Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Second Game

Notwithstanding the intensely warm weather there was a fair attendance at the Grand Avenue Park yesterday afternoon, on the occasion of the second contest between the Boston and Indianapolis Base Ball Clubs. McCormick replaced Nolan in the latter team, and his pitching was eagerly watched by the crowd, very few of whom had ever seen him play. The game was one of the best ever witnessed in this city, and was only won by a combination of good luck, dashing base running and nervy work on the part of the champions...

There should be a rousing attendance at the Grand Avenue Park Saturday afternoon, when the Reds and Blues again meet. Such a contest as that of yesterday, though only seen once in a lifetime, may be duplicated to-morrow.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 12, 1878

So the once in a lifetime game will be duplicated tomorrow? Really? Wouldn't that then not make this game a once in a lifetime experience? I'm just asking.

This once in a lifetime experience was nothing more than Boston coming back to win the game after they were down 4-1 going into the eighth inning and anybody who's a fan of a team with a bad bullpen sees something like that a dozen times a year. Boston scored four in the eighth and three in the ninth after Nolan replaced McCormick, who broke "one of the small bones in his fore arm," and won 8-4. The Only Nolan really had a poor series and was lit up rather good by Boston in this series.

I just took a look at Nolan's stats over at B-Ref and I guess I never looked at them before because I never realized that The Only Nolan wasn't all that good. I know that B-Ref doesn't have his full record, missing seasons when he wasn't pitching in the major leagues, but still...I assumed that he was a great pitcher. The guy was a star; he was The Only Nolan. But Ed Nolan was a bit of a bum and a headcase. It's as if my entire world has changed; black is white, day is night, The Only Nolan was not a good pitcher. So I guess that the only reason we remember Nolan is the nickname and a couple of non-League seasons he had as a teenager with Indianapolis.


Richard R. Hershberger said...

"I never realized that The Only Nolan wasn't all that good."

David Ball is likely better qualified to address this than I, but my impression is that he had a very good year in 1877 which made his reputation. I don't know what happened after that. Age 20 is a bit young to be washed up. Maybe he really was that good but blew his shoulder out. It's hard to tell from contemporary accounts about this sort of thing. Perhaps he was one of those guys who looks terrific in the minors but once around the circuit in the bigs and hitters have his number.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I was really surprised by the numbers (or lack thereof). He must have pitched well in 1876/1877 as Indianapolis was a winning club but this didn't translate into success in the majors. B-Ref Bullpen has some interesting stories about him and uses the word "eccentric" to describe his behavior.

I'm with you in that my impression was that he did something prior to 1878 that made his reputation but for the life of me I can't remember what it was and can't quickly find any reference to what it was. There's certainly nothing in his record from 1878 forward that makes him memorable except for the nickname.

David Ball said...

Nolan was a big success at Columbus in 1876 and a sensation at Indianapolis in 1877. His pitching is largely what got Indianapolis a NL franchise.

Nolan's decline is not unique. At his period there were a lot of so-called "exploded phenoms," pitchers who made a big reputation very quickly and then dropped by the wayside. It was a period when pitching rules and techniques were developing rapidly, becoming increasingly difficult for hitters to cope with but also more and more damaging to pitchers' arms. As a result, it's often difficult to tell what happened to a pitcher like Nolan. Did he suffer arm problems? Was he unable to adapt to particular rule changes? Did he originally show the hitters something new that they caught no to after a while? Did he just keep doing the same thing with the same effectiveness, while other pitchers developed even better weapons? Or do several of these explanations apply?

Some exploded phenoms quit baseball very quickly (Joe Borden, for example). Others such as Nolan continued for quite a while as second-level pitchers. I guess a case like Borden's makes arm trouble a likelier explanation, but I really don't know what to say in Nolan's case.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Thanks, David. I just took a look at Baseball In Indianapolis and W.C. Madden covers the period in shocking brevity. Not much there at all but he does mention that Nolan "had a reputation for mowing down players with a curveball." Also, in a book published by Wyman and Sons called Knowledge, it's mentioned that Nolan threw a down-curve (and was possibly the first pitcher to do so) but they also state that the pitch, as thrown, was very difficult to control (which may explain his walk totals in 1878). So it's possible that Nolan's early success was a result of his curve but that NL hitters quickly caught on to what he was doing or were simply more accustomed to seeing a curve than were the hitters he was facing in 1876/77.