The modern day fan may find it difficult to believe that baseball was beset with ironmen pitchers in the 1800s and early 1900s. Today, starting pitchers are deemed successful if they carry their team through the sixth inning, but such a pitcher would have been a monumental failure in The Deadball Era. Pitchers were expected to finish what they started. This ironman mindset ultimately destroyed several brilliant careers: Noodles Hahn and Smokey Joe Wood are arguably the greatest two pitchers in baseball history, but they were used with such carelessness by their clubs that their arms were essentially ruined before they logged seven Major League seasons. The more astute managers knew that to save their ace’s arms, they had to limit the amount of pitches they through. The first manager to truly understand this was Washington’s Bucky Harris, who created the closer’s role when he tabbed Firpo Marberry as fireman for the 1924 season.
The Senators finished in 4th place in 1923, but with a new kid manager, they ascended to the top of the leader board in 1924. Their course to the pennant was helped greatly by Firpo Marberry. The first true closer in baseball history, Firpo has handed the ball by Bucky in the late innings to extinguish the fires created by his starting pitchers. It was Harris’ experiment that led the Senators to two straight pennants in 1924 and ’25: with a World Series title in 1924.
In the Senators’ championship season of 1924, Firpo led all of baseball with 50 appearances and 15 saves (the save wasn’t regarded as an official stat at the time). During the Fall Classic, Marberry posted a remarkable 1.13 ERA in helping the Senators take the title. The Senators won their second title in ’25 with Firpo leading the charge. He again saved 15 games and paced all Major League pitchers with 55 games. For the Fall Classic, Firpo didn’t allow a single earned run.
Firpo became the first pitcher to top the 20 saves plateau in 1926 – the feat wouldn’t happen again until 1949 when Joe Page notched more than 20. That season, Firpo was the first pitcher since Hall of Famer Ed Walsh to appear in over 60 games in a season. The ironman hurler again led the American League in games pitched during the 1928 season but became a starter in 1929. With several years of putting out fires under his belt, Firpo made the transition to starter seamlessly. But he wasn’t a conventional starter: he as an Ed Walsh and Three-Finger Brown type starter, meaning he started many games (28 to be exact) while also being called on to put out fires built by his fellow starting pitchers (he notched 11 saves in ’29 as well).
Firpo’s 1929 season was his finest, saving 11 games, starting 28, completing 18 of his starts and logging 250 innings. His 3.06 ERA was second in the league (among pitchers with the appropriate total of innings) to Athletics’ legend Lefty Grove. Although Firpo was being used often in the rotation, he still managed to flourish when called upon for relief duties: pacing the Majors in saves during the 1932 season.
With the current emphasis on relief pitchers in recent Hall of Fame inductions (Bruce Sutter & Goose Gossage) voters should take a look back and notice the careers of some of the first great firemen: the first being Firpo Marberry. Before the age of left-handed specialists and one-inning gunslingers, Firpo was putting out fires while tossing two or three innings of relief. He was a true ironman pitcher and would make for a solid Hall of Fame induction.
Firpo Marberry’s career stats: W 147/L 89/PCT .623/G 551/IP 2,066/H 2,049/BB 686/SO 822/ERA 3.63