The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #39 Larry Corcoran

Profile by BCB reader JoshinLA

He was a right-handed fireballer who led the National League in strikeouts as a 20 year old rookie. He also finished second in the league in wins as he led the Chicago National League team to first place. Sadly, after a few years of promise, a heavy workload resulted in repeated arm injuries and a sad end to what was once a promising career.

Of course I'm not talking about Kerry Wood. The Cubs only won the wild card in 1998.

No, the young phenom described here is none other than Larry Corcoran, who may have the dubious distinction of being the first Chicago player to fail to live up to his early promise. Had any trace of the 19th Century telegram log "Bleed White Stocking White" survived, I'm sure we could find one of the cranks (which is what they called fans in those days) complaining about poor Larry and how Cap Anson was abusing his arm. On the other hand, someone else would have pointed out that pitchers used to be able to pitch every day and go a full nine innings and that young Larry was just soft.

Larry Corcoran was born in Brooklyn in 1859. He pitched as a teenager for the local semipro teams in Brooklyn. On one of those teams in the 1877, he learned to throw a curve ball. In fact, some would later claim that he and his teammates, fellow Brooklynites and future major leaguers Mickey Welch and Terry Larkin, were the first players to ever throw a curve ball. Usually Candy Cummings gets the credit for inventing the curve, but there is some dispute, and Corcoran was certainly one of the first players to ever throw one.

Whoever invented the curveball, it wasn't Corcoran's out pitch. He threw hard heat most of the time, and that heat got him noticed by a professional team in Buffalo, where he was discovered and signed by Cap Anson of the mighty Chicago White Stockings in time for the 1880 season.

The White Stockings had been struggling to find a pitcher since Al Spalding decided he'd rather own the team and sell the equipment than play in 1877. Corcoran, along with backup pitcher and curveball specialist Fred Goldsmith, pitched the White Stockings to a record of 35-3 to start the season. The White Stockings easily won the pennant that season, finishing with an astonishing 67-17 record. Corcoran won 43 games, which is a rookie record. (Assuming one doesn't consider every player in 1876 a rookie)

But Corcoran wore down as the season went on and it was little wonder why. He threw 536 innings that season. He struck out 268 batters and walked 99, which is quite a workload in a year where it took 9 balls to walk a batter. On top of that, Larry Corcoran was a tiny man. While his actual height seems to be lost to history, it was often noted that little Larry only weighed 120 pounds. For comparison, David Eckstein is listed (maybe a little generously) at 170. For those of you old enough to remember Fred Patek, he topped the scales at 148. Larry Corcoran was a full 28 pounds smaller than Fred Patek. Today, a scout would take one look at him and laugh. Even in a time where Americans were a lot smaller than they are today, Larry was a tiny man.

The next season, Anson came up with a solution to Corcoran's stamina problem. Taking an idea from the Buffalo team, Anson began to alternate pitching Corcoran and Goldsmith to save wear and tear on Corcoran's arm in 1881. In addition, Goldsmith's crafty curve was a perfect compliment to Corcoran's heat. While Corcoran and Goldsmith weren't baseball's first pitching rotation, their success in pitching on alternate days was what caused the idea to be adopted by the rest of baseball.

As with any new idea, there was criticism. Certainly the cranks called Corcoran and Goldsmith weak sissies for not pitching every day. Owners of other teams criticized the idea because it meant having to pay a salary to two pitchers instead of one. But the idea was a good one, and Corcoran and Goldsmith pitched the White Stockings to three straight pennants.

Additionally, Corcoran and the White Stockings' catcher, Silver Flint, have been credited with creating the first set of signs between a pitcher and catcher. The side of Flint's mouth that his chewing tobacco was on determined whether Corcoran would throw a fastball or a curve.

The modern day pitcher whom Corcoran probably most resembles is Jennie Finch, except Jennie is a lot bigger and could probably easily kick little Larry's rear if he got out of line. She's also a lot prettier. This is the era of baseball pitchers throwing underhanded and from 50 feet from home plate. Batters could still call for a high strike or a low strike. The rules would seemingly change every year as to how many balls were a walk, whether a foul counted as a strike and what a pitcher was permitted to do in the "pitcher's box." (The mound and the rubber would come later) Because of the rotation with Goldsmith, Corcoran didn't lead the league in a lot of statistical categories, but he was the best pitcher on the best team in baseball from 1880 and 1883.

But in 1883, Corcoran began to experience arm problems. Boston would win 15 of 16 games down the stretch (including a four game sweep of the White Stockings) and deny the Chicagoans their fourth straight pennant.

Corcoran was tempted to jump to the Union Association in 1884, but thought better of it when he was threatened with being blacklisted. Lucky for him he didn't, since the Union Association fell apart very quickly. But in every other sense, 1884 was a disaster for Corcoran and the White Stockings. Goldsmith lost his effectiveness and was sold to Baltimore in the American Association. Corcoran was expected to shoulder even more of the pitching burden in Goldsmith's absence, but his arm wasn't holding up well either. In at least one game, his right arm hurt so badly that he tried to pitch left-handed. He would play games at shortstop to stay on the field. Despite the pain, he managed to throw his third career no-hitter in 1884. Still, the collapse of the White Stockings' pitching rotation meant a fifth place finish in 1884.

Corcoran started out 1885 successfully, but soon the pain came back and he was unable to pitch at all. Overhand pitching was allowed by this time, but it seems unlikely that Corcoran would have been able to even lift his arm enough to try it. Anson released Corcoran midway through the 1885 season. He signed with New York, but his arm wouldn't come back. He would spend the next four years bouncing from team to team (majors and minors, although there wasn't that big a difference between the two at the time) trying to find the magic again. He never would.

Corcoran's story ends even more tragically. He tried to stay in the game as an umpire, but his kidneys were failing him. Larry Corcoran would die on October 14, 1891. He was only 32 years old and left behind a wife and four children.

The 19th Century was full of people who would achieve great success very quickly, only to see it disappear just as fast. Larry Corcoran's whole short life epitomized that aspect of that capricious era.

Larry Corcoran's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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