Grave Story: Guy Hecker (1856-1938)

Here lies Guy Hecker, the only pitcher to ever win a batting title. He’s also one of two players to lead the league in both batting and ERA – Babe Ruth being the other. Hecker played for the Louisville Eclipse/Colonels of the American Association (1882-89) and was a player/manager for the Pittsburgh Allegheneys (1890).

Guy Jackson Hecker was born in Youngsville, Pa., on April 3, 1856, the oldest of two children. His parents, Thomas and Lucinda (Barton) Hecker, were both Pennsylvania natives as well. Per the 1870 Federal Census, Thomas had become the superintendent of street repairs in Venango, Pa.

Guy Hecker’s grave in Wooster Cemetery, Ohio.

From an early age, Hecker said that he was in a class by himself as a ballplayer. Determined to find a good team on which to play, 12-year-old (or so) Hecker left his home in Oil City, Pa., and joined a club in Springfield, Ohio. He was getting paid as much as $5 a game up until he was removed from a game. By his father.

“About the third inning, my father, who had found out where I had gone, and followed me, came out on the field and pulled me away,” Hecker recalled in an 1887 interview. “When he got me alone he walloped me to his heart’s content, and I never left home until after I began to play professionally.”

By 1877, he had returned to Ohio to play ball. One of his teams, the Champion Citys of Springfield, even defeated Harry Wright’s renowned Boston Red Stockings 3-1 in an exhibition game. Hecker, playing first base, managed a double off Will White, who was just starting a pro career that would see him become a three-time 40-game winner. Guy Hecker married Martha “Lida” Henderson in 1878, when he was 22 and she was 17.

Hecker joined a brand-new team, the Allegheney Crickets, in 1879 as the team’s third baseman. The pitcher, Tony Mullane, came from a team in Geneva, Ohio, and would have a very successful big-league career in his own right. By 1880, Hecker had moved in with his in-laws in Oil City, Pa. According to an 1884 feature in the New York Clipper, Hecker became involved in business pursuits that kept him away from baseball for a few years.

Hecker jumped to the major leagues – one of them, at least – in 1882 when he joined the Louisville Eclipse of the new American Association. Mullane, who was a part of that Crickets team, was Louisville’s top pitcher by then, and he recommended his former teammate to Louisville management. “Hecker was engaged at the earnest solicitation of Toney [sic] Mullane,” reported the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He was formerly of the Oil City, and besides being a slugger and a good fielder, he is an excellent change pitcher.”

Being a new team in a new league, the 1882 Eclipse featured many local Louisville players, like Pete Browning, Jimmy Wolf and the Reccius brothers, Phil and John. The addition of Mullane and Hecker gave the team a strong pitching staff. Mullane, as was the custom of the time, did most of the work, starting 55 of the team’s 80 games and winning 30. Hecker’s 6-6 record was much more modest, though his 1.30 ERA was incredible. He made 13 mound appearances, including 11 starts and struck out 33 hitters in 104 innings. He also threw a no-hitter against Pittsburgh on September 19, 1882. He struck out 4 in the 3-1 win, as he pitched around 7 errors by his teammates. He also drove in Browning with a single to help his own cause.

When he wasn’t pitching, Hecker was playing first base or the outfield, and he hit .276 with 14 doubles and 3 home runs. Those homers accounted for 33% of the long balls hit by the Eclipse all season – Browning hit 5 and John Reccius hit the other.

J.H. Pank, who helped found the AA and the Eclipse, had picked up Hecker from Oil City with the promise of $50 a month. After a trial game went well, Pank upped it to $75. When the season opened and Hecker performed better than expected, he got a raise to $100 a month. Pank then promised Lida Hecker that he would pay her husband $125 a month if he quit playing cards so much and focused on baseball. She did, and Pank was true to his word.

Mullane departed Louisville after the season, but Hecker stayed around to become the team’s ace for 1883 and beyond. Paired with veteran pitcher Sam Weaver, Hecker won 28 games in ’83 and hit .271 with a home run. The homer was a blast that rolled to the right field wall for an inside-the-parker against the New York Metropolitans. He also scattered 4 hits as part of a 4-1 win. Though Louisville was out of the AA pennant race, they had a hand in deciding the AA championship. At the end of the season, Louisville faced the Philadelphia Athletics in a 4-game series. If they swept the injured and exhausted A’s, the St. Louis Browns would have been the champs. The Eclipse won the first three, and Hecker took the mound for the last game. The score was tied going into the ninth inning, when Hecker gave up a hit to star Harry Stovey. Stovey made it to third base with two outs and scored on a wild pitch by Hecker, winning the game and the AA championship.

Source: New York Clipper, June 8, 1884

The 1884 season was one of the odd years when a third major league appeared. In this case it was the Union Association, which helped dilute the talent everywhere. From a pitching standpoint, 1884 is best remembered as the year Old Hoss Radbourne won 60 games for the Providence Grays of the National League, with a 1.38 ERA. Those numbers led all of baseball, but right behind him was Guy Hecker. He had a 52-20 record and 1.80 ERA with 385 strikeouts to win the AA pitching Triple Crown (which wasn’t a thing that anybody recognized in 1884). He also appeared in 75 games and made 73 starts, both of which matched Radbourne’s numbers. Hecker’s 72 complete games were one fewer than Old Hoss, and his 670-2/3 innings were 8 behind Radbourne. He also led the AA in hits allowed with 526, which is to be expected. However, his 0.868 WHIP was best in the league, too.

Possibly the best game he pitched all year was a 4-3 loss to Columbus. Hecker struck out 17 batters, but his teammates threw the game away – literally – with 5 errors.

Not only was Hecker the pitching mainstay on the team, but he was also one of the best hitters. His .297 average was better than everyone on the team except Wolf and Browning. Hecker’s 4 long balls were tied for tops on the team with Browning. The Eclipse as a team won 68 games, good enough for third in the AA. As the St. Louis Republican noted, “Their fine record is largely due to the splendid pitching of Guy Hecker, who stands at the top as an effective every-day pitcher. He had done what no other pitcher in the American Association has accomplished – played in three and four games in succession and won them all.”

Hecker’s fame throughout baseball grew, but he was beloved in the Louisville area. After returning from a road trip in August, some residents of New Albany, Ind. (right across the river from Louisville) presented him with a gold medal that featured an engraving of Hecker in his pitching motion. The back was inscribed with, “Presented to Guy Hecker, the famous pitcher of the Louisville Base Ball Club, by his New Albany friends.” A local leather goods company, B.H. Goldbach, offered a “Guy Hecker” shoe, which was laced in the front. If any money changed hands, could this mean that Hecker signed the first shoe endorsement deal in sports history?

It wasn’t just shoes. The Times of Philadelphia reported that cigars, tobacco, hats and chewing gum were named after Hecker in Louisville, as were a fair number of babies. “The small boys idolize him and the big girls have been known to walk blocks out of their way to see him smile,” the paper said.

Hecker, ever a businessman, had multiple irons in the fire. He wrote a pitching instruction manual. He owned a supply store in Louisville that also had a billiard room in the back and a cigar stand in the front. He also ran a business that sold sporting goods and uniforms for other teams. Memphis, one of his customers, donned uniforms in 1886 with white shirts and pants, brown stockings and belts and brown-and-white striped caps. Chattanooga went with Yale gray uniforms, maroon trimming, stockings and cap.

Hecker’s pitching career tailed off gradually after that remarkable season. As early as April of 1885, he was complaining that his “below-the-shoulder” (sidearm) delivery was hurting his arm and back. That is typical of 19th Century pitchers, though. Generally, they have two or three eye-popping seasons, and then their arm gives out. Hecker’s decline was not as sudden as some others, but he did fall to 30 wins in 1885, and then 25 in 1886 and 18 in 1887. He had a 2.18 ERA to go with his 30-23 record in 1885, and he struck out 209 batters in 480 innings. He was barely a .500 pitcher in 1886, which was the last year where he spent more time on the mound than he did at first base. Though his pitching declined, his offense remained excellent.

Hecker batted a league-leading .341 in 1886, topping Browning’s .340 mark to lead the American Association. It was a little unfair, as Hecker appeared in 84 games, and Browning played in 112. Still, Hecker’s batting title was not cheap; he got on base at a .402 clip and slugged .446, beating Browning in those categories as well. Hecker’s 117 hits included 14 doubles, 5 triples and 4 home runs, and he stole 25 bases in the first year that it was an official stat in the AA. On August 15, Hecker mashed three home runs against Baltimore and hit three additional singles. He also reached on an error in his other at-bat. For the day, he had 15 total bases and scored 7 runs. Though 15 players have scored 6 times in a game (Mel Ott did it twice), nobody has ever equaled Hecker’s feat.

Louisville finished with a 66-70 record in 1886, and the losing showed a different side of Hecker. The Times reported that he demanded perfect support, or else he would lose focus and act “mulish” and childish. Hecker was leading the Philadelphia Athletics 3-0 after 3 innings when second baseman Reddy Mack committed an error with two outs in the 4th inning. That miscue set Hecker off. He gave up 4 runs in that inning, and Hecker lost his temper and control the rest of the game. He walked six more batters, and five of them scored.

“When Browning does anything wrong in Louisville they pull for the patrol wagon and Pete goes before a magistrate,” The Times added. “But it us different with ‘Our Guy.’ A little dose of discipline and the patrol wagon would not hurt the dandy pitcher.”

There was also a rumor going around town that Hecker was jealous of Tom “Toad” Ramsey, the young pitcher who was supplanting Hecker as the team’s ace pitcher. Ramsey accused him of making up stories about his drinking to make him look bad. Honestly, Hecker didn’t need to fabricate any stories about Ramsey’s bad habits, as his heavy drinking was a pretty open secret.

Hecker hit .317 in 1887, with 4 home runs, 50 RBIs and 48 stolen bases. Combined with an 18-12 record and 4.16 ERA, it was a good year on the field, even though he missed some time after being struck on the knee by a line drive. He also became one of the first players to spend an entire game at first base and not record a single putout or assist. Off the field, there was a movement by his teammates to get Hecker off the team. Ramsey and pitcher Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain, as well as infielders Bill White and John Kerins were said to be tired of his act. The infielders were sore that the game recaps that Hecker provided the Courier-Journal placed blame for losses everywhere but on the pitcher. It was also theorized that Hecker was walking off with his teammates’ salaries in his poker games.

Hecker stayed with the team in 1888, but the Colonels, as they were now called, finished in seventh place with a 48-87 record. Hecker went 8-17 as a pitcher, and his batting average dropped more than 90 points to a paltry .227. He was also injured after a catcher spiked his pitching hand after Hecker slid head-first into home plate. The team was a disorganized mess. At one point in his career, Hecker was the club’s captain, but by the end of the year he said, “I’m blast if I know who the captain is. That question is harder to solve than Chamberlain’s curves.”

Hecker worked hard over the offseason to lose some excess weight and return in prime condition. However, the 1889 Colonels were awful, finishing 27-111. Hecker had a 5-13 record and a 5.59 ERA as a pitcher and spent most of the season at first base. He did better there, hitting .284. But the team had other first basemen. In mid-September, the Louisville board of directors decided to release Hecker after eight years on the team. Rather than look for a new team, Hecker spent the rest of the season as an American Association umpire and pitched briefly for a semipro team.

Hecker returned for one last season, signing on to play and manage the Pittsburgh Allegheneys of the National League in 1890. However, executive Palmer O’Neil did the real work of running the team, as Hecker would frequently go to the ballpark and find that he had a new player. The Allegheneys finished with a 23-113 record, as their best players jumped ship to join the short-lived Player’s League. Hecker, working mostly as a first baseman, hit a career-low .226 with 38 RBIs in 86 games. As a pitcher, he made just 12 starts and finished 2-9 with a 5.11 ERA. Hecker, at one point one of the best all-around players in all of baseball, ended his career with two of the worst teams in baseball history. The Chicago Tribune, after a game in which Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts battered Hecker by a score of 9-3, penned a lamentation for the star at the tail end of his career.

“Once Guy was king of Louisville and his name was a household word in the bluegrass region. He is a king no longer. The Colts touched up his curves just as though a crown had never rested on his auburn hair.”

Hecker’s fame in Louisville didn’t carry over to Pittsburgh, and by the end of the season he was no longer “King Guy” or “Sir Guy” but rather “Old Guy.” He was 34 years old, and his arm was seemingly worn out from overuse. He and the Pittsburgh ballclub parted ways after the season. Hecker played a couple more seasons in the Midwest, but he never returned to the majors.

As a pitcher, Hecker had a 175-146 record and 2.93 ERA, with 1,110 strikeouts. He appeared in 336 games, started 322 of them, and completed 312! As a hitter, Hecker slashed .282/.324/.376, with 812 hits that included 117 doubles, 47 triples and 19 home runs. He stole 123 bases, though those numbers represent just the final five seasons of his career. Overall, Hecker was worth 37.3 Wins Above Replacement.

Hecker played first base and managed a team in Fort Wayne in 1891 and Jacksonville (Ill.) in 1892. One of the players who pitched briefly for Hecker in ‘92 was Toad Ramsey, who had drunk himself out of the major leagues and was bouncing between minor-league teams. The Jacksonville Lunatics, along with the rest of the Illinois-Iowa League, disbanded in mid-summer. That seemed to be an ongoing problem, as he also managed in Cambridge, Ohio, that folded in the middle of the 1897 season.

Hecker moved back to Oil City, where worked as a merchant. He kept active in local teams, though. The Oil City Oilers appeared in an Iron and Oil League in 1895. That was his last team that is a part of his record in Baseball Reference, though he kept active in amateur teams for years. His teams took on all comers, from local Pennsylvania teams to the Page Fence Giants, a renowned traveling team of black ballplayers before there was an organized Negro League. At one point, a farmer came to him and said he had a boy who was the greatest pitcher in the world. Hecker blew the old man off and never saw the kid pitch. He would later realize the boy was Rube Waddell, and the old man was his father.

Hecker briefly held the position of baseball coach at Lehigh University and Allegheney College. Outside of baseball, he held numerous positions in Pennsylvania – alderman in Oil City, superintendent of Monarch Park, a popular resort. While his accomplishments became legendary for a time, he was content to tend to his grocery store in Oil City.

Hecker and his wife moved back to Wooster, and he held a position with the Ohio Fuel Gas Co. into the 1930s. Around 1931 or so, they were involved in a serious car accident, caused when Hecker tried to avoid some chickens that were in the middle of the road. He never truly recovered from that accident. His famous right arm was crippled, and it took several years of using crutches before he was strong enough to get around with a cane.

Guy Hecker died at his home in Wooster on December 3, 1938, from intestinal nephritis. He was 82 years old. He and Lida, who died in 1942, are buried in Wooster Cemetery.

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