Chesbro, John Dwight ("Jack")

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CHESBRO, John Dwight ("Jack")

(b. 5 June 1874 in North Adams, Massachusetts; d. 6 November 1931 in Conway, Massachusetts), Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher noted for his fastball, spitball, guile, and stamina who holds the twentieth-century major league record for wins in a single season.

Chesbro played sandlot baseball in his hometown of North Adams in the early 1890s. He entered the minor leagues in 1894 and two years later married Mabel Shuttleworth. The minors paid little, and Chesbro took a job as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, where a patient dubbed him "Happy Jack" because of his dour expression; this name was more commonly shortened to "Happy" when he played in the major leagues.

Chesbro joined the newly formed Atlantic League in 1898, where he won forty games and lost nineteen in the year and a half before the Pittsburgh club of the National League picked him up. He posted a poor record of six wins and nine losses for Pittsburgh and was traded to Louisville, but the National League reorganized itself, dropping several unprofitable clubs, including Louisville, and Chesbro found himself back with Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh team was led by the hard, tough, immensely talented shortstop Honus Wagner. Wagner's fielding and base-running feats almost overshadowed Chesbro's first great season, 1901, in which he posted twenty-one wins and ten losses, relying on an intimidating fastball. Chesbro's size was not extraordinary at five feet, nine inches tall and 180 pounds, but he had an expression that was a cross between despair and rage, as if he meant to kill each batter. Then in 1902 he added a spitball to his array of pitches, licking his fore-and middle fingers to wet the ball, and became one of the most terrifying pitchers of any age. The spitball, which was legal in Chesbro's era, was an erratic pitch that usually approached home plate like a fastball but then abruptly dropped down. Batters could not be sure whether they were seeing Chesbro's very hard fastball or a pitch that would break, and this kept them off balance. In 1902 Chesbro won twenty-eight games and lost six, for a .824 winning percentage, one of the best seasons any pitcher has had.

Before the 1903 season, the Baltimore franchise of the upstart American League shifted to New York City, becoming the Highlanders (later called the Yankees), because their park was on a hill. For a raise in pay, Chesbro jumped leagues to the Highlanders. That season he won twenty-one games and lost fifteen. Then in 1904 he had perhaps the greatest season a pitcher has ever had.

As the season began, Chesbro was a respected pitcher whose greatest strength was a dogged determination that never let up. By 1904 pitching rotations had become similar to that of the modern game, with four or five starters forming a team's rotation. There were no relief specialists, and starters were asked to pitch in relief on their off days. New York soon ran into problems; its fine rotation lost three of its members to injuries, leaving Chesbro and Jack Powell to carry nearly the entire burden of pitching games. Powell responded with a 23–19 season, with 390 innings pitched.

Chesbro responded to Powell's record by winning fourteen straight starts, the last on 4 July. The major league ballparks of 1904 had hard dirt that was full of rocks. Every time Chesbro brought his left leg down, his foot slammed into the hardy, stony ground, and by midseason it was jarring him up and down his body. In July his muscles became knotted and he was beset by cramps. In August he hobbled rather than ran. Even so he fielded brilliantly, helping his cause by deftly fielding bunts and throwing out runners. Chesbro's face added the expression of pain to its mixture of despair and rage; yet he started 51 of his team's 151 games and pitched in relief in 4 games. He pitched 48 complete games that season.

The league's pennant race came down to the last weekend of the season and a doubleheader against the Boston Pilgrims (later the Red Sox). New York manager Clark Griffith had advised Chesbro to remain in New York City and rest during the ball club's last road trip, but the team's owner wanted Chesbro to make the trip and to pitch. Ominously, Griffith lost. Going into the last two games of the season on 10 October, New York trailed Boston by one-and-a-half games; New York had to win them both in order to be the league champion. Chesbro pitched the first game; it was a battle against Boston's fine pitcher Bill Dinneen, with the game tied at two runs in the late innings. Chesbro, all knots and pain, made his famous glare at a batter, shortstop Freddy Parent, then uncorked a spitball that moved sharply as it approached the plate. The pitch skipped by journeyman catcher Jack Kleinow, noted for his fine defensive skills; Boston catcher Lou Criger was on third base and scored on the wild pitch. Some journalists at the game thought the pitch should have been ruled a passed ball, and Chesbro's wife later campaigned to have the official ruling changed from "wild pitch," but Chesbro became known as the great pitcher who choked in the big game.

Still, Chesbro won forty-one games and lost only twelve, for a .774 winning percentage and the most wins in a season by any pitcher in the twentieth century. He pitched 454.2 innings and earned the reputation as one of the most valiant pitchers ever. Without Chesbro, New York would not have been anywhere close to Boston in the standings.

Chesbro had only one more twenty-win season, in 1906. He was not the pitcher he had been, and many believe the 1904 season had taken too much out of his arm, but a foot injury from slipping on a stone while delivering a pitch may be more to blame. Chesbro retired after 1909, coached baseball for Amherst College in 1911, and played for some semipro teams. He settled in Conway, Massachusetts, and established a chicken farm. Later he added a sawmill to his assets and proved to be a sharp businessman. At age fifty-seven Chesbro died of a heart attack on his chicken farm in Conway. He is buried there in the Howland Cemetery.

?The Oldtimer's Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame eventually chose Chesbro for membership, and he was inducted on 24 April 1946. Since then, some baseball writers have suggested that Chesbro was not good enough for the Hall of Fame, implying he was selected on the basis of one great season. Yet Chesbro had five twenty-win seasons and was not only the best spitball pitcher but also one of the most feared pitchers in the history of baseball.

Despite Chesbro's many accomplishments as a pitcher, writers often focus their accounts on his wild pitch at the end of the 1904 season. See, for example, Bill Felber, "Happy Jack's Wild Pitch," in Baseball History 2: An Annual of Original Baseball Research (1989), edited by Peter Levine. Pitcher Tom Seaver and journalist Marty Appel weigh in with their opinion about the pitch in "Wild Pitch to Nowhere" in their Great Moments in Baseball (1992). As is often the case with pitchers who played before 1920 (most official records were destroyed in a fire), record keepers do not agree about the number of games Chesbro actually won in his career. The official tally is 199 wins, but the most accurate source for baseball records before 1910, the STATS All-Time Major League Handbook (1998), puts the tally at 198. Joseph M. Wayman, "Chesbro, 200 Wins!" in Grandstand Baseball Annual, 1990 (1990), argues that Chesbro should be credited with 200 victories. An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Nov. 1931).

Kirk H. Beetz