Larry Corcoran’s obituary in the Chicago Daily Tribune was just 46 words.
“New York, Sept. 20. — Larry Corcoran, the once famous pitcher of the Chicago Baseball club and for two seasons a member of the New York club, died at his home in Newark, N.J., last night of typhoid fever. He leaves a wife and two children.”
None of it was true. Corcoran died of Bright’s disease. He had four children. Oh, and he wasn’t dead yet.
The only part that was close to accurate — “the once famous pitcher” — undersold the point. From 1880 to 1884, the 5-foot-3, 127 pound Corcoran was the ace of the Chicago White Stockings. He etched his name in the record books, and is still mentioned today when someone approaches his mark, even though most baseball fans have no idea who he is.
Corcoran started 255 games between 1880 and 1884, going the distance in all but nine of them. He racked up 2,279 innings — an absurd number compared to today. From 2012 to 2016, David Price led baseball with 1,096 1/3 innings pitched. Corcoran also posted a 2.23 ERA over that period, which was 29 percent better than the league average.
In his first year with the club, he became the fourth pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter on Aug. 19, 1880. On Sept. 20, 1882 — exactly 135 years ago — he did it again, becoming the first pitcher in baseball history with multiple no-hitters. Two years later, on June 27, 1884, Corcoran added a third no-hitter, a record that wouldn’t be surpassed for 81 years.
And yet The Chicago Daily Tribune — the paper in the city in which Corcoran made baseball history — falsely reported his death. Corcoran died nearly a month after the Tribune ran his obituary, on Oct. 14, 1891. There was no mention of his on-field accomplishments. No hint of his historic performance with the White Stockings. No acknowledgment of the three consecutive National League championships he’d helped Chicago win. Less than five years removed from throwing his final pitch, Corcoran was already forgotten.
Over a century later, that remains true. All of the pitchers who have thrown three or more no-hitters are considered among the game’s greatest talents. Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Cy Young and Bob Feller are all no-doubt Hall of Famers.
And then there’s Corcoran. He’s the only member of that club who isn’t considered one of the best pitchers in baseball history. He’s not talked about as an inner-circle Hall of Famer. He’s not even talked about as an average, run-of-the-mill Hall of Famer.
That’s because he can’t be. Of the five pitchers to throw at least three no-hitters, Corcoran is the only one not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Among the endless debates each year surrounding Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and every other questionable candidate, Corcoran’s name never comes up, but his case might be just as fascinating.
Corcoran’s story is mostly lost to baseball history. A review of his Baseball-Reference page gives you stats, including his unusual height and weight. His brief Wikipedia entry reveals some memorable facts. Corcoran, along with Fred Goldsmith, combined to form one of the first pitching rotations in baseball history. He’s credited with being the first pitcher to create a pitch signaling method with his catcher. He was an ambidextrous pitcher.
But that’s it. There’s no hint of Corcoran’s meteoric rise, his feud with a powerful owner and his unceremonious demise partially brought on by alcohol. It’s quite a tale. One that a descendent of his has spent years researching, and now she’s pushing for his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Penelope Corcoran, Larry’s great-granddaughter, grew up knowing her great-grandfather was a famous baseball player who’d pitched three no-hitters a long time ago, but not much else.
“My dad told me Larry was a pitcher on ‘Cap Anson’s famous Chicago team’ in the 1880s,” she told Yahoo Sports. “He pitched three no-hitters. He threw his right arm out. He taught himself how to throw with his left … but he couldn’t get back to form. He drank himself to death by age 32. That was the story I grew up with.
“That leaves a lot of questions to be answered.”
A GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER’S QUEST
Locating published information on Larry was a passion project for Penelope’s father. They would look for Larry in any basic baseball almanacs they could get their hands on. When Penelope was a child, they even visited Cooperstown and talked to someone at the Hall of Fame to learn why Larry wasn’t a part of it. Her father died 20 years ago, and Penelope set out to fill in those gaps.
In 2006, as more archives became available online, she was motivated to see what she could find about her great-grandfather.
“I just wanted to know more,” she said. “I wanted to see stuff. I wanted to see his name on a census. I wanted to see documents.”
She joined Ancestry.com. There, she found articles from various newspaper databases on Larry. She found the 1880 census for Brooklyn, where she learned Larry’s father, William, was a butcher. His two older brothers were sparmakers. That was just the starting point. Her interest piqued, and over the past seven years she’s extensively researched anything she could find regarding Larry’s life and career.
It wasn’t easy. Penelope needed more than just the archives available on Ancestry. She found the papers that offered online archives and signed up. She archived every single story she could find about Larry from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times. She looked up old issues of the New York Clipper.
While plenty of papers covered baseball at the time, some important sporting publications were unindexed. Penelope had to go through each issue one-by-one to find Larry’s name.
“[The N.Y. Clipper] was a weekly, thank God,” she said.
After doing everything should could online, Penelope took her research beyond the computer. She spent five days in Chicago at the Chicago History Museum trying to find every mention of her great-grandfather. This included not only baseball stories and coverage, but personal letters from people who knew and interacted with Larry. She went through the archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“They didn’t have much on Larry,” she said. “His file contained a couple of photocopies.”
CORCORAN BECOMES A STAR BUT CLASHES WITH OWNERSHIP
Larry Corcoran got his start in baseball playing in pickup leagues around Brooklyn. Word spread about his performance. Hall of Fame player/manager of the Chicago White Stockings Cap Anson heard about Corcoran while visiting Buffalo, and invited him to train with the team in California in the late fall of 1879.
Corcoran was picked up by the White Stockings for the 1880 season, and exploded onto the scene as a rookie. In his first year with the club, Corcoran started 60 games, going 43-14. He racked up a 1.95 ERA — which was 23 percent better than league-average — over 536 1/3 innings. His 268 strikeouts led the league. He threw his first no-hitter in August, and led the White Stockings to the pennant.
Nearly all of those figures would lead the league today. Thirty-three starts in a season is considered a lot now. A pitcher who throws 230 innings now is typically among the league leaders. Corcoran’s strikeout total isn’t all that out of place, but consider that it came in over 500 innings. His 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings led baseball in 1880. That figure would rank as the second lowest among qualified pitchers in 2017.
In 1882, Corcoran turned in perhaps the finest season of his career. Over 355 2/3 innings, he posted a league-leading 1.95 ERA — 47 percent better than league-average — with a league-low .967 WHIP. He led the league averaging 7.1 hits per nine innings. On Sept. 20, he threw his second no-hitter. The White Stockings won yet another pennant.
Prior to the start of the 1882 season, Chicago Baseball Club president William Hulbert died of a heart attack. Albert G. Spalding, the club’s secretary, replaced him. Spalding had been a standout pitcher with the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association in the 1870s. He was regarded as one of the best pitchers of his era.
When Hulbert decided to help create the National League, he recruited Spalding to play for him. In 1876, his first season with the White Stockings, Spalding led the team to the first-ever National League pennant. He went 47-12, with a 1.75 ERA in 528 2/3 innings.
Spalding had been well-regarded within the game for quite some time. As a player, he opened a sporting goods store with his brother. The business thrived, and is still around today. Yes, he’s that Spalding. He used his stature to influence the game. Spalding sold his balls, bats and other equipment to clubs.
He also wrote a baseball guide, in which he detailed what he believed it took to be a successful ballplayer. Spalding believed strongly in morals. Players should not drink and should remain abstinent in order to thrive. This presented a huge problem for many members of the White Stockings, who were treated like rock stars at the time, according to Corcoran.
“They were the National Champions for several years in a row,” she said. “They were famous. They partied. They partied hard. Some of [Larry’s] teammates would show up the next day drunk, and I’m sure Larry showed up hungover quite a few times.”
This enraged Spalding. After receiving letters from citizens implicating players on the White Stockings of “drunkenness and debauchery,” Spalding hired Billy Pinkerton to follow members of the team for a few weeks.
Spalding received a report from the detective, who followed members of the club “through a whole roster of saloons and speak-easy resorts.” In his book “America’s National Game” Spalding wrote, “Seven out of the fifteen players on the team were too awful for patient consideration.”
Spalding called a team meeting revealing he had the team followed, and presented a list of their transgressions. The players treated it like a joke, asking to hear the list of their escapades rattled off. They sat silently in anticipation until shortstop King Kelly interrupted to dispute one of the claims.
“I have to offer only one amendment,” King said in front of the group. “In that place where the detective reports me as taking a lemonade a 3 a.m. he’s off. It was a straight whiskey; I never drank a lemonade at that hour in my life.”
While the players laughed it off, Spalding took the charges seriously. The seven players agreed to a fine of $25 a piece. Spalding uses the story to explain why he sold Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters in 1887. While Corcoran was part of the drinking gang, Spalding does not mention him by name. Penelope Corcoran has not been able to confirm if Larry was on the Pinkerton list. Corcoran’s name only shows up one time in “America’s National Game.” It’s a one-sentence blurb noting his small stature.
Corcoran pitched two more strong seasons for the White Stockings in 1883 and 1884. In 1885, however, Corcoran injured his arm, leading to a massive and highly public falling out with Spalding.
“I think Spalding did his best to hurt [Larry’s] reputation,” Penelope Corcoran said. “I don’t know what kind of campaign they did, but they basically painted Larry as a bad guy. I think that carried a lot of weight.”
He injured his arm in May, but remained with the club through June while rehabbing from his injury. When July began, Corcoran asked Spalding for his monthly salary. Spalding told him that he had terminated his contract as of June 1, and did not owe him any money. Corcoran was never notified of that, and had reported to the team every day in June. Corcoran asked for his release. Spalding eventually agreed, but the move was contingent on Larry returning to the club the following season if he was able to return to form.
Spalding believed Corcoran would join a team in Newark for the rest of the year to get right.
Instead, Corcoran agreed to a contract with the White Stockings’ arch rivals, the New York Giants. As both teams were engaged in a tight pennant race, Corcoran’s N.Y. defection and Spalding’s ire was a hot topic in newspaper sporting sections
After the falling out, Corcoran said said there was no way he would return to Chicago the following season. Upon hearing that, Spalding said he would never take Corcoran back.
Spalding’s influence and stature within the game led to the Tribune generally taking his side in the fracas. They praised Spalding for his shrewd business methods, and mentioned Corcoran’s injury cost the team “a considerable sum of money.”
Though Corcoran insisted his arm was healthy, he struggled in New York. Corcoran pitched just three games with the club, putting up a slightly below league-average ERA. That was basically the end of his career as a useful pitcher. Corcoran posted a 5.79 ERA over 14 innings with the Washington Nationals in 1886. He joined the Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1887, but posted a 12.60 ERA in 15 innings. That was his final season in professional baseball.
CORCORAN’S DOWNFALL COMES WITH THE HELP OF ALCOHOL
As his career deteriorated, Corcoran’s drinking started to become more of a problem.
“Drinking might have started to show up at the end of the Nationals,” according to Penelope Corcoran. “It definitely became an issue in 1887. He started the season with Nashville. By May he was fined and indefinitely suspended for ‘intemperance.’ Amazingly, Indianapolis still signed him, but also released him.”
Following his stint with Indianapolis, Larry played in the minors in 1888. There his drinking again led to suspensions and releases. Larry retired and returned home to Newark. The following year, he began working as an umpire, but his reliance on alcohol became a much bigger problem. In the summer of 1890, he stopped umpiring due to illness. He was sick from 1890 until his death from Bright’s disease in October of 1891. He was 32.
Papers in New York, Cincinnati, Buffalo and St. Louis wrote warm obituaries on Corcoran, focusing on his career and accomplishments in baseball. His brief and inaccurate two-sentence obituary in the Chicago Daily Tribune showed just how much his rivalry with Spalding impacted Corcoran’s public perception in the city.
His wife’s family seemed to share that sentiment. Ill and unemployed, Larry, his wife, Gertrude, and four children moved in with her family. He died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave in Newark. Corcoran’s wife’s family owned a large family plot in Springfield, Massachusetts. They may have had the resources to ship Corcoran’s body to be buried, but chose not to.
“I think her family was just really pissed off,” Penelope Corcoran said. “I think they thought Larry was a bum. He drank himself to death and left his wife and four small children to be taken care of by them. So they buried him as cheaply as possible.”
A group of firefighters in Essex County, New Jersey found Corcoran’s gravesite in 2009, and raised money to buy him a headstone.
Corcoran’s rocky relationship with his wife’s family at the time of his death may be the reason no pieces of memorabiln ia from his playing days exist within the family today.
“We don’t have it,” Penelope Corcoran said. “None of my cousins have it. So, I think [Larry’s family] might have just been like, ‘I don’t want to see any reminders of him. Let’s throw it away.’”
A PUSH FOR COOPERSTOWN
Making Corcoran’s Hall of Fame case is complicated. There’s no one alive who saw him play, and the game has changed greatly since the 1880s.
The distance between pitcher and batter wasn’t as long as it is today, but the difference wasn’t as drastic as some believe. On top of that, overhand pitching wasn’t allowed until 1884, around the time Corcoran began to see his numbers decline.
Despite those changes, fans today would recognize the game of baseball during Corcoran’s era, according to Major League Baseball’s Official Historian John Thorn.
“The game prior to 1857 may not have been so recognizable to fans today,” Thorn said. “But the game in Larry Corcoran’s time was certainly recognizable.”
Though the game was different, it is possible to accurately analyze Corcoran’s numbers and compare them to player’s statistics today.
Looking at some counting stats only leads to confusion — good luck finding a player who came close to 43 wins during their rookie season — but there are advanced stats that are era-adjusted, giving you a better idea of how Corcoran’s numbers stacked up against his contemporaries.
ERA+ is useful in this case. It takes a player’s ERA and compares it to the league-average during that season. Corcoran had a 123 ERA+ over his career. His 2.36 ERA was 23 percent better than the league-average over his career. That’s about as effective as San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner has been over his career. That figure is good enough for the Hall of Fame. For comparison, Bert Blyleven’s ERA+ is 118 — 18 percent better than the league-average — over his career.
One counting stat that could be used for Corcoran is innings pitched. Due to the demands of pitchers in the 1880s, Corcoran compiled 2,392 1/3 career innings quickly during his career. That’s slightly more than Koufax, the Hall of Fame pitcher who broke Corcoran’s no-hitter record many years later.
“He was regarded as a top pitcher when he was at the top of his game,” Thorn said. “He also played for a great club. The Chicago White Stockings were always in the race for the pennant.”
But there’s one significant roadblock preventing Corcoran from even getting consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame: He didn’t last 10 years in the majors.
Corcoran’s career lasted just eight seasons. He falls two years short of the Hall of Fame’s mandatory 10-year threshold. That’s the reason he’s not currently a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, according to Thorn.
There is, however, precedent for the 10-year requirement being waived. It’s happened once. Cleveland Naps pitcher Addie Joss is the only player elected to the baseball Hall of Fame who played fewer than 10 seasons in the majors. After nine strong seasons, Joss died of tubercular meningitis at 31. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1978.
Since Corcoran isn’t a contemporary player, he would have to be inducted by the modern day Veteran’s Committee, now known as the Eras Committees. He would also have to receive the same 10-year requirement waiver voters considered for Joss.
Problem is, there’s no official process for that type of exception, according to the Hall of Fame’s Vice President of Communications & Education Jon Shestakofsky. In order for Corcoran to be considered, the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors would have to waive the 10-year requirement.
From there, the members of Historical Overview Committee would have to be convinced Corcoran deserved to be one of the 10 names on the next Early Baseball era ballot. The next year players from the Early Baseball era will be up for induction is 2020. If Corcoran isn’t on that ballot, he won’t have another opportunity until 2030.
Corcoran’s lack of longevity further complicates his Hall of Fame case. According to JAWS, a stat created by Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe that assesses a player’s Cooperstown credentials, Corcoran falls far short of the standard at starting pitcher to get inducted.
Hall of Fame Monitor, a Bill James creation, said Corcoran more than deserves the honor. Unlike JAWS, Hall of Fame Monitor doesn’t adjust for era, so Corcoran receives a lot of credit for consistently winning over 30 games a season due to the excessive workloads of his era.
Corcoran’s historical contributions to the game should elevate his case. Being the first pitcher to throw two — and then three — no-hitters is significant. As is Corcoran being the player responsible for creating pitch-signaling with his catcher.
Though the process for getting Larry Corcoran on the ballot is an uphill battle, Penelope Corcoran is willing to fight for it.
“That’s been my plan all along,” she said. “It feels like my life purpose. To accomplish for my dad what he deeply wanted: Larry’s rightful recognition by the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
That’s what has driven Corcoran the past couple years. It’s the reason she joined the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and became a member of their Nineteenth Century Committee. It’s the reason she dug through old newspaper archives and spent days in Chicago digging up anything she could find on her great-grandfather.
At this point, she believes she’s compiled the largest collection of newspaper stories and mentions concerning her great-grandfather “in the world.” The next part of her journey to raise awareness for Larry Corcoran includes a possible presentation at SABR’s 19th Century Base Ball Conference in 2018. She’s working on her proposal now.
If that goes well, she’s hoping to submit more of Larry’s story to more publications. She would love for this all to lead to a Larry Corcoran-based book or screenplay, and has already received interest from two literary agents.
From there, she hopes to get the attention of the Historical Overview Committee, and the voters for the Early Baseball era. It’s all with the goal of getting Larry “as close to inducted” into the Hall of Fame as possible.
While her great-grandfather’s chance of induction remains slim, Penelope Corcoran should already consider her campaign a success. Because of her efforts, Larry’s story can finally be told. After falling into obscurity the instant his career was over, Larry Corcoran’s baseball career might finally get the recognition it deserves.
“This is very very important to me,” she said. “And my ancestors.”
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