Pity Poor Otto Hess
Vince Guerrieri | On 18, Sep 2012
Cleveland baseball fans are talking about Otto Hess for the first time in more than 100 years.
That’s not a good thing.
Tribe starter Ubaldo Jimenez has already thrown a career-high 16 wild pitches this season. He’s two off the club mark set by Hess in 1905 (and equaled by Sudden Sam McDowell in 1967). But Hess might have been the worst — or unluckiest — pitcher in Cleveland baseball history. And that’s saying something.
Hess was the first Swiss-born player in the major leagues, breaking in with the team then called the Cleveland Broncos (or Bronchos; accounts differ). He went 2-4 with a 5.98 ERA. Hess spent the following year with the Kansas City Blue Stockings of the Western League, but was back in Cleveland in 1904, where he went 8-7 with a 1.67 ERA.
In 1905, he went 10-15 with a 3.16 ERA, and led the majors with 18 wild pitches. But the team, then called the Naps in honor of manager Napoleon Lajoie, saw enough in Hess to make him the opening day starter for 1906, when the Naps beat the Browns 3-1 in St. Louis. It was to be a career year for Hess, who went 20-17. His 20 wins were good for third on the club, behind Bob Rhoads’ 22 and Addie Joss’ 21. Hess set another club record that year – for errors in a season by a pitcher, with six. He led the majors (retroactively) with three saves, and led the majors with 24 hit batsmen.
A hot stove account in the New London (Connecticut) Day in 1907 described Hess as being “erratic and wilder than an amateur automobilist.” However, it noted that Hess found his stride in June 1906 and after that was “harder to beat than a punctured drum,” and the Naps would finally be rewarded for sticking with him the next two years.
“I don’t believe there’s a pitcher in either league who has greater natural ability than Hess,” said no less of an authority than Lajoie. “I’ve figured all along that the time would come when he would be a world beater … I’d rather bat against any other pitcher I know than this fellow. It has taken him quite a while to come around just right, but I believe he’s there now.”
Hess won a grand total of six more games for the Naps, and he spent 1909-11 with the New Orleans Pelicans, going 66-29, good enough for the Boston Rustlers (later the Braves) to take a flyer on him. His best season with the Braves was his first one in 1912, when he went 12-17. The following year, he lost 17 games again, but against just seven wins. He did lead the majors – with 13 home runs given up.
He went 5-6 in 1914 as the Braves climbed up out of the cellar to take the National League pennant and go on to beat the vaunted Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series, but 1915 was Hess’ last year in the majors, going 0-1 in four appearances, including one start. His career record was 70-90, and he posted a 2.98 ERA. He also pitched 18 career shutouts.
Hess ended his career in the minors, playing for the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League in 1916, and the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern League. He died in Arizona in 1926 at the age of 47, and was buried in the Fairview Park Cemetery in the Cleveland area.