Although he garnered scant attention at the time, Seattle Mariners right-hander Tony Zych broke a 105-year streak in 2015, when he made his big-league debut on September 4 in Oakland. This marked the first time since August 13, 1910 that someone other than Dutch Zwilling ended the baseball alphabet.
As someone who often got called on last in school (possibly based on merit; it’s difficult to say), I have an affinity for folks at the back end. In that spirit, here’s a closer look at the six men who have held down the anchor since 1871, as previously identified by Diane Firstman.
Dates: May 8, 1871 – July 17, 1884
Our first esteemed honoree was born in Williamsburg, NY in July 1844. This was shortly after John Tyler had taken over as president for the deceased William Henry Harrison, and 17 years before the start of the Civil War, in which Zettlein later fought.
The right-hander known as “The Charmer” led the National Association in ERA as a 26-year-old rookie. It helped that he allowed 160 unearned runs in 28 starts, which wasn’t even his career high for a single season.
Of course, the game was different back then. For one thing, he pitched 96 percent of his team’s innings. For another, the defense behind him was dreadful. Three men committed more than 30 errors, and the White Stockings as a team had 229, which is 103 more than last year’s high water mark set by the A’s. Oh, and the White Stockings only played 28 games.
In 1873, Zettlein won 36 of his 51 starts, despite allowing more than seven runs per game. The next year, he coughed up 300 unearned runs, which bests the entire careers of Greg and Mike Maddux combined. The year after that, he pitched 463 1/3 innings without surrendering a single home run, a record that almost certainly will never be broken.
Zettlein’s career win total of 129 matches that of Pedro Astacio and Charles Nagy, among others. He accomplished in six years what took them 14 or 15. His career strikeout total of 143 also would have ranked seventh among Astacio’s single-season totals, and fourth among Nagy’s.
So yeah, it was a different game, but for 13 glorious years, Zettlein was the last last name in baseball. And hey, at least he still has that home-run record.
Dates: July 18, 1884 – April 17, 1888
Zimmer was a catcher who spent parts of 19 seasons in the big leagues, most with the Cleveland Spiders, including the infamous 1899 squad that went 20-134. He was 38 years old by then, but had gotten off to a fast start, batting .342/.407/.479 through 20 games. Naturally, the Spiders released him in June, and he immediately signed with the Louisville Colonels, for whom he started and played quite well.
His career began in 1884 with the Detroit Wolverines, and ended in 1903 with the Philadelphia Phillies. He got a Hall of Fame vote back in 1938, when everyone (well, 120 guys, anyway) got a Hall of Fame vote.
He collected 1,225 hits during his tenure, and his name is scattered across the defensive leaderboards of that era. Usually it was for his positive contributions: Zimmer led the National League in putouts by a catcher in 1891 and 1900; in assists in 1890 and 1891; and in double plays in 1889, 1890, and 1894. In the history of baseball, only Deacon McGuire caught more runners trying to steal.
As with Zettlein, though, the game was very different back then. For all of Zimmer’s putouts, assists, and double plays, he also broke the 40-error mark in three straight seasons. And while his 45 errors in 1890 and 1891 pale in comparison to Nat Hicks’ 94 (!) in 1876, it took Yadier Molina eight years and change to reach that total for his career.
Zimmer, known for his endurance, caught Cy Young’s big-league debut and remained Young’s catcher for several years. He also invented a tabletop baseball game that was quite popular in the 1890s and is now coveted by collectors—one copy was sold for $10,400 in 2005, while another fetched $19,975 in 2008.
Dates: April 18, 1888 – July 22, 1910
Zinn is the least accomplished of those who have held this coveted spot. He caught two games for the American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics, going 0-for-7 with a walk and an error.
We don’t know much about Zinn. What we do know is that he was born in Phoenixville, PA (where future big-leaguers Andre Thornton and Mike Piazza later grew up), and died in Manayunk, some 20 miles from Phoenixville. He was also adept at bending over at the waist.
Aside from his brief stint with the Athletics, Zinn spent time with three different Pennsylvania-based minor-league teams in 1887 and 1889. According to David Nemec’s The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball, Zinn served on the Philadelphia police force for 28 years after retiring.
Zinn also holds the honor of having been the last last name in baseball longer than anyone other than Dutch Zwilling (or Tony Zych, if you’re getting to this late and reading in 2138, in which case: Welcome! Glad you could join us.)
Dates: July 23, 1910 – August 13, 1910
Zmich is the William Henry Harrison of this bunch. Like the ninth president of the United States, he held his position for about a month before yielding it to someone else. Unlike Harrison, it wasn’t because he died of pneumonia.
The southpaw out of Cleveland made six starts and three relief appearances for a dreadful St. Louis Cardinals team in 1910. He got into four more games the following year for a less dreadful Cardinals squad, before returning to the minor leagues and closing out his career with the Springfield Senators in 1912.
Zmich played with Hall of Famers Roger Bresnahan and Vic Willis in 1910, and with Hall of Famer Miller Huggins in 1911. He’s also part of the Cardinals All-Time Scrabble team, so there’s that. He died in 1950 and is buried not far from where he was born.
Dates: August 14, 1910 – September 3, 2015
After Zmich’s month of glory, Zwilling came along and dominated the sport like no one has before or since. Compare his streak to other well-known streaks:
- Sun rising above earth: 1,659,330,750,000ish days
- Zwilling ending baseball alphabet: 38,372
- Ripken playing games: 5,957
- DiMaggio getting a hit: 64
He’s right between a celestial body that keeps all of humanity alive, and two Hall of Famers. That’s pretty good company to keep. And although he never stood a chance to catch the sun, there’s something to be said for a streak that lasted more than six times as long as Ripken’s more heralded streak, and nearly 600 (!) times as long as DiMaggio’s.
Zwilling, primarily a center fielder, debuted with a lousy Chicago White Sox team at age 21, but couldn’t stick. After three seasons playing for the Western League’s St. Joseph Drummers (and collecting 207 hits in 1912) he jumped to the Federal League and became a star for the Chicago Chi-Feds. He led the upstart circuit with 16 homers in 1914, and with 94 RBI in 1915, before the league folded and he went back to being a guy who wasn’t quite good enough for the remaining major leagues.
After 35 games with the Cubs in 1916, Zwilling spent the next seven seasons playing for Indianapolis and Kansas City of the American Association. He sat out 1924 and 1925 before resurfacing with the Western League’s Lincoln Links, for whom he hit .296. He got into one more game 12 years later, at age 49, and went 1-for-2 for the PCL’s Oakland Oaks.
He also managed that Oaks team, which finished a dismal 65-113. It was by far the worst of his 16 seasons as a minor-league manager, which saw him win league championships in 1929 with the American Association’s Kansas City Blues (one of the best minor-league teams ever), in 1933 with the Western League’s St. Joseph Saints, and in 1951 with the Three-I League’s Quincy Gems.
And although Zwilling has lost his spot at the back of the baseball alphabet, he will always remain the Federal League’s all-time leader in home runs. He even hit two off Hall of Famer Mordecai Brown toward the end of Brown’s career.
Dates: September 4, 2015 – present
Days: 213 (as of Opening Day 2016)
Zych himself, though impressed by his place in history, keeps it in perspective. As he told the News Tribune‘s Bob Dutton, “Breaking a record is pretty cool. I really didn’t have to do much for that one.” Such modesty!
A former fourth-round pick out of the University of Louisville, Zych enjoyed sporadic success in the minors before flashing unprecedented (for him) strikeout numbers in his brief stint with the Mariners last September. He got Nolan Arenado swinging both times they faced each other. Arenado led the National League in homers and RBI in 2015, so that’s not too shabby.
And while none of us knows what the future holds for Zych, one thing remains certain: This is a very silly article, and I thank you for reading. Please be sure to check back for my follow-up in the late 23rd century when someone (perhaps a descendant of David J. Zyskowski) comes along and takes Zych’s crown away from him. I’m assuming that medical science will have advanced sufficiently by then to keep us all alive and watching baseball well into our 200s. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Geoff Young is a baseball writer and a dabbler in anti-aging techniques. You should follow him on Twitter.