Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jouett Meekin: 'Hit 'em high, hit 'em often'

As is well-documented in my mind, baseball players in the past were frequently scoundrels and often foul and detestable human beings. They drank heavily, died early (usually of syphilis), used rancid language, and somehow found time to play baseball. There were some nice guys mixed in there, but most were downright frightening1.

I can't say which category George Jouett Meekin's personal life falls into, but he acted like a wretched bastard on the field. Reputed as one of the hardest-throwing pitchers of the era, the Hoosier fireballer is generally credited with being one of the pitchers who led to the National League to move the pitching mound to 60'6" in 1893. In Meekin's two years before the mound moved back2, he led the American Association in strikeouts per 9 innings once and recorded good strikeout numbers in his other season (for the era).

Throughout his career, however, Meekin suffered from what seems like abnormally high walk rates. This may indicate that Meekin had problems with control, but some additional information may help explain this. As a hard thrower, Meekin enjoyed intimidating opposing batters. The best way to do this, he explained, was by throwing the first two pitches to a good hitter "within an inch of his head or body." Yet his command wasn't too terrible, all things considered. In 2,605.1 innings pitched, Meekin only hit 89 hitters. By giving away a couple of balls in the count, though, Meekin controlled the at-bat through fear.

And why not? In an age when safety was a word for sissies, everything was dangerous. Helmets weren't mandatory for another 60 years, so if you wanted to show a hitter who was boss, the best way was surely by grazing his eyebrows with a 90 mph fastball. This was the era of surly, suds-soaked players; brushback pitches were merely the zeitgeist3. Old-time baseball players understood this and had no qualms about acting the part of tough guys. Leo Durocher wrote a book called "Nice Guys Finish Last" for a reason.

Meekin's tactics didn't always work, but he found some success with the New York Giants clubs from 1894-1898. In 1895, Meekin and fellow Indiana native Amos "The Hoosier Thunderbolt" Rusie won more than 30 games each for the Giants. It was by far Jouett's best year, racking up 418 innings and 137 strikeouts. He never recaptured that magic, though, and would spend the rest of his career as a league-average, but popular, pitcher.

In addition to his reputation as a heavy-handed, heat-heaving headhunter, Meekin is remembered for two other historical accomplishments:

1) Meekin is thought to have given one of the first, if not the first, intentional walk of all time, although there are two differing sources for this.

Baseball Library credits the date as July 11, 1890, against the great Chicago White Stockings' player Cap Anson. The description credits Anson as being filled with "impotent rage" at the free pass, which came in a tied game in the 12th inning. Meekin is alleged to have retired the next batter to end the inning. I am, however, dubious of this claim for several reasons, not least of which is that Meekin did not play professional baseball in 1890. If this claim is true, I suspect H.G. Wells may be involved.

However, late sportswriter and official MLB historian Jerome Holtzman wrote in Baseball Digest that Meekin issued an intentional walk to White Stockings' slugger Jimmy "Pony" Ryan in 1896 with two outs in the ninth inning of a game. Meekin supposedly retired the next batter, light-hitting "Gentleman" George Decker, to end the contest. There is no indication about Ryan's anger regarding his impotence4.

I'm not sure about you, but I'll take the official baseball historian's word for it. Rest assured, I'll be calling the FBI regarding this potential factual inaccuracy on the Internet. Fret not, this highly accurate and scientific-looking graph informs me that some people have experienced this phenomenon before. Still, you'd better watch it, Baseball Library.

2) In a June1, 1895, appearance, New York player/manager George Davis, likely drunk or hungover at first base5, left Meekin in for all nine innings of a 23-2 shellacking by the St. Louis Browns. Meekin surrendered 30 hits and four walks in the game. The Polo Grounds' crowd apparently clamored for a new twirler and the New York Times write-up of the game claimed Jouett "staggered when about to pitch." Jouett finished the game, likely with his arm hanging limp at his side6, but his arm troubles were soon cured by a fresh round of pitcher's juice and an attempted murder or two. A rough estimate would suggest that Meekin faced 60 batters that day and hurled at least 150 pitches, probably closer to 200. But, like safety, pitch counts are for sissies anyway.

The Giants dealt Meekin to the Boston Braves in 1899, reportedly for $3,500. This caused an uproar in New York, as Jouett enjoyed a wealth of popularity in the Big Apple. He found success in 13 starts with the Braves that year but was out of baseball after two poor starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900.

Meekin died in his hometown of New Albany, IN, in 1944. In the years since he played, all baseball players have become intensely clean, seldom-scrutinized and well-respected in society.

1 The nice guys were frequently pious in nature and had nicknames accordingly: Parson or Deacon were common. The most heinous players carried the moniker "Silent [Player's First Name]" for reasons explained in a previous post's footnotes. This fact is confirmed by my imagination.

2 Saying "the mound moved back" is actually misleading. Prior to 1893, there was no "pitching mound" to speak of. The previous arrangment had the pitcher throwing from a "box" 55' feet from the plate. In 1893, the National League moved the box 5 feet farther from the plate but created a mound from which the pitcher would throw. Here is the history of pitching distances, which is riveting for most of the general public and casual fandom.

3 Brushback pitches and beanball wars were relatively normal and understood parts of the game for a long time. There were, of course, several career-ending injuries as a result of these tactics, including the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 after he got drilled
by Yankees star Carl Mays for crowding the plate . Today, pitchers still occasionally go after hitters, but they frequently face early dismissal from the game and potential fines. Batters tend to take exception, too, but that might be 'roid rage.

4 Thank you, journalism classes, for teaching me that the dead cannot be libeled. That was clearly a monumentous4A court decision for all blogs that I've written about great names in baseball.

4A Not a real word.

5 Evidence does not support Davis being passed out, however, as he recorded 10 putouts at the position.

6 Greenies were great for grinding through these situations, 100% of 1950s baseball and horse trainers agree. Which means 200% of them agree on this.

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