New York’s first baseball icon, Amos Rusie, a pitcher once considered better than Cy Young, wound up an obscure chicken rancher in Auburn.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
The photograph above, from July 17, 1932, shows a collection of baseball old timers, a few of them Northwest legends, who gathered at Civic Field to participate in a charity game, proceeds from which would be used to aid old ball players down on their luck. The players represented the State All-Stars and Seattle-All Stars, although many had no connection to Washington state or Seattle.
Its impossible to identify every player in the photograph, but a few we know. Ham Hyatt, standing third from left in the back row, had a seven-year major league career, mostly with Pittsburgh, and also played in the Northwestern League and Pacific Coast League.
Bob Brown, seventh from left in the back row, spent 61 of his 85 years in organized baseball, primarily in Vancouver, B.C., as a player, manager, owner, scout and league president. Hunky Shaw, seventh from left in the middle row, came out of Yakima, played at the University of Washington, and was among the first ex-Huskies to play in the major leagues (1908, Pittsburgh).
The tall man standing in the back row, sixth from left and wearing a Giants uniform, operated a five-acre Auburn chicken ranch when the photograph was taken, eking out a living selling eggs, corn, produce and fish to vendors, mainly at the Pike Place Market. He caught the fish himself from the Green River, which flowed past the front door of his ranch house.
He was 61 years old that July, 1932, day and hadnt pitched since working 22 innings for the 1901 Cincinnati Reds three decades earlier. Given his many years away from the limelight, its probably safe to say that not many of the 1,200 fans who attended the charity game would have known that he had not only given them baseball as they knew it, but changed the course of American literature in the bargain.
His name is Amos Rusie. Thirty years earlier, he had been the toast of New York, in fact the city’s first baseball icon, preceding Christy Mathewson by a decade and Babe Ruth by a quarter of a century. A book was written about him, songs were sung in his honor in Gotham nightclubs, and cocktails had been named after him. Such was his popularity that Lillian Russell, singer, actress and leading sexpot of the Gay ’90s, had once requested an introduction so she could obtain his autograph.
So how had such an athletic celebrity, a pitcher once considered the superior of Cy Young, become an obscure Auburn chicken rancher? Before we get to that, the following are generally considered the three best pitchers of the 1890s:
Nichols and Young pitched in every season during the 1890s, Rusie only in eight. Another two years, at his average of 29 wins per season, and Rusie would have 292 wins, 25 more than Young. He even might have gone on to win 500 games, as Young did, or nearly 400, as Nichols did, if not for one ill-advised pickoff throw.
Born May 30, 1871 in Mooresville, IN., the second son of stone mason and plasterer William Asbury Rusie and the former Mary Donovan, a housewife, Amos Wilson Rusie grew up 15 miles southwest of Indianapolis. The Rusie family relocated to the city when Amos was barely into his teens.
Fair-skinned and red-haired, Rusie blossomed into an exceptionally powerful young man who threw a baseball harder and faster than anyone. At age 16, the right-hander quit school, went to work in a furniture factory and played semipro ball for various teams in and around Indianapolis, but principally for the “Grand Avenues” in the City League.
Rusie started as an outfielder, but one day his manager decided to try him as a pitcher. Once the manager got a look at Rusies fastball, his outfield days were largely over. Once major league scouts watched him defeat the National Leagues Boston Beaneaters and Washington Nationals, while pitching for the Sturm Avenue Never Sweats in a couple of exhibition games as a 16-year-old, they arranged for Rusie to be released from factory work and play baseball full time.
Rusie joined the National Leagues Indianapolis Hoosiers (1884-87) as an 18-year-old in 1889 and posted a 12-10 record in 22 starts, which included 19 complete games. Drained of cash due to the war between the National League and rival Players League, the Hoosiers disbanded at the end of that season and, on March 22, 1890, the National League transferred Rusie and several of his teammates to the New York Giants to strengthen the leagues largest market.
Rusie became an immediate sensation due to his size 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, very large for the day but most notably for his pitching velocity. This is how Clark Griffith, player, manager and baseball owner (Washington Senators), summarized Rusies impact in a 1943 interview:
Im not exaggerating when I say that Amos Rusie was the National League — the whole works. He was to baseball then what Babe Ruth was to baseball later. When anybody talked baseball, they just naturally talked about Amos Rusie.
The Giants without Rusie would be like ‘Hamlet’ without the melancholy Dane, O.P. Caylor wrote in the New York Herald after Rusie’s first season in New York (1890).
That year, Rusie went 29-34 and awed New Yorkers with 341 strikeouts, 52 more than any other pitcher in the league. But what really bowled them over was how fast the 19-year-old hurled the ball. Fans dubbed Rusie, whom the newspapers called the fastest pitcher in the world, The Hoosier Thunderbolt.
Weber and Fields, a famous vaudeville comedy act, frequently mentioned Rusie in their routines. A paperback book titled Secrets of Amos Rusie, The Worlds Greatest Pitcher, How He Obtained His Incredible Speed on Balls, sold for quarter. Lillian Russell, the bombshell who sang in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, clamored to meet him.
Rusie lapped up the attention, never missing an opportunity to do his days equivalent of a pub crawl (Rusie disliked the press because it portrayed him as a carouser).
No radar guns existed in Rusies time, but newspaper reporters speculated that his fastball, not even his best pitch, routinely reached the high 90s. Connie Mack, who managed in the majors for 50 years, insisted in numerous interviews that Rusie owned the greatest fastball he ever saw, a view endorsed by Jimmy Ryan, a Cubs outfielder from 1885-00.
“Words fail to describe the speed with which Rusie sent the ball, Ryan said in 1939. He was a man of great height, great width, prodigious muscular strength and the ability to put every ounce of his weight and sinew on every pitch. The distance was shorter then, Rusie had the whole box to move around in, instead of being chained to a slab, and the giant simply drove the ball at you with the force of a cannon. It was like a white streak tearing past you.”
Some of the old-time catchers still carry battered fingers as reminders of the burning fury of Rusies delivery, added The New York Times.
You cant hit what you cant see, Baltimore Orioles third baseman (and future New York Giants manager) John McGraw famously said of Rusies fastball in 1892.
Rusie threw so hard that his primary catcher, Dick Buckley, inserted a sponge and a sheet of lead wrapped in a handkerchief into his mitt when he caught The Hoosier Thunderbolt. To batters of the day, Rusie must have presented a fearsome sight, especially considering that the now-defunct pitching box, four feet wide, 5 ½ feet long in Rusies day (no rubber until 1893), was just 50 feet from home plate.
When the National League formed in 1876, the distance from the box to the plate measured 45 feet. Pitchers dominated to such an extent — in 1880 the league batting average was .245 — that in 1881 the NL moved the box five feet back to 50 feet.
League batting averages began to rise, but as the 1880s wore on pitchers adapted to the longer distance, sending batting averages below .245 by 1885. In 1887, the NL changed the rules again, mandating that pitchers had to throw from the back of the box, 50 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
After National League officials watched Rusie, and to a lesser extent Young, blow away batters for a couple of years, they took the drastic step in 1893 of introducing the pitching rubber and establishing a new distance to home plate, 60 feet, 6 inches. Baseballs next major rule change wouldnt come until 1973, when the American League adopted the designated hitter.
Baseball researchers universally credit Rusie for the change to 60 feet, six inches. Some, not all, believe that one incident triggered it. It occurred, they say, when Rusie knocked Hughie Jennings, later Ty Cobbs manager in Detroit, into a coma for four days. This is how writer Jack Doyle described it:
The day that Amos Rusie broke Hughey Jennings nose will always linger in my memory. Hughey had a way of riding the plate, standing up as close as he could get to it, and shoving his body out over it so that the pitcher had no leeway at all. In those days you would see in the scores every day: Hit by pitcher, Jennings, 2. Rusie determined to put a stop to this. As Hughey came up this day and almost stood on the plate, shoving his body and face way over the marble, Amos cut loose one of those terrible in-shoots of his.
The ball hit Jennings flush on the side of his nose, and everybody in the stands could hear the bones snap. Jennings rushed about the field in a paroxysm of pain and anger for several minutes. Then he was led away to a carriage and taken to a doctor. But he was cured of his ambition to lead the hit by pitcher record.
Other researchers, including Baseball Reference.com, believe that the Jennings beaning actually occurred in 1897, four years after 60-feet, six inches became the standard. In any case, the longer pitching distance he inspired never fazed Rusie. While it caused his strikeout total to drop, it also made his curveball, probably his best pitch, more effective.
He had the nerve and the confidence to whip his curve over the plate when in a hole, said Jennings, who went comatose the day after Rusie re-arranged his nose. As a rule, pitchers do not dare a curve when the count is 2-and-3, but Rusie had no such misgivings. In such a hole, he would deliberately pitch his curve with every ounce of steam he could put on it.
The fast curve seemed to be a natural gift for me and I never could explain why it didnt slow up when it broke, Rusie said in 1929. Early in the game I decided that a fast curve was a pitchers best asset. Why shouldnt it be? I could always hit a fast straight ball on the nose, so I figured anyone else could.
Many pitchers, including some already in the majors and others aspiring to get there, couldnt adapt to 60 feet, six inches, among them prospect Zane Grey, a kid out of Ohio who pitched for the semipro Columbus Capitals.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Grey received a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, which he began attending in 1892. Grey intended to become a dentist and play baseball while he pursued his degree. Grey featured a good curveball with plenty of break to it, but didnt have a particularly strong arm. He had to locate precisely and fool batters to get them out.
Two years into Greys college pitching career, the Ivy League went to the 60-foot, six-inch pitching distance that Rusie forced the major leagues into adopting. Grey could handle 50 feet, six inches, but not an additional 10 feet. Grey had hoped for a career in the major leagues before opening a dental practice, but that finished him as a pitcher. Grey did become a dentist and ultimately a wildly popular novelist whose best seller was Riders of the Purple Sage.
A year after the change to 60 feet, six inches (1894), Rusie won the pitching triple crown with 36 victories, a 2.78 ERA (the league average was 5.32) and 195 strikeouts (the same year, Cy Young had 26 wins, a 3.94 ERA and 105 strikeouts). That marked Rusies fourth consecutive 30-win season. He also had four other seasons with at least 20 victories.
Rusie led the National League in strikeouts in five of his nine full seasons, in ERA twice and in starts twice, including 52 in 1893 and 50 in 1894. He rarely came out of a game. Rusie pitched in 463 contests between 1889 and 1901, throwing 383 complete games, 30 of them shutouts.
Rusie pitched a no-hitter July 31, 1891, and on Sept. 26 that year threw an entire doubleheader by himself, beating Brooklyn 10-4 and 13-3.
At the conclusion of the 1894 regular season, and nearly a decade before the first World Series game, Pittsburgh sportsman William C. Temple sponsored a trophy to be awarded to the winner of a series between the regular seasons top two teams. The runner-up Giants swept the first-place Baltimore Orioles, who featured Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, 4-0.
Rusie was virtually untouchable in the Temple Cup, giving up only one earned run while winning two complete games and compiling an 0.50 ERA. He also batted .429.
Rusies career foreshadowed those of Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson (among others). All four were among the fastest pitchers of their eras, all struck out multitudes of batters, and all walked almost as many early in their careers.
Feller led the American League in strikeouts seven times in his first 11 seasons and in walks four times. Koufax walked more than a 100 batters in a season twice in his early 20s, and Ryan led the AL in walks eight times, twice walking more than 200. Johnson led the AL in walks three times (1990-92) early in his Mariners career.
Rusie led the NL in walks five consecutive years (1890-94), and his 289 in 1890 remains the major league record.
I was wilder than a hawk, Russi told an interviewer in 1929. But it took a lot of pitching to strike out a man in those days. A guy had to miss three of them clean before he was out. Foul balls were not considered strikes, and would not be until the 20th century.
Unlike Feller, Koufax, Ryan and Johnson, Rusie did not stay in the major leagues long enough to solve his control issues.
Rusie had a testy relationship with Giants ownership, which started near the end of the 1892 season when the club released him in order avoid paying his final months salary. New York owner Andrew Freedman, loathed by his fellow owners, figured he would have no trouble re-signing Rusie for 1893. But the Cubs crossed up Freedman, agreeing on a deal with Rusie for $3,500 plus a $2,000 bonus.
It cost Freedman a reported $10,000 to buy Rusie back.
Four years later, Rusie held out for the entire 1896 season when Freedman attempted to reduce his salary by $100, from $3,500 to $3,400. After the season, Rusie filed suit in federal court in Chicago with the express purpose of obtaining his release from the Giants by having the reserve clause, which bound a player to his club in perpetuity, declared illegal.
Rusies suit entered the legal system 73 years before Curt Flood, the player most famously associated with the reserve clause today, filed suit over the same issue, and eventually took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court (1970). Free agency, now traced to Flood, could have been traced to Rusie.
Failing to secure his release from the New York Baseball Cub at the hands of the National League, Amos Rusie, the Indianapolis baseball player, filed a bill for injunction in the Federal Court this morning to secure his release by legal process, The New York Times wrote Nov. 12, 1896. The key paragraph of the Times story said:
Incidentally, Rusies application to the Court means more than his personal release, if granted. It means that the right of reservation, exercised by the baseball clubs, has no legal standing and makes an open field at the close of the season for the contracting of players for the following season.
Rusie, in his bill, sets forth that in 1895 he played with the New York club under a contract for $3,500. All contracts under the National League constitution give the contracting club the right to reserve a player once contracting with him. The player is bound to accept the reservation and the contract tendered unless he can secure his release through his purchase by some other club in the association.
After reciting these facts, Rusie says that a player cannot engage himself to any other club until he has been released.
At the close of last years season, the New York club notified Rusie that he was reserved. A contract was afterward tendered to him at $3,400 salary for the season of 1896. He refused to sign and the New York Club refused to release him. Expecting to be released by limitation this year, Rusie waited. To his surprise, the New York Club announced his reservation. He appealed to the National League, which decided yesterday that the New York Club had the right of continued reservation.
The bill for injunction declares that reservation is unlawful and unreasonable, and if enforced will work irremedial hardship to the complainant.”
Fearing Rusies legal challenge to the reserve clause would upset an apple cart that finally toppled after Flood took baseball to the Supreme Court seven decades later, club owners, minus Freedman, voted to reimburse Rusie his lost wages from the 1896 season, give him a $1,000 raise for 1897, and also give him a $2,000 bonus.
That satisfied Rusie, who returned to the Giants in 1887 and won 28 games, but missed 1899 and 1900 while recovering from hearing damage he suffered when he took a line drive to the head, as well as arm trouble and personal problems.
Late in the 1898 season, in a game against Chicago, Rusie tried to execute a fancy pickoff move in an attempt to catch Bill Lange off first base.
I whipped the ball quickly to catch the man off first, Rusie explained in a 1929 Seattle Times article. I didnt take the time to get my body into it and something snapped in my shoulder. I finished the game and won it but I was in pain all the time. For six weeks the old soup bone was treated, but it was never the same old wing after that. I could have lasted as long as Cy Young, what with my strength and all. Thats what happens what you try to act smart.
When Rusie began preparing for the 1899 season he found he could not lift his arm over his head. Freedman used Rusies injury to cut the pitchers salary to $2,000. Rusie threatened a lawsuit in an attempt to get his release from the club, and the Giants retaliated by suspending Rusie. Nothing materialized from this because Rusie had other difficulties: his marriage to May Rusie, whom he had wed in 1890, unraveled in large part because Rusie had abused his celebrity.
Rusie developed a taste for the New York high life and apparently never could say no when someone offered to buy him a drink.
Starting out life with everything in his favor, Rusie went through his active pitching days as though on a continuous joyride, wrote New York sports writer Sam Crane. He broke training whenever he felt like it and never looked upon life as a serious matter.
While Rusies swilling had no perceivable effect on his pitching, wife May found his binges intolerable. Finally, on Jan. 9, 1899, May publicly accused her husband of habitual drunkenness, telling a court that the marriage had been rocky for many years and that Rusie had threatened her life during inebriated rages. She asked for $5,000 in alimony and the court granted her a divorce May 9.
That shook Rusie sufficiently that he promised to remain sober and behave himself. Three months later, the couple remarried and the union lasted for the rest of their lives.
By the late winter of 1900, Rusie had his personal life in order and believed that his arm had healed sufficiently enough for him to resume pitching. According to Ghosts In The Gallery, a splendid book about some of baseballs most intriguing obscure players, this is what happened next:
John T. Brush was a stockholder in the Giants and the main owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Involved in negotiations to take control of the Giants, Brush wanted to protect the best players on the New York roster. The Giants owned one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, Christy Mathewson, a 20-year-old from Bucknell University who had won 20 games at Norfolk (1899). Brush wanted to prevent the other National League teams from drafting the coveted Mathewson off the New York roster, so he devised a scheme to protect the young pitcher. He arranged for the Reds to claim Mathewson in the draft, then quickly trade him back to the Giants in exchange for Amos Rusie.
Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock (1964), one of baseballs most famous lopsided trades, pales next to Rusie for Mathewson. Rusie reported to the Reds, but his arm was gone. He made three starts, none good, especially the last one. On June 19, 1901, playing against his former team, the Giants raked him for 15 hits and 10 runs in five innings. The outing convinced Rusie that he was indeed finished, so he retired.
Most pitchers enter their prime at about age 27, but Rusie won his final game at age 27 and was out of baseball at 30. He had 245 wins and 1,934 strikeouts. Cy Young had 132 of his 511 wins and 564 of his 2,803 strikeouts at 27.
As Mathewson embarked on what would become a 373-win, Hall of Fame career, Rusie and May returned to Indiana, where Rusie busied himself in a paper and pulp mill in Muncie. Later, he earned $1.50 a day digging pipeline trenches for the Muncie Water Works. For a time, he even earned money diving for pearls when clams in the Wabash River were found to contain the gems. When the New York Evening Journal discovered that Rusie had been digging trenches, it wrote, Good for Rusie. He is not afraid of work and never ran a saloon.
No, Im not afraid to work, Rusie told The New York Times, which enjoyed publishing one-paragraph snippets (more than a dozen between 1902-09) on the former toast of New York’s latest odd job. But its an awful come-down in salary.
Rusie moved to Seattle in 1909 after a friend put him in touch with Dan Dugdale, owner of the Seattle Giants, who frequently called Rusie the greatest pitcher in baseball (see Wayback Machine: Seattle Struck Gold In Dugdale).”
Dugdale, whose own playing career largely overlapped Rusies, arranged for Rusie to get a job as a Ballard steamfitter. Rusie also learned the plumbing trade and earned extra money when Dugdale hired him as a ticket taker in 1913 at Dugdale Park.
Rusie remained in Seattle until 1921 when, at Dugdales recommendation, John McGraw, manager of the Giants, offered Rusie the position of assistant superintendent at the Polo Grounds. An assistant superintendent effectively meant night watchman.
Rusie accepted and returned to New York, where he remained for eight years. Tired of city and apartment living and seeking wide-open spaces, Rusie and May returned to Seattle in 1929, Rusie going to work in a paper mill that soon shut down. Out of his baseball and night watchman earnings, Rusie bought his five-acre Auburn chicken ranch, which allowed him his principal pleasure, fly fishing on the Green River.
Neither one of us (also May) knows anything about farming or raising chickens, Rusie told The Seattle Times shortly after he purchased the property. But we fell in love with this little place and I expect that we will get the hang of farming. At least it gets us out in the pure air.
In 1932, Rusie made one of his last public appearances when he joined the old timers at Civic Field to help raise funds for the construction of a retirement home for old ball players. The Times published this roster of participants: Marty OToole and Amos Rusie, pitchers; Billy Sullivan and Dan Dugdale, catchers; Tom Turner, 1B; George Howlett, 2B; Tim ORourke, 3B; Ed Lyons, SS; Fielder Jones and Walter McCredie, OFs.
Additional players included Charlie Swindells, Roy Mack, Bob Brown, Hunky Shaw, Butch Belford, Charlie Mullins, Charlie Schmutz, Bill Hurley, Pete Standridge, Pug Bennett, Roy Grover, Bill Lussel, Bill Rose, Leo Reardon, Dutch Altman, Ham Hyatt, Dode Brinker, Bob James, Grover Boyle, Mel Duncan, Jess Baker, Don Grant, Orville Eley, Joe Dailey and Tom Lukanovic.
His throwing arm shot (and still hurting), Rusie, didnt play but sat in the dugout and watched the All-Seattle club defeat the All-State team 10-2. The game generated $1,000 in donations for the retirement home, of which Rusie, ironically, nearly had need.
In July, 1934, Russie suffered a concussion and broken ribs in a serious automobile accident when he swerved to avoid an on-coming vehicle and overturned his car. Unconscious for four days, Rusie really never recovered and had difficulty maintaining the chicken ranch once he got back on his feet.
Then, in 1936, during the height of the Great Depression, a bank foreclosed on his ranch. Had it not been for a Seattle newspaper reporter, who saw the foreclosure notice, Rusie would have been out on the street. But the reporter organized an effort to assist Rusie, raising enough money to ward off the foreclosure.
At the time of the fundraising effort on Rusies behalf, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its first class of inductees: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and the man for whom Rusie had been traded more than three decades earlier, Christy Mathewson.
Almost completely forgotten, Rusie didnt get a vote. He received one vote in 1937, eight in 1938 and six in 1939 and never more than nine after that. Once his name was removed from the ballot, it rarely came up before the Veterans Committee.
May Rusie died in October, 1942, and two months later, Dec. 6, Rusie died of natural causes at Ballard General Hospital at 71. A daughter, Mrs. C.E. Spaulding of Seattle, and his brother, John of Indianapolis, survived him. New Yorks first baseball icon is buried in Acacia Cemetery in Seattle.
It took 35 years, but the man who could have been Cy Young entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, selected by The Veterans Committee. At the announcement of his election, the Associated Press wrote: It is entirely appropriate that in this winter of baseballs free agent discontent, a turn-of-the-century pitcher has been elected to the Hall of Fame. He was, after all, one of the games first revolutionaries.
Rusie came along 75 years before his time. Now, holdouts and contract hassles are fashionable. Rusie, however, had them during baseballs dark ages, when club owners ruled supreme. In 1896, after leading the league in strikeouts for six consecutive seasons (actually three) Rusie balked at contract terms and refused to be bulldozed.
Nine years after Rusie entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, The State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame inducted him, even though the most athletic thing hed ever done within the states borders was cast a fly rod and take tickets at Dugdale Park for one summer.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out Davids Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org