On Jan. 20, 1965, Nick Altrock died in Washington D.C. But the real story is what happened in the nearly 60 years Altrock spent in baseball before that.
Some, maybe even most, players’ careers fall into a neat four-part pattern. They rise, they peak, they fall, they retire. Those players can be interesting to write about, but if that’s all there is, it doesn’t make for much of a story. Nick Altrock has a certain element of the career in four acts, but while traditional careers are much like traditional plays, Altrock’s is a bit more surrealistic.
Born in 1876, Altrock, a lefthanded pitcher, made his major league debut in 1898 for the Louisville Colonels of the National League. The Colonels had at one point been the champions of the American Association, but were consistently terrible in the National League, never finishing higher than ninth, and the team would disband two seasons after Altrock’s debut. Altrock threw 70 innings with a 4.50 ERA, a full run higher than the league average that season.
Louisville finished 11 games under .500, but in addition to a young Altrock the team included 24-year-old Honus Wagner and added Rube Waddell the next year. By then, however, Altrock was back in the minor leagues, not to return to big league baseball until 1902.
Now 25, Altrock saw limited action for the Boston Americans (we’d call them the Red Sox) in ’02 and was purchased by the Chicago White Sox in April of 1903. It was in Chicago that Altrock found his stride. Although he appeared in only a handful of games for the White Sox that season, in 1904 he became a full-fledged member of the rotation. Altrock won 19 games, albeit with an ERA above league average, but demonstrated fine control, walking less than one and a half per nine innings.
The next two years represented Altrock at the height of his powers. He was a curveball, change-up pitcher; these days one would say he pitched “backwards,” using his breaking and off-speed pitches to set up the fastball. Combining that with his brilliant control (he walked just over 100 batters in more than 600 innings) he posted ERAs of 1.88 and 2.06 and won a total of 43 games. He was also a key part as the “Hitless Wonder” White Sox defeated the powerhouse Cubs in the 1906 World Series, going 1-1 with a 1.00 ERA. His loss came when the Sox were rendered almost literally hitless by “Three Finger” Brown.
That year also called attention to another of his great talents, the pickoff throw. Altrock was widely hailed as having the best pickoff move of his generation. According to legend (and it might be just that) Altrock entered a game in the top of the ninth inning, two outs, the Sox down by a run. He picked off a runner to end the inning, and the Sox scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth, giving Altrock a win without throwing a pitch.
By 1907 the huge inning totals of the previous years began to take their toll and Altrock’s effectiveness began to wane. After a few years of lesser work, the Sox dealt Altrock to the Senators in May of 1909. (As an aside, that was a bad trade for the White Sox on a couple of levels: They gave up Gavvy Cravath, who would go on to a nice career, and they acquired “Sleepy” Bill Burns, who would later play a role in throwing the 1919 World Series.) The Senators let him go after that season and he bounced around the minor leagues for a few years, with stops including Minneapolis and Kansas City.
In 1912, Altrock returned to the Senators as a coach, beginning the “retired” portion of his career. Lots of players, especially in those days, found themselves in coaching. Altrock, however, made the absolute most of it. He would stay with the Senators for more than 40 years, until 1953.
Altrock first teamed with Germany Schaefer (more famous as the answer to the trivia question about stealing first base from second) as a pair of clowns/coaches. Schaefer moved on and Altrock had other partners, but none with whom he formed a longer lasting or more successful partnership than Al Schacht, the original “Clown Prince of Baseball.” The two performed comedy acts during games in between (or in lieu of, I suppose) their coaching duties and on the vaudeville circuit. Like Martin and Lewis (or Tinker and Evers), however, their professional efforts hid a deep personal animosity and the two rarely spoke outside their act for many years.
In addition to his clowning and coaching, Altrock continued to make sporadic appearances for the Senators. This was usually as a novelty act, typically on the season’s last day when the Senators traditionally played a “gag” game. (This tradition has obviously since faded out, but at least one manager, the Yankees’ Joe Torre, and his coaches take the last day of the season “off” and appoint players to run the team in their stead.)
During the final game of the 1918 season, Altrock came to bat against Philadelphia catcher Wickey McAvoy, who was on the mound specifically to face 41-year-old Altrock. He managed to connect with one of McAvoy’s lobs and after an eventful trip around the bases (which may have included missing both second and third) Altrock was called safe at home, the only home run by a Senator at their park that season.
He made several spot appearances through the 1920s. Finally, in a record that will be Altrock’s forever, he became the last player from the 19th century to appear in a game, during his only at-bat in 1933, when Altrock was 56 years old.
That and Altrock’s other post-playing career appearances gained him another pair of records. He and Minnie Minoso are the only players to appear in a game in five different decades. He and Minoso also share, with just four others, the distinction of being the only men to play in the major leagues past age 50.
World Series winner, age record holder, coach-cum-clown, 20-game winner, owner of a fantastic pickoff move. The bare outline of Nick Altrock’s life may have followed the basic four-act life of a ballplayer, but Altrock managed to make more of it than nearly anyone ever has.