This edition of Baseball Profiles appeared on Episode 1 (4.6.15) of the A Foot In The Box Podcast.
James A. Devlin was born in Philadelphia in 1849, three years after the first ever professional baseball game was played and 12 years before the Civil War would begin.
Devlin began his playing days with the Philadelphia White Stockings in 1873. He moved on to play for the Chicago White Stockings (creative team names, right?) in 1874 and 1875. These teams were part of the first professional baseball league, the National Association. This league folded in 1876 and was replaced by the National League, which still lives on today, almost 140 years later.
In the National League, Devlin began pitching (he was previously an infielder) for the Louisville Grays. In 1876, Devlin started an incredible 68 games, accumulating a 1.56 ERA over 622 innings pitched. Now known as a “sinker”, his best weapon on the mound was called a “drop pitch”. He also led the team in hitting with a .315 batting average. Building off that stellar season, Devlin pitched every inning of his team’s games in 1877, the only pitcher ever to do so (I think that record is safe).
By mid-August, the Grays had built a sizable lead for the NL title. However, the team then lost seven games in a row on a road trip that was filled with poor defense and pitching. The Grays would end up finishing second to the Boston Red Caps. Suspicion that the team was throwing games arouse when many members of the Grays were seen around Louisville wearing fancy new jewelry and dining at exclusive restaurants. The situation grew even more tense when players performed much better in post-season exhibition games. After the Louisville Courier Journal dug deeper into the story and evidence mounted, Jim Devlin was the first to confess that they had intentionally lost games in exchange for money. Utility infielder Al Nichols was found to have been coordinating the games with gamblers form New York City. Devlin claimed to have thrown one game for $100, which he gave to his wife.
The news sent the league into chaos. The guilty players claimed the only reason they did it was because their owner hadn’t paid them fairly. The president of the National League, William Hulbert, chose to take a stand and protect a league that was still in its infancy. Hulbert banned Devlin and three others for life.
Devlin met with Hulbert to appeal his lifetime ban. According to reports, both men were in tears as Hulbert said, “You have sold the game and I can’t trust you. Now go and let me never see your face again, for your act will not be condoned so long as I live."
Desperate to get back into the game he loved, Devlin wrote many letters to Harry Wright which have been preserved. Harry Wright was the Boston Red Caps general manager and also the most respected man in baseball. Devlin pleaded to Wright for mercy: “Dear sir, As I am deprived from playing this year, I thought I would write you to see if you could do anything for me in the way of looking after your ground or anything in the way of work. I don’t know what I am to do. I can assure you Harry that I was not treated right. I am honest Harry, you need not be afraid. The Louisville people made me what I am today: a beggar. I have not got a stitch of clothing, or has my wife and child. I am dumb Harry. I don’t know how to go about it, so I trust you will answer this and do all you can for me. Hoping to hear from you soon. I am yours truly, James A. Devlin."
Harry Wright did not respond. Devlin eventually found a job as a police officer, but died with very little money in 1883 from tuberculosis, leaving behind his wife and son. One Louisville paper stated that Devlin’s death was “an instructive example of the fruits of crookedness."
Devlin’s career ERA of 1.896 ranks 3rd all-time for pitchers with at least 1,000 innings.
This Baseball Profile was put together with the help of the following resources:
Jim: Devlin: The Most interesting Man in Baseball History (Alex Putterman)
Baseball (Ken Burns)