Jack Taylor, King of the Iron Men

This article was written by Art Ahrens

This article was published in 1976 Baseball Research Journal

Today’s fans might find it hard to believe, but there was once a time – about 75 years ago – when a pitcher was expected to finish what he started. Moundsmen going 300 or more innings a year were as common as streetcars, and complete games were the rule. Relief pitchers were seldom seen.

Among the “iron men” of the 1890’s and 1900’s, such names as Cy Young, Joe McGinnity, Ed Walsh and Jack Chesbro come quickly to mind. Yet the greatest iron man of them all – at least on a percentage of complete games pitched – has been obscured by the passage of time. He was John Taylor, strong-armed right-hander for the Cubs and Cardinals from 1898 through 1907.

For the sake of historical accuracy, there were some pitchers in the 1870’s and 80’s with complete game statistics just as impressive as Taylor’s . But since some early teams carried only one or two regular hurlers, and the pitching distance was only 50 feet prior to 1893 (and just 45 feet before 1881), such early records obviously belong in a separate category.

On the surface, Taylor appears to have been only a run of the mill pitcher. He pitched ten years in the majors, winning 151 and losing 139. Scores of others have had superior credentials. Yet a brief review of his career will prove that he carved a memorable niche in baseball history.

Taylor, who was nicknamed “Brakeman Jack” (apparently that was his off-season occupation). Began his professional career in 1897 when he signed with Connie Mack’s Milwaukee Brewers of the Western League. The following season saw him win 28 games for Milwaukee, while losing only half as many. This attracted the attention of the Chicago Cubs (then called “Colts” and “Orphans”), who brought him up to Chicago, September 25, 1898.

Taylor made his first year effort a spectacular one, pitching five complete games and winning all of them. The Chicago Tribune spoke highly of “his fast side arm ball.” In 1899, his first full year, Brakeman Jack became Iron Man Jack by going 355 innings (sixth high in the league) and finishing all of his 39 starts, not to mention two relief appearances. On October 8 of that year, he pitched his first shutout, blanking the Cleveland Spiders, 13-0.

Fortune often smiled but more often frowned upon Taylor during his early period. His record in 1899 was 18-21, followed by marks of 10-17 and 13-19 in 1900 and 1901, respectively. He was also plagued with control trouble at this time. But in fairness, the mediocre records were not entirely Taylor’s fault, as the Chicago infield at the turn of the century generally had more holes than a swiss cheese. In 1900, his ERA was 2.55, third best in the league.

Then came the record streak which will probably last forever. On June 13, 1901, Taylor lasted just four innings as the Giants walked over the hapless Colts, 9-4. It was the first time that season he was relieved – and the last for the next five years! From June 20, 1901 through August 9, 1906, Brakeman Jack completed all of his 187 starts, and made 15 additional appearances as a fireman. By contrast Cy Young, often regarded as the most durable pitcher of all time, never went a full season without being relieved at least once.

It was during his record streak that Taylor enjoyed his greatest success. In 1902, Frank Selee was appointed manager of the Colts and fortunes improved for Taylor as well as the team. That year he was one of the most effective hurlers in the league, winning 22 games while losing only 11. In his 325 innings, he threw seven shutouts (including three in succession) and posted a league-leading ERA of 1.33. He would have had an even better record except for an unusual game at Chicago on May 7. Taylor blanked the Giants 4-0 in a fine victory over Christy Mathewson. However, after the game the Giant manager protested that the pitchers mound was 2 feet too close to the batter’s box. The protest was upheld and the game was thrown out.

Taylor’s red-letter day in 1902 was Sunday, June 22, when he beat the pennant-bound Pirates in 19 innings, 3-2, holding them scoreless after the third frame. In this classic duel with Deacon Phillippe, Taylor was on the ropes several times but always pitched his way out. In the tenth inning, Pittsburgh had a perfect chance to win it, with men on second and third, and Honus Wagner at the plate. But as the Chicago Tribune joyously reported the following morning, “Taylor had to be reckoned with, and by the coolest, headiest work of the day, struck out the mighty Dutchman, bringing a cheer that could have been heard on the banks of the Wabash far away.”

In 1903, Selee’s Colts moved from fifth place to third, Taylor’s 21 victories being a major factor in the team’s rise. But shortly thereafter, the ugly specter of scandal made its appearance in Taylor’s career when club president James Hart accused him of having thrown games to the crosstown White Sox in the post-season city series. To be sure, Taylor’s record against the seventh place Sox was a bit suspect. For after having mauled the White Sox, 11-0, in the series opener, Taylor lost his other three starts, 10-2, 9-3, and 4-2. When chided about losing these games, Taylor was reported to have been overheard saying something like “Why should I have won? I got $100 from Hart for winning, and $500 for losing.” Because of his dispute with Hart, Taylor refused to pitch the last game of the city series. He insisted on being traded. On December 12, 1903, Taylor and catcher John McLean were sent to the St. Louis Cardinals for Mordecai Brown and Jack O’Neill.

During the 1904 season, August Herrmann, chairman of the National Commission, brought additional charges by openly branding Taylor a “crook” and declaring it could be proved that he had bet against his own teammates in a game with the Pirates which he had pitched and lost. The hurler denied the accusation in a dispute that went on for months. Taylor was eventually fined by the League for misconduct, but the National Commission on March 17, 1905 dropped the charges because of insufficient evidence.

Although his reputation was now blighted, Taylor enjoyed some noteworthy performances with the Cardinals. In 1904, with a largely untalented squad behind him, the iron man won 20 and lost 19 for St. Louis. He set a season record by not being rescued once in 352 innings. His ERA was 2.22 and his 39 complete games tied Boston’s Vic Willis for tops in the National League. On September 24, he pitched both ends of a double-header with the Phillies, beating them 3-2 in the opener, but losing the second, 2-0, in a game called after seven innings because of darkness.

The following year, 1905, saw Taylor’s record drop to 15-21 with a sixth place Cardinal team which won only 58 games all season. Surprisingly, one of his defeats that year was probably the second greatest performance of his career. This occurred at St. Louis, June 24, when Taylor battled rookie Ed Reulbach of Chicago. Both pitched sensational ball, holding each other to a 1-1 draw for the first 17 innings. Finally, in the top of the 18th, Taylor weakened, giving a triple to Frank Schulte and a sacrifice fly to Billy Maloney. This sent Schulte home with the lead run, which was all Reulbach needed to notch a 2-1, 18 inning victory.

In the autumn of 1905, the bribery charges surfaced again as Taylor was accused of throwing games to the Browns in the St. Louis city series. Nevertheless, the Cardinals kept him on for another half-season. However, on July 1, 1906, he was traded back to his former team for Fred Beebe, Peter Noonan, and an undisclosed sum of money.

By this time, Frank Selee’s Colts had become Frank Chance’s Cubs, and in 1906, they were the team to beat. When traded back to the Cubs, Taylor was 8-9. He then won 12 of his remaining 15 decisions to finish the year at 20-12. On August 13, his complete game streak finally came to an end when lowly Brooklyn knocked him out of the box after 2-1/3 innings, although the Cubs came back to win, 11-3.

While Taylor pitched well for the Cubs in 1906, his performance was only icing on the cake for a pitching staff which boasted Three Finger Brown, Ed Reulback, Jack Pfiester, Carl Lundgren, and Orval Overall. After the Cubs clinched the flag with a record 116 wins, Jack was not used in the World Series against the White Sox, probably because of his tarnished image.

Taylor’s days as an iron man were soon over. In 1907, he pitched only 123 innings, putting together a so-so record of 7-5, while finishing only eight of his 13 starts. One of his last moments of glory came against Pittsburgh on April 17. Honus Wagner was at the plate with a two-strike count on him, having fouled on his first two attempts. Brakeman Jack hollered down to the plate that his next pitch would be a curve. Not believing a word of it, Wagner stood back to ignore Taylor’s next effort – and fanned with the bat on his shoulder. Needless to say, Jack went the distance to beat the Pirates, 6-2.

Thereafter, things went strictly downhill. After the Giants mauled Taylor, 12-4, in his final distance performance on August 21, he was relegated to the bullpen. On September 2, he relieved in both ends of a double-header with St. Louis, but the Cardinals belted him both times, en route to a double victory. Although Jack was not charged with either loss, it was to be an inglorious and somewhat ironic end to his big league days. Six days later, the ex-iron man was given his unconditional release. He lingered on in the minors for six more years, but was only a shadow of his former self and was unable to make it back to the big time.

During his record streak, Taylor appeared in 202 games, starting and completing 187 of them, which included 16 extra inning jobs. He made 15 relief appearances, finishing each time. His won and lost record for usually mediocre teams was 101-88, with three ties.

Unfortunately, Taylor was not given recognition in his time for his special achievements. His tarnished reputation probably contributed somewhat to the neutral view of his performance. While he was completing 97% of his starts, more famous contemporaries such as Joe McGinnity (82%), Mordecai Brown (82%), Christy Mathewson (79%), and Rube Waddell (77%) were providing some livelihood for the fledgling relief hurler. Taylor’s complete game record was one of the fantastic achievements of baseball, and it grows in significance as the role of the relief pitcher becomes increasingly stronger.