As far as anyone who cares about baseball history is concerned, the 1920s belong to the New York Yankees.
It’s for good reason, as they played in six World Series in the decade, winning three of them, and that 1927 team could be considered to be the best of all time. Heck, in ‘27 and ‘28 combined, they went 211-97 and didn’t lose a playoff game as Ruth, Gehrig, and Co. went back-to-back. With 311 offensive WAR in the decade, they comfortably topped the second-place Giants, and in the American League alone the difference between them and second place is nearly the same as second and eighth.
While New York beat their opponents down throughout the ’20s, Cleveland acted in a fashion we’re familiar with these days, silencing bats whenever given the opportunity. With 167.5 pitching WAR — third-best among all teams, and comfortably first in the American League. A key component of that was a man that Babe Ruth once called the toughest pitcher he ever faced. That man was George Uhle, coming in with 37.9 WAR for Cleveland, ranking 17th all-time.
Uhle is the second hometown boy on this list so far, joining Bill Bradley as a diamond the team found in its own back yard. In Uhle’s case, he was discovered pitching at the top rung of the regional semi-pro circuit, throwing for Standard Parts, a local manufacturing concern where he also worked. With a strong fastball and a “sidearm curve”, he had a nice pairing that got him a try-out and a contract. In one of the ballsiest efforts of his career, he somehow argued for a contract that didn’t let Cleveland send him to the minors. Nice for him (no need to pack) and good luck in the end for Cleveland.
He looked like a gem of a find, too. A 2.91 ERA over 127 innings in 1919 certainly ensconced him on the staff, if not in the rotation, as he helped the Tribe chase the Chicago White Sox all the way to the end of the season, ultimately falling 2.5 games short of the eventual AL champions. It was his first taste of a pennant race, but wouldn’t be his last.
The next year saw the league figure out Uhle for a while, though the real problem was he was tipping pitches. The great ones could get away with that (some say that Walter Johnson or Juan Marichal tipped what they threw, you just couldn’t hit it) but Uhle was merely pretty good. It led to a 5.92 ERA before he figured it out, and when he did he posted a 3.44 ERA in the second half. While he wasn’t a central character in the story, Uhle was at least a bit player as the team locked in the World Series. A key relief appearance in one of the final games of the season gave them a win over the Browns to clinch a vital series, and in the three innings he pitched in the Series he didn’t allow a run. The title secured, it was just the beginning for Uhle.
He would break out for good in 1921, becoming a regular starter and pitching fewer than 210 innings in a season just twice in his ensuing eight years with Cleveland. While that might not sound super impressive, he did have one season with 287 innings, another with 357, and another with 318. That was who Uhle was for Cleveland, a guy who took the ball all the time, worked his ass off, and got every bit of talent out of every pitch. He was far from a star, though in 1926 he earned 8.9 WAR in 318 innings with a 2.83 ERA and winning 27 games, but that was really his only truly great season. He piled it up and gave the team a chance to win.
That alone is something, enough to give a guy his due. The ‘20s were hell for pitchers as the ball woke up and the home run became more than a novelty. Aside from Ruth, you had Gehrig and Foxx and Tillie Walker and Bob Meusel all going for 30 or more home runs, with more than 15 and 20 being a more common thing. For someone who grew up and started in an era where nine home runs earned you a nickname, that’s a huge switch.
Uhle typically kept his home run rate below the league average, even as that rose from .25 per nine innings in 1920 to .65 in 1930, and more than anything he just didn’t fear Babe Ruth at all. Nobody faced Ruth more than Uhle somehow, and while the big man did hit .380/.503/.652 against Uhle, he only hit 11 home runs in 197 plate appearances.
There’s even a story of Uhle actually walking a guy and putting the tying run on first in the ninth inning to face Ruth. This is of course a madman’s decision, as his own manager Tris Speaker thought, but Uhle was confident in what he could do. As it was told in the Cleveland News:
The big fellow’s neck turned purple and he really was cutting when he stepped to the plate. George gave him two curves on the inside and he fouled them over the stands in right. Then he worked the count to 3 and 2. George broke off a beautiful curve. The Babe started to lunge at it, then tried to hold his swing. But it didn’t make any difference. The umpire yelled strike three.
Speaker later told Uhle to never do that again, but for one moment, the Great Bambino was felled by the Bull. That’s the kind of story to tell your kids.
Cleveland battled for playoff position all the time while Uhle was there, and he did his job against the front-running Yankees. His relative good work against Ruth helped the whole team. He faced New York 58 times while with Cleveland over 342 innings, posting a 3.63 ERA. As the decade wore on, Cleveland faded, and ultimately Uhle was traded after feuding with the new manager Roger Peckinpaugh, and was traded to Detroit in the winter of 1928.
He would end up being effective for Detroit for a few years, filling the same role of an innings eater, including a 20-inning outing in 1929 where he allowed five runs and got four hits of his own. That was the game then, and Uhle was kind of built for it.
One other neat thing: Uhle claimed to be the inventor of the slider. The story goes, he was playing with a new pitch during batting practice, one that rolled off his middle finger like a bowling ball. His teammate Harry Heilman said, “What kind of curve was that?” to which Uhle replied, “Hey, that’s not a curve. That ball was sliding.” Apocryphal? Damn right. That’s old-timey baseball stories for you though. Who knows if it’s true?
Uhle bounced around, pitching for the Giants and Yankees, and after seemingly seeing his career end he became a pitching coach with Cleveland. Evidently, they were running low on pitching at some point, because he pitched 12.2 innings that year, allowing 12 runs. He followed his former catcher Steve O’Neill around as O’Neill got some management jobs with the Cubs and Senators, but that’s where the story ends. He never officially retired, and stayed in Cleveland as a rep for an aluminum company, regularly being seen at Cleveland games.
More than anything, I think Uhle’s is another story of a guy who had some talent and wrung every drop of it out of himself. It takes guts as much as anything to be a top athlete and considering his ability to eat innings, likely pitching through all kinds of weird pains that would get you on the injured list these days, and his utter lack of fear of Babe Ruth, that’s what Uhle had. We make fun of Grit and Intangibles, but back then, when the pool of players was seemingly either the factory league next to the stadium or the hills of the Carolinas, that mattered quite a bit. You needed to get through games any way you could, and that’s what Uhle helped them do.
It kept Cleveland in contention and got them one ring, and then he got to retire as a local legend in his hometown. You could do worse than that.