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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Hard Luck Mulcahy
By C. Paul Rogers III

At first glance, a pitcher with a 45–89 career record, a lifetime earned run average of 4.49, and twice having led his league in losses is not exactly a player one thinks of as a victim of bad luck. On the contrary, when a pitcher wins barely a third as many games as he loses during his career, one might consider him pretty lucky just to play the nine big league seasons that Hugh Mulcahy put in between 1935 and 1947. But luck is often in the eyes of the beholder, and a closer examination of Mulcahy's career suggests he indeed might have been one of the game's unluckiest ballplayers.

During his four principal years in the bigs, 1937 through 1940, Mulcahy's Philadelphia Phillies team finished seventh once and in the cellar three times, losing 92, 105, 106, and 103 games, respectively. Toiling for the woeful Phillies as one of their most-used pitchers, he lost twenty games in 1938 and twenty-two in 1940—and was tabbed by sportswriters with the moniker "Losing Pitcher," supposedly because his name appeared so often in the newspaper box score with an "LP" beside it. (If such a label was actually deserved by Mulcahy, it could also have been applied equally to fellow Phillie pitchers Bucky Walters, Kirby Higbe, or Claude Passeau, who each compiled similarly mediocre won-lost records—Walters went 11–21 in 1936—before having the good fortune to be traded away to better clubs in the National League.) In addition to these burdens, Mulcahy was the first major league ballplayer drafted into the armed services for World War II, being inducted March 8, 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor. He would serve fifty-three months—including a year in New Guinea and the Phillippines—before receiving his honorable discharge on August 5, 1945, and lose, for all intents and purposes, five full seasons of baseball.

Of course, many ballplayers lost years to the war, including well-known stars like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, and Ted Williams. And many baseball fans are familiar with the unlucky tale of Cecil Travis, who entered the war after completing one of the greatest seasons ever by a shortstop, only to lose four years of his career and end up with frostbitten feet in the Battle of the Bulge, effectively ending his playing days. But each of those players had either already enjoyed many prime seasons or returned young enough to regain the skills that made him a great player to begin with. Not so for Mulcahy. Whatever developing potential he had that might finally have brought him stardom in 1941 and beyond was never realized.

Here's the way Red Smith, writing in 1947 after the Pirates had released the veteran pitcher (shortly after the Phillies had also released him), described Mulcahy's fate:

 

In a strictly professional sense, Mulcahy is the major war casualty among big-league players. He didn't get shot, like John Grodzicki or young Bob Savage. He wasn't knocked out of the skies and imprisoned like Phil Marchildon.

But those fellows were young enough to come back and start over. Mulcahy only lost a career that seemed just about to come full flower when he had to give it up [for military service].

 

If not for the years lost to the war, how good might Hugh Mulcahy have become? Well, anybody's guess would be mere speculation, but it's worth noting that Mulcahy's three former Phillie peers—Walters, Higbe, and Passeau (of whom only Higbe would lose any years to the war, and only two at that)—all went on to respectable pitching careers, and each would post a twenty-victory season the very next year after leaving the Phillies. So who's to say that Mulcahy wouldn't have fared just as well?

Thus, life seems to have dealt Hugh Mulcahy a tough hand: he pitched for an awful club, got tagged with an ignominious nickname, was the first major league World War II draftee, and spent four and one-half "prime" years in military service, effectively ruining his big league career. Unless, of course, one were to ask Mr. Mulcahy himself.

Now eighty-seven years old and living in suburban Pittsburgh, he prefers to view himself as a fortunate man. Fortunate to break in to the majors with the Phillies, where manager Jimmie Wilson straightened out his pitching delivery and where he became a workhorse and was named to the 1940 National League All-Star team. Fortunate to survive World War II, particularly the stint in New Guinea, where his outfit was ravaged by a tropical disease that nearly proved fatal for many of them. And fortunate, after his playing days were over, to secure a job in baseball as a respected pitching coach and minor league administrator. In other words, as Mr. Mulcahy sees it, a life blessed by a lot of good luck, not bad.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2001 issue.

–EFQ

C. PAUL ROGERS III is the co-author with boyhood hero Robin Roberts of The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, and with Bill Werber of the newly released Memories of a Ballplayer: Bill Werber and Baseball in the 1930s. His real job is as a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

© 2001 C. Paul Rogers III

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