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Who’s the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame?

Mar 28, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

No, Hideki Matsui is not a Hall of Famer

Rube Marquard is the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame. I was going to say “probably the worst” or “arguably the worst” but let’s be honest: It’s a lot more than probable. And while “arguably” casts a wide net — anything, arguably, is arguable — there are not many good arguments that another pitcher is the worst in the Hall. I suppose you could argue one of the relievers — Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers — were less valuable because of their roles, and I guess you could try to fight for Jesse Haines or Catfish Hunter as being slightly worse than Marquard. But they all seem like losing arguments to me.

Rube Marquard is the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame.

And this leads to the question: How did Rube Marquard get into the Hall of Fame? How did Marquard get elected when Larry French didn’t, when Wilbur Cooper didn’t, when Larry Jackson didn’t, when Dolf Luque didn’t, when Claude Osteen and Milt Pappas and Curt Simmons and Charlie Root and Dutch Leonard and Jim Perry didn’t (these, incidentally, are the 10 players listed as most similar to Rube Marquard, and every one of them has more Wins Above Replacement than Marquard). None of those players came CLOSE to get elected.

The answer, I think, comes down to one of those topics that fascinate us here: Narrative.

The answer, I think, comes down to the simple fact that Rube Marquard could tell one helluva story.

 

* * *

Here’s one of those Marquard stories, one that he told often in his long life. Richard Marquard may have been born Richard LeMarquis — like with almost every Marquard story there seem to be different opinions — but it is certain that his father, Fred, was the chief engineer for the city of Cleveland in the late 1800s. Back then, Cleveland was one of the biggest and most important cities in America, the birthplace of Standard Oil. The city was was growing so fast than it went from being the 11th largest city in the 1880 census to fifth in 1920, behind only New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Which is to say that Fred Marquard was an important man doing important work, and he had no time and no use for pointless activities like baseball. But, much to his fury, baseball was the only thing that seemed to interest his son Richard. The young Marquard was unnaturally tall and gangly (everyone in his family was tall; his sister would grow to 6-foot-2), and it seems that from a young age he could throw a baseball hard. Richard would recall fierce arguments with his father.

This exchange, from Lawrence Ritter’s classic and joyous, “The Glory of Their Times,” is representative of how Rube Marquard remembered these arguments:

“How can you make a living as a ballplayer? I don’t understand why a grown man would wear those funny-looking suits in the first place.”

“Well,” I’d answer. “you see policemen with uniforms on, and other people like that. They change after they’re through working. It’s the same way with ballplayers.”

“Ha! Do ballplayers get paid!”

“Yes they get paid.”

“I don’t believe it!”

You will notice the rhythmic pitter-patter of the father-son argument in Marquard’s retelling — it almost sounds like a vaudeville routine, doesn’t it? Well, yes, it does, and it makes perfect sense because Marquard was a Vaudeville performer. He was actually quite famous for a time because of his work on the stage — he had a popular Broadway show (and a scandalous affair) with the theatrical star Blossom Seeley — more on that in a little bit.

Marquard wanted to be a big league baseball player with a white-hot ambition that embarrassed his father. When Marquard was 19 years old, he sneaked out of the house and rode the trains like a hobo to a baseball tryout in Iowa. In his retelling, he rode the trains for five days, he was just 16 or 17, he endured an Oliver Twist like existence and was alternately saved and cheated by various Dickensian characters. Marquard’s memory of his first baseball tryout, which is included in Glory of Their Times and various other places, is delightful and almost entirely untrue.

Then, what you find again and again as you look back at the way sports (and news) were covered and consumed in those days — truth was never the point. Entertainment was the point. Escape was the point. You have heard the line from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:”

“You’re not going to use the story?” the U.S. Senator, Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart) asked.

“No sir,” said the newspaperman Maxwell Scott said. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The games people played swirled around legend in those days, and nobody embraced that any more than Richard Marquard. In 1907, he left home to play ball. He was 20 years old And as he remembered, the final argument with father escalated into something more. Fred Marquard told his son that he never wanted to see him again.

“You don’t mean that Dad,” Richard said.

“Yes I do.”

“Well, I’m going,” the son said. “And someday you’ll be proud of me.”

* * *

Marquard was a brilliant minor league pitcher — winning 23 games in Canton in 1907 and then 28 for Indianapolis the next year. He threw hard and at some point people started calling him “Rube” not because he was one — he was not in the least — because his hot pitching and lefty form resembled Rube Waddell, one of the great pitchers of the day.

In 1908 season, major league teams started showing interest. In the middle of that year, John McGraw’s New York Giants paid the team an unprecedented $11,000 for him. The price was so gaudy and staggering that it was basically included in every story about Marquard for the next five years. After the signing, minor league promoters in Indianapolis and around the country began hawking him as the $11,000 Beauty and the $11,000 Peach. Here are a few bits of hype included in the Indianapolis Sun before he pitched:

“Rube Marquard has a greater curveball than Christie Mathewson.”

“Marquard has a faster fast ball than Amos Rusie, when he was at his best.”

“Rube Marquard is a bigger Rube than Rube Waddell or Rube Vickers.”

Rube Vickers was a tall righty from Canada, appeared on the scene in 1908 for Philadelphia and then more or less disappeared. Just in case you are curious.

We talk about living in an age of hype NOW but, realistically, we don’t have hype. We have repetition. We don’t do hype like they did in the early part of the 20th Century. Promoters would just make up anything that came to mind in order to get people to come to the ballpark or the boxing match or the theater. Gentile comics became Jewish, Jewish athletes became Irish, Irish athletes became Italians, remarkable tales of players’ backgrounds emerged just before they came to town. The whole sports and entertainment world was a lot like pro wrestling or reality television. Rube Marquard was particularly adept at telling a story.

He was a good pitcher. After making national news in his Giants’ debut (he got hit, prompting newspapers to call him the “$11,000 Lemon” for a while) and plodding along unhappily for a couple of years, Marquard emerged in 1911, going 24-7 with a league-leading 237 strikeouts.

The next year, he had what might be his best season — he won 26 games including a record 19 in a row. And in 1913, he won 23 games and was fourth in the league in strikeouts. Over those three years, Marquard really was good. He was probably one of the seven or eight best pitchers in baseball. He wasn’t Walter Johnson or Ed Walsh or Christy Mathewson or Grover Cleveland Alexander, but he was in the next group. If he had maintained that level for even a few more years, his Hall of Fame case would have been interesting. But, in truth, he did not. He had a few highlights the next three years (he threw his only no-hitter) but generally collapsed as a pitcher. He was busy doing other things.

He reinvigorated his career after being traded to Brooklyn — Marquard, in entertaining style, would tell of how he engineered his own trade by calling Brooklyn management himself — and he was very good in a more limited role in 1916. After that, though, he went 83-93 with a 98 ERA+.

But these are what he did on the field. Nothing Marquard did on the field — save perhaps his 19-game winning streak of 1913 — sparks images of the Hall of Fame.

Off the field, though, Marquard was hugely famous. It’s hard to come up with a modern equivalent — it was like he had a little bit of Charles Barkley, a little bit of Peyton Manning, a little bit of Tiger Woods, a little bit of Bob Uecker. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column. He endorsed products. He was one of the most popular interviews on the subject of baseball.

And, perhaps most of all, he danced and sang on Broadway. Many athletes did — John McGraw and Christy Mathewson had their own dalliance with the theater — but it was something more with Marquard. And the big reason was Blossom Seeley. The details are in the fun book Ragtime Romance by Noel Hynd.

It seems the order of event went something like this:

– Marquard had his first good season, cashing in on some of the expectations that had hounded him since he was purchased for $11,000.

– Marquard appeared in the theater like many athletes did at the time. He got OK reviews.

– Vaudevillian Joe Kane began looking for an athlete to pair in a show with his talented wife, Blossom Seeley, who was sometimes called “The Queen of Syncopation” (thus proving even in the Golden Age of nicknames, they missed a few).

– Marquard appeared in a short silent film subtly called, “Rube Marquard Wins” where Marquard punches out a gambler who dares suggest he throw a game then gets kidnapped by said gamblers, then is saved by his best girl (who alerts the building super) and wins the game!*

*This is a better plot than Trouble with the Curve.

– Joe Kane decides that Marquard is just the guy to star with his wife in a vaudeville show. This was a decision he would regret immediately and for the rest of his life. Marquard may have been called “Rube” but all indications are that he was quite the man about town. According to Hynd, he would not take his eyes off Seeley during their first meeting. Kane apparently didn’t quite catch this at first and put together the “King of the Diamond” with the “Queen of Ragtime” (or Syncopation).

– Seeley began that show by singing the “Marquard Glide” which included the following couplet:

He’s king of the pitcher’s box./Stood up through all the knocks.

Poetry. Then Marquard would sing a song called “Baseball.” Then the two danced — she in a white gown, he in top hat and tails. “Rube brought down the house!” roared Billboard.

Kane, it turns out, didn’t take too long to grow suspicious and violent. Seeley would say that almost immediately after he put the two together, he suspected that they were cheating on him. She would allege that he beat her repeatedly, threatened to kill her and then he showed up in public with a pistol and ranted Marquard had stolen his wife. Seeley soon got a restraining order and hired a new manager — a guy named Rube Marquard. Of course, Kane’s actions are indefensible. But he was right. They were cheating on him. And it was in all the papers.

Hynd says the only story that got as much ink in 1912 was when president William Howard Taft got stuck in a bathtub.

* * *

There were numerous entertaining developments in the Kane-Seeley-Marquard drama that would play well in the movie version — including one scene where he caught them in a hotel room. Marquard and Seeley fled down the fire escape stairs. Warrants were sworn out for their arrests (for illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes).

In time, Kane sued for divorce, Marquard threatened to quit baseball so they could perform together full-time (it turns out he was bluffing for a better contract), the two got married, they had a son six months later, it was all a very big deal. And it was all fleeting. Marquard and Seeley were soon divorced and went on with their own lives.

Here is how Marquard summed up the whole thing in “Glory of Their Times.”

I was in vaudeville for three years, Blossom Seeley and I. That’s when she was my wife. It didn’t work out, though. I asked her to quit the stage. I told her I could give her everything she wanted.

“No,” she said, “show business is show business.”

“Well,” I said, “baseball is mine.” So we separated.

So, yes, it seems Marquard could be concise when the situation called for it.

As a pitcher, Marquard won 201 games, lost 177, had a career 103 ERA+ — a fine career. But nobody sees that as a Hall of Fame career now, and in truth nobody seemed to think it was a Hall of Fame career then either. He got 28 total votes in four Hall of Fame elections before World War II, back when his fame still resonated, and then he lingered on the ballot until 1955 when he got 13.9% of the vote in his final year, seemingly the final tribute to a fascinating baseball life.

And then, two things happened.

The first has been mentioned throughout this piece — Larry Ritter wrote the wonderful and transformative bestseller “The Glory of their Times.” The book was a sensation. And Rube Marquard was the star. His was the first interview in the book, and it was in many ways the most entertaining. Ritter let the athletes tell their own stories (unencumbered by things like facts) and Marquard was a genius at telling his. The Marquard/Ritter essay is an absolute classic — funny, surprising and moving. The story about Rube Marquard’s father I told at the beginning is spread throughout the essay, and it concludes with a touching reunion of father and son.

“Are you proud of your son?” they asked him (they being the reporters)

“I certainly am,” Dad said. “Why shouldn’t I be? He’s a great baseball player, isn’t he?”

Perfect. Absolutely perfect. True? Not sure about that. But perfect. It is impossible to read that Marquard essay and not love the guy. It’s impossible to read that Marquard essay and not ask yourself, ‘Hey, shouldn’t this guy be in the Hall of Fame?”

After all, what is a Hall of Fame? People argue about it all the time. Is it for the very best players as calculated with the best means available? Is it for the most famous players who, in their own way, tell the story of baseball? Is it for the characters who endure in memory? Is it for the brilliant players whose gifts and performances were too subtle to be appreciated in their own time? Is it for the players who made people fall in love with the game? Is it for the players who changed the game for the better? Is it for the players who, through some combination of skill and luck, found themselves creating the game’s biggest moments?

Is it all these things? Is it none of them?

The second thing that happened is that the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, led by Frankie Frisch, was very much open for business. The Frisch committee was able to get 21 people into the Hall of Fame in just six years, and many of them — including Marquard — had only moderate careers that happened to overlap with Frisch’s. Well, Frankie Frisch never did hide his belief that the best baseball was played in his time.

Fittingly, it was Lawrence Ritter himself who sent word of the Hall of Fame election to Marquard — he was on a cruse at the time. Larry Mansch in his book “Rube Marquard: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hall of Famer” included a letter from Marquard to Ritter. A section:

Yesterday evening, a few hours after you called, everybody was dancing and having a good time and suddenly the Captain of the ship stopped the music and said he wanted to make an important announcement. He said they had a very prominent man on board who had just been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His name is Rube Marquard and he is right here dancing with his wife.

Well, all hell broke loose, people yelling and clapping, and the band played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” I was so happy …

The perfect ending. Well, of course it is.

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