Baseball's most prestigious award for pitchers is the "Cy Young Award." The prize is named for the hurler who chalked up the most lifetime wins (511) and the most innings pitched (7356 2/3). Baseball fans know and eagerly anticipate who the winner in each league will be every year. Yet, of Young himself, as historian Browning notes, "the average fan today is scarcely able to conjure up any mental picture of this ancient worthy's career, or even to say what skills made him dominant."
Not any more. Readers of this excellent biography will gain an unparalleled look at the pitcher who many term "the greatest of pitchers." His career spanned twenty-two years (1890-1911) in two centuries during which time the game of baseball evolved in significant ways. During Young's years, the pitching "box" became a pitching "rubber" and was moved back five feet. Prior to 1896, Young didn't use a glove. When he began, pitchers delivered the ball underhand and fouls were not counted as strikes.
Young is a picture of persistent durability. He adjusted to the changes in the game, learned new pitches and pitched against players who had been active in 1871 and those who retired after 1930. He posted a record fifteen 20-victory or better seasons, two more than Mathewson and Spahn. He holds the record for most victories by a man aged thirty-four (33), thirty-five (32), thirty-six (28), thirty-seven (26), forty (21) and forty-one (21). He retired at forty-five with a record of sustained excellence over time that is unmatched in baseball history.
Denton True Young (1867-1955) was born near Gilmore Ohio on March 29, 1867. He attended school through the sixth grade, worked on the family farm, and grew to be 6'2" and 170 pounds. His love of baseball soon developed and he became famous around his local Ohio area for his overpowering fastball, gaining the nickname "Cy" as a short for "Cyclone." While playing for Canton, Young's contract was purchased by the Cleveland Spiders in the National League for $300.
The "Canton Cyclone" took Cleveland by storm facing legendary pitchers of the early era such as Amos Rusie, Bill Hutchinson, and Kid Nichols. He impressed the team with his skills and on the last day of the 1890 season he pitched and won both games of a doubleheader against Philadelphia. By the next year he had become the Spiders "money pitcher" and finished the year with 27 wins.
This was the beginning of "Farmer Young's" rise to fame and by the end of the decade "he would be celebrated as baseball's foremost control pitcher." Browning's superb narrative traces Young's evolution as a pitcher through the birth of the modern pitching era noting that only Young, Rusie, and Nichols were "consistently dominating both before and after the dawn of the modern pitching regime." Young gained success when the pitching distance was moved back leading his team to three victories in its 4-1 games triumph against McGraw's rowdy Orioles in the 1895 Temple Cup, a precursor of the modern-day World Series. By now, Young was "the premier pitcher in baseball, having completed yet another season that baseball historians regard as the best of his career." He won 35 games in 1895 and 95 games over the three past years. The press called Cy Young "the king of pitchers."
Young's next years were marked by ups and downs as he proved time and again both his great pitching skills and durability. He developed a "slow ball," his era's name for a change-up pitch in order to put less stress on his arm. By 1896 he reverted to the use of a glove. He dropped his objection to playing ball on the Sabbath, a provision he insisted on in his earlier years. In addition, he further developed his reputation as an honest man, being pressed into service as an umpire more than once when there was a need. He was never known as a troublemaker in turbulent times.
From 1896-1898, Young won 74 games putting him behind Kid Nichols' pace of 92. In 1899-1900, Young played for the St. Louis Perfectos having been transferred there by the Robison brothers who owned both the Cleveland and the St. Louis franchises. Young and a number of other Spiders were moved when the Cleveland financial situation became untenable due in large part to the prohibition on Sunday games.
Young's next move was to Boston in the new American League. This was a big decision for the hurler who had grown disaffected with his team and its management. In the end he decided to cast his fate with the fledgling club with which he signed for $3500 in 1901. Young became "the toast of Boston" and endeared himself as "Farmer Cy' Young" even as he stood as the oldest regular starter in either league. Boston's "Royal Rooters," the intense and noisy Irish fans who cheered with a band at home games adopted the American League team (known later as the Red Sox) as their own and feted Young and the other star, Jimmy Collins. The press enjoyed the fact that in February 1902, Young served as a pitching coach at Harvard University. This was the same Young whose schooling had ended with the sixth grade and who was now instructing Harvard students!
By May 27, 1902, Young had registered his 329th lifetime win and with his next win surpassed Kid Nichols to become the winningest active pitcher in major league baseball. That year he won over thirty games and in his first two years in the American League had racked up 65 victories.
Until 1903, the National and American Leagues had different rules about foul balls. In 1901, the National League introduced the "foul strike rule" which counted the first two fouls hit by a batter as strikes. The American League kept the practice of not counting any fouls as strikes. But in the wake of the American League's success at maintaining itself and functioning on a par with the older circuit, and the peaceful recognition of each others' players contracts to forestall future "raids" on the other league's players, the American League accepted the National's foul strike rule. This was a boon to pitchers and a ruling of great interest to Cy Young who in 1903 surpassed Pud Glavin's lifetime win record of 360 victories.
In 1903, Boston won the pennant and faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first "World's [notice the spelling] Series." Young pitched-and lost-the first game. He came on to record two victories as Boston defeated Pittsburgh five games to three. Young became "the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl in both a Temple Cup competition and a World Series."
More successes followed through Young's years as well as times of disappointment and defeat. On May 5, 1904 he beat Rube Waddell and the Philadelphia Athletics by pitching a perfect game. Still regarded as the "King of Pitchers," Young continued to work on his pitching repertoire and style, leading Christy Mathewson to comment that "Old Cy' Young has the absolutely perfect pitching motion." His speed was legendary, yet by many accounts he was not the fastest pitcher around. His success hinged more and more on his wisdom, knowledge of the batters, and baseball savvy.
These skills were combined in Young with the image of the "honest rustic," the rural, common man who linked baseball with its mythic past. Young was never thrown out of a game by an umpire. He was publicly appreciative of his catchers, particularly his favorite receiver Lou Criger. He became affectionately known as "Old Cy Young" even as his 1905 and 1906 seasons were vastly sub-par. In 1906, he recorded a league-leading 21 defeats. As Browning says: "Think of that: Cy Young leading the league in losses." 1907 and 1908 marked recovery years as baseball's "Grand Old Man" was honored with a Cy Young Day in Boston in 1908.
Yet stunningly, Young was traded away to the Cleveland Naps for $12,500 and two pitchers who between them had won 27 major league games. Young led the Cleveland staff in wins in 1909 but in the next two years his vaunted control slipped, his weight increased, and his losses began to outnumber his wins. But on July 19, 1910, Young became the first pitcher to win 500 games.
By July 29, 1911, Young had appeared in his last game as a Cleveland Nap. On August 15, the club gave Cy Young his unconditional release. Within four days he had re-signed with the Boston Nationals, returning to the city that was the site of many of his triumphs. But Young's arm was sore through the winter of 1912 and did not get any better, even after he sought the help of his famous fellow-Ohioan, Bonesetter Reese. In August, forty-five year old Cy Young, veteran of twenty-two major league seasons, announced: "My arm will no longer do the work that was so easy." His retirement had begun he had won 511 games.
The years from 1912-1955 were marked by Young's return to his farm in Peoli, Ohio, the death of his beloved wife Robba Young, "Mrs. Cy" (1933), and Young's own financials reversals. He tried several jobs but eventually moved in with John and Ruth Benedum and did odd jobs, receiving $450 per year from stock dividends as his only regular income. He frequently took part in baseball events and was one of the original class of "immortals" inducted into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He was among the first to give mementos to the Hall. A memorable picture included in this volume shows "an 87-year-old Cy Young stares out at batting practice in cavernous Municipal Stadium, Cleveland, in April 1954, almost two-thirds of a century after his first major league game." On November 4, 1955, Young died quietly at home.
Cy Young was a perfect hero for the national pastime at this time, recalling it to its rural past and to the mythic values it conveyed. He was a "nobleman" by character, the hard-working, clean living, professional player who as he aged became the "Grand Old Man of Base Ball"-a role model of integrity who embodied baseball's and the country's best values.
Browning, Professor of History at Kenyon College, has produced a superb, interesting, and meticulously researched portrait of this sterling star. His careful and judicious judgments in the face of many absent facts and primary records of Young's feelings or personal views give us a model of outstanding baseball biography.
Was Cy Young the greatest pitcher of all time? Is the award honoring his name rightly so instituted? Young achieved great success in each major league winning 290 games in the National League and 221 in the American League. Thus the appropriateness of recognizing Cy Young as the mark of excellence for both leagues. He won more games than Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean, and Rube Waddell combined. But beyond that, Browning's interesting discussion notes statistics and perspectives that can lead one to agree with the rightness of this proposal. Both the cumulative weight of Young's efforts and their quality are outstanding. His "Wins Above Team" (WAT) which measures a pitcher's performance in relation to his team's and quantifies the number of wins a pitcher achieves above the figure one would expect for an average pitcher on that team-is the highest career total of all: 99.7. Walter Johnson's is 90.0 (second place) while others such as Tom Seaver (58.9), Warren Spahn (45.8), and Steve Carlton (33.5) are far behind. In the end, Browning's astute comment is right: "The greater the weight you give to the sustaining of excellence over a long period of time, and the more you are willing to assume that a man who had proved himself smart and adaptable in his own day would continue to show those traits in a later era, the stronger Cy Young's candidacy becomes."