Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tony Mullane: The Apollo of the Box

Nineteenth-century pitcher Tony Mullane was one of those people everyone loves to hate. Not because he's a jerk or a thug or someone who farts audibly and blames it on a non-existent dog. Rather, he was someone who was good at everything and looked good doing it.

In fact, he was so devilishly handsome that he was called "The Apollo1 of the Box," a reference to his appearance (similar to the deity) and his position (the pitching mound used to be called the box). His clubs frequently chose Mullane to pitch on the occasional Ladies' Night at the ball fields2. Maybe it was his moustache or perhaps it was the brogue he brought from the Emerald Isle, but Mullane was the pitcher women wanted to catch3.

And the Apollo of the Box wasn't too shabby as a player, either. From 1882-1887, Mullane notched 30+ wins and 400+ innings in five straight seasons. This was simple to do for a good pitcher of the era, because there was little consideration for things like "pitch counts," "players' health" or "magnitude of hangover and/or lingering drunkenness." Many teams had, at most, two pitchers; most of Mullane's teams had a pitching staff comprised of the Apollo of the Box and maybe an outfielder who could fill in for 8-10 games a year.

While generally successful, Mullane's control sometimes escaped him. He walked upwards of 5 hitters per nine innings toward the end of his career, threw as many as 63 wild pitches in 1884 and holds the all-time career record for wild pitches with 343. Despite this, he won 284 games over 13 seasons. His exploits failed to land him in the Hall of Fame, but his win total is second only to Bobby Mathews for non-Hall of Fame pitchers.

Mullane also played more than 200 career games at positions other than pitcher. His career .243 mark is excellent for pitchers of any era, and he hit as many as three (3!) home runs in a single season. His 661 hits ranks #1 in career hits by a pitcher, as well.

In case his sexy achievements weren't enough, Mullane was also ambidextrous, having thrown sinister-handed in at least a few appearances. He joined a very short list of ambidextrous pitchers in the annals of baseball history.

But it's not all good looks and Hall of Fame snubs for the Apollo of the Box. In 1884 in Toledo, Mullane played with the first (and last, along with his brother Welday, until 1947) black player in the major leagues, catcher Moses "Fleet" Walker. If you've paid attention, you'll notice this was the same year Mullane threw 63 wild pitches. This was, he later said, because he liked to mix up the black catcher. Basically, Mullane was an asshole and enjoyed making life difficult and painful for Walker4 (catchers at that time had incredibly inadequate safety gear). The Apollo of the Box was hardly the only player in the league averse to the presence of Fleet Walker; team owners in the league soon demanded that Toledo remove the black men from its roster.

Mullane sat out the duration of the 1885 season, having been blacklisted for trying to switch teams within the American Association (AA). The move would have earned him $5,000 with his new club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. But the AA suspended him for a year for breach of contract with the St. Louis Browns and fined him $1,000, but the AA let him throw for the Red Stockings in 18865.

Mullane was out of the big leagues by 1894, but appeared in the minors sporadically until 1902, when he made his final three starts for the Spokane Smoke Eaters of the Pacific Northwest League.

The Apollo of the Box moved to Chicago, where he became one of the few Irish police officers in the city. Mullane died in Chicago in 1944 at the age of 85.

1 Apollo was the Greek god of all kinds of crap. Seriously, one being was in charge of music, prophecy, colonization, medicine, archery, poetry, dance, intellectual inquiry, herds and flocks, light, plagues, and religious healing. Yet he still found time to do a bunch of nymphs. The author, by the way, has difficulty managing time between working eight hours, reheating moldy pizza, playing video games, and napping. Then again, Greek gods only sleep 20 minutes every 4 hours.

2 Ladies' Night is clearly a misnomer, as baseball games were all played during the day at this time. Accordingly, these promotions were actually called Ladies' Days, and Hollywood even made a movie about it. It was called Ladies' Day. The film likely contains at least 50% less syphilis than was found at or after actual Ladies' Day games.

3 In addition to containing [false] insinuations that Tony Mullane was not from Ireland, this sentence may also contain my best wordplay of all time. It works on so many levels.

4 Mullane was quoted as saying, "[Fleet Walker] was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals." While this kind of frank racism by the baseball establishment is appalling to us today, it openly existed in the big leagues in some places until the 1960s.

5 While not documented in writing anywhere, oral tradition maintains that the American Association was one carrier pigeon away from ending the Apollo of the Box at the hands of baseball's greatest killing machine.

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