If Cy Young had been able to beat death the way he beat other baseball teams, he’d have celebrated his 153rd birthday today. Born March 29, 1867, Denton True “Cy” Young remains the winningest pitcher in baseball history. That won’t ever change. Dude won a ridiculous and untouchable 511 games in his career. He also pitched the most innings, tossed three no-hitters, won 30 or more games in a season five times. He has an award named after him. You might have heard of it.
But the weird thing about all this is, when I woke up this morning I had no idea it was Cy Young’s birthday, after thinking about him, abstractly, for most of the night (I don’t know what’s weirder – the coincidence that today is his birthday, or that I was thinking about him in the middle of the night).
Anyway, I was up half the night tossing and turning mainly because of an aching back. But there was also a rotating playlist of random, nagging thoughts that also managed to chase sleep from the room. One of those thoughts, one that kept repeating itself, was this one: I couldn’t stop wondering how many 300-game winners in the history of baseball were also .300 hitters at some point in their careers. The list of pitchers who won 300 games is an exclusive club, with only 24 members, and Cy topping the list. Given the nature of how the game is played today (well, when there isn’t a global pandemic), there probably won’t be another 300-game winner.
Players who bat .300 are not nearly as rare as 300-game winners, but those .300 hitters are among the highest paid players in the game. A pitcher who can bat .300 is exceedingly rare, because pitchers are notoriously lousy hitters, thus the employment of the designated hitter rule in the American League nearly 50 years ago (I know, I know, even my inner thoughts are long-winded – you should hear them from this end). So a pitcher with 300 wins in his career, who also hit .300 (at least for one full season), has to be almost non-existent, I thought.
When Cy won his 300th game in 1901, he became the sixth thrower to reach that plateau. And then he became the first 300-game winner to bat .300 in a full season when he recorded a .321 mark in 1903, a year in which he won 28 games and helped lead Boston to victory in the first World Series.
It was another 20 years before another top ace batted .300, but in 1921 Grover Cleveland Alexander (who would win 373 games) hit .305 for the Phillies. Next to do it was Walter Johnson, who is second to Young in all-time wins with 417, and was renowned as a hitter among hurlers. Johnson batted . 433 in 1925, while earning 20 victories for the Senators, who won their second straight American League pennant that year (he topped .340 his last season, two years later, by the way).
The last 300-game winner to bat .300 over a full season (not interrupted by injury, war, etc.) was Warren Spahn. A .194 career hitter, the lefty batted .333 in 1958, hitting two of his 35 career home runs, while leading the National League in wins (22) and innings pitched (290) as his Braves won the pennant.
More numbers. I know, big deal.
Even though the trivia question is what bugged me, and was the thing that needed to be fed, the most satisfying thing I absorbed this morning wasn’t the statistics. It was Cy’s birthday. Seeing it listed there, after this absurd trivia question burned my brain all night, had a bigger meaning for me than strange coincidence. I was reminded of a story from 30 years ago when, as sports editor of The Madisonian (an old, tiny weekly that used to exist in Madison, Georgia), I was digging through old copies of the paper and came across some old articles about a short-lived semi-pro baseball circuit in central Georgia called the Million Dollar League in 1920, when the star player for the Madison team was none other than Cy Young.
On the highly-competitive and stressful sports history beat, this was a real scoop. I even pitched the story to Sports Illustrated and they almost bit (I think someone must have discovered that Bronko Nagurski was a cross-dresser, and that pushed me and Cy out of the running). Anyway, found an old local resident who remembered the league and insisted that this was, indeed, “the” Cy Young, who would have been 53 at the time. Then I tracked down the author of what was, at that time, the only available biography about Cy Young, and he told me, “it certainly could have been him.” Because he knew that Cy had pitched a little some exhibitions in his post-big league years, and could have come south to take money from rich local yokels running a second-rate independent league stocked with college players and professionals.
Digging a little deeper (i.e., going to the local library to pore over the Baseball Encyclopedia, which listed every person who ever had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and their statistics) I discovered there were several players named Young from olden days who took the nickname “Cy” (as it turns out, I think about half the population had that nickname – keep reading). The story I wrote left the question hanging, and I didn’t find out until this morning that the Cy Young who pitched for Madison, Georgia, in the Million Dollar League was actually a guy named Harley Young, a journeyman pitcher who spent most of his career in the minor leagues (but that made him a ringer in the sticks).
The most hilarious thing I found was a tiny news item in the The Atlanta Constitution from July 20, 1920, under the header, ‘Cy Young to Million Dollar.’ The story is written, perhaps unintentionally, as a fine old joke, reporting that Young “jumped the Petersburg (Virginia League) club, having accepted an offer with one of the clubs of the Million Dollar League.” And then there is the punchline: “Following the jumping of Young, a warrant was issued for the arrest of ‘Cy’ Pierce, scout for the independent league. The warrant charges him with soliciting labor illegally.”
In Denton True Young’s case, “Cy” was short for “Cylone,” because the backstop fences he destroyed with his blazing fastball looked like a cyclone had hit them. Harley Young undoubtedly borrowed the nickname (or it was conferred upon him by hopeful observers) from “the” Cy Young, hoping the magic would rub off on him. It didn’t (he was 0-3 for his big league career). And Cy Pierce? He’s just the punchline in an old joke, but I hope he beat the rap.
Several years ago I went to Boston for a few days for a writing gig. It was March, cold, before the baseball season. In addition to getting some work done, I had a couple of personal missions: Visit Fenway Park, and find the site of the first World Series, the 1903 classic between the Boston Pilgrims (before they were the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh Pirates. I’d heard there was a statue of Boston ace Cy Young, so I went a lookin’ …
… and I walked past it twice before spying it, hidden in a garden behind the Cabot Center, an athletics facility on the Northeastern University campus. It marks the spot where the pitcher’s mound was in the old Huntington Avenue Base Ball Grounds. As the picture shows, I was really geeked to be sharing the mound with “the” Cy Young.