This annotated week in baseball history: April 10-16, 1880

On April 12, 1880, Addie Joss was born. Joss played only nine seasons, won just 160 games but still earned Hall of Fame election in 1978. Richard looks back at his life and career.

Among those Hall of Fame pitchers who played primarily after the end of the nineteenth century—and excluding those men elected primarily for their work as relievers—Addie Joss is among the least successful from a wins standpoint. Joss has fewer wins than Rube Marquard , frequently cited as the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame. He has fewer wins than Sandy Koufax, who is famously in the Hall for the peak, rather than the length, of his career.

Joss has even fewer wins than several modern pitchers of no particular distinction, including Bill Gullickson, Mike Moore and John Burkett. And compounding all this, Joss was not even especially prolific when it came to wins. He led the league just once in his nine years and was only ninth in wins over the period that covered his career.

All of this does add up to the impression that Joss simply doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. That is probably true, but it also sells Joss short by holding him to one of the highest possible standards for a pitcher. It also overlooks the event that ended Joss’ career, which perhaps cost him a more deserved spot in Cooperstown.

Born in Wisconsin in 1880, Joss—whose father, in an almost unbelievable Wisconsin archetype, was a cheese maker—made his professional debut in 1900, playing for the Toledo Mud Hens. The next season, Joss played for the hilariously named Toledo Swamp Angels and won 25 games. This earned him a job pitching for the Cleveland franchise in the American League for 1902.

Previously known as the Cleveland Blues, the team this season declared themselves the Bronchos and added the 22-year-old Joss to a rotation that the season before had seen Earl Moore go 16-14 while the rest of the rotation went 31-55, including a brutal 11-22 year from Pete Dowling.

Addie Joss won fewer games than this man, but there’s no question who was the superior pitcher. (Icon/SMI)

(A Broncho, if you’re wondering, is the somewhat less common word for a bronco. At least one college—the University of Central Oklahoma—still uses the name.)

Buoyed by the addition of Nap Lajoie, the Bronchos improved to over .500, but Joss’ place on the team was equally crucial. As a rookie, he won 17 games and established himself as the team’s best starter.

The team would rename themselves the Naps in 1903 in Lajoie’s honor, and Joss continue to pitch well, winning 18 games while leading the league in WHIP.

In 1904 Joss was limited to just 24 starts, but his corkscrew wind-up—which effectively hid his fastball, curveball and “slow ball” pitch repertoire—truly came into its own, leading the league in ERA and not surrendering a home run in nearly 200 innings.

The next year Joss reached the 20-win plateau, a level he would maintain through the 1908 season. This constituted his prime, as in that four-year period Joss averaged 23 wins, 308 innings and a 1.67 ERA.

That is, obviously, hugely aided by the era in which he played, but it still comes to a 151 ERA+, a figure that compares favorably to others of the same period. Overall, Joss led the American League in wins, ERA (minimum 500 IP), and WHIP during that four-season span.

Difficult as it seems to believe, Joss might have had even more wins if he had not been playing for the Cleveland franchise that, outside of Joss and LaJoie, was often nothing special.

In his prime, Joss posted a .654 winning percentage; meanwhile, the Indians as a whole were just .517 when he didn’t pitch. If he had switched places with the likes of Doc White—who won 80 games with inferior statistics for the White Sox—Joss might have topped 30 victories one year.

For Joss, 1908 represented the absolute peak of his powers. Though he won “just” 24 games after leading the league with 27 the year before, he was even more dominant. Joss threw 325 innings but allowed 232 hits and 30 walks, which makes it no surprise he also led the league with a dazzling 1.16 ERA. For good measure, he threw a perfect game in October of that year, blanking the White Sox in the midst of a tight pennant race.

Sadly, Joss was never quite that good again, owing primarily to arm trouble. He went just 14-13 and threw fewer than 250 innings in 1909 and was a .500 pitcher in 1910. In 1911, tragedy struck as Joss fell ill and fainted during an exhibition. His doctor diagnosed him with pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs. As late as April 11, the prognosis was relatively good, with his doctor telling a reporter that “he is not in danger, but uncomfortably ill.”

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Unfortunately for Joss, the conclusion was off, and he died on April 14 of tubercular meningitis. He had just had his thirty-first birthday. To this day, Joss is just outside the top twenty-five in wins all-time at age 30 and below.

That is just one place where Joss appears on the all-time leader board. He is still second all-time in ERA (minimum 1000 IP), behind Ed Walsh. Joss and Walsh reverse places on the WHIP board, where Joss still reigns supreme. (Perhaps the most impressive name on the list is Mariano Rivera, the only modern pitcher below 1.05, though Pedro Martinez is close.)

Joss benefits, as I mentioned earlier, from the period in which he pitched. He should not be viewed as purely a deadball-era illusion though; his ERA+ still is just outside the top ten, and the nine years that make up his career hold up to anyone’s first nine years on the mound.

One cannot help but conclude that Joss doesn’t deserve his place in the Hall of Fame, especially when similar pitchers include the likes of Noodles Hahn. But he is hardly the worst player in there, and if not for his untimely death might even have rebounded to earn his place.

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Ed Buskirk Jr.
Ed Buskirk Jr.

I thought this article was going to be about the 1880 season. The title kind of gives that impression.