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The story of the Yankee pitcher who won his first start in a poker game

Cy Pieh’s major league career was short but full of weirdness.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Today, teams generally have meticulously laid out plans to bring players through the minor leagues and get them to the majors. Injuries to one player or others around him may accelerate or decelerate those plans, but teams generally have an idea of how they want to bring a player up.

In 2017, it is very unlikely a player will get to make his first major league start for the reasons Cy Pieh did.

Edwin “Johnny” Pieh was born in September 1886 in Wisconsin. His family later moved to North Dakota, and Pieh began playing semi-pro baseball in the area. His odd pitching motion got him the nickname “Cy” as it was said the ball looked like it was coming out of a cyclone.

In 1909, Pieh began playing with the Lethbridge Miners in the Western Canada League. He played three seasons for various teams in that league. In 1912, he played in the Wisconsin-Illinois League where major league teams began to notice him. Pieh began 1913 with Dayton in the Central League, but the Yankees later signed him in August of that year.

Pieh made four relief appearances for the Yankees that season, allowing eight runs, five earned, in 10.1 innings. He picked up his first ever win on October 4th, throwing two scoreless innings as the Yankees scored six runs in the top of the ninth to beat the Athletics.

Two things stood out to people about Pieh after his brief stint with the Yankees: his natural talent and his general oddness. One person said of Pieh: “It is said that Mr. Pieh possesses real human knowledge, but his main object in life is to keep this fact a secret.” Pieh was by all accounts willing to be the butt of the jokes.

Another story of Pieh from around this time said that his wife sent him a letter reading “Stop making such a fool of yourself; everybody thinks I married a dunce.” Cy’s response was to show everyone the letter.

One year in a spring training with the Yankees, a senator from North Dakota came to see a game against the Dodgers. The senator was from near where Pieh grew up, so the pitcher was put in to play in front of him.

Nerves due to pitching with the senator watching caused Pieh to reportedly walk the bases loaded. Just as he was about to be taken out, he then retired the side to get out of it. He went on to throw six scoreless innings.

Pieh was not a great hitter, but he was due up to bat in the tenth. After the pitcher got two strikes past Pieh, a wild pitch caused Pieh to duck out of the way. The ball however hit off his bat. It allowed Pieh to reach on a single, with a run coming in from third. It was a complete fluke, but after the game, Pieh reportedly told the senator “Did you see how I placed that one between the first and second basemen?”

After some tonsillitis in spring training, Pieh made his first appearance of 1914 on May 2nd. He made three substandard appearances out of bullpen in May 1914, and ended the month with an ERA of 15.75.

Despite that, he made his first ever major league start on June 3rd. It came about after Pieh was reportedly involved in a poker game with manager Frank Chance. After Pieh tried to bluff Chance, the manager told him “If you’d show as much nerve on the ball field as you do in a poker game, you might amount to something.” Pieh then told Chance “How can I show any nerve on the lot when you won’t let me pitch?” The pitcher then made his first major league start.

His first start went pretty well. Pieh allowed just one run in seven innings in a 1-0 Yankees’ loss. He got the start again six days later, but lasted just 0.2 innings. Pieh made four starts in 1914. He finished the season with a 5.05 ERA in 62.1 innings.

His best season came in 1915. He appeared in 21 games, making eight starts. Pieh had a 2.87 ERA that year. On July 2nd, he shut out the Senators allowing just two hits. On September 21st, he shut out the St. Louis Browns, again allowing just two hits. However, he walked a combined 11 batter across those games. Control would by Cy Pieh’s downfall.

He struggled with control in spring training in 1916 and didn’t make the team. He spent the next season playing in the minors, but again couldn’t make it back to the Yankees. He didn’t play professionally again after 1919.

He returned to North Dakota and later ended up in Florida, running a meat market. Pieh died in 1945.

There is a segment of Yankees’ fans today that often aren’t pleased with how the teams handle minor leagues. Even they should probably be happy that poker games aren’t deciding who gets to pitch major league games anymore.

Sources

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/piehcy01.shtml

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/37a4cadd

The Literary Digest. Vol. 69. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1921.