Why would a team sabotage its own pitcher?

On the perils of nicknaming yourself 'Phenomenal'

May 10th, 2020

It's one of society's cardinal rules: You can never, ever be the author of your own nickname. Any nickname built to last is a peculiar alchemy, produced organically and ratified only by the will of the people (or, alternatively, your ruthless friends). Trying to subvert that will, trying to play god, is just asking for embarrassment.

Most of us grasp this lesson early on, either intuitively or through some, uh, polite social encouragement (again: ruthless friends). John Francis "Phenomenal" Smith, however, had to learn it the hard way -- via what is still quite possibly the wildest act of sabotage in baseball history.

A Philadelphia native, Smith didn't look like much, standing maybe 5-foot-6 on a good day. But he had a heck of a fastball, and it helped him pretty quickly make a name for himself as a pitcher in both the American Association (a one-time rival of the National League) and various indy ball teams in the early 1880s.

His breakout came in 1885, when Smith posted a 0.84 ERA over 18 starts for the Newark Domestics of the independent Eastern League. He punctuated that run with an absolutely otherworldly flex against Baltimore: The lefty threw a no-hitter, struck out 16 batters and the only two men to reach base -- one on a walk, the other on a dropped third strike -- were each immediately picked off of first. That's not just great; that's the kind of stuff iconic nicknames are made of. Which is how John Francis Smith decided that he was now "Phenomenal" Smith instead. No, seriously, he insisted.

It should go without saying that Smith was, shall we say, not lacking in confidence. And so, when his exploits with Newark earned him a contract with the American Association's Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers (yes, that's how they got the name), he didn't bat an eye. Well, actually, he did the opposite of bat an eye: He strolled on in and informed his new teammates that he was good enough to win games all by himself.

Imagine you're a professional ballplayer -- a pennant-winning ballplayer at that -- and in comes some 21-year-old from across the river in Jersey talking about how he won't really be needing you, thanks. You'd probably be pretty ticked off. You might even conspire to put that claim to the test.

Smith's time in Brooklyn lasted precisely one start. It was, somehow, even worse than the box scores indicates:

How does an exciting young pitcher, with some impressive notches in his belt and a decent career in the National League in his future, give up 18 runs in a single start before being immediately released? Simple: His teammates were determined to watch him fail.

And I do mean determined. All of the fielders behind Smith, save for third baseman Bill McLellan, took a dive, refusing to make even the most routine plays in support of their pitcher. They dropped popups. They let grounders roll through their legs. They threw the ball over the yard. They made 14 errors (!) in all -- the Major League record is 12, set by the 1901 Tigers and the 1903 White Sox -- and that's not even considering the playable balls that Brooklyn's defense let go untouched. Shortstop Germany Smith was responsible for seven all on his own, while Smith's catcher, Jackie Hayes, allowed five passed balls. The original box score listed all 18 runs as unearned, though that was later adjusted to seven.

As you might imagine, this was all extremely conspicuous. Many of the 1,600 fans at Washington Park that day turned on the home team, booing every ball in play, while the next day's Brooklyn Eagle condemned the "disgusting rottenness which prevailed in the ranks of the team." Club president Charlie Byrne, meanwhile, was understandably furious: He demanded every single player report to the clubhouse the next morning for a team meeting, at which he informed them that they'd all be fined $500 -- and that any similar display in the future would not be tolerated.

As for Smith? "Owing to his painful experience of yesterday," the Eagle reported, "he has been given a day or two to recuperate. He will be tried again, however, and under very different circumstances from those of his first game in Brooklyn."

NARRATOR: But Smith would not be tried again. Fine or no fine, most of the Brooklyn roster wouldn't budge, refusing to play behind somebody who would insist on being referred to as "Phenomenal" with a straight face. Forced to choose between his newest pitcher and being able to field a functional baseball team for the rest of the year, Byrne understandably opted for the latter, quietly releasing Smith before he could make another start.

If you think that this all might've been a humbling experience for the young lefty, though, think again: That October, the Daily Intelligencer in Wheeling, W. Va., reported that Smith was looking for a new club for the 1886 season -- he would accept nothing less than $3,000, and he claimed to have already received offers from "every professional club in the country." (He did go on to a successful career as a player-manager in the Minor Leagues, though; in 1900, he signed Christy Mathewson to his first professional contract.)