This annotated week in baseball history: July 3-July 9, 1859

Inspired by my characterization of John Clarkson as “arguably the most obscure 300-game winner in history,” I wrote a column about him early last year. In the course of attempting to shed some light on Clarkson’s career, I noted that the only man saving Clarkson from being the unquestioned king of 300-game obscurity was Mickey Welch.

In that spirit, it seems only fair to give Welch his due, least I leave the impression that Clarkson has something up on the man known as “Smiling Mickey.” And, of course, this will also serve my continuing desire to learn more about the less prominent members of the Hall of Fame. So on that note, we begin.

Welch was born in Brooklyn in 1859—so long ago that it was nearly 40 years until Brooklyn would join with the other four boroughs to create New York City. He made his debut at age 20 in 1880 for the Troy Trojans. By modern standards, Welch’s rookie season seems insane. The team played 83 games that season and Welch started 64 of them. Sixth-four! That’s more than three-quarters of the games.

Of course, that was how things were in the early days of baseball. The league as a whole played 680 games and the top five pitchers in starts—a list on which Welch’s 64 starts earned him just fourth place—combined for 333 of the starts. That’s more than 50 percent. The current era is very different, of course, but for a sense of perspective, in 2010 the National League played 2,592 games and the top five pitchers in games started accounted for just 171 starts—or 6.59 percent.

With all those starts—all of which were complete games—it should be no surprise that Welch won 34 times, good for fourth in the league. He was slightly more effective the next season, but started “only” 40 games, and won 21. The next year Welch suffered even more, going just 14-16 and posting a 3.46 ERA.

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Owner of 116 wins his first six seasons, Tom Seaver is the post-World War II leader in that category (Icon/SMI)

It seems reasonable to suppose that Welch’s 1880 workload—which also included nearly 600 innings pitched—at his young age contributed to his struggles the next years. Standing just 5-foot-8, he didn’t begin to regain the form that made him a star for three years.

By the time that year rolled around, Welch had either recovered sufficiently from the abuse of 1880, fine-tuned his game, or both, and had a bounce-back year. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Trojans disbanded after the ’82 season and Welch moved to the Giants as a free agent.

The next season, he was even better. Pitching nearly as many innings as he had in 1880—and actually starting one more game—Welch went 39-21 with a 2.50 ERA.

He got those wins relying primarily on a curve ball, one Bill James characterized as the best of the decade. Welch said that his main advantages were that he studied the hitters—surely one of the first uses of a phrase which has now reached the point of the cliché—and what he described as a “change of pace and an assortment of curve balls.”

In 1885, Welch put it all together and had his best season. He won 44 games for the Giants—splitting time with Tim Keefe to start all but 11 of the Giants’ 112 games. In the midst of that season, he won 17 straight games.

With Keefe’s 32 wins, the New Yorkers fell just short of winning the National League, finishing two games behind Chicago. (The then-White Stockings were anchored, incidentally, by John Clarkson, who started 70 games that year and won 53 of them.)

Welch’s 44 wins gave him 177 for the first six years of his career, a number bettered by just four players—none from the 20th century or later.

Perhaps not surprisingly Welch was unable to maintain his brilliant form the next year, but he continued to amass a huge number of victories, winning 33 games. That also marked the last year of Welch’s astonishing three-year peak, a period during which he put up numbers the likes of which you and I will never see. Averaging 516 innings, Welsh won 116 games in those years—more games than Sid Fernandez won in his entire career, and more wins than Cliff Lee has to date.

Though the huge win totals would never return—Welch would never win more than 27 games in a season until his retirement— he would continue to post strong seasons until 1890. Welch was also emblematic of the varying offensive levels in early baseball. In 1889, Welch had a 141 ERA+ and a 1.93 ERA. The next season, Welch’s ERA jumped to 3.02 but his ERA+ dropped to just 135 as offense exploded league-wide.

The end of the decade also saw Welch earn his place in trivia history. In 1889, he batted for teammate (and future umpire) Hank O’Day in the fifth inning. Supposedly, this marked the first pinch-hitting experience in baseball history. The generally accepted theory is that this was an injury substitution—the rules did not allow for pinch-hitting in the modern sense for a few more years—but it seems hard to believe that no one had ever pinch-hit before. Nonetheless, that’s baseball’s story and baseball’s sticking with it.

Welch won his 300th game in late 1890, one of the 17 he captured that year. He would win five games the next season and retire with 307 wins. At the time of his retirement, only Pud Galvin, his former teammate Keefe and future Twitter sensation Old Hoss Radbourn had more wins.

Welch died in 1941; it would not be until 1973 that he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Though his career value is relatively low for a Hall of Famer—he has fewer WAR than names like David Cone and Frank Tanana, for example—when one considers his peak value he likely earned his spot.

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