Martin F. Duck was born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1867. He played under the name Martin Duke. As he was becoming a well-known pitcher The Kansas City Times told a story which purported to explain why he changed his name:
“The real name of the (Minneapolis) Millers’ best pitcher is not Duke, but Duck…Martin was pitching in a game up in Michigan and in the ninth his club led the opposing team by one run. (With two runners on base) a man up in the grandstand began imitating the quack of a duck…as the ‘quack, quack, quack continued his face became lobster-colored. He shouted to his taunter that he would fix him after the game, but the fiend…went on with his ‘quack, quack, quack’”
At this point, Duck allegedly threw the ball into the stands at his tormentor, allowing both runs to score, “After that he dropped the name Duck entirely.”
By the time that story appeared Martin Duke seemed headed for a productive career. He went 14-12 with the Zanesville Kickapoos in the Ohio State League in 1887. In 1888, he again pitched for Zanesville, now in the Tri-State League and for The Toledo Maumees in the same league—no records survive for that season.
The five-foot, five-inch Duke made a name for himself the following year. While pitching for the Millers in the Western Association, he posted a 24-16 record and struck out 347 batters in 355 innings, earning the nickname “Duke of Minneapolis.”
In February of 1890, The Chicago Inter Ocean said Chicago’s Players League team was after the pitcher: “Captain Comiskey of the Chicago Brotherhood has been on Duke’s trail for weeks, with the result that although Duke has not yet signed a contract we will play with the Chicago Brotherhood club this season.”
If Comiskey was, in fact, on Duke’s trail he never got his man. Duke returned to Minneapolis, and while statistics for 1890 no longer survive, but the press routinely called him the Millers’ best pitcher.
In 1891, he slipped to 10-11, and in May he was suspended for being, as The Sporting Life said, “Out of condition” (a euphemism for his problem drinking), but earned an August trial with the Washington Statesmen in the American Association. The Saint Paul Globe said of his departure:
“Martin Duke–the one, the only, the statuesque Duke–has bidden good-bye to the ozone of Minnesota and beer of Minneapolis…Last night he boarded the train, moved his hand in adieu, cocked his hat to one side, closed an eye, uttered a certain familiar expression peculiar to Dukes and disappeared forever.”
Duke failed his Major league trial. In four games, he posted a 0-3 record and walked 19 batters in 23 innings.
Despite his poor debut, he received another opportunity, this one with the Chicago Colts in 1892. When he was signed in January, The Chicago Tribune said:
“Duke’s last season, owing to lax discipline, was not a success, but this season he promises to regain his old form, as he is bound by an ironclad contract to abstain from intoxicating drinks. By his contract half his salary reverts to the club if he breaks the pledge. This should keep him straight.”
He received a big buildup in The Chicago Daily News:
“(He) is one of Captain Anson’s new colts, and he not only puts the ball over the home plate with almost the speed of a cannon shot, but he also seems to have a head studded with eyes, for stealing second base when he is in the box is always most hazardous business. His pitching arm is so strong and shapely and so well equipped with powerful muscles that it would win admiration from a blacksmith.”
Despite the accolades he was released before the beginning of the season, The Tribune said:
“Martin Duke is also down for release. He has shown up poorly so far, and the club cannot use five pitchers anyhow.”
He signed with the New Orleans Pelicans in the Southern Association and seemed to regain his old form posting a 13-3 record. It was his last successful season.
After getting off to a 2-5 start in 1893 Duke was released by New Orleans, and initially there were no takers for his services. The Milwaukee Journal said why:
“Martin was always a good pitcher, but his mouth and his temper were too great a load for any team to carry any length of time.”
Duke bounced around the minor leagues after that with short stints for teams in the Eastern League, Southern Association and Western League until 1895, when he returned again to Minneapolis. But after 13 games with the Millers, he injured his arm and was released in June. According to The St. Paul Globe, he injured the arm again in August; rupturing a tendon while pitching for a semi-pro team in Rosemount, Minnesota.
In 1897, The Sporting Life reported that Duke, employed in a Minneapolis tavern, was “Trying to get in shape” in order to return to the diamond that season, but he never played professional ball again.
Duke died from pneumonia on December 31, 1898, in Minneapolis. The Sporting Life said:
“He possessed great ability as a pitcher, but never lasted long with any club, as he was a hard man to control, and was given to dissipation, which ultimately led to enforced retirement from the profession and untimely death.”
Duke was 31 years-old.
A shorter version of this post appeared in October, 2012