Opening Day, ‘Big’ Ed Walsh and a Pitch to Keep Your Team From Striking Out From Burnout
Opening day is finally here, and baseball fans everywhere are examining their favorite team’s roster and asking themselves, “What if …” Perhaps you’re doing the same thing regarding a top employee who recently took his or her talents elsewhere.
After months of frigid temperatures, we Midwesterners will be treated to another day of bitter-cold as spring takes its time getting into the swing of things. And after a month of playing spring-training games in warm weather, pitchers’ duels are likely as the hitters try to adjust to cold-weather hitting and top pitching.
As a die-hard White Sox fan, I prepared for the upcoming season by reading a couple of books on the Sox. One of those was Jack Smiles’ biography of Hall of Famer “Big” Ed Walsh, who was one of the game’s greatest pitchers, but you probably never heard of him. At 6 foot 1 and just under 200 pounds, Walsh was big for his era and had a powerful arm to boot, but it was his trick pitch, the now-banned spitball, that helped him compile a miniscule 1.82 earned run average over the course of his career. Between 1906 and 1912, few pitchers were his equal, but Walsh is not as well-known as other pitchers during his time such as Cy Young and Walter Johnson simply because Walsh didn’t pitch long enough to compile as many wins.
In 1908, Walsh had one of the most amazing seasons any hurler has had or ever will have. He compiled a mind-blowing record of 40 wins and 15 losses while pitching an astonishing 464 innings. For point of reference, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers led the American League with 238 innings pitched in 2012, and the last pitcher to win as many as 30 games was the Tigers’ Denny McClain back in 1968 when he won 31.
In the early 20th century, the belief was that pitchers would grow stale if they didn’t pitch often, so it was not unusual for Walsh to start a game and then come in the next day to relieve a pitcher who was struggling. In that ’08 season, Walsh appeared in 66 games out of 156. He started 49 of those games and, as someone who liked to finish what he started, Walsh pitched 42 complete games. Indeed, the great Tigers Hall of Fame outfielder Ty Cobb once called Walsh the toughest pitcher he ever faced.
So what went wrong for Walsh? After seven years of pitching way too many innings, he began to break down physically. His arm just couldn’t do it anymore, and he didn’t have the benefit of modern medicine. Walsh had to rely on the expertise of people like John D. “Bonesetter” Reese, who was famous for “fixing” physical problems by pushing his fingers into the part of the body that was ailing.
Basically the Sox wore down their best player by having him pitch too often. For instance, in a postseason exhibition game against the crosstown-rival Cubs in 1912, Walsh pitched a complete game even though the Sox were up 11-0 in the third inning and 16-0 after eight innings. It was a game that meant nothing more than bragging rights, but the owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, wanted to win the game so badly that he paid Walsh a $1,500 bonus for bringing home the victory (about $35,000 in today’s dollars).
This is something businesses can learn from. To get the best from your top talent for years to come, it’s imperative that you don’t wear down your employees. Now I’m not saying coddle certain people, but keep an eye out for signs of job burnout, especially from top performers, and do something about it before your team starts to tank, e.g., suggest a vacation, divvy up some work, plan an outing, etc.
That’s the way to play ball for the long haul.