If ever there was a hard-luck pitcher, Hugh (Losing Pitcher) Mulcahy was it. From his first inning to his last, the Fates hounded him. They saw to it that he wasted his talents on one of the worst teams in baseball history. They conspired with the U.S. Army to single him out as the first major-leaguer drafted in World War II. They never gave him a chance to change his nickname.
Mulcahy spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies who stumbled through the '30s and '40s. Called the "Phutile Phils," they finished last eight times between 1936 and 1945, averaging 102 losses a year. In his four best years with the team, 1937-40, Mulcahy was 8-18, 10-20, 9-16 and 13-22. Hence the nickname, which Mulcahy thinks was created by a sportswriter who was struck by the frequency with which the line "Losing pitcher: Mulcahy" appeared in Phillie box scores. Now it is in The Baseball Encyclopedia, sandwiched between Joe Muir and Tony Mullane: Hugh (Losing Pitcher) Mulcahy.
But Mulcahy didn't deserve his nickname. He was a fine pitcher on a no-hit, no-field, no-anything club. The team was already on the skids when Mulcahy joined it late in the 1935 season. Purchased from Albany in the International League, he made his debut in the eighth inning of a game the Phillies were losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in Forbes Field. The first three batters Mulcahy had to face were—welcome to the majors—Lloyd Waner, Paul Waner and Arky Vaughan. Vaughan led the National League that season with a .385 average; while Paul batted .321 and Lloyd .309.
Mulcahy retired them in order, although he can no longer remember how. What he does recall about that game is the conversation he had with Jimmie Wilson, the Phillies' manager and catcher, when Wilson handed him the ball at the mound. Wilson looked up at his 6'2" rookie and asked him how he felt. Hughie said he felt fine, thank you. Wilson replied, "That's funny, because your knees are shaking something awful."
Mulcahy was back in the minors again in 1936 and had a superb season at Hazleton, Pa., where he won 25 games and the New York-Penn League's Most Valuable Player award. In September Mulcahy rejoined the Phillies and won one game and lost one, the last time his major league record reached .500.
In 1937 Wilson gave Mulcahy a lot of work, using him as both a starter (25 games) and reliever (31 games). Mulcahy lost 18 and won eight while tying Christy Mathewson's 29-year-old league record for most games pitched in a season, 56. The resemblance to Mathewson ended there: Matty's ERA in 1908, the year he set the record, was 1.43; Mulcahy's was 5.13. Undaunted, Wilson encouraged Mulcahy to keep a notebook with a page for every hitter in the league. On the top of each page, Mulcahy wrote, "Don't walk him." Good advice, but he led the league in walks that year.
In 1938 Mulcahy showed some improvement, but the team didn't, losing 105 games and finishing 24½ games behind the seventh-place Dodgers. Mulcahy had a 10-20 record (a .333 winning percentage compared to the Phillies' .300) and a 4.61 ERA. His bad luck proved consistent: he lost two no-hitters in late innings. And in an August game, typical of both the Phillies and Mulcahy, he pitched a six-hitter against the Cardinals only to lose 3-0 because of three misplays in the first three innings by Shortstop George (Shagger) Scharein.
Forty years later, Mulcahy refuses to bemoan his fortune. A minor league pitching coach for the White Sox from 1951 to 1975, he lives in Beaver, Pa. and his only contacts with baseball are an occasional Pirate game in Pittsburgh and a round of golf with Chuck Tanner, the Pirates' manager. But when he talks of his days with the Phillies, his eyes light up.
"Maybe I was too stupid," he says, "but I never thought about losing. I'd be warming up before a game, and I might have lost five or six in a row, but I still felt I was going to win. I don't know why we lost so many. I remember playing with some pretty good ballplayers."
The Phillies did have some good ballplayers, but owner Gerry Nugent, a former shoe salesman, kept selling them off. First Baseman Dolph Camilli was sent to Brooklyn in 1938 for $45,000 and Eddie Morgan, a .188-hitting outfielder. Three years later Camilli won the MVP and the Dodgers won the pennant. In 1938, Nugent sent Bucky Walters to Cincinnati for $55,000, a has-been and a never-was. Walters pitched the Reds to pennants in 1939 and 1940 with 27-11 and 22-10 records. No wonder Manager Wilson resigned in September of 1938. In 1939 the manager was James (Doc) Prothro, a dentist and former infielder whose son Tommy grew up to become a football coach. Prothro lasted three seasons, gritting his teeth through 106 defeats in 1939, 103 in 1940 and 111 in 1941.
Meanwhile, Mulcahy pitched every fourth day, and Nugent traded away his other good pitchers, Claude Passeau and Max Butcher. Mulcahy slipped to a 9-16 mark and a 4.99 ERA in 1939, but in 1940 his ERA was 3.60, although he went 13-22. In 36 starts he had an amazing 35 decisions, as well as 21 completed games and three shutouts. He was considered one of the best pitchers in the game, and made the National League All-Star team that year, though he jokes, "I would have lost the All-Star game, too, only I didn't get to pitch in it."
After the 1940 season it was thought that Mulcahy might be the next player to escape the Phillies ("He may yet change his name to 'Winning Pitcher' Mulcahy," said one sportswriter) but Mulcahy had drawn a low number in the Selective Service draft. On March 8, 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor, Mulcahy entered the Army. By the time he returned to the Phillies on Aug. 26, 1945, his weight had dropped from 205 pounds to 170, and his fastball had been left somewhere in the Pacific. To make him feel at home, the Phillies finished last in 1945. They actually rose to fifth in 1946, but Mulcahy no longer played a significant role. He pitched in 16 games, and had a 2-4 record. The Phillies released him after the end of the season.
The Fates had one last trick to play on Mulcahy. In 1947 the Pirates decided to give him a chance. On an April day in, of all places, Philadelphia, Mulcahy made his last start, and for four innings he held his old club in check. Then, in the fifth, the Pirate infield blew a sure double play, the fireworks started, and Hughie headed for the showers. Soon afterward, he was given his release. These were not the same Pirates Mulcahy had faced years before as a rookie. They finished 1947 in a last-place tie with—who else?—the Phillies.