Who was Orioles pitcher James ‘Rube’ Parnham?
His name draws shrugs from Orioles fans. James “Rube” Parnham? Who’s he? A century ago, Parnham, a gangly righthanded pitcher, won 33 games — including 20 straight — as Baltimore captured a fifth consecutive International League pennant in 1923.
In eight years with the high-flying Orioles, Parnham was effective, eccentric and maddeningly elusive. Sometimes, he skipped spring training altogether; other summers, he’d vanish for days, or weeks, on end. He might be gardening back home in western Pennsylvania, or umpiring there for a sandlot team, or on a bender. In 1921, having won 50 games in the course of two seasons, he chose not to show up in Baltimore at all.
When in an Orioles uniform, however, he flashed signs of brilliance. Several times, Parnham pitched (and won) both ends of a doubleheader. Master of “a puzzling curve, neat twisters and a slowball,” according to The Sun, he once faced Walter Johnson in an exhibition and bested the Washington Senators’ Hall of Famer.
Parnham’s zany antics made headlines. Once, in a game against Akron, he threw three pitches to a batter and abruptly strode off the mound and out of the ballpark. Another time, as he backed up his catcher on a play at home plate, the ball rolled Parnham’s way. The pitcher just stood there “with the ball at his feet and making no attempt to field it as three [Buffalo runners] legged it across the plate,”
The Sun reported. “[Parnham] tossed his glove at the ball in a rage and behaved like a spoiled child.”
Yet, in the worst of times, he could play his best. In 1922, the day after his house in Clairton, Pennsylvania, burned to the ground, Parnham won a game and hit a home run. That same season, he pitched 20 consecutive scoreless innings. One year later, at age 29, he reached his peak, going 33-7 and ending the regular season with 20 consecutive victories, winning both games of a doubleheader on the final day. Parnham finished 1923 with as many Orioles victories as two other Baltimore pitchers combined: Robert “Lefty” Grove and Charles “Chief ” Bender, both destined for the Hall of Fame.
On the road, fans razzed Parham to no end. Teammates teased him, tucking lit firecrackers inside his glove. Off the field, he wore snazzy clothes and spent lavishly in speak-easies while wheeling around Baltimore in his Ford Model A.
The Orioles put up with his antics because he won games and filled the ballpark. A crowd favorite, Parnham was once spotted boarding a train at Union Station and “was enveloped by a small army of boys ... 50 youngsters at his heels, all trying to get a closer view of the pitching marvel,” The Sun reported.
His big league career was brief. Early on, he split four decisions with the Philadelphia A’s before earning acclaim with the Orioles. Later bids by major league teams to purchase Parnham were nixed by Baltimore owner/manager Jack Dunn, who held sway over his charges in an era when it was legal to do so. All told, Parnham won 139 games and lost 60 here before quitting baseball in 1927 at age 33. His arm was tuckered out.
Without baseball, his tenuous link to normalcy, Parnham sank from sight. He lived on the street, was jailed several times and lost a few toes to frostbite. Efforts by his family to sober him up failed.
“Rube was an enigma, a wonderfully talented player with a larger-than-life personality who just self-destructed,” said Ed Damer, whose book, ”Thirty-Three In Twenty-Three,” chronicles Parnham’s career. “He had to know how great he was, but something held him back.”
In 1961, after much sleuthing, Sun reporter Jim Bready found Parnham in a homeless shelter near Pittsburgh and recorded the interview:
“I tried a question. ‘Gbbmhdahlr,’ he replied. I stared at him; slowly, the meaning penetrated. I reached in my pocket and handed him a dollar. Again and again, as I tried to get a conversation going, I simply couldn’t make out what Rube Parnham was saying. In despair, I handed him the pad and pen and asked if he would write his name, which he did.
“When I got up to go ... Rube appeared in the doorway, amiable but off-balance; he grabbed the door frame and swung out, to cry, distinctly, ‘I shtill love basheball!’ Whereupon he swung back inside, out of sight.”
Two years later, Parnham died. He was 69. One hundred years later, his 33 victories in a single season remain an International League record.