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How a mediocre first baseman became the Yankees’ Opening Day starting pitcher

The Yankees might have been misusing George McConnell at first.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

George McConell made his major league debut on April 13, 1909. The 30-year old rookie got the start at first base and went 2-4 as the then New York Highlanders beat the Washington Senators, 5-0.

First base is where McConell would play his first 11 major league games. Despite the impressive debut, he recorded just seven more hits in his next 38 at-bats. April 29th would be McConnell’s final appearance at first base for the season. He recorded his only extra-base hit of the year that day, but it wasn’t enough for him to retain the job. Hal Chase displaced him after that game.

Those 11 games wouldn’t be McConnell’s only appearances that season, however. A little more than a month after his last prior game, he pitched three innings in a loss to the Tigers. Two days later, he made another appearance out of the bullpen. Those four innings were far more of an indication of what was ahead in McConnell’s career.

The Yankees may have used him almost exclusively as a position player at first, but McConnell had already began to become more of a two-way play in the minors. After five seasons as a position player, in 1908 he threw over 200 innings with the Buffalo Bisons of the Eastern League.

When McConnell then returned to the minors after his stint in New York, he took back to the mound. However, it would be a while before he caught the attention of the major leagues again.

McConnell spent all of the 1910 and 1911 seasons in the Eastern League. He was especially impressive in 1911, winning 30 games and throwing over 300 innings. After that showing, the Yankees decided to bring him back, and yes, as a pitcher this time.

Nearly three years after his last major league game, McConnell returned on April 16, 1912. He didn’t get off to the best of starts, allowing four runs in five innings of relief. After a couple of appearances out of the bullpen, McConnell earned his first chance to make a start on June 22. While that start didn’t go great, he would remain in the rotation for the rest of the season.

McConnell would reward the team’s faith with a 2.75 ERA in 1912, which for context was good for a 133 ERA+. The Yankees retained him for the following season.

Going into the 1913 season, it was expected that new Yankees manager Frank Chance would name Ray Caldwell the Opening Day starter. Caldwell had been the most impressive starter in spring training. In a last minute decision, however, Chance decided to go with McConnell. In four years, he had gone from ineffective first baseman to the Yankees’ Opening Day starting pitcher.

On the whole, McConnell’s 1913 season was a step back for him. His performance on Opening Day, however, was quite impressive. The 34-year old went eight innings, allowing just two runs on seven hits. Unfortunately, he and the Yankees took the loss as some guy named Walter Johnson started that day for the Senators. The Yankees lost 2-1, but McConnell provided some hope for the season.

McConnell struggled on the whole, going 4-15 with a 94 ERA+. The Yankees’ season also went extremely badly.

He was solid to the Cubs after that season, splitting time between them and the Buffalo Bisons in the International League. During his stint in the minors in 1914, he was the opposing starting pitcher when Babe Ruth made his organized baseball debut. Not shockingly, he was outhit and outpitched by Ruth that day.

After a seasons with the Cubs, McConnell spent a year in the Federal League before returning to the Cubs in 1916. He played another year in the minors in 1917, but that would be the end of his baseball career.

Two-way players are making a comeback, but it’s hard to imagine a team accidentally put a solid pitcher at first base for no reason.

Sources

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/mcconge01.shtml

https://www.t-g.com/story/2485438.html

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/WS1/WS1191304100.shtml

Spatz, Lyle. New York Yankees Openers: an Opening Day History of Baseballs Most Famous Team, 1903-2017. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2018.