The day Casey Stengel’s pinch-runner fell down trying to score because he was wearing the wrong shoes

My antennae are always raised when I read a baseball story that seems too good to be true — most of them are — so I went into research mode when I read this in Leonard Koppett‘s classic 1967 book “A Thinking Man’s Guide To Baseball”:

In 1939 Casey [Stengel] was managing the Braves (who were called the Bees then). They got involved in an extra-inning game with the Dodgers, in Boston. In the 14th inning, the Braves [sic] got a man to second base and Casey looked around for a pinch runner. He found a rookie named Otto Huber. Sure enough, Al Lopez singled, and here came Huber around third with the winning run — only to fall flat on his face halfway home. He was tagged out, the game went on through he 20th inning and ended in a tie.

“The next day,” Stengel recounts, “I looked at this man’s shoes, and the spikes were worn all the way down, almost flat. They buy their own shoes, you know. But in his locker was a brand-new pair.

” ‘That the best equipment you got?’ I asked him, meanin’ the old shoes, of course.

” ‘No,’ he sez to me, ‘but these old ones are more comfortable for my feet, and I had them on because I didn’t think you were gonna use me.’

“Can you imagine? For the next three years, whenever I wanted to use a hitter or a runner, I’d call him over first and make him show me his spikes.”

Great story…but could it possibly be true? It’s not like I haven’t found tall tales involving Stengel before.

Casey Stengel as manager of the Boston Bees. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Casey Stengel as manager of the Boston Bees. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Well, I’m taking Casey at his word about the spikes, because the rest of the story checks out with a few minor differences. In fact, one of the minor differences makes it an even better story.

The Braves purchased Huber from their Class B farm club at Evansville, Ind., at the end of the 1938 season. Evansville had won the pennant in the Three-I League, with second baseman Huber batting .311 and finishing second in the league in doubles with 35. He went to spring training with the Bees in 1939 but was sent to Hartford of the Class A Eastern League, where he was shifted to third base as the Senators had a promising 18-year-old, Sebastian “Sibby” (or “Sebbi”) Sisti, at second.

Huber got off to a terrible start at the plate for Hartford and was batting under .200 in early June when he was called up to the Bees. I’ve not been able to find details and reasoning for the transaction in either The Sporting News or Boston Globe archives, but Boston’s regular second baseman Tony Cuccinello was injured at the time and Huber was known as a good glove man.

Otto Huber

Otto Huber

Huber had played in all of five major league games (four off the bench and one as a starter, with five hits in nine at-bats) going into the fateful events of June 27 in Boston. It’s easy to see why he assumed he wouldn’t play that day {although assumptions are always dangerous, aren’t they?), and he did not play in the first 12 innings.

The Bees and Dodgers were tied 2-2 in the 13th inning (not the 14th as Koppett said) when, with one out in the bottom of the inning, third baseman Henry Majeski reached base when Brooklyn second baseman Pete Coscarart let his ground ball go through his legs for an error. Huber then went in to run (at first base, not at second as Koppett’s telling would indicate) for Majeski, who was described in the next day’s Boston Globe as “still limping” from a previous injury.

Huber advanced to second on Eddie Miller’s single, then Al Lopez came to the plate and hit a ground ball past third baseman Cookie Lavagetto that, according to the New York Times game story, was scored an error (not a single as in Koppett’s account).

Let’s let those who were there describe what happened next. First, the Times’ Roscoe McGowen:

Master Huber will have to go down in sports history alongside Roy Riegels, Fred Snodgrass and Fred Merkle. [Note from me -- that's a little dramatic for a late June game between two teams with losing records; it should be noted many devotees of sports history today know of Riegels, Snodgrass and Merkle, and I think it's safe to say Huber has been forgotten.] For Huber…was transporting the winning run around third base with time to spare when he stumbled and sprawled flat on his face.

Professor Casey Stengel threw his cap high in the air, sprang at least four feet in the same direction and came down screaming in anguish.

From the New York Times of June 28, 1939

From the New York Times of June 28, 1939

The Globe’s Gerry Moore went into even more detail:

Huber was under full sail with the crack of the bat and when the ball went through Lavagetto it was a million-to-one shot Otto would score. The millionth happened. A few feet before he reached third the youngster looked out at the ball in left field and it was then he tripped over his own feet and fell flat on his face on top of third base.

He picked himself up and started for home, but by this time left fielder Ernie Koy was returning the pellet to the infield and Huber had all he could to to scramble back to third safely.

Note Huber was not tagged out, as Koppett’s tale had said. The Bees still had the bases loaded with just one out, but pinch-hitter Stan Andrews struck out and Debs Garms grounded out to end the inning, with the score still tied 2-2.

From the Boston Globe, June 28, 1939

From the Boston Globe of June 28, 1939

And that was still the score, 10 innings later…yes, the game lasted 23 innings (not 20, as Koppett wrote) and ended in a 2-2 tie. The Tuesday afternoon game had started at 3 p.m. and was called on account of darkness at 8:15, 10 minutes before official sundown, by home plate umpire Babe Pinelli. (The Bees’ home field did not yet have lights.) It was to that point the third-longest game by number of innings in major league history. “Most amusing interlude of the affair,” Moore wrote, “were the frequent phone calls at National League Field offices from anxious housewives who wanted to check up and see if the game was really still going.” (National League Field is what the ballpark was being called that year; it had previously been known, and would again, as Braves Field. At any rate not many husbands were missing supper because of the game, as the attendance was given as only 2,457.)

The Dodgers’ starting pitcher in the game was Whitlow Wyatt, who was the hottest pitcher in baseball at the time. Wyatt had put up a record of 26-43 with a 5.22 ERA in the American League from 1929-37, but after returning to the minors in 1938 turned his career around when he went 23-7 for Milwaukee of the American Association and led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Wyatt entered the June 27 game with a 7-0 record and pitched the first 16 innings against the Bees, lowering his ERA for the season to 1.45. That performance came even though his left knee was apparently still showing the effects of an injury in a collision at first base that had caused him to miss three weeks in late May and early June. (Wyatt’s left leg was “completely strapped up,” according to he Globe’s Moore.) The effort may have taken a toll; Wyatt was shelled in his next start five days later, won just one of his next five starts and didn’t pitch after July 19 because of knee problems. But he bounced back to remain the Dodgers’ ace over the next four seasons, and his league-leading 22 wins in 1941 helped Brooklyn win the pennant.

Otto Huber signatureAs for Otto Huber…he finished the game at third base after his baserunning blunder, going 0-for-4. He played just five more games for the Bees, getting just one hit, before Boston returned him to Hartford on option on July 21, calling up the 18-year-old Sibby Sisti to take his place. Sisti was never a star but was with the Braves until they left Boston after the 1952 season and was one of the franchise’s most popular players.

Huber never returned to the majors, staying with Hartford through the 1941 season and then going back down to Evansville before missing three seasons to serve in the Army during World War II. He went back to the minors after the war and was a player-manager for Mt. Vernon of the Class D Illinois State League in 1947. The last reference I can find of him involved with baseball was as the manager of the Minot (N.D.) Mallards of the semi-pro ManDak League in 1951. According to his 1989 obituary in the Hacksensack (N.J.) Record, he spent 25 years as a master plumber for the city of Garfield, N.J., his birthplace.

I’ve not found any stories about Huber’s worn-down spikes in The Sporting News, New York Times or Boston Globe in 1939. I’d be curious to know when that story first appeared in print, and if anyone can provide any possibilities please do so in the comments below.

(The information that Huber was batting under .200 when he was called up to Boston is in a story in the Hartford Courant of July 21, 1939, “Sebbi Sisti Recalled By Boston Bees.”)

Jeff Samardzija still can’t win…and leads the majors in ERA

This is a update of my earlier post about the historic start to Jeff Samardzija‘s season. Samardzija shut out the Yankees for seven innings on May 21, only to see the Yanks rally to tie the game against the bullpen in the ninth and win in extra innings. That makes 10 starts for Samardzija this season, eight of them quality starts (three in which he gave up no runs and a fourth in which he gave up no earned runs), a 1.46 ERA (best in the majors!)…and no wins.

"Yes! I have by far the best ERA ever for a pitcher who was winless through his first ten starts of the season!"

“Yes! I have by far the best ERA ever for a pitcher who was winless through his first ten starts of the season!”

Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index Pitching Streak Finder, I find 181 other occasions since 1914 when a pitcher has not won any of his first 10 starts of a season. Some of those pitchers also pitched in relief during that period, and some of them won games out of the bullpen. But none of them had an ERA through 10 starts anywhere near as low as Samardzija’s.

My earlier post checked out the competition through eight and nine starts. Let’s look at the closest competitors now:

Rube Schauer – né Dimitri Dimitrihoff — lost his first 10 starts for the 1917 A’s, with a 2.33 ERA in those games. Of course, he’d allowed more unearned runs (25) than earned runs (21), so it’s not like he was pitching that great. (Samardzija has given up five unearned runs in his first ten starts.) And Schauer was not winless, as he had made six relief appearances (five of them lasting at least five innings) and won two of them. His overall ERA was 3.19 through his tenth start, and he finally won start 11.

The previous year, through ten winless starts for the 1916 A’s, Tom Sheehan had lost eight of them but had a 2.58 ERA in those games. He had also allowed 14 unearned runs. Like Schauer, Sheehan was not winless on the season by that time, as he had earned a win in one of his 14 relief appearances. His season ERA through his tenth start was 3.30. Sheehan won none of his 17 starts in 1916 (thanks for the fix, @mighty_flynn), going 0-14 with a 3.27 ERA in those games. Only Matt Keough, who lost his first 23 starts for the 1979 A’s (with no relief wins either), and Bob L. Miller, who lost his first 20 starts for the famed 1962 Mets (and was also winless in relief) before pitching a complete game seven-hitter against the Cubs on the next-to-last day of the season, started a season with a longer streak of winless starts than Sheehan’s.

Bill Piercy was not only winless in his first ten starts of 1923 for the Red Sox, he was the losing pitcher in nine of them — and he lost two relief appearances during that time as well. His season ERA to that point was 3.14, with a 2.69 ERA as a starter. But he gave up at least one unearned run in each of those ten starts, 23 in all, compared to 20 earned runs. Like Schauer, he got his first win in start 11.

Andy Ashby was 0-5 with a 2.85 ERA through 10 starts with the 1994 Padres. He pitched a four-hitter against the Pirates to win start 11. The previous year Ashby was winless in his first 11 starts, nine with the expansion Rockies plus his first two after being traded to the Padres. Yet somehow Ashby went on to pitch in two All-Star Games and a World Series.

Rick Langford led the American League in losses with 19 in his first full major league season in 1977, and was winless in his first six starts for the 1978 A’s before going to the bullpen, then he got another shot at starting in mid-June. When he did not win his tenth start — a game in which he allowed no runs — his ERA to date as a starter was 3.04 and his overall ERA was 2.87…but he had won a game in relief. In his eleventh start Langford pitched a complete game five-hitter and lost 1-0 to the Twins before finally winning start 12. He went on to win his next four decisions, two of them shutouts. In 1980 Langford won 19 games and pitched 28 complete games — something no major leaguer has done since — then led the league again in 1981 with 18 complete games before his arm gave way.

Rickey Clark was 0-6 with a 3.19 ERA through 10 starts for the 1968 Angels (like Ashby, he was not used in relief during that period) and would not finally win until start 13…his only win of the season (he finished 1-11).

Guy Morton made his big league debut in June 1914 for the Indians and appeared in relief in his first seven outings. He got his first start in mid-July and didn’t win any of his first 10 starts, losing the first nine before getting a no-decision. He had a 3.21 ERA in those games, and including his nine relief appearances had a 3.19 overall ERA. Morton, like Bob Miller, would get his only win in his final start of the season, after going winless in his first 12. Morton was a 16-game winner for the Indians the next year, and while he was never a star he never had another losing record until his final season, when he was 0-1 in 10 relief outings for the 1924 Indians.

Pablo Torrealba lost all 10 of his starts for the 1977 A’s (the same team Rick Langford lost 19 games for; we’ve certainly mentioned a lot of A’s here), going 0-5 with a 3.34 ERA. However, he also made 31 relief appearances in which he put up a 1.73 ERA and won four games. His overall ERA on the season was 2.62.

You can’t win if your teammates don’t score: the toughest-luck seasons ever for major league pitchers

I’ve written about Jeff Samardzija’s winless start to the 2014 season. In nine starts to this writing (5/17/14), Samardzija has a 1.62 ERA — by far the best of any pitcher ever who was winless through his first nine starts of the year — and he has not allowed more than three earned runs in any game. That got me thinking: who has had the most winless starts in a season in which he allowed three or fewer earned runs?

Twenty times a pitcher has had 20 or more such starts:

Player Year #Matching W L ERA IP H ER BB SO WHIP Tm
Jack Nabors 1916 24 Ind. Games 0 15 2.45 143.1 117 39 59 44 1.23 PHA
Nolan Ryan 1987 23 Ind. Games 0 13 2.75 140.2 94 43 65 170 1.13 HOU
Claude Osteen 1975 22 Ind. Games 0 10 3.82 115.1 135 49 52 34 1.62 CHW
Rollie Naylor 1920 22 Ind. Games 0 18 3.04 130.1 152 44 56 46 1.60 PHA
Pete Schneider 1915 21 Ind. Games 0 15 2.65 142.2 136 42 53 59 1.32 CIN
Dennis Lamp 1978 21 Ind. Games 0 10 2.37 129.0 118 34 27 45 1.12 CHC
Joe Horlen 1968 21 Ind. Games 0 12 2.60 124.2 122 36 45 52 1.34 CHW
John Dopson 1988 21 Ind. Games 0 10 2.91 136.0 112 44 51 80 1.20 MON
Steve Bedrosian 1985 21 Ind. Games 0 8 2.76 124.0 109 38 58 80 1.35 ATL
Brandon Webb 2004 20 Ind. Games 0 8 2.68 117.2 107 35 70 94 1.50 ARI
Claude Osteen 1965 20 Ind. Games 0 10 2.54 141.2 125 40 38 77 1.15 LAD
Phil Ortega 1967 20 Ind. Games 0 8 3.28 120.2 110 44 33 66 1.19 WSA
Jim McGlothlin 1969 20 Ind. Games 0 11 2.92 111.0 97 36 32 59 1.16 CAL
Jim Kaat 1965 20 Ind. Games 0 8 2.45 106.1 110 29 32 54 1.34 MIN
Ken Hill 1989 20 Ind. Games 0 11 3.38 122.2 110 46 58 71 1.37 STL
Bob Forsch 1976 20 Ind. Games 0 6 3.18 116.0 117 41 39 43 1.34 STL
Phil Douglas 1917 20 Ind. Games 0 14 2.38 136.0 137 36 21 70 1.16 CHC
Jose DeLeon 1991 20 Ind. Games 0 7 2.32 112.2 90 29 45 86 1.20 STL
Tom Bradley 1972 20 Ind. Games 0 12 3.38 114.2 105 43 30 102 1.18 CHW
Doc Ayers 1914 20 Ind. Games 0 10 2.41 123.1 119 33 19 69 1.12 WSH
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Jack Nabors finished his career with a 1-25 record (read that out loud — “one and twenty-five” — so it sinks in) with an adjusted ERA well below league average…but it wasn’t all his fault. After the Philadelphia A’s won four American League pennants in five years from 1910-14, owner/manager Connie Mack sold almost all his best players in the face of financial competition from the Federal League. In 1915, when Nabors went 0-5 as a rookie, the A’s season record was 43-109. Then in 1916, when Nabors was 1-20, the A’s were 36-117 and may have been the worst major league team of all time.

Nabors started 30 games in 1916, and in 25 of them he allowed three earned runs or fewer. Of those, he won one, his third start of the year. Of course, those 25 starts include seven in which he pitched no more than four innings. He was victimized as much by his teammates’ poor fielding as he was by their poor hitting. For instance, Nabors lost five starts in which he went at least seven innings and allowed no more than one earned run, a total of three earned runs allowed in those five starts (0.66 ERA). But he allowed at least two unearned runs in each of those five games. Not that it helped that his teammates were shut out in two of them and scored just one run in another…

Nabors was a victim of the flu pandemic that swept the world in 1918 and died in 1923 at age 35…much tougher luck than anything he faced as a member of the Philadelphia A’s.

If you played in a Strat-o-Matic or other simulation game based on the 1987 season, you wanted Nolan Ryan on your pitching staff. After all, he led the National League in ERA and strikeouts and allowed the fewest hits per nine innings. But his record was just 8-16, and in 23 of his 34 starts he allowed no more than three earned runs and did not get a win.

Note Claude Osteen is on this last twice, for seasons ten years apart. In 1965, his first season with the Dodgers, he ranked ninth in the National League in ERA for a pennant-winning team, but his record was just 15-15 as the Dodgers had a nasty habit of not scoring much for him. (They didn’t score much for anybody that year, but it seemed to have more of an impact on Osteen.) His toughest luck came on June 21, when he took a one-hit shutout into the ninth against the lowly Mets only to lose, 1-0, when Billy Cowan led off the ninth with a home run.

Then in 1975, Osteen’s final year in the majors with the White Sox, he had 22 starts in which he didn’t win and allowed no more than three earned runs…but he didn’t really pitch all that well in those games. Note that in those 22 starts he had a 3.82 ERA and a bloated 1.62 WHIP. Included were three losses in which he was knocked out before the end of the third inning. Osteen didn’t pitch very well in his other games, either, finishing the year with a 7-16 record and a 4.36 ERA.

Remember Dennis Lamp? I’ll give you a pass if you don’t…he finished his major league career with a .500 record and never won more than 11 games in a season. But in his first year in the majors, he looked like a pretty good pitcher, despite a 7-15 record for the Cubs. Note his performance in his 21 winless starts in which he allowed no more than three earned runs: a 2.37 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. That’s darn good pitching for not winning. A few poor outings left his overall season ERA at a still-respectable 3.30. Lamp had three no-decisions in which he went at least seven innings, allowed just one run, and his teammates went on to win after he left the game.

I showed in my previous post that the 1968 White Sox hold the all-time record — by a wide margin — for most games in which the starting pitcher allowed three earned runs or fewer and did not get a win. The pitcher who has the most of those games was Joe Horlen with 21, followed by Gary Peters and Jack Fisher, with 15 each, then Tommy John, Cisco Carlos and Bob Priddy with 13 each. In John’s 13 games he had a 1.94 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP — and no wins.

Jim Kaat still managed to go 18-11 for the pennant-winning 1965 Twins even though he had 20 starts in which he allowed no more than three earned runs and did not win, with a superb 2.45 ERA in those 20 games. But Kaat did allow an unusually high number of unearned runs (27) in those games, with four in one start and six in another. Teammate Mudcat Grant, who pitched more innings, allowed only eight unearned runs all season.

The most recent pitcher on the list, Brandon Webb, also allowed a lot of unearned runs (21 in 20 games).

Okay, let’s raise the tough-luck bar…how about the most non-winning starts in a season allowing no more than two earned runs?

Player Year #Matching W L ERA IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP Tm
Jack Nabors 1916 18 Ind. Games 0 10 1.78 106.1 84 21 1 45 28 1.21 PHA
Brandon Webb 2004 17 Ind. Games 0 6 2.34 100.0 95 26 8 59 76 1.54 ARI
Nolan Ryan 1987 17 Ind. Games 0 9 2.15 104.2 65 25 7 41 129 1.01 HOU
Sam McDowell 1968 17 Ind. Games 0 11 1.47 110.1 78 18 6 51 106 1.17 CLE
Jim Kaat 1965 17 Ind. Games 0 7 2.10 85.2 91 20 7 30 48 1.41 MIN
Doc Ayers 1914 17 Ind. Games 0 9 2.10 102.2 98 24 2 16 56 1.11 WSH
Clayton Kershaw 2009 16 Ind. Games 0 2 1.53 94.0 59 16 3 42 105 1.07 LAD
Tommy Hanson 2010 16 Ind. Games 0 5 1.74 98.1 75 19 3 24 85 1.01 ATL
Jose DeLeon 1991 16 Ind. Games 0 6 1.69 90.1 63 17 6 31 68 1.04 STL
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Let’s raise a tough-luck toast to Sam McDowell, who lost 11 starts in which he gave up no more than two earned runs in 1968…although we should note he allowed 19 unearned runs in those 11 games. Still, you gotta feel for a guy who lost an 11-inning 1-0 game in which he struck out 14a three-hitter in which he struck out 14…another 1-0 game in which he pitched a complete-game five-hitter…and a game in which he pitched nine shutout innings only to see his teammates win it in 12. McDowell finished the year second in the American League in ERA, behind teammate Luis Tiant, despite a mere 15-14 record. (Tiant, getting better support, went 21-9.)

Note the unusual season for Clayton Kershaw in 2009: 14 no-decisions in starts in which he allowed no more than two earned runs, including nine in which he allowed no more than one (and in those he allowed no more than one run of any kind). Of course, in seven of those games he was pulled before the end of the sixth inning…but three times he threw at least seven shutout innings before coming out of a scoreless game.

Let’s make it tougher: most non-winning starts in a season allowing no more than one earned run:

Player Year #Matching W L ERA IP H ER BB SO WHIP Tm
Fred Toney 1916 12 Ind. Games 0 7 0.70 90.0 54 7 23 51 0.86 CIN
Sam McDowell 1968 12 Ind. Games 0 7 0.87 83.0 58 8 38 87 1.16 CLE
Pete Schneider 1917 10 Ind. Games 0 8 1.01 71.0 69 8 19 25 1.24 CIN
Jack Nabors 1916 10 Ind. Games 0 5 0.76 59.1 46 5 19 13 1.10 PHA
Lee Meadows 1916 10 Ind. Games 0 7 0.58 77.1 51 5 22 37 0.94 STL
Dennis Lamp 1978 10 Ind. Games 0 5 0.92 59.0 49 6 11 20 1.02 CHC
Clayton Kershaw 2009 10 Ind. Games 0 1 0.58 61.2 29 4 28 68 0.92 LAD
Jim Kaat 1965 10 Ind. Games 0 5 1.13 47.2 50 6 12 27 1.30 MIN
Jose DeLeon 1991 10 Ind. Games 0 2 0.83 54.0 32 5 14 36 0.85 STL
Roger Craig 1963 10 Ind. Games 0 8 0.90 80.1 68 8 19 43 1.08 NYM
Tom Candiotti 1993 10 Ind. Games 0 2 0.88 72.0 51 7 18 62 0.96 LAD
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Fred Toney‘s games included a 16-inning 0-0 tie in which he pitched the first 11 and a 12-inning 1-1 tie in which he went the distance. He also lost a pair of 1-0 games.

But for tough luck, how about Roger Craig of the hapless 1963 Mets, who lost eight starts in which he gave up no more than one earned run, tying a single-season record held by three other pitchers. Five of the losses were by 1-0 scores, two were 2-1 and the other was 2-0. Craig finished the season with a 5-22 record and led the National League in losses for the second straight year.

Eight times in 1963 Craig pitched at least eight innings, allowed no more than one earned run, and did not get the win…that’s tied for the single-season record (at least since 1914) with the unfortunate Jack Warhop of the 1914 Yankees. (The Yanks were shut out in seven of Warhop’s games, and the other was a 1-1 tie.) Craig’s seven starts with at least eight innings allowing no more than one run of any kind and not getting a win is the single-season record. And Craig set another record in 1963 by losing six starts in which he allowed just one run. (Hall of Famer Jim Bunning holds the career record in that category, losing 17 starts in which he allowed just one run…he pitched at least seven innings in each.)

Well, you know where we’re going next: most non-winning starts in a season allowing no earned runs:

Player Year #Matching W L IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP Tm
Reb Russell 1914 6 Ind. Games 0 3 16.0 14 0 0 7 6 1.31 CHW
Jimmy Key 1985 6 Ind. Games 0 0 30.1 20 0 0 9 12 0.96 TOR
Clayton Kershaw 2009 6 Ind. Games 0 0 38.2 18 0 0 16 43 0.88 LAD
Dustin Hermanson 1997 6 Ind. Games 0 0 33.1 13 0 0 11 24 0.72 MON
Roger Clemens 2005 6 Ind. Games 0 0 40.0 17 0 0 9 43 0.65 HOU
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Yeah, that is a weird line for Reb Russell, who did not complete five innings in any of those six starts and didn’t even get through two innings in three of them. He allowed at least one unearned run in four of those games.

In the cases of Dustin HermansonRoger Clemens and Clayton Kershaw, not only did they allow no earned runs in their six non-winning starts, they didn’t give up any unearned runs either. No one else has had that many non-winning starts without allowing a run.

Let’s see the career record in that category: most starts in which the pitcher allowed no runs but did not get a win:

Player #Matching IP H ER BB SO WHIP Tm
Nolan Ryan 19 Ind. Games 96.0 35 0 31 113 0.69 NYM,CAL,HOU,TEX
Greg Maddux 18 Ind. Games 117.1 68 0 15 75 0.71 CHC,ATL,LAD,SDP
Roger Clemens 16 Ind. Games 105.1 54 0 30 110 0.80 BOS,TOR,NYY,HOU
Chris Young 15 Ind. Games 78.2 40 0 33 62 0.93 TEX,SDP,NYM,SEA
Rick Reuschel 15 Ind. Games 90.2 53 0 21 51 0.82 CHC,NYY,PIT
Jarrod Washburn 13 Ind. Games 79.0 46 0 23 65 0.87 ANA,LAA,SEA,DET
Jimmy Key 13 Ind. Games 78.0 50 0 17 36 0.86 TOR,NYY,BAL
Orel Hershiser 13 Ind. Games 66.1 30 0 24 37 0.81 LAD,SFG
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Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Ryan’s record is somewhat tainted because he was knocked out before the end of the fifth inning in eight of those starts, including one in which he faced only one batter and another in which he faced only two. Maddux, on the other hand, pitched at least five scoreless innings in a start without a win 16 times and Clemens 15 to rank one-two in that category.

But for real tough luck, how about pitching at least nine innings in a start without giving up a run — and not getting a win? Your career leaders:

Player #Matching IP H ER BB SO WHIP Tm
Don Sutton 7 Ind. Games 66.0 35 0 19 34 0.82 LAD,HOU,MIL
Tom Seaver 6 Ind. Games 58.0 25 0 16 56 0.71 NYM
Jim Perry 5 Ind. Games 50.0 25 0 7 23 0.64 MIN,DET,CLE
Phil Niekro 4 Ind. Games 38.0 19 0 9 19 0.74 ATL
Jerry Koosman 4 Ind. Games 41.0 21 0 9 41 0.73 NYM
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Sutton’s losses include one game in which he pitched 10 scoreless innings and another in which he threw 11. Seaver and Perry each had four games in which he pitched at least 10 shutout innings without a win.

The historically tough-luck start to the season for Jeff Samardzija, and the surprising major league record held by Ray Washburn

(UPDATE 5/16/14: Some numbers through nine starts at the end of this post. ADDED 5/21/14 And I’ve updated his numbers through ten starts in this post.)

I’m aware of this only because Jeff Samardzija is on my National League fantasy team this year, and our head-to-head league has wins as a category and not quality starts. Samardzija has started eight games so far this season, through May 10, with seven quality starts…and no wins. His 1.45 ERA and 1.05 WHIP are helping me plenty, but despite those fabulous numbers he has no wins.

Date Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO ERA
Mar 31 @ PIT L,0-1 7.0 5 0 0 2 3 0.00
Apr 5 PHI L,0-2 L(0-1) 7.0 6 2 2 3 8 1.29
Apr 11 @ STL W,6-3 7.0 6 1 1 0 4 1.29
Apr 18 CIN L,1-4 L(0-2) 7.0 6 3 1 2 7 1.29
Apr 23 ARI L,5-7 7.1 7 2 2 2 5 1.53
Apr 29 @ CIN L,2-3 L(0-3) 5.2 8 3 3 4 4 1.98
May 5 CHW L,1-3 9.0 3 1 0 2 7 1.62
May 10 @ ATL L,0-2 6.0 2 0 0 1 7 1.45
56.0 43 12 9 16 45 1.45
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/12/2014.

 

And that makes him the unluckiest pitcher to start a season in major league history.

What does a guy have to do to get a win around here? Maybe get traded to a team that can hit?

What does a guy have to do to get a win around here? Maybe get traded to a team that can hit?

At least that’s the case going back to 1914. To determine that, I use Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index feature, which accesses stats going back that far. I used the Player Pitching Split Finder to find the pitchers who were winless in their first eight or more starts of a season…there have been 472 of them. But it turns out the Play Index search function counts only starts when answering that request; many of these pitchers had relief appearances before or during their winless-start streak (or both).

Here’s what I did to find pitchers whose seasons started at all similarly to Samardzija: I looked at the detailed game logs of all the pitchers who had an ERA of 3.50 or less in their winless-start streak to see what their records were through their eighth winless start, and I tossed out any pitchers with a significant number of relief appearances before their first win as a starter. And nobody else had an ERA below 2.00 during their streak, let alone one as low as Samardzija’s 1.45 (which, to this point, is the second-lowest in the major leagues behind Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto).

The only reasonably close comparison to Samardzija was just two years ago, and it was another Cub: Ryan Dempster had a 2.14 ERA through his first eight starts in 2012, and like Samardzija this year had an 0-3 record. Dempster extended his winless streak when he was pummeled in his ninth start, but then he went on a tear, not allowing a run in five consecutive starts covering 33 innings (and yes, he won all five, his only wins of the season for the Cubs in 16 starts). Dempster was traded to Texas at the deadline, and his luck went the other way with the Rangers, as he had a lousy ERA (5.05) and a good record (7-3).

Hall of Famer Whitey Ford was a 37-year-old veteran with a last-place Yankee team in 1966, when he didn’t win any of his nine starts. Whitey lasted just two innings in his sixth start and one inning in start number seven, then went on the disabled list and didn’t pitch for a month before returning with a two-inning relief appearance in a Yankee loss. In his eighth start of the year he was cuffed for 10 runs…but only three of them were earned, so his ERA for the season to that point was 2.44 (2.35 as a starter). Ford went to the bullpen after his next start and underwent season-ending surgery in August.

Al Javery, who had won 17 games and led the National League in innings pitched in 1943 for the Boston Braves, lost his first six starts of 1944 before getting a one-out save (at least what we now call a save) on May 16. He then lost his next two starts; through his seventh start he had a 2.03 season ERA (2.04 as a starter), but when he was racked for six runs in 2-2/3 innings in start number eight his ERA was 2.83 (2.85 as a starter). Javery pitched a shutout in his next start for his first win but went 9-13 the rest of the season with a 3.92 ERA and won only two major league games after that season.

Steve Bedrosian had made just eight starts, with 181 relief appearances, in his first four major league seasons, then new Atlanta manager Eddie Haas made him a full-time starting pitcher in 1985. “Bedrock” had no wins and a 2.91 ERA through eight starts before finally winning a game; he went 6-13 with a 4.25 ERA over the rest of the season and never started another game in the majors, although he did win the Cy Young Award as a reliever in 1987.

(ADDED 5/16/14: After going 12-11 with a 2.59 ERA as a rookie in 1967, California Angels pitcher Rickey Clark lost his first eight starts in 1968, with a 2.91 ERA, although he gave up at least one unearned run in six of those eight starts. He also failed to pitch into the fifth inning in four of them. Clark was winless in his first 12 starts before finally getting a W in number 13, his only win of the season; he finished 1-11 in 17 starts, with no decisions in four July relief appearances. He didn’t win a major league game again until 1971 and had just six more wins in his big league career.)

Dean Chance, a former Cy Young Award recipient and two-time 20-game winner, was just 29 years old when the 1971 season started, but it would be his last major league campaign because of arm problems. Chance was winless in his first eight starts despite a 2.97 ERA; he was on the verge of winning the eighth when he was lifted with two out in the fifth inning and a 2-0 lead. In fact Chance was pulled before the end of the fifth in five of his first eight starts, giving him no chance to win any of those games. Chance also lost his ninth start before finally getting a win, but he started just four more games after that and earned only three more wins, all in relief.

Andy Ashby entered the 1994 season with a 5-18 major league record and a 6.77 ERA. He then went 0-5 in his first 10 starts of 1994 but posted a respectable 2.85 ERA; through eight starts it was 2.98. Ashby pitched a four-hitter in his 11th start to finally earn a victory and went 5-6 the rest of the way. He spent all or part of the next ten seasons in the big leagues and pitched in two All-Star Games, including in 1998 when he won 17 games for the Padres.

Those are the only pitchers I can find who had an ERA under 3.00 with no wins through their first eight starts of the season, with no more than one relief appearance to that point. Special hard-luck mention goes to Rick Langford, who was winless in his first 11 starts in 1978 with a 2.62 ERA in those starts. But by the time he got his first win as a starter, on July 18, he had pitched in 13 games in relief with a win.

UPDATE 5/16/14: Samardzija is now winless through nine starts…no quality start in his ninth, though, as he lasted only five innings, giving up two earned runs, against the Cardinals. That raised his season ERA to 1.62, still the lowest ever through nine winless starts at the beginning of a season. Behind him are: Whitey Ford 1966, 2.47 ERA in his first nine starts (and a 2.55 overall ERA including a relief appearance; he did not make any more starts that year); Andy Ashby 1994 2.79; future “Black Sox” conspirator Eddie Cicotte 1918 2.82 ERA in his first nine starts (and a 2.74 overall ERA with a three-inning relief appearance along the way); Ryan Dempster 2012 2.90; Rickey Clark 1968 2.92. Those are the only pitchers I can find with an ERA under 3.00 through nine winless starts with no more than one relief appearance. And of them only Ashby lost his tenth start.

ADDED 5/16/14: Here are a couple of pitchers I consider special cases. Rube Schauer – born in Russia as Dimitri Dimitrihoff — lost his first nine starts of the 1917 season for the Philadelphia A’s, with a 2.38 ERA in those games. But he was not winless, as he had made three relief appearances (all of them lasting at least five innings) and won two of them. His overall ERA was 2.56 through his ninth start. Bill Piercy was not only winless in his first nine starts of 1923 for the Red Sox, he was the losing pitcher in eight of them — and he lost two relief appearances during that time as well. His season ERA to that point was 3.06, with a 2.55 ERA as a starter. Both Schauer and Piercy extended their streak of winless starts to ten.

ADDED 5/17/14: ESPN’s Buster Olney has this item in his column today:

From ESPN Stats & Information, more about the hard luck of Samardzija so far this season. 

He has 12 straight starts in which he has allowed three earned runs or fewer, and he hasn’t won any of them. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the second-longest such streak since earned runs became an official stat in both leagues in 1913. 

Samardzija’s streak began last season. Thanks to Play Index, here are the three longest streaks of winless starts without giving up more than three earned runs in any of them:

Strk Start End Games W L CG IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA Tm
Ray Washburn 1969-04-27 1970-05-18 15 0 8 1 84.2 96 47 32 33 55 7 3.40 STL-CIN
Jeff Samardzija 2013-09-17 2014-05-16 12 0 5 0 80.0 67 23 18 25 70 4 2.03 CHC
Jim Bouton 1966-06-10 1966-08-17 11 0 5 1 56.2 57 26 21 20 30 10 3.34 NYY
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Ray Washburn had a fine season for the 1968 National League champion Cardinals, going 14-8, finishing eighth in the league with a 2.26 ERA and throwing a no-hitter against the Giants. But after he won two of his first three starts in 1969 he earned just one more victory that season (in relief) despite allowing no more than three earned runs in his last 13 starts. (He did allow a total of 11 unearned runs in those starts.)  In 1970, with the Reds, he gave up three runs in 4-2/3 innings in his first start, then in his next start more than a month later he allowed six runs — but only two earned — in 1-2/3 innings to extend his streak to 15 games. He made just one more start in the major leagues and was bombed, retiring only one batter and allowing seven runs.

Washburn didn’t allow more than three earned runs in any of his 16 starts in 1969, or in his last 20 starts of 1968. Throw in his first two starts of 1970 and that’s a streak of 38 starts allowing three earned runs or fewer…the longest of all time. And he had a losing record in those starts! Here’s the list of longest streaks of starts allowing no more than three earned runs:

Strk Start End Games W L CG SHO IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA Tm
Ray Washburn 1968-06-16 1970-05-18 38 13 14 9 3 261.1 249 94 66 76 155 11 2.27 STL-CIN
Claude Osteen 1965-09-02 1966-08-15 36 17 11 7 2 244.0 241 77 64 70 141 6 2.36 LAD
Pete Alexander 1915-06-01 1916-04-18 33 24 6 28 11 290.0 187 58 36 49 172 4 1.12 PHI
Roger Clemens 1990-05-09 1991-05-13 32 23 4 9 5 244.1 191 47 37 51 224 5 1.36 BOS
Joe Benz 1915-07-05 1916-09-12 32 16 10 15 6 219.0 164 59 37 40 74 1 1.52 CHW
Ernie Shore 1915-04-29 1916-04-18 32 18 8 16 4 236.1 184 65 38 59 92 2 1.45 BOS
Walter Johnson 1914-09-14 1915-08-06 32 22 9 28 5 273.0 203 60 39 49 152 0 1.29 WSH
Guy Morton 1915-06-20 1916-08-21 31 18 12 16 2 241.0 205 76 53 52 149 2 1.98 CLE
Fred Toney 1915-06-17 1916-05-15 31 17 9 20 6 246.0 178 56 43 81 111 1 1.57 CIN
Bob Gibson 1967-07-03 1968-07-30 30 19 6 19 8 254.2 167 39 31 49 202 7 1.10 STL
Lefty Williams 1916-05-30 1917-05-19 30 15 4 10 2 201.1 190 76 57 52 115 2 2.55 CHW
Greg Maddux 1993-07-31 1994-06-22 29 19 5 9 3 227.2 177 51 40 40 172 4 1.58 ATL
Bryn Smith 1988-06-22 1989-05-31 29 13 6 3 1 188.0 143 53 41 40 107 8 1.96 MON
Dwight Gooden 1984-09-07 1985-08-10 29 21 4 15 7 231.2 157 41 38 55 240 11 1.48 NYM
Luis Tiant 1967-09-02 1968-07-28 28 21 5 19 8 232.2 134 40 34 62 227 11 1.32 CLE
Al Benton 1942-08-06 1945-08-21 28 12 8 13 5 197.1 177 66 44 73 83 8 2.01 DET
Mike Morgan 1992-04-21 1992-09-07 27 14 4 4 0 194.2 168 54 44 65 98 9 2.03 CHC
Orel Hershiser 1985-07-12 1986-05-25 27 16 3 7 2 197.0 145 52 37 66 132 7 1.69 LAD
Mellie Wolfgang 1914-08-11 1916-08-11 27 9 10 15 3 198.2 164 55 31 44 73 0 1.40 CHW
Erv Kantlehner 1915-07-13 1916-06-25 27 7 15 15 2 190.2 160 68 43 72 67 1 2.03 PIT
Chris Short 1967-04-29 1968-04-19 26 10 11 9 3 199.0 151 48 47 67 148 10 2.13 PHI
Sandy Koufax 1966-05-10 1966-08-26 26 18 6 18 4 217.2 154 40 35 48 225 14 1.45 LAD
Eddie Cicotte 1916-08-29 1917-07-25 26 19 7 24 5 227.2 149 50 33 45 113 1 1.30 CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2014.

 

Going back to the winless streaks without allowing more than three earned runs…note Jim Bouton’s streak of 11 such games for the 1966 Yankees. Whitey Ford allowed no more than three earned runs in any of his nine starts for that same team (and stretched his streak to 10 in 1967). The Yankees as a team had 77 such starts in 1966, their starting pitcher allowing no more than three earned runs and not getting the win — almost half their games. And that’s not the record.

 

Oh the frustration of pitching for the 1967-68 White Sox. In ’67 the Sox managed to stay in pennant contention until the final days of the season, despite averaging just 3.3 runs per game. But in 1968, when the offense managed just 2.9 runs per game, they fell to ninth place. The 1964 Angels featured Cy Young Award winner Dean Chance, who had eight losses and six no-decisions in starts in which he allowed no more than three earned runs and still won 20 games anyway (18 as a starter). Chance allowed three earned runs in one of his wins and no more than two in the other 19, including 11 shutouts (although two of those wins were in relief).

Off-season jobs of major league baseball players in the winter of 1958-59

Baseball players today are paid enough during the season that they don’t have to worry about making ends meet in the winter, and the best of them can put away enough money during their playing careers that they don’t have to worry about money after their careers end. But in my younger days major leaguers routinely held down jobs during the off-season, both to keep cash coming into the household and to establish themselves in positions that could provide a living when their playing days were over.

As just a tiny bit of evidence of this, I share here some off-season jobs held by players as listed on page 12 of The Sporting News of Oct. 8, 1958, something I stumbled upon while researching something else. TSN correspondents often provided rundowns of how their teams’ players would be spending the winter as the regular season came to a close. So this is the most random of samplings — I’m not even trying to look at other players mentioned in the same issue, just the ones on this particular page.

Eddie Mathews: president of Eddie Mathews Enterprises, a construction firm.

Johnny Logan: president of a title company that bears his name.

Gene Conley: vice-president of an oil company.

Ernie Johnson: insurance salesman.

Frank Torre: public relations representative for a soft drink concern.

Bob Rush: sell real estate in Mesa, Arizona.

Bob Buhl: has an appliance dealership in Saginaw, Michigan.

Harry Hanebrink: drive an oil truck in St. Louis.

Joe Koppe: paint houses in Detroit.

Warren Spahn: work his cattle ranch in Hartshorne, Oklahoma.

Joey Jay: work his chicken farm in Lutz, Florida.

Cal McLish: work for the Associated Oil Fields Rental Company in Oklahoma City.

ChunkyRay Narleski: “a good-will representative for Chunkies, a chocolate candy bar.” Perhaps the bar in question was Chunky; a frame from a 1959 commercial is at right.

Billy Hunter: work in his insurance agency in Baltimore.

Woodie Held: sell houses for a contractor in Kansas City.

Rocky Colavito: work for the Temple Mushroom Transportation Company, Temple, Pennsylvania.

Don Ferrarese: work for a sporting goods store in Pleasant Hill, California.

Morrie Martin: “intends to buy into a meat-processing plant in Washington, Missouri, and will study the butchering trade.”

Hal Woodeshick: work for the Baldwin Supply Company, learning to be a salesman in the industrial mill supply business in Charleston, West Virginia.

Randy Jackson: work at his insurance business in Athens, Georgia.

Vic Wertz: has a beer distributorship in Mount Clemens, Michigan.

Gary Bell: work for a photographer in San Antonio, taking pictures of school children.

Rudolph and WagginDon Rudolph: work as a clothes-catcher for his wife, burlesque star Patti Waggin (together at left). No, Patti Waggin was not her real name. Rudolph and Waggin are both deceased but they have a website and each still has a fan club you can join. Mike Hasse has written a brief bio of Rudolph.

Nellie Fox: operates a bowling establishment in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Early Wynn: in the construction business in Nokomis, Florida.

Dick Donovan: “has a thriving insurance agency of his own in Quincy, Massachusetts.”

Billy Pierce: helps out in the pharmacy owned by his dad in Detroit.

Gerry Staley: works in a lumber mill in Vancouver, Washington.

Jim Rivera: “will give his father-in-law a hand on the latter’s farm near Angola, Indiana.”

Ron Jackson: will break into the insurance field as a salesman in Kalamazoo.

Alex Kellner: roping mountain lions in his native Arizona to sell to zoos and circuses.

Joe Nuxhall: salesman for a trucking firm in his native Hamilton, Ohio.

Bob Purkey: public relations man for the Vienna Baking Company in Pittsburgh.

Hal Jeffcoat: construction work and “peddle some real estate and insurance” in Tampa.

Don Newcombe: whiskey business in Newark, New Jersey.

Walt Dropo: sell real estate in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Pete Whisenant: has a bar in Charlotte (“I’ll sell beer and drink beer”).

Smoky Burgess: run a service station in Forest City, North Carolina.

Bob Schmidt: “will wrestle a concrete mixer in St. Louis.”

Sad Sam Jones: drive a lumber truck in West Virginia.

Larry Jackson: “plans to work on the sports staff of the Idaho Daily Statesman back in Boise.” (After his playing days Jackson served in the Idaho legislature and ran for governor.)

Stan Musial: “has a bowling alley to look after, in addition to his restaurant, banks, etc.”

Del Ennis: opening a bowling alley in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

Irv Noren: owns a bowling alley in Pasadena, California.

Eddie Kasko: work with a beer distributor in Richmond, Virginia.

Ray Katt: sell life insurance in New Braunfels, Texas.

Wilmer Mizell: with a new insurance firm in St. Louis.

Jim Brosnan: will resume his job with a Chicago advertising agency. (During the 1959 season Brosnan would write the first of his classic books, “The Long Season.”)

Sal Maglie: has a liquor store in Niagara Falls, New York.

Quite a few players reported they would be involved in some variation of taking it easy, and a number were playing winter ball. But most of them had gainful employment.

Super-low strikeout pitchers of the 1970s and ’80s

Strikeouts are at an historic level in the major leagues. In 2013 American League pitchers struck out a league-record 7.65 batters per nine innings; the National League record of 7.69 was set in 2012. (The NL dropped to 7.49 this past season, a number that’s been topped only by the two previously mentioned.)

It wasn’t that long ago (at least in the mind of this 55-year-old) that these numbers not only weren’t “average,” they were off the charts. No pitcher who qualified for the ERA title reached 7.69 strikeouts per nine innings in the National League in 1974 or 1977, nor in the American League in 1980 or 1981 (after Nolan Ryan left the league; Ryan was the only AL pitcher who topped that mark in 1972, 1973, 1977 and 1979).

Jeremy Guthrie, who had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2013, would have been an above-average strikeout pitcher in the American League from 1978-81

Jeremy Guthrie, who had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2013, would have been an above-average strikeout pitcher in the American League from 1978-81

Len Barker led the AL with 6.83 K/9 in 1980; 56 pitchers topped that mark in the major leagues in 2013, or 69% of those who qualified for the ERA title. The lowest K/9 rate for a qualifying pitcher in 2013 was Jeremy Guthrie’s 4.72; in 1980, 48 of the 89 qualifying pitchers in the majors — more than half — had lower rates.

In the 1970s and early ’80s there were pitchers who were successful, at least for a limited time, despite extremely low K/9 rates. This article focuses on what I will characterize as “super-low” strikeout rates — below 3.0 K/9.

First some context…pitchers with super-low strikeout rates were quite common through the 1940s and weren’t uncommon until the late 1950s, as league-wide K/9 rates didn’t reach 5.0 until 1958 in the NL and 1959 in the AL (you can see the year-by-year numbers for the National League here and the American League here). Then when the strike zone was expanded by definition from 1963-68, strikeouts soared, with the AL reaching 6.0 K/9 four times during that period. (The NL didn’t hit 6.0 until 1969, when the strike zone had shrunk and the mound was lowered, but the league had expanded by 20%.)

From 1962 through 1971, only one pitcher who qualified for the ERA title (and from now on when I say “pitcher,” that’s what I mean) was below 3.0 K/9 in a season: knuckleballer Joe Niekro, then a youngster with the first-year San Diego Padres, who had 2.52 K/9 and an 8-18 record (although his adjusted ERA was right around league average). Niekro went on to win 221 games in his career, but in his best seasons his K/9 was always above 4.

Steve KlineThe first pitcher since 1960 to have a good season with a super-low strikeout rate was Yankee right-hander Steve Kline, who went 16-9 with a 2.40 ERA in 1972 and a K/9 rate of just 2.21, still the lowest for a pitcher with an adjusted ERA better than league average since Sandy Consuegra in 1954. Kline’s K/9 rate was half what it had been as a rookie in 1970 and one-third less than what it was in 1971. He succeeded thanks to allowing just 11 home runs and two stolen bases in 236-1/3 innings, walking 1.7 batters per nine innings, getting 26 ground-ball double plays behind him and allowing a BABIP of .242 (ridiculously low, but not as ridiculous as it sounds today; the league BABIP in the 1972 AL was .267, compared to .298 in the 2013 AL). He ranked third in the league in BB/9 and fourth in HR/9, a powerful combination. Kline wasn’t able to continue his success (which we’ll find to be true for most super-low strikeout pitchers), spending just two more years in the majors with a record of 9-17.

The only other super-low strikeout pitcher in 1972 was Carl Morton (2.67), who was 7-13 with a 3.92 ERA for Montreal.

Starting in 1973, strikeouts went into decline. In the American League that was partially explained by the arrival of the designated hitter, pulling weak-hitting pitchers out of the lineup. The K/9 rate in the ’73 AL (5.10) was down 7.3% from the previous year and 14.4% from 1968, and it dropped further from there. The National League, even with pitchers continuing to bat, saw a decline in K/9 at the same time, dropping 4.2% in 1973 and another 5.2% in 1974. The AL K/9 rate stayed below 5.0 from 1974-83 (except for the expansion season of 1977 when it hit 5.0) and didn’t rise above 1973 levels until 1985. In the NL, the K/9 rate stayed at or below 1973 levels through 1982. Both leagues saw significant spikes in K/9 in 1986 and have never gone back to where they were before that.

During the 12 seasons from 1973 through 1984, there were 69 pitcher/seasons with a K/9 rate below 3.0 (the complete list is coming up in a bit). Keep in mind these weren’t just low strikeout rates — these were super-low strikeout rates. And some of these pitchers had excellent seasons…they just didn’t have very many of them. Here are some comments:

Al FitzmorrisAl Fitzmorris: The Royals’ righty went 13-6 in 1974 followed by a 16-12 mark in 1975, with adjusted ERAs better than league average both seasons. In fact, his adjusted ERA in 1974 was 36% better than league average, still the best for any super-low-strikeout pitcher since Sandy Consuegra in 1954. Fitzmorris had another good season (15-11, 3.06 ERA) in 1976, when he pulled his K/9 rate up to 3.3, but won just seven games in the majors after that.

Clyde Wright: The Angels’ lefty was a low-strikeout pitcher when he was good, going 22-12 in 1970 with a K/9 of 3.8 and 18-11 in 1972 with a K/9 of 3.1. But when he dipped into super-low-strikeout territory, his record suffered, losing 19 games in 1973 and 20 in 1974. He had just one, ineffective, season in the majors after that.

Dave McNally: McNally’s K/9 rate plunged in 1973 (it had been as high as 6.7 when he won 22 games in 1968), but he still won 17 games with an adjusted ERA better than league average. He was helped by having 50 outs by non-batters (31 ground-ball double plays, 12 caught stealing and 7 pickoffs). His K/9 went back up to 3.9 in 1974, when he went 16-10, then he abruptly retired during the 1975 season after getting off to a poor start.

Jim Perry: Perry was a below-average strikeout pitcher as a youngster but improved later in his career; in his back-to-back 20-win seasons for the Twins in 1969-70 his K/9 was above 5 both years. As an older pitcher Perry slipped into the super-low zone but remained effective. In 1973 he had a winning record and a league-average adjusted ERA, then in 1974, at age 38, he went 17-12 with a 2.96 ERA while striking out 2.54 batters per nine innings. In 1975 he was hit hard and knocked out of the majors.

Jim Barr: Barr’s strikeout rates were always below average, but he spent three years in the super-low zone. In 1975 and ’76 he won a total of 28 games for the Giants with adjusted ERAs considerably better than league average and extremely low home run rates both years.

Bill LeeBill Lee: Boston’s “Spaceman” had a 7.8 K/9 as a rookie in 1969, but his strikeout rate plummeted once he became a full-time starter in 1973. He had three good seasons with super-low strikeout rates, going 17-9 for the 1975 AL champion Red Sox, 10-10 with a 3.46 ERA for the 1978 Bosox and 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA for the 1979 Expos. Lee was helped in 1975 by having 50 outs recorded by someone other than the batter: 29 ground-ball double plays, 11 caught stealing and 10 pickoffs.

Larry Christenson: Christenson had a 4.6 K/9 ratio when he went 11-6 as a 21-year-old rookie for the 1975 Phillies, but the next year his K rate went super-low as he went 13-8 with an adjusted ERA just slightly worse than league average. That 1976 season proved to be out of character; when he won 19 games in 1977 his K/9 was 4.8 and it eventually went as high as 6.

Randy Jones

Randy Jones

Randy Jones: Jones won a Cy Young Award in 1976 with a K/9 of 2.65. It didn’t hurt that he got 34 ground-ball double plays behind him, allowed just 1.4 walks per nine innings and had a miserly .241 BABIP. That matched his BABIP from the previous year, when he was runner-up in the Cy Young voting and led the league in ERA with a 3.3 K/9. Jones’ K rate had been 5 or better in his first two seasons in the majors. Plagued by arm trouble after 1976, he had only one more good season, and it came with a super-low strikeout rate in 1978 when he got a whopping 55 non-batter outs (36 ground-ball double plays, 13 caught stealing and 6 pickoffs) while allowing just six home runs in 253 innings. (ADDED 12/4/13: I just acquired a 1977 Padres media guide, which includes this tidbit about Jones — the average length of his 25 complete games in 1976 was 2:03, with a 1:38 win over Montreal and a 1:31 win over the Phillies, both of them shutouts at home so the home team didn’t bat in the ninth.)

Dock Ellis: Ellis had a K/9 of 7.1 in his first full season in the big leagues in 1969 and was above 5.0 in his best seasons with the Pirates in 1971-72. But his rate took a significant drop in 1974, and when he was traded to the American League in 1976 he slipped into the super-low zone. He still had a terrific year for the Yankees, going 17-8 with a better-than-league adjusted ERA, even though he walked more batters than he struck out. He was helped by an extremely low .251 BABIP (the league figure that year was .280) and a low home run rate. Ellis was traded twice in 1977 and wound up doing a good job for the Rangers (where his K/9 increased to 4.8), but after two more ineffective seasons he was out of the majors.

Ken Holtzman: Holtzman had a 7.0 K/9 as a rookie with the Cubs in 1966 and stayed above 6 through 1971. But when he was traded to the American League in 1972 his K rate dropped, and in 1976 it took another big tumble, all the way to 2.41. He still managed to be reasonably effective, going 14-11 with an adjusted ERA just slightly worse than league average, but he won only nine major league games after that season and was out of baseball at age 33.

Doyle Alexander: Alexander was a low-strikeout pitcher when he began his major league career but was super-low in 1976, when he went 13-9 with an adjusted ERA around league average, aided by a bizarrely low BABIP of .239. He went on to have an exceptionally long career for someone who started with such a low strikeout rate, pitching another 13 seasons in the majors, as his strikeout rate gradually improved, peaking at 5.5.

Dave RozemaDave Rozema: Rozema made the Tigers in 1977 as a 20-year-old and had an impressive rookie season, going 15-7 with a 3.09 ERA and leading the AL in fewest walks allowed per nine innings. But his K/9 rate of 3.8 did not bode well for his long-term prospects, and in ’78 he slipped into super-low strikeout range. His adjusted ERA was still considerably better than league average, although his record slipped to 9-12. After pitching more than 200 innings in each of his first two seasons, Rozema never threw as many as 150 innings in a season again, but he remained reasonably effective when he did pitch through 1985 and saw his K/9 rate gradually increase, peaking at 5.4.

Jack Billingham: Billingham had above-average strikeout rates as a young pitcher but took a big drop in 1973 and was a low-strikeout pitcher by 1975. He went super-low in 1978, as a teammate of Dave Rozema’s on the Tigers, putting up a 15-8 record with a league-average adjusted ERA. His K/9 rose slightly in 1979 when he had last effective season before being driven out of the majors in 1980. (In addition to Billingham and Rozema, the Tigers had another successful low-strikeout pitcher in that era: Mark Fidrych had a K/9 of 3.5 in his fabulous rookie season in 1976, helped by extremely low walk and home run rates, a .250 BABIP, and 16 caught stealing.)

Jerry Augustine and Lary Sorensen: These late-’70s Brewers teammates had multiple super-low seasons. Augustine wasn’t terribly effective in 1977 or 1978, although he did have a winning record in ’78. Sorensen was better, going 18-12 with a 3.21 ERA in ’78 at age 22, then posting winning records with adjusted ERAs slightly better than league average in ’79 and ’80. After spending 1981 in the National League and seeing his K/9 rise to 3.3 with the chance to face the occasional pitcher, he returned to the AL and super-low-strikeout status in 1982 and was strafed. Another Brewers pitcher in the super-low strikeout club was:

Mike Caldwell: Caldwell reached the majors in 1971 but had only one decent season (14-5, 2.95 ERA for the 1974 Giants with a 3.9 K/9) before coming out of nowhere to finish as runner-up for the Cy Young Award in 1978. He went 22-9 that year, 16-6 in 1979, and his K/9 rates were merely low those years. Beginning in 1980 he spent four straight years in the super-low zone, and while he had winning records all four years, his adjusted ERAs were worse than league average as he gave up a lot of hits and home runs. After a poor year in 1984 (with another super-low strikeout rate but not enough innings to qualify for the ERA title) he was out of the majors.

SplittorffPaul Splittorff: The Royals’ lefty had K/9 rates of 5 or better in his first two full seasons but was a low-strikeout pitcher after the DH rule was implemented. His three super-low-strikeout seasons included his best, when he was 19-13 with a 3.40 ERA in 1978, although that was helped by a career-low .247 BABIP that was 33 points below the league average.

Ross Grimsley: The lefty’s K rate was about league average when he won 18 games for the Orioles in 1974, but his rate later went super-low. His 2.18 K/9 in 1977 remains the lowest for a pitcher with a winning record since Sandy Consuegra in 1954 (him again), then in 1978 with the Expos he had 20 wins and a 3.05 ERA with a 2.87 K/9 (that .249 BABIP helped). His decline from there was quick, as he put up a 5.35 ERA in 1979 and won only seven games after that.

Bob Stanley: Stanley went 16-12 with an adjusted ERA better than league average in 1979 and a K/9 rate of just 2.33. An extreme ground-ball pitcher, he got 35 ground-ball double plays turned behind him. This came on the heels of a 15-2 season with a 2.60 ERA in 1978, when his K/9 was 2.41 but he did not pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title because he was used primarily in relief. Stanley was one of the rare pitchers who actually saw his K rate steadily increase over time, peaking at 5.9 in 1986.

Tommy John: John never topped the 6.2 K/9 of his rookie year, but he was at 4.6 or higher every year until his famed elbow surgery in 1974. After the surgery he had two seasons with K rates of 5 or better before going to the Yankees, when he became a low-strikeout pitcher. He won 21 games with a K/9 of 3.6 in 1979, then in 1980 he became the last pitcher to win 20 games with a super-low strikeout rate, helped by the league’s lowest home run rate and 46 non-batter outs (as well as only two stolen bases against him all year). John had three more super-low strikeout seasons (although only the first of them could be considered a good season) and pitched his final major league game just after his 46th birthday in 1989. John and Mike Caldwell are the only pitchers since 1960 to have four seasons in which they qualified for the ERA title and had a K/9 rate below 3.

ForschBob and Ken Forsch: Never a big strikeout pitcher, Bob Forsch saw his K/9 rate plunge into super-low territory for three straight seasons (1981-83), the first two of which were good: 10-5 in 1981, 15-9 for the 1982 World Series champion Cardinals, with adjusted ERAs better than league average both seasons. He had only one season you could consider good after that, even though his K rate went back up, but he stayed in the majors through 1989, and his 168 career wins are the most for any pitcher with a career K/9 rate below 4.0 in baseball’s expansion era (since 1961). Older brother Ken had a K/9 rate as high as 6.7 early in his career but later had two super-low seasons, with winning records and better-than-league adjusted ERAs in each.

Rick Honeycutt: Technically Honeycutt had just one super-low strikeout season, 1981, but he deserves special mention for 1983. In 174-2/3 innings with the Rangers that year he had a 2.42 ERA with a K/9 of 2.89 (good control, a low home-run rate and a phenomenal 50 non-batter outs in just 25 starts helped considerably). But in August he was traded to the Dodgers, and he struck out enough batters in the NL to raise his overall K/9 for the season to 3.1. However, he had pitched enough innings in the AL to qualify for, and win, the ERA title for that portion of the season in which he had a super-low strikeout rate.

Geoff Zahn: Zahn was a career low-strikeout pitcher who went super-low twice. In 1981 he didn’t have a good year (leading the AL in home runs allowed didn’t help), but in 1984 he had an adjusted ERA considerably better than league average and led the AL with five shutouts. He didn’t allow a single stolen base against him all season. Zahn was 39 when the season ended and pitched just seven more games in the majors. When he had his best record, going 18-8 for the 1982 Angels, his K/9 was 3.2.

Scott McGregorScott McGregor: Never a high-strikeout pitcher, the Oriole lefty barely slipped into the super-low zone in 1983 when his K/9 was 2.98. He went 18-7 with a 3.18 ERA for the World Series champions (and pitched effectively in three postseason starts), then followed that up with a so-so year and several poor ones.

Mark Thurmond: Thurmond went 14-8 with a 2.97 ERA for the 1984 National League champion Padres but spent another six years in the majors without a winning record and became a full-time relief pitcher.

Here now are all the pitchers who had super-low strikeout rates from 1973 through 1984:

Player Year SO/9 Age Tm Lg W L ERA ERA+ HR GDP SB CS PO OPS+
Clyde Wright 1973 2.28 32 CAL AL 11 19 3.68 96 26 28 8 2 1 110
Fritz Peterson 1973 2.88 31 NYY AL 8 15 3.95 93 18 22 2 4 0 114
Jerry Bell 1973 2.79 25 MIL AL 9 9 3.97 95 14 17 6 9 6 102
Jim Perry 1973 2.93 37 DET AL 14 13 4.03 101 22 20 5 8 1 104
Milt Pappas 1973 2.67 34 CHC NL 7 12 4.28 92 20 20 14 5 0 119
Dave McNally 1973 2.94 30 BAL AL 17 17 3.21 116 16 31 10 12 7 86
Jim Perry 1974 2.54 38 CLE AL 17 12 2.96 122 11 17 12 12 0 82
Al Fitzmorris 1974 2.51 28 KCR AL 13 6 2.79 136 8 18 13 2 1 82
Clyde Wright 1974 2.48 33 MIL AL 9 20 4.42 81 22 26 8 2 0 110
Jim Barr 1975 2.84 27 SFG NL 13 14 3.06 125 17 24 11 10 2 98
Al Fitzmorris 1975 2.90 29 KCR AL 16 12 3.57 108 16 28 24 11 4 94
Claude Osteen 1975 2.77 35 CHW AL 7 16 4.36 90 16 21 13 12 3 117
Bill Lee 1975 2.70 28 BOS AL 17 9 3.95 105 20 29 12 11 10 92
Carl Morton 1975 2.53 31 ATL NL 17 16 3.50 108 19 18 23 11 1 100
Jim Barr 1976 2.68 28 SFG NL 15 12 2.89 125 9 23 20 4 5 90
Randy Jones 1976 2.65 26 SDP NL 22 14 2.74 119 15 34 15 3 2 74
Larry Christenson 1976 2.88 22 PHI NL 13 8 3.68 96 8 16 12 3 1 120
Dock Ellis 1976 2.76 31 NYY AL 17 8 3.19 108 14 20 19 6 2 94
Dave Roberts 1976 2.82 31 DET AL 16 17 4.00 93 16 25 27 10 1 96
Paul Hartzell 1976 2.77 22 CAL AL 7 4 2.77 120 6 25 15 6 1 96
Ken Holtzman 1976 2.41 30 TOT AL 14 11 3.65 93 18 25 13 11 1 116
Doyle Alexander 1976 2.60 25 TOT AL 13 9 3.36 102 12 17 24 12 3 86
Jerry Augustine 1977 2.93 24 MIL AL 12 18 4.48 91 23 20 15 13 0 105
Fernando Arroyo 1977 2.58 25 DET AL 8 18 4.17 103 23 24 6 9 1 97
Ross Grimsley 1977 2.18 27 BAL AL 14 10 3.96 96 24 33 8 4 0 112
Player Year SO/9 Age Tm Lg W L ERA ERA+ HR GDP SB CS PO OPS+
Ross Grimsley 1978 2.87 28 MON NL 20 11 3.05 115 17 26 11 7 2 87
Jim Barr 1978 2.43 30 SFG NL 8 11 3.53 98 7 12 16 4 2 102
Randy Jones 1978 2.53 28 SDP NL 13 14 2.88 115 6 36 13 13 6 103
Lary Sorensen 1978 2.50 22 MIL AL 18 12 3.21 118 14 18 12 8 3 76
Jerry Augustine 1978 2.82 25 MIL AL 13 12 4.54 83 14 23 9 5 0 104
Paul Splittorff 1978 2.61 31 KCR AL 19 13 3.40 112 22 26 13 7 6 85
Dave Rozema 1978 2.45 21 DET AL 9 12 3.14 123 17 16 10 12 1 84
Jack Billingham 1978 2.63 35 DET AL 15 8 3.88 99 16 27 14 10 1 107
Dennis Lamp 1978 2.94 25 CHC NL 7 15 3.30 122 16 20 28 9 1 84
Bill Lee 1978 2.24 31 BOS AL 10 10 3.46 120 20 23 7 7 6 103
Bill Lee 1979 2.39 32 MON NL 16 10 3.04 121 20 16 14 8 3 95
Phil Huffman 1979 2.91 21 TOR AL 6 18 5.77 75 25 9 12 6 0 125
Paul Hartzell 1979 2.43 25 MIN AL 6 10 5.36 82 18 22 16 7 1 111
Lary Sorensen 1979 2.41 23 MIL AL 15 14 3.98 105 30 25 11 6 4 92
Paul Splittorff 1979 2.89 32 KCR AL 15 17 4.24 101 25 23 21 4 1 95
Ken Forsch 1979 2.94 32 HOU NL 11 6 3.04 116 14 16 8 4 0 80
Bob Stanley 1979 2.33 24 BOS AL 16 12 3.99 112 14 35 14 7 1 91
Tommy John 1980 2.65 37 NYY AL 22 9 3.43 115 13 33 2 12 1 89
Lary Sorensen 1980 2.48 24 MIL AL 12 10 3.68 106 13 28 5 6 3 112
Mike Caldwell 1980 2.96 31 MIL AL 13 11 4.03 96 29 33 9 10 1 108
Paul Splittorff 1980 2.34 33 KCR AL 14 11 4.15 97 17 25 13 8 0 104
Rick Honeycutt 1981 2.82 27 TEX AL 11 6 3.31 104 12 18 0 2 2 87
Bob Forsch 1981 2.97 31 STL NL 10 5 3.18 112 7 10 13 3 2 80
Glenn Abbott 1981 2.42 30 SEA AL 4 9 3.94 99 14 13 10 6 2 98
Eddie Solomon 1981 2.69 30 PIT NL 8 6 3.12 117 10 12 3 6 2 107
Player Year SO/9 Age Tm Lg W L ERA ERA+ HR GDP SB CS PO OPS+
Fernando Arroyo 1981 2.74 29 MIN AL 7 10 3.93 101 11 20 10 8 0 113
Mike Caldwell 1981 2.56 32 MIL AL 11 9 3.93 88 18 17 4 1 0 120
Randy Martz 1981 2.67 25 CHC NL 5 7 3.68 101 6 15 11 7 1 106
Jim Palmer 1981 2.47 35 BAL AL 7 8 3.75 97 14 14 10 4 1 101
Geoff Zahn 1981 2.90 35 CAL AL 10 11 4.41 82 18 18 4 6 3 112
Bob Forsch 1982 2.67 32 STL NL 15 9 3.48 105 16 18 20 17 5 101
Mike Caldwell 1982 2.62 33 MIL AL 17 13 3.91 97 30 38 8 6 2 103
Lary Sorensen 1982 2.95 26 CLE AL 10 15 5.61 74 19 25 11 4 3 126
Ken Forsch 1982 2.88 35 CAL AL 13 11 3.87 105 25 16 9 11 0 92
Tommy John 1982 2.76 39 TOT AL 14 12 3.69 108 15 27 5 8 0 95
Bob Forsch 1983 2.70 33 STL NL 10 12 4.28 85 23 12 14 9 5 110
Ed Lynch 1983 2.27 27 NYM NL 10 10 4.28 85 17 18 6 6 0 126
Mike Caldwell 1983 2.29 34 MIL AL 12 11 4.53 83 35 28 10 10 3 126
Larry Gura 1983 2.56 35 KCR AL 11 18 4.90 83 23 24 11 10 4 119
Scott McGregor 1983 2.98 29 BAL AL 18 7 3.18 124 24 23 9 5 2 94
Tommy John 1983 2.49 40 CAL AL 11 13 4.33 93 20 32 5 7 0 111
Tommy John 1984 2.33 41 CAL AL 7 13 4.52 89 15 24 12 6 1 119
Geoff Zahn 1984 2.75 38 CAL AL 13 10 3.12 129 11 27 0 7 3 83
Mark Thurmond 1984 2.87 27 SDP NL 14 8 2.97 121 12 15 15 5 1 90
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/1/2013.

In the nine seasons from 1985 to 1993 there were only eight pitchers who had a K/9 rate below 3. A few of them had good seasons:

  • Ron Romanick went 14-9 with a league-average adjusted ERA for the 1985 Angels. He won just five games in the majors after that.
  • Andy Hawkins was 18-8 with a 3.15 ERA for the 1985 Padres. His K/9 had been 4.7 the previous season and was 5.0 the following year, so his super-low rate in ’85 was an aberration.
  • Jeff Ballard put up an 18-8 mark with a better-than-league adjusted ERA in 1989 for the Orioles after entering the season with a 10-20 major league record. He went 8-23 over the next two seasons.
  • Bill Gullickson is the last pitcher to have a winning record with a super-low strikeout rate, going 14-13 for the 1992 Tigers. He also led the league in home runs allowed that year and had a below-league-average adjusted ERA. Gullickson won 20 games for the 1991 Tigers, making him the last pitcher to win 20 with a K/9 rate of less than 4. He had a 7.7 K/9 as a 21-year-old rookie in 1980 but quickly became a below-average strikeout pitcher.

In the 11 seasons from 1994 to 2004 there were only two super-low strikeout pitchers, the last of which was Kirk Rueter for the 2004 Giants. Rueter didn’t have a good record that season, and he finished his career with an adjusted ERA worse than league average, but he did finish with a lifetime mark of 130-92 to give him the highest winning percentage (.586) for any pitcher in the expansion era with at least 70 wins and a career K/9 rate of less than 4.0. (It should be said, though, most of his best seasons came with K/9 rates of 4.6 or higher).

And in the past nine seasons (2005-13)? The lowest K/9 rate was Chien-Ming Wang‘s 3.14 with the 2006 Yankees, when he won 19 games with an adjusted ERA 25% better than league average. He also had the league’s lowest home-runs-allowed rate and got 53 non-batter outs (33 ground-ball double plays, 11 caught stealing and 9 pickoffs). He won 19 again the next year, but his K/9 jumped to 4.7.

Even including the era when super-low strikeout pitchers were not uncommon, it’s been hard for a pitcher with low strikeout rates to maintain a successful career of any length. I used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to search for pitchers since 1960 who meet these criteria:

  1. At least 100 career wins and
  2. A winning record and
  3. A career adjusted ERA of league-average or better

There are 183 of them. Here’s the breakdown by career strikeout rate:

  • 4 with K/9 of 9+ (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax)
  • 15 with K/9 of 8-8.99
  • 28 with K/9 of 7-7.99
  • 48 with K/9 of 6-6.99
  • 55 with K/9 of 5-5.99
  • 28 with K/9 of 4-4.99
  • 5 with K/9 of <4.00

Of those bottom five low strikeout pitchers, Paul Splittorff had the most wins (166), Larry Gura the best winning percentage, Bob Stanley the best adjusted ERA and Bill Lee the lowest K/9 (3.30). The other pitcher is Geoff Zahn. Zahn barely qualified, with a career record four games over .500, and Splittorff barely qualified with an adjusted ERA less than 1% better than league.

SorensenSo it’s tough enough as a low-strikeout pitcher. But as a super-low-strikeout pitcher? Forget it. Since 1960, only nine pitchers have reached double figures in LIFETIME wins with a career K/9 below 3. The wins leader among them, by far, is Lary Sorensen with 93 — and he finished with a losing record and an adjusted ERA worse than league average. Only Jerry Bell had a winning career record, a better-than-league adjusted ERA and a career K/9 less than 3 — and he won a total of 17 games.

Have we seen the last of starting pitchers who strike out fewer than three batters per nine innings? People may have felt that way in the late 1960s and were proven wrong, but at this point it’s hard to imagine another super-low strikeout pitcher ever getting regular action.

No, Bill Sharman was never ejected from a major league baseball game as a member of the Dodgers

Bill Sharman, who died Friday (Oct. 25) at age 87, had a remarkable career in sports. One of only three men (along with John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens) to be a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, Sharman was named first-team All-NBA four times, played in the NBA All-Star Game eight times (and was MVP in 1955) and starred on four NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics. He went on to coach championship teams in three different professional leagues (the American Basketball League, the American Basketball Association and the NBA) and coached the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA-record 33 consecutive wins in 1971-72. He left coaching to become the Lakers’ general manager and later president, and when the Lakers won the 1980 NBA title Sharman became just the second man, after Red Holzman, to be part of an NBA championship team as a player, coach and general manager.

But this post has to do with another facet of Bill Sharman’s life in athletics: his five seasons as a professional baseball player, including a brief tenure in the major league uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the end of the 1951 season. His time with the Dodgers resulted in this entry on Sharman’s Wikipedia page:

…as a result of a September 27 game in which the entire Brooklyn bench was ejected from the game for arguing with the umpire, Sharman holds the distinction of being the only player to have ever been ejected from a major league game without ever appearing in one.

Similar language is found, at least when this was written, on Sharman’s Baseball-Reference.com Bullpen page and at BaseballLibrary.com, among many other sites. Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo even included the tale in their book “The Baseball Hall of Shame,” but they were smart enough to include this: “Officially, [Sharman and his teammates] weren’t ejected.” So they toned down the language to say he was “kicked out of a game without ever having played in one.”

Sharman may have been kicked out of the dugout, but he wasn’t kicked out of the game. Because he wasn’t “ejected,” as in not being allowed to play. Here’s what happened, according to the game story in the September 28, 1951 New York Times.

The Dodgers entered play on September 27 just one game ahead of the Giants, as their at-one-time-13-1/2-game lead was melting away. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning of Brooklyn’s game at Boston, Dodger second baseman Jackie Robinson fielded a ground ball and threw home in an attempt to retire Bob Addis trying to score from third. Catcher Roy Campanella took the throw and put what he thought was a tag on Addis, but home plate umpire Frank Dascoli ruled Addis safe to give the Braves the lead. Campanella jumped up and down, slammed his mitt on the ground and was ejected — as in, he was done playing for the day. Then Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen, his coaches, pitcher Preacher Roe “and many other players swarmed around Dascoli in protest,” according to Times reporter Roscoe McGowen, with coach Cookie Lavagetto also being ejected.

Frank Dascoli ejecting Roy Campanella from the Sept. 27, 1951 game at Boston (photo from The Sporting News of Oct. 10, 1951)

Frank Dascoli ejecting Roy Campanella from the Sept. 27, 1951 game at Boston (photo from The Sporting News of Oct. 10, 1951)

That was all until the next Braves’ batter, Sid Gordon, grounded into a double play that would have ended the inning had Addis been called out. Apparently that led to audible griping from the Brooklyn bench, and so after Walker Cooper went up to bat for Boston, “Dascoli suddenly wheeled and ordered the Brooklyn bench cleared,” McGowen wrote. “Jocko Conlan, second-base arbiter, went to the bench and herded the players out. The boys took their time, many of them pausing en route to pay their compliments to Dascoli.”

But while the Dodger bench players had to go to the clubhouse, none of them were barred from playing in the game. And in the top of the ninth one of the dismissed players, Wayne Terwilliger, was used as a pinch-hitter (batting for Campanella’s replacement, Rube Walker) before the Dodgers went down to the defeat that cut their lead to one-half game with just three games to play (the Giants had only two remaining).

Sharman had been with the Dodgers for less than a week at the time of his “ejection.” An item in The New York Times of September 9, 1951 said Sharman was one of 13 players the Dodgers had recalled from the minor leagues. “Since their teams are all expected to be involved in the playoffs,” Joseph M. Sheehan wrote, “it is unlikely that any of the recalled players will report to the Brooks until next spring.” But Sharman had spent the season with Fort Worth, which did not make the playoffs in the Class AA Texas League, and according to an Associated Press story dated September 18 he was scheduled to report to the Dodgers on September 21. (I’ve not found a story that confirms he arrived on that date.) Sharman remained with the Dodgers, on the roster, in uniform and eligible to play, through the playoff series against the Giants that ended with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.”

Sharman had signed with the Dodgers for a reported $15,000 bonus in the spring of 1950, after his senior year at the University of Southern California, where he played baseball and was a first-team Sporting News All-America selection in basketball as a senior (along with future Celtics teammate Bob Cousy). The Sporting News story about his All-America selection listed his age as 22, typical for a college senior. But Sharman had spent two years in the Navy between high school and college, and he was actually 24. He went by the younger age through the duration of his pro baseball career and early in his pro basketball career as well. But at some point he came clean; by the time the first Sporting News NBA Guide was published in 1958, his birth date was listed as May 25, 1926, which is correct.

Bill Sharman as a Fort Worth Cat in 1951.

Bill Sharman as a Fort Worth Cat in 1951.

After spending the 1950 season at the Class A level, hitting .288 with 12 home runs between two teams, Sharman was promoted to Fort Worth in 1951. The next year he was advanced to the Dodgers’ Class AAA farm club at St. Paul in the American Association, where he had a solid year, hitting .294 with 16 homers and 77 RBI. That led to a headline on an Associated Press story in the Los Angeles Times in February 1953, “Bill Sharman Hopes To Play With Dodgers.” But in that story Sharman admitted he didn’t think he had much chance of starting the season in the big leagues, because of his late start to spring training due to basketball:

The pitchers will be ahead of the batters when I finally join the Dodgers for spring training and it’ll take a while to get my eyes tuned for some of those curve balls. By that time I may be on my way back to St. Paul. When I reported last season I was so far behind that I asked Buzzy Bavasi (the Dodgers’ vice president) to assign me to whatever club he felt I was ready for.

Bavasi must not have thought Sharman was as ready in ’53 as he was in ’52. The Celtics progressed further in the NBA playoffs than they had the previous season (Sharman was named second team All-NBA and played in his first All-Star Game) and Sharman wasn’t able to report to spring training until March 31. When he arrived the Dodgers immediately assigned them to their Mobile team in the Class AA Southern Association, one level below St. Paul. And Sharman didn’t even start the season with Mobile, as he remained at the Dodgers’ training camp in Vero Beach, Florida “for further batting instruction” (according to an item in The Sporting News) during Mobile’s opening series.

It was a disappointing season for Sharman. On May 8 he broke his left hand sliding into home during a game. He wound up playing in just 90 games, finishing with a .211 batting average, and at the end of the season he announced he was retiring from baseball to concentrate on basketball.

But in 1955 — after missing the entire 1954 season — Sharman returned to the diamond. Shortly after Sharman was named MVP of the NBA All-Star Game in January 1955, Dodger officials persuaded him to give baseball another try with the promise he would be assigned to St. Paul. “He has so much natural ability, hits with power and can run, that we think he has a fine chance,” Buzzie Bavasi said. “So we’re giving it to him.” (Keep in mind the Dodgers thought Sharman was about to turn 27 years old, when he was really about to turn 29.)

From The Sporting News of May 4, 1955

From The Sporting News of May 4, 1955

And Sharman had a fine year in St. Paul, batting .292 with 11 homers in 133 games — a remarkable performance, when you think about it, for someone who had missed an entire season and returned to the highest level of the minors. “If I honestly didn’t think I could make it in the big leagues, I would not be playing in St. Paul this season,” Sharman told reporter Joe Hennessy in a story that was published in The Sporting News of May 4, 1955. “I’m ready. And if I make it in the majors I’ll give up pro basketball. I have a wife and three youngsters and I know that I could last four or five years longer in baseball than in basketball.”

But the Dodgers weren’t exactly hurting for talent (they won the National League pennant in 1955, for the third time in seven years, and would win again in ’56) and the call to the majors didn’t come for Sharman. In February 1956 — after playing in his fourth straight NBA All-Star Game, during a season in which he would be named first team All-NBA — it was clear that Sharman was frustrated that he couldn’t play major league baseball. He talked to George C. Caerns for a story in the Boston Traveler of February 7, 1956:

I’ve asked the Brooklyn Dodgers for my release, so far as minor league assignments are concerned. I figure it’s now or never for a fling in the majors. I hope the Brooklyn brass will see it my way. I’m figuring that as a free agent I might be able to catch on with the Washington Senators. But it all depends on what Brooklyn decides.

Apparently the Dodgers didn’t go for Sharman’s proposal, and an item in The Sporting News of March 28, 1956 said he had retired from baseball.

Others tried combining careers in pro basketball and baseball in the ’50s; Dick Groat, a college All-America basketball player who won a National league MVP award, did so briefly, and Gene Conley, who had the benefits of being both 6’8″ and a pitcher (so he didn’t play baseball every day), did so for a longer period. Steve Hamilton, another tall pitcher, did it for a couple of years before he reached the majors. Then in the ’60s Dave DeBusschere, Cotton Nash and Ron Reed all combined both sports for a while. But Sharman may be the most intriguing of them all, even though he never played major league baseball. None of the others were NBA all-stars while playing pro baseball, and Sharman did quite well at the highest level of the minors. Had he been in a less talent-laden organization than the Dodgers, he may have had a major league career. But how different things may have been in basketball if baseball had won him away. For instance, would anyone have come up with the game-day shootaround?

SABR member Nick Diunte has also written about Bill Sharman’s baseball career.