Iron Joe McGinnity is Rolling Over in His Grave

Iron Joe McGinnity Helmar Oasis card.

Iron Joe pitched twice today,
His mighty arm kept opponents at bay.
Iron Joe tossed curves today,
Oh Iron Joe, what do you say?

If Iron Joe were here today, what would he say?

In this era of “openers” and five-inning starters, would Joe McGinnity, the strongest of the strong-arm pitchers of a bygone era, even recognize the game of baseball?

In our last full season (2019), the most innings pitched were 223 by Justin Verlander. The leader(s) in complete games were tied with a grand total of three.

Three measly complete games. For Iron Joe that was one week’s work.

Consider this: in each of his first nine seasons in the big leagues, McGinnity tossed at least 300 innings. Twice, he topped 400 innings, and in 1903 when he was 34 years old, Master Mac fired 434 innings and completed 44 of his 48 starts. Seven-inning doubleheaders? Iron Joe would scoff at such a travesty. In August of 1903, McGinnity started and completed both halves of a doubleheader three times!

Iron, indeed.

A rugged man, McGinnity got a late start in the major leagues. He pitched professionally in his early 20s in the 1890s, but a sore arm, marriage, and his own restlessness prompted him to leave the game for three years. In the interim he opened a bar, but baseball was always on his mind.

While he was mixing drinks for his customers, McGinnity came upon an idea after seeing a minor league pitcher in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The pitcher’s name was Bunker Rhines and he threw the ball underhand, in what would later be called a “submarine” delivery. Rhines threw a fastball and a changeup, but McGinnity thought he might be able to throw that way with a twist: using a curveball.

Joe developed a breaking pitch that he released from just above his shoe tops, an underhand delivery that was helped by his natural movement. Throwing that way, McGinnity’s fastball had more movement, and his new breaking ball, which he called “Old Sal,” bit sharp at the end, diving away from the batter. Throwing underhand, Joe could also make the ball rise, which caused problems for batters.

For his era, McGinnity was an innovator. In addition to his underhand curveball, McGinnity kept a black book in which he logged the pitches that worked best on certain batters. He was a thinker, a planner, an astute observer. He could amaze his teammates by reciting the sequence of pitches he threw in games played weeks or years earlier.

McGinnity teamed with Christy Mathewson to form a superb mound force for John McGraw’s Giants in the first decade of the twentieth century. Iron Joe won 28 games as a rookie, and 28 in his second season. He holds the modern record for most wins by a rookie, through two seasons, three seasons, four seasons, five seasons, six seasons, eight seasons, nine seasons, and ten seasons. He won 246 games in only ten seasons and he completed 82 percent of his games. He was 37 years old in 1908 and had already started to slip, so the Giants released him the following February. But Joe wasn’t done with the game: he wanted to own a baseball team. 

McGinnity purchased the Newark team in the Eastern League and installed himself as manager and starting pitcher. He pitched more than 400 innings in each of the next two seasons. When he was 42 he started 42 games, relieved in 16, and pitched 436 innings. He could toss a baseball underhand almost every day and not get a sore arm. 

McGinnity’s dream was to buy a big league team, but the fraternity of owners didn’t want to let a former ballplayer in. He bought and sold several minor league teams and kept pitching. He went 15-12 for Dubuque in the Mississippi Valley League in 1923 when he was 52, also managing his team to the league title. Two years later he made 16 appearances at the age of 54, still nearly scraping the ground with his famous delivery. He later sold his team and took a job with former teammate Wilbert Robinson as pitching coach for Brooklyn. But Iron Joe couldn’t understand why the team had ten pitchers when only four or five would do. He went home before the season ended when his wife passed away. The great Iron Joe McGinnity died less than three years later from cancer. 

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