It would be unfair to label Earl Zook as the worst pitcher in Texas League History. But, on paper, it’s hard to argue the eight-year minor leaguer was anything other than an abject failure in the pitcher’s box.
Earl O. Zook was a native of Muncie, Indiana, born in 1884 to Lewis and Melindia Zook. Lewis, a day laborer, was the sole bread winner of the family, but with only one child, the family got along reasonably well in the late 19th century. By the time he was seventeen, Earl had taken a job at the local Glass Factory, where his father also found permanent work. In early 1903, though, Claud Berry, a catcher with Charlie Moran’s Dallas Giants, suggested the Texas League team sign young Earl, who he had played semi-pro ball with back in Indiana. By the start of the 1903 season, Earl Zook was a professional baseball player in one of the nation’s fastest growing minor league circuits.
Zook was hardly a large or overpowering young man. At just 5 feet 8 inches and 160 pounds, he relied on curve balls to fool opposing batters, but upon opening the season, few fell for his trickery. The Dallas Morning News routinely wrote about Zook’s failures, noting how he was “hit freely” and pitched in a “wild and erratic” manner. After less than three weeks, Charlie Moran had seen enough of the supposed Midwestern sensation and arranged to sell Zook to Doak Roberts, owner of the Corsicana Oil Citys.
A year earlier, Corsicana had been the class of minor league baseball. The 1902 Oil Citys dominated the Texas League from beginning to end, riding a 27-game winning streak to an 87-23 record and besting the second place Giants by 28-1/2 games. But, the 1903 club was not nearly as dominant, mainly the result of the loss of three pitchers who accounted for 83 of the team’s wins. Doak Roberts needed to bolster his staff, and Zook was one of the few pitchers available on the market. Undoubtedly, Moran thought he’d gotten the best of Roberts, and he surely believed Zook would fare no better in Corsicana than he had in Dallas. In general, he was right.
Even though, Zook struggled against most of the Texas League, in his first outings against his former club, he was dominant. First, he tuned up to face Dallas by pitching a three-hitter against Fort Worth, leading the Dallas Morning News to question, “Why, oh why? Why did we let you go?” Four days later he sent Giants fans home in misery, besting them 4-2 in his second consecutive three-hit game. Less than two weeks later, he again faced Dallas, this time throwing a one-hitter in a 7-0 victory. By that point, Morning News writers had become poetic in their lamenting the sale of “Little Zook,” the “petite” pitcher.
Three times did the mighty Johnson wrap his fingers around the willow and swat the air
for where the ball was not for a trinity of strikes, and Zook smiled not.
Unable to beat their nemesis, Dallas writers began questioning young Earl’s sanity, noting that he wore a heavy flannel jacket on afternoons when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. Further, they pointed out that the hotter the sun beat down, the more Zook bundled up, buttoning his jacket to just beneath the chin and turning up his collar as if to protect himself from a biting wind chill.
While Zook pitched well against Dallas, he struggled against the rest of the league, routinely giving up double-digits runs and hits during the course of a nine-inning contest. At season’s end, he had posted a 13-18 won-loss record, and Corsicana finished in second place, eight games behind the champion Giants. Dallas may not have been able to beat their former pitcher, but they were the class of the Texas League in 1903.
Shortly after the close of the season, Doak Roberts sold Zook’s contract to Fort Worth. But, Earl never played a game for the Panthers, being resold to the new Paris franchise in early 1904. The Paris Red Ravens, owned by a pair of Dallas businessmen who knew little about business and even less about baseball, likely considered signing a twelve-game winner to the staff a major splash.
Unfortunately, the Paris team owners made no effort to supply any offense to back Earl’s pitching, and he went on to post one of the worst won-loss records baseball has ever seen, at 4-27. The rest of the Red Raven squad played just as poorly, their .255 winning percentage also among the worst in professional baseball history, but Zook’s 6.90 ERA suggests he did little to help his team’s cause. Needless to say, Paris finished in last place, 45 games behind the Fort Worth Panthers, from whom they’d acquired their expected staff ace earlier in the year. Zook did lead the Paris squad in games pitched, but he also led the entire Texas League’s in losses and hits surrendered at over ten per game.
There is no record of Earl Zook’s whereabouts in 1905, but in 1906 he resurfaced briefly with the Waco Navigators. Though he appeared in only six games, Zook did manage to get a win on his way to a 1-4 record. He also pitched in relief in two other games and fared quite poorly. 1906 represented the twenty-two year old’s last season in the Texas League. Over the course of his three year stay in Texas, his 18-49 record and .265 winning percentage rank near the bottom of Texas League pitchers with a similar number of starts. Had it not been for the revenge he sought against Dallas in 1903, his record may have been far worse.
Upon leaving Texas, Earl returned to the Upper Midwest, pitching in the Wisconsin State League in 1907 and posting a career best 11-15 record. The following season, he split time between Macomb and Monmouth of the Illinois-Missouri League. No statistics are available, but Zook appeared in only thirteen games on the season.
In 1909, Zook popped up again in the South Michigan League. After his comparitively successful 1907 campaign, he once again fell to earth, this time finishing with a 6-18 records with the Adrian Yeggs. The Yeggs featured a roster full of players in statistical databases with question marks next to their names, as the researchers are unsure where any of them came from or went to after baseball. Finally, in 1910, Earl Zook made his last appearance as a pitcher in professional baseball, pitching for the pennant winning Traverse City Resorters of the West Michigan League. It was in Traverse City that Zook had his most successful year, posting a 10-7 record. Following a year managing the Michigan State League’s Manistee Colts, a team which he guided to a pennant, he retired completely from baseball, having posted a 45-89 record over eight seasons.
Earl Zook remained in Michigan after quitting baseball, working a majority of his life as a machinist for the Continental Motor Corporation assembly plant in Muskegon. He married briefly in the early 1920’s but divorced shortly thereafter. He remained in Muskegon the remainder of his life, living close to his parents who had relocated to the area. On May 1, 1929, an unknown illness overcame Earl. Though rushed to the hospital, he died before being diagnosed. The cause of death as recorded on his death certificate was clearly written by a frustrated doctor who requested an autopsy but was not granted one. A crossed out cause of death is followed by one nearly impossible to read but ending with the words “or occlusion of the coronary artery.” Regardless, Earl Zook, who holds the record for posting the worst one-season pitching mark in Paris professional baseball history, died that day at the age of 45. He is buried in Muskegon’s Oakwood Cemetery alongside his parents. An only child with no children of his own, Zook’s lineage ended in Muskegon along with any reference or recollection of his career in professional baseball. Earl Zook—one more baseball player Me and Jerome managed to pull from obscurity.