- P, OF, 1B
- The Hoosier Thunderbolt
- May 30, 1871
- 6' 1"
- 200 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 5-09-1889 with IN3
- Allstar Selections:
- 1894 TC
- Hall of Fame:
"Words fail to describe the speed with which Rusie sent the ball. ...It was like a white streak tearing past you." - Jimmy Ryan, Chicago outfielder, 1894
Amos Rusie was one of the greatest fireballing pitchers of baseball's early decades. The speed of his fastball helped convince the game's rulemakers to move the pitching slab further from the plate, to the distance still used today. He was also tremendously durable during his peak seasons, posting innings pitched and complete games totals that far surpass those of modern-day hurlers.
Rusie was born on May 30, 1871, in Mooresville, Indiana, a farming town of about 2,000 people. Shortly thereafter, he moved with his family to Indianapolis, where he quit school at the age of 16 to work in a local factory. He began pitching for a semi-pro baseball team in the city called the "Sturm Avenue Never Sweats." Professional scouts took notice when he shut out two touring National League clubs, the Boston Beaneaters and the Washington Senators, and in 1889 he signed with the Burlington Babies, an Iowa team in the Central Interstate League. But soon thereafter he was signed by the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the National League, who hoped to capitalize on Rusie's drawing power as a local boy, along with his blazing fastball.
On May 9, 1889, at the age of 17, Amos Rusie appeared in his first big-league game, pitching in relief of Indianapolis starter Jim Whitney in a 13-2 loss to the Cleveland Blues. Rusie went on to start 22 games for Indianapolis that year, completing 19 of them and finishing with a record of 12-10.
In 1890, the owners of the National League clubs tried to implement a plan to rank ballplayers and pay them accordingly. The players, who were already unhappy with the reserve clause that bound a man to the team that signed him for as long as the team chose to keep him, rose in revolt. They formed the Players National League of Base Ball Clubs. For the first time, the players and financial backers of each team wielded equal power in governing the club's affairs, and those of the league as a whole. The new league chose to ignore the National League's ranking plan and reserve clause, prompting many stars in the more established circuit to jump to the Players League. The New York Giants, N.L. champions in 1888 and 1889, lost many of their best players to the upstart circuit.
The National League owners knew the importance of maintaining a strong team in New York, the home of baseball's largest fan base. When their Indianapolis club folded following the 1889 season, they engineered the transfer of some of the franchise's best players, including Amos Rusie, to the Giants.
Rusie, who stood six-foot one and weighed 200 pounds, was an unusually large man for his era. He threw so hard that his catcher with the Giants, Dick Buckley, said he put a sheet of lead wrapped in a handkerchief, along with a sponge, inside his glove when he caught Rusie.
In 1890, his first full season, Rusie went 29-34 for the Giants, starting 62 games and completing 56. He pitched 548.2 innings, and his 341 strikeouts led the National League. The New York fans began calling him the “Hoosier Thunderbolt.” Still, Rusie was wild, and the 289 walks he surrendered still stand as the all-time major league record. On those days he didn't pitch, Rusie sometimes played in outfield for the Giants, hitting .278 in 284 at-bats.
The Players League survived for only one season, and many of its stars returned to the National League prior to the start of the 1891 campaign. On July 31st of that year, Rusie threw a no-hitter against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, winning 6-0 over Bill Terry. He enjoyed an outstanding season, going 33-20 with a 2.55 ERA, and again leading the league with 337 strikeouts. It was the first of four consecutive years in which he won at least 32 games, and the second of three straight seasons in which he struck out more than 300 hitters.
Awed by the pitcher's velocity, Jimmy Ryan, a Chicago Cubs outfielder, said, “Words fail really to describe the speed with which Rusie sent the ball. He was a man of great height, great width, prodigious muscular strength and the ability to put every ounce of his weight and sinew on every pitch. . . . the giant simply drove the ball at you with the force of a cannon. It was like a white streak tearing past you.”
New York embraced the star hurler, and Rusie, in turn, fully enjoyed the city's night life. Sportswriter Sam Crane wrote, “Starting out life with everything in his favor, Rusie went through his active pitching days as though on a continuous joy ride. He broke training when he felt like it and never looked upon life as a serious matter.”
Despite his fun-loving ways, Rusie continued to pitch with tremendous success and durability. He worked 541 innings for the Giants in 1892, compiling an ERA of 2.84 with 304 strikeouts. On October 4 of that season, he pitched complete games in both ends of a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds, beating Washington by scores of 6-4 and 9-5.
However, Rusie continued to frequently display a lack of control. When one of his fastballs hit Baltimore shortstop Hughie Jennings in the head, Jennings finished the final six innings of the game, then fell unconscious for four days. Upon Jennings' return to the lineup several days later, another Baltimore player smashed a pitch off Rusie's ear, causing the hurler permanent hearing damage.
The Jennings beaning, along with historically low batting averages during the 1892 season, prompted baseball to attempt to decrease the velocity with which the pitchers delivered the ball to home plate. Pitchers had previously been required to keep one foot on the back line of a box five-and-a-half-feet long by four-feet wide. This back line was fifty-five feet, six inches from the plate. Beginning with the 1893 season, the pitcher had to keep his rear foot against a rubber slab 60 feet, six inches from the plate. Rusie's velocity was partly responsible for the change, which was the last significant alteration in the geometry of the playing field.
Though the increase in distance sharply reduced Rusie's strikeouts in 1893, he still led the National League with 208, a total that nearly doubled that of league runner-up Brickyard Kennedy. Rusie's walks total also declined from 270 to 218, and he amazingly completed 50 of the 52 games he started, ending the campaign with a record of 33-21.
Rusie later said, “It took a lot of pitching to strike a man out in those days. The foul strike rule hadn't come in. A guy had to miss three of 'em before he was out.”
Rusie's greatest year came in 1894, when he achieved what later became known as pitching's Triple Crown by leading the National League in wins, with a 36-13 record, strikeouts with 195, and ERA with a mark of 2.78 – a figure even more impressive when compared to the league average of 5.32 that season.
At the conclusion of the 1894 campaign, a Pittsburgh sportsman named William Temple sponsored a trophy for the winner of a series pitting the regular-season champion Baltimore Orioles, led by future Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, against the runner-up Giants. The New York club swept Baltimore in four straight games to win the Temple Cup. Besides pitching two complete games and giving up only one run, Rusie hit .429.
Though he possessed an outstanding curveball and change of pace, Rusie's greatest pitch remained his fastball. Of Rusie's speed, Baltimore's McGraw said that “you can't hit 'em if you can't see 'em.”
In 1895, Andrew Freedman bought the Giants. That season, he accused Rusie of misdeeds the pitcher denied committing. At the year's end, Rusie found that $200 in “fines” had been deducted from his salary, allegedly for breaking curfew and for mediocre pitching in the season's final game. Rusie believed the fines were a ruse to cut his salary, and he refused to pitch again until he received the $200. Freedman refused to refund the money to Rusie, subsequently offering his star pitcher a contract for the 1896 season at a reduced salary of $2,500.
Fully aware of the value of his pitching, Rusie was unwilling to accept less than its full worth. As a result, he became in 1896 one of the few players in history to hold out for an entire season. He first appealed to the league's Board of Directors, comprised of the club owners, requesting that the previous year's fines be rescinded. On June 29, 1896, however, his appeal was denied. Rusie then filed a lawsuit against the Giants, asking for $5,000 in lost salary and damages, challenging baseball's reserve clause and seeking to become a free agent. The case incited such strong feeling in New York that a group of Wall Street brokers hung a large sign on a Manhattan store window urging fans to boycott Giants games. When a boisterous crowd surrounded the sign to show their approval, police were called in to disperse them.
The dispute dragged on into 1897, with neither side willing to concede. The league's other owners feared Rusie's suit would become a test case on the reserve clause and the ten-day clause, which allowed a team to release a player with only ten days' notice. Just prior to the opening of the 1897 season, the owners paid Rusie the $5,000 he sought, reimbursing him for the fines Freedman had levied as well as his lost 1896 salary. The lawsuit was withdrawn, and the reserve clause lived on until the 1970s, when the courts finally ruled it unconstitutional.
When Rusie reported for the 1897 season, Freedman refused to let him suit up, ordering manager Bill Joyce to keep him off the field. But when the fans rebelled after a Giants' losing streak, Rusie was allowed to play. He had a fine year, finishing with a 28-10 record and an ERA of 2.54, the lowest of his career.
Rusie pitched well again the following year. But late in the season, when he made a quick throw to first base to pick off Bill Lange, the league's reigning stolen base champ, Rusie tore muscles in his shoulder, bringing his season to an early end.
Looking back on the incident years later, Rusie said, “I coulda lasted as long as old Cy Young, what with my strength and all. That's what happens when you try to act smart.”
Rusie wanted to pitch again in 1899, but the notoriously frugal Freedman offered him a substantially reduced salary. The combination of hearing damage from the line drive to his head, arm trouble, and personal problems kept Rusie out of baseball for the next two years. Though he tried to catch on with a team in 1900, he received no offers, arousing suspicions that the league's owners were blackballing him for his lawsuit against the Giants in 1896.
Prior to the 1901 season, the Giants traded Rusie to the Cincinnati Reds. He pitched in three games for his new club, but his arm had never recovered from the 1898 injury, and he was reportedly drinking heavily. After his final appearance on June 9, 1901, he retired with a career record of 245-174, a total of 1,934 strikeouts, and an ERA of 3.07. Rusie completed 393 of the 427 big-league games he started. It was not until 1966 that another pitcher, Sandy Koufax, equalled Rusie's record of three 300-strikeout seasons. Connie Mack, who managed in the major leagues for 50 years, insisted that Rusie had the greatest fastball he ever saw.
Rusie was only 30 years old when he left the game. He returned to Indiana, pitching occasionally for local semi-pro teams, working at a paper and pulp mill in Muncie, and freshwater pearling in Vincennes. In 1911, he and his wife moved to Seattle, where he was a steamfitter for ten years. In 1921, John McGraw offered him a job as superintendent of the Polo Grounds, a position he held until 1929, when he returned to the state of Washington and bought a farm in Auburn. On December 6, 1942, Rusie died in Auburn, six weeks after his wife's passing. He was survived by a daughter, Mrs. C. E. Spaulding of Seattle, and his brother John, of Indianapolis.
On January 31, 1977, the Veterans Committee elected Amos Rusie to the Hall of Fame. It was a worthy tribute to a great pitcher, whose fastball helped establish the dimensions of modern baseball, and who initiated an early struggle against baseball's oppressive reserve clause, foreshadowing the free-agency era that began some eight decades later.
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