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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #49 Herb Pennock

The southpaw came to the Bronx in 1923 and was a key part of the Yankees’ success, carving out a Hall of Fame career.

American League Pitcher Herb Pennock Posing and Smiling

Full Name: Herbert Jefferis “Herb” Pennock
Position: Starting Pitcher
Born: February 10, 1894 (Kennett Square, PA)
Died: January 30, 1948 (New York, NY)
Yankee Years: 1923-33
Yankee statistics: 162-90, 20 SV, 346 G, 268 GS, 164 CG, 2203.1 IP, 32.8 fWAR, 33.8 rWAR

Biography

Herb Pennock was deep into his major league career by the time he came to the Bronx in a deal with the Red Sox that sent several promising youngsters to Boston. Once he donned the pinstripes, however, the southpaw was an integral piece of the Yankee rotation. His three-year stretch from 1924-26 saw him put together campaigns that each resulted in MVP votes, with Pennock finishing as high as third in 1926. By the time his Yankee tenure finished after the 1933 season Pennock was part of four New York World Series champions and he litters the all-time Yankee leaderboard.

Early Life

Herbert Jefferis Pennock was born in 1894 in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The youngest child of Theodore Pennock and his wife Mary Louise, Herb was a ballplayer as a child. By his mid-teens he was a first baseman who unfortunately couldn’t hit, and who curved everything he threw.

One day, his team’s starting pitcher failed to show up. Pennock’s coach, at the advice of another first baseman on the team, penciled Herb in as the starting pitcher. He reportedly struck out 19 opposing batters that day. I think it is safe to say he found his natural position.

The Big Leagues

When Pennock was 17-years-old, he got a call from Connie Mack, legendary manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack offered Pennock $100 per month and sent him to the Seashore League. There, Pennock showed enough promise that Mack promised the youngster a 1912 call-up.

Mack was true to his word, and when 1912 rolled around, the 18-year-old Pennock found himself in the majors, just under 40 miles from home. He pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen for the Athletics in his rookie and sophomore years. In 1913, the Athletics won the American League pennant and faced the New York Giants in the Fall Classic. Though Pennock did not pitch in the series, he nonetheless came out on the winning side, the first of five times in his career he’d be a member of a World Series champion team.

The Athletics found themselves back in the World Series in 1914, albeit on the losing end this time as the Braves pulled off a shocking sweep. Pennock made a lone appearance in the series out of the bullpen, throwing three scoreless innings. The next season, Mack turned over the Athletics roster and Pennock found himself the staff ace, nearly throwing a no-hitter against Boston on Opening Day.

Herb Pennock Rookie Athletics 1912

A couple of months later, however, Pennock struggled in the first inning against Detroit. Mack removed him from the game and, shockingly, released him. The Red Sox, who’d come so close to being no-hit months earlier, snapped Pennock up. Mack, for his part, rued the decision, calling Pennock’s release his greatest mistake.

From Reliever to Workhorse

Boston used Pennock sparingly over the next few seasons, and then Pennock enlisted with the Navy, wiping out his 1918 season. Prior to the 1919 season, Pennock held out from signing a new deal with Boston unless the club promised to use him regularly.

Initially, it looked like Pennock had been bamboozled, as Boston only started him once in April and once in May. Pennock threatened to quit the Red Sox, and eventually found himself regularly taking the mound.

By the time the 1919 campaign came to an end, Pennock had thrown 219 innings to a 2.71 ERA (112 ERA+). That was his largest workload since he was a 20-year-old in 1914, and it marked the first of 10 straight seasons Pennock would toss at least 200 frames and win at least 10 games.

The next few seasons saw Pennock toil fruitlessly in Boston for a club that finished 25.5, 23.5, and 33 games back of the AL pennant between 1920 and 1922. Buried among all the losing, though, is an interesting historical tidbit. On May 1, 1920, Pennock was on the hill for Boston against the Yankees. On that day, he gave up a dinger to Babe Ruth. It was Ruth’s first home run as a Yankee.

A “One-Sided Trade”

“YANKS GET PENNOCK FROM THE RED SOX” declared the New York Times on January 31, 1923. Whoever penned the piece, though, was pretty sure the Yankees came out on the wrong end of it. The Yankees sent three young players to Boston, George Murray, Norman McMillan, and Camp Skinner. “Either Murray or McMillan is as valuable as the aging Pennock, and Skinner is not far behind,” the author wrote.

In a monument to why judging trades at the time is a fool’s errand, the three young players New York sent to Boston combined for a career -2.2 rWAR. The “aging” Pennock, meanwhile, was about to put together the finest seasons of his entire career throughout the remainder of the 1920s — yet another heist of his old team by general manager Ed Barrow.

It did not take Pennock long to make the Yankees look like geniuses. He went 19-6 in 35 games in 1923, as the Yankees won the American League and headed to the World Series. Facing the Giants, Pennock made two starts. First, in Game 2, he hurled a complete game in a 4-2 Yankee victory.

Then, he took the mound for the decisive Game 6. Seven innings of four-run ball was just enough, as the Yanks scored five in the eighth inning to win what the Times called “the greatest game of the greatest world’s series.” After one season, the Pennock deal already looked pretty good.

Pennock’s Peak

Herb’s next three seasons were, on an individual basis, the greatest of his career. From 1924 through 1926, he won 60 games, including 21 in 1924 and 23 in 1926. Moreover, he averaged 276.2 innings, and hurled a total of 67 complete games. In each of the three seasons, he finished down ballot for American League MVP, culminating in a third-place finish in 1926.

Pennock’s excellence was not lost on the New York media. In July 1926, the Times proclaimed that the “splendid pitching of Herb Pennock” was an integral part of the Yankees’ success that season. In no small part thanks to Pennock’s brilliant year on the mound, the Yankees won another pennant that season, their first since 1923.

In that year’s Fall Classic, the Yanks fell to St. Louis in seven. But Pennock certainly did his part to try and will the Bronx Bombers to another title. He started, completed, and won Games 1 and 5, the former in New York and the latter in St. Louis. Back in New York for the decisive Game 7, Pennock relieved Waite Hoyt with the Yankees trailing 3-2 and down to their final nine outs. Pennock did his part, keeping the Cardinals off the scoreboard, but the Yanks could not push the tying run across. When the Fall Classic was over, Pennock had tossed 22 innings, allowing only three runs.

Portrait of Herb Pennock Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Pennock did not have to wait long for another chance at fall glory. The 1927 Yankees (you’ve probably heard of them) obliterated their competition, winning 110 games, and the American League pennant by 19 games. Pennock, now 33-years-old, once again eclipsed the 200-inning threshold. His 3.3 rWAR that season was good for ninth on that ludicrously stacked Yankees team. Unreal.

That fall, New York swept Pittsburgh in the World Series with Pennock taking the mound in Game 3. As was his wont, he hurled another complete game, his fourth in five career World Series starts.

Injury Strikes

Pennock was up to his old tricks in 1928 and, when he took the mound on August 12, he was hunting for his 17th win of the season as the Yanks were once again bludgeoning their competition. Pennock hurled a three-hit shutout against Boston that day, prompting the Times to facetiously observe that “with another year’s experience this fellow Pennock will be quite a pitcher.”

Unfortunately, in short order Pennock could not raise his arm to comb his hair. The Yankees listed him as day-to-day, but he was done for the year. This time, when New York won the World Series, Pennock was forced to be a spectator.

He returned to the mound in 1929 but was never the same pitcher. Now 35-years-old, Pennock never again reached the 200-inning mark that he routinely eclipsed earlier in his career. He did, however, reach 200 career wins, the third southpaw to accomplish that feat.

Pennock remained a positive presence in the Yankee clubhouse. And even in the twilight of his career, the Yankees could rely on him in the biggest moments. In the 1932 World Series, the Yankees turned to Pennock in Chicago to close Games 3 and 4, as New York swept the Cubs. At 38, this was not the same Pennock who made a habit of throwing complete games in the Fall Classic.

But he was up to the task both times, throwing a shutout ninth inning in Game 3, then tossing three frames of one-run ball the next night to finish off the Cubs, earning his fifth World Series championship in the process.

Herb Pennock Pitching Baseball Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Pennock played one last season in New York in 1933, highlighted by a ten-inning relief appearance in Chicago. He won his final start as a Yankee against the Red Sox, the club that had traded him to New York and the one for whom he’d play his final season in 1934.

Post-Playing Career

Pennock was not done with baseball when his playing days ended. He went into coaching and ultimately became the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943. There, an incident occurred that has since clouded Pennock’s historical reputation. In 1947, Pennock allegedly had a phone conversation with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey in which he suggested the Phillies would not take the field if Jackie Robinson played.

Nearly 70 years later, however, author Keith Craig released a biography of Pennock in which he questions whether that phone call ever took place the way it was described. “The alleged telephone call between Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and Herb Pennock in which Pennock calls Robinson a (derogatory name) and threatened to keep the Phillies off the field if he played is apocryphal at best and defamatory at worst,” Craig wrote. “The tale is without corroboration and crafted solely by Harold Parrott.”

The following year, Pennock collapsed as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage and died, barely a week from his 54th birthday. After his death, Pennock was elected to the Hall of Fame with 82 percent of the vote. Somewhat oddly though, he has never been honored in Monument Park.

Herb Pennock is eighth all-time on the Yankee career wins list. He sits fourth among all Yankee hurlers in complete games, and 11th in rWAR. He was a key part of multiple World Series-winning New York clubs and had a stellar record of performance in the playoffs. Babe Ruth described Pennock as a “honey of a pitcher who never made an enemy” and placed Pennock on his all-time, all-star pitching staff.

Staff rank: 50
Community rank: 46
Stats rank: 35
2013 rank: 34

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Barber, Chris. “New book asserts Pennock was no racist.” July 11, 2016. Daily Local News.

Baseball Reference

Craig, Keith. Herb Pennock: Baseball’s Faultless Pitcher. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

FanGraphs

The New York Times

Vaccaro, Frank. SABR Bio

Previously on the Top 100

50. Bob Meusel
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