Remarkable Rookies
Many players have made a big splash in their first year in the majors. Some of them continue
at the top of their game. Others never equal what they did that first season.

Russell Ford

Bugs Resigl

Billy Evans

Cy Falkenberg

Russell Ford - 1910
Russell Ford was in his third year of minor league ball in 1907, playing for the Atlanta Crackers of the Class A Southern Association.
  • Primarily a spitball pitcher, the Canadian-born hurler had a good year in 1906 at age 23 with the Class B Cedar Rapids (IA) Rabbits, winning 22 and losing only 9.
  • That got him his promotion to Atlanta, where he went 15-10 in '07 and 16-14 in '08.
  • The New York Highlanders (who would become the Yankees) drafted him before the 1909 season.
  • Ford made his ML debut April 28, 1909, on a cold day in Boston. The results were ugly. He pitched one inning in a hopelessly lost game and recorded this line: 4 hits, 4 walks, 4 runs (3 earned). That gave him a 9.0 ERA, which he didn't have a chance to improve since the Highlanders sent him to Jersey City.

The demotion caused Ford to return to a pitch he had discovered by accident during his 1908 season with Atlanta.

  • While warming up under the stands on a rainy day, he threw a wild pitch that struck a wooden upright. Another delivery sailed sideways about 5'.
  • Ford examined the ball and saw that it was rough where it had hit the upright. He wondered whether the scuff mark was responsible for the ball's odd behavior on the next pitch.
  • He gripped the ball on the side opposite the rough spot and threw a pitch that dropped as it neared the plate. Without knowing it, Ford had just discovered what would come to be known as the "emery ball."
  • After bombing in his big league debut, he decided to experiment with the scuffed ball delivery he had tried briefly the year before.
  • He first scuffed the ball with a broken soda bottle. When his teammates missed the ball by 12-18" during batting practice, he began employing the pitch during games. He kept a small piece of emery in his glove and figured out ways to hide what he was doing.
    P Bugs Reisigl (who pitched for Cleveland in 1911) later claimed that he used the emery ball in 1906 and that roughing the ball to improve the break was somewhat common knowledge.

After posting a 13-13 record with a 2.41 run average (researchers being unable to determine how many runs were unearned from the box scores of the day) and allowing only 172 hits in 276 innings, Ford got another chance with the Highlanders.

  • He won 26 games and lost only 6 in 1910 with an ERA of 1.65 (which wasn't as sparkling in that Deadball Era as it would be today). The 26 victories set an American League rookie record that has yet to be broken. Russ called his special pitch a "slide ball," which he claimed was a variation of his spitball.
  • As was also typical on those years, Ford finished 29 of the 33 games he started, twirling eight shutouts.
  • His success helped the Highlanders finish in second place (88-63), their best performance in four years.
  • Ford attributed his success to his ability to throw 14 different versions of his "spitball." Umpire Billy Evans recalled, Ford worked cleverly. He had the emery paper attached to a piece of string, which was fastened to the inside of his undershirt. He had a hole in the center of his glove. At the end of each inning, he would slip the emery paper under the tight-fitting undershirt, while at the start of each inning, he would allow it to drop into the palm of his glove.

Ford was no one-year wonder.

  • He won 22 in 1911, losing 11 with a 2.27 ERA.
  • But Russ was not as effective the following season, surrendering the most earned runs in the league (115) and most HRs (11). His ERA increased to 3.55.
  • He pitched one more season for New York, compiling a 12-18 record and a 2.66 ERA.
  • Two events caused Ford to switch to the new Federal League for the 1914 season. First, the American League banned the emery ball. And the Highlanders wanted to cut his pay. So Russ switched to the new Federal League.
    The secret to Ford's success was exposed when a second P resurrected his career using the pitch. Cy Falkenberg had toiled in the majors for eight years, winning no more than 14 games in any season. Consigned to AA Toledo in 1912, Cy used his new pitch to compile a 25-8 record. That brought him back to Cleveland. Since he was not a spitballer, Falkenberg's new drop raised suspicions when the 33-year-old hurler had by far the best season of his career: 23-10. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, there were rumors that the entire Red Sox staff and several Yankee moundsmen were using the pitch.
  • Pitching for Buffalo in 1914, Ford won 21 games and losing 6. He had a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
  • The Federal League joined the American and National circuits in banning the emery ball for the '15 season. That condemned Ford to a lackluster 5-9 mark for the Blues in 1915.
  • The Federal League folded after its second season, and Russ never pitched in a major league game again.
Reference: "Russ Ford," T. Kent Morgan and David Jones, SABR Baseball Biography Project
Tales from the Deadball Era, Mark S. Halfon (2014)