By Marty Appel
Imagine being a pitcher and having a year so dominating, that they move the mound back ten feet the following season. Not just for you, but for everyone, and you’re the reason. You’re just too good for the game, and it can’t continue under existing standards without too many people striking out. Moving the mound changes the course of baseball forever, and it’s all your doing.
It would be like Randy Johnson, in his prime, just being so good that the mound went to 70’6” the following year and too bad if you’re Tim Wakefield. That’ll show ‘em.
Well, it actually happened. And the pitcher who caused the rule change is a guy little remembered today. He wasn’t Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson or Cy Young, but a New York Giants hurler in the 1890s named Amos Rusie.
He’s worthy of greater recollection.
While there were no means of measuring pitch speed in the 19th century, and a dead ball traveled slower than the future lively ball would, Rusie clearly was the hardest throwing pitcher in the game.
From 1890-1892, while pitching for the New York Giants, Rusie recorded 966 strikeouts. That’s almost a third of the way towards the 3,000 plateau in just three seasons, a level reached by only one man – Walter Johnson in 1923 – until Bob Gibson joined him 51 years later.
Amos’s overpowering ability plus his wildness led the National League’s team owners to worry about the safety of the hitters. (This was six decades before helmets would be worn).
When the popular Hughie Jennings of Baltimore was beaned by a Rusie pitch and lay unconscious for four days, the die was cast. Jennings was a frequent victim of tight pitches, but seeing him fall into a coma took things too far. The owners had to take action.
And so for the 1893 season, it was decreed that the pitching box would become a rubber slab, 12” x 4”, and it would be set back 60’6” as opposed to the 50 feet then in use. This would provide hitters with more time to see the oncoming pitches, and would also presumably slow down the pitch for it’s final 10 feet into the catcher’s mitt. It was an attempt to bring more offense into the game, protect the batters, and make the art of pitching more difficult. The slab was a concession to the pitchers – it allowed them something to push off of when delivering a pitch. The modern game pitching style was launched.
Did one man’s overwhelming abilities ever have such an effect on the rules of the game?
Seventy-five years later, following “The Year of the Pitcher” (1968), a year in which only one American Leaguer batted .300, the mound was lowered to give hitters a better chance. Bob Gibson had a truly dominating year in 1968, but so too did Denny McLain, Luis Tiant, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Sam McDowell and others, and overpowering as Gibson was, the rule change was not so strictly a “Gibson change,” as the 1893 “Rusie change” had been.
Still, the 1893 Reach Baseball Guide does not ascribe the rule change to anyone in particular, just noting that for the ’93 season, the league would “do away with the flat bat,” and “move the pitcher not less than five feet nor more than ten feet further from the home plate than at present.”
(At the meeting, it was also resolved that each team should send a souvenir spoon to Miss Mayme Flatz of Piqua, OH., who drafted the 1893 schedule, despite never having seen a game).
Rusie was born on May 31, 1871 in Mooresville, Indiana, and would go on to be known as the “Hoosier Thunderbolt.” He was raised in Indianapolis and signed with the local National League team there in 1889. When the team folded the following season, his contract was transferred to the New York Giants, where he immediately became a fan favorite, as well as a dashing figure on Broadway. Sportswriters portrayed him as a carouser, a not too unusual description for a 19th century player fresh from small town America, thrust into the big city.
Although seemingly the main victim of the new pitching distance in 1893, he actually continued to flourish, even with diminished strikeout totals. In 1894, he won 36 games and helped the Giants beat the Orioles in the first Temple Cup Series, the forerunner to the modern World Series. Rusie allowed only two earned runs in 18 innings, winning both of his starts in that series.
He sat out the entire 1896 campaign over a pay dispute, $200 having been deducted from his salary for “breaking training and indifferent work.” By 1897, feeling the fans wrath and noting that Rusie wasn’t bending, the other teams chipped in $5,000 to cover his lost wages for ’96 and bring him back to the game. He was 29-8 upon returning, but wound up sitting out 1899, again over an attempt by the Giants to cut his pay and include fines. A soap opera’s worth of marital problems contributed to his sitting out 1900 as well, until he was traded to Cincinnati for a young prospect named Christy Mathewson, then hurled three games in 1901 before calling it a career.
In all, Rusie won 245 games and struckout 1,923 batters. These totals fell far short of where he seemed headed at the start of his career. But in 1897, he had made a “snap throw” to first to try and pickoff champion base stealer Arlie Latham. He hurt his arm with the throw and never regained his dominance on the mound.
“I coulda lasted as long as old Cy Young,” he once told a reporter. “what with my strength and all. That’s what happens when you try to act smart.”
Amos and his wife moved to Seattle after his career where he worked as a steamfitter, and then in 1921 he returned to New York to work for John McGraw as a securityl officer in the Polo Grounds. An auto accident in 1934 caused him serious injury and he lived out the rest of his life in Seattle, where he died on December 6, 1942.
Rusie was selected for Hall of Fame inclusion by the Veterans Committee in 1977, 76 years after he had thrown his last pitch. By then, few remained who could really talk about the amazing impact he had on baseball, an impact still evident each time a pitch is thrown from 60’6”.