Pastime Portraiture: Ace Adams

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Ace Adams, New York Giants 31-year-old rookie pitcher, 1941, from an unknown International News press photographer. I chose this as a subject for a post as liked the interesting idea of this pose; a close-up portrait with a glove is pretty rare. This photo was used (and likely taken) for Adams’ 1941 Double Play card set. Mighty big pitching glove Mr. Adams has there too – but what else would you expect from someone born with the name “Ace”?

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Adams’ card from the 1941 Double Play set

Signed by Brooklyn in 1934 (who thought he was 22 but in fact 24), he toiled away in the Dodgers’ farm system for the rest of the decade. Winning 13 games in Class A-1 ball in Nashville in 1940, Brooklyn’s crosstown rivals decided they’d put him to better use and the Giants plucked him in the Rule 5 draft for 1941.

Witnessing his very first MLB game while riding the bench on Opening Day 1941 at Ebbets Field, Manager Bill Terry, down 4-2, decided to see what he had in Adams and put him in for the 7th. Ace proceeded to shut the Dodgers down on only 1 hit for the final 3 innings, and the Giants rallied for 4 runs in the 8th for a 6-4 win, the victory going to Adams (the “castoff Dodger farmhand”, the Daily News grumbled). A thrilled Terry gave Adams a raise on the spot and he quickly became his go-to guy out of the bullpen.

Despite a high 4.82 ERA in ’41 he led the Giants’ pen in appearances, but adding a potent slider to his repertoire for 1942 meant a whole new ball game – he continued to be the iron man in the pen for now new manager Mel Ott, but Ott wisely limited his use per outing; an inning here, an inning there, resulting in Adams pitching to a sparkling 1.84 ERA, while he also tied the MLB record for relief appearances with 61, and led the majors in games finished with 49.

As the Giants tumbled in the standings in 1943 with many away at war, Ott’s calculated ways of bullpen use were battle-tested as starters would depart earlier, and, while still effective, Adams ERA and innings pitched rose as he would go on to set a then new MLB record with 70 appearances, although his heavy lifting did earn him an All-Star nod and even a few MVP votes. The Harlemites’ war-time warhorse continued apace in 1944 and 1945, leading the league in saves both years and the NL in games finished for the 4th straight year.

And then, just as the 1946 season dawned, after a couple of rough April outings, his MLB career came to an abrupt end – representatives for the Mexican League were offering big sums of money to major leaguers to jump ship, and a few had already done so (including fellow Giant Sal Maglie), so Ace packed his bags and headed south of the border, all the while being aware that Commissioner Happy Chandler, hoping to ward off any more defections, announced a 5-year ban on any MLB players signing to play in Mexico. Adams always defended his decision, for a couple of reasons – he stated he was offered $50,000 to play in Mexico in comparison to his $9,000 salary on the Giants (Adams’ story wavered over the years as to whether it was $50,000 per year, or three years, or even much less); also, he was 36 years old (older than most thought he was) and he was nearing retirement anyway. As it turned out, the Mexican experiment was mostly a bust for all concerned, as most MLB transplants underperformed in the heat and altitude and the league was not interested in investing in them much further, and Adams found himself out of professional baseball by 1947. Chandler did lift the suspension of the 18 ballplayers involved by 1949, although by then Adams was 39 and beyond the age to attempt a comeback. But, in later years, Adams would say that, if nothing else, him and his wife did have a “nice year” down there.

Bookended by a slow years-long climb up the rungs of the minor leagues, and an ill-fated sunny southern detour, Adams was surely the “Ace” of the NY Giants pen in the early 1940’s. It’s safe to say that his durability and (short-lived) success helped redefine (for good or bad) the role of the relief pitcher in the grand old game.

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