Jim Tobin hits the trifecta

If the name Jim Tobin does not ring a bell, that is not surprising. As pitchers go, his record is not particularly notable (105-112). But on May 13, 1942, he did something no other pitcher in the modern era has done.

At the beginning of the 1942 season, Tobin was a five-year major league veteran. His career had started at age 19 with Bisbee of the Class D Arizona-Texas League. The following year he signed with the Yankees and began working his way up the minor league ladder. He never had a losing record, but his ERA was nothing to write home about. Still, in 1936 and 1937, he spent two seasons with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League (then a Double-A league) and went 27-16 in 382 innings, despite a knee injury and appendicitis.

His prowess as a hitter, however, was particularly notable. He had hit 13 home runs during his apprenticeship in the minors. Four of them came with the Oaks in 1935 when he .hit 294 in 85 at-bats—with a slugging percentage of .506.

As an Oakland native, Tobin likely enjoyed playing at home for two years, but his upward mobility in the Yankee system was hampered by the logjam of talent at the top, so he was sold to the Pirates.

His rookie year with the Bucs in 1937 was not bad (6-3 with a 3.00 ERA in 87 innings). Though he appeared in only 20 games, he likely opened some eyes with his offensive output: 15 hits (no home runs, however) in 34 at-bats, good for a .441 average.

On the mound, he was 14-12 in his sophomore season, but just 9-9 during the 1939 season. His inflated ERA (4.52) likely inspired his postseason trade to the Boston Bees, for whom he went 7-3 in 96.1 innings in 1940.

In his second season (1941) at Boston (by then they had gone back to the Braves nickname), he was 12-12 with a 3.10 ERA in 238 innings. This was the most he had pitched since his sophomore year at Pittsburgh, and as it turned out, the remaining years of his major league career would be even busier.

By the end of the 1941 season, his career record was 48-39. In 1942, with so many pitchers being drafted by the military, a record like that provided a reasonable amount of job security. He had shown he could eat innings without embarrassing himself, and during the war years, that was not to be taken lightly.

If Tobin’s mound work was not particularly distinguished, his work in the batter’s box was definitely above average. Through the first five years of his major league career, he was 89 for 357. I think most managers would be happy with that sort of offensive output from the number nine slot in the order, and Tobin’s proficiency with the bat likely kept him in games when other pitchers would have been removed for pinch-hitters.

Power-wise, however, Tobin had been no great shakes in the big leagues. Only two of his 89 hits had gone for home runs. Both came during his 1939 season with Pittsburgh. In 1942, however, he started early, homering in the second game of the season on April 15 against the Phillies.

On the mound, he went 4-3 over the first month of the 1942 season. Then he wrote his name into the baseball history books—but not because of his efforts as a hurler.

On Wednesday, May 13, he faced the Cubs at Braves Field. Neither team was going anywhere (the Cubs would finish sixth, the Braves seventh) that season, but on that day, 3,443 fans would see something that no fan has seen since.

After five innings, Tobin found himself behind 2-1, having given up a two-run homer to Bill Nicholson. The Braves’ run came courtesy of a solo shot by Tobin’s battery-mate, Ernie Lombardi, off Cubs’ starter Jake Mooty. When Tobin came to bat in the bottom of the fifth inning, he tied the score with a solo shot of his own off Mooty.

The Cubs answered with two runs in the top of the sixth, but the Braves evened the score in the bottom of the seventh with two more bases-empty homers shots, one by shortstop Eddie Miller, the other by Tobin.

Tobin remained in the game and came to bat again in the bottom of the eighth. This time he hit a two-run homer off Hiram Bithorn. With his third home run of the day, he not only helped himself to a 6-4 lead, he made baseball history as the only pitcher in the modern era to go yard three times in one game. As a corollary, that also gave him the record for total bases (12) by a pitcher in one game.

The Cubs came back to score one run in the ninth inning, so the final score was Braves 6, Cubs 5. One can imagine that Tobin had some anxious moments in the ninth, as he would hardly want to have his slugging feat tarnished by a loss. The Braves had committed four errors in the game (one by Tobin himself), so the game was closer than it should have been.

I mentioned at the outset that Tobin was the only pitcher in the modern era to hit three home runs in one game. Just for the record, the only other pitcher to accomplish the feat was Guy Hecker, who did so on Aug. 18, 1886 while pitching for the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. Three home runs by a pitcher during the deadball era is definitely worth a mention.

But Tobin’s offensive show went even further than Hecker’s. While the box score of that May 15, 1942 game clearly shows what Tobin did that day, there is more to the story.

The day before, Tobin had entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and socked a two-run home run off the Cubs’ Tot Presnell. So in five consecutive at-bats, Tobin had gone yard four times. The only out he made was on a deep fly, so the major league record for consecutive home runs was tantalizingly close to being held by… a pitcher!

He hit one more before the 1942 season was over, finishing with six home runs and a .421 slugging percentage (his .246 batting average was actually a few points lower than his career average before that season). That won’t get you on any leader boards, but as pitchers go, it definitely merits a gold star.

Tobin never came close to re-creating his two-day slugfest, but he wasn’t through hitting home runs. He hit two in 1943 and again in 1944. In 1945 he hit three for the Braves. On Aug. 9, he was sold to the Tigers, for whom he hit two. The trade enabled him to write his name into the record books as the only player to lead his position in home runs in both leagues in the same season.

That five-homer season in 1945 turned out to be his last in the big leagues. He went out in style, however, as that brief tenure with the Tigers included an appearance in the World Series.

While Tobin’s home run record secures his spot in baseball history, another interesting quirk is that he made more than 100 appearances as a pinch-hitter. If you’re thinking that might be some sort of record, don’t waste any more time thinking about it because it’s not even close. Red Lucas (1923-1938) leads all pitchers in pinch-hitting with 437 appearances.

But we shouldn’t totally ignore Tobin’s work on the mound. The same year he was turning heads with his hitting, he was earning his keep as a hurler. True, he led the league in home runs allowed with 20 and losses with 21, but as you might guess, that meant he was logging a lot of time on the mound. By the end of the season, he had just 12 victories, but he led the league in complete games with 28 and innings pitched with 287.2.

In 1944, he again led the National League in complete games with 28. It was his busiest season ever, as he logged 299.1 innings while going 18-19. Having developed a knuckleball, he also pitched a 2-0 no-hitter on April 27 against the Dodgers. For good measure, he hit a solo homer in the eighth inning to give himself an insurance run.

He followed up this feat with a five-inning no-hitter against the Phillies on June 22. He also made his only appearance in an All-Star game, throwing one three-up, three-down inning in Pittsburgh.

Tobin finished his major league career at age 32, but like many a player in that day, he returned to the minor leagues before hanging it up for good. In 1948 and 1949 he was back in his hometown, pitching for the Oakland Oaks. While playing for the 1948 Pacific Coast League championship squad, he was reunited with Casey Stengel, who had managed him at Boston from 1940-1943.

Since Tobin retired for good in 1950 at age 37, a number of pitchers have hit two home runs in a game and had the opportunity to match Tobin, but by the close of the 20th century, no one had done so. Now, after more than seven decades, one can’t help but wonder if a pitcher in the 21st century could equal the feat.

Of course, it could happen, but it is much less likely today. First of all, we have the designated hitter rule, which reduces hitting opportunities for major league pitchers by roughly 50 percent. In the National League, even decent hitting pitchers don’t get much of an opportunity to swing the bat, as contemporary managers just don’t want them expending energy on swinging the bat or running the bases, and would rather bring in a pinch-hitter if one is available.

Then we have the increased popularity of relief pitchers. Even an effective starting pitcher may not remain on the mound past the sixth inning. In National League ballparks, a starting pitcher can’t count on getting three at bats, a prerequisite for hitting three home runs.

Having said all that, I’m not saying it could never happen—it could happen tonight. You might pick up the morning paper or sign on to your computer tomorrow morning and find out that some pitcher somewhere has blasted three home runs, equaling not only Tobin but also Guy Hecker.

Ah, but four home runs in five at-bats. That one may be exclusively Tobin’s till the end of time. Same with his nickname of Abba Dabba. How Tobin mustered all that power in mid-May of 1942 is a mystery—but no more so than where that nickname came from and what it means.

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Comments

  1. Tom Dockery said...

    I’ve always been curious about Tobin.Thanks for the great research.

    I’m sure that you’re aware of Robert Person’s great day with the Phillies in 2002,when he came thisclose to taking both Tobin and Tony Cloninger out of the record books.

    In just 5 innings,Person hit a grand slam,a three run homer,and just missed another slam by a few feet.

    He left the game after five because he was just coming off of the DL.

    Incredibly,those homers were his only hits of the season.

  2. Paul G. said...

    I did not know this.  Thank you.

    One minor quibble.  The Deadball Era is (usually) defined as 1900-1919.  Run scoring in the 19th century was generally a lot higher, though that was partially because there were so many more errors.

  3. Cliff Blau said...

    Tobin failed to match Hecker in a couple of respects.  In Hecker’s 3-HR game, he also hit 3 singles and scored 7 runs, the latter a record which has never been equaled by a player at any position.

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