The Joe Borden Story

Joe Borden pitched the first no-hitter in baseball history. You would think that this is what he would be known for. Instead, he is known as the beneficiary of baseball’s first terrible contract.

First the no-hitter: Borden was born in 1854 in New Jersey. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1870, and he hooked up with various amateur clubs. By 1875 he had risen to the top of the local amateur scene, playing for the Doerr club. Top amateur clubs routinely played against professional clubs, so he was known to the local professionals. His break came in July with the Philadelphia Club, when they discharged their pitcher, Cherokee Fisher.

Fisher had, as one paper put it delicately, a “weak spot” which was “possessed by several other ball tossers.” In other words, he was a drunkard. Tolerance for this ran fairly high at this time, but there were limits. To top it off, the club charged him with throwing games. There wasn’t much follow through on this and the charge was never proved. But later there would be credible evidence that he threw a game while playing for the West End Club of Milwaukee the following year. So at best his reputation was suspect.

The Philadelphias needed a pitcher. The long-term solution was George Zettlein, who was in the process of being released from the Chicago Club. (Zettlein was a talented pitcher, but had a reputation as being a dumb as a rock. One newspaper explained that his being “descending from Teutonic origin no doubt accounts for this.”) The club needed someone to fill in until Zettlein became available, so they plucked Borden from the amateur ranks.

Borden made his name against the Chicago Club by pitching a no-hitter July 28. Or rather, he made a name. He appears in box scores as “Josephs.” The pseudonym was intended to protect his family from the shame of having a professional ball player, but it was the worst kept secret ever, with his real name being widely reported. In any case, while the vocabulary of a “no-hitter” did not yet exist, people noticed the achievement. The performance was a wonder, and Borden was bestowed the title of “Phenomenal.”

He pitched only seven games for the Philadelphias. His record was only 2-4, but that wasn’t his fault. He managed a WAR of 2.0, which is pretty impressive in just seven games. The problem was that the Philadelphias were not good. In any case, they stuck to the plan of going with Zettlein, an established veteran. This was not the terrible contract he is known for.

That came the following season, and was a rare mis-step by Harry Wright, manager of the Boston Club and one of the all-time greats. Wright had a problem. His team had been gutted by the Chicago Club, who hired away four of his stars, including his pitcher Al Spalding. Wright had to scramble around for players. He thought that Borden would be Spalding’s replacement. This was not sight unseen. Borden had pitched a game against the Bostons and had done very well. He lost the game 4-3, but it took the Bostons eleven innings to do it. Between this and the famous no-hitter, Borden seemed like a good hire.

While signing Borden would prove to have been a mistake, this still isn’t why the contract was so terrible. Wright was gun shy after having half his team signed away. He wanted to lock in the new guys, so he signed them to three year contracts, something virtually unheard of at this time. The Phenomenal Borden was signed for $2000 a year, which was pretty phenomenal in its own right by the pay scales of the day. Wright was an innovator, so in that sense it isn’t surprising that he would try something new. But the thing about trying experiments is that they can fail, and you need to plan for that. This is why the contract was so terrible.

Borden in 1876 turned out to be a complete flop. He pitched 29 games, for a record of 11-12. Where the previous year his pitching was better than his win-loss record shows, this year it was worse. His WAR was -0.2. They didn’t know that, of course, WAR being far far in the future. But they knew bad pitching. His control was notably awful. This is bad enough today, but before catchers had mitts or masks it was even worse.

It was obvious early on that he was not the answer to Boston’s pitching question. But what to do about it? That three-year contact didn’t include a buy-out option. Oops. Borden refused to go quietly. The situation had not previously arisen of a club wanting to rid itself of a player. The problem previously had always been to make players keep their contracts in the face of higher offers. No one was making any offers to Borden. The contract was written broadly about his precise duties, so the club imposed grounds keeping tasks on him while requiring he continue to participate in team workouts. The hope was that he would get tired of this and leave on his own or be induced into insubordination that might invalidate the contract. He out-waited the club management, cheerfully performing all duties asked of him while drawing his hefty salary. Finally the following February the club cracked and reached undisclosed terms to buy out the rest of his contract.

How did the Boston Club let this debacle happen? Partly it was inexperience with multi-year contracts. They had not yet worked the kinks out. Partly it was changes in pitching. Pitching was in a transitional stage, with the pitchers’ delivery moving upward and curve balls coming into their own. Curve balls had been quietly developing since at least the late 1860s, but 1875 was the breakout year when lots of guys, Borden among them, figured out how to throw it. This also meant that batters were learning how to hit a curve ball, leading to a rapid cycle of adjustments on both sides. Borden wasn’t able to keep up, and ended up losing his command of the ball. He wasn’t alone. There was a generational break in pitching. Very few managed to make the transition. (For the exception, look up Bobby Mathews: one of the unheralded greats, if only for managing to pitch effectively through about three different eras of pitch delivery.) Wright tapping Borden as His Guy was a reasonable decision given the information available to him, but this information turned out to be immediately obsolete.

Harry Wright had not, apart from this, lost his touch. The Bostons regained the pennant in 1877 and again in 1878. The rest of those three-year contracts turned out OK after all. The idea was dropped anyway. The reserve system was created about that time, and contracts were standardized to include a release clause that unconscionably favored the employer. Multi-year contracts wouldn’t become a thing again until the so-called free agent era of a century later.

Which is to say that the Bostons with Joe Borden had an excuse. The Phillies and Ryan Howard? Not so much. Yes, I am bitter.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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13 thoughts on “The Joe Borden Story

  1. Where the previous year his pitching was better than his win-loss record shows, this year it was worse. His WAR was -0.2. They didn’t know that, of course, WAR being far far in the future. But they knew bad pitching.

    “Great Scott, Marty! The sports almanac only lists Borden’s WAR! ERA won’t even be an official statistic until 1912! How will we convince them?”

    “Doc, he can’t pitch. Just look at him.”

    “Oh, right.”

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    • At the risk of being serious, one of my long-term ambitions is to sort out the development of statistics.

      By 1876 they had largely worked out BA, though what constituted an error was something of an open question, as was how to count bases on balls. But at least they had figured out what should be the numerator and denominator.

      Pitching stats took longer. I have in my notes a clear statement of what we now call ERA by 1879, but it was not yet generally accepted. Don’t get sidetracked by whether or not a stat was official. That simply meant what was sent in by the official scorer to the league secretary. There were other stats that newspapers were reporting that weren’t official.

      As for WAR, in all honesty I have my doubts about how applicable it is in this period. I suspect that there are some assumptions about the game that aren’t valid under 1870s rules. But I have doubts about all the other stats, too, and WAR is quick and easy to use, so what the heck.

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      • You won’t get any argument from me, but then I was (under my real name) active on back when the guys who would go on to form Baseball Prospectus still walked the earth with us mere mortals.

        Being a stathead from way back (I remember having to shake up my all-time rosters on SSI’s commodore 64 Computer Baseball when I learned about the foul-strike rule), I find the history of the game on the field and the parallel development of record-keeping and analysis just as fascinating as the personal insights you have been bringing. So I’d personally love to see more.

        In particular, riffing off of what you are saying in the last paragraph, I think that including statistics and their limitations dovetails nicely with the narrative of the evolution of playing style from era to era. One example off the top of my head, chances vs. errors for discussing fielders, and how institutional inertia led to a static mental model of the game without regard to changes in e.g. equipment, fields, and offensive strategy. For years and years.

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    • Catchers were manly men. The word used at the time was that they had “pluck.”

      But seriously, the development of the catcher’s position and how it complemented the pitcher is a complicated subject. Catchers tended to play further back than they do today, especially if the bases were empty. Protective equipment came about in response to faster pitching, and in turn allowed for pitching to be faster yet.

      The catcher’s mask was invented in 1876 by William Thayer, a Harvard man, Harvard men notoriously not being as plucky as the general population. It came to widespread notice in 1877. There were those who questioned the necessity, but catchers themselves were noticeably enthusiastic about the idea. Al Reach, in his capacity as sporting goods manufacturer, jumped on it and bought the patent rights from Thayer in 1878. Al Spalding, also in the sporting goods manufacturer capacity, cheerfully infringed on those rights, leading to a lawsuit in 1883. I don’t know how it turned out.

      As for mitts, they didn’t come in until., um…, late 1880s or early 1890s? I’m not sure. In the 1870s catchers wore gloves, but they were actual gloves, albeit fingerless, and were worn on both hands. There is this notion that they were considered shameful, but they were included in sporting goods catalogs. I don’t think they were shameful so much as unremarkable, and hence tended to go unremarked.

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      • Also, this. Not sure if it’s the actual first instance, but it’s a good story.

        “On Opening Day in 1907, [Roger] Bresnahan began to experiment with protective gear. Though Negro league catcher Chappie Johnson wore protective gear and Nig Clarke wore similar gear in MLB in 1905, most catchers did not wear any protective equipment. Bresnahan practiced in shin guards that are worn in cricket during spring training, and debuted them on April 11, 1907. Fans, used to seeing catchers play without protective equipment, threw snowballs on the field.”

        Of course, they were playing Philadelphia, and Philadelphia fans don’t need an excuse to throw snowballs at anyone.

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      • Richard Hershberger: Al Spalding, also in the sporting goods manufacturer capacity, cheerfully infringed on those rights, leading to a lawsuit in 1883.

        This random place on the Internet says:

        The catcher’s mask in baseball was invented by Frederick W. Thayer, a Harvard baseball player, who once played the game in Omaha. He modified a fencing mask which enabled the catcher to move closer to home base and receive the ball without fear of being struck in the face. Thayer received a patent for his invention early in 1878. Later in the year, A. G. Spalding and Brothers Company, the leading American sporting goods dealer, began selling the Thayer Catcher’s Mask for $3. In 1883 Thayer sued Spalding for patent infringement, and Spalding was ultimately forced to pay royalties.

        Also, for $25, the New York Times will sell you an unframed 8×10 of one of the drawings from the patent filing.

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        • Someday I will do a post on period cursing. Mostly the newspapers discreetly overlooked it, but occasionally they took notice, particularly if it provided an opportunity to criticize the populace of a rival city. Here is the Chicago Tribune of May 27, 1877 criticizing crowds in St. Louis:

          The writer has heard a lot of boys and men who must have gone through the grand stand if they were honestly in the ground, shout out to John Glenn while he was running for a fly within a little distance of where they party stood, “God d–n your black soul to hell, drop that ball you — of a —–,” and then a moment after, when he was running for a foul, “You black-hearted — —, drop it or I’ll cut you in two.”

          I have not seen anything that one wouldn’t hear today. The difference is that what I see in these pieces is a subset of the full range. They favored blasphemy and questions about parentage, but (Deadwood notwithstanding) not descriptions of sexual acts (unless that is what followed ‘black-hearted’).

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  2. I love Joe Borden’s story: the first pitcher to throw one really great game and parlay it into a major contract — and then, he became the best-paid groundskeeper in MLB history. Except for the groundskeeper part, this is a story we’ve seen replayed many times.

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