"Smiling" Mickey Welch
Born: July 4, 1859
Died: July 30, 1941
Mickey Welch is one of the members of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame who gets very little recognition among today's fans, due to his having played out his career by 1893. However, in his time he was one of the faces of the New York Giants, known for his good looks and clutch pitching.
In 1880 he came up with the Troy Trojans, after two years in the minor leagues. The 20 year-old won 34 games and lost 30 while posting a 2.54 ERA, average for the time. Already he exhibited his talents and his drawbacks; extremely durable (he completed his first 105 starts) and featuring a good curveball, his main vice was a lack of control. Welch led the league in walks for three consecutive years, and was consistently among the league leaders in wild pitches. Bizarrely enough, the Hall of Famer would end up as only the second best rookie pitcher to come up with Troy that year; a 23 year old by the name of Tim Keefe also got his start.
In 1881 the pitcher's box was moved back five feet, to fifty feet from home plate, and Welch appeared to not be effected. He posted a 21-18 record while sharing pitching duties with Keefe, who, after bursting on the scene with twelve stellar outings in 1880, struggled to an 18-27 mark.
1882 was the last gasp for the Troy franchise, which stumbled to a seventh place finish although it featured future hall-of-famers Welch, Keefe, Roger Connor (the pre-Ruth home run champion), and Buck Ewing. Once again teaming with Tim Keefe, as well as Jim "The Troy Terrier" Egan, presumably a local ballplayer, Welch suffered through his worst full season. He came away with a 14-16 record, and a 3.46 ERA.
In 1883 Jim Mutrie and John B. Day entered National League and American Association franchises, with many of the players coming from the former Troy team. Welch, Ewing and Connor went to the NL team, who were then called the Gothams, while Tim Keefe joined the AA Metropolitans.
Despite good performances from all of their stars and a career year from another Troy refugee, Pete Gillespie, The Gothams struggled around the .500 mark in 1883, with Welch taking on an increased share of starts. He made 54 appearances that year, with a 25-23 record and a solid 2.73 ERA. It was a good thing his 1882 woes were behind him, as the other starters that year were John Montgomery Ward, who would be forced to move full time to playing the field in 1884, and Tip O'Neill, better known for holding the all-time single-season Batting Average record.
Over the next few years the team improved, and much of the credit goes to Mickey Welch. Over the next three years Welch won 39, 44, and 33 games. In 1884 Welch set a record that still stands by striking out the first nine batters he faced. In 1888, once again teamed with Tim Keefe, Welch and the Giants finally won the pennant. They repeated as champions the next year.
At 30, however, his career was already coming to a close. In 1890, Welch failed to win 20 games for the first time in seven years. By 1891 he and Keefe were being phased out in favor of young guns like Amos Rusie, and he made only one start in 1892 before being finished for good. His 300 wins--he was the third player ever to achieve that mark, behind only Pud Galvin and teammate Tim Keefe--won him election to the Hall of Fame posthumously, in 1973.
When trying to evaluate his place among the greats today, most people either assume he was great because of his wins, or assume he was mediocre because of his ERA, which was not far below the league average. The latter was the case when Baseball Primer's Hall of Merit, in which users of the popular website are trying to select baseball's greats using today's sabermetric methods, began to debate his worthiness. When he gained eligibility, he barely made a dent in the voting, not even finishing in the top 15.
Recently, though, people have used contemporary records and box scores to test his 120-year old reputation as a clutch pitcher, and the results were surprising. It seems that Smilin' Mickey, who was usually matched up against the aces of the other clubs, was actually one of the few players to live up to such a reputation, winning when it mattered most. This has caused such a reevaluation of his status that he may soon win election into that elite group.
While Welch doesn't have the gaudy peak of contemporaries like Old Hoss Radbourn, or the durability that the next generation of pitchers, like Cy Young, would possess, his once-tarnished repuation as one of the early greats of the game is now gleaming brighter. Now, if only anybody knew his name.
Major League Baseball Hall of Fame
George Weiss | Willie Wells
Sources: The Neyer/James book of pitchers, www.baseballlibrary.com, www.baseball-reference.com, www.thebaseballpage.com