Thursday, October 04, 2007

John Shiffert On: Switch-Pitching Tony Mullane, The Apollo of the Box

19 to 21
No, that’s not the number of times Tony Mullane threw left-handed, it’s... Baseball, Then and Now

News Item: August 27, 1881: Tony Mullane makes his major league debut with the Detroit Wolverines.

News Item: September 28, 1995: Greg Harris takes the mound left-handed for the Montreal Expos.

It would be a shame to let the 2007 season pass by without mentioning one of the year’s remarkable stories, a tale from the great state of Nebraska, of a college pitcher, who throws with both hands…

The called him “The Count” or “The Apollo of the Box” back when pitchers threw from a box, and not a mound. His name was Tony Mullane, and he was one of the better pitchers of the 19th Century, as well as one of baseball’s first great characters. He was also the first switch-pitcher, the first ambidextrous pitcher, in major league history.

Baseball has had innumerable switch-hitters over the years, starting with Bob Ferguson in 1870 up to the present day likes of Jimmy Rollins, Lance Berkman and even Raul Casanova. But, switch-pitchers? You may remember Greg Harris, in the penultimate appearance of his major league career, putting his special six-fingered, ambidextrous glove on his right hand, and throwing to two batters lefty during a scoreless ninth inning for the Montreal Expos. The date was just 12 years ago, September 28, 1995, when Harris became the only major league switch-pitcher of the 20th Century by facing the Reds’ Hal Morris (he walked him) and Eddie Taubensee (he grounded out) while pitching left-handed. (He also retired Reggie Sanders and Bret Boone in the same inning pitching right-handed.) This stunt was something Harris had wanted to do for years – he had the ambidextrous glove at least as far back as his days with the Phillies (1988-89) and he’d been lobbying the Red Sox to let him switch-pitch all during his 1989 to 1994 tenure in Boston. GM Lou Gorman forbade him from throwing lefty, saying it would make a mockery of the game.

But, would it? There actually is a rule that covers this – apparently the same one that states that a batter must declare his intention of batting either left-handed or right-handed before entering the batter’s box. In other words, he can’t jump back and forth from batting left to batting right between pitches. Similarly, a pitcher would have to declare his intention of pitching to a specific batter either left-handed or right-handed. As long as said pitcher knew which side of the plate was the weaker side for a switch-hitter, there’d be no problem at all. Thus, if Harris had the physical ability to throw at a major league level with both hands, why not let him so do? In effect, Harris could have been two pitchers in one. Imagine a reliever who could conceivably pitch in 160 games a year. Absurd? Not really, since Harris was in 80 games for the Red Sox, pitching strictly right-handed, in 1993 at the age of 37. If he could alternate hands in an inning, why not have him alternate hands by appearance? Even if that didn’t work, he could, by switch-pitching, always give his team the platoon advantage when he was on the mound.

It seems obvious that this sort of versatility would be a tremendous asset, especially in an era of extreme specialization among relief pitchers, wherein it’s become common for at least one pitcher on each team to have more appearances than innings pitched. But, Harris was still the only major league switch-pitcher of the 20th Century, maybe because of the tradition-bound thinking of the Lou Gorman’s of baseball, or maybe because Harris’ ability to throw with both hands isn’t exactly a common one. Indeed, records seem to indicate that the only other pitchers known to have used both hands in a professional game in the 20th Century were Bert Campaneris (yes, the Oakland Athletics shortstop who later played all nine positions in one major league game… another player with unusual abilities) in 1962 in the Florida State League, and Moxie Manuel in 1907 in the Southern Association.

While the feat of switch hitting is neither easy nor common, it is at least do-able on some level if the individual has some ability with both hands, or starts early enough. But, switch-pitching… the ability to throw at least close to equally well with either arm… now that’s tough. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Pete Reiser was ambidextrous enough to throw left-handed during his military ball-playing days when he’d injured his right arm, but, then again, Reiser was a one-in-a-million talent. (In case you’re interested, he came up to the majors as a switch-hitter, but ended up just batting lefty.) Among pitchers, Harris (the only relief pitcher – he had 54 career saves) was one of only five to actually pitch with both arms in the major leagues, the others being Mullane (the first time in 1882), Larry Corcoran (just once in 1884), Elton “Icebox” Chamberlain (at least one game in 1888) and George Wheeler (a handful of times between 1896 and 1899). Their careers…

(To continue, click this link: Apollo of the Box)

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