The Legend of Firpo Marberry
Here’s my guess — many of you (certainly not all, but perhaps most) woke up this morning thinking: “Sure hoping to see a good Firpo Marberry essay today.”
Well, you’re in luck.
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And more than occasionally, you will get bizarre essays like this one about Firpo Marberry. It’s just what we do here.
One hundred years ago in August, the Washington Senators were losing 9-7 to the Chicago White Sox in the eighth inning, and manager Bucky Harris pinch-hit for his fourth pitcher. He needed a pitcher for the ninth, so he turned to a 6-foot-1 bull of a man whom the Washington Evening Star, for some reason, called Oliphant Haggard Marberry. He gave up two hits — both to future Hall of Famers, Ray Schalk and Harry Hooper — and a run.
Nobody at that moment knew that Mayberry would foreshadow a complete reimagining of the game of baseball.
His name was not Oliphant Haggard Marberry. It was Frederick, Fred for short, but people mostly called him Firpo. He was given the nickname because of his resemblance — both in looks and demeanor — to Argentinian boxer Luis Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, who once knocked Jack Dempsey clear through the ropes. Fred didn’t care for the name much, but it stuck anyway, because of the way he stomped around the mound between pitches.
Marberry, in those early days, had one pitch, a blazing fastball, and he threw it as hard as he could every time. We call it “max effort” now, but back then it was unusual enough that it gave Bucky Harris an idea. Harris was the team’s second baseman, and in 1924 he became the manager as well.
He decided to turn Firpo Marberry into a full-time reliever.
It wasn’t a completely new idea; like most baseball ideas, it probably begins with Branch Rickey. In 1921, Rickey was manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he decided to turn a 30-year-old journeyman named Lou North into a full-time reliever. North finished 27 games in 1921 and the next year led the league with 43 relief appearances.
The Senators picked up on this in 1923, when they made an old spitballer named Allen Russell into a relief specialist. Russell made 47 relief appearances that year. But the Senators weren’t really any good, and few people noticed.
But in 1924, they could not help but notice when Harris began using Marberry as a reliever. In mid-August, the Senators — for the first time in their history — were actually contending for the pennant. They were in third place, three games back, on Aug. 18, when they played the second-place Detroit Tigers. In the third inning, the Tigers took a 3-0 lead.
Harris called for Marberry out of the pen. He pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings, and the Senators came back to win.
Three days later, the Senators led the White Sox 2-0 behind the dominant pitching of Walter Johnson. Harris called for Marberry, who pitched two innings and picked up the save, even if nobody called it a save back then.
The next week, Marberry pitched three times in relief against the league-leading Yankees and picked up two saves and a victory. And in September, he pitched in 12 games, going 3-1 with three saves, and the Senators miraculously won the pennant.
People didn’t talk too much about Marberry’s role in the miracle. Most of the credit went to Walter Johnson, who had won the pitcher’s triple crown, and hitters like Goose Goslin (who hit .344 and drove in 129 runs) and Sam Rice (.334 with 106 runs).
But you could certainly argue that the Senators’ improvement from also-ran to pennant winner was largely tied to their innovative use of Firpo Marberry. And it continued into the World Series. Marberry pitched four times in the Series.
In Game 2, he was brought in with two outs in ninth and the go-ahead run at second base. He struck out future Hall of Famer Travis Jackson to end the threat.
He started Game 3, but lasted only three innings.
In Game 4, he was brought in with one out in the eighth and the Senators up by five runs — he struggled but brought home the victory.
And in Game 7, he was brought into the game in the top of the sixth and was let down by his defense, who gave up runs on back-to-back errors. But he stiffened at that point, and the Senators came back to win it all.
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Harris liked what he had discovered with Marberry, and doubled down in 1925. That Marberry season was unlike anything in baseball history up to that point. He made 55 appearances, none of them as a starter, and he pitched only 93 1/3 innings. Harris and Marberry had basically invented the modern closer, sixty-some years before Tony La Russa.
On April 25, Harris called for Marberry with the bases loaded in the eighth.
Two days later, he brought in Marberry in the eighth with the Senators trailing 1-0.
On May 2, he went to Marberry in the ninth with Washington up 3-2 (Marberry blew that one).
And so it went, he kept going to Marberry in key situations. People didn’t really get exactly what Harris was doing. On June 17 against the Browns, in a one-run game, he called for Marberry to get the final out.
“The stands were divided as to the wisdom of the move,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “But decided that all was well when Marberry retired [Baby Doll] Jacobson.”
This would become a regular occurrence — in 1925, Marberry would set a big-league record by making six appearances in which he faced only one batter.
Once again, the Senators won the pennant. And once again, people looked elsewhere to hand out the credit — 35-year-old pitcher Stan Coveleski had come over from Cleveland, and he won 20 games and led the league in ERA, and he was rightly celebrated.
Still, people might have noticed that Firpo Marberry was a weapon unlike any other in baseball. In Game 3 of the World Series against Pittsburgh, Harris brought in Marberry in the eighth inning to protect a 4-3 lead. Marberry delivered the save, but for some reason Harris forgot about him at that point. The Senators lost Games 6 and 7 despite leading early in both … and Marberry didn’t pitch.
This was particularly egregious in Game 7, when the Senators led 6-4 going into the seventh, and led 7-6 going into the eighth, but let a clearly exhausted Walter Johnson lose the lead both times. Could you imagine the Twitter racket that would have caused? It seems even Bucky Harris did not understand what he had uncovered.
In 1926, Firpo Marberry set a big-league record with 22 saves, though, as mentioned, saves were not a thing yet. He pitched in 64 games that year.
That was his last year as a full-time reliever.
What fascinates me is this question: Why didn’t Firpo Marberry start the trend of full-time relievers? He was, in so many ways, the Goose Gossage or Aroldis Chapman of his time — an intimidating fireballer who would come into games to save the day. The strategy obviously worked; the Senators won back-to-back pennants.
Why would it be decades before teams would start using full-time relievers such as Jim Konstanty and Turk Farrell and the like. Why would it take a half-century before managers like Sparky Anderson and La Russa and Joe Torre and so many others (Ned Yost?) rewrote pitching strategies?
I think it comes down to two things: imagination and embarrassment.
I talked a bit about Dick Fosbury the other day — and thank you to brilliant reader Kevin for pointing me to his pioneering counterpart Debbie Brill — and I think what makes their stories so cool is that they were able to look beyond what everybody else saw. There was one way to jump over a bar, and it was reasonable and logical and there didn’t seem any reason to mess with it. They messed with it.
But they didn’t just mess with it. They actually took it to the track, perfected the Fosbury Flop and Brill Bend, risked failure and embarrassment and insults.
I just rewatched this great “Parks and Recreation” bowling episode — where Tom bowls the way children do, by holding the ball with two hands and swinging it under the legs and rolling it forward. “For God’s sake, Tom, people can see you!” Ron Swanson yells. But then he watches in horror as Tom rolls a strike … and then another strike and then another.
At the end of the episode, Ron comes back to the bowling alley wearing sunglasses so he can’t be recognized and asks to be put in the far corner. He then bowls child-style … and throws a perfect game. When the alley owner asks for his name so he can put it up on the wall, Ron says in full red-faced embarrassment: “I was never here.”
I think that’s about right. I think that’s why NBA players who can’t make free throws won’t shoot underhanded. I think that’s why MLB players who couldn’t beat the shift wouldn’t bunt. And I think that’s why it took so long after Firpo Marberry for teams to go to full-time relief pitchers. In those days, it was embarrassing to be a reliever. It was embarrassing to get pulled for a reliever. It was embarrassing to have anything to do with relief pitching. Games were meant to be completed by starters.
You cannot overestimate the power of embarrassment, I think. When it was embarrassing for pitchers to get pulled, they completed a lot more games. When it was embarrassing for hitters to strike out 100 times in a season, they didn’t strike out 100 times in a season. And when it was embarrassing to be a full-time relief pitcher, the job basically did not exist, even though it clearly had strategic merit.
Firpo Marberry himself did not like being a relief pitcher. He did lead the league in retroactive saves three times after 1926, but he was as much a starter as a reliever in those days, and he much preferred starting. “Relief pitching is a job for a young pitcher,” he said of his early salad days. “His arm can stand the wear and tear … I feel that I have earned the right to a change.”
Marberry developed a couple of secondary pitches to go along with that big fastball, and in 1929 he won 19 games, led the league in WHIP and finished second to Lefty Grove in ERA. In 1933, pitching for Detroit, he again led the league in WHIP, while serving almost exclusively as a starter. Marberry was probably the first of his kind, the first modern relief pitcher in baseball, the trailblazer who eventually led to the Goose Gossage and Mariano Rivera and Emmanuel Clase.
But he didn’t want it. He just wanted to be a starter like the rest of the guys.
Within the same vein of the relief pitcher and the underhanded free throw is the panenka. That’s how soccer players refer to a penalty kick taken right down the middle. It’s not often done, because the offensive player is worried that if they kick it down the middle and the ball is stopped that they’ll be humiliated. But goalkeepers don’t often defend against it because if they stand in the middle to stop the shot and the shot goes to one side they’ll be humiliated.
And so it goes.
Apropos of nothing except the boxer Luis Firpo ... Back in the mid-1980s, when was a young sportswriter, we were tracking a Mike Tyson fight via AP updates on the wire, trying to get it into the next day's paper on deadline. It wasn't being televised and there was no internet. We were dependent on the AP providing updates, and it was agonizingly slow. So slow that one colleague suggested the next update would read: "Dempsey has climbed back into the ring and is battering Firpo." It was so funny and so evocative that this sentence has remained intact in my mind for close to 40 years now.