Relief pitching began way back in the dim mists of baseball's past, sometime between 1845, when Alexander Cartwright created the game as we know it, and 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first full-time professional team. No one has been able to pinpoint exactly when, for the first time, a pitcher was done to a turn and someone else replaced him in the box. But as baseball historian John Thorn points out, by 1869 the practice was well enough established for Harry Wright to be listed as Cincinnati's manager, centerfielder and "change" pitcher. Because in those days baseball didn't allow substitutions from the bench unless a player was hurt or became ill, the change pitcher was simply another player in the lineup who would switch positions with the man who had been doing the hurling. It didn't happen very often.
By 1876 Wright had moved to the Boston Red Stockings, where he had a hard-throwing, but wild, pitcher named Joe Borden. Borden made Wright uneasy, and on April 25, in the fifth inning of a game between Boston and the Brooklyn Mutuals, Wright replaced him with Jack Manning. That was the first appearance of the first real relief pitcher in major league history. The Mutuals had scored five times off Borden, but Manning cooled them off and the Red Stockings rallied to win in the ninth, 7-6. Manning pitched in relief 14 times that year. He also started 20 games and ended up with a record of 18-5, with four of his wins coming in relief and with five of what today are called saves. The following year Wright got a new pitcher and barely used Manning, or anyone else, in relief. As a rule, for the next 30 years a team's starting pitcher was also its finishing pitcher.
An extraordinary change in strategy came in with the new century, stimulated by two managers, Clark Griffith and John McGraw. For six straight seasons, beginning in 1903, Griffith's New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) led the majors in using relief pitchers, and twice the lightly regarded team came close to winning the pennant. But the greater influence was McGraw of the New York Giants, who in 1904 and 1905 kept calling on relievers (usually starters pressed into emergency service) to save close games. The Giants ran away with the National League pennant both years. That opened some eyes. The Chicago Cubs' complete-game totals dropped from 133 in 1905 to 99 in 1910, and the team won four pennants in five years. Chicago's best relief man was its ace, Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown, who from 1908 to 1910 relieved 44 times while starting an average of 32 games a year. In 1911, Three Finger started 27 times and relieved 26. It's a wonder he didn't wear his pitching hand down to two fingers.
In 1923 Griffith, then the owner of the Washington Senators, had a veteran righthander named Allan Russell, who relieved 46 times, far more than anyone else ever had. That season Russell was joined in the Washington bullpen by a big young righthander from Texas named Fred Marberry, nicknamed Firpo for his resemblance to the heavyweight boxing contender, Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina. Marberry started 15 games for the Senators in 1924 but came out of the bullpen 35 times and was a key factor in Washington's winning the pennant. In 1925, when the Senators won the pennant again, Marberry broke Russell's record by appearing in 55 games, and he surpassed his own mark the year after that with 64.
There were several fine relievers in the years that followed, but it was two decades before anyone generated the excitement that Marberry had. Johnny Murphy of the Yankees was an accomplished practitioner in the late 1930s and early 1940s who actually saved and won more games from the bullpen during his career than Marberry had, but Murphy was colorless, a quiet worker who did an efficient job without attracting much attention. His nickname was Grandma.
More exciting were Hugh Casey of the Dodgers and Joe Page of the Yankees. Casey was a big, hard-living, hard-luck righthander. He was the man who threw the strikeout pitch that got past catcher Mickey Owen in the 1941 World Series when the Dodgers, down two games to one, were leading the Yankees 4-3 in the top of the ninth with two out and nobody on. Casey had entered the game in the fifth, had stopped the Yankees with the bases loaded and had protected a one-run lead for four innings until his apparent game-ending strike—supposedly a spitter—got away from Owen. The batter, Tommy Henrich, reached first safely, and the Yanks scored four runs and won the game 7-4. The next day they won the Series. Casey had another up-and-down World Series against the Yankees in 1947, pitching in six of the seven games. He won two games and saved a third but was on the mound when the Dodgers lost Game 7. In 1951, drinking and despondent, he shot himself to death.
The Yankees' Page, on the other hand, was almost always cheerful, and like Marberry he had a dramatic quality that fans enjoyed. In 1949 he saved 27 games and won 13 for 40 relief points, a record that would not be broken for another dozen years.
Relieving entered its modern era in the 1950s with the emergence of one bullpen hero after another. Typically, as with Casey, a relief ace would have one or two, maybe three, outstanding seasons then fade away. Names come to mind: Jim Konstanty, Joe Black, Ellis Kinder, Ray Narleski, Bob Grim, Don McMahon, Ryne Duren, Luis Arroyo. Other relievers were able to pitch for years: Hoyt Wilhelm, Roy Face, Lindy McDaniel and Stu Miller were all models of steadiness rather than overwhelming power. Dick Radatz, the 6'6", 230-pound "Monster" of the Red Sox, had three superb seasons in a row in the 1960s and a fourth pretty good one before he ran out of gas.
By the 1970s relief pitching had come to maturity, no longer an afterthought or a stopgap, but recognized as one of the most important elements in a team's makeup.