Early MLB Star Pitcher Amos Rusie Couldn’t Escape the Rumor Mill
The Baseball Hall-of-Famer was relentlessly dogged by the press once his career ended prematurely because of injury
Right-handed pitcher Amos Rusie was one of the greatest stars in the earliest days of baseball. The hurler was the original dominant fastball pitcher who put together an amazing 10-year run before an arm injury prematurely and effectively ended his career when he was just 27. The future Hall-of-Famer didn’t have a smooth post-baseball life but simply couldn’t avoid being a target of the newspaper rumor mill once he was done on the mound.
Armed with a powerful fastball that many claimed was the fastest of all-time, and a devastating curve, Rusie joined his hometown Indianapolis Hoosiers of the National League as an 18-year-old in 1889. He signed with the New York Giants the following year and spent the next eight seasons as their ace. He had a distinct advantage during the first half of his career because of his speed and the fact that mounds were only 50 feet from home plate instead of the now regulatory 60 feet, six inches. As John McGraw once quipped about the hurler, “you can’t hit ’em if you can’t see ‘em.”
After suffering a significant arm injury, he lost his trademark heater. A failed 22-inning stint with the Cincinnati Reds (Where he was traded straight up for a pitching prospect names Christy Mathewson) in 1901 ended his big-league career for good. However, he did a lot in his 10 seasons, going 246–174 with a 3.07 ERA in 3,778.2 innings. He won 28 or more games six different times; led the league in ERA twice and strikeouts five times. It’s hard not to think that his excessive use contributed to his early demise.
While his career was cut short, his legend trickled down through the years. He was honored with induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. Sadly, it occurred nearly 35 years after his death.
It’s true that Rusie encountered personal difficulty (money and marital troubles) once his big arm failed him but searching the archives show that newspapers almost delighted in constantly reporting for literal decades after he left baseball about the failures and shortcomings he encountered and how he had “fallen” so far from his days as a beloved professional ball player. It seemed every time he got a new job, it wound up as a headline. The stories and the rumors were never-ending. Thy included:
April 18, 1900: Rusie and his wife divorced (they later remarried), but the story became fodder for the news. The Buffalo Times wrote about how the split came about:
“Amos dropped his collar button the other morning and it rolled under the bureau. In trying to get the little piece of bone the big pitcher accidentally struck the family cat with a feather duster and disarranged the piece of ren ribbon on its neck. The feline yelled and Mrs. Rusie promptly told Amos that he was a brute. The big fellow was down on his hands and knees and was red in the face from his efforts to locate his collar button… He ‘sassed’ back and one word brought another… Mrs. Rusie thought over the way her giant hubby had talked to her and ultimately concluded to pack her clothes and go home to her mother.”
November 30, 1900: Just six months after his divorce scandal cause by his accidental poking of the family cat, the papers were back at it in dissecting his life. The Davenport Weekly Leader (Iowa) brought their readers the sensational story of “Amos Rusie as a Villager.” They described how he was “very negligent about his dress, he wanders about over the city at will, seldom if ever accompanied by anyone, and apparently not caring for the little notice his presence on the street attracts.”
The paper also indicated his divorce was brought about by his fondness of whiskey, but happily reported that the pair had already reconciled and were living on his Indiana farm — even if they were now merely peasants.
December 8, 1901: Described as “the passing of Amos Rusie,” the Boston Post wrote how “a few years ago he toiled at the rate of $50 an hour. Today his wage averages 20 cents for that length of time.” They reported to readers that Rusie was employed as a ditch digger in Muncie, Indiana, the situation was attributed to his abuse of whiskey.
Later articles had Rusie explaining he was doing manual labor to hopefully get back into baseball shape. However, the press could be brutal. One article joked that “the fact developed that the diamond star of old was so fat and wide that no ordinary trench could accommodate him.”
April 14, 1904: A story with the headline “Amos Rusie Falls From Among Mighty,” told the next sordid chapter of the pitcher. It detailed how he attempted to pitch in an industrial league in 1903 but his arm was so weak he was quickly cut. From there he “secured a horse and wagon and went about the country buying old iron and rags. This business did not pan out ducats sufficient to feed the horse.”
September 14, 1905: A story picked up by the Marshfield News and Wisconsin Hub reported the former pitcher had found employment for $1.50 a day as a hand in an Indiana lumber yard. After noting he once made as much as $5,000 annually with the Giants, the story went on to highlight that “it is now announced he has obtained a better position in Cairo, ILL., where he will receive $4 a day.”
May 28, 1906: “Great Pitcher Now Clam Digger” screamed the headline from the Los Angeles Evening Express. It went on to describe how he had started his new job of mussel fishing in the Wabash River in Washington in the hopes of making a fortune on pearls.
January 11, 1913: Columnist Sam Crane became the latest to check in on the perceived downfall of Rusie with a syndicated piece describing how “demon rum’s crushing blows cost Amos Rusie the chance to become game’s greatest hurler.” He went on to write that the former pitcher “had an equal chance with Christy Mathewson to become and stay the best pitcher of his day and time, but his weak character clogged his efforts and drink spoiled his career.”
February 10, 1918: On the move again, the Pittsburgh Press reported that the “great twirler who was replaced by Christy Mathewson” had recently been hired as a park caretaker in Seattle. The headline blared, “Once Famous Amos Rusie a Park Tender.” It did not mention why the lengthy piece was published in the first place if he was no longer well known as they claimed.
Rusie may have enjoyed drink but it wasn’t what undid his playing career. That was an arm injury that he suffered in 1898 when attempting to pick a runner off first base in a game. From that day forward, he was never the same. Decades later, he admitted “Even today I’m often bothered by twinges of pain here.”
As it turned out, he may have worked a variety of jobs after baseball, but he wasn’t penniless. In addition to what papers reported, he also was employed at times as an umpire, a ticket taker in Seattle, at a paper mill and as a gas fitter. In 1921, he was hired by John McGraw to be the night watchman and later the superintendent of grounds at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Although he remained at his new baseball job for eight years, he reportedly didn’t love it and his wife, who was physically disabled at that point, preferred being back west. In 1929, he bought a chicken ranch in Auburn, Washington, but the Great Depression sunk it in the coming years.
In 1934, Rusie was severely injured in a car accident, spending four days in a coma. Although he sufficiently recovered, he was unable to work and subsequently his ranch was foreclosed on. A fund-raising effort by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer raised enough money to give him a modest income and a small home to live until he and his wife ultimately moved in with their daughter. He passed away in 1942 at the age of 71.
People stare at those who have the kind of talent Rusie possessed. They stare even harder if those they place on a pedestal experience a fall from glory. The pitcher was once one of the greatest stars the game had ever seen but life was much tougher for him once his prized arm failed him. Although he steadily worked to stay afloat, the press who once idolized him and all his accomplishments on the diamond, couldn’t wrote enough stories to glorify his descent to the world of the common man.