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July 15, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Toad Ramsey


Think back, if you can, to the 1880s.

In this quaint, pre-Jitterbug-and-automobile era, baseball was in its fledgling state, bearing little resemblance to the product we have today. Not only did the game not yet have a term for sacrifice bunts (I’m guessing that because every player was white, there was no need for sportswriters to figure out who was “gritty”), baseball lacked the great equalizer between athletes and non-athletes: the knuckleball.

Fortunately, Toad Ramsey arrived on the scene in 1885 to change all that.

Ramsey, whose given name was Thomas, earned his nickname by being a tub of goo that quite literally looked “like a toad.” Which is quite an accomplishment considering that Hot Pockets and cookie butter were still decades from being invented.  He was also the world’s first baseball magician; the first player to throw those floating, flitting, cross-dimensional pitches known as The Knuckleball.

Just as Bruce Wayne needed to lose his parents to become a crime fighter and John Henry Kellogg needed to give enemas to sanitarium patients so he could invent corn flakes, Ramsey had to undergo personal tragedy to ascend to his pitching throne. While working as a bricklayer, Ramsey sliced the tendon of his index finger with a trowel, forcing him to hold the baseball with the tip of his finger. No longer able to grip a baseball like the rest of his much more boring contemporaries, Ramsey now had two distinct “curves” as they were called, for the pre-20th century mind just couldn’t comprehend the sheer awesomeness of the term, “knuckleball.”

As described in the January 6, 1923 Youngstown Vindicator:

“The ball would leave the hand and go on a straight line to the plate, then suddenly shoot down. Ramsey has almost perfect control of this curve and threw it with as much ease and confidence as most hurlers possess when they slam through straight ones. Ramsey’s other curve left his hand in exactly the same manner, but would fly off at a sharp angle just as the batsman would wing at it. Ramsey’s curve was pronounced by experts to be the perfect demonstration of rotating a sphere.”

And that “curve” was just so good, so unstoppable, that batters struck out at a dizzying pace despite the rule book requiring pitchers to show the ball before the pitch and with batters getting four strikes in each at-bat. With his futuristic offering, Ramsey struck out 499 batters in 1886 (albeit in 588.2 innings) followed by a league leading 355 in 1887, including 17 against the Cleveland Blues on June 21 of that year.  Of course, the Blues went 39-92 and featured a player by the name of Scrappy Carroll who hit .171 in his Major League career, but Ramsey is not to blame for the Blues’ roster construction.
In addition to striking out batters by the bushel-load, and forever changing the face of the game, Ramsey was also the most intensely humble man you would ever meet. One night, while checking into a hotel, a fan told him that he should get a good night’s sleep because the opposition would “take some of the conceit out of you tomorrow.” Most men would have ignored this affront or perhaps offered a hearty “Fuck off,” but Ramsey was not most people. Instead, Ramsey grabbed the man and said:

“Take that back. Take it back, or I’ll choke the life out of you. If I thought there was one drop of conceit in me I’d cut off my left arm.”

Oh yeah, did I neglect to mention that Ramsey was once arrested for not paying his bar bill? Because he did that, too. But I’m guessing that he was just too darn humble to alert the bartender of his outstanding debt. Of course, Ramsey is also credited as the inventor of the “Toad Ramsey cocktail” in which he dropped a shot of whiskey into a pint of beer and was known to imbibe up to three in a day. But hey, he’s also an inventor, that’s something!

The final proof that Toad Ramsey may indeed have been baseball’s equivalent of Nikola Tesla and/or was some kind of baseball terminator was his belief in BABIP.

“If I yield up a groover and the fellow at bat gives it a slap and it goes to short, who fields it to first in time, why is that an out for the baseman and an assist for shortstop, and all right for me, in a manner of speaking. But look at you—if that shortstop had been playing a slightly different position, and the ball had got by him, it would have counted as a hit off me. That’s funny as after the ball left my hands I had no further control over it.”

1.)    We need to call more pitches “groovers.”

2.)    The idea for BABIP was not birthed until Voros McCracken stumbled upon it in 2001. Which was also the year that the computers were supposed to rise up and rebel against us. How would Toad Ramsey know about the concept unless a bordering universe, which was destroyed by Y2K, sent Ramsey back in time as their last, great hope for survival?

So for all you hard-living, sabermetrically-inclined baseball fans who enjoy watching RA Dickey embarrass muscle-bound baseball-crushing mutants by throwing up some floaters, remember this man. Because modern society would not have been possible if not for the corpulently humble, rotundly irascible, Toad Ramsey.


Michael Clair is a writer and comic living in Los Angeles. He can be found at Old Time Family Baseball and on Twitter @ClairBearAttack. He spends a lot of time considering the viability of fictional characters breaking through into our plane of existence.

1 comment:

Bo said...

Actually there were black baseball players in the 1880s. Its a common misconception that Jackie Robinson was the first major leaguer. He was just the first since the adoption of segregation. Maybe next year someone should do an HOVG Heroes piece on Moses Fleetwood Walker.