September 20, 2021

A Hurler Who Hit Better Than The Rest

February 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

A look at Louisville Colonels’ pitcher Guy Hecker’s 1886 season, when he became the first and only pitcher ever to lead a major league in batting.

In the winter of 1885, it looked like a good bet that Guy Hecker would not be suiting up in a Louisville Colonel uniform for the 1886 season, a franchise in which he had played for since 1882, when former semi-pro teammate and friend Tony Mullane got him a spot when the Louisville club. Only two seasons before in ’84, Hecker had pitched one of the best single-seasons in American Association history. He pitched in 75 games and led the league with a ridiculous 670 innings pitched, over 100 more then Mullane, who was now playing with Toledo. He finished the season with a 52-20 record and a 1.80 ERA, leading the league in the wins and ERA departments. Despite his efforts, the Colonels finished in third place, 7.5 games behind pennant-winning New York.

However, in the first month of the 1885 campaign, Hecker began to complain of soreness in his arm. He pitched through the pain and despite some lapses, Hecker still posted 30 wins that season with a 2.17 ERA. Still, Louisville management was concerned enough with Hecker’s arm that late in the season, they purchased young left-hander Tom Ramsey from Chattanooga in the case that Guy could no longer bear the weight of the team pitching on his arm.

In the off-season, Hecker and Louisville management became engaged in a bitter dispute over a few things, mainly, Hecker’s overall salary. The pitcher also blamed Louisville’s spring training schedule in 1885, which for the most part took place in the cold, as a reason for his arm failures the previous season. Louisville management found themselves stuck on what to do. Hecker had given them good seasons in the past but his pitching arm clearly was not the same as it used to be. Plus, Hecker’s bat, which had always been a plus, went through a downturn in ’85 as he saw his slugging percentage dip 93 points.

Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement and before their first game in 1886, Louisville appointed Hecker as the team captain. The season started well for Guy as he pitched a 3-hitter in an opening day win against Cincinnati. However, as the season wore past April, Hecker’s arm began to bother him again and he was being reduced to one start a week. A brunt of the pitching was falling onto Ramsey and the clubhouse became divided between their veteran captain and rising star. Ramsey did nothing to ease this fraction when he told the Louisville Courier-Journal that it would be best for the team if Hecker was released.

Before the start of June, Hecker was replaced as team captain but he still had plenty of friends in the press, who constantly portrayed Hecker as a good person on-and-off the field and displayed Ramsey as a heavy drinker. Throughout this entire battle though, Hecker found himself in the middle of the best hitting season of his career. He hit .417 in the month of June, boosting his total average to .329, placing him among the league’s top five batters.

His pitching struggles continued in June but the next month, Hecker began to hit a groove thanks to a homemade therapy. Twice a day, Hecker would soak his arm in what he called an ‘electric-bath’ and it seemed to work. He won 11 straight decisions starting that month to boost his overall record to 26-23. In the midst of his streak, Hecker also enjoyed the best hitting day any pitcher would ever have. In the second game of a doubleheader against Baltimore in August, Hecker hit three home runs (a record for a pitcher; matched by Jim Tobin in 1942) in a 22-5 drubbing of the Orioles. Guy also set two new ML records that day, for total bases (15; since surpassed) and runs scored (7; still standing). On top of that, Hecker picked up the victory in the game.

Hecker rolled through the month of August hitting an impressive dead-even .500 mark. His average slipped in September but the righty finished with a .342 clip. When the AA released it’s final batting averages for the 1886 season, it didn’t list Hecker as the league-leader, instead giving Dave Orr the batting crown with a .346 average. The final numbers released by the league were:
Dave Orr       NYP  .346
Guy Hecker     LOU  .342
Bob Caruthers  BOS  .342
Pete Browning  LOU  .340
Tip O’Neill    STL  .339

However, years later, statisticians and researchers went back through the ’86 AA season and found many errors with the league’s stats. After shifting through every score sheet, the researchers determined that it was Hecker, not Orr, who was the circuit’s top hitter in 1886. So Guy Hecker, while never officially winning a batting title, became the first and still only pitcher ever to lead a major league in batting. The rectified numbers are:

Guy Hecker     LOU .341
Pete Browning  LOU .340
Dave Orr       NYP .338
Bob Caruthers  BOS .334
Tip O’Neill    STL .328

Technically, Hecker posted an even better batting average the next season, with a .371 clip. However, that season, the American Association counted walks as hits, so Guy’s actual modern-day batting average would have been .319. That season though, Hecker set a new record, this time in the field, as he became the only first baseman in major league history to ever play an entire game without handling a chance during the regular season finale in October against Cincinnati.

Hecker eventually left Louisville in 1889 and played one more major league season in Pittsburgh of the National League during the 1890 season, where he served as player-manager. He spent the next few seasons in independent minor leagues, serving in the same player-manager role before retiring in 1893.

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