The longest-working men in baseball: Jack Coombs, Joe Harris, Al Jackson and other four-hour pitchers

I wish I could cite the exact source of this, but I believe it was Bill James who speculated the most important factor in causing a starting pitcher to tire may not be the number of innings pitched or the number of pitches thrown, but the length of time he works. If that’s true, it could be that one of the reasons we have seen such a steep decline in complete games in recent years — not the primary reason, maybe not even one of the biggest reasons, but a contributing factor — is that it’s taking longer to play nine innings these days.

With that in mind, I went to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to look for the longest complete game performances by length of game, in time (as opposed to innings). A few caveats here. First of all, there are plenty of errors in the time of game data. For instance, B-R.com shows the longest game in its database (at least as I write this) is a 1941 nine-inning game between the Red Sox and Yankees that for some reason (surely a typographical error) shows up as 348 hours and 55 minutes. The attendance is also listed as 143, so you can see some odd keyboarding was going on…in fact, it looks like the time and attendance were transposed. Retrosheet, where B-R.com gets is data, shows the time of game as 2:23 with attendance of 20,935. Sometimes the typos are on Retrosheet’s end; for instance, this 1952 nine-inning complete game by Lou Kretlow is listed as 4:47, but in contemporaneous newspaper box scores the time was listed as a more-sensible 2:47.

Second, the only occasions on which time of game will equal what I call a pitcher’s “working time” (the time from his first pitch to his last) is when the home team pitcher throws a complete game and the home team doesn’t bat in the last inning (so the home team pitcher throws both the first and last pitch of the game). Obviously this excludes extra-inning games. Otherwise even a complete-game pitcher either starts pitching after the time-of-game clock begins, or finishes his work before the time-of-game clock stops. So we have no way of knowing for sure what pitcher had the longest “working time” — especially when you include some other factors. Rain delays aren’t included in time of game, so a pitcher who stays in after a rain delay could have a longer “working time” than the official time of game. And it’s possible there are pitchers who didn’t throw complete games — in marathons that went on after they were removed — who could have extremely long “working times.” We’ll look at a few of those later on.

But what we can establish is which pitchers, at least in the B-R.com database, had the longest game times in a complete game. And here’s more caveats: not all box scores include a time of game, and of course nothing before 1914 is in the database at all.

You may be surprised to learn the famous 26-inning 1920 tie in which both pitchers, Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore, went the distance did not make the list. It was played in a relatively snappy (given the fact that it was the length of almost three normal games) 3 hours and 50 minutes, as the box score from the Boston Herald below shows:

1920 boxBut note the headline above the box score: “1906 Game Slower.” And directly below this box score is the box of what had previously been the longest game, by innings, in major league history, a 24-inning affair between the Athletics and the Red Sox in 1906. This box score is not yet in the Retrosheet or Baseball-Reference.com databases, and it looks like it has the record for longest complete game pitching performance by time, as both Philadelphia’s Jack Coombs and Boston’s Joe Harris went the distance in a game that took 4 hours and 47 minutes to play. Here’s the full box from the Boston Herald of September 2, 1906:

1906 box

From the front page of the Boston Herald, Sept. 2, 1906

From the front page of the Boston Herald, Sept. 2, 1906

Jack Coombs was a 23-year-old rookie who had joined the A’s just two months before this game after graduating from Maine’s Colby College (hence he was typically referred to as “Colby Jack Coombs”). In this game he struck out 18 and allowed just one run in 24 innings…and note in the box score he even stole two bases!

Joe Harris was 24 and also a rookie, although he had pitched in three games late in 1905. This game was the 18th of the American League-leading 21 he lost in 1906, against just two wins. But in this game he went 21-1/3 innings without allowing a run, the A’s scoring their first run with one out in the third inning (Coombs being the one who crossed the plate) and not scoring again until there were two out in the 24th, when Socks Seybold (0-for-9 in the game to that point) tripled home Topsy Hartsel. I can’t verify this, but I believe that’s the American League record for most consecutive scoreless innings thrown in a single game…a record set by a man who never won a major league game after this and finished his brief major league career with a 3-30 (!) lifetime mark. (Joe Oeschger held Brooklyn scoreless for the final 21-2/3 innings of that 26-inning game in 1920.) Bill Nowlin has more about this game in his biography of Harris as part of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Biography Project.

Who else has pitched a four-hour game? It turns out it’s been considerably more unusual to pitch for four hours than it has been to, say, pitch more than 15 innings. I used Play Index to search games since 1914 that lasted less than four hours and found 45 pitchers who went at least 16 innings, 88 who went at least 15 and 207 who went at least 14. (By the way, contemporaneous accounts of Red Faber’s 16-inning game in 1920 say the time was 3:33, not 1:33. The Al Milnar-Tommy Bridges game in 1942 came in at 2:27, not 2:00…still remarkable for 14 innings. But Walter Johnson’s 14-inning game in 1918 really was timed at 2:12, and Larry French’s 14-inning game in 1931 really was 2:17.) On the other hand, I’ve found only 20 times in the post-1914 database when a pitcher has pitched a complete game that lasted at least four hours (two of whom pitched less than 14 innings), plus a handful of other pitchers who didn’t go the distance but may have still been in their game when it reached the four-hour mark.

Here is a list generated by Play Index of pitchers who hurled a complete game in a game that lasted four hours or longer. Click on the date to see the box score. I verified the Play Index-listed game time by checking contemporaneous printed box scores or stories. There’s also a qualifying game in the Play Index database that for some reason does not show up when I do this search; I’ll mention that later. (By the way, Tom Cheney‘s 16-inning, 21-strikeout game of 1962 just missed at 3:59.)

Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO BF TIME
Al Jackson 1962-08-14 NYM PHI L 1-3 15.0 6 3 2 5 6 57 4:35
Mudcat Grant 1959-06-21 (2) CLE NYY W 5-4 14.0 14 4 4 3 8 58 4:18
Stan Williams 1961-05-17 LAD MLN W 2-1 11.0 4 1 1 12 11 49 4:15
Bob Rush 1957-08-23 CHC NYG L 2-3 15.1 11 3 3 2 10 58 4:14
Billy Hoeft 1957-07-28 (2) DET NYY L 3-4 14.1 9 4 4 5 7 58 4:13
Johnny Antonelli 1955-05-01 NYG CIN W 2-1 16.0 6 1 1 5 11 57 4:13
Mickey McDermott 1951-07-28 BOS CLE W 8-4 16.0 11 4 4 1 15 61 4:12
Mike Norris 1980-06-11 OAK BAL W 6-2 14.0 12 2 2 2 5 51 4:10
Warren Spahn 1963-07-02 MLN SFG L 0-1 15.1 9 1 1 1 2 56 4:10
Juan Marichal 1963-07-02 SFG MLN W 1-0 16.0 8 0 0 4 10 59 4:10
Camilo Pascual 1964-10-01 MIN KCA L 4-5 12.0 12 5 1 3 14 52 4:09
Art Nehf 1918-08-01 BSN PIT L 0-2 21.0 12 2 2 5 8 77 4:08
Carl Hubbell 1933-07-02 (1) NYG STL W 1-0 18.0 6 0 0 0 12 59 4:03
Luis Tiant 1974-06-14 BOS CAL L 3-4 14.1 11 4 4 4 5 56 4:02
Lew Burdette 1958-07-21 MLN STL L 4-5 14.0 10 5 4 5 5 54 4:02
Saul Rogovin 1951-07-12 (2) CHW BOS L 4-5 17.0 10 5 4 6 9 63 4:01
Ray Fisher 1920-08-27 (1) CIN NYG L 4-6 17.0 18 6 6 5 4 71 4:01
Art Nehf 1920-08-27 (1) NYG CIN W 6-4 17.0 16 4 3 2 0 66 4:01
Matt Keough 1980-05-17 OAK TOR W 4-2 14.0 5 2 1 6 8 48 4:00
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/22/2015.

 

Al JacksonThe longest complete game by time in the Baseball-Reference.com database went only 15 innings, but at 4 hours 35 minutes lasted nearly as long as the 24-inning A’s-Red Sox game of 1906. Lefty Al Jackson went the distance for the first-year New York Mets, facing 57 batters and allowing just six hits. The New York Times game story reported Jackson threw 215 pitches.

There’s an odd coincidence involving the two longest games on that list, the Al Jackson game and the Mudcat Grant game. In both, Marv Throneberry, playing first base for the losing team, committed an error in extra innings that led to a run.

The shortest game on this list in terms of innings is the 11-inning game won by Stan Williams in 4 hours 15 minutes. Stan managed to cram 206 pitches into those 11 innings, as he walked 12 and struck out 11 to run up the pitch count. His is one of only 12 games in the post-1914 database in which a pitcher reached double figures in both walks and whiffs (another one of those games will come up later in this discussion) and one of only two pitchers on that list (along with Herb Score) to have more walks than strikeouts in his double-double game. Williams is also one of just seven pitchers in the database to be the winning pitcher in a game in which he walked 12 or more (the record that category being 13, by Pete Schneider and Bud Podbielan).

The winning run in the Williams game scored when Bob Lillis, batting for Williams, drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the winning run, as Braves manager Chuck Dressen outsmarted himself in a battle of wits with the Dodgers’ Walter Alston. Dressen had ordered two intentional walks to load the bases after a leadoff triple by Frank Howard; relief pitcher Seth Morehead then struck out pinch-hitter Bob Aspromonte before walking Lillis in an epic 10-pitch at-bat, with two foul balls after the count went full. Had the Braves gotten out of the inning without a run scoring, Williams would have been replaced on the mound in the 12th inning and wouldn’t have shown up in my search.

The losing pitcher was Warren Spahn, who was relieved after yielding Howard’s 11th-inning triple. The game may have already reached the four-hour mark by the time Spahn got the hook, although possibly not. Spahn pitched in another four-hour game that will come up in a moment.

Johnny Antonelli in his 16-inning win in 1955

Johnny Antonelli in his 16-inning win in 1955

The run that ended Johnny Antonelli‘s 16-inning win after 4 hours 13 minutes came about in an unusual way. Whitey Lockman led off the bottom of the 16th with a single and was sacrificed to second. Bob Hooper tried to issue an intentional walk to Don Mueller, but when what would have been the fourth ball got too close to the plate, Mueller reached out and singled to left, moving Lockman to third. Pinch-hitter Bill Taylor then hit a fly ball to deep right field that Wally Post couldn’t hang onto; it was scored a single, but even if Post had caught the ball Lockman would have scored from third.

Mickey McDermott‘s 16-inning win was likely not even his first four-hour game of the month, although the other one doesn’t show up in this search. Fifteen days earlier he had pitched the first 17 innings of a game against the White Sox that wound up going 19. That game lasted 4 hours 47 minutes, and McDermott was almost certainly still in the game when it reached the four-hour mark. In his 16-inning complete game, McDermott won despite allowing runs in both the 15th and 16th innings. Clyde Vollmer ended the game with a grand-slam home run off Bob Feller, who had come on to pitch in relief in the 15th inning. For Vollmer, that capped a streak dating back to July 4 in which he hit 13 homers and drove in 38 runs in just 24 games.

One team had two pitchers who threw four-hour complete games: Billy Martin’s 1980 Oakland A’s. Matt Keough got a 14-inning win over Toronto May 17 in exactly four hours, and Mike Norris won a 14-inning game against Baltimore June 11 in which he threw 160 pitches in 4 hours 10 minutes. The A’s had two more 14-inning performances that season; Rick Langford beat Cleveland July 20 (in 3 hours 23 minutes) and Steve McCatty lost to Seattle August 10 (in 3 hours 36 minutes). No other team since 1952 has had even two pitchers work 14 innings in the same season, and aside from Martin’s quartet no pitcher has thrown 14 innings in a game since 1974. With help from the designated hitter, Martin got 94 complete games out of his staff in 1980, the most of any major league team since the 1941 White Sox had 106. (All 30 major league teams combined had just 118 in 2014.)

Carl HubbellOnly two pitchers in the database threw four-hour shutouts, and both of them are Hall of Famers. The first was Carl Hubbell, whose 18-inning 1-0 win over the Cardinals in 1933 lasted 4 hours 3 minutes and is arguably the greatest pitching performance ever; it is, at least since 1914, the longest shutout by innings in major league history (Walter Johnson also threw an 18-inning shutout, in 1918, but it took just 2 hours 50 minutes). Tex Carleton, pitching on two days rest after winning a nine-inning complete game against the Giants, worked the first 16 innings of that game for St. Louis. Hubbell faced 59 batters, giving up just six hits (no more than one in any inning) and walking no one. Only one Cardinal reached third base. Hubbell’s “game score” (something I’ve written more about here) is the third-highest in the post-1914 database, behind only the 26-inning performances of Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger. (“Game score” puts a premium on long performances.) Hubbell actually batted in the bottom of the 18th, with one out and runners on first and second; he hit a ground ball that led to a force out at second base, moving Jo-Jo Moore to third, and the next batter, Hughie Critz, drove in the game’s only run.

Hubbell’s win was the first game of a doubleheader. The Giants also won the second game 1-0, but it lasted just 1 hour 25 minutes.

Marichal SpahnThe other four-hour shutout is a game so famous there’s even been a book written about it. Just Google Juan Marichal Warren Spahn 16 innings and you can read a whole slew of writing about this 1963 classic. Marichal came out the 1-0 winner over Spahn when Willie Mays homered with one out in the bottom of the 16th at Candlestick Park after 4 hours 10 minutes. This is actually one of two four-hour games in the post-1914 database in which both pitchers went the distance (of course, the Coombs-Harris 1906 marathon is not in the database). The first came on Aug. 27, 1920, when the Giants scored two runs in the top of the 17th to give Art Nehf a 6-4 win over Cincinnati’s Ray Fisher in 4 hours 1 minute.

Art NehfThat game made Nehf the only pitcher we know of, at least since 1914, to have two complete games that lasted at least four hours. In 1918, pitching for the Boston Braves, he lost a 21-inning game to Pittsburgh, 2-0. Retrosheet shows this game lasted 4 hours 8 minutes, the next day’s Boston Herald game story lists it as 4 hours 7 minutes. This game was scoreless for the first 20 innings; the only game in major league history that has gone longer without a run was the April 15, 1968 game between the Mets and Astros that was scoreless until Houston won it with a run in the bottom of the 24th. Nehf was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 21st, so like Stan Williams he wouldn’t have shown up in my search had his teammates come back to tie the game.

Luis Tiant was the last pitcher to work more than 14 innings in a major league game, a remarkable 1974 affair at Anaheim in which he went the distance, only to lose after 4 hours 2 minutes when Mickey Rivers scored on Denny Doyle’s double with one out in the bottom of the 15th. Nolan Ryan worked the first 13 innings for the Angels and joined Stan Williams on the strikeout-walk “double-double” list, fanning 19 and walking 10. Unfortunately no record of his pitch count survives, but it had to have been huge, as he faced 58 batters, the most of his career. The Los Angeles Times game story does note he threw 84 pitches in just the first four innings, in which he struck out nine and walked six; it’s a shame the game total wasn’t included. Ryan took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning before Carl Yastrzemski tied the game with a two-run homer. The Angels threatened to win when they loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the 12th, but Sox manager Darrell Johnson left Tiant in and he retired Bobby Valentine on a short fly ball and Mickey Rivers on a grounder to get out of the jam. Doyle’s double gave California relief pitcher Barry Raziano the only win of his brief major league career.

The four-hour game by Saul Rogovin is notable in that his 17-inning loss to the Red Sox came the day before the 19-inning game in which Mickey McDermott pitched 17. It’s the only time (at least since 1914) pitchers have worked 17 innings on consecutive days — and in this case the same teams were playing.

I mentioned there was a game that didn’t come up in my Play Index search that qualifies. Bob Smith pitched all 22 innings for the Braves on May 17, 1927, losing to the Cubs 4-3 in a game that lasted 4 hours 13 minutes. Smith faced 89 batters in the game, allowing 20 hits and walking nine. In the post-1914 database, only Cadore and Oeschger pitched more innings in a game or faced more batters. Bob Osborn got the win for the Cubs with 14 innings of shutout relief, the longest scoreless relief appearance in the major leagues, at least since 1914. The Cubs and Braves had played previously three days earlier (a Sunday of idleness due to blue laws and a Monday rainout intervened) in a game that went 18 innings, with Guy Bush going the distance for the victorious Cubs (that game lasted 3 hours 42 minutes).

What about “hidden” four-hour games, in which a pitcher who did not work a complete game may have been still in the game when it reached the four-hour mark? To look for candidates, I used Play Index to find pitchers who threw at least 14 innings in a game that lasted more than four hours.

Gaylord Perry pitched 16 shutout innings (making him the last major leaguer to go 16 innings; he was also the last to go 15, in a 1974 game) in a 1967 game that went 21 and lasted 5 hours 40 minutes. If all the innings were the same length Perry would have been in the game 4 hours 19 minutes. Vern Law worked the first 18 innings of a 19-inning game in 1955 (yes, he’s the last to pitch 18 in a game, or even 17 for that matter) that lasted 4 hours 44 minutes, making his prorated share 4 hours 29 minutes. Saul Rogovin (him again!) went the first 15 innings of a 17-inning game in 1952; his prorated share of the total time of 4 hours 40 minutes is 4:07. Ray Moore pitched the first 15 innings of a 16-inning game in 1957 that went 4:29; his share is 4:12. In 1934, Dizzy Dean and Tony Freitas each pitched the first 17 innings of a game that went 18; total time 4:26, their share was 4:11. Again, we have no way of knowing for sure if any of these pitchers were still in the game four hours after it started, but I would wager at least some of them were.

If you know of any other four-hour pitching performances, please leave them in the comments. Aside from the 1906 A’s-Red Sox game there could be others before 1914, and as I mentioned earlier there are games since 1914 that don’t have time of game in the Retrosheet/Play Index database, so I could be missing some.

And if you’re wondering who pitched the longest nine-inning game? That would be Mickey Lolich, whose shutout on the opening day of the 1970 season at Washington lasted 3 hours 43 minutes. Lolich faced 39 batters (only four pitchers have faced more in a nine-inning shutout since), allowing seven hits, walking five and striking out 10…and he threw 168 pitches — on opening day! Four Senators pitchers combined to throw 177.

The loss marked the eighth straight year the Senators had lost their traditional season opener in the nation’s capital…and I love the headline and subhead that appeared in the next day’s Washington Evening Star:

Mickey Lolich game

Randy Johnson just missed Lolich’s mark in 1990, pitching Seattle to a 13-4 win over the White Sox in Chicago that lasted 3 hours 42 minutes. Johnson gave up 10 hits, struck out 11 and threw 153 pitches; six Sox hurlers threw 192.

And what about the scenario I described earlier…the longest “working time” we can verify, a complete game won by the home team’s pitcher in which the home team did not bat in the last inning, thus the home pitcher threw both the first and last pitches? That distinction would be held by Billy O’Dell, who staggered to a 19-8 win over the Dodgers at Candlestick Park on April 16, 1962 in 3 hours 31 minutes. The Dodgers batted around in the ninth inning, scoring five runs, but Giants manager Al Dark left O’Dell in to finish what he started. O’Dell faced 47 batters in the game; only one pitcher since then has faced as many batters in a game in which he pitched nine innings or less (it didn’t happen all that many times before O’Dell, either). There were 27 hits and 14 walks in the game; O’Dell threw 172 pitches, and five Dodger hurlers combined to throw 199.

Jay Tibbs came up just short in 1989 when he pitched a complete-game 13-hitter (no one has allowed more hits in a complete game win since, and only twice since has a winning pitcher allowed more hits) against Toronto in 3 hours 30 minutes. Tibbs threw “only” 127 pitches…but three Blue Jays pitchers walked 15 Orioles (only five teams since have issued as many walks in a nine-inning game) and combined to throw 225 pitches. The win improved Tibbs’ record on the season with the Orioles to 5-0 with a 2.45 ERA after being called up from the minors. He left his next start in the fourth inning with shoulder trouble, spent the rest of the season on the disabled list and won only three more games in his major league career.

The only game in which the home pitcher threw the first and last pitch of the game to go even three hours since 2003 was Clay Buchholz‘s 2007 no-hitter, which went 3 hours 2 minutes.

A few final (maybe) thoughts on the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history

Bill James introduced "game scores" in his 1988 Baseball Abstract

Bill James introduced “game scores” in his 1988 Baseball Abstract

I’ve written two previous posts (here and here) attempting to identify the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history. In the second of those, I used data provided by Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com to look at the pitchers who had the biggest difference between their highest “game score” and their second-highest. “Game score” was a concept developed by Bill James in his 1988 Baseball Abstract to attempt to roughly quantify how good a starting pitcher’s performance was. The formula:

Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.

Baseball-Reference.com has calculated the game score for every start in its database, going back (when this was written) to 1914.

Here’s Sean’s list of the greatest differences between a pitcher’s best and second-best game score. This chart includes: 1) the difference; 2) the pitcher’s name and the number of his career starts (you’ll notice almost all of them had just two starts, and only two of them had more than four); 3) the pitcher’s highest game score with his box score line (IP-H-R-ER-BB-SO); 4) the pitcher’s second-highest game score with his box score line; and 5) the team(s) he pitched for in the two games. For pitchers who had a tie for their second-best score, both are listed. Links go to the pitcher’s main page on B-R.com and to the box scores of the games involved.

69 Carlos Frias (2) 69 (6-3-0-0-1-4) 0 (0.2-10-8-8-0-0) 2014 Dodgers
66 Wally Holborow (2) 84 (9-2-0-0-3-4) 18 (8.1-16-8-8-3-2) 1945 Senators/1948 A’s
53 Leon Cadore (147) 140 (26-15-1-1-5-7) 87 (11-7-0-0-0-4) 1920 Dodgers
87 (12-7-1-0-2-3) 1919 Dodgers
52 Bob Clark (2) 77 (9-4-0-0-3-1) 25 (8-13-7-7-3-0) 1920 Indians
51 Joe Oeschger (198) 153 (26-9-1-1-4-7) 102 (14-6-0-0-3-5) 1920 Dodgers/1917 Phillies
50 Bob Lacey (2) 77 (9-7-0-0-1-5) 27 (2-6-5-4-0-1) 1980 A’s/1984 Giants
49 Don Loun (2) 79 (9-5-0-0-0-2) 30 (4-8-4-3-3-1) 1964 Senators
Mel Stottlemyre Jr. (2) 75 (7-1-0-0-3-3) 26 (3-7-5-5-1-2) 1990 Royals
Ben Callahan (2) 61 (6-3-1-1-2-1) 12 (1.1-7-7-7-1-1) 1983 A’s
48 Bob Hartman (2) 86 (10-3-1-1-3-7) 38 (4-4-5-3-2-2) 1962 Indians
Raul Sanchez (2) 78 (9-5-0-0-4-5) 30 (3-6-4-4-2-1) 1952 Senators
47 Dick Rusteck (3) 82 (9-4-0-0-1-4) 35 (4-7-3-3-1-0) 1966 Mets
Steve Schrenk (2) 66 (6-4-0-0-0-2) 19 (2.1-7-6-6-2-2) 1999 Phillies
46 Ed Fallenstein (4) 82 (9-3-0-0-1-2) 36 (6.1-8-5-4-3-0) 1933 Braves
Migel Puente (4) 72 (9-7-1-1-4-7) 26 (1.2-4-5-5-2-1) 1970 Giants
26 (3.1-6-6-5-2-2) 1970 Giants
44 Bill Clemensen (2) 68 (9-5-2-1-5-2) 24 (6.1-11-7-7-4-5) 1941 Pirates/1939 Pirates
43 Chris Bootcheck (3) 61 (6-5-1-1-0-3) 18 (3.2-10-6-6-0-1) 2005 Angels
Charles Leesman (2) 58 (5-4-1-1-5-8) 15 (2.2-9-6-6-1-0) 2013 White Sox/2014 White Sox
Ben Ford (2) 57 (6.1-5-2-2-3-5) 14 (2-6-7-7-2-0) 2000 Yankees

Most of these pitchers were addressed in my previous posts, but I want to mention a couple others here.

Migel/Miguel Puente

Migel/Miguel Puente

Migel Puente (that’s how his name appears on Baseball-Reference.com, but I’ve found his name in print only as Miguel), a native of Mexico, went 13-7 with a 2.52 ERA (second in the league) for the Giants’ farm club in the Class AA Texas League in 1969. He began the 1970 season at Class AAA Phoenix, then the Giants called him up in May and put him in the starting rotation. He got rocked in his debut, giving up five runs in less than two innings, but came back five days later to pitch a complete game in beating the defending World Series champion Mets on his 22nd birthday.

Puente made two more starts in the next week and was crushed in both, getting knocked out in the fourth inning of the first and the first inning (after facing seven batters) of the second. In his three non-winning starts combined he pitched 5-2/3 innings and gave up 16 runs. Ouch.

His next appearance came in relief in a wild game against the Padres at Candlestick Park; he entered in the 12th inning of a game tied 16-16 (!) and held the Pads scoreless for three innings until Steve Huntz led off the top of the 15th with a home run to give San Diego a 17-16 win. (Giants manager Clyde King was fired the next day.) Three days later he was brought in to face the Dodgers but was replaced without officially being credited with facing a batter; he threw three pitches to Claude Osteen before he was removed with what an Associated Press game story described as “a pulled muscle in his right [pitching] shoulder.” It wound up being his last major league appearance.

Puente did pitch in Phoenix again before the season was over; I have not been able to find out what he was doing in 1971, perhaps he was hurt, then he pitched in the Mexican League for several seasons starting in 1972. In the context of the rest of his big league career, his one win seems like a candidate for the short list of unlikeliest performances, but since he was considered a hot prospect at the time I’m inclined to leave him off the list.

(Puente is still alive as this was written; he will turn 67 in 2015. I found this story from 2012 showing him living in McAllen, Texas, and playing in a senior softball league.)

From the Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican of Sept. 29, 1941

From the Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican of Sept. 29, 1941

Bill Clemensen was just 19 when he made his major league debut for the Pirates in May 1939. He pitched 10 games in relief without getting a decision before getting a start on the final day of the season, in which he gave up seven runs in 6-1/3 innings. He returned to Pittsburgh in September 1941 and got another last-day-of-the-season start; this time he pitched a complete game five-hitter to beat the Reds and deny Bucky Walters his 20th win of the season.

That performance might have given Clemensen a chance to stick with the Pirates in 1942; alas Pearl Harbor intervened. In April 1942 he was inducted into the Army and spent the next four years in the Army Air Force. Clemensen did return to pitching after the war and got into one more game with the Pirates, in relief, in 1946.

Sean Forman also made me a list of the pitchers who had the biggest differences between their two best game scores and started at least 10 games in the major leagues.

53 Leon Cadore (147) 140 (26-15-1-1-5-7) 87 (11-7-0-0-0-4) 1920 Dodgers
87 (12-7-1-0-2-3) 1919 Dodgers
51 Joe Oeschger (198) 153 (26-9-1-1-4-7) 102 (14-6-0-0-3-5) 1920 Braves/1917 Phillies
36 Zach Stewart (14) 94 (9-1-0-0-0-9) 58 (7-7-2-2-1-4) 2011 White Sox/2011 Blue Jays
35 Carl Hubbell (433) 132 (18-6-0-0-0-12) 97 (16.1-11-2-1-4-6) 1933 Giants/1936 Giants
34 Lefty Tyler (182*) 126 (21-13-1-0-1-8) 92 (13-10-0-0-4-9) 1918 Cubs/1914 Braves
32 Rob Gardner (42) 112 (15-5-0-0-2-7) 80 (9-4-1-1-3-8) 1965 Mets/1966 Mets
Al Aber (30) 101 (15.1-9-1-1-3-8) 69 (9-6-2-2-3-5) 1954 Tigers
69 (9-5-2-2-4-4) 1950 Indians
31 Vern Law (364) 118 (18-9-2-1-2-12) 87 (12-11-0-0-1-8) 1955 Pirates/1965 Pirates
87 (9-2-0-0-1-5) 1964 Pirates
30 Andrew Lorraine (26) 84 (9-3-0-0-1-4) 54 (8-7-4-4-2-4) 1999 Cubs
29 Ralph Beard (10) 83 (12-8-2-1-2-5) 54 (7-6-2-2-3-0) 1954 Cardinals
54 (4-2-1-1-1-1) 1954 Cardinals
Bryan Bullington (10) 82 (8-2-0-0-1-5) 53 (6-5-3-3-1-4) 2010 Royals
Carl Bouldin (10) 75 (9-7-1-1-1-7) 46 (5-8-2-2-0-3) 1962 Senators
28 Les Mueller (18) 112 (19.2-13-1-0-5-6) 84 (9-2-0-0-2-3) 1945 Tigers
27 Phil Douglas (199**) 119 (16-4-0-0-3-8) 92 (12-6-1-1-1-7) 1915 Dodgers/1919 Cubs
Justin Lehr (11) 82 (9-4-0-0-1-4) 55 (6-4-3-3-3-6) 2009 Reds
Junior Walsh (12) 81 (9-3-0-0-2-2) 54 (6-6-2-2-1-3) 1949 Pirates
26 Dick Conger (12) 79 (9-2-1-1-2-2) 53 (6-6-3-1-2-3) 1943 Phillies
Dave Wehrmeister (10) 77 (9-5-1-1-3-7) 51 (6.1-7-2-2-2-2) 1977 Padres
25 Troy Herriage (16) 78 (9-3-1-1-5-6) 53 (7-5-4-4-5-7) 1956 A’s
Phil Gallivan (11) 77 (10-5-2-1-5-4) 50 (8-8-5-4-1-3) 1934 White Sox

* Tyler started 85 games before 1914 that are not in the B-R.com database; perhaps one of them had a higher game score than 92.

** Douglas started one game in 1912 that is not in the database, but his game score wouldn’t have been high enough to matter here, as he allowed seven runs in seven innings

You’ll notice many of the pitchers with the biggest differences had a game in which they pitched, and pitched well, for a huge number of innings. In each case that pitcher’s second-best game was still an excellent game.

I said in my previous post I can’t consider either Joe Oeschger or Leon Cadore for the unlikeliest performance, even though they both went the distance in a 26-inning tie between Oeschger’s Braves and Cadore’s Dodgers in 1920. The same two pitchers had just gone 11 innings against each other less than two weeks earlier, Cadore winning 1-0. Oeschger had pitched a 14-inning shutout in 1917 (a game that ended in a scoreless tie) and had pitched 20 innings in a game in 1919 (another tie). While such long performances were indeed unusual, they weren’t unheard of; from 1914, when the B-R.com database begins, through 1919 a pitcher went at least 20 innings seven times, and there were three more such performances in the 1920s, the last of which saw Ted Lyons pitch 21 innings and George Uhle 20 in 1929 (Uhle was relieved in the bottom of the 21st after his Tigers scored what turned out to be the winning run in the top of the inning).

By the way, the list above includes two “last-of-a-kind” performances…Les Mueller, who went 6-8 for the 1945 World Series champion Tigers in his only full major league season, was the last man to pitch at least 19 innings in a game, and Vern Law was the last man to pitch at least 18 innings in a game.

Ralph Beard's 1955 Bowman baseball card

Ralph Beard’s 1955 Bowman baseball card

One of the pitchers in the list above never won a major league game. Ralph Beard started 10 games for the 1954 Cardinals, losing four of them; the closest he came to a win was in his third start on July 22, when he came out after 12 innings with the score tied 2-2 (his Cardinals went on to beat Pittsburgh in 14).

There are a few pitchers on the list who may deserve closer consideration for possible inclusion on my list of 10 unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history. Zach Stewart turned in a dazzling performance in shutting out the Twins in the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader in 2011, facing just 28 men; Danny Valencia led off the eighth with a double to be the only Twin to reach base. Stewart had won only one major league game before that and has won only one since…his career big league record is 3-10 with a 6.82 ERA (he pitched in the minors in 2014 and is just 28 years old to start the 2015 season, so he may be back). I decided to leave Stewart off my “unlikeliest” list because he was considered a good prospect when he pitched his one-hitter; he had been a third-round draft pick just three years earlier and had already pitched a few reasonably good games in the big leagues. But in what is now the context of his full major league career, that one game sure stands out.

Andrew Lorraine‘s shutout stands out in a major league career that saw him go 6-11 with a 6.53 ERA. It came when he was 27 years old and was already pitching for his fifth major league team (he would go on to pitch for two more). Carl Bouldin, aside from his complete game win, was 2-8 with a 6.89 ERA in his major league career. Bryan Bullington‘s masterful performance against the Yankees in 2010 (eight shutout innings allowing just two hits) is the only win of his major league career, and it came while pitching for his fourth team; his career mark is 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA, and since 2011 he has pitched in Japan. (Bullington was the first player taken in the 2002 amateur draft; later first-round selections included Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder.) Aside from his three-hit shutout Junior Walsh had a career record of 3-10 with a 6.16 ERA. Dick Conger, Dave Wehrmeister, Phil Gallivan all had miserable careers…but on further review I’ll still keep Troy Herriage in my top-10 unlikeliest list ahead of all of them, even though they all (except Gallivan) have a bigger gap between their best and second-best game scores. Remember, Herriage pitched a three-hitter for his only win in a career that saw him go 1-13 with a 6.63 ERA, and he had more career starts that any of the pitchers mentioned here except Lorraine.

All right, I should have this topic out of my system for a while…but if there are any other unlikely performances you want to nominate, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Did Gene Mauch pinch-run for Ron Hunt in the first inning of games on the road?

Jonah Keri has an interesting post on FiveThirtyEight.com about Ron Hunt‘s remarkable 1971 season, when he was hit by a pitch 50 times…still the all-time single-season record, and 43 percent more than the second-highest season total.

But Keri had a footnote in the story that caught my attention:

Hunt’s manager in Montreal, the equally scrappy Gene Mauch, knew that his second baseman frequently played hurt, so he’d occasionally lead off with Hunt on the road, then pull him in for a pinch-runner if he reached base to start the game.

Turns out this is the kind of thing you can check easily enough…and after doing so I learned “occasionally” means “exactly never.”

God do I miss those uniforms...

God do I miss those uniforms…

I used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to generate a list of all the Expos pinch-runners from 1971 through 1974, the years Hunt played for the Expos (Mauch was the manager all four years). I then arranged them by the position in the batting order in which the pinch-runner entered the lineup, then checked the box scores for details.

The only time Hunt left a game for a pinch-runner after his first plate appearance was on Sept. 2, 1973, when he led off at Philadelphia with a double and was replaced by Pepe Frias. But this seems to be more than a case of the kind of preventative maintenance described in Keri’s footnote; it was Hunt’s first game since he injured his knee in a game at San Francisco Aug. 8, and it would appear he was still hurt. Hunt did not start the next day, although he did appear as a pinch-hitter; he didn’t play again until Sept. 7, when he started the first game of a doubleheader but not the second. He took the next day off, then after starting Sept. 9 he was removed after five innings — and didn’t play again that season. Correspondent Ian MacDonald wrote in The Sporting News of Sept. 29, “Hunt finally had to undergo surgery for the knee he damaged in August while sliding home in San Francisco.”

Hunt was primarily a leadoff hitter for the Expos, but he did have a few starts in other spots in the lineup, so I checked to see if this scenario (leave for a pinch-runner after reaching base in the first inning in the road) ever played out in any of those. Nope. ADDED 2/7/15: I did find one game in 1971 in which Hunt, batting second at San Diego, fouled out in the top of the first and Gary Sutherland took the field in his place in the bottom of the inning. It doesn’t conform to the letter of Keri’s footnote — Hunt wasn’t batting leadoff, didn’t reach base and wasn’t removed for a pinch-runner — but it does conform to the spirit, the only game in Hunt’s Expo career that does.

Hunt was removed for a pinch-runner on numerous occasions in his Expos career, but I suspect it was because he was neither terribly fast nor much of a defensive player at that stage of his career. He was removed from 90 of the 471 games (19%) he started as an Expo.

I have to assume Keri got the information about Mauch “occasionally” pinch-running for Hunt in the first inning from one of the four people he quoted in his story: Hunt, teammate Bill Stoneman, broadcaster Dave Van Horne and writer Jacques Doucet. Whoever said it, his memory was wrong…which happens after 40-some years. Hell, sometimes it happens after 40-some minutes. Memories make for good stories, but they don’t always make for good facts.

More of the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history, including guys named Claral, Oadis and Grover

This is a supplement to my earlier post in which I anointed Don Fisher‘s 13-inning shutout in his only major league start as the unlikeliest pitching performance in major league history. I mentioned a few other candidates in that post, and I’ve since found some others that deserve consideration.

Before delving into this I should articulate what I think makes a candidate for “unlikeliest” performance. First of all, at least to make the short list, I think it needs to be an unusually good performance, ideally one in which the pitcher throws nine or more innings and allows one or no runs. I’m willing to fudge that a little bit, but not much. Second, I think to be “unlikely” it needs to have context, ideally a pitcher who didn’t win many games in his career, although you can make a case for a pitcher who had one great game in a long and crappy career. Third, to truly be “unlikely” it should be the only one of its kind, the only really good game the pitcher had. (That’s why I don’t have Bobo Holloman‘s 1953 no-hitter in his first major league start at the top of the list, even though he won only two other games in the major leagues and was back in the minors before the end of the season — because one of those other wins was a strong one.) Finally, it’s nice if there’s a story to go along with it…like the Giants having signed Don Fisher out of a semi-pro league a month before his unlikely game.

I guess by definition an “unlikely” performance would be the only win of a guy’s major league career, like Don Fisher’s. Of course, there are an awful lot of people in major league history who won only one game, so I used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to show me the players with one win who lost the most games in their career. (An aside: without Play Index and Retrosheet‘s volunteers who have gathered box scores and play-by-play data, none of what I do would be possible. Likewise I am grateful for online newspaper archives including The Sporting News (made possible by my membership in the Society for American Baseball Research), the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Los Angeles Times, among others.)

Anyway, I thought those one-win pitchers might have some good candidates for the unlikeliest performance.

You would think a guy who would belong on the list of unlikeliest pitching performances would be Jack Nabors, since he ended his career with a record of 1-25, including a 1-20 mark in 1916. Yes, his one win was better than you’d expect from a guy with that kind of record: a complete game in which he allowed just two runs, both unearned. But he had three other similar performances in September, one of them slightly better, all of them losses. What was truly unlikely was his 1916 Philadelphia A’s winning a game with anyone pitching…they finished 36-117. Jack Nabors wasn’t their only problem. Anyway, I can’t put his win on the list of unlikeliest performances.

"Hi, this is Jim Nabors...What's that? You wanted a picture of JACK Nabors? Well goll-leeee..."

“Hi, this is Jim Nabors…What’s that? You wanted a picture of JACK Nabors? Well surprise, surprise, surprise!”

Nabors came to the A’s in 1915 all the way from the Class D Georgia State League, where he posted a 12-1 record with a 13-inning no-hitter (in which he did not allow a baserunner until the 12th) and a no-decision in a game in which pitched 15 shutout innings and allowed just three hits. A’s owner/manager Connie Mack purchased Nabors in July after “a spirited bidding contest” involving “almost every major league team,” according to The Sporting Life of July 31, 1915, resulting in Mack paying “what is said to be the highest price ever paid for a Class D minor league player.” But Mack may not have had full information about the merchandise; a story in the July 15, 1915 issue of The Sporting Life said Nabors was “but 20 years of age” when he was actually 27.

Nabors joined the A’s in August and went 0-5 for the rest of the season. Here’s what The Sporting Life had to say about him in the March 25, 1916 issue:

He probably has more natural ability than any man on the staff, but Nabors is so awfully green that he will not be of much use this year. At the present time Mack plans to send him to the mound regularly, believing that there is no better way to learn than by profiting from mistakes. He does not expect Nabors to show much until late in the season, but will not farm him out, as he wants to school this lad himself.

After winning his third start in 1916, Nabors lost his last 19 decisions, still the major league record for most consecutive losses in a single season. (Mack was right about one thing: Nabors seems to have done his best pitching in September.) He started the 1917 season with the A’s but was sent back to the minors a week into the season, had a 9-21 record in the rest of his professional career before contracting influenza during the worldwide epidemic of 1918-19, and was just 35 when he died in 1923.

Mike ThompsonThe next-losingest one-win pitcher in major league history is Mike Thompson, who won just one of his 29 career starts across four seasons, with 15 losses and a 4.86 ERA. His one win certainly stood out in the context of his career, pitching 8-2/3 scoreless innings at California as a rookie for the Washington Senators on August 14, 1971. The Angels loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth, and Senators manager Ted Williams brought in Paul Lindblad to get the last out and preserve Thompson’s 2-0 win.

But Thompson’s major league debut earlier that year may have been even more unlikely…certainly more unusual, as he allowed just one hit over seven innings against Baltimore, while walking nine. Thompson is one of just nine men in major league history to allow no more than one hit in a game while walking nine or more and pitching at least seven innings…and he’s one of just two men to be the losing pitcher with such a line. (The other was Baltimore’s Steve Barber, who walked 10 in losing a combined no-hitter against the Tigers in 1967.)

Three pitchers finished with career records of 1-13, and two of them belong in the conversation for the unlikeliest pitching performance ever; the other is a decent candidate too.

Troy HerriageTroy Herriage was 24 years old when he had a good year in the Class A South Atlantic League in 1955, going 15-7 for Montgomery and finishing third in the league in ERA. The Kansas City Athletics selected him in the postseason draft and moved him past AA and AAA to the big league roster in 1956. He made two early season relief appearances before A’s manager Lou Boudreau put him in the starting rotation.

Herriage was knocked out in the third inning of his first start, the fourth inning of his next start and the sixth inning of his third start; he was hit hard in all three. He went into his start against the Senators on May 22 having allowed 16 runs, all earned, in 14 major league innings. But that night he pitched a complete game three-hitter and defeated the Nats 6-1.

Herriage made 12 more starts for the A’s and didn’t make it through five innings in half of them; he never had another game remotely like his performance against Washington. His season — and major league career — ended with a record of 1-13 and a 6.64 ERA. He spent two more seasons in the minors with a combined record of 8-20. I’d definitely put his one major league win on the short list of unlikeliest performances ever.

I have a feeling Troy Herriage was an interesting guy. The 1956 Sporting News Baseball Register lists his hobby as “A little art.” With the quotation marks; I’ve never seen another Register hobby listing with quotation marks. According to his obituary, after he stopped playing pro ball he went to work as a design engineer for rocketmaker Aerojet and later owned a bed and breakfast in Sonora, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

There could be a really interesting story behind John McPherson, also known as Jack, but I haven’t been able to uncover it. He made his major league debut with the Philadelphia A’s at age 32 on July 12, 1901, the first season of the American League, giving up five runs in four innings in a loss to Boston. He didn’t return to the majors until three years later, when he surfaced with the National League Phillies at age 35 and went 1-12. His ERA of 3.66 sounds decent, but the league ERA was 2.73, and McPherson also allowed a higher than league average proportion of unearned runs.

Retrosheet doesn’t have 1904 box scores, but the reason I can consider McPherson for the unlikeliest performance ever is the fact that his stat line shows his one win was a shutout. The Phillies, who finished last with a 52-100 record, had only 10 shutouts, so I went looking through them and found McPherson’s. And it was no ordinary shutout: it was a 13-inning blanking of Brooklyn on June 22 in which McPherson allowed just six hits. Here’s the box score from The New York Times:

McPherson boxJohn McPherson holds the all-time major league record for most career losses by a pitcher whose only major league win was a shutout…a 13-inning shutout when he was 35 years old. That seems like it should score pretty high on the unlikelymeter. After his playing career McPherson worked as a bricklayer in his hometown of Easton, Pa.

Aside from Herriage and McPherson, the only other pitcher to finish his major league career with a 1-13 record was Russ Miller; like Herriage and McPherson, his only major league win was a complete game. After going 15-10 for Syracuse in 1927, Miller joined the Phillies in September and gave up eight runs in his big league debut. Five days later, he beat the Braves in Boston, 7-1 on a complete game 11-hitter. The next year, Miller went 0-12, which at the time was the record for most losses in a season by a winless pitcher. (The only pitchers who have lost as many games in a winless season are Steve Gerkin, who was 0-12 in his only major league season with the 1945 A’s, and Terry Felton, who was 0-13 for the 1982 Twins to finish his career with an 0-16 mark.)

Anyway, as unlikely as Miller’s win was, it wasn’t as good a performance as the unlikely games pitched by the likes of Don Fisher, Larry Anderson, Troy Herriage and John McPherson, so he’s not going to make the short list of unlikeliest games.

From The Sporting News of July 20, 1922

From The Sporting News of July 20, 1922

I mentioned John McPherson holds the record for most losses by a pitcher whose only win was a shutout. Next on that list was John Singleton, who I’m happy to bring into this conversation because he is one of the few major leaguers who was born in the same small town I was, Gallipolis, Ohio. Singleton (nicknamed “Sheriff” for reasons I have not yet divined) made his professional debut in 1915, then served in the Marines from 1916 until he was discharged in September 1920. He was apparently property of the Phillies when he lost 20 games for Newark of the International League in 1921; the next year he started with Toronto of the same league and was “sensational,” according to The Sporting News, but since he pitched in only nine games his stats don’t appear in the 1923 Spalding’s Official Base Ball Record. The Phillies brought him to the majors in June, and in his first major league start he shut out the Cardinals on six hits. His next three starts were a bit rockier, but then he lost a 1-0 decision at St. Louis. That led to a write-up in The Sporting News accompanying the photo above. and the uncredited writer raved, “Singleton indeed looks to be as good a pitcher as there is in either major league.”

So much for that. Singleton finished the season, and his major league career, with a 1-10 record and a 5.90 ERA. He spent the next five seasons in the Pacific Coast League and was active in the minors until 1932. He died of tuberculosis in 1937, when he was believed to be 40, at least according to his baseball age, which has him born in 1896…but Singleton’s gravestone shows his birth year as 1895, and military service documents found via Ancestry.com list his birth year as 1894. As unlikely as his one major league win was, I have to rank him a little lower on the list because he had a second excellent performance.

Don Fisher, John McPherson and John Singleton all pitched a shutout for their only major league win. That club is actually a little bigger than I would have guessed…there are 18 others who also have that distinction. This might be a good group to search for unlikeliest pitching performances…

It turns out Herb Bradley, who had a 5.93 career ERA in parts of three seasons (1927-29) for the Red Sox, doesn’t really belong on the list. He had one win and one shutout — but they weren’t the same game! His shutout was in a five-inning scoreless tie against the Senators in April 1928; his win was in his second major league start the previous September. And his first major league start, an 11-inning 2-1 loss, was if anything even more impressive. I can’t put him on my unlikeliest short list. By the way, there are 61 complete game shutouts without a victory in the Baseball-Reference.com database since 1914.

Clarence “Lefty” Russell was one of the biggest names in baseball in 1910. He won 24 games for Baltimore of the Eastern League, and Philadelphia A’s owner/manager Connie Mack bought his contract for $12,000, the most ever paid for a player to that point. Russell joined the A’s at the end of the season and pitched in one game, shutting out the Red Sox on Oct. 1. He was just 20 years old and appeared to have a bright future. But he ruined his arm the next spring, and for the remainder of his major league career he went 0-5 with a 7.53 ERA. He eventually went back to the minors and became a first baseman. Jimmy Keenen tells his story in great detail on the SABR Baseball Biography Project.

Claude Thomas pitched a two-hit shutout in his first major league start in September 1916. In his other six games, all that same month, he went 0-2 with a 6.05 ERA. Thomas won 231 games in the minors (his Baseball-Reference.com stats are missing 12 wins he recorded in last last professional season, 1926, at Des Moines) and fought in World War I. Bob Rives tells his story on the SABR Bio Project.

Bob Clark pitched a four-hit shutout in his first major league start for the pennant-winning 1920 Indians; he made just one major league start after that and was bombed for seven runs. Aside from his first start his career ERA was 6.59. Clark didn’t make his big league debut until 1920, although he actually joined the Indians in August 1919 after leading the Class B New England League in wins. I suspect there’s a good story here and I haven’t found it yet, but I must admit I haven’t put in much time trying. At any rate his shutout appears to be one of the unlikeliest performances.

This is actually Claral Gillenwater, pictured in The Sporting News in 1928

This is actually Claral Gillenwater, pictured in The Sporting News in 1928

In 1923 Claral Gillenwater (sometimes misidentified in print as Claude or Clyde) had a 10-1 record in the Class B Michigan-Ontario League when he was purchased by the White Sox in mid-August. In his major league debut was blasted for six runs in two innings of relief work. Five days later he made his first start and shut out the Red Sox on four hits. He pitched in just three more games in the majors and lost all three, allowing nine runs in 10-1/3 innings. I’ll definitely put Claral on the short list for unlikeliest performance. Bill Lamb dug deep to tell his story on the SABR Bio Project.

In September 1934 rookie John “Spike” Merena started three games for the Red Sox (winning promotion to the majors despite a 6.77 ERA with Syracuse of the International League). In his first start he took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth at St. Louis before losing on a two-run homer by Jack Burns. Four days later he shut out the Yankees on four hits; the Yankees’ loss clinched the American League pennant for the Tigers.

Merena made just one more start in 1934, a loss, was sent to the minors in 1935 and developed a sore arm, pitching in just eight games and never playing professionally after that. He went on to be a police officer in Bridgeport, Conn. Bill Nowlin does a great job telling his story on the SABR Bio Project.

Oadis SwigartOadis Swigart joined the Pirates in September 1939 and started three games. He gave up seven runs in the first of them and seven in the last; in between he shut out the Braves. Swigart spent most of 1940 with Syracuse but started and ended the season with Pittsburgh and was winless in seven appearances, although both his starts were good ones…he allowed a total of just two earned runs in 16-1/3 innings. He went to spring training with the Pirates in 1941 but was drafted by the Army and inducted May 1, more than six months before Pearl Harbor; he was one of the first players with major league experience to enter the military for World War II.

Corporal Oadis Swigart was pictured in The Sporting News -- reading The Sporting News -- while serving at Fort Leavenworth

Corporal Oadis Swigart was pictured in The Sporting News — reading The Sporting News — while serving at Fort Leavenworth

Swigart stayed in the Army for the duration of the war and played for service teams during at least some of that time, then tried to return to pro ball in 1946 but played just a handful of games in the minors. Gary Bedinfield has more of Swigart’s story on his terrific Baseball In Wartime website.

I would love to know more of the story of Mike Modak, as he seems like a candidate for unlikeliest performance. For starters, he apparently played both professional and college baseball at the same time…he shows up pitching in the Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League in 1943 and 1944 while he earned letters at Indiana University in 1944 and 1945 (he also played fullback on the 1944 IU football team and was a teammate of Ted Kluszewski). SABR member Bob Harris tells me the NCAA didn’t have blanket rules on eligibility that would prohibit professional play until about 1950.

A stocky righthander, Modak joined the Cincinnati Reds in June 1945 after the school year ended and, pitching out of the bullpen, mixed some good outings with some rough ones; through nine appearances he allowed 18 runs in 16-2/3 innings. He then reeled off 11-2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in his next five appearances, and Reds manager Bill McKechnie gave him the ball to start the first game of a September 5 doubleheader against the Phillies. Voila: Modak hurled a shutout in which he did not allow an extra-base hit. Two days later McKechnie used him to get the last out in a 6-2 win over the Phillies to extend his scoreless streak to 21 innings. Two days after that McKechnie brought him back to start against the Dodgers, who knocked him out in the third inning, and that was Modak’s last start in the big leagues; he made just three relief appearances over the rest of the season and finished with a 5.74 ERA.

On Ancestry.com I found Modak enlisted in the Panama Canal Department of the Army in February 1946 and was released on August 31, 1947, although it appears he pitched five games for Columbia (S.C.) of the Class A South Atlantic League that year. Modak apparently returned to Columbia in 1948, but an item in the June 9 issue of The Sporting News said he jumped to the semi-pro Palmetto League. I don’t know anything about what came of him after that; he died in Florida in 1995.

Here’s Modak from his 1941 school yearbook at Memorial High School in Campbell, Ohio:

Modak

Grover Powell deserves a full-blown SABR Bio Project entry; I’ll give you the short-ish version here. Some of the easily-found information online about him turns out to be wrong, so I’ve checked this pretty carefully.

Grover PowellPowell was a 5’10” lefthander who grew up in Pennsylvania dairy country and attended the University of Pennsylvania. In his one season of varsity baseball, as a sophomore in 1960, he struck out 116 batters in 70 innings. His 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings led all NCAA major college pitchers, and as this is written, his strikeouts remain a Penn single-season record; no other Quakers pitcher has recorded more than 80.

But Penn coach Jack McCloskey kicked Powell off the team in 1961. If the name Jack McCloskey sounds familiar to you, it’s likely because you’re a basketball fan; he was head coach of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers for two years, and as general manager of the Detroit Pistons he built the teams that won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. But before that he spent 11 years as both head basketball and head baseball coach at his alma mater, Penn.

So why did McCloskey get rid of the pitcher who had led the nation in strikeouts? Here’s how Powell told the story in 1963:

I had been up all night studying for an exam. About an hour and a half before we were to board a bus for a game at West Point, I tried to get some sleep. When I awoke, it was too late to make the bus, so I never showed up. For that, I was kicked off the team.

That really wasn’t the whole story. The next day, another pitcher and I were throwing chunks of dirt at each other during a workout when [McCloskey] walked in. That, coming on top of my missing the bus, I guess, was too much for him.

Here’s McCloskey’s version, from an undated interview:

[Powell was] always loud, overbearing to a point, and somewhat unusual — in a way that I had to drop him off the team. It was just an accumulation of things that Grover did. Once he wanted to come out of a game because he was cold. One day, he swore a lot at the equipment guy and threw clumps of grass. Then he missed a team bus. I finally said, “Enough is enough.”

In those days all young players were free agents; the amateur draft did not begin until 1965, and there weren’t yet rules prohibiting players attending four-year colleges from turning pro before the end of their junior year. So Powell could have turned pro and signed with anyone after his big sophomore season, and indeed he claims to have turned down a $8,000 signing bonus — not much compared to the bonuses of $50,000 to $100,000 or more some prospects received, but still a significant amount of money for the time. After he was kicked off the Penn team there were no pro offers. He left school in 1962, a semester short of graduating, when the first-year New York Mets gave him a $1,000 bonus, with the promise of another $1,500 if the organization decided to keep him after 90 days.

The Mets had Powell start his pro career with their Class AAA farm club at Syrcause. It didn’t go well there; he had a 2-6 record with a 5.79 ERA when he was sent all he way down to Class D and the Mets’ affiliate in Auburn, N.Y. It didn’t go well there either; he had a 2-6 record with a 5.12 ERA. But Powell did strike out 121 batters in 114 innings during his first pro season, and the Mets apparently saw enough that they didn’t want to risk losing him.

At that time all players were available to be drafted by any major league organization after their first season as a professional. This was a rule designed to encourage teams to limit the signing bonuses they offered amateurs, since they could lose their new recruits in the draft for just $8,000. But teams could hold onto their first-year players by placing them on the major league roster; by doing so the teams were required to include those players on their 25-man major league roster the following year. Teams did have the option in the following year of sending one of those first-year players to the minors, but he would still count as part of the 25-man roster, meaning there would be only 24 men to play at the major league level. SABR member Cliff Blau has a thorough explanation of the draft here.

The Mets, having just finished their first-ever season with a record of 40-120, felt like they could invest in the future, so they committed to keeping three first-year players out of the draft and on the major league roster in 1963: outfielder-first baseman Ed Kranepool, pitcher Larry Bearnarth and Powell. And they further committed to giving manager Casey Stengel just 24 players when they optioned Powell to their Class A farm club at Raleigh, N.C. to start the season.

Kranepool, just 18, was the Mets’ Opening Day right fielder in 1963 and held his own in the early going, but from early June into July he fell into a 7-for-65 slump, and management decided his development would be better served by sending him to the minors. But since they were allowed to have only one of their “first-year players” in the minors, sending Kranepool down meant Grover Powell had to be called up.

Stengel wasn’t afraid to use Powell, although he broke him in as a relief pitcher in games that were out of hand (not that those games were hard to find, as the Mets were in the midst of another horrible season). Through his first nine appearances Powell had a 1.88 ERA in 14-1/3 innings. Then Stengel tapped him to start the first game of a doubleheader August 20 at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, not far from the Penn campus, and Powell shut out the Phillies on four hits.

Grover Powell ToppsA week later Powell was working on another shutout, at Pittsburgh, when he was hit in the jaw by a line drive off the bat of Donn Clendenon in the fifth inning. Powell finished the inning without allowing a run before being relieved, and he was in line to get the win until the Pirates scored two unearned runs in the bottom of the ninth to pull out a 2-1 victory.

Powell’s major league ERA to that point was 0.95. He made two more starts but was knocked out in the fifth inning of one and the third inning of the other. Including his relief appearances he allowed 19 runs in 21-1/3 inning after the Pittsburgh game.

That winter Powell pitched in Venezuela, and pitched well, but he went home with a sore shoulder before the season ended; he was — with one brief exception — never the same pitcher and never returned to the majors. He pitched just 19 innings in the minors in 1964; didn’t pitch at all in 1965 (taking advantage of the situation to go back to Penn and finish his degree in economics); then pitched just 23 innings in the minors in 1966. He went 2-9 in 1967.

The one glimmer Powell had of what might have been came in 1968, when he was the ace pitcher of Sparky Anderson’s last minor league team, the Asheville Tourists, champions of the Class AA Southern League. Powell went 16-6 with a 2.54 ERA and led the league in wins, ERA, starts and innings. But he was 27 years old, considerably older and more experienced than the vast majority of hitters he faced. At any rate he was unable to duplicate his success after that, going 1-5 in 1969 and 0-4 in 1970, his last season as a pro.

I’ve not been able to find out what Grover Powell did for a living after his baseball career. He died of leukemia in 1985, just 44 years old.

The next pitchers on the list don’t really qualify for the short list of unlikeliest performances, even though they each won just one major league game, because they showed such promise going into that game.

Don Loun

Don Loun

Of all the pitchers whose only major league win was a shutout, Don Loun pitched the fewest innings in his big league career. Loun grew up in Frederick, Maryland, where his high school baseball coach and business law teacher was Hal Keller. Keller had played in the major leagues, for the Washington Senators (his older brother Charlie had been a star outfielder for the Yankees) and was, in addition to his work at Frederick High, assistant farm director for the Senators. When the team moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season, Keller became farm director of the expansion Senators team that replaced them in Washington, and in 1961 he signed Loun.

Loun didn’t become a fulltime pitcher until he turned pro, and it took him a little while to completely get the hang of it; in 1962 he led the Class D Alabama-Florida League with 126 walks in 162 innings, although he struck out 177. In 1964 the 23-year-old Loun pitched well in both AA and AAA ball and earned a September call-up to the Washington Senators. In his major league debut on September 23 he shut out the Red Sox, allowing just five hits and walking no one.

But Loun made just one more major league appearance. Ten days after his shutout, on the next-to-last day of the season, he started against the Red Sox again and was lifted for a pinch-hitter after allowing four runs, eight hits and three walks in four innings. He went to spring training with the Senators in 1965 but was sent to Triple-A; he was called up to Washington in September but did not appear in a game. Loun continued pitching in the minors until 1969; his minor league record after his one major league win was 15-32.

Richard/Dick/Rich Rusteck

Richard/Dick/Rich Rusteck

Like Loun, Dick Rusteck was a lefthanded pitcher who threw a shutout in his major league debut. (At least “Dick Rusteck” was how his name usually appeared in print and how it is listed in the standard references, but his given name was Richard and his facsimile signature in the 1967 Sporting News Baseball register is as “Rich Rusteck.”) And like Loun, Rusteck never won another major league game.

Rusteck graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in economics, but he didn’t have a stellar pitching career for the Irish; according to Cappy Gagnon’s book “Notre Dame Baseball Greats: From Anson To Yaz,” Rusteck’s career record in three varsity seasons was just 5-6, and he didn’t pitch regularly until his senior year. But the Mets signed him after his graduation in 1963, and the hard-throwing youngster established himself as a prospect when he struck out 177 batters in 153 minor league innings in 1965.

Rusteck got off to a blazing start for the Mets’ Class AAA farm club at Jacksonville, Fla. in 1966. He pitched complete games in his first six starts and won them all, allowing a total of seven earned runs. He then got hit in the elbow with a line drive during practice and was out of action for two weeks, but shortly after he came back he was promoted to New York, and when he took the mound in the big leagues for the first time he shut out the Reds on four hits, all singles.

Four days later Rusteck faced the Cardinals and held them scoreless in the first inning. But he was pulled in the second inning after the first five batters reached base; all of them eventually scored. It was nearly three weeks before he got another start, against Pittsburgh; the game was tied 1-1 after four innings, but when the Pirates scored two in the fifth before anyone was retired, Rusteck was lifted. He didn’t pitch again for two weeks and then went on the disabled list. When Rusteck came off the DL he was sent back to Jacksonville, where he posted an 0-3 record.  The Mets brought him back when the rosters expended in September, and he did a good job, allowing just one run in nine innings of relief.

But that turned out to be the end of his major league career. Arm trouble limited him to 33 innings in the minors in 1967 and 35 in 1968. Later he had a huge year back in Class AA, going 17-8 in 1971 with a 2.40 ERA. The Phillies thought enough of him to draft him for their AAA team in Eugene, Ore., but he got knocked around in 1972, pitched in Mexico in 1973, then retired from baseball.

In August 1974 Rusteck was eating at a restaurant in Eugene when he ran into Frank Peters, the manager of the Portland Mavericks in the short-season Class A Northwest League. The league was dominated by youngsters new to pro ball, but Portland was not affiliated with a major league organization and was trying to put its best lineup on the field as an independent team. Peters talked Rusteck into making a comeback, and Rusteck spent four seasons with the team, finally giving it up in 1977 at age 36. By the end Rusteck was working as a mortgage banker in Portland and played only in games in Portland or Eugene.

Dave DownsIn 1972, just two years out of high school, Dave Downs put it all together for the Phillies’ Class AA farm club at Reading, Pa., going 15-7 with a 2.41 ERA. His 15 complete games included five shutouts. The Phillies brought him to the majors in September, and the 20-year-old shut out the Braves in his debut. He gave up three runs in seven innings in his next start, with no decision; three runs in just three innings in his next start; then on Sept. 19 he had to come out after four innings because of a stiff shoulder.

That was essentially the end of Downs’ baseball career, as the shoulder never recovered. He didn’t pitch at all in 1973, came back to pitch just 30 innings in the minors in 1974, didn’t pitch at all in 1975 and got shelled in 46 innings in one last comeback attempt in Class A in 1976. Ten years later his younger brother Kelly reached the majors to begin a career that saw him win 57 games and pitch in the 1989 World Series. Of the two, Dave had definitely seemed to be the better prospect.

Paul Marak actually had several good starts in his month in the major leagues with the Braves in September 1990, so as a result none of them can be considered a candidate for the unlikeliest performance, not even his four-hit shutout of the Astros. He had already pitched six shutout innings in a start against the Giants and would later throw eight shutout innings in a rematch with the Astros, both games resulting in no decision. Marak was a sinkerballer who didn’t show much in the minors after his cup of coffee and was pitching in an independent league in 1993.

The most recent player to throw a shutout for his only major league win was Andy Van Hekken, who blanked the Indians in his debut for the Detroit Tigers in 2002. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that was there were only 43 complete game shutouts in the entire American League in 2002, when teams averaged 4.8 runs per game, and this 23-year-old rookie threw one of them for his only major league win. Van Hekken had been a third-round draft choice out of high school and had put up good numbers in the minors, so his strong debut couldn’t have been too much of a shock. He started four more games for the Tigers and, while he didn’t win any others, finished with an ERA of 3.00. But the telling statistic was he struck out only five batters in 30 innings. He never pitched in the majors again, but he knocked around the minors, including some stints in an independent league, through 2011, then went to pitch in Korea. Just last year (2014) he led the Korean league with 20 wins at age 34.

Mark Brownson

Mark Brownson

I’ve been looking at pitchers whose only major league win was a shutout to find unlikely performances…I also looked at pitchers, since 1914, who pitched a shutout in their first major league game, regardless of how many they went on to win. And there I found a great candidate for unlikeliest performance: Mark Brownson, who came up to the majors with the Colorado Rockies in July 1998 to replace injured John Thomson and, in his first game, shut out the Houston Astros, who finished the season with 102 wins and averaged 5.4 runs per game. Brownson had a 5.13 ERA for the Rockies’ Colorado Springs farm club, but he held the Astros hitless for the first five innings. It was one of only two complete game shutouts for the Rockies that season (Darryl Kile pitched the other). Six days later, Brownson was shelled, this time at Coors Field, and went back to the minors. For the (brief) rest of his major league career after his debut he posted an 8.54 ERA, although he did get one more win, in relief with the Phillies in 2000 (and he allowed just one run in seven innings in a 1999 start against the Braves in which he did not get a decision). Brownson’s has to be high on the list of unlikeliest pitching performances.

I thought of another way to identify unlikely pitching performances. Bill James created a “game score” for starting pitchers, to try to roughly quantify how good a performance it was. Baseball-Reference com has calculated the game score for every start in its database since 1914. Here’s the definition, from B-R.com’s glossary:

Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.

I figure, by definition, any game score that’s far above any other game score that pitcher ever recorded would be considered unlikely. So I wanted to look at the pitchers who had the biggest difference between their highest-ever game score and their second-highest game score. (Note this method would not identify pitchers like Don Fisher and Larry Anderson, who made only one major league start, or John McPherson, whose starts are not yet in the database.) I couldn’t create this list using B-R.com’s Play Index, but I asked B-R.com’s creator Sean Forman if he could do that for me, and he was nice enough to oblige.

Let me tell you right off the bat there are two pitchers we’re going to throw out; their performances probably were the unlikeliest of all time, but their game was the most unusual as well. Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore both went the distance in a 26-inning tie between the Braves and Dodgers in 1920. The length of the game really jacks up their game scores (remember, they get three points per inning PLUS two points for EACH inning completed after the fourth). Oeschger gave up just nine hits and four walks; his game score of 153 is the highest ever, and Cadore’s 140 is second. Oeschger was a below-average pitcher for most of his career, but he did win 82 games in the majors; Cadore won 68 games and pitched in the 1920 World Series. Cadore’s 26-inning game score was 53 points higher than the next best in his career, the third-biggest spread ever, Oeschger’s 51-point spread is the fifth-biggest ever.

Carlos Frias

Carlos Frias

But the highest spread between top two game scores occurred just last year (2014). In his eighth season of pro ball, 24-year-old Carlos Frias was brought up to the Dodgers in August. Working out of the bullpen, he allowed at least one run in five of his first eight appearances, with an ERA of 5.65. Then on Sept. 3, manager Don Mattingly gave Frias a start against Washington, and Frias responded with six shutout innings (he came out of a scoreless tie in a game the Dodgers lost in 14 innings, 8-5). Despite pitching just six innings, Frias’ game score was an admirable 69, and Mattingly said the rookie might get another start.

That chance came two weeks later. Unfortunately for Frias, it came at Denver’s Coors Field, and he didn’t get out of the first inning — he faced 11 batters, eight of whom scored (two of them on a hit after Frias left the game). His performance earned a game score of zero (remember, you start the game with 50). Frias didn’t start again, and so that 69-point difference between his best and second-best starts ever is the largest of all time (at least since 1914). Of course, there’s still time for Frias to make another start and cut that gap.

Prior to Frias, the biggest game score difference was held by another man who just made two major league starts; alas, his difference will never be reduced, as he died in 1986. And his story seems to have a lot in common with Don Fisher’s…in fact, their respective unlikely performances both took place in 1945, when World War II had the most impact on available major leaguers. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to dig up much about Wally Holborow, but I think he’s going to make the cut for unlikeliest performances.

Like Fisher, Holborow went to the majors directly from the semi-pro ranks. He had been pitching in his native New York and was with the high-profile Brooklyn Bushwicks when he signed with the Washington Senators in 1944 at age 30. His previous professional experience appears to be limited to three games in the Class C Middle Atlantic League in 1935. Holborow made one relief appearance late in the 1944 season, throwing three scoreless innings, and started the 1945 season in Washington. He wasn’t used often, and almost always in games the Senators were trailing, but he got the job done; he didn’t allow a run in nine of his first 11 appearances, with an ERA of 2.08.

Then on Aug. 4, Nats manager Ossie Bluege selected Holborow to start the first game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox. And he came through…Shirley Povich wrote in the next day’s Washington Post:

Wally Holborow PostBy the way, in the second game of that doubleheader, the Senators were trailing 14-2 in the fourth inning when Bluege called on rookie Bert Shepard, who had lost the lower part of his right leg in the war and pitched with an artificial leg. Shepard finished the game, allowing just one run in 5-1/3 innings, in what turned out to be his only big league appearance (and, to date, the only appearance by a player with an artificial leg). Terry Bohn tells his story on the SABR Bio Project.

Holborow’s shutout didn’t earn him more opportunities; in fact, he made only three appearances the rest of the season, all in relief, and gave up at least one run in each. But he finished the year with a 2.30 ERA in 31-1/3 innings.

From the Washington, D.C., Evening Star of Aug. 31, 1948

From the Washington, D.C., Evening Star of Aug. 31, 1948

After the season, with hundreds of players returning from the military, Holborow turned in his voluntary retirement papers and went back to the Bushwicks. But in late August 1948, A’s owner/manager Connie Mack lured Holborow — then 34 years old (although newspaper reports of his signing said he was 31) — to Philadelphia. And after three relief appearances, Holborow was called on to start the Sept. 23 game at Detroit. The A’s staked him to a 7-2 lead in the fifth inning (Holborow knocked in three of the runs himself), but the Tigers came back, and Sam Vico hit a two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth to give Detroit a 8-7 win. Why didn’t Connie bring in a relief pitcher? Who knows? But Holborow went all the way, facing 43 batters and giving up 16 hits.

Holborow’s game score was 18, 66 points less than the 84 he posted in his 1945 shutout. He made just one more appearance for the A’s and then went back to the Bushwicks. Any further information about Wally Holborow would be much appreciated.

The player with the fourth-highest game score difference (behind Frias, Holborow and Cadore) was the aforementioned Bob Clark (77 in his shutout, 25 in his other start for a difference of 52). Next comes Oeschger, then Bob Lacey, who pitched 282 games in relief from 1977-84. Lacey also made two starts. In the first, he shut out the Brewers on the next-to-last day of the 1980 season. In the second, he gave up five runs in two-plus innings in 1984. Game scores were 77 and 27 for a difference of 50.

The next players on the largest difference list are also ones who made just two starts. Ben Callahan, who pitched briefly for the 1983 A’s, had a score of 61 in his first start and a disastrous 12 (seven runs allowed in 1-1/3 innings) four days later. Next is Don Loun, mentioned earlier (his starts scored at 79 and 30). Mel Stottlemyre, Jr., who pitched for the 1990 Royals, pitched seven shutout innings in his first start, allowing just one hit, for a score of 75; six days later he gave up five runs in three innings for a score of 26. Bob Hartman started twice for the 1962 Indians; he gave up just one run in 10 innings in his first, then five days later gave up five runs in four innings (scores of 86 and 38).

From The Sporting News, Sept. 17, 1952. Raul Sanchez (right) did not pitch his shutout in his major league debut, but it was his first big league start. Mike Fornieles was the first man to pitch at least nine innings and allow no more than one hit in his first major league game; only four others have done it since.

From The Sporting News, Sept. 17, 1952. Raul Sanchez (right) did not pitch his shutout in his major league debut, but it was his first big league start. Mike Fornieles was the first man to pitch at least nine innings and allow no more than one hit in his first major league game; only four others have done it since.

One of the numerous Cubans who played for the Washington Senators in the early 1950s was slender righty Raul Sanchez. The 21-year-old made the team out of spring training in 1952, but he made just one brief relief appearance before manager Bucky Harris decided Sanchez would benefit from more time in the minors. After spending the summer with Havana in the Class B Florida International League, Sanchez returned to Washington in September and in his first outing shut out the Red Sox on five hits (game score 78). Five days later he gave up four runs in three innings against the White Sox (game score 30) and was done for the season. He didn’t return to the majors until 1957 and never started another game in the bigs. He finished his career with a 4.62 ERA in 49 games.

Dick Rusteck, already discussed, has the highest difference between his best and second-best game scores of any pitcher who has started more than two games (aside from Cadore and Oeschger). Rusteck made three starts, his best score being 82 and his next best 35.

Ed Fallenstein/Fallenstin

Ed Fallenstein/Fallenstin

Ed Fallenstein (also known as Fallenstin, which apparently was his real name) had won only five games in the minors when he made the Phillies as a 22-year-old in 1931. An item in The Sporting News early that year said Fallenstein “is credited with having the fastest ball in the [International] league, lacking only control to make him a hugely successful pitcher.” He put up a 7.13 ERA in 24 games with the Phillies and was back in the minors in 1932, this time winning just three games; apparently he suffered a broken hand in there somewhere. But in 1933 he made it with the Boston Braves after beating the defending World Series champion Yankees in an exhibition game (holding them hitless for the first eight innings), and after one relief appearance he pitched a three-hit shutout against the Giants (who would win the National League pennant that year) in his first big league start. His game score was 82. He started three more times, with scores of 36, 32 and 35; the difference of 46 between his two best starts is the most for anyone who started at least four games (again, aside from Oeschger and Cadore). Fallenstein was back in the minors in July and never pitched pro ball again after that season. Aside from his shutout he had a 6.25 career ERA. I’m guessing there’s an interesting story here, and I’d love to know it.

At some point in the near future I’ll do more with the list of pitchers with the biggest differences between their best and second-best game scores. (ADDED 2/7/15: That post is now up.) But for now I think I’ve found everyone I would consider for my extremely subjective list of ten unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history. They are:

  1. Don Fisher, 1945 Giants
  2. John McPherson, 1904 Phillies
  3. Larry Anderson, 1975 Brewers
  4. Bob Clark, 1920 Indians
  5. Mark Brownson, 1998 Rockies
  6. Wally Holborow, 1945 Senators
  7. Ed Fallenstein, 1933 Braves
  8. Mike Modak, 1945 Reds
  9. Claral Gillenwater, 1923 White Sox
  10. Troy Herriage, 1956 A’s

Let’s see how long it takes me to change that list. (ADDED 2/4/15: I’m already thinking I should move Gillenwater up a spot or two.) (ADDED 2/7/15: I’m also having serious second thoughts about leaving Bob Lacey off the list…but I like these ten so much!) Fire away with your comments below!

Don Fisher, Larry Anderson (with an “o”) and the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history

In August 1945, with most major league-caliber players still in military service, the New York Giants signed a 29-year-old electric company employee who was pitching in a Cleveland semi-pro league. Don Fisher‘s previous professional experience consisted of one month in the Class D Northern League seven years earlier. He made a relief appearance for the Giants shortly after joining the team, then didn’t appear in a game for more than a month until manager Mel Ott chose him to start a game on the final day of the season.

Don Fisher was with the New York Giants for only about seven weeks in 1945 and pitched in only two games, but he was there when the team picture was taken. Sorry I can't make this any clearer.

Don Fisher was with the New York Giants for only about seven weeks in 1945 and pitched in only two games, but he was there when the team picture was taken. Sorry I can’t make this any clearer.

Naturally, he pitched a 13-inning shutout.

He never played another game in the majors and won a grand total of three games in the rest of his professional career, thus making his one major league victory, at least in my eyes, the unlikeliest pitching performance ever.

Don Fisher was born in Cleveland in 1916 and attended John Adams High School, where he was a classmate of Al Curry, who also pitched professionally and was a semi-pro teammate. A 1945 story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer mentioned Fisher’s time with Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League; while he is listed in the 1939 Spalding’s Baseball Guide, his statistics aren’t given since he didn’t appear in ten games or pitch 35 innings.

Fisher apparently started pitching in Cleveland’s adult “sandlot” leagues in 1937, and by 1944 he was with the powerhouse team sponsored by Bartunek Clothes. He posted a 12-2 record that year as the Bartuneks won their fourth straight Class A city championship, and in September he struck out 23 batters while pitching an 11-inning shutout in a National Baseball Federation tournament game. At one point in 1945 he put together 33 consecutive scoreless innings, and on July 24 he struck out 16 in a four-hit shutout while contributing a home run and two singles to his own cause.

From The New York Times, August 21, 1945

From The New York Times, August 21, 1945

Don Fisher in a Bartunek Clothes uniform in 1945. The patch commemorates the team's Class A city championships in 1941, '42, '43 and '44.

Don Fisher in a Bartunek Clothes uniform in 1945. The patch commemorates the team’s Class A city championships in 1941, ’42, ’43 and ’44.

Fisher (whose day job was as “a trouble shooter for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co.“) had a 9-1 record for the Bartuneks in 1945 when he signed with the Giants on August 20. Apparently the Giants weren’t the first to try to land him in those player-strapped times; a Plain Dealer story published on July 12, 1945 said Fisher “has had offers from major league teams, his latest being from Connie Mack last month, but has turned them down.” (I have not been able to find out what kept Fisher out of the military during World War II. He was married in 1938, he and his wife had two daughters but I don’t know when they were born. The July 1945 Plain Dealer story mentioned teammate Al Curry was discharged from the Army because of a knee injury but did not say why Fisher had not served.)

Five days after signing, on August 25, Fisher made his major league debut, entering a game at Brooklyn with nobody out in the fourth inning and the Giants trailing 9-0. He went the rest of the way in a game the Giants lost 13-3. “[Manager] Mel Ott’s only source of comfort,” John Drebinger wrote in the next day’s New York Times, “came from watching his latest hurler, Don Fisher, a husky right-hander from the sandlots of Cleveland, hold the flock reasonably well in check.” Fisher gave up just two hits in five innings (although he walked four and hit two batters) and even contributed an RBI double.

Five days later, on August 30, Fisher was cuffed for five runs in four innings in an exhibition game against a service team from Long Island’s Mitchel Field, and whether that was the reason or not, Ott didn’t use him again…until the last day of the season, Sept. 30, when Ott tabbed him to start the first game of a doubleheader in Boston against the Braves. It was a crisp fall day; the New York Times game story the next day referred to “half-frozen fans” and said “most of the players [were] benumbed by the cold.”

Don Fisher earned the headline in his hometown Cleveland Plain Dealer after his first -- and only -- major league win

Don Fisher earned the headline in his hometown Cleveland Plain Dealer after his first — and only — major league win

Retrosheet does not yet have a full play-by-play of this game, but the Times story says Ott allowed Fisher to bat in both the 11th and 13th innings as the skipper was “anxious to see just how far the big rookie could go in his first start.” The at-bat in the 13th came immediately after Giants third baseman Nap Reyes hit a home run to center field to break a scoreless tie, and Fisher retired the Braves in the bottom of the inning to earn a 1-0 win.

The Boston Globe game story said Braves left fielder Tommy Holmes got hits in each of his first four at-bats against Fisher to edge ahead of the Cubs’ Phil Cavarretta in the National League batting race. But Fisher retired Holmes in his final two at-bats, and when Holmes went 0-for-2 in the nightcap against Giants rookie Sal Maglie (a game that was called after seven innings because of darkness), he finished three points behind Cavarretta, .355 to .352 (although Holmes did lead the league in hits by a wide margin with 224). Cavarretta went 2-for-4 for the Cubs that day and would have lost the batting title had he been held hitless.

Fisher allowed a total of 10 hits in his 13 innings of work (nine singles and a double) and walked three while striking out two. He committed one of the Giants’ two errors and went 0-for-5 at the plate without striking out.

By the way, 13 innings does not seem to be the major league record for longest appearance in a first major league start. I believe, but can’t verify, that record is 14-1/3 innings by Herman “Hi” Bell of the St. Louis Cardinals on May 30, 1924 at Pittsburgh. Bell had six previous relief appearances before his first start.

Fisher went to spring training with the Giants in 1946, but with everyone back from the war the Giants were no longer desperate for bodies; there were 25 pitchers in camp and he was near the bottom of the pecking order. On April 1 he was assigned to their top farm club at Jersey City of the International League. Apparently Fisher did not pitch well there; his record in nine games was 2-3, but only those who pitched in 10 or more games had their full stats in the 1947 Sporting News Baseball Guide, so we don’t know what the rest of his stat line looked like. In any event Jersey City released him in June. (Fisher did hit in Jersey City, though, going 9-for-19 with four doubles. His batting stats are included in the guide because he appeared in 10 games, one of which must have been as a pinch-hitter.) Columbus of the American Association signed him, but he didn’t do well there either, posting a 1-5 record with a 5.02 ERA and walking 33 men in 52 innings. (His batting cooled off too, going 4-for-19 with no extra-base hits.)

And so, a year after pitching a 13-inning shutout in his first major league start, Don Fisher’s professional baseball career was over. He went back to Cleveland (although I’ve found no evidence that he returned to semi-pro baseball) and put in a total of 37 years at Cleveland Electric Illuminating before he died at age 57 in 1973. His obituary proudly listed him as a “former major league pitcher”:

Don Fisher obitDon Fisher is a member of two very exclusive clubs: he is one of just five men who pitched a shutout in their last major league game, and one of only four who pitched a shutout in their only major league start. Another fellow on the latter list is another strong candidate for the unlikeliest pitching performance ever.

A 1971 photo in the Los Angeles Times

A 1971 photo in the Los Angeles Times

Larry Anderson (not to be confused with his contemporary Larry Andersen, with an “e,” who had a long career as a major league relief pitcher) had a tough time during his senior season in 1971 at El Rancho High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Pico Rivera. “He throws awfully hard out there on the mound,” his coach, Jack Witherspooon, told the Los Angeles Times. “We tried four or five fellows behind the plate before we finally found a catcher who could catch him. By that time, the season was almost over.” Despite a 1.43 ERA, Anderson’s record was only 6-5, two of the losses coming by scores of 1-0. “Both times they scored their runs on errors,” Witherspoon said. “We were trying different guys at catcher then, and although Larry struck out several men, the catcher would drop the third strike or miss it completely.”

The Milwaukee Brewers figured they had guys who were up to the task of holding on to Anderson’s pitches, so they selected him on the second round of the June 1971 amateur draft. In retrospect, it wasn’t a shining moment for the Brewers’ scouting department; George Brett was taken two picks later, with Mike Schmidt selected right after that. (It hadn’t gone any better in the first round, when the Brewers took Tommy Bianco with the third pick overall; Jim Rice was taken 15th.)

Anderson was assigned to the Brewers’ Newark (N.Y.) farm club in the short-season New York-Pennsylvania league, where his pro career got off to an inauspicious start: he walked the first five batters he faced in the opening day game against Niagara Falls. It set the tone for his season, as he walked 57 men in 69 innings and finished with a 6.65 ERA. (He also threw 13 wild pitches, which would be a major issue for the rest of his pro career. Maybe the catchers weren’t really the problem at El Rancho High.)

Anderson finally got settled down somewhat in the Class A Midwest League in 1973 and was promoted to make three reasonably good starts in Class AA at the end of the season. He was still only 20 years old and had struck out 300 batters in 283 pro innings, in an era in which averaging more than a strikeout an inning was quite unusual. (Of course, he had also walked 184 and thrown 45 wild pitches.)

Unfortunately a photo like this does not exist of Hughes Stadium, but here's what the LA Coliseum looked like in baseball mode, with a similar short left field

Unfortunately a photo like this does not exist of Hughes Stadium, but here’s what the LA Coliseum looked like in baseball mode, with a similar short left field

His reward in 1974 was to start the season in Class AAA. Turned out to be not much of a reward, as the Brewers had shifted their AAA affiliation to Sacramento, which was fielding a pro team for the first time in 14 years. The former ballpark had been long since torn down, so the team played at Hughes Stadium, the football/track facility at Sacramento City College. In its baseball alignment it was very much like the Los Angeles Coliseum, another ovular facility where the Dodgers made their home when they first landed in California. Only Hughes was worse.

The left field fence was at first reported to be 261 feet away from home plate (professional rules require fences to be at least 250 feet from home), topped by a 40 foot fishnet screen. Only it turned out when it was actually measured, after the season had started, the fence was just 233 feet from the plate. As a result games at Hughes resembled slow-pitch softball. Twice that season there were 14 home runs hit in a game. For the year there were 491 home runs hit in 72 games — 250 by the home Solons (who hit just 55 on the road) and 241 by their opponents (Sacramento pitchers allowed 60 on the road). The park was slightly reconfigured for the next two seasons, dropping home-run totals by about one-third, but it was still the most generous venue for home runs in pro baseball until the team moved to San Jose in 1977.

Not only did the Sacramento Solons have the coziest park in pro baseball, they also played in shorts sometimes

Not only did the Sacramento Solons have the coziest park in pro baseball, they also played in shorts sometimes

Hughes Stadium deserves its own post, and I’ll get to that someday, but for now I’ll send you here. There’s also a good chapter about the Hughes Stadium years in John E. Spalding’s book “Sacramento Senators and Solons: Baseball in California’s Capital, 1886 to 1976.”

Anyway, Larry Anderson had to call Hughes Stadium home to start the 1974 season, and while he didn’t pitch all his games at Hughes, he put up one of the ugliest stat lines ever in Class AAA. In nine games for Sacramento, all starts, he pitched 33 innings (less than four innings per start), walked 34, gave up 13 home runs, threw 11 wild pitches (he finished the season fifth in the Pacific Coast League in that category despite pitching just the 33 innings) and had an 0-5 record with a 10.91 ERA.

The Brewers had mercy on the youngster and sent him down to Class AA Shreveport, where he posted a pedestrian-looking 7-8 record (for a team that finished 20 games under .500) with a 4.04 ERA (right around league average). But that was enough to make the front office want to take a look at their former second-round draft pick in a big league uniform, so Anderson was called up to Milwaukee in September and made his major league debut with two scoreless relief appearances in the final week of the season.

In 1975, Anderson — still just 22 years old — started the season in AA before earning a trip back to Sacramento, where he was battered around just like every other pitcher who wore a Solons uniform (7-9, 5.48). The most remarkable thing about his minor league season was he threw 37 wild pitches (!) in a total of 166 innings at the two levels, and he led the Pacific Coast League with 27 despite not spending the entire season there (nobody else threw more than 18). Anderson walked 95 batters in 110 innings for Sacramento and also led the PCL in hit batsmen.

This may not sound like a resume begging for a major league call-up to you, but the Brewers felt otherwise and brought Anderson back to Milwaukee in September 1975. As you might guess, it did not go well. He gave up five runs in three innings in his first appearance, five runs in three innings in his second and four runs in 5-1/3 innings in his third, all in relief. In seven relief appearances in September he had a 7.17 ERA and a .344 batting average against (miraculously, he walked just four men in 21-1/3 innings, although he threw six wild pitches).

And then, on the last day of the season, September 28, 1975, Larry Anderson got the ball for his first big league start, at Milwaukee’s County Stadium.

Larry Anderson

Larry Anderson

The record doesn’t show who chose Anderson to start. It was likely Del Crandall, who had considered starting Anderson earlier in the month, but Crandall was fired as the Brewers’ manager three hours before the game, so coach Harvey Kuenn made his managerial debut as the interim skipper. In any event, if Anderson was Crandall’s choice, Kuenn stuck with it. And Anderson shut out the Detroit Tigers (finishing a dismal 57-102 season) on just five hits, all singles, walked just two men and didn’t throw a wild pitch.

Who saw that performance coming?

This clearly was the pitcher the Brewers expected when they drafted him ahead of George Brett and Mike Schmidt. (Meanwhile, the 1975 season ended with Brett leading the American League in hits and Schmidt leading the National League in home runs.)

Larry Anderson never started another major league game. He spent the entire 1976 season at the Pacific Coast League; the Brewers had moved their affiliation to Spokane, but Anderson’s numbers were just as ugly as they had been in Sacramento — a 6.14 ERA, 100 walks in 145 innings, a league-leading 25 wild pitches, and for the first time in his pro career he walked more batters than he struck out. Yet Toronto selected him in the American League expansion draft. Two months later the Blue Jays sent him to the White Sox as part payment for veteran catcher Phil Roof, whom the Jays had actually acquired before the expansion draft.

Anderson started the 1977 season with the Sox’ Class AAA Iowa farm club, where he was moved to the bullpen…and for a brief time everything finally seemed to click. He had a 1.24 ERA when he was called up to Chicago. He was the losing pitcher the night he joined the White Sox, June 7, when shortstop Alan Bannister made a throwing error on a potentially-inning-ending ground ball in the bottom of the 11th to allow the winning run to score. (The Chicago Tribune’s Richard Dozer reported Anderson twice nearly threw wild pitches while issuing intentional walks, then was asleep at the switch when Rod Carew and Jerry Terrell pulled a double steal to send the winning run to third base in the 11th.) Two nights later Anderson entered a tie game at Texas with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth, got out of the inning unscathed, then pitched two more scoreless innings to get the win.

It was all downhill from there. Anderson made four more appearances for the Chisox, was the losing pitcher in two of them, and was ineffective in all four. When he was returned to Iowa his major league stat line showed 11 unintentional walks and four wild pitches in just 8-2/3 innings, with a 9.35 ERA. His reward for his time in Chicago was a check for $38.17, his share of the postseason loot the Sox collected for finishing third in the American League West Division (his teammates voted him a 1/12 share).

Anderson bounced around the minors for a few more years with the usual results. Along the way he led the Class AAA American Association in wild pitches in 1978 with 25, in just 90 innings (no one else in the league threw more than 14). His last season in pro ball was 1980…the same year George Brett faced Mike Schmidt in the World Series after both won their league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Well, since I’ve told you about two of the four guys who pitched shutouts in their only major league start, I might as well tell you about the other two, even though I don’t think either is a candidate for unlikeliest pitching performance ever…

Luis AlomaLuis Aloma was one of several Cuban players on the White Sox in the early 1950s (and was reportedly the most fluent in English of the bunch). As a rookie in 1950 he pitched in 42 games, all in relief (the third-most appearances of any major league pitcher that year who didn’t start a game), with a 7-2 record. Early in the 1951 season he went on the disabled list with a sore arm (Sox general manager Frank Lane blamed it on Aloma’s having pitched winter ball in Cuba) and didn’t make his season debut until June 2. Team physician John Claridge finally decided Aloma’s arm problems were the result of infected tonsils; whether or not that was the proper diagnosis, Aloma had his tonsils out June 11 and reported his arm immediately felt better (according to a story in The Sporting News of August 20, 1952).

On Sunday, June 19, Aloma was pressed into service to start the second game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia. It was the Sox’ third twin-bill in four days, with a single game on Saturday. Aloma responded with a five-hit shutout, all the hits being singles, and faced just 31 batters in a 9-0 Chicago win. But it appears Aloma’s arm was tender afterward, and manager Paul Richards wasn’t tempted to start him again.

“After giving the situation a lot of thought,” Richards said, “I realize [Aloma] can be of greater service to the team as a relief hurler. Aloma is the type who keeps firing hard all the way. You have to have stamina to do that. He can retain it for short relief stints.”

Aloma spent four years in the majors, making 115 relief appearances in addition to his start, and finished with a career record of 18-3, including wins in 13 consecutive decisions from August 1950 through September 1952. His longest relief appearance was six innings, and he pitched five innings or more in relief eight times.

Frank Williams

Frank Williams

The most recent player to hurl a shutout in his only major league start has an asterisk attached. Frank Williams needed to pitch only five innings to get a rain-shortened win at St. Louis on May 5, 1984. The rookie got the word from manager Frank Robinson he would be starting just eight minutes before gametime, when Mark Grant realized during warmups that a blister on his pitching hand wasn’t quite healed. Robinson really had no choice; the Giants were short-staffed, as starter Mike Krukow was away from the team after his wife’s miscarriage and Renie Martin (who had started in previous seasons but did not start a game in 1984) was away because his father had died.

Williams gave up just two hits in his shortened shutout and had to sit through an 81-minute rain delay after the fourth inning. He actually had a longer appearance in relief later in the season, throwing six shutout innings in an extra-inning game at Pittsburgh July 13. He made a total of 332 relief appearances in a fine six-year major league career.

Frank and his twin brother were given up for adoption at birth; he was a homeless alcoholic when he died at age 50. Tom Hawthorn, perhaps the greatest author of baseball obituaries, tells his gripping story here.

Bobo HollomanBack to unlikely pitching performances: you can’t keep Bobo Holloman off the list. All he did was pitch a no-hitter in his first major league start in 1953 (and he drove in three runs in the game); he won only two other games in the majors, never pitched in the big leagues again after that season and was out of baseball the next year. I’m going to keep Fisher and Anderson ahead of him, since Bobo actually pitched eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits, in a game later in 1953, plus he had been a good pitcher in the minors and in winter ball before reaching the big leagues. Len Pasculli does an excellent job telling Holloman’s story on the SABR Baseball Biography Project.

Billy RohrAnother excellent candidate is Billy Rohr, who was one strike away from pitching a no-hitter in his major league debut as a 21-year-old on April 14, 1967 at Yankee Stadium and finished with a one-hit shutout. Rohr followed that up with another complete game against the Yankees in which he allowed just one run. After those back-to-back wins to start his career he won just one game in the majors, with a 7.80 ERA for the rest of his career. If you want to put Rohr ahead of Anderson, based on just how good Rohr’s game was, I wouldn’t blame you, but he did at least have one other good start, which is one more than Anderson had. Rohr’s story is also on the SABR Bio Project.

Other candidates who come to mind for the unlikeliest pitching performance: 20-year-old Rob Gardner pitching 15 shutout innings in his fourth major league start (Gardner went on to win 14 games in his major league career)…Philip Humber’s 2012 perfect game (to date Humber has a 16-23 career major league record with a 5.31 ERA)…what else comes to mind? I’m sure someone can create some sort of mathematical formula. Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.

P.S. In a similar vein, the wonderful researcher Tom Ruane wrote an article on “Most Surprising Pitching Performances” in 2014. And here’s a blog post on “The Ten Unlikeliest No-Hitters in Baseball History,” which includes Bobo Holloman and Phil Humber. I still say the games pitched by Don Fisher, Larry Anderson and Billy Rohr were even more unlikely than either Holloman’s or Humber’s.

ADDED 1/18/15: I’ve found some other great candidates for unlikeliest pitching performance ever — although there’s still no beating Don Fisher in my book. Stay tuned for an upcoming post with details. (Which I have now posted!)

Lefty Grove did a lot of great things as a pitcher for the Philadelphia A’s — just not this one

I was reading “My Turf,” William Nack’s anthology of features he wrote for Sports Illustrated, when I came across this in a 1996 article he wrote about the Philadelphia A’s:

Tales of [Lefty] Grove’s exploits abound. One afternoon while leading the Yankees 1-0 in the ninth inning, Grove gave up a triple to the leadoff hitter, shortstop Mark Koenig. Throwing nothing but darts, Grove then struck out [Babe] Ruth, [Lou] Gehrig and Bob Meusel. On nine pitches.

Talk about studly! Only it never happened.

Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove

Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove

I’ll take advantage of the tools Nack didn’t have — Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com — to try to verify this tale. Turns out Grove pitched only four of the 35 shutouts he threw in his 17-year major league career against the Yankees. Of those, only one ended in a score of 1-0:  a game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park on September 3, 1927. But a quick check of the box score shows Koenig was hitless in that game. Ruth, Gehrig and Meusel did bat behind Koenig, in that order, but the number of plate appearances in the box score shows Gehrig, not Meusel, made the last out of the game. And Retrosheet has the play-by-play of the ninth inning:

Combs grounded out (pitcher to first); Koenig lined to center; Ruth singled to left; Gehrig was called out on strikes.

That’s a whole different story than Nack told. In fact, the play-by-play shows the Yankees never got a runner as far as third base in the game.

Of course, something happened in this game that IS part of Nack’s tale: Grove did strike out the side. But the Retrosheet play-by-play shows it came in the second inning, not the ninth….and the batters were not Ruth, Gehrig and Meusel but Meusel, Tony Lazzeri and Joe Dugan. Nor did Grove need just nine pitches to fan them, although according to the New York Times of September 4, he came close. John Drebinger wrote:

There was a deafening roar from the crowd as Grove struck out Meusel, Lazzeri and Dugan in the second inning on ten pitched balls. None of the statisticians present could recall when any pitcher had done anything like this against the Yanks this year. Dugan alone managed to get as much as a foul off the lean left-hander in this round.

Drebinger does not clarify whether Dugan’s foul came with two strikes on him — meaning all ten of Grove’s pitches in the inning were strikes — or if one of the pitches was called a ball.

So if Nack’s account isn’t exactly true as told, perhaps the sequence he described happened in another game that wasn’t a 1-0 shutout? Maybe with a leadoff triple in the ninth inning of a one-run game, followed by three successive strikeouts? Grove had only one other complete game one-run victory over the Yankees in which he gave up at least one triple, a 2-1 triumph in the first game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 1926. Retrosheet doesn’t have play-by-play of that game, but the New York Times game story the next day doesn’t tell any tale that resembles Nack’s yarn. Koenig had but two triples against Grove as a Yankee, both of them in games the Yankees won easily: Opening Day 1927 and June 27, 1928. Retrosheet has play-by-play of the 1927 game; Koenig’s triple came with two out in the sixth inning, and he scored on a single by Ben Paschal pinch-hitting for Babe Ruth (the last player ever to bat for the Babe). There is no play-by-play of the 1928 game, but Grove struck out only two batters in the game, so the strike-out-the-side-after-a-triple scenario isn’t possible.

I haven’t checked all of Grove’s 300 career wins, let alone his 457 career starts, to see if the triple-strikeout-strikeout-strikeout sequence appears in any of them, but it’s safe to say Grove never did what Nack said he did. Where Nack got the idea that he had is not credited in the article, but he did quote several of Grove’s contemporaries — all then in their late 80s or early 90s — so it’s likely one of them passed on this misremembered story and Nack swallowed it as fact, with no objections from SI’s fact checkers. It’s a great story that would have been even better if it were true.

The Detroit Tigers’ streak of 12 consecutive complete games in 1968

I have a collection of recordings of old baseball radio broadcasts. Recently I was listening to the September 20, 1968 game between the Cardinals and Dodgers; Harry Caray, while reviewing the out-of-town scoreboard, mentioned the Detroit Tigers’ streak of 12 consecutive complete games had come to an end.

I’ll bet that Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak will both be broken before any team throws 12 straight complete games again.

Denny McLain pitched four of the 1968 Tigers' 12 consecutive complete games. His 30th win of the season was the eighth game of the streak.

Denny McLain pitched four of the 1968 Tigers’ 12 consecutive complete games. His 30th win of the season was the eighth game of the streak.

To put the streak in perspective: as I write this, no major league team has had 12 complete games in an entire season in any of the last three years (2012-14). In fact, no team has had as many as 10 in a season during that period. In 2014, pitchers threw a complete game in just 2.4% of their starts (118 of 4860). The Mets, Rockies, Cubs, Mariners, Pirates, Phillies and Twins COMBINED had just 11 complete games.

But things were different in 1968, the most offensively-challenged season of modern times: the 20 major league teams combined to average just 3.42 runs per game with a .237 batting average and .340 slugging percentage. And starting pitchers went the distance more than a quarter of the time (27.6%, to be precise, 897 of 3250), making it more than 10 times as likely as it is today. The Tigers had 59 complete games in 1968 and didn’t even lead the majors; the Cardinals, the team Detroit defeated in the World Series, had 63, while the Giants had 77, nearly half their games (and the second-most of any team in the last 60 years; the team with the most will come up later).

Still, the odds against a team that gets a complete game even half the time stringing together a streak of 12 straight are pretty staggering. (Just to show how difficult it is, the 1917 Red Sox had complete games in 115 of their 157 games, and yet their longest streak was 12. Those 1968 Giants? Their longest streak was seven.) And yet, in looking at issues from The Sporting News from 1968, I find no acknowledgment of the Tigers’ streak, let alone how unusual it was.

Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool, I found the streaks of 12 or more consecutive complete games in a season going back to 1914, which is as far as the database goes:

StrEAk Start End Games W L SHO ERA
NYY 1922-04-19 1922-05-07 18 12 6 4 2.37
DET 1918-07-12 1918-07-30 18 11 7 4 1.52
NYY 1923-08-27 1923-09-13 17 14 3 2 2.21
BRO 1919-09-11 1919-09-27 16 9 7 1 3.10
PHI 1919-08-26 1919-09-10 15 6 9 1 3.00
NYY 1922-05-24 1922-06-08 14 9 5 0 3.28
BOS 1918-07-04 1918-07-17 14 11 3 6 1.39
PHI 1917-05-31 1917-06-17 14 8 6 3 1.90
BOS 1919-08-28 1919-09-11 13 11 2 4 2.21
CHC 1919-05-31 1919-06-12 13 11 2 3 0.89
BSN 1918-05-21 1918-06-04 13 8 5 1 2.11
NYY 1917-04-24 1917-05-13 13 7 6 2 1.42
BSN 1914-09-21 1914-09-30 13 11 1 2 1.78
DET 1968-09-06 1968-09-19 12 10 2 3 1.67
CHC 1936-06-04 1936-06-16 12 12 0 1 2.42
CHC 1931-08-16 1931-08-24 12 6 6 1 2.00
CLE 1929-08-29 1929-09-12 12 8 4 3 2.31
NYY 1921-06-22 1921-07-04 12 10 2 0 2.50
BSN 1917-08-29 1917-09-08 12 7 5 2 2.61
BOS 1917-04-24 1917-05-13 12 9 3 3 1.07
CIN 1943-09-25 1943-10-03 12 10 2 5 0.90
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/22/2014.

 

Notice 12 of these 21 streaks came before 1920, during the deadball era. That means there have been just nine complete game streaks of 12 games or longer in a single season since 1920…the last of which was by the 1968 Tigers. Theirs was the longest since the 1943 Reds finished the season with 12 straight complete games (and then opened the 1944 season with six straight CGs). The last team before the Tigers to have a longer stretch of complete games was the 1923 Yankees, who had 17 in a row.

Let’s look at that Tiger streak. The last game before it came on September 4, when starting pitcher John Hiller was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the eighth in a tie game at Oakland. The Tigers scored two runs in that inning, and Pat Dobson pitched the final two frames to get the save and keep Detroit eight games ahead of second-place Baltimore.

September 6: The Tigers scored four runs in the bottom of the first, three of them on a home run by Willie Horton, and went on to beat the Twins 8-3. Denny McLain struck out 12 to improve his season record to 28-5, the most wins for any major leaguer since Hal Newhouser won 29 for the Tigers in 1944.

Graig Nettles gained his greatest fame as a Yankee, but he broke into the majors with the Minnesota Twins in 1968.

Graig Nettles gained his greatest fame as a Yankee, but he broke into the majors with the Minnesota Twins in 1968.

September 7: Rookie Graig Nettles led off the top of the ninth with a home run, his second of the game, to give the Twins a 2-1 win over the Tigers. Nettles had also homered off McLain the previous night in his major league debut. Dobson took  a four-hitter into the ninth, and Tiger manager Mayo Smith left him in to finish the game after giving up the tie-breaking homer. Had the Tigers tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, after Dobson was lifted for a pinch-hitter, a relief pitcher would have entered the game, but when the Tigers failed to score Dobson got credit for the complete game.

September 8: For the second straight day a Tiger pitched a complete game in defeat, as Earl Wilson lost to Dean Chance and the Twins 3-1…and again the hero was the rookie Nettles, who for the second straight game drove in all the Minnesota runs, hitting a three-run homer in the sixth inning. After Tom Matchick singled to open the bottom of the eighth, Smith let Wilson go to the plate as the tying run and he struck out. Letting Wilson bat in that situation wasn’t a shock; he hit seven homers in 88 at-bats in 1968 and was used as a pinch-hitter six times. (By the way, the record for most consecutive complete game losses for a team, at least since 1914? Seven, by the 1940 Philadelphia A’s.)

September 9: In Anaheim, Mickey Lolich pitched a two-hit shutout and drove in a run himself with a double as the Tigers blanked the Angels 6-0. A three-run first inning (including a two-run homer by Horton) got the Tigers off to a flying start.

September 10: McLain struck out 12 for the second straight time and coasted to a 7-2 win over the Angels, his teammates having staked him to a 6-0 lead before the Angels hit a pair of solo homers in the sixth. McLain had three hits of his own, including the first triple of his major league career (he would hit another in 1971), and drove in two runs in earning his 29th win; to that point he was 17-1 on the road (he would lose his only start away from Tiger Stadium after that). California starter Andy Messersmith took his first major league loss.

September 11: The Tigers got off to another hot start, scoring five runs in the second inning and two more in the third (Horton leading off both innings with a homer), allowing John Hiller to go the distance in a 8-2 win over the Angels despite allowing 10 hits and walking three. Hiller would go on to have some outstanding seasons as a relief pitcher for the Tigers, but in 1968 he started 12 games and went the distance in four of them.

A fine pitcher, Earl Wilson was also a threat with the bat in his hand, hitting 35 career home runs.

A fine pitcher, Earl Wilson was also a threat with the bat in his hand, hitting 35 career home runs.

September 13: After a day off to get home from the West Coast, the Tigers blanked the A’s 3-0 on a 10-hit shutout by Wilson, whose homer accounted for Detroit’s final run. (Claude Osteen of the Dodgers pitched a 10-hit shutout the same day; there were only two other 10-hit shutouts in 1968, and nobody allowed more hits in a shutout that year.) Manager Smith allowed Wilson to pitch out of trouble, as the A’s put runners on second and third with nobody out in the seventh inning, first and third with nobody out in the eighth and first and second with one out in the ninth. In his roundup of American League games in the next day’s newspapers, Associated Press writer Hal Bock noted the Tigers had turned in seven straight complete games.

 

September 14: Coming into this game, McLain had already pitched 304 innings on the season; that, combined with the tension that had mounted as the possibility grew that he could win 30 games, made Denny a little shaky in this game in front of a home crowd of 44,087 (the box score shows just the paid attendance) and a national television audience (back in the era when just one game each week was available to the whole country). Reggie Jackson, in his first full major league season, hit a two-run homer off McLain in the top of the fourth; then, after Norm Cash hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning, Bert Campaneris tied the game with an RBI single in the fifth and Reggie put the A’s ahead with a solo homer in the sixth.

A photo taken after Denny McLain's 30th win in 1968.

A photo taken after Denny McLain’s 30th win in 1968.

But McLain settled down after that, retiring nine of the last ten men he faced. The Tigers still trailed 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth, and manager Smith used Al Kaline to pinch-hit for McLain leading off. Kaline walked, later scored on a throwing error by Danny Cater, and Willie Horton then singled home Mickey Stanley to give the Tigers a 5-4 victory. making McLain the major leagues’ first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. (No one has done it since.) This was the only game of the streak in which the Tigers allowed more than three runs.

It was the second time in the Tigers’ complete game streak that the pitcher had been removed for a pinch-hitter in the Tigers’ last at-bat. McLain nearly didn’t make it to the ninth inning. In the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers had men on first and second with two out when Smith called on Gates Brown (who went 18-for-40 as a pinch-hitter in 1968) to bat for Don Wert, with McLain on deck. Had Brown walked, or gotten a hit that did not give the Tigers the lead, McLain may well have been lifted for a hitter. But Brown popped up on the first pitch and McLain was free to return to the mound.

September 15: The Tigers again scored early, with three runs in the first inning, and kept the runs coming in a 13-0 rout of the A’s. Mickey Lolich pitched a three-hitter, striking out 12, for his second straight shutout.

September 16: A familiar formula…the Tigers scored four in the first inning, five more in the second, and Hiller cruised to a 9-1 victory over the visiting Yankees. That ended a 10-game winning streak by the Yankees and allowed the Tigers to clinch at least a tie for the American League pennant (the Orioles defeated the Red Sox that night to prevent the Tigers from winning the flag outright).

September 17: Joe Sparma, who had driven in the only run of the game in the fifth inning, took a three-hit shutout into the top of the ninth, only to have the Yankees tie the game on Jake Gibbs’ two-out RBI single. Manager Smith left Sparma in the game to face the next batter, Mickey Mantle, who struck out. The first two Tiger batters were retired in the bottom of the ninth, then a walk, single and walk loaded the bases and Don Wert singled to give the Tigers a 2-1 victory. (Sparma did not come to the plate in the ninth.) Sparma had been a last-minute choice to start the game after scheduled starter Earl Wilson strained a muscle in his pitching shoulder while warming up. It marked the 29th time in 1968 the Tigers had won a game in their last at-bat, and it gave the team its first pennant since 1945. Detroit had actually clinched the pennant a few minutes before Wert’s winning hit, when Baltimore lost to Boston, but Tiger general manager Jim Campbell didn’t announce that result to the Tiger Stadium crowd of 46,512, fearing they would swarm the field before their own game was done.

MantleSeptember 19: After the Tigers’ first rainout of the season on the 18th, McLain took the mound again and defeated the Yankees 6-2. Norm Cash broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth, and the Tigers went on to score another run in that inning and two more in the seventh. The game is best remembered for Mickey Mantle’s 535th major league home run, breaking a tie with Jimmie Foxx and moving him into sole possession of third place on the all-time list at that time, behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. (To that date Hank Aaron had 508.) The home run came in the eighth inning with the Tigers leading by five and was a gift from McLain (“a medium fastball delivered with senatorial courtesy,” Joe Durso wrote in the next day’s New York Times). “That Mantle — he was my idol,” McLain said after the game. “Baseball is going to be sad when he leaves.” (Mantle retired the following spring.) The win was McLain’s 31st and last of the season; he made two more starts and allowed just one earned run but won neither.

That made it nine straight wins and 12 straight complete games for the Tigers (and note all the complete games went nine innings, no rain-shortened games or road losses in which the home team didn’t bat in the bottom of the ninth). The winning streak continued the next night, when the Tigers went to Washington and defeated the Senators 6-3, thanks to three homers accounting for four runs in the top of the eighth inning. But Mayo Smith intentionally ended the complete-game streak when he batted for Mickey Lolich in the top of the eighth after the Tigers had gone up by three runs. “I’d like to leave [Lolich] in long enough to get the win, but I don’t want him to go the full nine,” Smith had told his Senators counterpart Jim Lemon before the game. Pat Dobson, who had been the last relief pitcher used by the Tigers two weeks earlier, worked the final two innings to save the Tigers’ 100th win of the season. Detroit played eight more games, and no starting pitcher worked more than seven innings in any of them as Smith cut back on their workload to prepare for the World Series.

Since 1968, no team has threatened the Tigers’ complete-game streak. The closest any team came was the 1980 Oakland A’s, when the combination of Billy Martin and the designated hitter led to 94 CGs, the most of any team since the White Sox finished what they started 106 times in 1941 (their longest consecutive streak was 10). The A’s had nine straight complete games from August 9-17; they also had seven straight in July and six in a row in September. Since 1980, the longest streak was five, by Martin’s A’s in 1981; the longest streak since then has been four, most recently by the 1992 Red Sox. The last team to get three in a row was the 2010 A’s. The Tigers and Braves were the only teams to get back-to-back complete games (once each) in 2014.

The 1968 Tigers had another unusual pitching achievement, although I don’t know how it stacks up all time. Mayo Smith went more than three weeks — 20 games — without changing pitchers during an inning. On September 3, Roy Face replaced Earl Wilson with two out in the bottom of the eighth in Oakland; that was the last mid-inning change until the next-to-last game of the season, September 28, when Jon Warden replaced Don McMahon with two out in the top of the ninth against the Senators. In between the Tigers either had complete games or relief pitchers entered at the start of an inning.