By Zane Miller

Starting his pro baseball career right before the turn of the 20th century, pitcher Jack Chesbro would go on to be remembered for one of the most spectacular pitching seasons in MLB history. Before that, however, the man known as “Happy Jack” was a rookie pitcher with the National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates in 1899, making his way to the show after playing for years in the amateur ranks.

After a modest first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Chesbro hit his stride in 1901 as he led the league in complete game shutouts with six on the way to his first 20-win season, while also capturing his first major championship as the Pirates earned the National League crown. Chesbro then outdid himself in 1902, collecting a league-best 28 wins while leading in complete game shutouts again with eight.

As Major League Baseball was officially established before the 1903 season, thus consolidating the American League and National League, Chesbro would not make the transition over with the Pirates. Instead, he would join the New York Highlanders (now New York Yankees) for 1903, where he continued his ascent as a premier pitcher in the newly formed league. Despite his impressive showing of 21 wins, 147 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA in 324.2 innings pitched, all these numbers would be blown out of the water in 1904.

Chesbro had his first complete game shutout of the year on April 22nd versus the Washington Senators (now Minnesota Twins), allowing just one hit in the 2-0 victory. He continued his dominance into the month of May, more specifically, in his last two appearances of the month. On May 24th against the St. Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles), Chesbro pitched all nine innings while allowing just three hits and a walk in the Highlanders’ 3-0 victory. Chesbro would return in a 1-0 win against the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics on May 28th, where he remained strong, getting his second straight complete game shutout with seven strikeouts on four hits and four walks.

June saw Chesbro pick up yet another complete game shutout, as the Highlanders took on the Senators again on the 21st. This time, Chesbro nabbed five strikeouts as he gave up just four hits and no walks in the 3-0 triumph. After a relatively quiet but productive July, he secured his fifth complete game shutout effort on August 23rd against the Chicago White Sox in their first season under that name, where he earned a 1-0 victory after allowing four hits and no walks while striking out six. Finally, Chesbro would come back to haunt the Browns one more time on October 4th, going all nine scoreless innings despite giving up seven hits as the Highlanders won it 6-0. That victory was also Chesbro’s 40th of the season, becoming the first pitcher in the MLB era’s brief history to reach the 40-win mark.

Chesbro nabbed his 41st and final win of the season on October 7th against the Boston Americans (now Boston Red Sox), though the team struggled in their final games down the stretch to finish three games behind the Americans for the American League title (although the 1904 World Series was cancelled anyway due to petty squabbling that isn’t important to this story). Unfortunately for Chesbro, the Cy Young Award had not yet been created, as he most likely would have won after leading all MLB pitchers in wins, innings pitched with 454.2 and complete games with 48 on the season. His 239 strikeouts put him second in the AL behind Athletics ace Rube Waddell, while his 1.82 ERA was third in MLB amongst pitchers with at least 350 innings pitched.

Chesbro remained with the Highlanders in 1905, though he did not match his performance from the year before as he only had 19 wins with a 2.20 ERA in 303.1 innings pitched. His win totals increased slightly in 1906 with 23 on the season, although his ERA dipped drastically to 2.96 in 325 innings of work. Chesbro also began to be hampered by an ankle injury in the latter portion of his career, going just 206 innings in 1907 with just 10 wins. Though he somewhat returned to form in 1908 by getting 14 wins and 2.93 ERA in 288.2 innings pitched, Chesbro retired from MLB after the 1909 season, ironically finishing as a member of the Boston Red Sox after spending the majority of his career with what’s now known as the Yankees. “Happy Jack” ended his time in MLB with a total of 128 wins, 1,958 innings pitched, 916 strikeouts and a career ERA of 2.59.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Chesbro returned to his roots in 1910, pitching for various semi-pro teams in his home state of Massachusetts. He then attempted an MLB comeback in 1912, as he participated in a tryout for both the Pirates and Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers (now Los Angeles Dodgers), though an official deal never materialized. Along with his semi-pro ball appearances, Chesbro also operated a poultry farm in Conway, Massachusetts, not far from his hometown of North Adams.

In 1924, Chesbro got his break to return to MLB once again, this time as a coach for the Senators as former teammate Clark Griffith now owned the Washington squad. Had Chesbro remained on staff through the end of the season, he would have captured his first World Series ring. Alas, it was not meant to be as he was fired in June after a slow start to the season.

Chesbro was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, though sadly he would not be alive to see it as he passed away from a heart attack in 1931 at the age of 57. No other pitcher in MLB history has surpassed, and likely ever will surpass, his 41-win season in 1904, as he and fellow spitball pitcher Ed Walsh in 1908 remain the only two men to accomplish the historic achievement of crossing 40 wins in a season.