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Life before Glory
ON MARCH 29, 1867, near the hamlet of Gilmore, Ohio, Denton True Young howled his way into the world. His incontestable claim on the nickname "Cy" lay a quarter of a century in the future, and so in discussing the early years of his life I'll call him "Dent," the abbreviated form of his Christian name that quickly sufficed among family and friends. "Denton" was a common first name among his Young ancestors and relatives; at least one Denton Young lived nearby. "True," however, was new to the family, a name chosen out of respect for a Civil War officer under whom Dent's father had served. "Denton" and "True" are names that go well together: there is a stoic compactness to the linkage, a hint of a no-nonsense view of life. And before his life was over, Dent would prove the particular aptness of his middle name.
Family lore buttressed by census information allows us to trace Dent's antecedents back three generations. It was shortly after the ratification of the United States Constitution that three Young brothers migrated from Britain to America, settling near Baltimore. One of these three, Denton by name, was Dent's great-grandfather. While in Maryland he met and married Mary McKinzie. The couple had five children, the eldest of whom—born in 1799 and named McKinzie—was Dent's grandfather. When McKinzie was three years old, Denton Young joined the swelling westward movement, settling his family first in western Pennsylvania and then leading them farther west across the Ohio River. A pause in Steubenvilleallowed the Youngs to secure a land title. They finally put down roots north of Cadiz, in Harrison County, where, like most other settlers streaming into the new state, they took to farming. McKinzie Young grew to adulthood in the hilly country around Cadiz. Like his father he tilled the land; if he was a typical east Ohio farmer, wheat was his chief crop. In 1820 he married Sarah Northamer, a woman of Pennsylvania Dutch background who, by one later account, was somewhat older than he. At some point in the succeeding decade, McKinzie and his family moved their holdings about forty miles farther west, settling near Gilmore, Ohio, and finally linking the Youngs with the county that bore the wonderfully resonant name of Tuscarawas. (A half-century later, as Cy Young impressed his name upon the nation, one fact that most Americans who followed baseball would know about him was that he was a son of Tuscarawas County.)
In the following two decades, as the construction of canal linkages to Lake Erie and the Ohio River widened the market for the produce of Tuscarawas County, McKinzie and Sarah Young participated in the growing prosperity of the region. They also had twelve children. The eleventh, coming into the world in 1843, was named McKinzie, after his father. This young McKinzie was Dent's father. (From now on I shall distinguish Dent's grandfather from his father by referring to them as McKinzie Sr. and McKinzie Jr., respectively. It's worth noting that the name "McKinzie" goes through an array of spelling permutations in the surviving records from the day. I have standardized these spellings by choosing the version that McKinzie Young Jr. seems to have preferred.) McKinzie Young Sr. and Sarah Young lived the rest of their lives in Gilmore, McKinzie dying in 1875, his wife dying the following year. They and three of their children who died before reaching the age of twenty are buried in the cemetery there.
McKinzie Young Jr. was eighteen when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He did not rush to enlist. He may have been needed at home, or perhaps the health problems that were to nag him throughout his life—measles, for example, had already left him with poor vision—made him dubious military material. And of course he may simply not have wanted to go to war. Still, a young man of the time, five feet ten inches tall and accustomed to doing hard labor, could not ultimately avoid military service in the national conflict, and so in October 1862, McKinzie Young Jr. joined the Forty-third Infantry Regiment of Ohio in the capacity of a medical aide. He left military service just nine months later—those health problems again?—but then, in September 1864, reenlisted for a second tour, this time in Ohio's Seventy-eighth Regiment. We know that he cast his first presidential ballot that same fall for Abraham Lincoln, a vote that supplies the earliest surviving sign of the Young family's long-time attachment to Republican politics. During this second stint in the Grand Army of the Republic, which lasted until the war was over, he sustained injuries that bothered him throughout the rest of his life. Surviving military records show him also to have suffered from diarrhea and varicose veins while a member of the Grand Army of the Republic. He left service as he had entered it, a private.
Upon his discharge, McKinzie Young Jr. returned to Gilmore, apparently assuming chief responsibility for handling the affairs of the 140-acre farm owned by his aging parents. By 1870, under his supervision, the farm had grown to almost 200 acres. Meanwhile, in February 1866, less than a year after returning home from the army, McKinzie Young Jr. married Nancy Miller. The daughter of John and Rebecca Miller, she was one of seven siblings to have survived to adulthood, and grew up on a farm close by the Youngs' property. The eldest child of the marriage between McKinzie Young Jr. and Nancy Miller, born thirteen months later, was Dent.
Over the next eight years McKinzie and Nancy Young had four more children. Jesse Carlton (usually called Carl) was born in October 1868. Alonzo (Lon) appeared in July 1870. Ella came into the world in August 1872. Anthony (improbably called Otto) completed the family in September 1874. McKinzie Young Jr. became a modestly prominent citizen of Tuscarawas County—a successful farmer, a Mason, and an occasional school director. The family attended the Methodist church. At some point, perhaps as early as when McKinzie Jr. married, McKinzie Sr. gave his son the 54 acres of his property that lay inside Washington Township. As the farm prospered, the younger Youngs were able to extend their holdings. Buying from neighbors while selling to relatives, McKinzie and Nancy Young managed between 1870 and 1890 to add about 120 acres to the initial Gilmore core of 54 acres. This rugged but ample homestead served as the training ground for life on which young Dent and his four siblings worked and played.
The foregoing five paragraphs summarize almost all the information about Dent's forebears that can confidently be drawn from available records. It would be especially interesting to know more about the family of Dent's mother. The Millers had migrated from Pennsylvania but there are too many Millers in the records to permit identification of her precise ancestors. Still, thanks to an 1875 map, it is possible to locate both McKinzie Young Sr.'s and John Miller's farms on the outskirts of Gilmore and to understand the topographical significance of some of the property transfers that McKinzie and Nancy Young executed as they expanded and consolidated their Gilmore farm. The information from McKinzie Young Jr.'s army years has let me shape an image of this young man, perhaps his mother's last surviving child, struggling through his youth with infirmities that are more commonly associated with age.
Dent's childhood and adolescence were basically unremarkable. He attended a rough-framed, two-room school in Gilmore through the sixth grade, at which point his formal education ended. He accepted farm chores as part of his daily responsibility and began to cultivate a powerful and lifelong sense of the importance of work and duty in the life of a man. In light of a Sabbatarianism that he displayed as a young adult, it appears likely that he regularly attended church as a child. Since he had many relatives living nearby, it is also probable that he often played with cousins. Many years later Cy Young said that his grandparents "raised me." Strictly speaking the claim was false, but it stands as evidence that he passed many enjoyable hours in the company of grandparents, all four of whom he might have seen on a daily basis. Dent grew into a strapping young man, six feet two inches in height and a muscular 170 pounds in weight. As I say, it was an unremarkable childhood and youth.
Except for baseball.
Conventionally a two-word term in the nineteenth century, "base ball" was an activity whose popularity swept the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. By the 1870s professional leagues existed to link larger cities, and most small towns had their own informal clubs. The game had even penetrated the recesses of Tuscarawas County. Dent and his brothers discovered that they loved baseball. "All us Youngs could throw," he later told Arthur Daley. "I usta kill squirrels with a stone when I was a kid and my granddad onct killed a turkey buzzard on the fly with a rock." Encouraged by their father, they sought out playing opportunities, sometimes traveling as far as twenty miles from home—presumably on foot or horseback—to find teams needing their skills.
But Dent was the best of them all. And though he was a good hitter, his throwing speed made him even better as a pitcher. Dent devoted long hours to cultivating his ability to throw accurately. During noontime breaks from farm work, he practiced aiming at a target on his father's barn door. He experimented with putting spins on the ball. When he didn't have a ball to hurl, he used walnuts instead. Dent also organized a local Gilmore team, though he had much difficulty finding someone who could catch his hard pitches. Little is known about these early games. But on one memorable occasion in 1884 a seventeen-year-old Dent led the Gilmore nine to a whopping 54-4 victory over a team from much larger Newcomerstown. His fame grew, and in that same summer he played on semipro teams in nearby towns such as Newcomerstown, Cadiz, and Uhrichsville. For his efforts, the team organizers would pay his expenses "and sometimes"—the words are Dent's, from many years later—"a little extra." Baseball, he discovered, was a way to make some money.
The world of Tuscarawas baseball was abruptly shattered for Dent in 1885 when he and his father moved west to Nebraska, near the Kansas border in the town of Cowles. It's not clear why they went. One possibility is that McKinzie Young Jr., who had traveled to Iowa between his two tours of Civil War duty, wanted to return to a region across the Mississippi he had visited earlier. Or they may have moved to be with one of Dent's cousins who had traveled with her husband to the state. What makes the action particularly odd is that Nancy Young and the other Young children remained in Gilmore. In any case, Dent worked as a hand on the farm of Doug Terry, earning $20 per month, and he continued to find opportunities to be paid for playing baseball. The nine from nearby Red Cloud arranged for him to receive $35 per month for playing third base and working part-time in a dairy business. When that team folded, he took the initiative of organizing a team in Cowles, assigning to himself the role of pitcher. Still later on, he pitched for Guide Rock. These semipro games occurred on Saturdays, Dent usually took the mound, and at least according to his own later account, he never lost a game he pitched in Nebraska.
After the summer of 1887, Dent and his father returned to Gilmore. The cause of their return is as mysterious as that of their departure. Perhaps McKinzie and Dent got lonely. Perhaps Nebraska failed to fulfill some promise. Perhaps someone got ill, and the Young family needed to reconvene. Still, although Dent's stay in Nebraska lasted but three years, he remembered the period warmly throughout his life. In 1911 a number of people from Guide Rock sent him birthday greetings. As late as 1955, only eight months before he died, he summoned up a few memories about his days in Cowles for a reply to a letter of inquiry. Most significantly, within just a few years of his return to Ohio, as sportswriters began to inquire into the background of the speedy young pitcher from Tuscarawas, he would regularly identify his years in Nebraska as the start of his pitching career. Guide Rock was not slow to recognize the value of the publicity; by 1905 it was calling itself the place where Cy Young was "discovered."
Ralph Romig has suggested an altogether different reason for Dent Young's return to Gilmore before the summer of 1888: a desire to be near Robba Miller, the sixteen-year-old girl he was hoping to marry. My research has uncovered no explicit evidence to support this view, but it is not improbable. We know that a few years later Dent and Robba got married, and we know—because they lived on contiguous farms—that they had known each other from her early childhood. Moreover, even though 1888 is the last year of this story that has left almost no evidentiary trace, we can speculate with fuller confidence than usual about what was going on in Dent's mind at this time. He was after all, coming home to face his twenty-first birthday—to enter into adulthood, and to make some important decisions about his life. Marriage, of course, was one. But more immediate was the need to decide how he would make his living. With only a sixth-grade education, his obvious options were limited to two: to remain a Tuscarawas County farmer, or to join the ranks of young men who were moving to the burgeoning urban centers of the Midwest to find employment in one of the many newly emerging industries. The latter choice seems never to have attracted him. But if everything in his family experience suggested that he was meant to be a farmer, there remained a third possibility, probably initially viewed as marginal in likelihood but nevertheless intensely exciting in prospect. He had learned in recent years that people would pay him to play baseball. He could spend a few years finding out if his talent was great enough to allow him to earn a living playing the game he so deeply enjoyed. The years 1888-89 can most plausibly be understood as a time in which Dent Young, while working hard to assist his father at farming, honed and tested his ball-playing skills in the hope of using them to make a living.
During 1888 Dent played some ball for the semipro Carrollton team, located in Carroll County, about thirty-five miles from Gilmore. Pitching and playing second base, he received a dollar per game. The next summer, perhaps living some of the time with one of his many relatives in Harrison County, he played for the Franklins based in New Athens. Energized by Dent's arm and bat, the Franklins marched through their schedule with extraordinary success, defeating opponents by scores like 24-16, 29-14, and 50-6. As late as August 8, they were still undefeated, and in October they played a three-game series with the team from Cadiz for the championship of Harrison and Belmont Counties. The earliest box score I have discovered containing the name "Young" comes from this season and details a 9-2 victory by New Athens over Brownsville. Dent handled second base that day and went 2 for 3 in the rain-shortened contest. Many years later, Cy Young reminded people of the primitive character of these semipro games: "Most players played barehanded. Only the few who were `better fixed'"—that didn't include Dent—"had gloves of their own." Still, rough as the game was, Dent made his mark for New Athens in 1889, and as a consequence he received, according to an account from three years later, "several flattering offers" from teams seeking his services for 1890.
One of those teams was the Canton club, the defending champion of the Tri-State League. This circuit was a full-fledged minor league, one of the associations of baseball clubs that, in cooperation with the National League and the American Association (the two major leagues), had established a set of arrangements designed to let all participating club owners purchase and (with limitations) protect ballplaying talent within a hierarchical structure of organized baseball. Early in the spring of 1890, someone representing Canton traveled to Gilmore to explore with Dent and his father the possibility that Dent might play for Canton during the upcoming season. It was a particularly difficult spring for club owners everywhere, for the creation over the previous winter of a third major league—the Players' League—had generated a national search for new talent, forays to skim skilled players away from teams they had been playing with, and, more generally, an upward pressure on salaries throughout the hierarchy. Like all clubs, Canton was scrambling to secure talent wherever it could find it. When an initial offer of $40 per month was insufficient to get Dent Young to sign, Canton raised its proposal to $60. This was more money than Dent had made even when he was moonlighting at dairy work to complement his ballplaying in Nebraska, and so McKinzie Young Jr. approved his son's acceptance. While the venue and timing of this conversation—by one account it occurred in the Gilmore pasture with Dent behind the plow—may have caught the Youngs off guard, the fact that such a conversation would some day occur probably had long been understood by father and son. By signing the contract, Dent Young, his twenty-third birthday at hand, became a professional baseball player.
Within a few weeks he began to acquire a new name to go along with his new career. It happened innocently enough. Eager to impress his new manager and his new teammates, who had some doubts about the awkward-looking hayseed in his blue overalls, Dent fired some of his fast balls against a fence at Pastime Park, home grounds of the Canton nine. "I threw the ball so hard," he later explained, "I tore a couple of boards off the grandstand. One of the fellows said the stand looked like a cyclone struck it." The name stuck, and by late April a Canton newspaper account not only referred to Young twice as "the Cyclone" but even listed him as "Cyclone, p" in the box score. Perhaps the meteorological term suggested itself because it was on many Canton tongues at the time, for the same newspapers that celebrated the arrival of the new hurler were also describing destruction caused throughout the county by recent cyclones and advertising performances of a theatrical production called "The Comedy Cyclone." The abbreviation of "Cyclone Young" to "Cy Young" lay two years in the future. With the baseball season at hand in April of 1890, however, the longer nickname served the purpose of emphasizing the "cannonball speed" of the newcomer and redoubling the interest of Canton's baseball-loving public in the season that was about to begin.
Canton played a few exhibition games before the official season began, and in one contest Dent pitched a one-hitter against Columbus. Then on April 30, Cyclone Young pitched and won Canton's season opener by a score of 4-2, holding Wheeling to 3 hits in its home park and striking out 8. Four days later, he won his first game in Canton, besting McKeesport 4-3. The press praised both his speed and his curves. But he quickly learned that the team he had joined was a feeble one, with no chance of defending its league championship. By the middle of June, Canton had lost 27 games and won only 15. Cyclone Young had been the winning pitcher in all but 4 of those victories. In July the team became so stretched for players that on one occasion Dent caught and on another his offer to play first base was happily accepted. In an effort to reverse the club's fortunes, its directors installed a new manager every month during the first half of the season, but nothing worked. Meanwhile, however, Cyclone Young plugged away. For much of the season he pitched every second or third day, usually starting but occasionally relieving. He was not always sharp; on June 2, for example, his motion hampered by an ankle injury, he gave up 17 hits to Springfield. Moreover, he regularly received poor defensive support; on June 30, the victim of wretched fielding, he yielded 10 unearned runs in the last two innings and lost 14-4. Still, Cyclone Young slowly caught the attention of a wider audience. By mid-season, with as many victories as losses to his credit and more strikeouts than hits on his ledger, he was being widely saluted as the best pitcher in the Tri-State League. Rumors circulated that several major league teams were scouting him and interested in securing his services.
If any curious scouts were present among the six hundred spectators at Pastime Park when Cyclone Young took the mound against McKeesport on July 24, 1890, they were not disappointed. Young felt good as he warmed up and predicted he would pitch "the game of his life" that day. He proceeded not only to win the game 4-1 but also to shut down McKeesport without a single hit. He walked none and struck out a remarkable 18. He was so sharp that only one batted ball reached the outfield. Canton errors in the ninth inning deprived him of his shutout—Canton's defense was so feeble that Young never pitched a shutout in 1890—but the game was unquestionably his finest of the year. With it, he evened his season record at 15-15 though playing for the worst team in the league, and took his seasonal strike-out total up to 201 while keeping his seasonal bases on balls total at a lowly 33. Has any pitcher ever concluded a minor league career with a more stunning outing?
Had 1890 been like most years, Cyclone Young's opportunity to break into the majors—"fast company," as it was called—might not have come quite as early as it now did. But competition among three major leagues was hurting attendance almost everywhere, and in smaller market cities like Cleveland, which was being asked to support clubs in both the National and the Players League, the search for players who might both help the team and pull in fans was intense. For Cleveland teams, therefore, Cyclone Young was doubly attractive. He was a fastball pitcher, speedier, it was said, than Chicago's great Bill Hutchison. And he was an Ohio boy, able perhaps to stir a regional loyalty and draw the curious to ball games. The most eager of the suitors was the Cleveland National League team, improbably called the Spiders. "Cash" Miller, their informal Canton scout, had alerted the Spider ownership to the Tuscarawan's ability. The Spiders' task was to persuade the Canton club to sell the contract of the man who was clearly its greatest asset. Their advantage was that the season had gone so poorly for Canton that the club needed money.
Davis Hawley represented the Spiders in these conversations. A prominent Cleveland banker, he was also secretary of the club. Canton hoped to get $1,000 for Cyclone Young's contract, but Hawley thought that price far too steep. Faced with Hawley's refusal to pay the asking price, and presumably disappointed that no rival bid had appeared, the Canton management relented fairly quickly, accepting a Cleveland offer of $300. On July 30 word was released that Young was joining the Spiders. The new pitcher accepted contract terms that increased his monthly salary from the $60 that Canton had been paying him to $75 for the remaining two months of the 1890 season. On August 2, in the company of a Canton team official, he traveled to Cleveland and began daily pitching practice at the Spiders' ballpark. Davis Hawley bought Young a suit of clothes to replace the outgrown attire he had sported at an earlier meeting. Cy Young's own later and inaccurate story that Canton had been so desperate for income that it had accepted a suit of clothes in exchange for his contract is probably grounded in the confusion of an old man's memory. (Other accounts note, as a mark of Canton's impecuniousness, that the team disbanded within a week of losing Young. The truth is less dramatic; the team disbanded, but only because the Tri-State season was over.) As for Cyclone himself, as a young man unacquainted with big-city ways, he was nervous. "Well, I'll pitch a game," he reportedly declared on the morning of his first start. "And if I win I'll stay; If I lose, I'll go home this evening." Thus, even at the moment when he had achieved what he had been dreaming of for at least four years he was ready to return to farm life if he failed.
Pride alloyed with realism: that was a yoking of attitudes that would accompany Cy Young throughout his life.