Arts and Leisure

Happy Jack Chesbro, the Yankees’ Bill Buckner of 1904

In 1904, Happy Jack Chesbro threw a wild pitch as painful to New York Yankees’ fans as Bill Buckner’s error was to Red Sox fans 80 years later.

Jack Chesbro

Jack Chesbro

Chesbro was a great pitcher having a great season, but he was no match for Boston’s merry band of fanatic fans. On Oct. 10, 1904, Chesbro may have been so unnerved by the antics of the self-proclaimed ‘Royal Rooters’ that he uncorked a wild pitch that cost the New York Highlanders the game and the pennant.

Chesbro won 41 games for the team now known as the Yankees, a record for the modern era of baseball. It is a record that will probably never be beaten.

He was the first Yankee pitcher, the first to throw a spitball and the first to execute a suicide squeeze. And he was the New York Yankees’ first goat.

Jack Chesbro

Jack Chesbro was born John Dwight Cheesebrough on June 5, 1874 in Houghtonville, Mass., a village in North Adams. His father was a shoemaker.

In 1894, he got a job as an attendant at Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in Middletown, N.Y., so he could play for the mental hospital’s baseball team, the Asylums. An inmate gave him the nickname Happy Jack because of his cheery disposition.

He played for amateur and minor league teams until he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirate in 1899.In 1903, he joined a new American League team, the Highlanders. He threw the first pitch on Opening Day for the team.

In 1904, he started throwing the spitball, an almost unhittable pitch. He threw 14 straight wins, a franchise record broken 97 years later by Roger Clemens. That year he won 41 games, a record unsurpassed in the modern era of baseball. His pitching carried the team to a pennant race with the World Champion Boston Americans, now the Red Sox.

At the end of the season, a two-day series in New York would decide the American League Champion. All Boston had to do was to win one.

The Royal Rooters

The Royal Rooters in New York, 1904. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

The Royal Rooters in New York, 1904. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Jack Chesbro started the first game before cheering New York fans and Boston’s Royal Rooters, led by Nuf Ced McGreevey. McGreevey, whose first name was really Michael, owned a tavern near the Huntington Avenue Grounds called ‘Third Base.’ It was where sports fans stopped before they headed home. McGreevey ended arguments about sports by pounding on the bar and declaring “Nuf Ced.”

Nuf Ced’s Royal Rooters included politicians, gamblers, businessmen, ballplayers, Tin-Pan Alley stars, diehard fans, coach drivers, Mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, the gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series.

Jack Chesbro pitching for the Highlanders.

Jack Chesbro pitching for the Highlanders.

The night before the big 1904 series, 200 Royal Rooters boarded a train for New York to cheer the Americans to victory and a pennant. They paraded up 165th Street to Hilltop Park carrying their banners and singing Tessie, the song that annoyed and unnerved their opponents.

During the game, the Royal Rooters more than held their own against the hometown fans with a hired minstrel band,  and their own mascot who carried a beanpot on top of a pole.

The Highlanders led 2-0 until Boston scored two in the seventh inning, quieting the home team fans so the Royal Rooters could be heard throughout the park.

At the top of the ninth inning, Chesbro threw a slider over the head of the batter, allowing the runner on third to score and Boston to take the lead. Yankees’ manager Clark Griffith fell to the ground in anguish, the Highlander fans fell stone silent and the exultant Royal Rooters sang Tessie.

Chesbro, distraught, sat silently on the bench as the Highlanders failed to score in the bottom of the ninth. He had lost the first great pennant race in baseball history.

Aftermath

Happy Jack Chesbro pitched for the Highlanders until 1909, when he was waived and picked up by the Boston Red Sox. He pitched one game for the Red Sox, his last, the season finale against the New York Yankees.

chesbro sox_v_yanksHe had married Mabel Suttleworth in 1896. They retired to a farm in their hometown, Conway, Mass., and raised poultry. Chesbro played semipro ball, coached for the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and the Washington Senators and managed a minor league team. He tried to make a comeback, but failed.

Fans talked about the famous wild pitch for years afterward. Chesbro claimed it was a passed ball that the catcher should have caught.

Jack Chesbro died on Nov. 6, 1931. In 1946 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Read more about the historic rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox in Red Sox vs. Yankees, The Great Rivalry by Murray and Frederic Frommer. You can buy it from the New England Historical Society's bookstore here

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