By The Old Sachem, Bill Stewart
The Boston Globe recently had an article about a pitcher that they claim was astute about cheating techniques in professional baseball. This column will give you insight into the player and manager William Henry McGunnigle. He was born in Boston on January 1, 1855, and died in Brockton on March 9, 1899.
His family moved to East Stoughton when Billy was a youngster, and he began his baseball career with the Howard Juniors club, playing in Brockton in 1873. He became a member of the Fall River team in 1875 at the age of 20, as both a pitcher and catcher. During his playing days he was known as Gunner. While attending a Howard Juniors game the manager called out to the audience for a replacement when his catcher was injured. Catchers did not wear gloves during this era and injuries to catchers were common, and occasionally to the other players involved because of the lack of glove protection. Catchers also did not wear masks in this period, which also sidelined many of the boys. Billy McGunnigle responded to the request for a replacement and his career took off. Pitchers in this era tossed the ball underhand, but similarly to the fast pitch we know in softball.
He next moved to Buffalo in 1876 to play for the Bisons in the International Association, winning the championship in 1878. The team was taken into the National League in 1879 as the Buffalo Bisons. He played two seasons (1879-1880) for Buffalo then left for the Worcester Ruby Legs during the 1880 season. With the Bisons he won a Clipper Medal as an all-star selection right fielder. As a Buffalo pitcher he started 18 games and had a record of 11 wins and 8 losses over the two seasons. Gunner led the league with the lowest per-inning rates of hits and strikeouts and had the fourth best winning percentage. During the 1880 season, he was a player/manager for the Bisons, but was replaced by the team owners. He played for the Cleveland Blues in 1882.
The Northwestern League was formed in 1883 and many Massachusetts lads were selected to play, among then McGunnigle. There were no high-level minor league teams during these years so professional players could move from team to team or even league to league. He was both a pitcher and right fielder for the Saginaw, Michigan, Old Golds in 1883, catching a future Hall-of-Famer, John Clarkson. In the middle of the 1884 season, Billy transferred to the Bay City Independents in Michigan.
McGunnigle came back to Brockton as manager/captain in 1885 and led the team to the New England League Championship. In July 1885 he was hit on the head by a pitch from Dick Conway. The Brockton Weekly described the situation as “he dodged the first ball thrown at his head … and the second he needed to drop to all fours to save himself … The unfortunate batsman could not avoid the third ball in time, and it struck him directly behind the left ear which caused a crash that was heard in every part of the grounds. Poor ‘Mac’ fell like an animal between the butcher’s axe, and his quivering form was drawn up in agony as he lay upon the ground.” The rules of baseball pitching had recently changed from underhand to overhand, but the distance remained the same, 50 feet rather than the 60 feet we see today.
The Boston Globe wrote about the incident: “The only topic on the street tonight is the question of whether it was Conway’s idea to frighten the batsman or if he was trying to get the ball as close to the batsman as possible.”
His playing career was over. In 1887 he became the manager of the Lowell Browns that won the 1887 pennant.
McGunnigle went to the American Association in 1888 as the manager of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. The team had finished sixth the prior year and the owner, Charlie Byrne, wanted better results. McGunnigle led the team to a second-place finish, four games behind the perennial league champion, St. Louis. The Bridegrooms, under his leadership, edged the St. Louis Browns for the championship of the American Association and faced the National League Champions, New York Giants, in the 1889 World Series. The Giants took the series 6-3, outscoring the Bridegrooms by 20 runs in the nine games. The Brooklyn team moved to the National League in 1890 and Gunner led the team to the championship. Despite two consecutive championships, he didn’t get along with the owner and was replaced by John Montgomery Ward after the season. The Bridegrooms later became the Brooklyns then eventually the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had a 23-113 season in 1890 and were 31-47 in 1891 when the team hired McGunnigle to manage the squad. His record was 24-33 for the remainder of the season, and he was let go after the season ended.
Billy managed the Providence team in the amateur Eastern League that played the first ever Sunday organized baseball game in New England. Rhode Island at the time had laws forbidding Sunday sports, but the officials in Warwick, R.I., allowed the games to be played at the Rocky Joint Resort. The team beat Woonsocket 7-6 on July 10, 1892. Massachusetts eventually changed the Sunday Law so baseball could be played on Sunday throughout the state.
The New England League was reformed in 1892 and Gunner became a player/manager for the Brockton club at mid-season, pushing the team to first-place, but the team could not sustain the victories. McGunnigle managed Lowell in 1893, then turned to the game of polo in 1894 and 1895.
The 1896 Louisville Colonels, under manager John McCloskey, started the season as 2-17 so management brought in McGunnigle to improve the team, which he did, bringing the Colonels to a 36-76 record for the rest of the season – finishing last. Gunner was fired after the season. McGunnigle had a career record in 586 National League games as manager with 327 wins and 248 losses for an average of .569.
In 1887 he was involved in an automobile accident as he rode in a horse carriage. He was thrown from the carriage, was chronically ill and “homeridden” for the last few months of his life. He died at age 44 and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Brockton.
He is credited with introducing a heavily gloved hand where he cut back the fingers on the right hand so he could throw the baseball, but kept the fingers on the left to protect his hand. That eventually led to gloves, first for catchers, then for all players in the field. He also developed signals for his batters by pounding a bat on the dugout steps to alert the batter of the type of pitch to come. With the Bisons in 1876, he started a movement by throwing out batters from right field; he notched 28 outs that way that year.
Another Massachusetts player who starred in the sport of baseball who few know of today, but reside in our history forever.