Vic Willis, he of the assonant moniker, hurled with the intensity of a Nor’easter whipping across the Charles River.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, Willis compiled a career 249-205 win-loss record, achieved a 2.63 Earned Run Average, and pitched in 513 games. His 13-year career began with the Boston Beaneaters, for whom he played from 1898 to 1905. Then, he called Pittsburgh home for four seasons, winning more than 20 games for the Pirates in each season. Willis ended his career in 1906, with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Willis came charging out of the gate in his rookie year, notching a 25-13 record. In addition to Willis’s performance, 1898 was an explosive year for Boston’s pitching staff:
- Fred Klobedanz (19-10)
- Ted Lewis (26-8)
- Kid Nichols (31-12)
The Beaneaters won the 1898 National League pennant with a 102-47 record.
After his first two seasons, Willis had a record of 52 wins, 21 losses. In 1900, he did not fare as well. A 10-17 record belied Willis’s proficiency on the mound. In his indispensable two-volume series Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, baseball historian David Nemec explains that rather than adhere to the ritual of spring training in southern climates, Willis opted for working out instead with Boston catcher Boileryard Clarke in the Princeton Gym. “Arm trouble” resulted.
Further, a leap to the American League, perhaps prompted by Boston’s 66-72 record in 1900, failed to launch. “Willis then made his critical career-changing mistake. That winter, he agreed to jump to the rival American League and signed a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. But in March TSN [The Sporting News] observed that he had ‘flopped back to the big league,’ after Boston threatened legal reprisal and perhaps raised his salary to compete with the A’s offer,” writes Nemec.
Willis threw a no-hitter for Boston on August 7, 1899 against the Washington Senators. Boston Globe sports writer Tim Murnane wrote, “The solitary hit off Willis was not worth the name. The ball went along the ground from [Senators pitcher Bill] Dineen’s [sic] bat as harmless as a robin at play until [Beaneaters third baseman Jimmy] Collins reached for it, when it jumped to one side and was safe.”
Although it stands as a no-hitter, the game’s box score in the Globe indicates a hit for Dineen. Further, a headline for Murnane’s story states, “Only One Hit Off Willis in the Full Nine Innings.”
Boston beat Washington 7-1. Murnane wrote, “The visitors scored their only run in the first, on two bases on balls, [Beaneaters catcher Marty] Bergen’s side throw to second and a putout.”
In 1899, Willis had the best Earned Run Average in the major leagues—2.50.
“Tall, graceful workhorse with sweeping curve” is the description of Willis on his Hall of Fame plaque. Workhorse, indeed. Willis scored at least 20 wins eight times. In 1902, Willis led the major leagues in:
- Games pitched (51)
- Games started (46)
- Complete games (45)
- Innings pitched (410)
- Saves (3)
- Batters faced (1,652)
- Strikeouts (225)
In addition to Willis, the Hall of Fame inducted Richie Ashburn, Leon Day, William Hulbert, and Mike Schmidt in 1995.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 19, 2016.