Ask the common baseball fan who holds the single season strikeout record and you’ll probably get answers ranging from Nolan Ryan to Rube Waddell, or Bob Feller to Sandy Koufax. Truth is that the record was set before Bob Feller was even born, before the American League came into existence and before Rube Waddell wrestled his first alligator. Matt Kilroy fanned 513 batters in the 1886 season for the old Baltimore Orioles–easily the safest single season record in baseball.
Pitchers of Kilroy’s day were expected to pitch all nine innings and take the mound more than once a week. Nicknamed Matches because of his fiery pitching style, Kilroy tossed 583 innings as a rookie for the Orioles in ’86 under skipper Billy Barnie. The Birds had nothing in the way of offense which kept them in the second division even if they did possess baseball’s greatest strikeout artist. As a rookie, Matches led the league in games started, complete games (66) and strikeouts (a record-setting 513). But catcher Chris Fulmer was the only Oriole to hit over .240 which made the Orioles a losing outfit.
The Orioles jumped up to third place in 1887 thanks largely to Kilroy’s terrific sophomore season. Matches won a league best 46 games, threw a league high 69 games, completed a league best 66 games, notched a league high six shutouts and tossed an American Association best 589 innings.
After a two-year workload of 1,172 innings, Kilroy was limited to just 40 games in 1888. He dropped to just 17 wins and his strikeout total plummeted to 135. But the following year Matches did his best pack mule impression by logging 481 innings for the 1889 Orioles. The southpaw led the league with 55 complete games and his 217 strikeouts were good for second in the American Association. Matches won 29 games for the Orioles which gave him 121 victories in his first four years.
When the Player’s League was adopted in 1890, Kilroy jumped the Orioles and took his tired arm to the new circuit. Due to his four years of excessive use in Baltimore, Kilroy’s career was all but over. In the Player’s League lone year of operation, Matches pitched for King Kelly’s first place Reds of Boston, but the pitching honors went to Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn and Ad Gumbert. Kilroy’s tired arm managed a 9-15 record.
When the Player’s League folded, Kilroy went to Cincinnati with his Boston skipper King Kelly and played sparingly for Kelly’s Killers with a fine 2.98 ERA. The next three years, Matches would fail to appear in ten games but nevertheless retained a roster spot and was able to play in the ten necessary seasons for Hall of Fame consideration. His last year in the Majors was 1898 when he logged 100 innings for the Orphans of Chicago.
W 141/L 133/PCT .515/ERA 3.47/G 303/CG 264/IP 2,436/H 2,445/SHO 19/BB 754/SO 1,170