Fredrick “Firpo” Marberry – first prominent relief pitcher

August 9, 2008 – Frederick “Firpo” Marberry (November 30, 1898 – June 30, 1976), born in Streetman, Texas was a right-handed starter and relief pitcher from 1923 to 1936. Marberry spent most of his career with Washington but he also pitched for the Detroit Tigers and the New York Giants late in his career.

Early in his Washington career, Fred acquired the nickname “Firpo” because of his size (6’ 1” and 190 lbs.) and facial resemblance to Argentine boxer Luis Firpo. The fighter, dubbed “The Wild Bull of the Pampas,” knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring in a 1923 title bout before losing in the second round. Marberry never liked the nickname, especially as Luis Firpo’s career fizzled out, but he would be “Firpo” Marberry for the remainder of his baseball years.

 Marberry was considered by many to be baseball’s first prominent reliever, he has been retroactively credited as having been the first pitcher to record 20 saves in a season, the first to earn 100 career saves, the first to make 50 relief appearances in a season or 300 in a career, and the only pitcher to lead the major leagues in saves five times.

The Senators won their first American League pennant in 1924, and the Browns’ George Sisler, among others, thought Marberry was Washington’s MVP. In the second game of the World Series, he came into a tie game with two outs in the ninth inning to strike out Travis Jackson, and then watched as the Senators won the game in the bottom of the ninth. By modern reckoning he would be awarded the victory, but the official scorer awarded the win to starting pitcher Tom Zachary. Marberry started and lost game three, but pitched well in games four and seven as the Senators captured their first and only World Series title.

After being released by the Tigers in mid season in 1935, Marberry, with no previous experience was offered an umpiring job by the American league and retired from the Tigers to umpire for the remainder of the year but never umpired any games involving his former teammates. His career as an umpire lasted only a short time because according to Marberry. “It’s too lonely for me. I like to be around the players and have companionship.” In 1936 he accepted a tryout with the New York Giants. Believing that the problem causing his sore arm was his teeth, he had 14 abscessed teeth extracted. Nonetheless, he pitched in only one game for the Giants before being released. He then returned briefly to the Washington Senators pitching in five games, before leaving the major leagues for good.

In a 14-season career, Marberry had a lifetime record of 148-88 with a 3.63 ERA in 551 games (187 starts). He accumulated 86 complete games and 7 shutouts, along with 101 saves. He struck out 822 batters in 2,067-1/3 innings pitched.

Marberry would not begin to gain true recognition for many of his accomplishments until the save was created as a pitching statistic in the 1960s. Firpo Marberry is quoted in John Thorn’s The Relief Pitcher: Baseball’s New Hero (1979) as saying that, “If the relief pitcher holds the opposing club in check, he gets no credit. The pitcher who preceded him and couldn’t stand the pace wins the game.

Since Firpo Marberry started and relieved so well, his managers were never able to stick him in one role and leave him there-he was too valuable to assume a consistent role. Had he started or relieved his entire career, he would likely have been one of the more famous players of his era. Either way, he was an outstanding pitcher, and the first of the great relievers.

After his baseball days, he operated a wholesale gas distributorship and, later, ran a recreation center in Waco. In October 1949, Fred was in a serious automobile accident in Mexia, Texas in which he lost his left arm. The injury did not noticeably slow him down-he even continued to pitch in old-timer’s games. He suffered a stroke and died on June 30, 1976.

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