By In Baseball

The Worst Pitcher in the Hall

Rube Marquard is the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame. I was going to say “probably the worst” or “arguably the worst” but let’s be honest: It’s a lot more than probable. And while “arguably” casts a wide net — anything, arguably, is arguable — there are not many good arguments that another pitcher is the worst in the Hall. I suppose you could argue one of the relievers — Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers — were less valuable because of their roles, and I guess you could try to fight for Jesse Haines or Catfish Hunter as being slightly worse than Marquard. But they all seem like losing arguments to me.

Rube Marquard is the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame.

And this leads to the question: How did Rube Marquard get into the Hall of Fame? How did Marquard get elected when Larry French didn’t, when Wilbur Cooper didn’t, when Larry Jackson didn’t, when Dolf Luque didn’t, when Claude Osteen and Milt Pappas and Curt Simmons and Charlie Root and Dutch Leonard and Jim Perry didn’t (these, incidentally, are the 10 players listed as most similar to Rube Marquard, and every one of them has more Wins Above Replacement than Marquard). None of those players came CLOSE to get elected.

The answer, I think, comes down to one of those topics that fascinate us here: Narrative.

The answer, I think, comes down to the simple fact that Rube Marquard could tell one helluva story.

* * *

Here’s one of those Marquard stories, one that he told often in his long life. Richard Marquard may have been born Richard LeMarquis — like with almost every Marquard story there seem to be different opinions — but it is certain that his father, Fred, was the chief engineer for the city of Cleveland in the late 1800s. Back then, Cleveland was one of the biggest and most important cities in America, the birthplace of Standard Oil. The city was was growing so fast than it went from being the 11th largest city in the 1880 census to fifth in 1920, behind only New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Which is to say that Fred Marquard was an important man doing important work, and he had no time and no use for pointless activities like baseball. But, much to his fury, baseball was the only thing that seemed to interest his son Richard. The young Marquard was unnaturally tall and gangly (everyone in his family was tall; his sister would grow to 6-foot-2), and it seems that from a young age he could throw a baseball hard. Richard would recall fierce arguments with his father.

This exchange, from Lawrence Ritter’s classic and joyous, “The Glory of Their Times,” is representative of how Rube Marquard remembered these arguments:

“How can you make a living as a ballplayer? I don’t understand why a grown man would wear those funny-looking suits in the first place.”

“Well,” I’d answer. “you see policemen with uniforms on, and other people like that. They change after they’re through working. It’s the same way with ballplayers.”

“Ha! Do ballplayers get paid!”

“Yes they get paid.”

“I don’t believe it!”

You will notice the rhythmic pitter-patter of the father-son argument in Marquard’s retelling — it almost sounds like a vaudeville routine, doesn’t it? Well, yes, it does, and it makes perfect sense because Marquard was a Vaudeville performer. He was actually quite famous for a time because of his work on the stage — he had a popular Broadway show (and a scandalous affair) with the theatrical star Blossom Seeley — more on that in a little bit.

Marquard wanted to be a big league baseball player with a white-hot ambition that embarrassed his father. When Marquard was 19 years old, he sneaked out of the house and rode the trains like a hobo to a baseball tryout in Iowa. In his retelling, he rode the trains for five days, he was just 16 or 17, he endured an Oliver Twist like existence and was alternately saved and cheated by various Dickensian characters. Marquard’s memory of his first baseball tryout, which is included in Glory of Their Times and various other places, is delightful and almost entirely untrue.

Then, what you find again and again as you look back at the way sports (and news) were covered and consumed in those days — truth was never the point. Entertainment was the point. Escape was the point. You have heard the line from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:”

“You’re not going to use the story?” the U.S. Senator, Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart) asked.

“No sir,” said the newspaperman Maxwell Scott said. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The games people played swirled around legend in those days, and nobody embraced that any more than Richard Marquard. In 1907, he left home to play ball. He was 20 years old And as he remembered, the final argument with father escalated into something more. Fred Marquard told his son that he never wanted to see him again.

“You don’t mean that Dad,” Richard said.

“Yes I do.”

“Well, I’m going,” the son said. “And someday you’ll be proud of me.”

* * *

Marquard was a brilliant minor league pitcher — winning 23 games in Canton in 1907 and then 28 for Indianapolis the next year. He threw hard and at some point people started calling him “Rube” not because he was one — he was not in the least — because his hot pitching and lefty form resembled Rube Waddell, one of the great pitchers of the day.

In 1908 season, major league teams started showing interest. In the middle of that year, John McGraw’s New York Giants paid the team an unprecedented $11,000 for him. The price was so gaudy and staggering that it was basically included in every story about Marquard for the next five years. After the signing, minor league promoters in Indianapolis and around the country began hawking him as the $11,000 Beauty and the $11,000 Peach. Here are a few bits of hype included in the Indianapolis Sun before he pitched:

“Rube Marquard has a greater curveball than Christie Mathewson.”

“Marquard has a faster fast ball than Amos Rusie, when he was at his best.”

“Rube Marquard is a bigger Rube than Rube Waddell or Rube Vickers.”

Rube Vickers was a tall righty from Canada, appeared on the scene in 1908 for Philadelphia and then more or less disappeared. Just in case you are curious.

We talk about living in an age of hype NOW but, realistically, we don’t have hype. We have repetition. We don’t do hype like they did in the early part of the 20th Century. Promoters would just make up anything that came to mind in order to get people to come to the ballpark or the boxing match or the theater. Gentile comics became Jewish, Jewish athletes became Irish, Irish athletes became Italians, remarkable tales of players’ backgrounds emerged just before they came to town. The whole sports and entertainment world was a lot like pro wrestling or reality television. Rube Marquard was particularly adept at telling a story.

He was a good pitcher. After making national news in his Giants’ debut (he got hit, prompting newspapers to call him the “$11,000 Lemon” for a while) and plodding along unhappily for a couple of years, Marquard emerged in 1911, going 24-7 with a league-leading 237 strikeouts.

The next year, he had what might be his best season — he won 26 games including a record 19 in a row. And in 1913, he won 23 games and was fourth in the league in strikeouts. Over those three years, Marquard really was good. He was probably one of the seven or eight best pitchers in baseball. He wasn’t Walter Johnson or Ed Walsh or Christy Mathewson or Grover Cleveland Alexander, but he was in the next group. If he had maintained that level for even a few more years, his Hall of Fame case would have been interesting. But, in truth, he did not. He had a few highlights the next three years (he threw his only no-hitter) but generally collapsed as a pitcher. He was busy doing other things.

He reinvigorated his career after being traded to Brooklyn — Marquard, in entertaining style, would tell of how he engineered his own trade by calling Brooklyn management himself — and he was very good in a more limited role in 1916. After that, though, he went 83-93 with a 98 ERA+.

But these are what he did on the field. Nothing Marquard did on the field — save perhaps his 19-game winning streak of 1913 — sparks images of the Hall of Fame.

Off the field, though, Marquard was hugely famous. It’s hard to come up with a modern equivalent — it was like he had a little bit of Charles Barkley, a little bit of Peyton Manning, a little bit of Tiger Woods, a little bit of Bob Uecker. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column. He endorsed products. He was one of the most popular interviews on the subject of baseball.

And, perhaps most of all, he danced and sang on Broadway. Many athletes did — John McGraw and Christy Mathewson had their own dalliance with the theater — but it was something more with Marquard. And the big reason was Blossom Seeley. The details are in the fun book Ragtime Romance by Noel Hynd.

It seems the order of event went something like this:

— Marquard had his first good season, cashing in on some of the expectations that had hounded him since he was purchased for $11,000.

— Marquard appeared in the theater like many athletes did at the time. He got OK reviews.

— Vaudevillian Joe Kane began looking for an athlete to pair in a show with his talented wife, Blossom Seeley, who was sometimes called “The Queen of Syncopation” (thus proving even in the Golden Age of nicknames, they missed a few).

— Marquard appeared in a short silent film subtly called, “Rube Marquard Wins” where Marquard punches out a gambler who dares suggest he throw a game then gets kidnapped by said gamblers, then is saved by his best girl (who alerts the building super) and wins the game!*

*This is a better plot than Trouble with the Curve.

— Joe Kane decides that Marquard is just the guy to star with his wife in a vaudeville show. This was a decision he would regret immediately and for the rest of his life. Marquard may have been called “Rube” but all indications are that he was quite the man about town. According to Hynd, he would not take his eyes off Seeley during their first meeting. Kane apparently didn’t quite catch this at first and put together the “King of the Diamond” with the “Queen of Ragtime” (or Syncopation).

— Seeley began that show by singing the “Marquard Glide” which included the following couplet:

He’s king of the pitcher’s box./Stood up through all the knocks.

Poetry. Then Marquard would sing a song called “Baseball.” Then the two danced — she in a white gown, he in top hat and tails. “Rube brought down the house!” roared Billboard.

Kane, it turns out, didn’t take too long to grow suspicious and violent. Seeley would say that almost immediately after he put the two together, he suspected that they were cheating on him. She would allege that he beat her repeatedly, threatened to kill her and then he showed up in public with a pistol and ranted Marquard had stolen his wife. Seeley soon got a restraining order and hired a new manager — a guy named Rube Marquard. Of course, Kane’s actions are indefensible. But he was right. They were cheating on him. And it was in all the papers.

Hynd says the only story that got as much ink in 1912 was when president William Howard Taft got stuck in a bathtub.

* * *

There were numerous entertaining developments in the Kane-Seeley-Marquard drama that would play well in the movie version — including one scene where he caught them in a hotel room. Marquard and Seeley fled down the fire escape stairs. Warrants were sworn out for their arrests (for illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes).

In time, Kane sued for divorce, Marquard threatened to quit baseball so they could perform together full-time (it turns out he was bluffing for a better contract), the two got married, they had a son six months later, it was all a very big deal. And it was all fleeting. Marquard and Seeley were soon divorced and went on with their own lives.

Here is how Marquard summed up the whole thing in “Glory of Their Times.”

I was in vaudeville for three years, Blossom Seeley and I. That’s when she was my wife. It didn’t work out, though. I asked her to quit the stage. I told her I could give her everything she wanted.

“No,” she said, “show business is show business.”

“Well,” I said, “baseball is mine.” So we separated.

So, yes, it seems Marquard could be concise when the situation called for it.

As a pitcher, Marquard won 201 games, lost 177, had a career 103 ERA+ — a fine career. But nobody sees that as a Hall of Fame career now, and in truth nobody seemed to think it was a Hall of Fame career then either. He got 28 total votes in four Hall of Fame elections before World War II, back when his fame still resonated, and then he lingered on the ballot until 1955 when he got 13.9% of the vote in his final year, seemingly the final tribute to a fascinating baseball life.

And then, two things happened.

The first has been mentioned throughout this piece — Larry Ritter wrote the wonderful and transformative bestseller “The Glory of their Times.” The book was a sensation. And Rube Marquard was the star. His was the first interview in the book, and it was in many ways the most entertaining. Ritter let the athletes tell their own stories (unencumbered by things like facts) and Marquard was a genius at telling his. The Marquard/Ritter essay is an absolute classic — funny, surprising and moving. The story about Rube Marquard’s father I told at the beginning is spread throughout the essay, and it concludes with a touching reunion of father and son.

“Are you proud of your son?” they asked him (they being the reporters)

“I certainly am,” Dad said. “Why shouldn’t I be? He’s a great baseball player, isn’t he?”

Perfect. Absolutely perfect. True? Not sure about that. But perfect. It is impossible to read that Marquard essay and not love the guy. It’s impossible to read that Marquard essay and not ask yourself, ‘Hey, shouldn’t this guy be in the Hall of Fame?”

After all, what is a Hall of Fame? People argue about it all the time. Is it for the very best players as calculated with the best means available? Is it for the most famous players who, in their own way, tell the story of baseball? Is it for the characters who endure in memory? Is it for the brilliant players whose gifts and performances were too subtle to be appreciated in their own time? Is it for the players who made people fall in love with the game? Is it for the players who changed the game for the better? Is it for the players who, through some combination of skill and luck, found themselves creating the game’s biggest moments?

Is it all these things? Is it none of them?

The second thing that happened is that the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, led by Frankie Frisch, was very much open for business. The Frisch committee was able to get 21 people into the Hall of Fame in just six years, and many of them — including Marquard — had only moderate careers that happened to overlap with Frisch’s. Well, Frankie Frisch never did hide his belief that the best baseball was played in his time.

Fittingly, it was Lawrence Ritter himself who sent word of the Hall of Fame election to Marquard — he was on a cruse at the time. Larry Mansch in his book “Rube Marquard: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hall of Famer” included a letter from Marquard to Ritter. A section:

Yesterday evening, a few hours after you called, everybody was dancing and having a good time and suddenly the Captain of the ship stopped the music and said he wanted to make an important announcement. He said they had a very prominent man on board who had just been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His name is Rube Marquard and he is right here dancing with his wife.

Well, all hell broke loose, people yelling and clapping, and the band played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” I was so happy …

The perfect ending. Well, of course it is.

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45 Responses to The Worst Pitcher in the Hall

  1. Jesse says:

    Yeah, it’s probably time for my annual reading of The Glory of their Times. Joe, you should write The Rube Marquard Story screenplay.

  2. Edward says:

    I loved that book. I need to go back to it. The Smoky Joe Wood chapter was my favorite. I read that one a couple of times.

  3. MCD says:

    For those that you have read “The Glory of their Times” and liked it, please do yourself a favor and check out the audiobook version.

    As opposed to a mere reading of the text, it has the actual conversations that Ritter recorded between the players and himself. This means you hear the actual voices of Marquard, Wood, et tal.

  4. Stephen says:

    Wonderful piece of writing. Thank you so much!

  5. Ian says:

    I’m honestly surprised that there was no mention of Jack Morris in this article.

  6. Jake Bucsko says:

    Wait, why would Kane threaten to kill her in public?

  7. Person Commenting says:

    well, somebody’s gotta be

  8. Guest says:

    Beware an errant Waddell on a cruise.

  9. Tim says:

    What about Candy Cummings?

    • Tim says:

      Actually, that comment was made because all I remembered was that Cummings’ only basis for being in the HOF is the likely fiction that he invented the curveball. Looking at the numbers on Cummings, he probably would lose the “worst” competition to Marquard, even if the basis for his election is more absurd.

  10. Spencer says:

    As usual great piece Joe!

    One minor quibble.

    “Fittingly, it was Lawrence Ritter himself who sent word of the Hall of Fame election to Waddell”

    I think wrote Waddell when you meant Marquard. Might confuse some.

  11. tosmolskis says:

    A minor correction — which actually adds to the point of your story – Taft never got stuck in a bathtub. That’s an urban myth. The only thing approaching a primary source that mentions this alleged incident is Ike Hoover’s “42 Years in the White House”. Hoover was the chief butler at the White House during Taft’s administration, and the book came out about 20 years after the alleged incident. CNN actually investigated the question and was unable to find a single contemporaneous newspaper article on the subject. Here’s a link:

  12. CesarTovar says:

    “Promoters would just make up anything that came to mind in order to get people to come to the ballpark or the boxing match or the theater.” Kinda what republicans do these days in the political arena!

  13. Brent says:

    While Marquard’s election is bad, at least it was by a flawed Veteran’s Committee. To me, Hunter’s as a 1st ballot HOFer by the BBWAA is far more appalling, especially since the HOF has taken pains to retool the Veteran selection process so bad selections are not as likely to happen anymore but have allowed the BBWAA to continue on, business as usual.

    • buddaley says:

      If you want to say that in hindsight the selection of Hunter was mistaken, I think a strong argument exists. But in 1986-7 there was nothing appalling about his election. Aside from his wonderful nickname, he had many of the attributes accepted as worthy at the time: 5 consecutive 20 win seasons plus two more of 18 and 17 sandwiching them, 8 All-Star selections, a Cy Young award and 3 more seasons when he was in contention for one, 9 post-season victories, a perfect game and various other awards and achievements. Noted particularly for pinpoint control, for example.

      He does not have the black ink, gray ink or Hall of Fame Standards that ordinarily gets someone into the Hall, but he clears the monitor handily and isn’t that far back on the other 3 criteria. That may not qualify him, but it does make the election understandable.

      In any case, you can’t expect the committee in 1986-7 to consider stats or qualities that didn’t even exist-or were barely known- at the time. And while I am with Brian Kenny in wanting to “kill the win”, that does not mean it is a meaningless stat. Bill James, in fact, on Kenny’s show said it did have some value (although he did not elaborate), and I think that over the long haul, it suggests that a pitcher had some qualities that permitted him to be credited with lots of wins even if the notion itself is a fiction.

      It is interesting to note that at BB-Ref, among Hunter’s top ten most similar pitchers is Drysdale, a HOF pitcher (although one might quarrel with that selection also) and in most similar by age, at 20 it is King Felix, at 22 and 24 it is Drysdale, and from 27-32 it is also Drysdale with Don Sutton being closest at age 33. His #5 closest overall is Kevin Brown, a Hall oversight, and at #10 it is Rick Reuschel, another pitcher often considered unfairly snubbed. His #1 similarity score is to Tiant and others on the list are Hershiser and Billy Pierce, not bad company.

      • Richard says:

        I agree. Jim Hunter does belong in the HoF. If he weren’t in, we’d probably be writing essays about how he *should* be in. There’s also the significance of his being the first big-ticket free agent, which ought to count for something.

  14. Brent says:

    Correct, Catfish got into the HOF in his third year of elgibility, which is not quite as egregious, but still, that the BBWAA elected him at all is awful

  15. Herb Pennock. Very mediocre career except for a handful of years in the middle.

    Who is the worst non-pitcher? I vote for Lloyd Waner or High Pockets Kelly.

  16. mark says:

    So, the point is that Larry French, Wilbur Cooper, Larry Jackson, Dolf Luque, Claude Osteen, Milt Pappas, Curt Simmons, Charlie Root, Dutch Leonard and Jim Perry should all be in the Hall of Fame? 😉

  17. A great piece of writing, all to get to the conclusion that most of us knew from the first sentence – Marquard got in because of Frankie Frisch.

  18. tombando says:

    Marquard being in the hall is the equivalent of Blind Faith and Hank Ballard making the Rock Hall. Frisch=Jann Wenner. Search your feelings.

    • Paul says:

      I’ll take ’em both over Hall & Oattes, Kiss, and Cat Stevens, just three of the great artists honored this year alone. Ballard especially was a highly influential R&B star in the 50’s with 21 chart hits during rock’s formative years. Dude was making rock & roll before anyone had a name for it. One acolyte was James Brown, who later produced the immortal Ballard hit “How You Gonna Get Respect When You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet?”

    • Pat says:

      I can think of at least one difference between Marquard making the baseball Hall and Blind Faith making the rock one. Clapton’s in three times (Yardbirds, Cream, and solo) and Steve Winwood is in with Traffic. But Blind Faith is not in the Hall.

  19. Should Rube Marquard have gotten in to the Hall of Fame, even though his primary importance was that he was more of a personality and story-teller and a link to a bygone era of baseball than he was a great player (though he was indeed a fine one)?

    Some years ago, the Hall had an opportunity to induct Buck O’Neil, who is in some ways the Negro Leagues version of Rube Marquard. In its epic sense self-importance, the Hall decided that O’Neil didn’t merit the honor. It was one of the worst decisions they ever made.

  20. Cliff Blau says:

    You should have made it worst starting pitcher, since clearly any starting pitcher is better than any relief pitcher. If relief pitchers were any good, they’d be starting, same as players at any other position.

  21. invitro says:

    “We talk about living in an age of hype NOW but, realistically, we don’t have hype. We have repetition. We don’t do hype like they did in the early part of the 20th Century. Promoters would just make up anything that came to mind in order to get people to come to the ballpark or the boxing match or the theater.”

    Yes, yes, good point, although I might write “Promoters and reporters”.

    “The whole sports and entertainment world was a lot like pro wrestling or reality television.”

    So every baseball game was a setup, and not reported except in niche publications? No, no, this is a bad analogy. I’d say the sports/entertainment world was like internet political reporting.

  22. TWolf says:

    It seems like Rube Marquard was elected to the Hall of Fame for the same reason that Dizzy Dean was. He was a “character” who had a few good or great years.

    One thing I’d like to know is how much statistical information did pre-1969 HOF voters have access to. That was the year that the McMillan Encyclopedia of Baseball was released. It was the first “modern” baseball encyclopedia with a comprehensive statistical breakdown for almost every player who had played MLB baseball up to that time. My guess is that before that time voters voted based on their image of the players rather than on serious consideration of
    their performance over a long span of time. I doubt the voters had easy access to most
    statistics other than lifetime batting average and pitcher wins.

    • David Cohen says:

      From a statistical standpoint, Dizzy Dean might not belong but he sure looks a lot better than Marquard – WAR has him among the top 3 pitchers in the National League six years in a row. WAR has Marquard among the top 3 pitchers in his league NEVER. Take that with a grain of salt, of course, but still I have to think Dean was a better pitcher in his era than Marquard in his.

      • tayloraj42 says:

        I don’t think there’s much of a comparison; Dean was absolutely a lot better. Besides smoking Rube in bWAR (44.9 to 31.9) despite having a much shorter career, Dean was a truly great pitcher for six years; his Black Ink score is actually above-average for a Hall of Fame pitcher, whereas Rube’s is well below. Both pitched for very good teams in their primes, so I don’t think there’s much of an advantage either way there. Dean is definitely one of the weaker pitchers in the Hall as far as career value goes, but he’s miles ahead of Marquard.

        • Patrick Bohn says:

          Dean was undoubtedly a better pitcher, we can tell that much from his pre-injury peak. But his career was easily much worse. Dean had three seasons at the start and end of his career where he played three games and threw a combined 13 innings. Were it not for those three years, he wouldn’t even qualify for the Hall.

          He basically had a 6-7 year career.

          • tayloraj42 says:

            He may have only had 6 real seasons, but at least he made ’em count; every year he pitched any significant number of innings he was very, very good. Marquard had 6-7 seasons where he was a good pitcher and several where he was truly lousy. In his seven ‘good’ season (which I see as 1911-13, 1916, 1917, 1921 and 1923, although he was decent in a few others) he went 133-74, almost exactly Dizzy’s winning percentage, which an ERA+ a shade worse than Dean’s. Outside of those seven seaons, he went 68-103. So although Rube had a significantly longer career, that really doesn’t add much to his career value…a lot of the time he wasn’t doing much to help his teams win and in a few truly terrible seasons (1915, 1922) was actively dragging his team away from victory. You’re absolutely free to disagree with me on this, but I don’t see the added longevity of his career doing much to prove he had a better career than the Diz.

        • Patrick Bohn says:


          I think there’s a distinct difference between being the worst pitcher in the Hall and having the worst career.

          As great as he was, I was really shocked at how lucky Dean was to even *qualify* for the Hall. He started the last game of the 1930 season, pitched one inning in 1941, and had an appearance in 1947 as a blatant publicity stunt.

  23. Carlton Howard III says:

    Joe! Nice. How about a column on one of my favorite players?

    Rube Waddell?

    • Jesse K. says:

      Yes! Waddell is one of my favorites, too. Six straight strikeout titles, 21st all time in ERA+, and a brilliant (if relatively short) 4-year peak (1902-05) in which he averaged 9.5 WAR per season–better than Koufax’s 1963-66 (9.1 average). And the pitching isn’t even the main reason he’s so appealing! His stats are remarkable considering he was, by many accounts, just a big goofball having fun. As Wahoo Sam Crawford said in Ritter’s book, “How good he’d have been if he’d taken baseball seriously is hard to imagine.”

  24. rucksack says:

    “anything, arguably, is arguable”

    Early nominee for quote of the year?

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