Saturday, September 19, 2009

We'll Always Have Parisian Bob

Pedro Martinez lost his first game as a Philadelphia Phillie tonight, dropping his record to 5-1. Tonight's loss also marks the 100th defeat of his career—a dubious milestone remarkably long in coming, considering that Martinez entered a regular rotation in 1993 and has started 475 games in his amazing career. He has reached double figures in losses only twice—each time with the minimum of 10—which, against 219 wins, makes his career winning percentage a dizzying .687.

With his loss tonight, Martinez falls out of very select company. Since registering his 200th win during the 2006 season, Martinez had accompanied long-forgotten 19th-century great Bob Caruthers as the only pitchers in Major League Baseball history with at least 200 wins and fewer than 100 losses. Now Caruthers once again stands alone in that club.*

*Albert Spalding, the man who co-founded the famous sporting-goods company and the great-great-grandfather of the obnoxious twerp from Caddyshack, registered an off-the-scale career pitching record of 253-65; however, the vast majority of his hurling occurred in the National Association, an embryonic 1870s league recognized neither by Major League Baseball nor the Baseball Hall of Fame as a true major league because of the primitive state of play and rules (e.g., players often played in overalls and workboots, a strikeout was a triple, base-stealing frequently resulted in a hanging, etc). Ironically, Spalding was inducted into the Hall of Fame as an executive/pioneer, both for his paramount role in organizing and promoting baseball to new heights of popularity, as well as inventing the position of first-base coach, which provided slews of washed-up ballplayers with high-paying jobs that required no effort beyond standing.

"Parisian Bob," as Caruthers was known (ostensibly because he once conducted contract negotiations via telegram from Paris, but more likely because of his collection of rare French medals of bravery—so rare, in fact, that he never actually found any), racked up a 218-99 career record in which he twice won 40 games in a season and led the American Association three times in winning percentage. Although he possesses the fourth-highest official winning percentage in history (.688), Caruthers is not a member of the Hall of Fame; this may result from confusion over the current rule that, to be eligible, a player must play at least parts of 10 seasons—Caruthers only pitched for nine, from 1884 to 1892; however, he did play 14 games as an outfielder in 1893, which makes him an eligible candidate. Even so, some Veterans Committee members refuse to vote for Caruthers because they believe that he's been snubbing Major League Baseball since his death in 1911 ("The guy doesn't respect the game!" one Veterans Committee member huffed in 2005 after a letter to Caruthers' last known address went unanswered).

As dominant a hurler as was Caruthers, he actually played more games as a position player. Caruthers twice hit well over .300, and he led the American Association in on-base percentage and OPS in 1886, a year in which he propelled his St. Louis Browns to the "world" championship.† Browns owner Chris von der Ahe called Caruthers "my club's best player...and the only one of those stockinged reprobates who pronounces my name correctly!"

†Interestingly, "Parisian Bob" received his nickname the same year that France gifted the Statue of Liberty to the United States, and many St. Louisans, jealous of haughty New York and giddy from their Browns' recent championship victory over the Chicago White Stockings, proclaimed the popular Parisian Bob as their gift from France, forcing Caruthers to stand on the banks of the Mississippi, holding a torch, on the very day that the Statue of Liberty was being dedicated in New York Harbor. A mere 5-foot-seven, the diminutive Caruthers could offer a better life to no one, as not even the tired, the poor, or anyone part of a huddle mass wanted the refuge offered by a pipsqueak, and after four hours with no takers, Caruthers threw off his robe and crown in disgust. When he was sold a year later to the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, Caruthers visited the real Statue of Liberty and kicked it.

After four successful years in Brooklyn, Caruthers returned to the Browns. Sadly, not only was his arm gone, but so was his wallet, which Caruthers had left at a Coney Island hot-dog stand and was, at that very moment, being picked clean by local hoodlums who were about to stuff their bellies on his dime with more frankfurters than Joey Chestnut would 120 years later. Caruthers hung on in the minors for several years, before becoming an umpire in the early days of the American League.‡ He died at age 47, never having replaced his wallet.

‡Notably, Caruthers was the first umpire to toss himself out of a game, when an extra-inning contest between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Beaneaters threatened to make him late for the very first Ford Model A 0.01% APR factory-incentive blowout.

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