The Apollo of the Box

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A gifted skater, boxer and musician, his legion of fans in baseball knew him as either “The Apollo of the Box” or “The Count”.  The Sporting News preferred to describe him as an intolerant racist and “a man of the most sordid nature”. A canny promoter in Louisville witnessed the effect his good looks had on women and used him to introduce the revolutionary notion of a Ladies Day at the stadium. In the divorce court, his wife admitted to hitting him with a potato roller only after he had already cut her with a knife and smashed a water jug over her head. For a sober individual who never smoke or drank, Tony Mullane cut quite a dash.

At the age of five, his parents Dennis and Elizabeth brought him away from their native Cork to live in the new world, and eight decades later, his death after illness would be marked by obituaries in the New York Times and the Chicago Daily News . Between 1881 and 1894, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball’s major leagues, winning a total of 285 games, a figure that still ranks him among the top 25 players in that position of all time. Last Thursday, however, marked the 120th anniversary of the day Mullane became the first player to pitch both right and left-handed in the same game, a feat so remarkable that only three others have ever managed it.

Although remembered most for his ambidexterity, his turbulent career teemed with incident. Once he realised how good he was, he began demanding a salary commensurate with his talent. A bold request at a time when players were bound to a team until the team decided otherwise by an oppressive device known as the ‘reserve clause’, the Corkman was the ultimate contract rebel.

After two immense seasons with the St. Louis Browns, he tried to move across town to the St. Louis Maroons for more money. When the Browns’ owner sneakily lured him back by stumping up the cash before then forcibly transferring him to a lesser club, Mullane signed for the Cincinnati Reds instead, and suffered a one year suspension from the game for his temerity.

“The flamboyant Mullane scrambled from club to club in pursuit of higher pay, but clearly he was worth it,” writes William Curran, in Strikeout: A celebration of the art of pitching. “He should easily have reached 300 career wins had the American Association not suspended him at the height of his career for jumping his contract. All the same, The Count’s frequent moves fetched him salaries many times what a good position player commanded in that era. It is suspected that in his best years Tony received under-the-table bonuses as well. Mullane’s career illustrates that, even as early as the 1880s, a proven winner could almost write his own contract although few other hurlers seemed bold enough to press their advantage.”

At one point, Mullane was drawing down $5,000 a year, more than six times the average wage in the sport. He was worth every penny. Apart from being the most formidable pitcher of the age – his physical strength befitting somebody who spent his teenage years fighting in the bareknuckle boxing rings of Pennsylvania – he could fill in competently at every other position on the field. If that was a truly noteworthy gift in a game where players specialise in one position from an early age, Mullane was a highly unpopular figure among contemporaries. Despite lavish earnings, his lust for more caused him to sit out another half a season late in his career as a protest against league-wide pay cuts. Then there was the matter of his unreconstructed racism.

“Moses Fleetwood Walker was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking for the signals,” wrote Mullane of Walker, his former team-mate with the Toledo Blue Stockings. “One day he signalled me for a curve ball and I shot a fast ball at him. He caught it and walked down to me. He said: ‘I’ll catch you without signals but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.’ And all the rest of the season he caught me and caught anything I threw. I pitched without him knowing what was coming.”

Once his pitching power faded, Mullane worked a couple of seasons as a professional baseball umpire before serving as a Chicago policeman until retiring at the age of 65. Even though his obituaries twenty years later contained no mention of his prejudices, they hurt him later. Baseball’s Veterans Committee placed him on a list of 200 former players who were considered for entry to the sport’s distinguished Hall of Fame back in 2002. His gaudy career statistics made him look like a posthumous shoe-in but the rules expressly state that voters must consider a person’s character and integrity as much as their playing ability.

And once they did that, he had no chance.
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