Why Did Mickey Smile?

This article was written by George Bulkley

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

Sages often observe that some things just naturally go together — such things as law and order, ham and eggs, Damon and Pythias, and, for our purpose, baseball and injuries. You just can’t have, say the wise people, one without the other.

Baseball and injuries, now that’s an idea. You really can’t discuss one without the other. And fittingly so. After all, baseball is unquestionably a contact sport and where you have contact you must have injuries. But this is not about the effect of injuries on the careers of baseball players, nor even on pennant races. Rather, its purpose is to recount the odd series of accidents that befell one Michael “Smiling Mickey” Welch just before and just after he reached what might be considered the apex of his career. Incidentally, it will tend to bear out the “iron men and wooden ships” theory so dear to the hearts of old-time baseball fans and so often challenged by their sons and grandsons. How the old Baltimore Orioles, for instance, dismissed everything short of a compound fracture by rubbing the injured member in the dirt.

Brooklyn-born Mickey was the ace pitcher of the New York Giants in 1884, winning 39 games and losing 21, as they tied Chicago for fourth place in the National League. Tim Keefe, Welch’s future pitching partner, did not join the New Yorkers until the following year, and there was no question as to who was king of the hill in New York.

Mickey’s time of trial began on August 23 when he failed to skip out of the path of a line drive off the bat of Dan Brouthers midway through a contest with Buffalo. Brouther’s batting average that year was a modest .325, but Big Dan was hitting the ball as hard as he ever did in his lifetime. His slugging average was a robust .563, the top figure in the circuit. Don’t overlook the fact that in 1884 the pitcher and batter stared eyeball-to-eyeball at each other from a distance of only 50 feet. That left precious little time to get out of the way when some oaf smashed the ball through the center of the diamond. The horsehide caught Welch on the hip and sent him sprawling. “An intermission of twenty minutes ensued before the plucky pitcher resumed his position,” said a local newspaper, “a surgeon in the meanwhile having been in attendance on him.”

The injured hurler nursed his abrasions and contusions over the weekend and reported ready for duty on Tuesday, on which day he faced rookie John Harkins of Cleveland. All went well for Harkins (who had had control problems all summer) in the early part of the afternoon, but in the sixth inning he unleashed a whistler that collided with batsman Welch’s unhelmeted head with such force as to wipe the smile off his face. Mickey went down as though shot, and many spectators thought he had been killed. Said the New York Times, always a stickler for good taste in reporting: “After making a few spasmodic kicks he regained consciousness, and was assisted to his feet, but was unable to pitch.”

A shot like that might be expected to put the unfortunate batter on the shelf for a while, but Welch was back in harness, with a goodly lump on his noggin, only two days later on August 28.

The smiling one found himself working that day with a skeleton crew. Both first-string catcher William (Buck) Ewing and second-stringer John Humphries, as well as third-sacker Frank Hankinson, were missing from the New York lineup. Behind the bat crouched an unknown named Loughran, whose entire major league career consisted of just eight games.

With both his legs and his lineup shaky, Welch bore down from the start and his reward was an unprecedented strikeout string. He fanned the first nine men he faced, turning back the entire lineup the first time they batted, as his makeshift Giants built up a 7 to 0 lead. His victims were Bill Phillips, Pete Hotaling and George Pinckney in the first round; Ernie Burch, Mike Muldoon and Bloody Jake Evans in the second; and George (Germany) Smith, pitcher John Henry and catcher Jerry Moore in the third. Pinckney was in the midst of a hot hitting streak that netted him nine hits in three games, and he wound up with a satisfactory mark of .309 for the year. Smith, at the threshold of a long career, batted .25 8, as did Evans. Phillips was a .272 hitter in 1884.

The New York Times acknowledged Welch’s great pitching with the following: “In the first three innings Welch retired in rapid succession the first nine batters on strikes.” The New York Clipper, a theatrical weekly that devoted considerable space to baseball, lent substantiation: “Welch reappeared with the New Yorks August 28th, and his puzzling pitching proved too much for the Clevelands, who made six hits, while the first nine batsmen were retired on strikes.”

In spite of this mention by two New York papers, Welch never got credit for this record until many years later. Many out-of-town papers failed to mention Welch’s strikeout effort for the reason that in the third inning, Loughran, the novice catcher, missed the third strike on Smith, allowing the batter to reach first base. Many baseball reporters of that era would not credit the pitcher with a strikeout if the batter reached first base.

It remained for historian Harry Simmons (a current SABR member) to draw attention to Welch’s record. In 1941, Simmons wrote about that game in detail, pointing out the catcher’s error, and his efforts led to the recognition of Welch’s feat. It stayed in the record books until April 22, 1970. Then young Tom Seaver came along and made the whole question an academic one when he whiffed ten in a row. However, his K’s came at the end of a 2-1 victory over San Diego, rather than at the start like Welch.

Actually, Welch’s 1884 elevator ride was not quite over with his outstanding August 28 game. He had a final “down” trip a week later. On September 4, Cap Anson of Chicago shot another liner through the box that put Smiling (Grimacing) Mickey in dry dock for several more days. No one could keep him inactive for very long.