First Stringers, Journeymen, Strangers, Ambulances, Life Guards

This article was written by Marshall Smelser

This article was published in 1972 Baseball Research Journal

The only pitchers who earned their money before the end of the 1930s were the stars. For the others, membership in a major league team was a kind of premature retirement. The pay wasn’t big, but every corner store stocked chewing tobacco, the summers were long, and the living was easy.

Life was soft for the average sort of pitcher before 1920 because the hitters hadn’t solved the defense, of which the pitcher was king. When the hitters figured out what to do, after 1920, the unfamed pitcher still had it pretty easy, because his manager let him have it easy.

After 1919 hitters started to rough up the pitchers. The increasing strength of the attack began to show as early as 1919. Example: Ruth, 29 homers, up from 11 in 1918; batting average .322, up from .300. Beginning in 1920 the barrage of hits, especially long hits, became savage. Hitting improved partly because the yarn of the standard ball was more tightly wound, making it more lively, partly because of a redesigning of bats, and partly because of a psychological tonic. After Roger Bannister proved the mile could be run in four minutes, many men ran the mile that fast. After Babe Ruth proved in 1919, 1920, and 1921, by setting successive home run records, that a baseball could be hit very far, many men hit it very far. It wasn’t just that people were getting bigger. Although Ruth was 6’2″ tall, at the end of the first century of major league baseball the ranking ten home run hitters, all of whom made the grade, after 1920, averaged exactly 6 feet tall. One of them, Mel Ott, was but 5′ 9″.

The parallel rise of attack and decline of defense shows clearly in the records from 1918 to 1930. Runs per game averaged 3.62 in 1918. By 1930 the figure soared to its all-time peak of 5.64. In each four games of 1918 somebody hit a home run. In each four games of 1930 there were S home runs. Strike outs in 1918 averaged 2.88 per 9 innings; for 1930 the figure was 3.27. This is the one shift which makes the defense look good, but it was more the work of fence-aiming batters than sharper pitchers. In all other respects pitching was decadent. The all-pitchers earned run average (ERA) climbed from 2.77 in 1918 to a hideous 4.81 in 1930 — hideous, that is, to pitchers. Bases on balls increased in numbers at the same rate as strike outs.

The collective all-batters average in 1918 was .254. By 1930 it reached its record high of .296. At a cursory glance the difference may seem small. But let us remember that most regular players played daily in the pre-platoon age. Such men went to the plate about twenty times a week. A hit a week meant an average of .050, and six hits a week made a man a .300 hitter. Let us remember also that pitchers’ batting was a drag on those averages as the hitting of pitchers fell off until it became a laughing matter. That net rise of .042 in the all-batters average compels the conclusion that the regular batters were each getting something better than an “extra” hit a week, and they hit for extra bases more often. There were about 175 of these steady players, making 175 to 200 “extra” hits a week.

This bombardment might have ended the pleasant idleness of the lesser pitchers and compelled them to work for their admittedly meager livings. But they pitched when they were told to pitch and their managers scheduled their work as in the old golden days before 1918. Managers were either baffled or heedless. Most of them plodded on with the pitching strategy which had worked before Ruth seeded the playing fields with dragons’ teeth. They waited for Providence (God, or the International League club) to send more men like Walter Johnson, Joe Wood, Christy Mathewson, Ed Walsh, and Jack Chesbro, a pantheon of heroes who six times won 34 or more games in the years 1904-1913. Those were years, as Wordsworth might say, when to be a young fast-baller was very heaven. Back in 1916, Grover Cleveland Alexander recorded 16 shutouts. (Since then, Bob Gibson has come closest, with 13 in 1968.) In the 1920’s the annual shutout records were, consecutively: 8-5-5-6-5-5-5-6-5-5.

Who was supposed to keep the batting averages down at a decorous level? Fielders and catchers shared the responsibility, and they seem to have done their parts by improving their fielding, since errors per game fell from 3.01 in 1918 to 2.47 in 1930. The key defensive player was, is, and ever will be the pitcher, and the manager commands the pitcher. There were usually 125 or 130 pitchers in the major leagues through the 1920’s, in squads of 7, 8 or 9, according to club policy. That could have been enough if managers had changed their manipulation of pitchers in response to the sound of the patter of bulky feet crossing hone plate. But managers clung to the tactics of the past.

Now let us put on the white laboratory gown and do some pathological work with the microscope. Our sample of tissue is the complete set of box scores of all games played in a typical span of four weeks in the season of 1927 — from August 4 to September 1, inclusive. Teams usually have their playing styles set by August. Quite by accident, this is a nice commemorative period, too, since Johnson pitched his twentieth anniversary game in these weeks (Detroit beat him, but the sentimental scorer gave the loss to his reliever Garland Braxton). Four weeks is a good stretch because the Sunday paper summaries give us four consecutive sets of figures, enough to see the trends.

From the box scores and the weekly summaries we can easily chart starts, reliefs, open dates, rain outs, and innings pitched. In games played it gives us a range from the 27 games of the busy Phillies down to the 17 games each played by the sodden Cardinals and Giants who were both rained out five times.

In those four weeks 127 pitchers worked at their arm-fraying craft. The first conclusion that leaps to the eye from the chart of their appearances is that there were three kinds of pitchers. Thirty-eight of them almost never relieved, 36 of them almost never started, and 53 did double service. Scorers did not then record “saves”, but in 1969 organized baseball awarded a “save” to the last relief pitcher on the winning side in every big league game ever played before “saves” were invented. Sixty-three of the pitchers of 1927 received that added (and often posthumous) decoration, which at least showed what a high proportion sweated in relief. What this delayed amendment of history did not show was that they didn’t work as often in relief as they could have worked.

With some exceptions the less successful teams had more men who combined starting and relieving than did the big winners. We can’t say whether weak teams needed starters to relieve, or whether teams weakened themselves by indiscriminate use of starters as relievers. What is certain is that the men who never, well, almost never, worked in relief, worked a lot harder than their fellow pitchers.

The men who rarely pitched in relief were known to the reporters of the day as First String pitchers. The others were just “pitchers”, but, in fact, they fall into two classes which I will call the Journeymen and the Strangers. Of the whole major league pitching corps the 38 First String pitchers worked very hard, while out there in the bull pen the leisure classes idled because of their managers’ illusion that the methods which worked before 1918 were the methods demanded by the times.


Major League Pitching Labors, Aug. 4 to Sept. 1, 1927

  Games Games
IP as Starters IP in Relief
38 First String 231 215 16 1472 14
58 Journeymen 260 119 141 1231 2/3 249 1/3
36 Strangers 114 1 113 13 2/3 200


The First String started not quite seven games each, on the average. In the same four week span the Journeymen averaged four appearances each and pitched 25 innings each. To put it another way, the Journeymen pitched a little more than an inning for each game played by their teams, which works out to a bit less than an inning per day. A relief specialist today would be thought of as self-supporting if he worked that much. But what can we make of the 36 Strangers? They were responsible for an average of about five outs a week.

What were those obscure men doing out there? The young men weren’t even learning baseball. What they really needed was to pitch 40 or 50 innings a week in the high minors in order to learn the facts of pitching life, and to acquire the grace needed to play their predestined roles of tragic heroes — a necessity, since on every playing day less than half the pitchers in the world are winners. The few elders among the Strangers, usually arthritic ex-First Stringers or old Journeymen with declining muscle tone, should have been whipping their arms through 15 or 20 innings a month just to slow the decay of their sharpness.

But those were not true bull pens those managers had. They were pens of feeder beeves fattened by the clubs for no convincingly apparent reason. To be sure, at 1920’s salaries it was a cheap hobby for the club owners.

Fairness compels the admission that two pitchers included in the table of Strangers built reputations which separate them from the neversweats. They earned their livings by pitching as many innings as their teams played games. George Selby Smith of the Tigers pitched 28 1/3 innings in 9 appearances, and Garland Braxton of the Senators (the one who was required to take Johnson’s anniversary loss) pitched 22 1/3 innings in 8 games. In our slang they were true Firemen. In the 1920’s the writers called such men Ambulances and Life Guards, words which tell a lot about the popular view of their work.

One club was surfing on the wave of the future. The Washington Senators, owned by Clark Griffith and managed by Bucky Harris, was the only club with a prototype of a modern pitching staff. Four of their pitchers were specialists at starting, and three almost never started. Two did double duty, but, actually, the double duty was not the administration’s permanent policy. In the August span Tom Zachary had 5 starts, and once went 4 innings in relief on a day when the patriarch Johnson was bombed. Firpo Marberry had nine brief relief stints, but went 13 2/3 innings as a starter when pressed into service in the fifth of 6 games played in 4 days. Neither was working in a normal situation in these two instances. Today we would call Zachary a starter and Marberry a stopper. We don’t know what Griffith and Harris were thinking, but Griffith had been a truly great pitcher (20-year ERA, 3.31) and a pitcher-manager, while Harris, aged 27, had started managing at the age of 25, beginning with a bang by winning two pennants in a row, and he was not married to managerial strategy which had fossilized before he put on long pants. The Senators finished third in 1927, with the third best team ERA, even though Johnson won but 5 games, and had an ERA, alas, of 5.10.

The sloth which ruled the pitching world was not the fault of the prisoners of the bull pens. They were not captains of their fates, but the pawns of their managers. Their managers were keeping a fourth of their key defensive men idle. One might excuse them for relying on experience to transcend fatigue if they were working to enlarge the pool of experienced pitchers. But the youths among the Strangers, the men who needed experience, were getting practically no experience. They were learning the virtue of patience, but hitters need patience (all these tempting waist-high pitches, just a little outside) more then pitchers. Pitchers need patience only in dealing with what they see as a great cloud of incompetent umpires, and the occasional heavy treading infielder who boots three in a game.

In our microscopic but typical sample of baseball as played in the 1920s the First String, on the average, pitched about 45 innings each. The Journeymen, who were about half the pitchers, averaged 25 innings each. The Strangers (excepting the Ambulances) pitched fewer than 7 innings each. Thus the First String worked twice as hard as the Journeymen and almost eight times as hard as the Strangers. The pitchers’ pay was probably in the same proportions, relative to each other, but it was the unchecked hitters who began to see the big money. This was the decade when Ruth reached $80,000 a year. (That figures at about $320,000 in 1972 purchasing power, and the income tax was low.) No pitcher is remembered for receiving a shower of gold in that decade.

Against the bombardment of hits the managers of the 1920s used about half their potential pitching defense.

They failed. In 1918 the customer could reasonably expect to see three pitchers in a game, probably one for the winners and two for the losers. Through the 1920s the tactics were about the same. Back in that decade when a sun browned group of us cowered in the dugout of a last-place Three-Eye League club, and referred to our own angry home customers as “The Wolves,” those Wolves howled “Take him out!” But our sterling leader did not usually take him out until the park had become a statistical disaster area and all was lost. The same was generally true in the major leagues, while batting and earned run averages were climbing to their 20th century high. Anthropologists have a phrase to describe a slow response to new circumstances. They call it “cultural lag.” According to hearsay, there is still a lot of it going around in baseball.

Sources: New York Times, Aug. 4 to Sept. 1, 1927; The Baseball Encyclopedia.

Copyright 1971 by Marshall Smelser


This article originally appeared in the 1972 “Baseball Research Journal.”