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Joe Guzzardi: Cy Young winners can never match the credentials of award’s namesake

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Photo: Courtesy Joe Guzzardi

The 2023 Cy Young Award winners for baseball’s best American and National League pitchers are the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole and the San Diego Padres’ Blake Snell. Cole and Snell are dandy pitchers, but will never match Cy Young’s credentials. Neither will anyone else.

Only a handful of dinosaur baseball bugs know how the Cy Young Award evolved. Fewer still know anything more about Young than, over his 21-year career, he won 511 games, more than anyone ever will. In 1963, Sandy Koufax told a reporter that Young’s record could be broken. Koufax, 27, had 93 victories, not that far behind Young’s 131 at the same age. Three seasons later, Koufax was out of baseball, 346 wins behind Young.

The award’s back story: since his 1951 election, then-MLB commissioner Ford Frick, a big Bob Feller fan, thought that the existing MVP voting system minimized pitchers’ contributions when weighed against everyday players. Young’s 1955 death at age 88 motivated Frick to move ahead, despite resistance from every baseball corner.

Ford insisted that pitchers be given their own. He persisted until 1956 when the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Don Newcombe won the first Cy Young Award. Originally, the award was given to only one pitcher from both leagues, but by 1967, National and American League hurlers were selected.

Contrary to what fans’ limited knowledge about the baseball icon would indicate, Young wasn’t born on August 6, 1890, the first day he toed the rubber for the Cleveland Spiders. And Young didn’t vanish on October 6, 1911, age 44, the day after he threw his final professional pitch for the Boston Rustlers. Before, during and after Young’s Hall of Fame, record-setting career, he lived a life marked by peaks and valleys common to the human condition.

Denton True Young, called “Dent” by friends, didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 23. Until then, he farmed in Gilmore, Ohio, near Canton. During an exhibition game for the Canton team, Young struck out 13, and the Canton Repository, the local newspaper, noticed his blazing fastball, comparing it to a fast-arriving cyclone. From that moment on, the press and the public called Young “Cy.”

His next game was a no-hitter in which Young struck out 18. Then the Cleveland Spiders came a-calling, and bought his rights with a $300 offer. In Young’s rookie year, he won 36 games and led the National League with a 1.93 ERA. Young was on the way to Cooperstown. By the time he finally hung up his cleats, Young had racked up several all-time records. He pitched 7,356 innings, faced 29,565 batters, won 20 games 16 times, threw 25-/13 consecutive hitless innings, 76 straight batters and led the league in fewest walks allowed per nine innings 14 times. Young: “I aimed to make the batter hit the ball, and I threw as few pitches as possible.”

As years wore on and the Depression took hold, Young entered his senior years; he struggled to make ends meet. Young had returned to farm life, but raising sheep and vegetables left him cash-short. Farming was the only life Young knew; he dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Tragedy struck Young when, in 1933, his wife and childhood sweetheart, Roberta, died. Young, 65, childless, moved in with friends, held odd jobs and dabbled in local politics. Suddenly, however, baseball re-entered Young’s life. In September 1933, Young took the hill for the local County All-Stars against the Cleveland Indians at a state fair. Appearing in a cameo role, he struck out the side, and the Associated Press headline blared, “Cy Young Hurls as Indians Win.”

More Young appearances, to fans’ raucous roars, followed. Young, now 67, took to the mound again, if only for a third of an inning. During a 1934 old-timers’ game at Cleveland’s League Park, Young’s team, the “Has-Beens” played the “Antiques.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that in cold and miserable weather, Young was “the old man in brilliant red socks…who warmed up by giving the ball an underhand toss.”

Young left the “Has-Beens” to join the “Hope-to-Be’s,” a team of 12-15-year-olds who, Young recalled, “took a hefty cut at everything I tossed to ’em, but the old arm had plenty of stuff left in it and I won a couple of games.” Before long, however, the youngsters found Young’s vulnerability – the bunt: “I tried to bend over to field it,” Young said, “but couldn’t reach it.”

Astonishingly, Young wasn’t done yet. At 68, he announced that he would head to Augusta, Georgia, for Spring Training in anticipation of joining a barnstorming tour, advertised as a “Traveling Baseball School.” Young was to earn $250 a month in exchange for one inning pitched per game. Prior to going South, Young said, “I’m all alone, and this may be sort of fun.” But fun was hard to come by. The team traveled in broken-down buses, drew poorly, earned almost nothing and eventually folded.

Young spent his final days working at a five-and-dime store, reading his fan mail and promoting the national pastime. When “Dent” died in 1955 at age 88, Commissioner Frick’s long-awaited plan to introduce the Cy Young Award was born.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association Member. Contact him at [email protected].

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