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.
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.
The 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 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:
John 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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
Powell 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.
A 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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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 second-biggest spread ever, Oeschger’s 51-point spread is the fourth-biggest ever.
But the highest spread between top two game scores is held by a man who just made two major league starts. 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:
By 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.
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).
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 (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:
- Don Fisher, 1945 Giants
- John McPherson, 1904 Phillies
- Larry Anderson, 1975 Brewers
- Bob Clark, 1920 Indians
- Mark Brownson, 1998 Rockies
- Wally Holborow, 1945 Senators
- Ed Fallenstein, 1933 Braves
- Mike Modak, 1945 Reds
- Claral Gillenwater, 1923 White Sox
- 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!