The 1907 Philadelphia Athletics almost won the American League pennant, backed by three Hall-of-Fame starting pitchers. However, the pitcher who almost got them into the World Series was a little spitballer named Jimmy Dygert, whose major-league career lasted just six seasons. Arm problems ended his professional career before he was 30. Dygert played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1905-10.
James Henry Dygert was born in Utica, N.Y., on July 5, 1884. His parents, James and Mary, were 47 and 43 years old, respectively, when he was born. He had four older siblings, several of whom were in their late teens or 20s when he was born. When he was 19 years old in 1903, Jimmy Dygert tried out for a Utica amateur club in a New York State League. In his first start against a team named A.J. & G., he gave up 7 hits, a walk and a wild pitch before he was pulled from the game. He didn’t last long with Utica, but Dygert ended up pitching for Poughkeepsie of the Hudson River League and was pretty effective. On August 26, 1903, he pitched both games of a doubleheader against Saugerties and won 5-1 and 6-3. He hit upwards of half a dozen players and knocked one player, Phillips, unconscious with a ball to the head. But outside of that, he was pretty efficient and won the two games in less than three hours, combined. He was a much-improved pitcher in 1904, having worked hard to develop an effective curveball. “He made a highly creditable showing last year, but this season he had moved ahead rapidly, performing brilliantly and with marked success,” wrote the Utica Press in the summer of 1904. There were reports that he had been signed by the New York Highlanders (i.e. Yankees), but he finished the season with Poughkeepsie.
Dygert moved south to New Orleans to play for the Pelicans in 1905. Well, he played for the Pelicans, but he probably didn’t see much of New Orleans. The city was in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic, so the Pelicans spent much of the summer on one long road trip, not returning to the city until the end of the season. Amazingly, the team won the Southern Association pennant, thanks to some brilliant pitching. The two top hurlers were Ted Breitenstein and Silver Bill Phillips, who each won 21 games. However, both pitchers were 36 years old and were in the final stages of their careers, so their pitching performances didn’t garner much interest among the major league teams. Dygert, on the other hand, became the hottest commodity that New Orleans had. The 20-year-old pitcher was one of the first spitball pitchers in the Southern Association and went 18-4. New Orleans manager Charlie Frank had to fend off would-be suitors for his services. Dygert shut out the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition game in late August, which led to reports that Charles Comiskey was intent on signing him. Frank, though, had secured a deal already with Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics. Reportedly, it was Mack who had pulled the young pitcher out of the Hudson Valley and sent him to the Pelicans for seasoning. As soon as the Pels’ season was finished, Dygert found himself in the major leagues with the A’s.
The 1905 A’s narrowly captured the AL pennant, as their 92-56 record was just 2 games better than the White Sox 92-60 mark. Mack already had a tremendous pitching staff, with Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank and Charles “Chief” Bender in the rotation. While he didn’t necessarily need Dygert, the rookie was pretty useful. Waddell had pitched magnificently with 27 wins and a 1.48 ERA, but he started to get unreliable toward the end of the season. Dygert’s major-league debut came on September 8, 1905, in what should have been an epic battle between Waddell and Boston’s Cy Young. However, Waddell fizzled after a couple of innings, allowing a 2-run homer to Kip Selbach. Dygert took over in the third inning and went the distance, outdueling Young in the process. “The lad puzzled Boston just as he had done in the Crescent City last spring, using the spitball much oftener than we are accustomed to see it nowadays,” wrote The Morning Post of Camden, N.J. Philadelphia rallied for the 5-3 win, and Dygert picked up the win with 7 innings of 5-hit, 1-run relief work. It would be his only win of the year against 4 losses for the A’s, and his ERA of 4.33 was the worst among A’s pitchers, but he didn’t pitch too terribly. He walked 11 and fanned 24 in 35-1/3 innings, and he stepped in to replace the volatile Waddell on a couple of occasions. In his final appearance of the season, Dygert again entered early when Waddell flaked out and gave up 2 runs to the Washington Senators in the first inning. The rookie threw 8-2/3 innings and picked up 8 strikeouts. He lost the game in the tenth inning by a score of 5-4, but newspaper accounts praised the youngster for his work.
The 1905 A’s lost to the New York Giants in the World Series. Dygert was not part of the postseason, but he laid claim to pitching on two pennant-winning teams in the same year with New Orleans and Philadelphia. Furthermore, he earned regular playing time with the A’s in 1906 after Mack again secured his services in a deal with the Pelicans. Dygert was, if nothing else, a reliable pitcher, which was more than Mack could say about his supposed ace. For instance, the A’s played Montgomery of the Southern League in a spring exhibition game in March. Dygert started and threw 3 perfect innings. Waddell was supposed to be at the game, but he never showed up. Later it was reported that he had been attacked by two “highwaymen,” and while he heroically fended them off, he also took a beating and was unable to play in the game. Mack didn’t buy the excuse and began focusing on his younger crop of pitchers to support Bender and Plank.
Waddell ended up with reasonably consistent season, going 14-17 for the fourth-place A’s. Dygert struggled in his first few appearances but improved as the season wore on. He threw back-to-back 3-hitters in June, beating the St. Louis Browns 5-1 on June 11 and shutting out Detroit 4-0 on the 15th. He appeared in 35 games and made 25 starts, finishing with an 11-13 record. He threw 15 complete games and 4 shutouts, with 106 strikeouts in 213-2/3 innings. His spitter could be tough to control, as he also walked 91 batters, fifth-highest in the AL, and hit 10 batters. In one of Dygert’s wilder outings, he walked 8 and hit 2 batters when facing the St. Louis Browns on May 25. Of course, he also doubled and hit his only career home run off Beany Jacobson in the 6-3 win.
Dygert had his finest season in 1907. He started 28 of his 42 appearances and win 21 games against 8 losses for a .724 winning percentage. Only Detroit’s Wild Bill Donovan had a better winning percentage, at .862. Dygert led the AL by allowing just 6.9 hits per 9 innings, though he also hit a league-high 18 batters. His 2.34 ERA was higher than his three Hall of Fame pitching teammates, but his ERA+ was a career-best 111. He also threw a career-high 261-2/3 innings. The 1907 A’s finished 1-1/2 games behind Detroit for the AL pennant, and the pitcher who almost led the A’s into the World Series wasn’t Waddell, Plank or Bender; it was the guy the papers called “Little Jimmy” Dygert. (Baseball Reference generously lists him as 5’10”, which is probably 3 or 4 inches more than his actual height.)
Coming into September, the 22-year-old had a 12-7 record. He won 3 of his first 4 decisions to keep the A’s just ahead of the Tigers, and he moved them ahead by beating the Boston Red Sox in both ends of a doubleheader on September 14. He threw 2-2/3 innings in relief of Bender in the first game as the A’s won 7-6, and then he threw a 5-2 complete game win in the second game. One of the players he faced in that game was Boston rookie Tris Speaker, who made his major-league debut as a pinch-hitter. Dygert struck him out. After that sweep, the rest of the A’s staff couldn’t find a win. The A’s dropped a 2-game series to the Highlanders, with Plank and Jack Coombs taking the losses. Waddell dropped a pair to the Browns and White Sox, and the losses let Detroit slip into the lead in the AL standings. The A’s then beat the White Sox twice, with Dygert outdueling Ed Walsh in a 3-1 win, before the A’s and Tigers faced off in a key 2-game series in Philadelphia. The A’s needed a sweep to take over the lead.
Donovan and the Tigers beat Plank by a 5-4 score on September 27. Detroit was led by the light-hitting Germany Schaefer, who drove in 3 runs with a pair of doubles. The Tigers started Donovan again on September 28, and the A’s got to him early, scoring 3 runs in the first inning. Dygert got the start and ran into trouble in the second inning. He made a couple of poor fielding plays, let a run score and walked Donovan to load the bases. Mack went to the pen early and brought in Waddell, who struck out Davy Jones and Schaefer to get out of the inning. Waddell pitched 7-2/3 innings in relief and blew a 7-run lead; Ty Cobb tied the game with a 2-run homer. Plank came into the game and threw 8 innings of 1-run ball, but Donovan, working on no rest, shut Philadelphia down. The game was called in the 17th inning as a 9-9 tie, and the Tigers left Philadelphia still in first place. Dygert threw three shutouts over the A’s final games in October to keep hopes alive, but the A’s finished in second, in spite of the pitcher’s heroics.
Neither Dygert nor the Athletics were able to bounce back in 1908. The team fell into sixth place with 85 losses, and the pitcher’s record dropped to 11-15, with a 2.87 ERA. He struck out a career-high 164 hitters, but he also led the AL with 97 walks allowed in 238-2/3 innings. Dygert was almost completely reliant on his spitball, and when the ball didn’t break, it was very hittable. The spitter was known to be hard on the pitching arm, though papers reported that Dygert’s spitter didn’t require the snap motion that led to injuries. Whatever was wrong with him, it was enough that Mack looked to trade Dygert after the season. Newspaper reports had Dygert heading to the St. Louis Browns, but no trades actually happened.
Dygert spent the offseason in New Orleans pitching for a local team called the Parker Blakes. His arm must have been in shape when the 1909 season started, but he found few chances to pitch for the Athletics. After three seasons of 200+ innings, he threw just 137-1/3 innings in 1909. Part of the problem was that the A’s had four starters – Plank, Bender, Cy Morgan and Harry Krause – with ERAs under 2.00. Dygert was left to compete with Jack Coombs and Rube Vickers for the remaining innings. He made 32 appearances and started 13 of them, ending up with a 9-5 record and a 2.42 ERA.
One of those wins was a rare victory against the Cleveland Naps on July 30. Dygert had bad luck against Cleveland, and Mack tried to avoid using him against the team, but a series of doubleheaders left Mack with no choice but to pitch Dygert against the Naps. To make matters worse, catcher Paddy Livingston, was the team’s catcher for spitballers, was injured, so backup Ira Thomas made the start. Thomas shattered his thumb on a foul tip in the first inning, so rookie Ed Larkin was sent in to make his major-league debut. Dygert warmed up the unproven Larkin by throwing a couple of spitters, and the catcher caught them more with his chest protector than his mitt. The rest of the story was related to umpire/columnist Billy Evans by Dygert.
“He told Larkin to do the signaling in the regular way, then he would go through the formality of pretending to expectorate on the ball, but that during the remainder of the game would use nothing but speed,” Evans wrote in his syndicated column. “During the remaining eight and one-half innings of the game, Dygert didn’t throw a curve or “spit” ball. He went through all the motions, but speed was the only thing served the Naps.” As it happened, Philadelphia ended up beating the Naps 7-1, and Dygert allowed 5 hits, 2 walks and a hit batter while striking out 3.
“Now Dygert is wondering if that is what he should use in all the games he works against Cleveland,” Evans added.
Dygert was again superfluous on a dominant A’s pitching staff in 1910, appearing in 19 games and throwing 99-1/3 innings. He had gained a reputation as being unable to pitch past the seventh inning, and it took an opponent to help correct some pitching flaws. According to an article in the Evening Star, Dygert had added so many quirks and kinks into his wind-up that he was wearing himself out. Germany Schaefer, then with Washington, told him, “Jim, don’t throw yourself at the batter, give him the ball. Stand still and throw your fast one, and mix the spitter.” Since Dygert wasn’t appearing in many games, he had plenty of chances to refine his delivery. By the time September rolled around, he was a much-improved pitcher, and Mack had a fresh arm to throw at his opponents.
“Jimmy’s learned to pitch now,” Mack said. “He ought to be one of the most effective pitchers in the business now, and hard to beat.”
Dygert, given an opportunity to pitch regularly in September, threw six straight complete games, winning 4 and losing 2. He threw a 4-hit shutout against Washington on September 13. Over those final 6 games, Dygert worked 53 innings and allowed 38 hits while striking out 34. He ended up with a 4-4 record and a 2.54 ERA, and Philadelphia cruised to the AL pennant with 102 wins. It was thought that Dygert had earned some playing time in the World Series, because their opponent, the Chicago Cubs, struggled against spitballers. He wasn’t needed, though, as the A’s won the Series in 5 games using just two pitchers, Bender and Coombs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Dygert’s major-league career came to an end in March of 1911. Mack deemed the pitcher expendable and released him to the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern League, and he never made it back to the majors. In 6 seasons with the Athletics, Dygert had a 57-49 win-loss record, with a 2.65 ERA that was slightly below league average. He appeared in 175 games and made 105 starts, with 62 complete games, 16 shutouts and 2 saves. He struck out 383 batters and walked 290. He also allowed 798 hits in 986 innings pitched and hit 55 batters. He finished in the Top 10 for walks allowed three times and batters hit four times, but he also finished fourth in the AL in strikeouts in 1907 and 1908.
While pitching in Baltimore in 1911, Dygert earned the nickname of “King Bird.” He won 25 games, second-best on the team behind another A’s castoff, Rube Vickers. The two kept the Orioles in contention most of the season, as the team won 95 games and finished second in the Eastern League. The two pitchers and a few of their teammates were involved in a July 4 brawl that may have sunk Baltimore’s pennant hopes. A group of players had gathered in Waverly to celebrate catcher Bill Byers’ 33rd birthday. Depending on who was telling the story, either the ballplayers were attacked by a group of “toughs” or the ballplayers were shooting off fireworks toward a group of young men in the neighborhood who took offense. Either way, Vickers was injured in the fracas and missed time, and Dygert sat out for several weeks after injuring his arm in a game. While the best Orioles pitchers were injured, Rochester took over first place with 98 wins.
Dygert was plagued by poor pitching in 1912. He was released by Baltimore and signed with Providence, but he didn’t fare any better there. After being cut by his second team, the spitballer returned to New Orleans in late July to rejoin his first professional team, the Pelicans. He quickly won 6 games in a row, baffling his manager, Charlie Frank, who assumed like many others that Dygert was through. “Dygert is just as big a puzzle to me as to the fans, but my opinion is that he will improve, for the climate seems to have benefited his arm, which was not half as bad when he came here as a lot of people believed.”
The truth was that Dygert’s arm was just about done, as years of spitballs had taken their toll. The pitcher, who turned 27 in 1912, used some veteran craftiness to win games. At least twice he asked Frank to be taken out of games, trusting his bullpen to finish the wins. It was an unconventional strategy, but Dygert put his ego aside and stopped pitching when he ran out of steam. He ran out of guile and luck in 1913, though. He started the year with Toledo in the American Association, then played for Chattanooga of the Southern Association and Beaumont of the Texas League. Each time, he was released after just a handful of games. The consensus was that his speed and control were gone, and the only pitches he could get across the plate were hit hard. His minor-league statistics are incomplete on Baseball Reference, but he won at least 43 games in 4 seasons in the minors.
Ironically, Dygert’s time with Chattanooga ended on June 9, 1913, so that the team could sign rookie Burleigh Grimes in his second professional season. Grimes was another spitball pitcher and famously became the last pitcher to be legally allowed to use it in the American or National League.
Dygert returned to New Orleans after his release from Beaumont and pitched locally for a couple of years but never got back into professional baseball. He was working as a supervisor of gas maters for the New Orleans Gas Light Co. in 1918, according to his World War I draft card. Dygert had married a Louisiana native named Hazel Mozier in 1905. On July 6, 1924, the Dygerts were badly injured during a brawl at a birthday party at their house. According to newspaper reports, one of the guests, Morris Chanove, got drunk and attacked the couple when they didn’t get him coffee as quickly as he wanted. Chanove smashed a chair over Dygert’s head and then beat Hazel and her sister. What happened after that isn’t clear. The Dygerts divorced within a couple of years, and Hazel married a Marrero Chanove. I could not identify how he was related to Morris, or even if he was Morris and the newspapers got the assailant’s name wrong.
In January of 1926, Jimmy Dygert married Clara Castang, and they had four children. One, Gervice Peter died in 1932 when he was about a year old. Dygert worked as a repair foreman for New Orleans Public Service Inc. until his death. Jimmy Dygert died on February 7, 1936, in New Orleans from pneumonia. He was 51 years old and was survived by Clara, son James and daughters Joyce and Justine. He is buried, along with Gervice, in the Mozier family plot in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.