Joe Borden pitched the first no-hitter in baseball history. You would think that this is what he would be known for. Instead, he is known as the beneficiary of baseball’s first terrible contract.
First the no-hitter: Borden was born in 1854 in New Jersey. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1870, and he hooked up with various amateur clubs. By 1875 he had risen to the top of the local amateur scene, playing for the Doerr club. Top amateur clubs routinely played against professional clubs, so he was known to the local professionals. His break came in July with the Philadelphia Club, when they discharged their pitcher, Cherokee Fisher.
Fisher had, as one paper put it delicately, a “weak spot” which was “possessed by several other ball tossers.” In other words, he was a drunkard. Tolerance for this ran fairly high at this time, but there were limits. To top it off, the club charged him with throwing games. There wasn’t much follow through on this and the charge was never proved. But later there would be credible evidence that he threw a game while playing for the West End Club of Milwaukee the following year. So at best his reputation was suspect.
The Philadelphias needed a pitcher. The long-term solution was George Zettlein, who was in the process of being released from the Chicago Club. (Zettlein was a talented pitcher, but had a reputation as being a dumb as a rock. One newspaper explained that his being “descending from Teutonic origin no doubt accounts for this.”) The club needed someone to fill in until Zettlein became available, so they plucked Borden from the amateur ranks.
Borden made his name against the Chicago Club by pitching a no-hitter July 28. Or rather, he made a name. He appears in box scores as “Josephs.” The pseudonym was intended to protect his family from the shame of having a professional ball player, but it was the worst kept secret ever, with his real name being widely reported. In any case, while the vocabulary of a “no-hitter” did not yet exist, people noticed the achievement. The performance was a wonder, and Borden was bestowed the title of “Phenomenal.”
He pitched only seven games for the Philadelphias. His record was only 2-4, but that wasn’t his fault. He managed a WAR of 2.0, which is pretty impressive in just seven games. The problem was that the Philadelphias were not good. In any case, they stuck to the plan of going with Zettlein, an established veteran. This was not the terrible contract he is known for.
That came the following season, and was a rare mis-step by Harry Wright, manager of the Boston Club and one of the all-time greats. Wright had a problem. His team had been gutted by the Chicago Club, who hired away four of his stars, including his pitcher Al Spalding. Wright had to scramble around for players. He thought that Borden would be Spalding’s replacement. This was not sight unseen. Borden had pitched a game against the Bostons and had done very well. He lost the game 4-3, but it took the Bostons eleven innings to do it. Between this and the famous no-hitter, Borden seemed like a good hire.
While signing Borden would prove to have been a mistake, this still isn’t why the contract was so terrible. Wright was gun shy after having half his team signed away. He wanted to lock in the new guys, so he signed them to three year contracts, something virtually unheard of at this time. The Phenomenal Borden was signed for $2000 a year, which was pretty phenomenal in its own right by the pay scales of the day. Wright was an innovator, so in that sense it isn’t surprising that he would try something new. But the thing about trying experiments is that they can fail, and you need to plan for that. This is why the contract was so terrible.
Borden in 1876 turned out to be a complete flop. He pitched 29 games, for a record of 11-12. Where the previous year his pitching was better than his win-loss record shows, this year it was worse. His WAR was -0.2. They didn’t know that, of course, WAR being far far in the future. But they knew bad pitching. His control was notably awful. This is bad enough today, but before catchers had mitts or masks it was even worse.
It was obvious early on that he was not the answer to Boston’s pitching question. But what to do about it? That three-year contact didn’t include a buy-out option. Oops. Borden refused to go quietly. The situation had not previously arisen of a club wanting to rid itself of a player. The problem previously had always been to make players keep their contracts in the face of higher offers. No one was making any offers to Borden. The contract was written broadly about his precise duties, so the club imposed grounds keeping tasks on him while requiring he continue to participate in team workouts. The hope was that he would get tired of this and leave on his own or be induced into insubordination that might invalidate the contract. He out-waited the club management, cheerfully performing all duties asked of him while drawing his hefty salary. Finally the following February the club cracked and reached undisclosed terms to buy out the rest of his contract.
How did the Boston Club let this debacle happen? Partly it was inexperience with multi-year contracts. They had not yet worked the kinks out. Partly it was changes in pitching. Pitching was in a transitional stage, with the pitchers’ delivery moving upward and curve balls coming into their own. Curve balls had been quietly developing since at least the late 1860s, but 1875 was the breakout year when lots of guys, Borden among them, figured out how to throw it. This also meant that batters were learning how to hit a curve ball, leading to a rapid cycle of adjustments on both sides. Borden wasn’t able to keep up, and ended up losing his command of the ball. He wasn’t alone. There was a generational break in pitching. Very few managed to make the transition. (For the exception, look up Bobby Mathews: one of the unheralded greats, if only for managing to pitch effectively through about three different eras of pitch delivery.) Wright tapping Borden as His Guy was a reasonable decision given the information available to him, but this information turned out to be immediately obsolete.
Harry Wright had not, apart from this, lost his touch. The Bostons regained the pennant in 1877 and again in 1878. The rest of those three-year contracts turned out OK after all. The idea was dropped anyway. The reserve system was created about that time, and contracts were standardized to include a release clause that unconscionably favored the employer. Multi-year contracts wouldn’t become a thing again until the so-called free agent era of a century later.
Which is to say that the Bostons with Joe Borden had an excuse. The Phillies and Ryan Howard? Not so much. Yes, I am bitter.