- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

For several years, Denton True “Cy” Young had sought to deny and delay the inevitable. Yet most baseball “cranks” of the day knew that at age 44, the greatest pitcher in baseball history was on his last legs - legs topped by an enormous pot belly that made it nearly impossible for him to get off the mound and field bunts.

As late as 1909, the old man had won 19 games for Cleveland. But in the next two seasons, his record was merely 13-19 when he waddled out to face the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 22, 1911. Cleveland had released him on Aug. 15, and now he was laboring for the abysmal (44-107) Boston Rustlers.

Yet for one final time, Young reached back for the magic he had perpetrated for most of his 22 years in the major leagues. Going the distance and scattering nine hits, he defeated Pirates ace Babe Adams 1-0 for his 511th victory.

Let that number roll around in your mind and on the tip of your tongue. In 134 seasons of major league baseball, nobody but Washington Senators immortal Walter Johnson has come within 94 wins of 511 (Johnson collected 417 from 1907 to 1927). What’s more, Cy might have won as many as 513 because 19th-century records are incomplete and in some cases contradictory.

Young began his major league career in 1890, when games often were completed with a black and mushy ball, and finished it in the first season when horsehides were made with a cork center to liven things up. No matter. In more than two decades, he won 30 or more games five times, 20 or more 15 times, 290 in the National League, 221 in the American League and had a career ERA of 2.63.

No wonder the trophy given to baseball’s best pitchers each season is called the Cy Young Award. Nobody alive can remember seeing him pitch, but his feats were more astounding than those of anybody else who ever toed the rubber.

When Young won his 500th game by beating the Washington Senators in 1910, Christy Mathewson called him “the greatest pitcher that ever lived” - high praise indeed since Matty shares the National League mark of 373 victories with Grover Cleveland Alexander.

Yet Cy’s record that season was merely 7-10, and the end clearly was in sight. One reporter, alluding to the pitcher’s girth, remarked that he “looked like a prosperous alderman” - one of those portly politicians with dollar signs on their chests who turned up in cartoons back then.

During the offseason, the Cleveland club cut his salary from $4,000 to $2000 for 1911. As spring training began, Young stubbornly allowed as how he would keep pitching “until they tear the uniform off me.” He also claimed to be working on a spitball (then legal) as well as something he called “a hot-water ball,” which he called “a slow jump and wonder.”

Nice try, Cy. But as Cleveland broke camp in Hot Springs, Ark., he came down with an ailment variously described as bronchitis and pneumonia. He returned home to Peoli, Ohio, to recuperate and did not pitch until June 9.

Although Young won his first two games, it was all downhill after that. He lasted just three innings in each of his next two losses before Cleveland released him.

Undaunted and unrealistic, Young insisted: “There is a lot of good pitching in me yet. The public hasn’t seen the last of me. I will be a good pitcher for a number of years.”

Four days later, the Rustlers signed him - obviously seeking to entice fans who had seen Cy pitch the Boston Americans to the first World Series championship in 1903 and twirl a perfect game the following season. His first home appearance drew an overflow crowd of 8,000. Later he somehow shut out the potent Pirates twice - fanning Honus Wagner, a fellow charter member of the baseball Hall of Fame, three times, and lost a 1-0 duel to Philadelphia rookie Alexander.

But these flashes of brilliance were just that - flashes. He lost his last three decisions, and in his final appearance was yanked in the seventh inning after allowing eight consecutive hits. Ouch!

Then it was really over, and Young spent the next 44 years before his death in 1955 taking bows as the greatest pitcher ever.

He was entitled.

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