The Missed Opportunities of Martin Duke

Martin Duke, the well-known pitcher, died in this city on Saturday, Dec. 31, of pneumonia. He had not played ball for several seasons and earned a precarious livelihood by working around a local saloon. He was a strong pitcher in his time and held engagements in the National League, Eastern League and Western League. In late years his work was limited entirely to the latter organization. He possessed great ability as a pitcher, but never lasted long with any club, as he was a hard man to control, and was given to dissipation, which ultimately led to enforced retirement from the profession and untimely death, his illness being brought on by needless exposure.

“Martin Duke Dead,” SPORTING LIFE, January 7, 1899: 4.

The article in Sporting Life at the time of Martin Duke’s death succinctly notes the theme of his life – that Duke had talent but not the discipline to become a star on baseball’s biggest stage.  The details of Duke’s short but noteworthy path from life to death are recited below.


Martin DukeThe precise date of Martin F. Duke’s arrival is not readily available – though it is generally believed to be in 1867 based on an 1870 US Census record.  Certainly the event provided a distinct memory to Patrick and Mary (Henney) Duke when the fifth of their six children arrived.  Patrick was a teamster who, like his wife, left Ireland in the 1840s and made his way to the United States.  Their first son was born in Rhode Island, but the other five children were born in Ohio.  The family spent many years in Zanesville, Ohio, the city of Duke’s birth, both in terms of his real life and his baseball life.

Indeed, Duke was a member of the Zanesville entry of the Ohio State League – after a year pitching for the local semi-professional club, Duke signed with Zanesville as a professional in 1887 and was selected to pitch the opening game against Columbus.  His second year with Zanesville, which now was a member of the Tri-State League, contains an intriguing mix of good and bad events – like the day he was firing a perfect game into the fourth inning when he was struck in the hand by a line drive and dislocated his thumb.  In early July, Duke fanned 15 Toledo batters and developed a reputation that now reached out higher level clubs.

The Detroit Wolverines were the first major league team to sign Duke to a contract – but that team was more or less disbanded after the 1888 season ended.  The franchise in Cleveland bought many of Detroit’s assets, including the rights to Martin Duke, whose rights cost Cleveland about $700.  Making perhaps $800 or $900 to pitch in Zanesville, Duke eagerly agreed to a $2000 contract – only to think that he might deserve even more money from Cleveland.  After a period of time, however, he was convinced to sign the contract and head to spring training.

What kind of pitcher did Cleveland sign?  Duke wasn’t very big. The righthanded thrower stood 5′ 5″ and weighed less than 135 pounds until later in his career.  A wire story once noted, “…His pitching arm is so strong and shapely and so well equiped with powerful muscles that it would win admiration from a blacksmith.”  Duke Farrell said his most effective pitch worked like a modern slider.  “Martin Duke’s most effective curve was a downshoot. It wasn’t, literally speaking, a downshoot, but rather on the Jimmy McJames brand of shoot, a sort of slant that whistled up to the plate on a bee-line and broke suddenly, taking a downward and outward course; that is outward for a right-handed batsman.”

Additionally, Duke was especially adept at catching baserunners napping.  Toledo’s manager, Bob Woods, compared Duke with Pud Galvin.  “I see a great deal is being said about Galvin’s cuteness in watching or holding runners to the bag. It is not generally known that he will have a worthy competitor for honors in that respect this season; but such is the fact, and young Martin Duck, of the Cleveland club, will be his contestant. His actions in the box will be equally as puzzling as those of the genteel James, while I am of the opinion that his actions are somewhat quicker.”

Duke’s biggest problem, however, was his control.  There would be many games where he might strike out eight batters, walk six, and throw four wild pitches.  This likely contributed to his failure to make Cleveland’s final roster after spring training, leading to Cleveland selling his rights to Minneapolis of the Western Association.

Maybe you didn’t catch it – maybe you thought it was a typo.  The other change in Martin’s baseball life was his name.  For some reason, Martin Duke was known as Martin Duck in Zanesville.  Not in census records, mind you, but in the box scores.  When he got to Minneapolis, he was now Martin Duke.

“The Kansas City Times is responsible for the following story about the crack Minneapolis pitcher, Martin Duke: “The real name of the Millers’ best pitcher is not Duke, but Duck, and how he came to change his name forms an interesting story. About two years ago Martin was pitching in a game up in Michigan, and in the ninth his club led the opposing team by one run. Two of the latter had reached the two corners nearest the plate when a man up in the grandstand began imitating the ‘quack’ of a duck. Martin didn’t show at first that he was annoyed by it, but as the ‘quack, quack, quack,’ continued his face became lobster-colored. He shouted to his taunter that he would fix him after the game, but the field gave the pitcher the horse laugh and went on with his ‘quack, quack, quack.’ Duke was crazier than the wild man from Borneo, and at least he lost his head and threw the ball with all his might at his tormentor. It didn’t hit the mark, but two runs came in and Martin’s side lost the game. After that, he dropped the name of Duck entirely.”

“Still in Doubt,” The Pittsburgh Press, September 28, 1890: 6.

Duke’s season started cold but warmed up with the weather.  He once lost to St. Paul, 18 – 7, when he gave up 14 runs in the first inning, an inning in which he also hit four batters.  Facing the same team in August, he threw a dominating one-hitter to beat St. Paul.  Then, in the last game of the season, Duke was in his finest form.  St. Paul went home without a single hit.  The St. Paul Globe noted, “Though he made one or two outbursts of temper, and once disturbed the Sabbath serenity with a fierce oath, he was less wild than usual, hit nobody and gave but three bases on balls.”

One runner, John Carroll, reached on a two out walk. Duke had the runner picked off at first but Duke’s throw to John Ryn was dropped. A wild pitch and an error later, the only Apostles run scored.

It was a fine season – he went 24 – 16 in 47 appearances, striking out 347 batters in 355 innings.  To counter his high strikeout totals, Duke also walked 210 batters, hit 42 others, and fired 65 (!) wild pitches.  Still just 22 years old, Duke earned further notice from any number of major league teams in the National League, American Association, and the new Players League that formed for the 1890 season.  He was chased by Chicago’s NL and PL entries, nearly signed with Philadelpha in the PL (he turned down $3500, of which $1000 would have been paid up front) but decided that the Players League wasn’t guaranteed to finish a full season and used these offers as leverage to get a better contract with Minneapolis in 1890.

Duke had an even more remarkable season in 1890 than he had in 1889.  His ERA, just 1.72 in 1889, fell to 0.80 in 1890.  He fanned 308 batters, but was “frightfully wild,” walking 155 men, beaning 17, and throwing 73 wild pitches.   Still, Duke singlehandedly kept Minneapolis in the pennant race – a contest between Minneapolis and Kansas City came down to a series in Kansas City in late September.  Kansas City, leading by a half-game in the standings, swept Minneapolis, beating Duke twice.  In the first game, Kansas City worked on Duke’s nerves directly – first by relating the story of Duke’s first baseball name being “Duck” and then by encouraging fans to get under his skin.  The Minneapolis Tribune reported “Five hundred fish horns and a dozen duck calls were scattered through the audience, and while the Millers were in the field, an unearthly din was kept. The duck calls were meant to rattle Martin Duke, and in the fourth inning a live duck was thrown down on the diamond…”

For the third straight offseason, Duke was heavily courted by major league teams – and now it was going to his head.  Again, despite the opportunities, Duke wound up staying in Minneapolis, but Duke’s attitude towards others changed.  Articles in various papers mocked his decision to purchase property in Minneapolis, referred to his “long head – straight up,” and that Duke was now quite the ladies’ man.  Rumors mentioned his taking on a fiancee and that “…many a poor girl has committed suicide after once seeing Martin.”

On top of that, Duke was now gaining a reputation for late night carousing and drinking.  The wildness of Duke’s pitching got worse – as did his attitute toward management.  He was fined on at least three occasions by Minneapolis manager William H. Harrington.  The Minneapolis Tribune announced the inevitable resolution – Duke was released – on August 9, 1891.

“Martin Duke’s career is also at an end. Hach and Harrington stood his tantrums and whims as long as they were able. But his action on Thursday (August 6) was the last straw in the back of the managerial camel. He was expected to go in and pitch but refused point blank. That did settle it. He was fined $100 and expelled. Duke had the making of a star twirler but he was his own worst enemy. He made the mistake of believing that he was indispensible and that all his bad breaks and bits of folly, no matter how often committed, would be condoned. His work thus far this season has not been up to the standard. He would pitch about one good game in five. Dissipation, late hours, and a childish temper has ruined him. There is too much young blood coming into the baseball ranks to allow reckless players and disorganizers to have much play. Duke will find that out before many months roll by. In after life he will find but few jobs at $350 per month floating around loose and he will look back with regret at the opportunities he had missed.”

“The Base Ball World,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 9, 1891: 5.

It didn’t take long for Duke to find work.  In fact, he failed up – jumping at a contract offer to join Washington of the American Association at the end of August.  However, Duke was ill-prepared for the task.  In his first outing against Baltimore on August 24, the Baltimore Sun reported, “…he was so nervous that he gave ten bases on balls, made four wild pitches, and kept Catcher McGuire busier than anybody on the diamond. Duke seemed to use very little curve, and depended mostly on speed. Somehow or another he was not effective at any time. Besides his battery errors he had an error charged upon against him by dropping an easy thrown ball.”  The final was 13 – 0, with the game ending because of darkness after six innings.

He next lost to Milwaukee on August 31, 5 – 1, completing all nine innings and limiting his walk count to just four.  Entering in relief on September 3, he faced Louisville and gave up four runs in six innings.  However, he got his lone major league hit – a double off of Scott Stratton.  His last outing of 1891 was a 16 – 7 loss to Columbus – he gave up 11 runs in the second inning and left that game early. 

He totaled 23 innings in his four appearances (three starts).  In those innings, he walked 19, gave up 33 hits, and threw 11 wild pitches.  All three decisions were losses.

And yet, Duke received offers to pitch from Brooklyn and Chicago in the National League for 1892, eventually signing with Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings.  Oddly, writers in Minneapolis noted in 1891 that Duke might benefit from someone like Anson keeping Duke in check.  Except that Duke failed to pitch well that spring and Anson let Duke go.  Duke wasn’t thrilled – he expected that by signing a contract, Chicago was obligated to keep him for the season.  Instead, Anson went with four other pitchers he trusted and Duke was required to find another league that might want his services.

To be certain, Duke was his own worst enemy here – he was losing control of his personal life, he couldn’t control his temper during games, and he couldn’t control the baseball.  It was this situation that greeted Duke when he signed to pitch for Binghamton in the Eastern League.  Three months was all it took and he was released (a Buffalo paper said Duke’s arm was wrong at the time of signing).  Duke made two starts for Rochester – a fair start where he earned a win, and a horrific start where he lost 16 – 5 by giving up 24 hits and 5 walks.  The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle noted his release by adding, “He shouldn’t have been signed.”

With the Eastern League no longer interested, Duke ran to New Orleans in the Southern Association.  He pitched fairly well to finish 1892 (he won 13 of 16 decisions), but he failed to make a mark with three franchises (New Orleans, Birmingham, and Savannah) in the 1893 and 1894 seasons.  At the end, the Savannah Morning News reported, “The trouble was the same as on Wednesday, when he was taken out in the Nashville game. He seems to be unable to control the ball. The teams do not hit him very hard, but he gave too many men bases on balls and by hitting men with pitched balls.”

Tail between his legs, Duke returned to Minneapolis, where he would pitch for two seasons and work as a porter in a downtown saloon.  In 1895, Duke injured his arm in a semi-pro game.  With that, Duke was no longer a baseball player.  While he appeared in old-timers games and tried to get his arm and body back in playing shape, the remainder of Duke’s life would be spent working saloons.

The remainder of Duke’s life, however, wouldn’t last long.  He fell ill in the winter of 1898;  pneumonia took him on December 31, 1898 in Minneapolis; he was just 31 years old.  Duke’s body was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio next to that of his father, who had died the previous year.  Duke left behind a mother and five siblings.

1870, 1880 US Census
1895 Minnesota Census
Minneapolis Birth Records

“Notes,” Zanesville Times Recorder, May 2, 1887: 4.
“The Season Opened,” Zanesville Times Recorder, May 3, 1887: 1.
“The Visitors’ Dish,” Zanesville Times Recorder, July 17, 1888: 1.
“Something About Strikeouts,” Zanesville Times Recorder, August 11, 1888: 1.
“Contracts and Releases,” Chicago Inter Ocean, November 1, 1888: 2.
“Gossip of the Ball Field,” The New York Sun, February 10, 1889: 10.
“Rival to Galvin,” St. Paul Globe, February 10, 1889: 7.
“Cleveland Parts With Its Duck,” Detroit Free Press, April 24, 1889: 3.
“Still in Doubt,” The Pittsburgh Press, September 28, 1890: 6.
“Wow, This is Awful,” St. Paul Globe, July 5, 1889: 1

“Western Association,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 27, 1889: 2.
“Batted the Air,” St. Paul Globe, September 30, 1889: 5.
“After Duke and Foster,” Minneapolis Tribune, October 4, 1899: 2.
“Des Moines Done Up,” St. Paul Globe, September 10, 1889: 5.
“Notes and Gossip,” The Sporting Life, February 19, 1890: 4.
Minneapolis Tribune, March 2, 1890: 16.
“This is all Sport,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 9, 1890: 17.
“Omaha Didn’t Score,” St. Paul Globe, September 5, 1890: 5.
“Kansas City, 9; Minneapolis 0,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 21, 1890: 5.
“The Last One Came Easy,” Kansas City Star, September 23, 1890: 3.
“General Sporting Notes,” Kansas City Star, October 18, 1890: 3.
“The Offical Averages,” Kansas City Star, October 18, 1890: 3.
“On the Diamond,” Kansas City Times, March 22, 1891: 10.
“Base Ball Notes,” Sioux City Journal, June 7, 1891: 3.
“Hunks of Sport,” Lincoln Journal Star, July 14, 1891: 1.
“Sporting Comment,” Minneapolis Daily Times, July 24, 1891: 2.
“Beaten By One,” Lincoln Journal Star, July 31, 1891: 1.
“Base Ball Gossip,” Omaha World-Herald, August 2, 1891: 7.
“The Base Ball World,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 9, 1891: 5.
“To Be Kicked Out, St. Paul Globe, August 16, 1891: 6.
“A Victory At Last!,” Baltimore Sun, August 25, 1891: 6.
“Might Have Been Worse,” September 4, 1891: 6.
“Columbus Walk-Over,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 8, 1891: 2.
“Base Ball Notes,” Nebraska State Journal, November 1, 1891: 15.
Cedar Vale Commercial, January 23, 1892: 1.
(Image of Duke) Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1892: 6.
“Pitcher Martin Duke,” Vanity Fair (Lincoln, NE), May 14, 1892: 8.
“Anson’s New Baseman,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1892: 7.
“Superfluous Timber,” Minneapolis Daily Times, April 18, 1892: 2.
“Around the Bases,” Buffalo Courier, May 1, 1892: 7.
“The Jump,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 22, 1892: 8.
“Not Duke’s Day,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 26, 1892: 10.
“Base Ball Brevities,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 27, 1892: 7.
“Condensed Despatches,” The Sporting Life, April 22, 1893: 1.
“Beaten by a Single Run,” Savannah Morning News, April 28, 1894: 3.
“Diamond Dust,” St. Paul Globe, August 5, 1895: 5.
“The Old Boys Won It,” Minneapolis Sunday Times, July 26, 1896: 12.
“An Umpire’s Joke,” Sporting Life, January 30, 1897: 10.
“Martin Duke as a Pitcher,” Buffalo Enquirer, January 10, 1899: 4.
“Death of Martin Duke,” Minneapolis Tribune, January 1, 1899: 7.


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