Jim Devlin: The Most Interesting Man in Baseball History

Editor’s note: Alex Putterman will be contributing posts every other Monday going forward.

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Jim Devlin is third all-time in ERA among pitchers with 1,000 career innings pitched, behind Hall of Famers Ed Walsh and Addie Joss. He’s also third all-time in ERA+, behind Mariano Rivera and Pedro Martinez and right ahead of Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson. But Devlin is not in the Hall of Fame, and by no measure deserves to be; in fact, the 1870’s star played only half the ten-season Hall requirement. Into those five wacky seasons, however, Devlin packed multiple careers-worth of notability. From a full season of complete games to a disappointing Shoeless Joe-like end, Jim Devlin’s résumé reads like a baseball-themed Dos Equis commercial.

Devlin began his career in 1873 in the National Association, playing mostly 1st base for the Philadelphia and Chicago White Stockings (two separate teams with the same name, another bizarre reality of 19th century baseball) and batting .281 during his time in the NA. But as Chicago learned in 1875, Devlin’s true value was on the mound, where he posted a 1.93 ERA in 28 opportunities that season.

When the NA folded in 1876, Devlin jumped to the National League to pitch for the newly-formed Louisville Grays. Here, he is said to have invented the “down shoot,” a pitch modern baseball fans know as the sinker. With the unhittable new pitch as his secret weapon, Devlin went 30-35 in ’76, throwing 66 complete games in 68 starts (the team played 69 games, the last of which Devlin lost to injury) with a 1.56 ERA. At a time when starting pitchers all accumulated inning totals absolutely obscene by modern standards, Devlin led the NL with 622 innings pitched (tied for 9th most ever in a single season).

Devlin followed up his terrific ’76 campaign with one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history. The Grays played 61 games in 1877. Devlin started all of them… and finished all of them, the first and only pitcher in baseball history to pitch every inning of every one of his team’s games. Although for the second straight year the right-hander led the NL in losses, he also boasted the league’s highest totals in innings pitched, games started, complete games and ERA+ and won 35 games.

But a calamitous late-season road trip kept Devlin’s Grays from the National League pennant that year, and suspicion arose that gamblers had a hand in the collapse. It was eventually concluded that Devlin and three teammates had taken money to intentionally lose games (Devlin confessed, blaming his “cheapskate” owner). National League president William Hulbert promptly banished the quartet for life, and so, with 1,405 career innings pitched (1,181 in the National League), Jim Devlin’s career was abruptly over. So too was the two-year existence of the Louisville Grays, who went out of business after the scandal. In the franchise’s abbreviated history Jim Devlin had been starting pitcher in all but one game.

If not for his banishment, Devlin would have presumably maintained his prowess on the mound a few more seasons and could today be enshrined in Cooperstown. Instead he’s been relegated to relative anonymity, closer to infamy than fame, noted more for associating with gamblers than for starting 129 out of a possible 130 games over a two-year stretch. But it’s both the throwing of baseballs and the throwing of games that makes Devlin such a fascinating figure. Inventor of the sinker, greatest innings-eater of all-time, and culprit of a gambling scandal? Those sound like credentials of the most interesting player in baseball history.

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