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Yankees history: Harry Howell, the needless utility man

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Just because someone can play multiple positions doesn’t mean they should.

A day at Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

After three years as a pitcher in Brooklyn, Harry Howell was acquired by the Baltimore Orioles ahead of the 1901 season. He put up mostly average numbers in his three seasons in Brooklyn before jumping across to the American League when Baltimore came into existence.

In his two seasons in Baltimore, Howell continued to put up average numbers on the mound, but he also started to do something else. Howell pitched nearly 300 innings in 1901, but also appeared in 18 games all around the diamond. The following season, he actually played second base more than he pitched for the Orioles.

Ahead of the 1903 season, the Orioles moved to New York and became the Highlanders, and Howell was one of the players to make the move with the team. His time in New York is probably more known for him learning the spitball, but he also continued his jack of all trades act with the Highlanders.

Howell appeared in 40 games for the Highlanders in 1903, with 25 coming as a pitcher. He made 15 starts and threw 155.2 innings, finishing with an ERA of 3.53, which wasn’t great for that year/era. He did lead the league in games finished with 10, whatever that’s worth.

That means Howell played 15 other games around the field that year. He played seven games at third base, five at shortstop, and one each at first and second bases. That leaves one, in which he probably came in as pinch hitter or pinch runner.

For someone who was primarily a pitcher to spend so much time at other positions, he must have been a good fielder, right? It’s tough to say for sure with no film of him, but it doesn’t really seem like it.

He made seven errors in the 95 innings he didn’t play as a pitcher, which equates to one every 13 or so innings. The player who made the most errors in baseball that year was John Gochnaur, who made 98 that season, a total which hasn’t been matched in the 100+ years since. He made an error about once every 12 innings. Howell was on pace to make 87 errors that year had he played as many innings in the field as Gochnaur, which also would have been more than any other player since.

So if he wasn’t a good fielder, presumably they wanted to keep Howell’s bat in the lineup. Again, probably not. For his career, he had a OPS+ of 69, which is very not good. That year in particular, he finished with one of 66.

His SABR bio doesn’t really note why he played all these other positions, just mentioning that “he displayed his versatility” by doing so. How good and useful that versatility actually was is another story.

As mentioned, during the 1903 season, Howell was taught how to throw the spitball by Jack Chesbro. Howell put that knowledge to use after he was traded to the St. Louis Browns after 1903. He went on to play seven years in St. Louis and was really good for most of that time. In 1905, he threw 35 complete games. He played sparingly in other positions throughout the rest of his career, but he wasn’t used as a utility man in his stint in St. Louis

His career ended in 1910 due to the most old time-y baseball story imaginable. Howell was accused of trying to bribe a scorekeeper with the promise of clothes if he changed a Nap Lajoie sacrifice bunt into a hit in an attempt to help Lajoie win the batting title over Ty Cobb. (Lajoie was not his teammate, it should be noted.) He played in the minors a little while longer after that, but the incident ended his major league career.

Harry Howell’s major league career was mostly successful on the whole. However his time in New York was not great, and at least some of that is probably due to his random stint as a utility man.

Sources

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/howelha01.shtml

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b8aabfeb

https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/E_tf_top_ten.shtml