This annotated week in baseball history: Feb. 15 – Feb. 27, 1926

On Feb. 24, 1926, Eddie Plank died in Gettysburg, Pa. Gettysburg Eddie, nicknamed for the town where he was born, educated and died, won 326 games and two World Series during his 17-year career. Richard looks back at the A’s lefty.

This week’s column is the first in an occasional series, “Richard Learns More About Players He Should Know More About.” The title is a work-in-progress, but it does accurately describe the exercise. There are a handful of players from the pre-World War I period in baseball history with whom I am very familiar—Christy Mathewson, for example—but a much larger group about whom I can only identify the very basics.

Such a player is Eddie Plank. I hasten to add that Plank isn’t a total mystery to me. I know he was a left-handed pitcher, who spent all but a bit of his career with the Philadelphia A’s, won a bunch of games and deservedly made the Hall of Fame. That’s basically it, though. I know nothing about Plank as a pitcher, not the stuff he threw nor the results he got with it. I don’t know if he won a huge number of games in a short period or if he was a reliable arm for 17 to 20 wins a year for multiple years.

In that spirit, we’ll examine Plank from a few different angles. We’ll start with the most basic, his statistics. Plank made his major league start relatively late, at age 25. Debuting along with the American League in 1901, Plank won 17 games (against 13 losses), good for ninth in the league, while finishing 10th in ERA.

Plank was, by the standards of the time, a strikeout pitcher. Though he averaged just 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, he ranked in the top 10 in strikeouts per nine innings 12 times, including the first eight seasons of his career.

Plank’s control was not always as strong. He led the league in wild pitches his rookie year and was twice the leader in hit batsmen. He is still second all-time in HBP in the American League (tied with Randy Johnson) and hit 60 more batters than any other pitcher over his career. But Plank was capable of putting the ball over at least some of the time; he placed in the top 10 for fewest walks per nine innings six times.

In addition to strikeouts, Plank’s other strength as a pitcher was his stinginess with the home run. Obviously, many fewer home runs were hit when Plank was pitching. But even by the standards of the time, Plank was averse to the long ball. From 1902 through 1905, he threw 1,340 innings and allowed just 15 home runs. Among pitchers with at least 4,000 innings—Plank has nearly 4,500—one could double the 42 home runs that Plank allowed and he would still be first all-time. Second-place Christy Mathewson is closer to fifth place Red Faber than he is to Plank.

image
Plank’s teammates, manager and competitors gather at the Hall of Fame in 1939. (Icon/SMI)

Not surprisingly given his peripheral numbers, Plank had great success. He won 153 games the first seven years of his career, a number bettered only by Pete Alexander. For his career, Plank won 20 or more games eight times, and his .627 winning percentage is just outside of the top 50 all-time.

In the World Series, Plank was just 2-5 despite allowing just eight earned runs in almost 55 innings. In 1905 Plank lost both his starts despite allowing two and one runs respectively as the A’s were shut out by the Giants’ Mathewson and Joe McGinnity. In 1911 Plank won his first title, finally defeating the Giants.

In 1913 he lost his first start in 10 innings as the A’s were again shut out by Matty. But Plank would have his revenge in the fifth game, outpitching the Giants’ ace to win the game and clinch the A’s victory. In 1914 it was déjà vu all over again for the lefty, who pitched nine innings and allowed just one run while his teammates managed none, giving him a loss in his only appearance. In the four World Series starts he lost (Plank’s fifth loss came in relief in 1913), his offense failed to produce a single run. Plank must have wondered what he did to deserve it.

The answer is probably nothing, since Plank was a solid citizen and well-respected. He made his debut at roughly the same time as Rube Waddell, and comparisons were inevitably drawn between the two. Plank was quiet and understated, and while few could have competed with Waddell for attention, it seems safe to assume Plank was not interested in trying.

In many ways, Plank’s match was another pitcher who made his debut around that period, Mathewson. Like Mathewson, Plank was educated and tall, both rare for ballplayers of the era. And like Mathewson, Plank spent most of his career with one team and one manager, Mathewson with John McGraw and Plank with Connie Mack.

Plank spent only the final three years of his career away from Mack. He jumped to the Federal League in 1915 and was the league’s most effective pitcher; he combined with workhorse Dave Davenport to pitch the St. Louis Terriers to the league’s title. Plank returned to the majors in 1916 but stayed in St. Louis, spending the final two years of his career with the Browns.

The town of Gettysburg, where Plank was born in 1875, would provide him with not only his marvelous Gettysburg Eddie nickname—I like any nom de baseball that kind of rhymes and provides information about the player—but also much of his identity. Plank is inexorably tied to the town, which sometimes cites Plank as evidence that it is “more than three days in 1863.”

Sources differ on whether Plank actually graduated from—or even attended—Gettysburg College, but there is no disputing that he pitched for the college’s team before his major league career. (The modern NCAA would just love that, no doubt.) Possibly during and most definitely after his career, Plank worked as a guide around the Gettysburg Battlefield. After his retirement, Plank lived in Gettysburg and died there of a stroke in 1926, just 50 years old. It would be another 20 years before he earned Hall of Fame admission.

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Comments

  1. Gilbert said...

    Does anyone have the identities of the people in the photo?
    I think Wagner and Cobb are at left in back and Babe Ruth and Connie Mack sitting in the middle front.
    Living HOFers at that time would have included them, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Pete Alexander.
    Ted Williams said in his autobio that he hated neckties, but it looks like the Babe is the only one here who does without one also.

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    Going left to right, the back row is Honus Wagner, Pete Alexander, Speaker, Lajoie, George Sisler and Walter Johnson. Front row is Eddie Collins, Ruth, Mack and Cy Young.

  3. Michael Caragliano said...

    When you think of the five greatest lefties of all time, his name tends to get lost in the shuffle. Most people spit out some combination of Koufax, Spahn, Johnson, Carlton, and Grove, and maybe Glavine if pressed for a sixth name. He was easily the best lefty before Grove, and the only player, as far as I know, to reach a major milestone (300 wins) in the Federal League. One more tidbit that shows how good he was for as long as he was. He finished one win shy in 1908 of racking up 15 wins in all sixteen of his full major league seasons. An impressive body of work when you look at his career.

  4. kevin said...

    You end the article with the observation that Plank was voted into the HOF 20 years after his death, as if this is an insult to him. The Hall didn’t even exist until 10 years after Plank’s death, and then it had a half-century’s worth of players from which to choose. Plank doesn’t seem to me to have been slighted.

  5. Greg Chaberski said...

    For Gilbert:  Back Row: Wagner, Alexander, Speaker, Lajoie, Sisler, Johnson.  Front row: Collins, Ruth, Mack, Young.  Like your observation about Ruth, Williams, and neck ties.

    Greg

  6. Northern Rebel said...

    Eddie Plank was a fine pitcher, and yes, a legitimate Hall of Famer. He was consistent, and contributed mightily to some great Philly teams.

    That being said, he was rarely the best pitcher on his own team, nevermind the best in the league.

    He is the Don Sutton of his time, playing second fiddle to Waddell, Chief Bender, and Bullet Joe Bush, to name a few.

  7. Smokey said...

    I became a fan in 1958.  There were oodles of baseball magazines every Spring and I recall an article recognizing Grove as the greatest lefty and then debating whether Spahn would replace Plank as number two.

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