The best pitcher in New Haven in 1875 wasn’t getting paid for his work. His name was C.H. Avery and he was a true phenom. Twenty-one year old Charles Hammond Avery, known colloquolly as Ham, was the senior captain of the Yale baseball team in 1875.
According to baseball historian Harold Seymour, Avery was one of the first pitchers to throw the curveball. The truth is very complicated. For his part, Candy Cummings, the Hartford pitcher the Baseball Hall of Fame recognizes as the first man to throw a curveball, parsed the distinction, saying Avery was one of only three other pitchers who mastered the pitch with an underhand delivery.
Fred Goldsmith, a future New Haven Elm City Club player, was another player who claimed primacy in the evolution of the pitch. Even he said initially that Avery was the inventor of the pitch, but later recanted his assertion claiming he was the first to curve the ball. Goldsmith claimed he was walking down the street in New Haven near the Green, tossing a ball around when a man in a Yale sweater, turning out to be Avery, asked to play catch. Goldsmith, a teenager, threw a curve befuddling Avery, who demanded to learn the pitch. Or so the story goes.
The provinance of the pitch is uncertain. Legendary baseball manager Connie Mack claimed that Avery was the first pitcher to throw a curve in a collegiate game, shutting out Harvard 4-0 in 1874. In the end, baseball historians enshrined Cummings as the inventor of the pitch (he learned curving seashells on the shore in his childhood home in Massachusetts), while Goldsmith and Avery were essentially relegated to footnotes in baseball history.
Avery had things well in hand when he face New Haven on June 21, 1875. It was common for National Association teams to schedule contests against local college or amateur teams as a way of lining their coffers and getting in a bit of practice. New Haven already played Yale twice times over the course of the season. Yale almost beat New Haven during their last exhibition before the game was washed away by rain. However, local pundits believed that with the acquisitions of first baseman Juice Latham, catcher Tim McGinley, and second baseman Ed Somerville, would tip the game in favor of the professionals.
The pundits were wrong. The Bulldogs defeated the professionals by the score of 6-4.
New Haven jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning when Ed Somerville singled. He then scored on three consecutive passed balls by Bigelow, a common 19th century malady when a curveball pitcher meets a barehanded catcher.
Yale scored twice in the bottom of the third inning to jump into the lead. New Haven took advantage of two Yale errors to score three runs in the top of the fourth inning, but Ham Avery took control of the game, striking out 7 in an era when it was extremely difficult to do so. “To make a long story short, Avery, the Yale pitcher, never did better, and the New Havens were utterly unable to hit him with any effect,” said the New Haven Register.
After surrendering a pair of hits in the 5th inning, Avery retired the final 15 New Haven players in a row, allowing Yale to chip away at unlucky Tricky Nichols for four runs. “Nichols pitched with greater skills than usual and he seems to have improved very much,” the Register said.
Billy Geer drove in two runs for New Haven, and the papers pointed to Latham as playing particularly good defense. Yale catcher Bigelow drove in three runs and George Knight scored two runs for the Bulldogs.
Avery had a chance to turn professional after his graduation in 1875. Hall of Famer Harry Wright offered him $3,400 per season to join the Boston Red Stockings. To place this offer in context, the average National Association ballplayer made between $100 and $150 per month. In fact, the offer to Avery was $400 more than Wright paid Al Spalding, the Red Stockings’ current superstar pitcher. The Yale graduate had other plans in mind. “Avery, a Skull & Bones Society blueblood, thought professional baseball beneath him and demurred,” according to baseball historian John Thorn.
Avery returned to his hometown of Cincinnati and became a successful lawyer, dying in 1927.