But even that introduction hardly does the man justice. “Remembering a character as rich as Tony Mullane for something so simple as pitching with both hands is like remembering Bill Clinton as the President who once installed AstroTurf in the back of a pickup truck,” writes Bill James. “He was a great pitcher, and he was a spoiled, self-indulgent prima donna, a bit of a bully, a racist, and a pioneer who explored the depths of tactlessness and selfishness in contract negotiations.”
Mullane was one of the greatest stars of baseball’s early years, and if his name has been forgotten, that may only be because he lacks a Twitter avatar. But he was one of the biggest stars of his day and one of the greatest pitchers before the turn of the century. Nor was his only prowess on the pitcher’s mound: he played 154 games in the outfield and 111 in the infield, logging innings at first, second, third and short, and finishing his career with a batting line of .243/.307/.316, with 407 runs, 223 RBIs, and 112 stolen bases — he had a career wRC+ of 91 and 6.3 WAR as a hitter!
Between his potent stick and his fearsome arm, he is certainly one of the best pitchers who is not in the Hall of Fame. As it is, excluding Roger Clemens, who is still on the ballot, only Tommy John (288) and Bobby Mathews (297) have more major league wins than Mullane’s 284. (Jim Kaat is at 283.) Mullane is one of only six pitchers to have recorded five separate seasons of 30 wins, and one of only three to have five such seasons consecutively. Consecutive after a fashion, that is: his streak ran from 1882 to 1887, but he missed the entire 1885 season because he was suspended by the league for an excessively promiscuous style in negotiations.
In 1883, he had signed a contract to jump to the upstart Union Association, which had arisen to challenge the ever-so-slightly more established National Association and American Association. In particular, the Union Association challenged the reserve clause in organized baseball contracts, which proclaimed that a player’s rights were exclusive to a single club even after the period named in his contract had expired. After a year of pitching in the American Association, Mullane agreed to a higher contract with a Union club. Then, before throwing a pitch in his new uniform and apparently afraid of being blacklisted by the other leagues, he jumped back to the American Association by signing a new deal with Toledo at the elevated price.
In 1884, the Toledo club collapsed, and as Daniel Ginsburg writes, Mullane actually agreed to contracts with three clubs, including a $4,000 offer from Cincinnati in which club president “[Aaron] Stern laid $2,000 in twenty dollar bills on the table — cash in advance for 50 percent of Mullane’s $4,000 contract.” Mullane jumped at the cash, the two other clubs that he had agreed with cried foul, and the Association agreed, fining him $1,000 and suspending him for the entire 1885 season.
He had no interest in accepting less than what he believed he was worth, and no compunction about telling others where they could stick it. In 1887, he informed his manager that he didn’t want to pitch a game against Brooklyn because “I don’t intend to do any more work than the other pitchers.” His manager fined him $100 and suspended him indefinitely, although the dispute was smoothed over before the end of the month, and he still managed to win 31 games that year.
By 1892, organized baseball consisted of only one league, the National League, and Harold Seymour writes that owners colluded to reduce salaries across the sport as each team agreed “that others would keep hands off any players who were fired for refusing to sign a new contract at reduced pay.” When Mullane was told during the season that his salary would be cut from $4,200 to $3,500, he held out for the rest of the year. It cost him: when he signed a new contract for 1893, it paid only $2,100.
If his managers and owners didn’t like him, they were in good company. In 1886, in what was one of the biggest scandals of the era, he was accused of throwing games for gamblers, though he was later exonerated. The accusation was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was owned by a man who had formerly owned shares in the Cincinnati baseball club; Ginsburg suggests he may have made a spurious accusation out of spite.
Mullane was little more popular with his colleagues. He came to Baltimore in 1893, and as Burt Solomon writes in his history of the Orioles of that period, he “was despised by his teammates.” Solomon also quotes from his wife’s testimony in their divorce trial: “Yes, those are the bruises he got when I hit him with a potato roller,” she said, “after he had cut me with a knife and smashed a water pitcher over my head.”
In 1884 with Toledo, Mullane played with one of the first African-American players in baseball history, catcher Moses “Fleet” Walker; there, too, he exhibited appalling behavior. As he later explained:
He [Walker] was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals. One day he signaled me for a curve and I shot a fast ball at him. He said, “I’ll catch you without signals, but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.” And all the rest of that season he caught me and caught anything I pitched without knowing what was coming.
Mullane’s actions were less egregious than those of Cap Anson, the Hall of Famer who led the ultimately successful fight to keep African-Americans out of baseball for good, but the casual racism — and utter unconcern with injuring his teammate by crossing him up with a pitch — is still shocking.
His last innings in the major leagues came in 1894, split between Baltimore and Cleveland. “I have made many deals,” Orioles manager Ned Hanlon said at the time, “but none which gave me more satisfaction than when I traded Mullane.” (Earlier that year, he had paid a $2 fine for beating a man with a baseball bat during a Baltimore bar brawl.) He hung around the minor leagues for the better part of a decade, eventually becoming an umpire. But he did not give up his dream of returning to pitching, nor his knack for attracting controversy. In 1902, two teams apparently requested his discharge “on grounds of incompetency.” Shortly thereafter, the president of the Pacific Northwest League released him from his umpiring contract so that he could go pitch for the team in Spokane. “He was released at his own request,” the league president maintained, “because he wanted to play ball and not because two clubs protested against him.”
That was not the last time he ran into trouble in blue. In 1904, he umpired an exhibition game with John McGraw’s New York Giants. According to The New York Times, Mullane blew a call on a stolen base, then threw out the Giants’ third base coach for arguing, which caused the New York bench to clear and fans to pour onto the field. Fortunately, further catastrophe was averted when the coach and Mullane “finally were prevailed upon to shake hands.”
But he had already mostly left baseball by then. In 1903, Mullane moved to Chicago to join the police force. By 1911, a newspaper report noted that he was a detective and acting sergeant. His obituary noted that he stayed on the force until 1924, when he retired at the age of 65. He passed away 20 years later, in 1944, 50 years after his last appearance in the National League.
By then, Mullane’s other exploits had already largely been forgotten, and Handsome Tony was mostly known for one thing: he became the first switch-pitcher in big league history on July 18, 1882, his first full season, switching from his right hand to his left in the fourth inning. As Jerry Grillo writes, he “had injured his right arm in a distance-throwing contest a few years earlier, so he’d taught himself to throw left-handed.” (More than a hundred years later, an injury led Billy Wagner to switch from his right hand to his left hand for his whole career.) Grillo notes that he is known to have done so at least two other times, in 1892 and 1893; his ambidexterity may have been more of a trick than a consistent weapon, but it must have been unnerving for a left-handed hitter to know that he could do so if he chose.
Apart from switch-pitching, he may also have been influential in bending the arm angle that most pitchers used. As Bill James notes, in the 1870s, the baseball rules were very strict that the ball must be pitched rather than merely thrown — “the ball could not be thrown overhand, and it could not be thrown sidearm. It had to be pure underhand.” That was the rule, that is, until Mullane and other strong-willed pitchers came along. James writes:
Mullane was one of many pitchers of the 1880-1884 era who tested and eventually eroded the rule. When the umpires enforced a straight underhand throw, he moved his arm to the side. When other pitchers moved their arm to the side, he swung his arm out a little further. By 1883 the rules were amended to allow a pitcher to throw from shoulder height. In 1884 the American Association abolished the rule entirely.
From contract negotiations to the color line to ambidextrous pitching, Tony Mullane was a selfish, imperfect pioneer. But there is no denying that he was there before nearly anyone else: forever redefining the meaning of the verb “pitch”; stubbornly insisting on his rights and spurning the reserve clause nearly a century before Curt Flood; playing with baseball’s first prominent African-American player, though doing so quite literally in the worst way possible; and preening for fans while alienating teammates, management and ownership alike, to a degree that feels shockingly modern. (If anyone ever suggests within your earshot that baseball players used to be role models, you might suggest that they Google the Apollo of the Box.)
He was also an early ethnic superstar. As I’ve written, there is persuasive evidence that the Irish faced discrimination in 19th century baseball, as they did in the rest of society. I don’t know how Mullane’s success affected the Irish-American community, or whether his countrymen took communal pride in his accomplishments, the way that many Italians did when Joe DiMaggio became the first Italian superstar 40 years later. But historically, as Rany Jazayerli has written, baseball helped new Americans to assimilate, by serving as universal common ground.
James is right: Tony Mullane was a self-indulgent prima donna, a racist, and a pioneer. He was larger than life, and precisely the kind of modern antihero who demonstrates that being great has nothing to do with being good. Trailblazer and heel, immigrant and ace, he deserves to be remembered. Sometimes the 19th century can feel unfathomably long ago and far away. But Tony Mullane feels as modern as Barry Bonds. Baseball history may not repeat, but it rhymes.
Happy birthday, Tony.
References & Resources
- Daniel E. Ginsburg, The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals
- Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years
- Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches
- Burt Solomon, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball