Read Part 2 of Twilight of the Closers

Since professional baseball’s earliest days, the relief pitcher’s role has been constant. Starting pitchers have always been occasionally terrible and needed a hand. The question was whether managers ever utilized the replacement pitcher entering the game to relieve the struggling starter. For a long time, it proved the exception to the rule, rather than the accepted strategy. Simply put, pitchers considered it humiliating to be pulled from a game, almost unmanly.

According to baseball historian Charles F. Faber, “One of the tenets of the Puritan work ethic was that a man finished what he started. He did not quit when the going got tough. Not all baseball players in the 19th and early 20th centuries were Puritans, by any means, but most of them held the conviction that if a man started a game he should finish it.”

Boston, 1879, Thos. Bond, Jno. Morrill, Chas. Snyder, Chas. W. Jones, J. J. Burdock, Edw. Cogswell, S. Houck, Jno. E. B. Sutton, W. Hawes, Chas. Foley, Harry Wright

Initially, baseball rules stated that a replacement could only be brought into a game in the case of injury to the current pitcher. When this occurred, the so-called “change” pitchers” normally came from other pitchers on the field.

As players continued developing the game, they soon came to realize that giving hitters different looks kept them off-balance, an increasing number of player-managers relied on the position player-pitcher during games. In the case of the Boston Red Stockings (better and later known as the Boston Red Caps but also known as the Boston Beaneaters and later the Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, and finally the Atlanta Braves), their player-manager Harry Wright called on the services of Jack Manning with enough regularity for Manning to be considered by historian John Thorn as “baseball’s first, bona-fide reliever.”

Jack Manning

In 1875 and 1876, he is retroactively credited with registering 11 saves in 20 appearances. The term relief pitcher and the notion of “saves” came much much later, however and Manning wore four hats: outfielder, batter, pitcher, and relief pitcher. He was an mediocre hitter, at best, and started roughly 20 games a season while averaging about 5 saves in a dozen relief appearances.

It would take another fifty years for the use of relief pitchers to become formalized as a regular in-game strategy.

SOURCE: SABR Biography Project; NYPL A. G. Spaulding Collection; Baseball Reference; the Baseball Almanac

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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