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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Back 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.
Another 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. UPDATE 8/4/15: ESPN’s Gordon Edes has spoken with Rohr and written a great story. Rohr is now an attorney in Palm Springs, California.
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!)