Twilight of the Closers: The Old Fox, Firpo Marberry, and the Washington revolution

Fred “Firpo” Marberry’s last out in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series between the Washington Senators and New York Giants may have been his easiest. Taking on the opposing pitcher, only in the batters box, normally broke the in favor of who ever stood on the mound. In this case, the Nats had the edge, Marberry had the ball, and his victim, Virgil “Zeke” Barnes, the New York Giants’ starting pitcher, must have been running on fumes. It was the top of the 8th. Marberry needed to be careful because Barnes was by no means a gimme. He came into the post-season with a .182 average, 423 OPS, 14 hits, 8 runs, and 4 RBIs. Not terrible for a pitcher. During their previous head-to-head in the 6th inning, Barnes popped up to shallow right, proving he could make contact given the chance.

The Giants and Senators series delivered storylines that resonated with the public. It pitted the two-time defending champions from New York against the perennially underachieving Senators. Since winning the second World Series in 1905, the Giants came up short year after year, despite becoming one of baseball’s biggest teams. From 1911-1913, they played in the October Classic only to lose to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and Jake Stahl’s Boston Red Sox. In 1917, they met the Chicago White Sox with the same results. It wasn’t until 1921 that John McGraw’s men emerged from the fray as champions. They repeated the feat the following year. Both times, they beat Babe Ruth and the Yankees.

Then 1924 happened.

According to baseball historian Stew Thornley, “Controversy shrouded the World Series on its eve. On October 1, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis placed New York outfielder Jimmy O’Connell and coach Cozy Dolan on the ineligible list for trying to bribe Philadelphia shortstop Heinie Sand to “not bear down too hard” in a September 27 game between the Giants and Phillies. The Giants won that game, 5-1, clinching the National League pennant as second-place Brooklyn lost to Boston. Sand reported the incident to his manager, who passed it on to league president John Heydler. Three other Giants—Frankie Frisch, Ross Youngs, and George Kelly—were implicated but cleared by the commissioner.”

A cloud hung over the team for the remainder of the pennant race and the World Series against the Washington Senators. The combination of being heavy favorites, defending champions, and dirty handed cheaters made them into baseball versions of pantomime villains.

The Washington Senators were polar opposites. The closest they’d come to winning the pennant was in 1912 and 1913 when they finished second to the Bosox and then the so-called Mackmen from Philly. Prior to those strong showings, the Nats defined bottom feeders; after finishing second, they improved to middling mediocrities. Still, they had the gentleman’s gentleman among baseball players — Walter “The Big Train” Johnson — who was also one of the greatest pitchers to grace the diamond (and remains so to this day). America loved Johnson, even more than Babe Ruth, and to see him and the Senators make a run amid speculation that he’d hang up his gloves at season’s end, exhilarated the country. Taken together, the Nats had become the Cinderella story of the decade. Everyone wanted them to win. Tied at three games apiece, the dream still lived, but only just. Trailing 3-1, Firpo Marberry just needed to keep the game close. It was a thankless task.

Clark Griffith
Clark Griffith
Clark Griffith

Firpo the Fireman

Liberal use of pitching is not a new thing and it certainly didn’t start with Alex Cora’s World Series bullpen management or Kevin Cash’s regular season “Openers.” Long before them, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith oversaw a revolution in pitching strategy that lay the groundwork for relief pitching and the 9th inning closer. Arguably, it led the team of underachievers to the zenith of baseball.

Clark Griffith spent most of his professional baseball career as a pitcher with Comisky’s Chicago White Sox. Nicknamed the Old Fox for his cerebral approach to pitching, Griffith never overpowered batters but relied on guile and scuffed baseballs to get his outs. He finished his pitching career with the New York Highlanders but went on to manage them and, in 1912, the Washington Senators. Before joining the Nats, Griffith bought a one tenth stake in the team, making him the largest stockholder, and therefore, owner.

Griffith Stadium
Walter Johnson
Walter Johnson

In the early 1920s, baseball began to see a shift in how pitchers were used. At the time, relief pitching still consisted of starting pitchers coming into games to limit the damage done during a starter’s rough outing. They tended to come into games already lost and minimal strategizing was involved. The new way of thinking considered relievers as something more. They’d come to be known as firemen.

In 1923, Clark Griffith made a definitive move toward using relief pitchers strategically. At the behest of Griffith, manager Donnie Bush appointed Allen Russell, a right-hander out of Baltimore, Maryland, the Nats’ main fireman. He excelled in the role, racking up a league leading 9 saves and 3.03 ERA in 52 games. He was supported by a rookie, Firpo Marberry.

Russell Allen paper clipping

The following season, the new player-manager, Bucky Harris, had Marberry replace Russell as the team’s primary fireman. A big, burly athlete, he threw as hard as he scowled at hitters from the mound.

Bob Addie, the old Washington Post sports columnist, described the relief pitcher in striking terms, “There was the violent Fred (Firpo) Marberry, one of the greatest competitors in Washington history. They used to say of Marberry that he’d knock down his own brother, if his own brother were batting against him.”

As the 1924 season progressed, The Big Train strung together an incredible twelve win streak to help hold off the New York Yankees. Marberry took the ball from Walter Johnson in relief when needed. Washington won the pennant by two games.

Fred “Firpo” Marberry
The 1924 season saw the Washington Senators in a tight pennant race with the much richer New York Yankees.

Harris gambled with his pitching lineup for the deciding game of the 1924 World Series. Johnson had pitched two days before and failed to impress. In fact, he also lost his first outing in the series. Marberry was available for relief, as always, but not to start since he started and lost Game 3, though he did notch a save the night before — short rest if ever there was any. If the Senators were going to win with their second tier pitchers, any sort of an edge would help.

According to Thornley, “With Johnson unavailable, Bucky Harris had no obvious choice to pitch Game Seven. So he tried to deke McGraw. He started right-hander Curly Ogden, but planned to replace the 23-year-old in the first inning with the veteran George Mogridge, a lefty. Harris’s goal was to neutralize Bill Terry, the Giants’ left-handed first baseman, who was 6 for 12 in the series with a home run and a triple.”

It wasn’t until the 6th inning that McGraw made his move. With runners at the corners, he brought in Irish Meusal to hit for Terry. Harris countered by bringing in his fireman, Firpo Marberry. Unfortunately, a sacrifice fly and a fielding error allowed he two inherited runners to score, though he runs were awarded to Movridge. From that point forward, Firpo pitched three scoreless innings. He kept the Nationals in the running.

Griffith Stadium
President Calvin Coolidge throws out first pitch at 1924 World Series.


The Senators tied the game in the bottom of the eighth behind a Bucky Harris ground ball that hit a pellet and took a lucky hop over the Fred Lindstrom’s head. Thornley describes what followed, “After Nehf relieved Barnes and Rice grounded out to end the inning, the Washington fans roared for two reasons. One was the game-tying rally. The other was for Walter Johnson, who was on his way to the mound for the ninth inning. The Big Train would again get a shot at a World Series win, one that would give his team the championship.”

Like Chris Sale in 2018 and Randy Johnson in 2001, Walter Johnson held down opposing batters for three innings until the bottom of the 12th. That was when Earl McNeely, hitless in his previous five at-bats, hit another ground ball to Lindstrom. In the exact same way Harris’ soft grounder bounded over the infielder’s head, this ground ball struck something on the ground and flew over hand and glove. The winning run, Muddy Ruel, scored from second base.

The Washington Senators won their first and only championship that year. Walter Johnson, a sentimental favorite, had his moment of World Series glory. And Clark Griffith had his relief pitcher strategy which he had been implementing since the 1923 season vindicated.

1924 World Series

Firpo Marberry went on to become the premier fireman of his era. In 1925, he continued rescuing Nationals pitchers on the way to a World Series loss. Marberry’s career numbers would suffer from the fact that he was such a good and versatile pitcher. While he would express his desire to start more games, his managers always considered him more valuable coming out of the bullpen to put out fires. As a result, his stats never spiked for wins or saves and he never quite met Cooperstown’s criteria for a Hall of Fame pitcher. However, a few telling stat shows just how good a pitcher he must have been, particularly in his prime.

Clark Griffith

In 1934, while pitching for the Detroit Tigers and two years before his retirement, Firpo Marberry notched 15 wins/5 losses, 64 SO, and a .750 W-L%. The year before (also with the Tigers), he had a 16-11 record and led the league with a 1.229 WHIP. The season before that, when he was traded from Washington to Detroit, he led the league in saves with 13.

Marberry set the standard for closers of the future.

Bob Addie recalled a conversation he had with the old Chicago White Sox center fielder, Johnny Mostil, about past players who would be interesting to watch play against modern players.

“I’d like to see Firpo Marberry in the big leagues now,” Mostil said, “Firpo was a great one for Washington and I know I hated to hit against him.

“Those were the days when there were no night games and along about twilight — or so it seemed — here would come Marberry from the bullpen. The shadows would be stretching in Griffith Stadium and I tell you it scared me hitting against him. I’d like to see what some of the modern BOS would have done against old Firpo.”

Fred “Firpo” Marberry, one of baseball’s first proper closers, may be the best pitcher to be denied induction into Cooperstown.

While Russell Allen could have been the prototype for tricky finesse closers, history did not go down that route. Instead, Marberry set the mold for hard throwing closers.

Fred “Firpo” Marberry career statistics.
Russell Allen career statistics.
Washington Senators 1924 World Series pitching statistics.

WORDS: Marc Landas

SOURCES: Washington Post; Baseball Reference; SABR Biography Project; SABR Games Project; New York Times; Fangraphs

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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