Tens of thousands of men have played professional baseball, but only a few have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. One of those rare individuals is pitcher Mickey Welsh (July 4, 1859 – July 30, 1941) who was born and raised in Williamsburg.
Only about two-dozen pitchers have won more than 300 games in their careers and Mickey Welsh was the third-ever pitcher to join that elite club. Welch played 13 seasons in the major leagues, three with the Troy Trojans, and 10 with the New York Gothams/Giants. He was very successful with an effective curveball, a change of pace, and a version of the screwball. During his 13 major league seasons, he posted 20 or more wins nine times, seven in succession.
Welch’s real name was Walsh. Mickey was the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Williamsburg. When Welch was young baseball was the rage in Brooklyn. Welsh in all likelihood saw the great local amateur team, the Eckford Club, which twice won the national baseball title before professional teams came to dominate the sport and the Eckford club folded in 1872. The first fully enclosed baseball grounds was also located in Williamsburg, The Union Grounds and it is more than likely Welch watched games there as a child.
Welsh was no physical giant. He stood only five feet eight inches tall and was no power pitcher. He threw underhand and had his success because he was a student of the game who mastered batters strengths and weaknesses and pitched smartly. Welch said, “I was a little fellow and I had to learn to use my head. I studied the hitters and knew how to pitch to all of them and I worked hard to perfect my control. I had a pretty good fastball, but I depended on my change of pace and an assortment of curveballs.”
He played two years of minor league baseball before becoming a major leaguer with the Troy Trojans in 1880. In his rookie year he won an astonishing 34 games. The Troy club collapsed and Welsh ended up pitching for the New York Gothams, later called the Giants, in the fabled Polo Grounds. In fact, Welch pitched the first game ever played at the Polo Grounds.
His first two years he became a 25-game winner in 1883 and a 39-game winner the next season. The next year he would make baseball history. Welch set the record for most consecutive batters struck out to begin a game, with 9, put out on August 28, 1884, a record that still stands all these years later. In 1885, he won an amazing 17 games in a row at one point, but his team still did not win the championship.
“Smiling Mickey” Welch was loved by the fans not only for his feats on the diamond but also for his personality. He earned his nickname for his nonchalant smile that never dimmed no matter how many errors his teammates made behind him. He did not curse or use hard liquor, but he loved beer and wrote poems about the beverage. He even attributed his remarkable pitching success to drinking beer and coined a short ditty that embodied his philosophy: “Pure elixir of malt and hops/Beats all the drugs and all the drops.”
After the 1885 season, Welch was one of nine Giants players to form baseball’s first union, which was known as the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. The players were upset about the way they had been treated by baseball owners. The reserve clause, which restricted player movement and tempered increases in player salaries, had been instituted in 1880. The players tried to form their own league, but Mickey was one of the players who did not join it. His teammates felt betrayed, but with a large family to feed, Welch accepted a contract to stay with the Giants.
On September 10, 1889, he is credited as having become the first pinch hitter in major league history; he batted for Hank O’Day and struck out. His career lasted an impressive 13 seasons, but salaries were small in his day and Mickey never earned more than $4,000 per season. At the end of his career he opened a hotel with money he had saved from baseball. He died in 1941 and in 1973 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Sadly, today even hard-core fans in North Brooklyn realize that one of the greats began his career locally.