Ruth doubled off an undoubtedly nervous Bump Hadley that day. The pitcher lasted three innings, allowing a disappointing four earned runs. He was delegated to the minors before he could pitch another game, which meant his major-league earned-run average for 1926 was a whopping 12.00. He was back next year, though, pitching almost 200 innings and posting a 2.85 ERA—an impressive enough season to launch a major-league career that would last fourteen more summers. A close look at his numbers reveals a good pitcher—a hard thrower, but a wild one—who toiled mostly for mediocre teams. By the time he retired in 1941, Bump Hadley had accumulated more wins than any Ivy Leaguer before or since: 161, to be exact, twenty-five more than Ron Darling, who came out of Yale during the early 1980s. (Of course, Hadley also racked up 165 losses, compared to Darling’s 116.)
But Bump Hadley is not remembered for his numbers. If baseball fans recall anything about Hadley, it’s the pitch he threw in Yankee Stadium on May 25, 1937, against Detroit Tigers player-manager Mickey Cochrane, a career .320 hitter and a fiercely competitive catcher who would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame ten years later. (Mickey Mantle was named after Cochrane, who was his father’s favorite player.) In the third inning, with the Yankees leading 1–0, Hadley lost a battle with Cochrane, who hit a solo home run to tie the game. Cochrane’s next at-bat came two innings later. There were two outs and a man on first. Faced with Hadley’s characteristic wildness, he worked the count to 3–1. The next pitch, a fastball, hit Cochrane just above the right temple, fracturing his skull in three places. The on-deck hitter described Cochrane as dropping “like someone had hit him with an ax.” After muttering “I lost the ball,” Cochrane was carried off the field and slipped into unconsciousness. He eventually recovered, but his playing days were over. The Yankees won the game, 4–3.
Was the beaning intentional? There had been a rash of beanballs recently thrown against the Tigers and reports of bad blood between the Yankees and Tigers, who were expected to be rivals for the American League pennant. Cochrane had hit a home run in his previous at-bat, and retaliation in that era was not uncommon. On the other hand, Hadley had a reputation as a wild thrower, and witnesses noted that the ball had seemed to sail and that Cochrane had acted as though he had indeed lost sight of it. In any event, when Coch-rane returned to manage, he met with Hadley on July 27 and pronounced him blameless.
IRVING HADLEY’S NICKNAME did not come from his propensity to hit batters. He acquired it from a character in a Boy Scout story as a child growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts. The son of an attorney, he played baseball in high school, earning a national reputation by throwing a perfect game in which he struck out twenty-six of twenty-seven batters. A football scout convinced him to attend Brown. He matriculated in September 1924, pledging with the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. His ambition was to become a lawyer like his father. He joined the freshman baseball team and was predictably outstanding. Though the records of the time are sketchy, he appears to have won seven games and lost only one, averaging twelve strikeouts per game. He once struck out eighteen in a single game. The highlight of his Brown career was probably a late-season win at Harvard: he struck out eleven, drove in all the team’s runs, and even stole home. But he apparently had academic difficulties (newspapers of the time vaguely refer to “low marks”), and in February 1926 he left Brown to join the Senators at their spring training camp.
The year after his unimpressive appearance against Babe Ruth, Hadley tallied fourteen wins and six losses, but then entered an eight-season wilderness brightened by only two winning seasons. He pitched for mediocre teams—the Senators, the Chicago White Sox, and the woeful St. Louis Browns—posting an ERA for that period of just under 5.00. In 1928 he became the answer to a trivia question by giving up the last hit of Ty Cobb’s career. In 1932 he led pitchers in walks issued with 171. (He’s eleventh all-time in walks allowed with 1,442, just behind Red Ruffing and just ahead of Warren Spahn.) In 1934, thanks to his lack of control, he hit catcher Luke Sewell in the head, an incident that gave Hadley yet another footnote in baseball history when the beaning was blamed on a slick new ball that had been issued with Sewell’s at-bat. As a result, officials began requiring that umpires rough up the baseballs with mud before games, a practice that continues today. But what Hadley lacked in control he made up for in velocity and movement. Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson said of him, “You can’t tell me that a fellow with the strength and stuff which he has won’t make good.” Mickey Cochrane, before his beaning, listed Hadley as one of the league’s top five pitchers.
Hadley soldiered on during the lean years, despite back-to-back twenty-loss seasons in 1932 and 1933. But his career was resuscitated in 1936, when he was traded to the New York Yankees. It marked the beginning of the most fruitful, if also the most turbulent, period of his career. The Yankees of the time were a great team poised to do something no team had done before: win four consecutive World Series. The roster included Lou Gehrig and a rookie named Joe DiMaggio. In addition to Hadley, the pitching rotation included Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. Hadley responded to the opportunity by leading the league with the best win-loss record of his career, 14–4. Hadley also participated in one of the great World Series pitching duels that year, when the Yankees faced off against their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants. With the series even at one win apiece, Hadley battled Giants starter Freddie Fitzsimmons for eight innings to a 1–1 tie. The Yankees’ Frankie Crosetti singled in the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth to give Hadley the victory. During his years with the Yankees, Hadley was 2–1 in the postseason, with a 4.15 ERA.
After a 12–6 year in 1939, Hadley’s ERA ballooned to 5.74 in 1940, his first losing season with the Yankees. He retired the next year and took up a second career in broadcasting; in 1948 he pioneered the role of television baseball analyst when he became part of the on-air team broadcasting Red Sox games. His tenure with the
Yankees, though, left a tantalizing clue of what might have been. What might he have become had he spent his career with a good team? Yankees manager Joe McCarthy once said of another good pitcher on a bad team that on the Yankees he would have won 400 games. How much better would Hadley have been? During his years with the Yankees, his winning percentage was .613. The average winning percentage for all right-handed pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame at a similar time in their careers is .596. Had he managed to maintain that percentage advantage over his entire career, his record becomes 201–125, with two twenty-win seasons.
This is Hall of Fame territory. Teammate Lefty Gomez is in the Hall with a 189–102 record.
Stephen Eschenbach is a writer in Millburn, New Jersey.