On Aug. 6, 1900, 26-year-old St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jack Powell was on the mound to face the visiting New York Giants. “It was a star exhibition … the sinuous curves and lightning darts he put on the ball would do credit to a rattlesnake,” raved the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
The Twin Cities boast two National Baseball Hall of Famers, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn and Clark Griffith, both splendid 19th century pitchers and extraordinary figures in the game’s rich history. Yet back then, more than a century past, there were devoted observers of the national pastime who believed that Bloomington product Jack Powell was the best pitcher to come out of this area.
Powell never put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, but the beefy twirler earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the more dependable “moundsmen” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although he was pitching for the Cardinals in 1900, he played most of his career for the St. Louis Browns, the city’s long-gone American League team. Powell had an impressive 2.97 career ERA, meaning he gave up an average of fewer than three runs per nine innings of work, which is usually good enough to finish with more wins than losses. Even so, he ended his playing career with a losing record, a statistical incongruity of sorts explained by the fact that he found himself, year after year, on losing teams featuring lineups stocked with too many weak bats and porous gloves.
Incredibly, Jack Powell of Bloomington holds the Major League Baseball record for the most career wins with a losing record. In other words, his talent and bad luck were such that he both won and lost a heck of a lot of games. Indeed, in 16 big league seasons, he notched 245 wins and 254 losses. That makes Powell eighth on the list of career losses and yet an impressive 52nd in all-time wins (keep in mind there have been thousands and thousands of pitchers in Major League history).
John Joseph “Jack” Powell was born in Bloomington on July 9, 1874. His stepfather, English immigrant Elijah Powell, toiled as a miner for the McLean County Coal Co. The family lived in a series of residences on Allin and Front streets while young Jack attended St. Mary’s Catholic School. “He began playing ball on vacant lots on the west side when he was a stripling,” it was said.
In a recollection from 1943, Frank Will, a veteran Bloomington baseball man, said Powell belonged to a gang of street toughs associated with West Washington and West Front streets. Will also claimed that Powell’s snowball duels with the Second Ward Gang helped develop the future big leaguer’s pitching arm.
Powell “drifted” to Chicago in the mid-1890s where he began pitching for the semi-pro Chicago Maroons. In 1896 he signed with the Fort Wayne Farmers of the Inter-State League, having been brought there by manager George Tebeau.
The following season he earned a roster spot with the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (conveniently, George Tebeau’s brother Patsy was Cleveland’s skipper). “Powell is a Bloomington product and will add ‘lustre’ to the fame of this city as the home of famous baseball players,” declared The Pantagraph on March 12, 1897. Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing around 200 pounds, Powell’s blocky build earned him the nickname “The Old Boilermaker.”
The 23-year-old finished his rookie year in the big leagues, 1897, with a respectable 15-10 record, all the while playing alongside three Hall of Famers, pitcher Cy Young, outfielder Jesse Burkett and infielder Bobby Wallace. Powell went on to win 23 games for the Spiders during his sophomore campaign of 1898.
Cleveland owners Frank and Stanley Robison then purchased the National League franchise in St. Louis, calling their new team the Perfectos (today, we know them as the Cardinals). As crazy as it sounds, the two brothers still retained ownership of the Cleveland Spiders, but gutted that roster by sending the best players, including Cy Young and Powell, to St. Louis (after this debacle, it became illegal for someone to own two teams in the same league). Powell won 23 games for the Perfectos in 1899, while leading the league in games started (43) and complete games (40).
In 1902, the promise of big money lured “The Old Boilermaker” to the newly established American League, a well-financed competitor to the National League. After two seasons with the St. Louis Browns, he was traded to the Highlanders, New York’s new A.L. team. The Highlanders were managed by Clark Griffith, the future Hall of Famer from, of all places, Normal, Ill. (the Highlanders, by the way, would become the Yankees in 1913). Powell won 23 games (yet again) in 1904 as New York lost the league pennant on the season’s last day. The unlucky right-hander would never come close to playing for a champion again.
During Powell’s second season in New York he was traded back to the St. Louis Browns, and there he would remain until playing his last Major League game near the end of the 1912 season.
Powell often behaved less than gentlemanly, though his boorish actions were all but de rigueur during the game’s unruly formative years. In late April 1906, for example, Browns manager Jimmy McAleer suspended Powell indefinitely, prompting the surly pitcher to go missing for several days. “Powell’s suspension is one of the breaks in a checkered career,” noted The Pantagraph at the time, adding that he “would be a great pitcher if he would take care of himself and could be controlled.”
Jack Powell holds a bunch of all-time St. Louis Browns records, including games started, innings pitched, strikeouts, and, naturally, losses, though he is second in wins with 117. He passed away on Oct. 17, 1944, at the age of 70.