Famed Broadway actor DeWolf Hopper proudly claimed him as a close friend, and Lillian Russell clamored for an introduction. Restaurants and bars named drinks in his honor. He was revered by young and old. His overpowering fastball drew crowds not only in New York City, where he was celebrated as "Mr. Giant," but all around the National League. Before John McGraw managed the New York club and before such Giant heroes as Mel Ott, JoJo Moore and Carl Hubbell were even born, he was proclaimed as "The Colossus of Coogan's Bluff." Yet, when he was finally elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1977, Amos Wilson Rusie was unknown except to the most avid of baseball aficionados.
Rusie, a righthander, was baseball's first great fastballer. He was so fast that the hitters of the 1890s were terrified of him. So fast that the rules were revised—the distance between the plate and the rubber was increased from 50 feet to its present 60'6"—in a vain attempt to make his pitches easier to hit. At 19, in his second major league season and his first in New York with the Giants, Rusie struck out 345 batters while winning 29 games. Even his own catchers had trouble coping with his pitches; his catchers were obliged to put a thin sheet of lead under a sponge in their mitts to take the sting out of his fastballs.
If he were pitching today, the "Hoosier Thunderbolt," as Rusie was also called, would command a salary of more than $200,000. But back in 1896, he invented the holdout when the Giants refused to pay him a measly $5,000 a year and a dispute arose over two $100 fines still outstanding from the 1895 season—one for missing curfew and one for unsportsmanlike conduct. Rusie protested both fines but the directors of the National League ruled against him. When the $200 was automatically deducted from his new contract, Rusie was furious and sat out the entire season. That November he filed a damage suit in Illinois, claiming lost salary, and he also asked to be released from the reserve clause. The case was dismissed, but Rusie tried again in Trenton, N.J. later that year. Rather than let Rusie go to court, Cincinnati owner John T. Bush led a group of club owners who pooled their money and paid both the lost salary and the fine in time for Rusie to rejoin the Giants for the 1897 season. The price didn't seem too high for a player who had averaged more than 30 victories in each of his four previous seasons, with a high of 36 in 1894. Unfortunately, Rusie played for the irascible Andrew Freedman, perhaps the most penurious baseball owner of them all, who contributed not a penny to the fund.
That year Rusie had one of his best seasons ever, winning 29 games while losing only eight. Over a career that spanned 10 years, during which he started nearly every other day, Rusie won an incredible 243 games, and he was pitching for the pitifully weak teams fielded by the tightfisted Freedman.
Rusie was born at Mooresville, Ind. on May 30, 1871, five years before the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs was organized. When he was just 16 years old, the local major league club, the Indianapolis Hoosiers, signed him and sent him out to Burlington, Iowa to work on his control, something he never quite mastered.
When he was called up to Indianapolis in 1889, Rusie epitomized the "big rube." Tall (6'1"), burly (200 pounds) and red-haired, with his red flannels forever showing from under his uniform shirt sleeves, he was the butt of jokes by teammates and opponents alike. But the hot-tempered, stubborn kid quickly quieted the jibes during his first triumphant tour around the league.
Rusie was easily the fastest pitcher major league baseball had seen. Even though a pitcher in the 1890s had to get three untouched strikes to record a strikeout, Rusie marched them back to the benches at the then imposing rate of one every two innings. In 1889 when the National League decided to drop Indianapolis and Washington and go with eight clubs instead of 10, Rusie and seven other players were sold for an estimated $60,000 by Indianapolis to New York.
His return to the game in 1897 after his one-year holdout was successful, but it marked the beginning of his decline. Baseball fans in those days demanded that their club use its ace pitcher as often as possible. Under the pressure of pitching every other day, Rusie's arm began to ache. He rested it for five weeks and then went on to finish a 29-8 season, but he would never again be overpowering.
The following season was torture, but even with a "dead" arm Rusie was 20-11. Then with his arm hurting, his confidence shattered and having been unsuccessful in another round of salary negotiations, he sat out the next two seasons. In 1900 the Giants, eager to make a deal with Cincinnati for a young, promising pitcher, talked Rusie into a comeback try. Before the season got under way, New York traded him to the Reds for Christy Mathewson, then a 20-year-old unknown. What a coup for the Giants: to lose a sore-armed pitcher and gain a man who was to become the greatest of all National League pitchers.
After one unsuccessful season with Cincinnati, Rusie was through. He was barely 30 years old. From then on his life went downhill. Following a decade of working at steel mills in Muncie, Ind., Rusie and his wife moved to the Seattle area. Making a living was tough there, too. In 1921, when McGraw, then the manager of the Giants, learned of Rusie's plight, he offered him a job as a special officer at the Polo Grounds. Rusie accepted and was once again sought after by the press. "It's like climbing out of your grave and going to a dance," he said. Rusie spent eight years at the Polo Grounds before moving back to Washington, where he bought a chicken ranch. He was seriously injured in an auto accident shortly thereafter and never completely recovered. He died in 1942.
Many of the distinguished pitchers and managers who had seen Rusie in action—Kid Nichols, Connie Mack, McGraw, Roger Bresnahan, Hughie Jennings—often referred to him as the finest of all fastball pitchers. Even Lou Criger, who was Cy Young's battery mate, called Rusie the best. And Duke Farrell, the longtime catcher for the Giants and one of the best of his era, said of his former teammate, "Few will ever approach him. What a star he was! I have seen scores of them come and go, but none inspired the terror in a batman's heart that was put there by Amos Rusie."