Hometown Legend

Newcomerstown honors pitcher Cy Young, one of the greatest players of all time.

The first hint lines the walls of a McDonald’s on U.S. Rte. 36, off Interstate 77, entering Newcomerstown.

The décor is hometown hero chic — framed photos of Ohio State legend Woody Hayes, whose image is as familiar as the state bird, and Cy Young, known more for an award that carries his name than what he accomplished on the pitcher’s mound and where he was from.

Ohioans, even those who consider themselves serious baseball fans, may not realize that Young, considered by many to be the greatest pitcher who ever lived, was one of their own. Or that Newcomerstown, a former Ohio canal/stagecoach stopover of about 4,000 residents between Canton and Cambridge amid the rolling farms of southern Tuscarawas County, celebrates his life every summer.

“He is part of sports history,” says Gary Chaney, co-promoter of the annual Cy Young Days Festival, “and [since he is] from here, it’s the least we can do.”

Actually, Young was a farm boy from Gilmore who later lived and was buried in Peoli — two specs on the map east of I-77. But Newcomerstown has a right to claim him, too, because that’s where he spent the last 20 years or so of his life, when his wife died, his finances soured and family friends took him in.
So the story of Denton True “Cy” Young, for whom the annual award presented to the top pitchers of the American and National leagues is named, is also an Ohio story. He was born, lived and died here, and played more than half his astounding 22-year career for Ohio teams (the Cleveland Spiders and Cleveland Naps).

Because he pitched back when baseball was played by men in baggy wool uniforms held up by thick leather belts, the enormity of his accomplishments fades in this ESPN/Twitter generation like the grainy black-and-white images of his era. Young was through with the game in 1911 — three years before the start of World War I. He was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1937 — two years before World War II began.

But the numbers he compiled are still chiseled into the record books: 511 wins, 7,335 innings, 815 games started, 749 complete games, 316 losses — all-time Major League bests every one.

For context, consider this: Today, pitchers are credited with a “quality start” for lasting six innings and allowing no more than three earned runs. And 20-game winners are Major League gold. Young won at least 20 games 15 times, and at least 19 games in 14 straight seasons, often pitching both ends of a double-header.

“Either he or [Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer] Bob Feller is the greatest pitcher to ever pitch for an Ohio team,” says Cy Young biographer Reed Browning, a retired Kenyon College history professor who lives in Granville.

They nicknamed him “Cyclone” for his powerful arm, although Browning says pitchers throw much faster now. What made Young so special, he says, were his control, longevity and ability to add pitches throughout his career. By the time he retired, he threw five different pitches. The most he ever earned for a season was about $6,000, which made him one of the highest paid players at the time.

But the greatest ever? 

“The record speaks for itself,” Chaney says.

“And the award’s named after him,” adds Ed Gibson, the festival’s co-producer and president of the town’s youth baseball and softball leagues. “And they didn’t have to worry about them dopin’ up back then.”

Young died in 1955 at age 88. A year later, Major League Baseball began honoring its season’s best pitcher with a trophy in his name.

Beyond the award, Cy Young the man isn’t really given much thought anymore — except in Newcomerstown. There’s the McDonald’s, the Cy Young Lanes bowling alley in an old cinderblock building on a side street and Cy Young Park, with community ball fields, a swimming pool, pavilions and a playground.

There’s also a monument to “Baseball’s Immortal Pitcher,” with an inscription that reads: “In his youth on a nearby farm, Cy played baseball for the love of the game, a quality that remained with him through his long life.”

A tiny upstairs bedroom in the 172-year-old Temperance Tavern Museum at the center of town is named the Cy Young Room, with three glass cases of photos, memorabilia and such keepsakes as his black boots, tan felt hat and leather rocking chair with a tear in it.   

And on the third weekend of June, the town throws a party, which doubles as a fund raiser for its youth leagues. The Cy Young Days Festival offers the usual small-town Americana fare — rides, concessions, talent shows, bands, car shows and tractor pulls — but the highlight is a parade, whose grand marshal is a former Cy Young Award winner. Previous marshals have included former Cleveland Indians Len Barker and Gaylord Perry, as well as Ferguson Jenkins, Vern Law, Dean Chance (who lives in Wooster) and last year’s marshal Denny McLain, who, in 1968, was the last Major Leaguer to win 30 games in a season.

Young won at least 30 games five times.

“It shows the kids from town,” says Janet Chaney, who promotes the festival with her husband, “you can be from a small place and still make it big.”

Go the Distance
A visit to the Cy Young Days Festival wouldn’t be complete without making the 20-minute winding drive 12 miles southeast on St. Rte. 258 to Peoli, which is not much more than an intersection of cattle farms and Amish buggies clip-clopping by.

But on a hill in the Peoli Cemetery, a headstone with a winged baseball stands among the 200 or so plots, many pre-Civil War. Young and his wife, Roba, who died 22 years before him in 1933, are there.

Next to them lies Jane Benedum Meuhlen, who died on Young’s birthday in 2011. The Youngs’ only child had barely lived a few hours, so when Cy fell on hard times after his wife died, he moved in with the Benedum family before Jane was born in 1935. She became the daughter he never had. Cy and “The Kid,” as he called her, were inseparable. 

Although it’s a bit of a trek, baseball fans still stop by. In fact, Cy Young biographer Reed Browning says baseballs have been found there with prayers written on them by hopeful players seeking divine intervention for their struggling careers.

Recently, a faded Cleveland Indians ball cap was laid in front of the stone with the words:  “From 1890 to 1911, ‘Cy’ Young pitched 874 Major League Base Ball games. He won 511 games, three no hit, and one perfect game in which no man reached first base.”

Cy Young Days Festival
The 13th annual Cy Young Days Festival is June 20–23 in Newcomerstown. As is the custom, the grand parade marshal is a former Cy Young Award winner. This year’s marshal is lefty Mike McCormick, who won the award in 1967 with the San Francisco Giants. He was 22-10 that year, and never won more than 12 games in a season after that. But all it takes is that one magical year. Visit cyyoungdaysfestival.com for an event schedule.