Grave Story: Hal Elliott (1899-1963)

Here lies Hal Elliott, a reliever who led the NL in appearances in 1930. His career ERA puts him in unique company in the history of Major League Baseball. Elliott played for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1929-32.

Harold “Ace” Elliott was born on May 29, 1899 in Mount Clemens, Mich. Unlike a lot of major leaguers whose playing careers were interrupted by military service, Elliott joined the war effort before he played professionally. During World War I, he was part of the 68th Balloon Co. in the U.S. Army Air Service (the forerunner to the Air Force) as a teenager. The 68th was not, as far as I could tell, part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that saw action overseas.

Elliott was discharged in 1919. He made his professional debut four years later in 1923, when the 24-year-old joined the Kalamazoo Celery Pickers of the Michigan-Ontario League. Yes, Celery Pickers, in case you were thinking that the Trash Pandas or Sod Poodles was the most ridiculous minor-league team you’d ever heard of. Elliott won a combined 10 games over two seasons while losing 18 and then pitched briefly for London of the same league in 1925. He pitched for the Waco Cubs for the next three seasons and was quite the workhorse. He averaged 255 innings pitched for the Cubs from 1926-28 and won a total of 46 games. His steady work caused him to be drafted by the Cardinals prior to the 1929 season.

Elliott made it through most of Spring Training with the Redbirds before being sold to the Phillies on March 30, 1929. The Cardinals trained in Avon Park, Fla., while the Phillies were in Winter Haven. Elliott tried and failed to get Phillies manager Burt Shotton on the phone to find out where his new team was, so he spent his first official day as a Phillie hanging out with his old Cardinal teammates.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t seem broken up by his loss. “He had appeared in several exhibition games this spring for the Cards but on no occasion did he perform in a manner to impress the club management as a find,” it wrote.

The 1937 Wilkes-Barre Barons, Elliott’s final professional team. He is on the right side of the table, looking off to the left. Source: The Evening News (Scranton, Pa.), Sept. 22, 1937.

In his MLB debut, Elliott was summoned in the first inning after starter Luther Roy failed to retire any of the first 5 batters. Coming in with the bases loaded, Elliott let all three runners score on a double by Travis Jackson and then allowed 5 more runs to score in 3 innings of work, allowing 9 hits and 2 walks.

That kind of set the tone for Elliott’s career-long role as the guy who tried to save the rest of the pitching staff in blowout losses. Once the other team had double-digit runs, Elliott would finish the game off. He appeared in 40 games in ‘29, and the Phillies record in those games was 9-31. His best game of the season was a rare start and a complete game win over the Reds on July 18, where he allowed 4 runs on 9 hits and 6 walks. His mark for the season was 3-7 with a 6.06 ERA.

Elliott’s 1930 season was remarkable. He won 6 and lost 11 games and allowed 100 earned runs in 117-1/3 innings for a 7.67 ERA. He gave up 191 hits and 58 walks for a WHIP of 2.122. And yet, the Phillies kept putting him out there, to the point that he led the National League with 48 appearances, including 11 starts. Just how bad were the Phillies? They finished 52-102, and the team ERA was 6.71. Pinky Whitney hit .342 and Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul both topped .380, and the Phillies stellar offense couldn’t keep pace with their horrid pitching. The team used 14 pitchers, and eight of them had ERAs higher than 7.00, including Hall of Famer Pete Alexander, who staggered toward the end of his career with an 0-3 record and 9.14 ERA. So yes, Elliott was awful, but he was hardly the worst option that manager Shotton had. Thus, he was thrown to the wolves repeatedly, turning in what was quite possibly the worst performance ever by a pitcher who led the league in games pitched.

Elliott’s 1931 season was even worse, but at least it was shorter. His best outing of the year came in an exhibition against a minor-league club from Camden. He fanned 8 in 6-1/3 scoreless innings as the Phillies narrowly won 8-6. In games that counted, Elliott was 0-2 with a 9.55 ERA in 16 outings. His season ended at the end of June when he was sent home with a sore arm.

Elliott started 1932 with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association but was brought back for one more chance in May. He was hammered in his first few outings, but on June 14, he was called into the 1st inning against the Reds after starter Jumbo Elliott had retired just 1 of the first 7 batters he faced. With two runners on, Elliott got out of the first and threw a total of 8-2/3 innings of 1-run ball. The Phillies still lost, but it was the best Elliott had ever pitched in the majors. He appeared in a total of 16 games with 7 starts and ended the season with a 2-3 record and 5.77 ERA. He stopped pitching in early August; I can’t tell if he was injured or sent back to the minors, but he never pitched in the majors again.

Hal Elliott’s record in 4 MLB seasons is 11-24 with a 6.95 ERA in 120 games and 30 starts. He threw 4 complete games and earned 3 saves. In 322-1/3 innings, Elliott gave up 453 hits and 174 walks for a 1.945 WHIP, while striking out 90 batters. Of all pitchers who have ever thrown more than 300 innings in their career, he has the second-highest ERA of all time. Only Bill Kissinger, who pitched in 3 seasons in the 1890s, had a higher one (6.99). It’s tough to be the second-best in anything in Major League Baseball, but it’s also tough to be the second worst. There are some mitigating circumstances, however. Elliott happened to come into the game at a time when offensive numbers were just insane. The entire National League had a .303 batting average in 1930, for instance. He wasn’t a great pitcher, but no pitcher came out of that era with their egos or ERAs intact.

Elliott stuck around in the minor leagues until 1937. In his final season, he won 14 games for the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the New York-Pennsylvania League with a good 3.66 ERA. He won a total of 103 games in the minors. After the season was up, he returned to Michigan to continue his off-season job as an accountant. He was still in Michigan in 1940, per the annual census. By 1959, he had moved to Hawaii, according to a notice that he would be the guest speaker at the Honolulu Quarterback Club. The last news item on him I could find was that he umpired a charity softball game in 1961.

Hal Elliott died on April 25, 1963 at his home in Honolulu. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to the Baseball Necrology. He was 63 years old and was buried with military honors at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (aka Punchbowl Cemetery) in Honolulu.

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