Uhle Fell into Obscurity After Standout Career for Tribe
Vince Guerrieri | On 03, Aug 2016
He’s eighth in team history in wins, sixth in losses, tenth in games started and eighth in innings pitched. Twice he led the American League in wins, and no less an authority than Babe Ruth called him the toughest pitcher he’d ever faced.
But George Uhle is kind of obscure, which is an unfitting end for a native son of Cleveland. Uhle was born in Cleveland in 1898, and graduated from West High School. He played semipro ball, most notably for the Standard Parts team, and was able to get a tryout with the Indians during spring training in 1919 in New Orleans. He impressed manager Lee Fohl enough to give him a spot on the pitching staff.
By July, Fohl was gone, replaced as manager by center fielder Tris Speaker. The Indians finished the year in second place, with the White Sox taking the pennant and losing what turned out to be a fixed World Series. But Uhle was third in wins on the team behind Stan Coveleski and Jim Bagby, going 10-5.
The following year didn’t start out well for Uhle, who apparently was tipping his pitches and the rest of the American League got wise to it. Uhle went 4-5, lost in the shuffle of a World Champion team with three 20-game winners: Stan Coveleski, Slim Caldwell and Jim Bagby, who won 31 games that year. Uhle made two relief appearances in that year’s World Series, striking out three in three scoreless innings for what turned out to be his only appearance in the Fall Classic.
But four years later, Uhle was the ace of the Indians staff. Caldwell’s struggle with alcoholism curtailed his career after the 1921 season, Bagby won just 22 more games in the major leagues after 1920, and Coveleski was traded in 1924. Uhle would win 13 or more games in five of the six seasons after 1920, including 26 wins in 1923 and 27 wins in 1927 – both league-leading. In 1923, he also led the league with 29 complete games.
Many of Uhle’s games came against the Yankees; no pitcher faced Ruth more. In 110 at-bats, Ruth hit .336 off Uhle, but managed just four home runs against 25 strikeouts. In fact, in at least one game, Uhle intentionally walked a batter in the ninth inning to face Ruth, nearly giving Speaker a heart attack in center field (Uhle struck out the Babe).
In 1927, Speaker was out as Indians manager, replaced by Jack McCallister. The Indians finished in sixth place, and McCallister gave way to Roger Peckinpaugh, who clashed with Uhle, in fact suspending him late in the season for failure to stay conditioned. At the end of the season, Uhle was dealt to Detroit.
He spent four years with the Tigers, but his first one was his best. He went 15-11 – his last year with a winning record – and notably bested Ted Lyons and the White Sox in a 21-inning affair. By 1932, he was being used exclusively in the bullpen. After going 6-6 that year, he was sold to the Giants, who released him after six appearances in 1933. He latched on with the Yankees, going 6-1. The following year, he won his 199th and 200th games as a pitcher before being released. Uhle retired with a 200-166 lifetime record – and a .288 batting average, tops among pitchers who played no other position (in fact, at least once he was called to pinch-hit for Speaker).
In 1935, former Indians catcher Steve O’Neill became manager of the team. He named Uhle his pitching coach. Uhle had a brief attempt at a comeback in 1936 (in fact, he started an exhibition game at League Park against the Cardinals that became more notable for being Bob Feller’s debut in an Indians uniform), but was used as a coach in Washington and Chicago as well as following O’Neill to Buffalo in the minor leagues.
Uhle eventually returned to Cleveland and worked briefly as an ironworker before getting a sales job with Arrow Aluminum. He died in Lakewood on February 26, 1985.
Photo: Plain Dealer file