Having written these columns—or some variety thereof—for more than three years, I find the best ones cover topics that appear organically. The origin of this week’s column will be revealed a bit later, but for now we’ll look back at Ed Reulbach himself.
Reulbach was born in Detroit in 1882 and attended three years of college at Notre Dame. Before his senior year, however, Reulbach was engaged. To be closer to his future wife, he spent the last year of his schooling at the University of Vermont. Reulbach received widespread praise for his baseball play at Vermont, which included both pitching and playing in the outfield.
On the strength of this performance, the Cubs signed Reulbach, and he made his major league debut just days after his last college start in 1905, facing the defending champion New York Giants. Reulbach lost 4-0 that day, but it was one of the few true missteps in his 1905 campaign.
They didn’t give Rookie of the Year awards in those days, but if there had been one, Reulbach probably would have been a lock. He went 18-14 with a 1.42 ERA, second in the league. Reulbach threw 291.2 innings, completing 28 of the 29 games he started. Reulbach also ranked in the top 10 in strikeouts per nine, saves, strikeouts, shutouts, walks per nine innings and WHIP.
In 1906, Reulbach was a crucial part of the Cubs team that won 116 games—still a single-season record—and the NL pennant. Reulbach went 19-4 with a 1.65 ERA. In Game Two of the World Series that year, Reulbach pitched a complete game, allowing only one unearned run and one hit. He was less successful in Game Five, being pulled after giving up back-to-back doubles in the third inning.
In 1907, Reulbach posted a 1.69 ERA, but appeared in just 27 games and threw fewer than 200 innings. In the World Series, Reulbach threw three innings in relief in Game One, perfect but for an error behind him. He started Game Three and turned in a six-hit, one-run complete game, helping the Cubs on their way to a sweep. For the series, he finished with a 1-0 record and a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings.
In 1908, Reulbach had a 24-7 record for the World Series-winning Cubs. He led the league in winning percentage, as he did back-to-back-to-back from 1906 to ’08. However, continuing a trend his ERA rose to 2.03. His ERA+ was just 116. Reulbach also struggled in the Cubs’ (successful) defense of their World Series title, putting up a 4.70 ERA.
Reulbach rebounded in 1909, going 19-10 with a 1.78 ERA, good for fifth in the league. In 1910 the train went off the tracks entirely for Reulbach as he went 12-8 with a below-league-average 3.12 ERA. He improved slightly in 1911 but after a disastrous start to the 1912 season the Cubs dispatched Reulbach to the Brooklyn Superbas.
(The Dodgers called themselves all kind of wacky things—Bridegrooms, Robins, Superbas—for a while there. You spend enough time with the history of baseball from that period, you learn to adjust.)
Reulbach pitched well for the Superbas (the ‘Bas?) the rest of 1913, but was nothing special the following year. The final truly great year of Reulbach’s career came in 1915. However, it comes with the asterisk that Reulbach was pitching in the short-lived Federal League.
Playing for the Newark Pepper (sic), Reulbach appeared among the league leaders in wins, winning percentage, ERA+ and complete games. Of course this was a league in which Jack Tobin could lead in hits while batting .294 and then move to the St. Louis Browns the next season and hit .213.
Reulbach returned to the major leagues in 1916, but pitched only two more years, going 7-7 with an ERA below league average. Sadly, Reulbach’s post-playing life did not feature the highs of his playing days. Reulbach spent much time trying to save the life of his son, who nonetheless died in the early 1930s.
So what was the organic component that led to this week’s column? As a Yankees fan, I am naturally impressed with the starting career of Joba Chamberlain. In his young career, Chamberlain now has a 208 ERA+ in a shade under 90 innings pitched. I was curious to see how that compared to other debuts, so with a little effort I produced the list of the best ERA+ in the first or second season by players with 89 or more innings pitched and starting at least 15 percent of their games.
No. 1 on the list is, unsurprisingly, Chamberlain himself. But Joba has thrown fewer than 100 innings. No. 2 is Reulbach, in more than 500 innings across his first two seasons.
To find another player with as many innings pitched as Reulbach, it is necessary to go all the way to No. 22 on the list, New York Giant Jeff Tesreau. (Although in fairness Dwight Gooden, No. 6, has just fewer than 500 innings.)
Of course, it is unfair to both Chamberlain and Reulbach to compare them. Reulbach pitched in an era when he could top 250 innings five times in 13 years and appear among the top 10 in the league only once. Were Chamberlain to reach such a total five times, he would have a good chance at leading the league five times.
It always seems fair to wonder if all those innings Reulbach pitched when he was younger put him on a path now well-known to another one-time young Cubs ace, Mark Prior, that of injuries limiting one’s effectiveness, and even ability to simply take the mound.
Despite such questions, Reulbach’s career did feature two World Series titles and an ERA that still ranks 14th all-time (tied with, of all people, Babe Ruth). Many have accomplished much less.