Grave Story: Jesse Petty (1894-1971)

Here lies Jesse Petty, a hard-luck pitcher in the major leagues from the 1920s before becoming a very successful minor-leaguer into the mid-‘30s. The lefty played for the Cleveland Indians (1921), Brooklyn Robins (1925-28), Pittsburgh Pirates (1929-30) and Chicago Cubs (1930).

Jesse Petty, nicknamed “The Silver Fox,” was born on November 23, 1894 in Orr, Okla. He was drafted by Cleveland from San Antonio in December 1915 for $1,200. He had joined the San Antonio Bronchos earlier that year in exchange for a season ticket. I’ll let Bronchos owner H.J. Benson tell the story, because it’s a reminder of how delightfully weird the minor leagues were when they were independently operated. This is from the Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer of Bridgeport, Conn.

“Early last season a railroad engineer called me at my office and requested I give him a season’s pass. I asked him why he should make this request of me. He replied he had worked with me some years back in a mine down in Mexico, and suggested some day he might be able to do me a favor in return. I coughed up the pass, and the man slipped entirely out of my mind until in midseason he bobbed up one day and asked me if I wanted a good pitcher.

Source: The Pittsburgh Press, June 16, 1930.

“As our pitching staff was all shot to pieces, I told him I could easily use a capable pitcher. Several days later I received a wire from the engineer that his pitching find was on the way. Then several days more elapsed, and we had rather given him up, when one morning while I was sitting in the Gunter Hotel he appeared. I knew him the moment my eyes rested on him. He was a big, husky boy, and he held a battered old suit case in one hand and his coat and vest in the other, while big, wide suspenders held up his trousers.”

Petty won his first two starts, and he quickly became a fan favorite. Benson said the young lefty got a little full of himself, but if he would listen to Indians manager Lee Fohl, he’d turn out just fine.

“He came from Bomarton, Tex., which is about 300 miles in the sticks than any place in the country, and it wasn’t long before he got the idea he was the greatest pitcher in the world,” Benson explained. “That is his only fault. His habits are excellent, but success went to his head.”

Petty spent 1917 with New Orleans and Waco, refining his game. He went a combined 9-12 for the two teams. He was drafted into the armed services for 1918, one of 22 Texas League players to join the military. While he didn’t serve overseas, he did die once, according to the papers. Petty had pulled a Mark Twain; wire reports that he died while training in Camp Bowie were greatly exaggerated.

The still-alive Petty returned to pitching briefly for Milwaukee of the American Association in 1919, but he only appeared in 3 games because of arm problems. He rebounded with the Indianapolis Indians in 1920 and would spent most of the next 5 seasons with them. He won at least 11 games with them every year and had a stellar 29-8 record and 2.83 ERA in 1924. Petty was a workhorse pitcher, throwing more than 300 innings twice for Indy.

His first brief taste of the majors came at the start of the 1921 season. He made 4 appearances out of the bullpen, allowing 2 runs and 10 hits in 9 innings. Outside of those games, he was stuck in Indianapolis until his 29 wins in 1924 made him a hot commodity again.

At some point during his Indianapolis tenure, Cleveland had released him. The Brooklyn Robins, so named because of manager Wilbert Robinson, won the rights to him by sending cash and pitcher Dutch Henry to Indianapolis. In 1925, Petty joined the Robins and started 21 games and appeared in a total of 28, with a disappointing 9-9 record and 4.88 ERA. He walked 8 in his first MLB start, and despite a couple of good performances, his ERA was well over 6.00 under the last few weeks of the season.

Petty came into his own the following season. He was the Opening Day pitcher (replacing Dazzy Vance, who was suffering from a case of boils) and shut out the Giants on a 1-hitter, 1-0. He won 17 games, which was good enough for 7th in the National League. Of course, he also lost a league-leading 17 games, but considering the Robins finished 6th at 71-82, a 17-17 record was an excellent result. Petty was the most valuable player on the Robins in terms of Wins Above Replacement, and his 5.4 pitching WAR and 2.84 ERA were both 3rd in the NL. He threw 23 complete games while pitching 275-2/3 innings.

Source: The Edmonton (Alberta) Journal, October 15, 1927.

Petty nearly matched his performance in 1927. His ERA was slightly higher (2.98), but he threw almost the same amount of innings (271-2/3) and had identical strikeout totals (101 Ks). The Robins were a little worse, and so his record dropped to 13-18. He broke even again in 1928 with a 15-15 record, though his ERA rose to 4.04. Petty managed to get on the bad side of manager “Uncle Robbie” and was fined $200 and sent home for a “violation of training rules” in May. Robinson was an easy-going player’s manager, but he believed Petty’s slow start in ’28 was related to a lack of conditioning and failure to keep “regular hours.” His fine and suspension came after one too many violations of the team’s midnight curfew. One report said that he ended up being fined a total of $1,500 over the course of the season, but that it would be refunded if he behaved. He did indeed behave (or at least avoided getting caught), but come 1929, Perry wasn’t a Robin anymore.

For much of the previous two seasons, there were rumors that Petty would be dealt to Pittsburgh. Donie Bush, the Pirates skipper, was Petty’s manager in Indianapolis, and Bush coveted the lefty. The deal finally was made in December 1928. Petty was traded to the Pirates for shortstop Glenn Wright.

The Bucs, with veteran ace Burleigh Grimes, had a good pitching staff and won 88 games in 1929, good for second behind the Cubs. Petty, though, was just a fair pitcher, with an 11-10 record, 3.71 ERA and just 184-1/3 innings pitched. Really, most of that came in the final two months of the season, as he was awful through the end of July. In one stretch, he was knocked out of a game in the second inning against the Giants, having allowed 6 runs in 1-2/3 innings. He started the very next day and didn’t even make it out of the first, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits before getting yanked early again. He did pitch 3 scoreless innings the next day, still against the Giants, but those two back-to-back botched starts left him out of the starting rotation for more than a month.

Petty got off to a terrible start in 1930, with a 1-6 record and 8.27 ERA in 10 games and 7 starts. The Pirates released him to the minor leagues in June, and he pitched in Newark until the Cubs signed him for the stretch run at the end of August. He recovered his form in Chicago, pitching in 9 games with 3 starts. He won 1 and lost 3 with a 2.97 ERA, though he surrendered 51 hits in less than 40 innings pitched. When the season ended, so did his major league career.

In parts of 7 seasons, Petty had a 67-78 record, with a 3.68 ERA. He pitched 76 complete games, 6 shutouts and recorded 5 saves. He struck out 407 batters while walking 296. Petty was 35 by then, but he wasn’t ready to retire by a long shot. He was a 15-game winner for the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL in 1931 and then spent 3-plus seasons with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. He won 16, 18 and 19 games for the Millers from 1932 through 1934 (with recent Grave Story profile Whitey Hilcher as a teammate one season) before being released in early 1935. He finished up that season with the Chattanooga Lookouts, picking up a total of 12 more wins before calling it quits. His record in the minor leagues was 186-144 over 14 seasons.

Petty managed briefly for the Knoxville Smokies and Hopkinsville Hoppers in 1935 and 1936 without any great success. Aside from a stint as a coach in 1954 for Toledo, he was largely absent from the baseball scene after his playing days were done. Petty suffered a heart attack on September 21, 1971 and was admitted to Hannepin County General Hospital. He died a little over one month later on October 23, at the age of 76. He is buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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