Reds fans buzzed with excitement when Mike Leake made his Major League debut in a 2010 game against the Cubs at Great American Ball Park. It is always exciting when a highly touted player makes his first appearance on a Major League field. Leake's debut was accompanied by considerable media buzz and even more anticipation on the part of fans throughout Reds country.
No such excitement surrounded the 1899 debut of Frank "Noodles" Hahn, a 19-year-old left-hander who was almost cut from the club at the end of his first Spring Training. Purchased from the Detroit club of the Western League, Hahn had a solid if unspectacular spring and was not deemed ready for Major League competition by Reds manager Buck Ewing. Reds owner John Brush overruled his manager and Hahn made the club.
Hahn hit the ground running, winning his first three starts on the way to a 23-8 season with a league-best 145 strikeouts and top-10 finishes in virtually every other major statistical category. The 1899 season proved to be a taste of things to come as Hahn dazzled National League hitters for most of the next five seasons. An exceptionally hard thrower, Hahn won strikeout titles again in 1900 and 1901. As durable as he was fast, Hahn averaged over 300 innings per season from 1899-1904 and completed 204 of his 217 starts over the same period. His no-hitter in 1900 was the first by a Reds pitcher in the 20th century.
Hahn's finest season was his 1901 campaign. Pitching for a Reds club that won only 52 games, Hahn was credited with 22 victories, 42 percent of the team's total. Since 1900, only Steve Carlton registered a higher percentage of his club's victories when he won 27 games for the 1972 Phillies, a team that finished the season with 59 victories. In addition to his impressive victory total, Hahn led the league in strikeouts, complete games, innings pitched and shutouts.
Commonly called the finest left-handed pitcher in the game, Hahn's star was destined to burn very briefly. A slight 160 pounds on his 5-foot-9-inch frame, the excessive number of innings that Hahn pitched from the beginning of his career took a heavy toll. By the end of the 1904 season, there were indications that something was wrong with Hahn. Despite posting an impressive ERA, Hahn's strikeout total of 98 was the lowest of his young career. The low strikeout total, coupled with a 16-18 record that followed three straight 20-plus win seasons, left many observers concerned that Hahn's best days might be behind him.
Sadly, the concern was well-founded as Hahn managed to appear in only 13 games for the Reds in 1905, suffering from a "dead arm," a term commonly used at the time to describe a host of potential arm problems. Released by the Reds after the season, Hahn managed to make the American League's New York club the following spring but soon realized that he simply could not pitch any longer and requested his release.
Hahn remained in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati almost until the end of his life, pitching batting practice for the Reds in his spare time into his late 60s. "Noodles" Hahn died in 1960. He was inducted posthumously into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1963. He will always serve as a symbol of incredible promise only partially fulfilled, a cautionary tale of what can happen to a pitcher when too much is asked of him too soon. Hahn himself foretold his fate when he told The Sporting News after his 375-inning 1901 season, "I am wise enough to know that I cannot last forever and that I am greatly shortening my career by pitching as I did last season."