When Rusie Opposed Kid Nichols

This article was written by Randolph Linthurst

This article was published in 1976 Baseball Research Journal

Ask a dozen baseball fans to select the best game ever played and you would probably get 12 different answers. In the early era of baseball, however, a contest between the New York and Boston National League clubs on May 12, 1890 was boldly proclaimed by fans and sportwriters alike as the finest game ever played.

The game, played at an earlier day Polo Grounds, 155th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York, was won by the Giants in 13 innings, 1-0, when Silent Mike Tiernan hit a towering home run to end a long, fiercely contested battle that left the spectators completely drained.

The contest featured a superb pitchers’ duel between the Giants’ hard-throwing Amos Rusie and Kid Nichols of Boston. They were two young hurlers destined to become diamond greats. Rusie, a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, limited Boston to three hits and two bases on balls, while striking out 11. Kid Nichols also allowed only three bingles until Tiernan’s blast. He struck out 10 and gave up only one free pass. In his rookie year in the majors in 1890 and only 20 years of age, Nichols proved so effective in this game that only three times in 12 innings was New York able to hit the ball beyond the infield.

Rusie was to go on to win 28 games in 1890 and over 30 in each of the succeeding four seasons, while Nichols was beginning a great career that would be highlighted by 361 mound victories and election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Oddly enough, neither team that engaged in this memorable game was a front-line club. Most of baseball’s better players were off performing in the Players League in 1890, and the Bostons and Giants, with patched-up lineups, finished fifth and sixth respectively at the season’s conclusion.

What made the contest rank as one of the finest ever played at the time was due not only to the superb pitching of Rusie and Nichols and Tiernan’s dramatic, game-winning home run, but also due to the brilliant infield play of both teams. Herman Long, the Boston shortstop, twice came up with fielding gems that took away what appeared to be certain Giant hits.

During the first nine innings, the crowd sat spellbound as both pitchers had the opposing batters at their mercy. Then as the contest moved into extra innings without a run being scored, the suspense increased and every play brought shouts and applause.

Rusie, whom historians say threw as hard as Walter Johnson or Bob Feller, occasionally was in trouble, but always came through with strikeouts in key situations. Nichols’ whiffs, although frequent, did not shine as brilliantly because they did not come in as highly suspenseful moments.

Only a wall separated this game from a contest in progress between the New York and Boston Players League teams next door in Brotherhood Park and even spectators at the other tilt went to the top of the fence to peer over and watch the proceedings in the Polo Grounds.

With 25 cyphers on the scoreboard, the Giants came to bat in the 13th. After Nichols retired the first New Yorker, center fielder and leadoff batter Tiernan, one of baseball’s power hitters before the turn of the century, strode to the plate. Nichols’ first pitch to Tiernan was fouled into the grandstand and Umpire Phil Powers gave the hurler a new one.

The ball that had been fouled off was then thrown back onto the field from the stands. Pickingit up, Nichols asked, “This one is all right, isn’t it?”

“No, the new ball was in play first,” responded the umpire.

“Oh, all right,” said Nichols, rubbing the ball into the dirt.

The next pitch sped, shoulder high to the Giant outfielder. It never passed the plate! Tiernan’s bat met the ball with a solid sound.

At first it appeared that the ball would be caught, for it never went more than 35 or 40 feet off the ground. Boston’s Steve Brodie in centerfield and Al Schellhasse in right started after it. But the ball, true to its course, went beyond the fielders and over the centerfield wall – a tremendous blast that bounced off the fence of the neighboring Brotherhood Park.

Tiernan rounded the bases as a wild cheer went up in the Polo Grounds. Equally loud applause also came from those looking over the fence in the Players League park.

A sportswriter covering the game for the New York Times reported that “never before in the history of the game have the same number of people displayed so much enthusiasm in a ball park as was seen at the Polo Grounds yesterday when Tiernan knocked the ball over the centerfield fence, winning the game for the New Yorks. It was the finest contest ever played by two professional teams and will go down on record as such, not on account of the number of innings played, but because of the wonderful work done by the pitchers and the brilliant fielding”.