White Sox had a “Big Ed” by the name of Walsh. Because of Brown and Walsh, Reulbach was often the third best pitcher in Chicago. This has contributed to keeping Ed Reulbach out of the Hall of Fame. It did not keep him from being one of the dominant pitchers of his era. His lifetime winning percentage, earned run average, hits per innings and shutouts are among the best of any pitcher.

Reulbach’s doubleheader shutout on September 26, 1908, has never been duplicated. Much attention has been given to the exciting conclusion to the 1908 season. Everyone is aware of the Merkle boner on September 23 and the Chicago Cub triumph in the final game. What has not received much attention is the fact that Ed volunteered to pitch the doubleheader in which the Brooklyn club was able to amass only eight hits and no runs at a time when the pitching staff of Frank Chance had worn extremely thin. By allowing Three Finger Brown and the others a day off, Ed kept the Cubs alive for the race to the pennant. Furthermore, after two-hitting Cincinnati on October 1, he was able to come back two days later with a five-inning scoreless effort. In fact, he closed out the 1908 season with 44 consecutive innings of shutout pitching.

Reulbach was the first man to pitch a World Series one-hitter against the White Sox in 1906. Only Lefty Grove won three consecutive winning percentage titles as Reulbach did in 1906-07-08. He is the only 20th century National League hurler with two winning streaks of 12 games or more. On August 24, 1905, Ed won a 20-inning game, 2-1, over the Phillies, the fourth longest complete-game win in major league history. He also defeated Iron Man Taylor 2-1 in an 18-inning complete game. Coupled with his doubleheader shutout, this gave Reulbach the equivalent of three doubleheaders in which he gave up one or zero runs for three of the most noteworthy “iron man” performances in baseball history. No pitcher in the Hall of Fame accomplished the feat of having more innings pitched than hits allowed during every season of his big league career, but Ed Reulbach did.

Reulbach was a favorite of Baseball Magazine. He was featured in many articles in this outstanding magazine of the early years of this century. He was referred to as “one of the brainiest players” and “possessor of the finest curve ball in either league.” He authored several articles about what was then called “the inside game,” which showed him to be a serious student of baseball tactics.

Ed chose a slightly different route to the major leagues than most players of his day. He was a collegian, at a time when this was relatively rare. He spent three years at the University of Notre Dame and one year at the University of Vermont. During the summers he also played as a professional under assumed names. For the first three years of this century, he was “Lawson” in the Missouri Valley League. At the conclusion of the 1903 season, Ed headed back to Notre Dame. He left Sedalia, Missouri, before scout George Huff could see him pitch. Huff had received reports of the strapping “Lawson” and was told by the Chicago Cubs to check him out. While back at the South Bend school, Reulbach pitched against Huff’s own University of Illinois team. Huff notified the Cubs that the young engineering student was a definite major league prospect.

Before the Cubs reached Huff with the information that he should sign Reulbach, Ed was off to the Montpelier-Barre team of the Northern League where he pitched under the name of Sheldon. Disappointed at not finding “Lawson” and missing Reulbach, Huff went to the Northern League where many big league prospects were pitching. Apparently, combining salaries and bonuses (which may have been linked to the owner’s wagering on the games), a pitcher could earn a considerable amount of money while enjoying the fresh Vermont air. Reulbach is said to have received generous payments for wins, strikeouts, and for pitching additional games. Besides Reulbach, the “Tall Grass League” at that time claimed Andy Coakley, Rube Vickers and Doc Scanlan, among others. When George Huff arrived, he was startled to discover that the three pitchers he was seeking were all the same man known in Vermont as the “Boy Wonder.”

Ed must have enjoyed his New England experience and perhaps looked forward to future promising paydays because, in the fall of 1904, he chose not to return to Notre Dame, where he had already been elected baseball captain, and instead, matriculated at the University of Vermont. He was 4-0 for the Vermont baseball team in the spring of 1905 prior to signing his contract with the Cubs on the 12th of May.

Ed’s big league debut was on May 16. He pitched a five-hitter against Red Ames and the Giants, but lost 4-0 as his teammates were able to obtain only two hits. His late start with the Cubs did not keep him from having a superb rookie season. He was the ace of the Cubs’ staff.

Reulbach had a part in some of the early labor squabbles in baseball. He was one of the founding directors of the Baseball Fraternity and served as its secretary in 1914 and 1915. His release by the Brooklyn Dodgers in late January of 1915 created considerable consternation in the players’ ranks. They used this case as an example of the unfairness of the system. He had been waived by all clubs in November, but was not officially notified until January 27, thereby making it more difficult for him to establish himself with another team for 1915. Reulbach solved this problem by signing with the Newark team of the Federal League, for whom he posted a 20-10 record and a 2.23 ERA. As secretary of the Baseball Fraternity, Ed failed in accomplishing one of his goals, which was to make an abstinence pledge part of the standard player contract. This appalling lack of judgment about the proclivities of his fellow players seems to be the singular weakness in the career of Ed Reulbach.

Ed finished his baseball career in 1917 with Providence of the International League. Unfortunately, his later years were not happy ones. He doted on his young son and apparently groomed him for a major league career as a pitcher. Ed missed part of the 1910 season to be at his son’s bedside during an attack of diphtheria. But the biggest setback of all occurred in 1931 when Ed, Junior, died after a long illness. Ed, Senior, had spent a fortune in an effort to save the life of his son. His death seemed to take a lot out of the man. It depleted his finances and diminished his will to work. He declared bankruptcy. A Chicago Tribune article in 1932 referred to him in his 50th year as a sad and lonely man.

Ironically, Ed was further overshadowed even in death. His passing occurred within a few hours of Ty Cobb’s on July 17, 1961; thus it received reduced attention in the papers. Even Hod Eller’s obituary on the same day occupied as much space.