John Dwight "Happy Jack" Chesbro (1874-1931) was a Hall of Fame major league baseball pitcher known for his baffling spitball. Chesbro holds the modern major league record for victories in a season with 41 wins in 1904 - a record which will almost certainly never be broken. He is also notable as the pitcher who started the very first game in the history of the New York Yankees (then known as the "Highlanders").
Chesbro began his major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in July of 1899 at the age of 25. After two mediocre seasons, Chesbro emerged as a star in 1901, compiling a sparkling 21-10 record along with a 2.72 ERA, and leading National League in shutouts with 6.
In 1902, Chesbro got even better by adding a spitball to his repertoire (spitballs are banned today, but were perfectly legal at the time), leading the league in wins and winning percentage with a 28-6 record and lowering his ERA to 2.17.
In 1903, the troubled American League franchise from Baltimore moved to New York and began raiding the National League for players. Chesbro was one of the players who jumped ship, was the opening day starter, and continued to pitch like an ace, posting a record of 21-15, along with a 2.77 ERA.
But despite a number of great seasons, Chesbro would never have gotten anywhere near the Hall of Fame if not for his herculean 1904 campaign, which was truly a season for the ages. That year, Chesbro appeared in 55 games, starting 51 and finishing 49, pitched 454 2/3 innings, tossed 6 shutouts, and compiled a record of 41-12 along with a 1.82 ERA.
Chesbro almost single-handedly carried the team to the playoffs that season, leading them in a fierce pennant race with the Boston Pilgrims (now the Red Sox) that went down to the wire with the two teams sporting identical records and set to face each other in a climactic duel for the championship on the season's final day. Naturally, Chesbro was tapped to start the game, and pitched well, but with the score tied 2-2 in the ninth inning, Chesbro's spitball flew over the catcher's head for a wild pitch, allowing the winning run to score from third and giving the pennant to Boston.
The Highlanders never really recovered from that fateful spitball that got away from Chesbro, and spent the next 16 years languishing at the bottom of the standings (it would take no less than Babe Ruth to revive them). Chesbro was never really the same either. Although he still had two good seasons left in him, winning 19 and 23 games in 1905 and 1906, the huge numbers of innings he had been asked to pitch began to take a toll on his arm, and he began to lose velocity on his pitches.
Chesbro was 10-10 in 1907, 14-20 in 1908, and New York released him midway through the 1909 season. He finished up his major league career by pitching one game for Boston, allowing 4 runs in 6 innings and taking the loss.
With his pitching skills all but gone, Chesbro moved to North Adams, Massachusetts and became a prosperous lumber merchant, running a saw mill and a lumber yard. He continued to play baseball with semi-pro teams, traveling to pitch against other mill towns nearby, but local players reportedly found the one-time major-league superstar easy to hit against.
Chesbro served as head baseball coach at Amherst College in 1911, and was briefly a coach with the Washington Senators in 1924, but otherwise lived a quiet life in North Adams, where he remained until his death in 1931.
Chesbro was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committee in 1946.
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