“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Leslie Ambrose (Joe) Bush was born on November 27, 1892, the third of seven children of John William "William" Bush and Margaretha "Maggie" (Wieshalla), of Gull River, Cass County, Minnesota. John William, originally from Ohio, was a conductor with the Northern Pacific Railroad. Mother, Maggie, was from Dziekanstwo, Poland. Joe's formative years were largely spent in the nearby town of Brainerd, where his family resided in a tiny frame house on Fir Street that still stands, and where he attended high school starring in football and baseball.
Joe would practice his pitching in an old orchard by throwing "exceedingly-fast rotten apples" at the crescent-shaped hole of a neighboring outhouse. A direct hit meant considerable spray spattered throughout its interior, particularly annoying to anyone seated there.
Brainerd was at the geographical center of Minnesota, populated by railway centers and mills, and was a gateway to numerous lakes and deep forests ideal for sportsmen's pursuits. This lifestyle was influential on young Joe Bush, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, who was later a regular participant in sharpshooting events and hunting excursions, often with such gun-toting baseball cronies as Eddie Collins, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Plank, Walt Huntzinger, and Sad Sam Jones.
The heretofore earliest known account of Joe Bush's background was described by Joe, himself, to journalist, Carroll Slick, who wrote about Joe's baseball exploits in a series of Saturday Evening Post articles in 1929 and 1930. In 1906, at age 13.Bush played some third base for the Brainerd town team, recognized as the Brainerd Baseball Club.
In 1910 Joe began to do some pitching for the town. Bush's first important game as a pitcher was in 1911, in relief against a St. Cloud team. He struck out 11 men that day, won all of his starts that summer, and never looked back.
Hugh Campbell, president of the Missoula, Montana, club of the Union Association (Class D) signed Joe to a contract for the 1912 season. Cliff Blankenship, an ex-major leaguer, then catcher-manager for Missoula, took Bush under his tutelage and helped him with the "rudiments of pitching," said Joe. Blankenship had earlier helped land the great Walter Johnson after a scouting mission for the Washington Senators.
He threw with great velocity and was generally compared with the best speed-ball pitchers of the day, second only to Christy Mathewson according to Connie Mack. He had a very good curve ball, and would later develop a forkball when arm trouble made throwing the curve more difficult. Although not the first to throw the unusual flutter ball, Bush would be credited as one of the earliest major leaguers to popularize the delivery, throwing the pitch with consistency and effectiveness. Some say he "invented" it, including Joe, himself.
Bush had a few idiosyncrasies, as well, in his pitching delivery: he threw every pitched ball with such intensity that he emitted a "grunt" sound "that could be heard in the bleachers." He had a pirouette style of delivery called the "Joe Bush twist-around" pitch that Babe Ruth considered quite effective.
In 1912 Missoula won the Gladsome Rug, emblematic of the Union Association championship, with an 83-51 record. Bush posted a league-leading 26-16 record, a winning percentage of .610.
The nickname "Bullet Joe" took hold in Missoula. The club president, Hughie Campbell, began to call him Joe Bush after a former local bronco buster. Later, the local media began to call him Joe Bullet, because of the speed of his fastball. Bush credits the nickname to later Philadelphia teammate Eddie Collins, who applied the label after observing a letter in the clubhouse that was addressed to "Joe Bullet" Bush. The nickname stuck for the rest of his baseball career.
Upon the advice of Blankenship, Connie Mack, distinguished gentleman, part-owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, purchased Bullet Joe from the Missoula team on August 20, 1912. He made his debut with the A's on September 30 against the New York Highlanders, a game the A's won in 11 innings, 11-10. Bush pitched eight innings, yielding all 10 runs and giving way to future Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski, who got the win in relief. This was Bush's only appearance in 1912.
Mack's star pitcher, Jack Coombs, fell ill in 1913 and missed most of that season. This unfortunate turn of events for the A's proved fortuitous for Joe Bush, who was called on to be an "added starter" for Mack, and he fulfilled the role nicely, winning 15 of 21 decisions in the regular season.
"Bullet Joe Had Meteoric Rise," proclaimed The Sporting News describing his rapid ascent from an obscure minor league team to sudden fame, in 1913, after Bush shut down the New York Giants in the third game of the World Series.
Though he had an illustrious 17-year major league career, young Joe's victory over the Giants in 1913 would be one of only two victories in his seven World Series' decisions. He would long share the dubious distinction of five World Series losses with future Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Rube Marquard, and Eddie Plank, a record eventually surpassed by Whitey Ford of the Yankees in 1963.
Bush had another good year with the Athletics in 1914, winning 17 games and losing 13, with a 3.06 ERA. As part of a strong staff with Chief Bender, Eddie Plank, and Bob Shawkey, he led the team into the 1914 World Series against the "Miracle Braves" from Boston.
If the 1913 World Series was a crowning achievement for Bullet Joe, it was the opposite for him in the Series of 1914. Once again he was given the pitching assignment for Game Three, but this time the result was different. The A's lost the first two games in Philadelphia. Bullet Joe's pitching heroics in the 1913 World Series had buoyed his team to a championship. But his misplay in the 1914 Series helped lead to their downfall. Bush had pitched well and was locked in a duel with Lefty Tyler through nine innings, knotted at 2-2. Both teams scored two runs in the 10th. Then, in the 12th inning, Hank Gowdy, a .243 hitter during the regular season, but a .545 hitter in the Series, stroked a double. After an intentional walk to Larry Gilbert, the next play was a sacrifice bunt by Herbie Moran that Bush threw past third baseman Home Run Baker, allowing the winning run to score.
The A's were crushed. The Braves won the fourth and final game by a score of 3-1, and made a clean sweep of Connie Mack's nine. Bush was inconsolable as he slinked away under the stands toward the clubhouse with tears in his eyes as the crowd roared its approval of the Braves' victory. Not even Connie Mack could comfort him.
After the 1914 World Series Connie Mack began to dismantle his club selling off star players rather than compete in a bidding war with the Federal ("Outlaw") League. Joe Bush would find little support from the fractured ranks of a team that bore no resemblance to the great Athletics teams of years past. The A's were woeful, plummeting from first place in 1914 to last in 1915, finishing 58½ games behind the American League leader, the Boston Red Sox. Bush won five games and lost 15 with a 4.14 ERA that year.
The same ineptness that characterized the A's in 1915 continued in both 1916 and 1917. Despite little run support and a poor defense behind him, in 1916 Bush still won 15 games, while losing 24. He put together a remarkable 2.57 ERA, striking out a career-high 157 batters, yielding 222 hits in 287 innings pitched, including eight shutouts and 25 complete games. In 1917, he improved his ERA to 2.47, despite an 11-17 won-loss record.
Cash-strapped Connie Mack dispensed with three more members of his once-great teams on December 14, 1917. He dealt Bush, Wally Schang, and Amos Strunk to the Boston Red Sox for three undistinguished players, and $60,000. All three ex-Athletics would contribute to the Boston ballclub in their run for the pennant in 1918, especially Joe Bush.
Joe managed a 15-15 won-loss record in 1918, but with a career-best 2.11 ERA, a career-high 26 complete games, including seven shutouts and a team-high 125 strikeouts. Bush, Babe Ruth, Carl Mays, Sad Sam Jones, and Dutch Leonard formed a strong pitching corps that led the Red Sox into the 1918 World Series, which the Sox took in six games from the Chicago Cubs. Bush appeared in two games in the 1918 Series. He lost Game Two, a well-pitched 3-1 contest, and saved a win for pitcher Babe Ruth in Game Four.
The following year was a difficult one for Bullet Joe, who developed arm trouble and remained out of action most of the season. It was also not a good year for the Red Sox. They finished sixth.
It appeared that Bullet Joe was all but washed up due to the injury, but his toughness and indefatigable spirit sustained him and pushed him to a comeback with the Red Sox in 1920. Essentially, he reinvented himself, coming up with a new pitch, the forkball, that enabled him to pitch another nine years in the big leagues.
1920 was a comeback year for Joe, and he put together another 15-15 won-loss record. But the Red Sox bore no resemblance to the champions of 1918. Owner Harry Frazee had begun to dismantle his championship team at the end of the 1918 season. Once again Bush found himself on a team in the process of being sold off.
The Red Sox were now mired in mediocrity, finishing 1921 in fifth place once again. Bullet Joe had a good year, however, with a 16-9 won-loss record and a 3.50 ERA, second-best on the team. He struck out 96 batters, second to Sam Jones, who had 98. He also hit .325 with 39 base hits in 120 plate appearances.
On December 20, 1921, the Red Sox traded their two ace pitchers, Sam Jones and Joe Bush, along with shortstop Everett Scott, to the Yankees. It was a trade made in heaven for Bullet Joe, who expressed delight at the move. Bush joined a strong Yankees club that had won the American League pennant in 1921, and would go on to win two more pennants and a World Series during his stay with them.
Joe had a career year in 1922 with a team-high 26 victories, losing only seven, for the best winning percentage in the American League. Bush further distinguished himself in 1922 by halting the consecutive game hitting streak of future Hall of Famer, George Sisler, who had hit safely in 41 straight games. Bush stopped the streak on September 18. Sisler's AL record stood for 19 years until Joe DiMaggio eclipsed it in 1941, hitting safely in 56 consecutive games.
The Yankees had another strong year in 1923, finishing in first place by 16 games over second-place Detroit. Joe Bush did not match his 1922 performance, but had a good year nevertheless, with a 19-15 won-loss record, a 3.43 ERA, and 125 strikeouts. The Yankees would not repeat in 1924, finishing second to Walter Johnson's Washington Senators. Joe posted a 17-16 record with a 3.57 ERA, striking out 80 batters, a decline from previous years. He batted .339 with 42 base hits in 124 at-bats.
On December 17, 1924, the Yankees traded Bush and two other players to the St. Louis Browns, obtaining spitballer Urban Shocker. This was a major disappointment for Bush, who had had three solid years with the Bronx-based team.
Bullet Joe compiled a 14-14 record that year, with 63 strikeouts, but had an unimpressive 5.09 ERA. On February 1, 1926, the Browns traded Joe to the Senators. The Senators had won the World Series in 1924, and the AL pennant in 1925.
On April 18, Joe was hit on the knee by a vicious drive off the bat of New York's Earle Combs. Bush had pitched one-hit ball before he was struck by Combs' shot in the top of the ninth. He was slow to recover, and was never able to regain form with Washington, posting a 1-8 won-loss record. The Senators gave Bush his unconditional release on June 24, 1926.
Ever a man of action, Bush immediately made arrangements with a semipro club, the East Douglas, Massachusetts team of the so-called "Millionaire League. He did play one game. On June 29, 1926, Bush pitched a shutout over a local Worcester team. The next day, he signed to play for another contender, the reigning World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. He was back in the majors.
Joe's performance with Pittsburgh was more than respectable. He was a contributor, as a pitcher and with his bat. Although his won-loss record was a mere 6-6, he finished with a 3.01 ERA, fanning 38 batters in 110 2/3 innings pitched, with two impressive shutouts, the second a two-hitter on September 20 against the Phillies. Bush was on the Pittsburgh roster at the outset of the 1927 campaign, but his tenure with them was short-lived. New Pirates manager, Donie Bush, a take-charge guy, sensed a pennant was possible, but knew he would need to shore up his pitching staff if he was going to win. Joe Bush was not in his plans and received his unconditional release from the Bucs on June 15.
Once again Joe was on the outside looking in. But an old opponent, John McGraw, was in need of pitching so he threw Bullet Joe another lifeline, signing him to a contract with the Giants on June 29. But Joe lasted barely long enough to dirty his uniform. He pitched in three games. He was released by the Giants on July 19.
Wasting little time, in late August, Bush joined the Toledo Mud Hens of the Double A American Association, led by manager Casey Stengel. Stengel put together an assemblage of major league cast-offs for a stretch run at Toledo's first pennant. On December 7, Toledo released Bullet Joe, and later its other veterans, Irish Meusel and Everett Scott.
Joe's resiliency in always landing on his feet emerged again when, in late December 1927, Connie Mack signed the 35-year old veteran to a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics. Joe was used sparingly by Mack, finishing with a 2-1 won-loss mark. Sportswriter Frank Young of the Washington Post reported that Bush's role on the A's was largely one of fungo hitter most of the season. Joe was by the A's on November 3, 1928, and later released. It was the end of his major league career.
In 1929, Bush signed on with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League as an outfielder. He was released on May 25, and promptly went back to the East Coast, joining player-manager Tris Speaker and his Newark Bears of the International League, on June 17. There he was used in utility roles and pitched, finishing with a 3-3 won-loss record.
On October 23, 1929, the stock market collapsed, leading to the Great Depression. Baseball was affected, especially the minor leagues, which lost three leagues almost immediately following the crash, and others later.
But Joe Bush once again demonstrated the adaptability that was becoming legendary when he surfaced again, in 1930, by getting a player-manager position with the Eastern League's Allentown team. Allentown won the 1930 Eastern League championship on September 22, beating Bridgeport, four games to one. Bush stayed with the team for the 1931 season but it finished a mediocre fifth, 34 games out of first. Bullet Joe finished his baseball career in 1932 pitching for the Kentucky Colonels of New York City, a semipro club.
"Bullet Joe" Bush was in organized baseball from 1906, it is believed, through 1932. He played 17 years in the big leagues, from 1912 until 1928. During his major league career he won 196 games, lost 184, struck out 1,319 batters, and posted a quite respectable 3.51 lifetime ERA. He pitched 35 shutouts, including a no-hitter.
Aside from Joe's well-known baseball talents, he was a man of some creative expression as well. As was true with many ballplayers of the period, on occasion Joe would participate in vaudeville skits, usually with other ballplayers. He was described as having an "excellent baritone voice."
Joe also was a ventriloquist. On one occasion when he was with the Red Sox, traveling north from spring training with the Giants, Joe got himself into some trouble with the locals in the small town of Morristown, Tennessee. While in a restaurant there, he began to mimic animal sounds that could be heard coming from different parts of the room, alarming the restaurant staff. They called the local constable, who arrested Joe. As the story goes, Joe then mimicked the sound of a vicious barking dog projecting his voice behind the constable, and while the officer turned to protect himself, Joe broke free.
Describing Joe's good nature, a sports journalist once characterized him as "the proverbial boy that never grew up." He added, "Joe Bush has been a character as well as a great pitcher. Joe has a peculiar smile. It is one of great friendliness. It is a guileless one, a disarming one, and many a rookie has discovered that Joe Bush is the greatest kidder and practical joker in the world and yet has lived to forgive Joe because of that smile."
In his later years Joe Bush and his wife, Alice Marie Wray Bush, whom he married November 6, 1937, had a home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they resided only part of the time. Beginning in 1946, Joe kept active from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. as a pari-mutuel clerk working at New Jersey and Florida race tracks, notably the Garden State, Atlantic City and Hialeah, Florida.
Joe remained active throughout his life participating in numerous recreational pursuits. Bush died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on November 1, 1974 at the age of 81