The 2016 version of the Cleveland Indians has been hyped nationwide for their frightening starting rotation options, a strong group of right-handed pitchers who have looked good over the last several seasons and rival some of the best arms in the game. In 1902, a legendary Cleveland pitcher, who excelled for much of his nine-year career, began his journey on this date.
Back in the second season of the Cleveland franchise, a young arm just two weeks past his 22nd birthday took the mound at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis to begin what would ultimately be a tragically short Hall of Fame career as one of the more dominating pitchers to ever hurl for the club in the 116-year history of the organization.
On April 26, 1902, Adrian “Addie” Joss made his Major League debut after two seasons in the Inter-State League with the Toledo Mud Hens. It came the day after a two-hitter by his teammate Gene Wright, who limited singles to Davy Jones and Dick Padden in a 10-0 shutout of the St. Louis Browns for Cleveland’s first win of the year. He struck out six and walked two. No runner was said to have reached second base and, in relation to his stuff on the mound, it was reported that “[h]is speed today was terrific, while his swift drop curves proved most mystifying” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 25, 1902). The Bluebirds, as they were still referred to in the Cleveland publication, put up 21 hits on the way to their big day, dealing the Browns their first loss of the season.
Many could have thought it tough to follow up a 10-0 two-hit shutout with anything better, especially from a player making his first Major League start. But as history would show, Joss did not fear the big stage, as he would find himself in pressure-packed moments more than once over the course of his devastatingly short professional career.
“If Wright could hold them down to two hits,” shared Joss with The Plain Dealer the day before his first start, “I will hold ‘em down to four.”
So, of course, Joss did what any rookie pitcher making his MLB debut would do – he defeated the Browns by tossing a one-hitter in a 3-0 Cleveland victory.
The lone hit was a controversial sixth inning single by Jesse Burkett, a future Hall of Famer himself and a long-time member of the defunct Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Just the season before, Burkett had led the Senior Circuit with a .376 average while with St. Louis’ other professional team, the Cardinals.
The umpire for the series, former Major Leaguer Bob Caruthers, had already been criticized the day before for some of his judgments on the field, and his strike zone was apparently a tight one. But more critical to the outcome of the game was his ruling on the two-strike hit from Burkett. The Cleveland right fielder Zaza Harvey charged in and, according to the staff special in The Plain Dealer, caught the ball three inches from the ground. Caruthers ruled differently, saying that Harvey had scooped the ball off of the ground, ending the no-hitter of Joss after five-plus innings.
A total of five base runners reached first base, including Burkett’s gift single. Three more drew walks off of the rookie right-hander and another got on board courtesy of an error by John Gochnaur. Joss struck out the side in the second on ten pitches. He retired the side in order in the first, second, fourth, fifth, eighth, and ninth innings and faced just four in the third and seventh. The sixth was his lone difficult inning, facing five Browns batters.
Making his one-hit feat even more momentous was his contributions to the win in general – he drove in two of Cleveland’s three seventh inning runs with a two-run double, his first Major League hit. Again, Caruthers may have intervened against the Cleveland contingent, as the ball was said to have hit a post of the bleachers in right field and careened back into the field. Caruthers ruled it a double instead of what could have been called a home run.
Another controversial call in the sixth inning at the plate deprived Cleveland of a potential run and led to the ejection of Frank Bonner, the first American Leaguer booted from a game in the 1902 season.
It was not a bad debut, by any standard, in any era of the game of baseball, for Joss.
It was the first of seven career one-hitters for the Wisconsin native Joss, who would go on to do some remarkable things in his career as a Clevelander, including throwing the team’s first perfect game in 1908 and notching another no-hitter in 1910. Four times he toppled the 20-win plateau and twice had the best ERA in the league at season’s end. He owns the best Cleveland career ERA with a 1.89 mark and a total of 45 of his 160 victories were shutouts.
Just a little over a week later, Joss had another one of those memorable outings when he took on the Tigers in Detroit on May 4th. For eight innings, no batter reached via hit. Eight times, Joss had a ball hit back to him for the assist. In the ninth, Joss got Jimmy Barrett to ground back to him. The second batter, Ducky Holmes, bunted down the third base line and Bill Bradley booted it for his second error of the day. Two outs away from his first no-hitter, the Tigers captain Doc Casey lined a single to right, moving the runner to third base but getting thrown out at second himself trying to stretch it to two. Dick Harley drove in the only Detroit run with the second hit of the game and inning, but after a walk from Kid Elberfeld, Kid Gleason hit one back to Joss to end it.
The Clevelanders were 4-8 at the time of the win and were heading home to League Park to play their first home game on the schedule.
Joss employed a deceptive and unusual delivery during his career, turning his back towards the plate and using a high leg kick, but coming down in a good fielding position, which helped him on more than one occasion on the mound. Baseball was certainly a calling for the Wisconsin native, as he spent one offseason working as a writer of a sports column in Toledo and also was credited as a popular sportswriter who once covered the World Series. Later in his career, he even designed an electric scoreboard that would present fans with balls and strikes.
Joss died suddenly in 1911, after fainting on the field prior to an exhibition in Tennessee. Initially diagnosed with pleurisy, he continued to worsen and died on April 14th of tubercular meningitis. He was just two days past his 31st birthday.
Sixty-seven years later in 1978, he was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, despite Joss not meeting the minimum number of seasons played necessary for induction.