Thursday, October 9, 2014

179. Fred Toney: The Real Iron Man

I'm not a big "records" type of baseball fan. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire took all the fun out of records for me as did the manufactured hype over Cal Ripken's meaningless consecutive game thing. On the other hand, DiMaggio's hitting safely in 56 consecutive games and Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters are still impressive and awe-inspiring. It's probably safe to say neither will be broken or even equaled anytime soon. Which brings me to Fred Toney. This relatively forgotten pitcher from the first 2 decades of the last century has no less than three unbelievable pitching performances that I'd bet will never be equaled, if only for the reason there is no way a pitcher would ever be allowed to even be in a position to try to match any of Toney's feats...

According to baseball lore, sometime in 1908 a minor league scout found himself lost on a mountain road in the back woods of Tennessee. In need of direction, he came upon a brawny teenager with with three dead squirrels in tow. The scout had engaged the barefoot hunter in conversation when he suddenly realized the boy had no rifle, pistol or even a bow and arrow. "How did you kill the squirrels?" he asked, to which the boy matter-of-factly replied "I killed them by throwing rocks at 'em". The story ends with the scout returning to civilization with young Fred Toney's signature on a pro contract. 

But that's all there is to it, just a story.

Fred Toney was born and raised just outside Nashville, Tennessee. He was big and strong for his time, just over six foot and 200 pounds of farm boy muscle. A right hander, Toney got his start as a teenager with the local Nashville Free Silver Sluggers where he won 26 out of 32 games. In 1908 the nineteen year old ventured north to Kentucky to play for a semi-pro team in Bowling Green. How he came to play for Bowling Green is not known, but he was probably lured North by the prospect of a steady factory job with extra pay for playing on the ball club. When the team folded midway through the summer Toney headed back home to Tennessee, but a professional scout was hot on his heals. When the representative from the Winchester Hustlers finally caught up with Toney he was taken aback when the pitcher rebuffed all offers of a professional contract. Money wasn't the object: it seems that young Fred Toney didn't want all the pressure that being a pro ballplayer brought on. Toney's friend, "Greasy" Hanly eventually convinced Toney to sign on with Winchester and as a contract stipulation the Hustlers agreed to take along Hanly as well.

Toney finished out the '08 season in the Blue Grass League, his fastball garnering comparisons to a young Walter Johnson. The following season, 1909, is where Fred Toney enters the history books.

On Monday May 10, 1909, three hundred fans sat in the stands at Garner's Park to watch the Hustlers take on the visiting Lexington Colts. The game started in the late afternoon and the light crowd was what could be expected on a rainy, miserable spring afternoon. As the innings ticked by, neither team was able to score. Toney was magnificent, striking out batters with ease and refusing to give up a single hit. After nine frames neither team had scored and Toney had a no-hitter, but the game wasn't over. As more innings passed without a hit, word spread around Winchester of what was transpiring in their little ballpark. A boy on a bicycle raced back and forth from the ballpark to the business district with updates as the historic game went on. Crowds began to gather outside the park as Toney steadfastly remained on the mound holding the Colts hitless. By the time the game entered the 12th inning, darkness was beginning to fall over the Kentucky town. Now not only was there a race to score the first run but to do it soon as the game and no-hitter would be struck from the record if it were to be called because of darkness. The Colts' pitcher, Baker, was still on the mound as well, allowing just 6 hits through 17 innings. Finally in the bottom of the 17th Winchester's right fielder Ellis singled to right center. Left fielder Schmidt sacrificed Ellis over to second but Baker made a throwing error to first as the runner was safe and Ellis took third. Eddie Goosetree fouled off one of Baker's pitches which was caught for the first out. With runners on the corners Hustler's manager Newt Horn called for a squeeze play. Shortstop Ellis layed down a bunt and Ellis raced across the plate with the winning run.

As word of the victory spread from the ballpark, the town's factories let loose their steam whistles, church bells pealed and cars honked their horns. Toney, who just one year earlier had refused to play pro ball because of the pressure, had pitched a beautiful 17 inning no-hitter complete with 19 strike outs and giving up but two stingy bases on balls. The 17 inning game was completed in just over 2 hours, 45 minutes.
For those who haven't done the math, Toney's gem was an inning shy of two complete no-htters and remains today as the longest professional no-hitter on record. I can't find any "unprofessional" no-hitter 17 innings or more so I'm going to assume Toney's feat is unmatched. Like-wise, it's probably safe to say it would never be matched as there is no way a pitcher would be allowed to throw 17 innings in one outing today.

The feat made all the sports pages from coast to coast and Toney was soon courted by the big leagues. In July the Phillies were reported to have acquired the right hander but apparently the deal fell through. A few months after his record making game Toney again went the extra mile when he pitched all 16 innings of a game against Shelbyville, this time relinquishing six hits. In 191o the Chicago Cubs sent a man south to take the measure of Winchester's rubber armed ace. Knowing the Chicago scout was in the stands, Toney did everything he could to make himself look inept. Despite maintaining his cool and poise through two years of pro ball and tossing some of the most nerve racking games in modern memory, Fred Toney was afraid to move up to the big leagues.

He made his debut in 1911 and in 18 games he was a marginal 1-1. The Cubs sent him back and forth between the minors and Chicago before releasing him. After some fine work with Louisville Brooklyn signed him in 1914 but Toney played hardball in contract negotiations and the Reds managed to pick him up. 

Now in his mid-20's and a bit more sure of himself, Toney became one of the National Leagues best right handers. He ticked off seasons of 17, 14 and 24 wins for a young Cincinnati team. On May 2, 1917 the Reds were in Chicago to play the Cubs. Toney took the mound for Cincinnati and faced the Cubs ace Hippo Vaughn. The two men had faced off before back in the minor leagues where Toney found he could get the edge on Vaughn by letting him hit a long single, the base running tiring him out.

While their bouts in the minors may have been memorable, nothing could compete with what would happen that afternoon in May. Not only did Toney not allow Vaughn a base hit, but he silenced all the other bats in the Cubs lineup as well. Vaughn did the same to the Reds and after nine complete innings both men were throwing no-hitters. Finally in the top of the 10th Vaughn gave up a single to Larry Kopf who went to third on an error and came home on a Jim Thorpe single. Toney finished off the Cubs in the bottom of the inning and won the the only double no-hit game in baseball history.

As if Fred Toney needed to prove his iron man standing, later that season he did another feat that would be impossible n today's game - pitched and won both games of a double header. Facing Pittsburgh on July 1st, Toney gave up just three hits and a single run in each game - 18 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs. Incredible. Unfortunately for Toney it was a quick decent from being the most revered pitcher on the Reds to their most reviled. 

In April of 1917 America declared war and all able bodied men were expected to serve the war effort in some capacity. Toney was married with a child and as such was given a deferment in the draft. Somehow it was leaked that not only was Toney three years separated from his wife and kid, but was currently involved with a young lady other than Mrs. Toney. Federal Marshall's arrested the Reds ace and he went to trial for draft dodging. When the trial ended in an unsatisfying hung jury he was slapped with violating the Mann Act - bringing a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. The Cincinnati fans ripped him apart and the Reds unloaded him and his legal problems on the New York Giants. Between pitching for New York Toney pleaded guilty to violating the Mann Act and served out a short prison term. Through it all he pitched good ball posting 13, 21 and 18 win seasons for the Giants.

In the spring of 1924 Toney busted a finger while executing a bunt. The injury ruined his grip on the ball and he slipped back into the minor leagues. The 36 year-old hung up his spikes for good in 1925 and headed back home to Tennessee. In the town he was born and raised in he opened up a soda fountain, the walls adorned with mementos from a 17 year career highlighted by some of the most heroic pitching performances in the history of the game. 

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