Looking at pitchers’ performances before and after a no-hitter

I remember the 1974 movie

I remember the 1974 movie “Earthquake” being the first movie with a $5 admission, at least where I was on Long Island. Must have been the Sensurround.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, earthquake country. Earthquakes are literally unpredictable. You have no way of knowing in advance when or where they will happen. I have the feeling baseball no-hitters are the same way, so I thought I would investigate the games that pitchers threw before their no-hitter, to see if there is anything that can be teased out that might be of some predictive value. While I was at it, I decided to look at games pitched after a no-hitter as well, to see if pitching a no-no has any implications for the next start.

The tool I’ll use in my analysis is “game score,” a measure developed by Bill James that I’ve written about earlier. Here’s Bill’s definition:

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.

Bill’s thought when he came up with this was that the average game score would be about 50, but of course there’s no inherent reason that should be the case.

Only it turns out that’s more or less true. In June 2014 Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus calculated the average game score for each season from 1950 through 2014. And the average of the season averages (as opposed to the average of all the starts in that time frame, which he didn’t calculate) was 50.8. (One note: Lindbergh limited his analysis to starts of nine innings or shorter, since the game score formula is generous to longer outings. I believe he did this to be more fair to the contemporary pitcher, who rarely goes nine innings anyway and essentially never works longer. In the 16-year period from 1950 through 1965, at the early end of Lindbergh’s analysis, there were 1,015 pitcher starts that went more than nine innings, an average of more than 60 a year. In the 16-year period from 2000 through 2015 there have been exactly six…and only one of those has come in the last eight seasons.)

Bill James introduced

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

There is some notable variance in average game score from year to year. Lindbergh found that the average game score in 1968, when the average runs scored per game was the second lowest in history, was 56.2…whereas in 1999 and 2000, when teams averaged more than five runs a game, among the highest since 1900, the average game score was 47.4.

I used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to calculate the average game score for all games (including starts of longer than nine innings) since 1914 through September 5, 2015…nearly 350,000 pitcher starts. (This process wasn’t nearly as tedious or time consuming as I feared.) And the average is 50.6, almost exactly what Lindbergh came up with, with a median of 51. (But I was surprised to find the mode — or the game score that has most frequently been recorded — is 55, followed by 52 and 54. The values from 50 to 59 are all pretty close in frequency. I’ll have a little more analysis at the end of this post.)

I’m giving you this context because I’m going to look at the game scores of pitchers in games before and after throwing their no-hitter, going back to 1914, the period for which Baseball-Reference.com has game scores in its database. I’m using the definition of “no-hitter” for this purpose as a complete game of nine innings or more, and I’m excluding the five no-hitters in the Federal League of 1914 and 1915, so American and National League games only. Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter on August 30, 2015 was the 206th such no-hitter during this time period, thrown by 176 different pitchers (here’s the complete list). Not all of them have “before” and “after” game scores, as 12 came in the pitcher’s first start of the season and nine came in his last start of the year.

Cliff Chambers (left) walked eight in his 1951 no-hitter. Only A.J. Burnett (9) and Jim Maloney (10 in 10 innings) walked more in a no-no.

Cliff Chambers (left) walked eight in his 1951 no-hitter. Only A.J. Burnett (9) and Jim Maloney (10 in 10 innings) walked more in a no-no.

Game scores of no-hitters range from 83 (Cliff Chambers in 1951 and Francisco Liriano in 2011) to 102 (Clayton Kershaw in 2014, the second-highest game score since 1914 for a nine-inning game; the highest was 105, Kerry Wood’s 1998 one-hitter in which he struck out 20 and walked no one). [ADDED 4/27/16: After this post was written, Max Scherzer had a 17-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter with a score of 104 on the next-to-last day of the 2015 season.] The average no-hitter game score is 91.5 and the median is 91. But what about the games before and after?

Let’s start by looking at the distribution of game scores. The chart below includes all games through September 5, 2015 (when Arrieta made the start following his no-hitter) along with the starts made immediately before a pitcher’s no-hitter and the starts immediately after. Note some of these are 10-point ranges and others near the median are 5-point ranges.

Game Score All Before
Below 0 258 0.1% 0 0.0% 0 0.0%
0 to 9 1760 0.5% 1 0.5% 1 0.5%
10 to 19 10417 3.0% 5 2.6% 4 2.0%
20 to 29 34186 9.8% 12 6.2% 13 6.6%
30 to 39 53181 15.3% 29 14.9% 21 10.7%
40 to 44 29971 8.6% 10 5.2% 17 8.6%
45 to 49 32268 9.3% 18 9.3% 13 6.6%
50 to 54 34909 10.0% 14 7.2% 17 8.6%
55 to 59 35020 10.1% 18 9.3% 24 12.2%
60 to 69 61580 17.7% 46 23.7% 40 20.3%
70 to 79 39071 11.2% 28 14.4% 31 15.7%
80 to 89 13677 3.9% 10 5.2% 13 6.6%
90 to 99 1419 0.4% 2 1.0% 3 1.5%
100 or higher 115 0.03% 1 0.5% 0 0.0%

(Note: 18 pitchers actually worked in relief in the appearance preceding their no-hitter, the last of whom was Jonathan Sanchez in 2009. And 11 pitchers followed their no-hitter by coming out of the bullpen, the latest being Clay Buchholz in 2007. But the chart above includes information about the most recent starts before and after.)

Pitchers are just as likely to toss a real stinker (game score less than 10) before or after a no-hitter as at any other time…it’s extremely unlikely in any event, but no less so adjacent to a no-hitter. But you’ll note pitchers are less likely to have what I’ll call a “poor” performance (game score less than 40) or a “below-average” performance (game score from 40 to 49) both before and after a no-hitter and are much more likely to have a “good” performance (game score 60 or higher).

Game Score All Before After
39 or lower 28.7% 24.2% 19.8%
40 to 49 17.9% 14.4% 15.2%
50 to 59 20.1% 16.5% 20.8%
60 or higher 33.3% 44.8% 44.2%

The average game score for a start before a no-hitter is 54.4 and the average for a start after is 55.5 — both above average. What kind of a game does that translate to? It so happens it almost exactly corresponds to what Tom Seaver did on either side of his 1978 no-hitter:

Date IP H R ER BB SO Game Score
Jun 10 9.0 11 4 4 1 6 54
Jun 21 7.0 5 3 3 4 4 55
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/5/2015.
Tom Seaver had his greatest success with the Mets but threw his only no-hitter after being traded to the Reds.

Tom Seaver had his greatest success with the Mets but threw his only no-hitter after being traded to the Reds.

Nothing special, but nothing to be ashamed of either. Of course, just how relatively good such performances are depends on the season context. In 1968 they would be below average and perhaps result in two losses. In 2000 they would be above average and likely result in two wins. (Seaver won the first of these games and lost the second…in most seasons these lines would probably yield a win and a loss, these game scores are close to the definition of a .500 pitcher.) Perhaps a more mathematically sophisticated analysis that I am capable of would compare each score to the norm for that season in determining whether, as a group, pitchers who throw no-hitters are indeed above average in their starts immediately preceding and following.

And maybe the most useful analysis would compare the performances not only to what is normal for the season but what is normal for that particular pitcher in that season. Because it could be one reason the average before-and-after game scores are above average is because pitchers who throw no-hitters are, as a group, above average. Now that may sound like it makes perfect sense — if you go a whole game without giving up a hit, you must be pretty good, right? Yet you don’t have to have a good career or be having a good season to throw a no-hitter. The list of no-hit pitchers includes George “Iron” Davis, who had a career record of 7-10; Virgil Trucks, a fine pitcher in other seasons who went 5-19 the year he pitched two no-hitters; Mike Warren, who had a career mark of 9-13 with a 5.06 ERA; Jose Jimenez, whose no-no came during a season in which he went 5-14 with a 5.85 ERA; Bud Smith, who won seven games in the big leagues; Philip Humber, who pitched a perfect game and finished his career with a 5.31 ERA; and, most dramatic of all, Bobo Holloman, who won only two other games in a major league career that lasted three months.

All that list does is show that a no-hitter really is unpredictable and can happen to almost anyone. But don’t make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion that no-hitters are truly random events. Because, when you look at the list of pitchers who have done it, it turns out to be a list largely made up of pretty good pitchers.

This display at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorates Nolan Ryan's seven no-hitters for three different franchises.

This display at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorates Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters for three different franchises.

For instance, 35 of the 206 no-hitters were thrown by pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame. That’s 17%, whereas Hall of Fame pitchers have only 6.6% of the starts since 1914. Granted that 35 is boosted by the seven no-hitters for Nolan Ryan, the four for Sandy Koufax and the three for Bob Feller…but hey, they’re Hall of Famers for a reason.

Or how about pitchers who were on the roster for the All-Star Game in the season in which they pitched a no-hitter? That accounts for 59 of the 179 no-hitters pitched since the year of the first All-Star Game in 1933, or 33%. I haven’t calculated the exact figure for how many of the total pitcher starts have been by All-Stars, but I’ll guarantee you it isn’t one out of three or anything close to it. (By the way, I determined what pitchers were on All-Star rosters by using this list.)

Why don’t we combine the two: no-hitters thrown by Hall of Famers in a season in which they made the All-Star Game? That accounts for 18 no-hitters, or 10% of the post-1933 total (and it includes only four of Ryan’s and two of Feller’s).

So it would appear excellent pitchers are disproportionately likely to pitch a no-hitter.

Then there’s the other category, what I’ll call “regular guys,” who neither made the Hall of Fame nor were All-Stars in the year in question. That’s not to disparage their skills; some of them might have been All-Stars had there been an All-Star Game before 1933, others wound up having fine seasons even though they weren’t selected as All-Stars (for instance, Jake Arrieta didn’t make the All-Star Game in 2015 but is looking like he’ll finish in the top three in the Cy Young Award voting) [ADDED 4/27/16: actually, he won the award]. Maybe some of the active pitchers on the list will wind up in the Hall of Fame. And some of these “regular guys” wound up being Bobo Holloman.

Let’s look at the average game scores for each of these categories:

Before After
Hall of Famer 57.7 60.0
All-Star 58.4 61.6
HoF + All-Star 58.1 65.9
Regular guy 52.0 53.1

Note that Hall of Famers and All-Stars typically have an above-average start both before and after their no-hitters, whereas “regular guys” are darn close to average both before and after their moment of fame. But maybe these numbers reflect what are typically average starts for pitchers in these categories. I suspect the “regular guy” numbers are a little bit higher than what the average game score for a non-Hall of Famer not having an All-Star season would be, and I suspect that’s because this group of “regular guys” is still a little bit better than the overall pool of “regular guys.” But I can’t prove that hypothesis.

I find it interesting that all these breakouts show the average start after a no-hitter being just a little bit better than the average start before. Does the no-hitter instill a smidgen of extra confidence in the pitcher going forward? Create trepidation for the next opponent? Or is it just Small Sample Size Theater?

In addition to pitching a no-hitter in 1919, Horce

In addition to pitching a no-hitter in 1919, Horce “Hod” Eller had two complete game wins in the Reds’ World Series victory over the “Black Sox.” After the season the major leagues outlawed Eller’s “shine ball” and he spent only two more seasons in the majors.

Three pitchers actually had a higher game score in the start after their no-hitter than they did in the no-hitter itself!

  • Hod Eller followed up his 1919 no-hitter with a 13-inning five-hit shutout, his game score going from 92 to 99. That gives him the best-ever game score in the start following a no-hitter and is an example of the impact on game scores of extra inning performances. By the way, the game after the no-hitter was an odd one, a scoreless tie through 12 innings before the visiting Reds score 10 runs (!) in the 13th.
  • Howard Ehmke had a no-hitter in 1923 followed by a one-hit shutout, his game score going from 87 to 89. Oddly enough, in the start prior to his no-hitter, Ehmke gave up six runs in five innings and had a game score of 24, the eighth-worst game score in a start just before a no-hitter.
  • Ken Holtzman, like Eller, followed up his no-hitter with an extra-inning performance in 1971, a 12-inning shutout in which he struck out 12. His game score improved from 89 to 96. In between those games, Cubs manager Leo Durocher used Holtzman in relief; two days after the no-hitter Leo brought Holtzman in to face two lefthanded batters with the winning run on base in the bottom of the 11th in Atlanta, but after Holtzman retired Ralph Garr for the second out of the inning, Mike Lum launched a game-ending three-run homer. And yet another oddity: four days before his no-hitter Holtzman was racked for eight runs in 3-2/3 innings and had a game score of 12, tied for the second-worst game score immediately before a no-hitter.

Two other pitchers had a game score in their next start that was the same as the one in their no-hitter: Ewell Blackwell in 1947 (both were 86) and Tommy Greene in 1991 (both were 90). In each case the follow-up game was a shutout.

The Sporting News paid tribute to Johnny Vander Meer's unprecedented and never-duplicated back-to-back no-hitters on page 3 of the June 23, 1938 issue. The front page was dominated by a story about Babe Ruth's return to the major leagues as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Sporting News paid tribute to Johnny Vander Meer’s unprecedented and never-duplicated back-to-back no-hitters on page 3 of the June 23, 1938 issue. The front page was dominated by a story about Babe Ruth’s return to the major leagues as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Two pitchers actually had a better game score in the start before their no-hitter. Of course, in the case of Johnny Vander Meer, the start before his no-hitter on June 15, 1938 was also a no-hitter, on June 11. The game score of the first was 88 and the second 86. These games came during a remarkable six-start streak for Vander Meer in which he had an 0.65 ERA and gave up just 17 hits in 55 innings. He gave up only one run in each of the other four starts, and his game scores were all 70 or higher. (The record for the longest streak of 70+ game scores is nine.)

The other pitcher whose no-hitter was a “letdown” was Max Scherzer. On June 14, 2015, Scherzer pitched a one-hit shutout in which he walked one and struck out 16 for a game score of 100, the best ever in the start preceding a no-hitter. (The only baserunner came on a hit batsman with two out in the ninth inning.) Six days later he threw a no-hitter in which he walked no one and struck out 10 for a score of 97. I can’t verify if that’s the highest ever combined game scores for two consecutive starts, but I can say there are only 233 starts with a game score of 97 or better in the entire post-1914 database through September 5, 2015 (0.07% of the total), and Scherzer has two of them. Walter Johnson had nine such games just in the period of his career from 1914 forward, with three of them in 1918, and Nolan Ryan had seven such games (all 99 or higher), three in 1990, but neither they nor anyone else has had game scores of 97 or higher in consecutive starts.

Aside from Scherzer and Vander Meer, what other pitchers had outstanding outings before a no-hitter?

Dennis Eckersley in that all-red Cleveland uniform...

Dennis Eckersley in that all-red Cleveland uniform…

Dennis Eckersley, who earned his spot in the Hall of Fame as a relief ace, was an excellent starting pitcher early in his career. His 1977 no-hitter came five days after he pitched a 12-inning complete game in a 2-1 win (game score 92)…Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance pitched a one-hit shutout (game score 91) five days before his 1925 no-hitter (he got rocked for nine runs in his next start, game score 24)…Before pitching his famous no-hitter in 1934 (brother Dizzy had pitched a three-hit shutout in the opening game of the doubleheader), Paul Dean had given up one run in 11 innings five days earlier (game score 87). And three days before that, he had pitched a 12-inning shutout (game score 94). In those three games he allowed one run and gave up 12 hits in 32 innings. Dean was a “regular guy” by my earlier definition who had an excellent season. His streaks of three straight game scores of 87+ and four straight of 84+ are both tied for the longest ever, at least since 1914….Hall of Famer Ted Lyons pitched his 1926 no-hitter five days after pitching a 10-inning three-hit shutout (game score 86)…Dave Righetti, who like Eckerlsey gained greater fame as a relief pitcher, tossed his 1983 Independence Day no-hitter on the heels of a five-hit shutout (game score 86)…And while the wheels came off for Johan Santana soon after pitching the first (and at this writing only) no-hitter in Mets history, six days before that he had pitched a four-hit shutout (game score 86).

One other pitcher worth mentioning here: Lew Burdette is the only man to pitch a shutout in the starts both before and after his no-hitter (in 1960), but because he didn’t strike out many, his game scores weren’t super high (78 before, 77 after).

Now for the worst games preceding a no-hitter…and the worst of all was one that prompted me to write this post in the first place. In researching pitchers who had the biggest difference in game scores in consecutive starts, I came across Bill Dietrich, who had an ugly start just three days before his 1937 no-hitter. In the earlier game he was blasted for 10 runs in just 3-1/3 innings for a game score of 0 (yes, zero). In my earlier post I asked, “was that the worst performance ever in the start before a no-hitter?” Now I can answer definitively, yes, at least since 1914.

Allie Reynolds' two no-hitters in 1951 were very similar, but his starts preceding them were quite different.

Allie Reynolds’ two no-hitters in 1951 were very similar, but his starts preceding them were quite different.

Here are some of the others who threw duds before their glory: tying Ken Holtzman for the second-worst pre-no-hitter score was Jim Abbott, whose 1993 no-hitter came six days after he gave up seven runs and 10 hits in 3-2/3 innings (game score 12)…Fernando Valenzuela gave up eight runs in 5-1/3 innings (game score 16) five days before pitching a no-hitter in 1990Allie Reynolds pitched two no-hitters in 1951, with a very different lead-in to each. Five days before his first no-hitter, he was knocked out after giving up six runs in just one inning (game score 18; the next day manager Casey Stengel used Reynolds in relief and Allie gave up two runs while getting just one out). In his start prior to the no-hitter he threw in his last start of the season, Reynolds gave up just one run in a complete game win with a game score of 73…After a start in which he gave up seven runs in three innings in 2011 (game score 19), Francisco Liriano rallied to toss a no-hitter, although with six walks and just two strikeouts, Liriano had a game score of 83 to tie Cliff Chambers for the worst game score in a no-hitter, at least since 1914….In the start prior to the first of his seven career no-hitters in 1973, Nolan Ryan retired just one batter and gave up five runs (game score 22). The next day, manager Bobby Winkles used Ryan to get a two-inning save, the last and longest of the three regular-season saves Ryan is credited with in his career (he also earned one in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series).

Tim Lincecum gets a shower after his second no-hitter in 2014

Tim Lincecum gets a shower after his second no-hitter in 2014

And for the worst starts after a no-hitter…Carlos Zambrano was walloped for eight runs in 1-2/3 innings (game score 9) five days after his 2008 no-hitterBob Forsch followed his 1978 no-hitter by giving up seven runs in one inning (game score 10)…Tim Lincecum had a 4.61 season ERA prior to his 2013 no-hitter in which he threw 148 pitches, then next time out nine days later gave up eight runs in 3-2/3 innings (game score 12). Lincecum did not pitch a no-hitter in the two seasons in which he won a Cy Young Award, his two no-hitters came in years in which his final ERAs were 4.37 and 4.74…Dave Stewart struck out 12 in his 1990 no-hitter, but five days later he struck out nobody in giving up six runs in 2-1/3 innings (game score 16)…Philip Humber, mentioned here earlier, followed up his 2012 perfect game by giving up nine runs in five innings five days later (game score 17)…Bob Feller pitched baseball’s only Opening Day no-hitter in 1940, then gave up six runs in three innings five days later (game score 22)…Five days after his 1922 no-hitter, Jesse Barnes managed to retire just one of the five batters he faced before getting the hook (his game score was as high as 28 only because he started with 50 and didn’t pitch long enough to do serious damage).

My takeaway from looking at all this? There’s no way of knowing a no-hitter is coming based on a pitcher’s previous start, but (duh) better pitchers have a better chance of pitching one. And, while either might happen, don’t expect either continued greatness or a total collapse in the start after a no-hitter. Most likely the pitcher will go back to being who he is, good, bad or mediocre.

Before I wrap up, a few notes about the distribution of all game scores since 1914. From -5 to 52, game scores rise in an almost perfect progression, that is, there are more game scores of -4 than -5, more of -3 than -4, etc. There are only two exceptions to the steady increase. There’s a decline from 35 (5505) to 36 (5353), but then 37 is higher than 35. There’s also a decline from 43 (6144) to 44 (6138), but then 45 is higher than 43. The totals bounce around a bit from 52 to 55:

52 7089
53 6961
54 7077
55 7131

But then a steady decline is in effect from 55 to 97, with one exception, from 58 (6877) to 59 (7022), with 60 then lower than 58.


From Jekyll to Hyde (or vice versa): major league pitchers who go from sublime to ridiculous in consecutive starts

I can never remember whether Jekyll or Hyde was the good one, but Chris Rusin was both in a six-day period.

I can never remember whether Jekyll or Hyde was the good one, but Chris Rusin was both in a six-day period.

On August 16, 2015, Colorado Rockies lefthander Chris Rusin shut out the Padres on five hits, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that it came in the hitters’ paradise of Denver’s Coors Field. Six days later Rusin returned to the mound at Coors Field to face the Mets and was pulled from the game before he could retire a batter in the third inning, allowing 11 runs. The contrasting results led me to wonder three things:

  1. What’s the greatest difference in runs allowed between consecutive starts by a pitcher?
  2. What’s the most runs a pitcher has allowed in his next start following a shutout?
  3. What’s the greatest difference in “game scores” between consecutive starts by a pitcher? (“Game score” was developed by Bill James in an effort to roughly rate the quality of a starting pitcher’s performance; I’ve written more about it here. Rusin went from a score of 80 in his shutout to -11 in his follow-up, for a difference of 91.)

If I had some ability to manipulate the data accumulated by the volunteers at Retrosheet, I might be able to definitively answer questions 1 and 2, at least for the years in their database. Retrosheet doesn’t list game scores, but Baseball-Reference.com does; alas I can’t figure out a way to use their spectacular Play Index tool to answer question 3.

So I’m not likely to come up with the definitive answers to these questions in this post. But I have determined Rusin does not hold any of the records in question.

For assistance, I posed these queries to my fellow members of the Society for American Baseball Research, and I got a response from Gerry Myerson, who brought up a pitcher who topped Rusin on one of those categories: Tom Sheehan.

Sheehan PeoriaSheehan reached the major leagues in July 1915 when the Philadelphia A’s purchased him from a minor league team in Peoria. The A’s had won the American League pennant in four of the previous five seasons, but after their 1914 World Series loss to the Braves, A’s owner/manager Connie Mack said goodbye, in one way or another, to stars Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender and Jack Coombs; other stars would be waived or sold during the 1915 season, and the A’s ended the year with a dismal 43-109 record. The 21-year-old Sheehan provided a brief ray of sunshine, winning his first three starts, but then the wheels came off and he lost eight of his last nine starts. (The misery continued in 1916, when Sheehan posted a 1-16 record — including an 0-14 record as a starter — for an A’s team that somehow managed to be even worse than it was in 1915, going 36-117.)

In his next-to-last start in 1915, Sheehan allowed four runs in eight innings in a loss to the Tigers. (The A’s took the lead after Sheehan was removed for a pinch-hitter in the eighth and his successor on the mound allowed the winning run; under modern scoring rules Sheehan would not have been designated the losing pitcher, but he was then.) Six days later, in his next start (and last of the season), manager Mack left Sheehan in to absorb a 20-5 loss at the hands of Washington in the second game of a doubleheader. This was during the deadball era; the Senators averaged less than 3.6 runs in their other games that season. Sheehan faced 52 batters in pitching the complete game (played in just 1 hour 50 minutes), and it could have been worse, except the Senators were the home team and didn’t bat in the ninth.

The game was described in the next day’s Philadelphia Inquirer as:

…the real farce, not only of the day, but of the season. It might not be too much to characterize it as one of the real jokes of all professional baseball history hereabouts. Sheehan was hit hard, but it was the weird fieldling behind him that was responsible for more than half of the bingles that will go to fatten the records of the Nationals…Mack’s fielders, including several who have seen service in world’s championship classics, played in a half-hearted manner typical of a team that is a hopeless last, with nothing to gain in battle, one way or the other. They ran circles around fly balls, stepped on their own feet in going after grounders, and never exerted themselves on the base paths.

Tom Sheehan pitched until he was 40 and stayed in the game as a minor league manager and scout. At age 66 he replaced Bill Rigney as manager of the San Francisco Giants on June 18, 1960.

Tom Sheehan pitched until he was 40 and stayed in the game as a minor league manager and scout. At age 66 he replaced Bill Rigney as manager of the San Francisco Giants on June 18, 1960, and he stayed in baseball until he was 84.

The official box score that appears on Retrosheet shows the A’s with eight errors and the Nats with 23 hits, but the box scores that appeared in the Inquirer and the Washington Evening Star listed the A’s with TEN errors and Washington with 21 hits (apparently errors credited to left fielder Wally Schang and shortstop Larry Kopf were actually hits for Carl Sawyer and Horace Milan; Schang and Kopf finished with two errors each anyway, and catcher Cy Perkins had three).

So with a difference of 16 runs allowed between consecutive starts, Sheehan becomes the leader that I know of in the category. But he doesn’t pass Rusin in question 3, as the difference in his game scores was “just” 82 (from 53 to -29).

Is Sheehan’s 16 a record? We can use Play Index to check back to 1914…and it turns out only 10 pitchers have allowed 16 runs in a start in that period.

Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO
George LeClair 1914-08-16 PBS IND L 6-21 8.0 24 21 20 8 0
Tom Sheehan 1915-09-29 (2) PHA WSH L 5-20 8.0 23 20 12 4 3
Hod Lisenbee 1936-09-11 PHA CHW L 2-17 8.0 26 17 14 4 1
Howard Ehmke 1923-09-28 BOS NYY L 4-24 6.0 21 17 16 4 6
Chubby Dean 1940-09-28 (1) PHA BOS L 4-16 8.0 19 16 14 5 1
Flint Rhem 1933-08-04 PHI NYG L 1-18 8.0 21 16 15 3 1
Hugh McQuillan 1927-09-11 (2) BSN CIN L 5-16 6.2 17 16 15 3 2
Ted Lyons 1924-07-21 CHW WSH L 2-16 8.0 18 16 14 5 3
Jimmy Ring 1922-08-25 PHI CHC L 23-26 3.1 12 16 6 5 2
Elmer Myers 1917-08-21 PHA CLE L 3-16 8.0 21 16 13 4 1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/28/2015.

Now it’s just a matter of going through the game logs of those pitchers to see what they did in the starts before and after.

(The 20th Century record for most runs allowed by a starting pitcher predates the Play Index database…Al Travers, later a Jesuit priest, gave up 24 runs to the A’s when he was called off the Philadelphia sandlots to pitch for the Tigers in 1912 after the entire Tiger team went on strike. Gary Livacari tells the story here. Travers never played another major league game.)

If the team designation PBS doesn’t ring a bell next to George LeClair, that’s because it’s the Pittsburgh Stogies (also known as the Rebels) of the Federal League, which was recognized as a third major league in 1914 and ’15. The day after LeClair was pounded for 21 runs in his second major league start (he had pitched in a Class C league in 1913), the Pittsburgh Press reported, “Manager [Rebel] Oakes did not have a chance to take Leclair out of the box for the reason that he had no one to relieve him and the Canadian boy had to stay in and take his punishment.” Oakes must have been desperate, as he let LeClair pitch a complete game even though he had used him to pitch the ninth inning the previous day.

Aside from this game, LeClair was quite effective in 1914; in his other 21 appearances his ERA was 2.45 (this one blowout left his season ERA at 4.01!). In his start prior to the 21-run game he allowed three runs in seven innings, and in his next start he gave up three runs in a nine-inning complete game, although that was more than a month later, after several relief appearances. So going in either direction he had a difference of 18 runs allowed between consecutive starts, even more than Sheehan, although Sheehan did not have intervening relief appearances.

LeClair’s game score in his 21-run game was -56, the lowest in the post-1914 database. On October 6 he allowed just one run in 10 innings in a game against Baltimore and had a game score of 80. It looks like the difference of 136 between his highest and lowest game scores of the season is the greatest of anyone; Joe Oeschger had a difference of 131 between his 26-inning game in 1920 (a game score of 153, the highest ever) and a game on August 27 that year that scored a 22.

Hod Lisenbee was another pitcher who was left in by Connie Mack to absorb a pounding, giving up a post-1901 record 26 hits to the White Sox while allowing 17 runs. He came back four days later and gave up eight runs in 4-1/3 innings; in his previous start he had allowed five runs in five innings.

Headline in the Boston Herald after Howard Ehmke gave up 11 runs to the Yankees in 1923

Headline in the Boston Herald after Howard Ehmke gave up 11 runs to the Yankees in 1923

Howard Ehmke was a 20-game winner for the last-place 1923 Red Sox, but he lost both his starts after winning his 20th. On September 24 he gave up six runs to the Browns, then the Yankees clubbed him for 17 runs in just six innings — 11 of them in his final inning of work — in his last start September 28. “Howard is immense when he’s good,” Burton Whitman wrote in the next day’s Boston Herald, “but something else again when he’s bad.” 20-year-old Lou Gehrig had three doubles and a single for the Yankees, driving in four runs, in just his second major league start. Earlier in September Ehmke had pitched a no-hitter against the A’s followed four days later by a one-hitter against the Yankees. He had five hits of his own in the two games while allowing just one! (I learned that tidbit from the splendid researcher Tom Ruane, who included it in one of his fascinating “retro-reviews” on Retrosheet.org.)

Chubby Dean — yet another pitcher Connie Mack allowed to be treated like a piñata! He allowed 16 runs in his last start of the 1940 season, and in his previous appearance nine days earlier he gave up 13 runs in a complete game. Is Dean the only pitcher in history to give up double-digit runs in consecutive starts? (Wait, I found another one…Pat Caraway, who led the American League with 24 losses for the 1931 White Sox, gave up 11 runs in 4-2/3 innings on July 23 and came back three days later to allow 13 runs in just two innings. That’s the shortest outing for any pitcher who’s given up 13 runs, starter or relief, at least since 1914. And wait…Bill Sherdel did it THREE starts in a row in 1929, giving up 10 runs on June 29, 13 runs on July 3 and 10 runs on July 6.)

Chubby wasn’t even Mr. Mack’s favorite whipping boy in 1940…George Caster, who led the league in losses with 19, pitched complete games in which he allowed 14 and 10 runs, and gave up 10 runs in just four innings in another game. He had two complete games in which he allowed nine runs and two other appearances in which he allowed nine. (And yet one of his four wins was a complete game in which he beat the eventual pennant winners, Detroit, 3-1. Go figure.) Buck Ross and Porter Vaughan also had complete games in which they allowed 11 and 10 runs, respectively.

Flint Rhem's 14 losses for the 1933 Phillies were a career high. He had a 105-97 record over 12 seasons.

Flint Rhem’s 14 losses for the 1933 Phillies were a career high. He had a 105-97 record over 12 seasons.

Flint Rhem…here’s a man with a bigger difference in consecutive-start game scores than Chris Rusin! On July 30, 1933, he went the distance for the Phillies in defeating the Dodgers, 3-1, at Ebbets Field. Five days later he pitched the first eight innings against the Giants, allowing 16 runs, in a game the Phils lost 18-1. Nine of the runs against Rhem came in his last inning on the mound, which included a bases-loaded triple by Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell, the last of two triples the Hall of Famer hit in his 16-year major league career. Perhaps Rhem was unsettled by an incident that was cryptically reported in the next day’s New York Times: “Umpire Dolly Stark found fault with Rhem’s stance on the hill in the third [inning] and made him correct it.”

At any rate, Rhem went from a game score of 70 on July 30 to a -24 on August 4, a difference of 94. That’s better than Chris Rusin. But is it the biggest difference between consecutive starts ever? Ah, again we turn to the 26-inning man Joe Oeschger, who followed up his 153 with a 32 in his next start (12 days later, after his arm recovered) for a difference of 121.

There have been only 13 games since 1914 in which a pitcher allowed 16 or more runs, and Rhem pitched in two of them. While pitching for the Cardinals Rhem gave up eight runs before being knocked out in the first inning of a game on June 22, 1925; he was relieved by Johnny Stuart, who went the rest of the way and allowed the Pirates to score 16 more runs, making him one of only three pitchers in the post-1914 database to allow 16 runs in a relief appearance.

Hugh McQuillan‘s pounding came in the last game of his major league career. In his previous start he had lasted just three innings and allowed four runs. But in the start before that, on August 30, he pitched an 11-inning four-hitter against the Reds, winning 2-1. His game score in that game was 83, 106 points better than the -23 he posted in allowing 16 runs less than two weeks later.

Ted Lyons is the only Hall of Fame pitcher who ever gave up 16 runs in a start. In his previous start he had allowed six. His next start wouldn’t come until more than a month (and nine relief appearances) later, and he gave up nine runs in that one, although he won.

A headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer of August 26, 1922

A headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer of August 26, 1922

Jimmy Ring had the shortest pitching appearance of any starter who allowed at least 16 runs, as he was knocked out in the fourth inning of what went on to be the highest-scoring game in major league history, a 26-23 win by the Cubs over the Phillies on August 25, 1922 in Chicago. The Cubs led 25-6 after four innings before the visitors rallied to actually put the tying run on base in the ninth. Sixteen of the 28 batters Ring faced scored! But only six of those runs were earned, thanks to two errors in the Cubs’ 10-run second inning. Ring is one of only nine pitchers in the post-1914 database to give up at least 10 unearned runs in a game.

In the starts both immediately before and immediately after Ring’s pounding, he allowed just three runs. But two starts before his debacle in Chicago, Ring yielded 14 runs in a loss to the Pirates. That makes him the only pitcher, at least in the post-1914 database, to give up at least 14 runs twice in a season. (Only two other pitchers gave up 14 runs in a game twice over the course of their careers: Milt Watson — yet another victim of Connie Mack’s willingness to watch his pitchers get lit up, the only pitcher aside from Ring to give up at least 14 runs twice as a starter — and Carl Doyle, who didn’t pitch even five innings in either of his games, one of which was in relief.)

The last pitcher on the list is yet another Mack managee, Elmer Myers, who was a teammate of Tom Sheehan’s on those pathetic 1916 A’s. Myers’ disaster came in 1917, two days after a start in which he allowed five runs in one inning (and he pitched in relief on the day between that start and his 16-run shredding). In his next start he was roughed up for nine runs.

Okay, so we seem to have the answer to who had the biggest difference in runs allowed between consecutive starts…or answers, either George LeClair (18) or, if you don’t like the Federal League or don’t like relief appearances between starts, Tom Sheehan (16). And we’ve found Joe Oeschger (121) has the biggest difference between game scores in consecutive starts.

Still up for grabs is whether the 11 runs Chris Rusin gave up in his next start after a shutout is a record. Play Index shows 394 times, going back to 1914, that a starting pitcher game up 11 runs or more. I looked at all those pitchers, checked to see if they threw a shutout in the same season, and then checked their game logs for the year to see if they had their rotten game right after a shutout.

And believe it or not, there was a pitcher who outdid Rusin. And guess what? It was another one of Connie Mack’s pitchers!

Bill Dietrich

Bill Dietrich

Bill Dietrich, who began wearing glasses at the age of eight, won just two of his first 12 starts for the last-place 1935 A’s. After a particularly rough outing on July 20 in which he gave up seven runs and got knocked out in the first inning, Mack sent him to the bullpen for a couple weeks, but when he moved back into the rotation Dietrich continued to struggle. He gave up 11 runs on August 6, seven runs on August 10 and seven runs again on August 19. (Of course, pitching for Mack, he went the distance in all three games.) There was no reason to expect anything better when Dietrich took the mound in Cleveland on August 22. James Isaminger described what happened next in The Sporting News issue of August 29:

Dietrich has had a very bad year, both as starting and relief pitcher [he went into the Cleveland game with a 5-10 season record and a 5.29 ERA], and Mack had about given up on him. But on August 22, he stepped out in Cleveland to blank the Indians with six hits. The slightest wavering on his part would have been fatal, for only one run was scored in this game. The A’s made it in the second inning…

Dietrich not only won the headlines that game but he also won a costly electric refrigerator. There was a convention of electric ice box men in Cleveland during the series and that afternoon the convention men promised their best ice box to the winning pitcher and Bill grabbed it.

Alas, the shutout was not the start of a hot streak for Dietrich. Four days later he pitched his fifth straight complete game…but he allowed 13 runs (on 17 hits and eight walks) to the Tigers, in just eight innings. And at least back to 1914, that’s the most runs any pitcher has allowed in his next start after a shutout. Dietrich’s game scores went from 78 to -7, a difference of 85.

Get this: two days after Dietrich was lit up for 13 runs (and pitched eight innings), still in Detroit, Mack brought him back to pitch seven innings in relief — and he gave up eight runs. Dietrich made just one more start the rest of the season, and Mack mercifully pulled him after he gave up seven runs in four innings.

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer of June 2, 1937

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer of June 2, 1937

Oddly enough, Dietrich had a completely opposite reversal of fortune two years later. He changed teams twice in 1936, going to the Senators on waivers in July after he got off to a horrible start and then going to the White Sox on waivers just three weeks later after he had fared even worse for Washington. In his second start of 1937 he was roughed up for 10 runs and knocked out in the fourth inning, leaving him with a season ERA of 10.12. Three days later he came back and pitched a no-hitter against the Browns (his game scores went from 0 to 90; research project for another time — was that the worst performance ever in the start before a no-hitter?). (ADDED 9/21/15: The answer is yes…I have details here.)

Dietrich wound up spending 16 years in the majors, pitching his last game at age 38, and finished with 108 wins and 128 losses. He pitched for the White Sox through World War II; I don’t know whether it was his eyesight that kept him out of the military or what. According to his 1978 obituary in The Sporting News, Dietrich’s “temper occasionally got him into trouble.” If they mention your temper in your obituary, you clearly had some kind of reputation.

ADDED 9/21/15: Jeff Samardzija had a Dietrich-like reversal in 2015…after giving up 10 runs in just three innings on September 15, he pitched a one-hit shutout, facing just 28 batters, on September 21. His game scores went from -3 to 91, an even bigger jump than Dietrich.


Not the Phil Collins who pitched for the Phillies in 1931

Not the Phil Collins who pitched for the Phillies in 1931

A few other pitchers caught my eye in my search…George Blaeholder pitched three shutouts for the last-place 1933 St. Louis Browns, including an 11-inning gem. He also gave up 11 runs or more twice. Neither came after a shutout, but both came after a good performance. He gave up just one run in a complete-game win over the White Sox on June 12, then six days later got torched for 14 runs by the eventual pennant winners, Washington. On July 9 he beat the Red Sox 9-2, and the Yankees blew him up for 11 runs five days later….Phillies’ hurler Phil Collins had a similar reversal of fortune in 1931 when he beat the Cardinals 2-1 on May 11, then coughed up 14 runs against the Cubs five days later….Tom Seaton pitched seven shutouts among his 25 wins for Brooklyn in the 1914 Federal League but also had starts in which he allowed 13 and 12 runs.

Dave Parker’s remarkable 26 assists in 1977…and Roberto Clemente’s 27 in 1961

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave Dave Parker the All-Star Game MVP award in 1979 on the basis if two great throws.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave Dave Parker the All-Star Game MVP award in 1979 on the basis of two great throws.

In doing some research on Dave Parker, I realized he had an outstanding accomplishment in 1977 that has been pretty much ignored or forgotten. Playing right field for the Pirates that year, Parker had 26 assists — no major league outfielder has had that many in the almost 40 seasons since, and the last who had more was Parker’s Pittsburgh predecessor Roberto Clemente, who had 27 in 1961. (Clemente, in turn, had the most of anyone since Washington’s Stan Spence had 29 in 1944.) Dave Winfield, who finished second in the National League in assists in ’77, had “only” 15. Parker also took part in nine double plays in 1977; the only outfielder who has been involved in more since 1929 (!) was Del Unser, who was part of 10 double plays as a rookie with the Senators in 1968.

Parker had a well-earned reputation for having a superb arm, and while he never had anywhere near 26 assists or led the league in any other season (perhaps because his reputation made runners cautious), he ranked among the top three NL right fielders in assists for five straight years (1976-80) and burned his way into the national consciousness with two incredible throws in the 1979 All-Star Game at Seattle’s Kingdome that earned him the game’s Most Valuable Player honor.

Click the image below for a longer look at the throw to the plate he made…he threw it from deep right field, without a cutoff man, and Gary Carter caught it shoulder-high.

Using Retrosheet’s play-by-play and Baseball-Reference.com’s defensive game logs, I looked for the details of all 26 of Parker’s 1977 assists. Here’s some of what I found.

First a little context…outfield assists were notably more common in 1977 than they are today, perhaps because the increased use of statistical analysis has made teams more risk-averse on the bases. Even though there were only 26 teams in 1977, compared to 30 in 2014, there were 13.5% more outfield assists in 1977. On a per-inning basis, there were 32.5% more assists in 1977.

Dave Parker on the cover of The Sporting News, June 11, 1977

Dave Parker on the cover of The Sporting News, June 11, 1977

One of Parker’s 26 assists in 1977 was on a force out. I have no idea exactly how many outfielder-assisted force outs there are, but there can’t be many. Here’s how it happened for Dave. On April 23 at Shea Stadium, the Pirates took a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth. Ed Kranepool led off with a single, to put the tying run on base, and Felix Millan ran for him. Paul L. Montgomery explained what happened after that in the next day’s New York Times: “John Stearns, the next batter, dropped a ball into right field in front of Parker but Millan, thinking the ball was catchable, held up and was forced at second by Parker’s strong throw.”

That was one of only three of Parker’s 26 assists that came while the Pirates were leading. I don’t know if that ratio would be similar to that for all outfield assists, but it leads me to think that baserunners were considerably less willing to take risks when behind, at least against someone like Parker.

Including the force out, Parker had 15 assists in which his was the only throw that led to the out. Those assists were remarkably well distributed around the bases: three at first base, four at second, four at third and four at the plate. Aside from the force out, the outs came when Parker:

  • doubled a runner off first after a fly out (3)
  • threw out a runner at second trying to stretch a single (3)
  • threw out a runner trying to advance from second to third on a fly out (2, both of them Montreal’s Chris Speier, on successive days, June 25 and 26)
  • threw out a runner trying to go from first to third on a single (2)
  • threw out a runner trying to score from third on a fly out (3)
  • threw out a runner trying to score from second on a single (1)

Eight of Parker’s nine double plays are included above. The ninth came in a game on August 20 against the Giants; the Retrosheet play-by-play wasn’t clear about what happened and actually contained an error when I found it, but I was able to get the full story from the Pittsburgh Press. With one out and the bases loaded in the top of the sixth, Willie McCovey hit a line drive to right field that Parker caught for an out. Parker then threw home, but Derrell Thomas — who had been thrown out by Parker while trying to score from second on a single in the second inning — held at third. However, catcher Duffy Dyer threw to second and doubled off Rob Andrews, who had not returned to the bag after Parker’s catch. Thus Parker was credited with an assist in the double play, but his throw did not lead directly to the second out.

Parker had 10 other assists in which his throw did not lead directly to the out, with either a relay or cutoff man involved. Here’s how they happened:

  • three times Parker tried to get a runner going from first to third on a single; the runner at third was safe, but the third baseman threw to retire the batter trying to advance to second (one was scored 9-5-6 and the other two went 9-5-4)
  • twice a cutoff man was involved in retiring a runner trying to go from first to third on a single (one was 9-3-5 when the throw was apparently going home and the other was 9-6-1; yeah, that scoring looks weird, but I can’t find the details) (ADDED 1/1/16: I found an explanation of the 9-6-1 play in a story by Walter Bingham in the May 30, 1977 issue of Sports Illustrated: “Pitcher Pedro Borbon of Cincinnati, a foreigner to the base paths, made a routine turn at second on a single to right, only to find the ball waiting for him on his return to the bag. Parker had made the unorthodox — but on this occasion correct — play of throwing to second, not to third.” How exactly the Pirates pitcher got the putout is not explained.)
  • Parker tried to get a runner attempting to score from second on a single but the throw was cut off and the batter was retired trying to advance to second (9-3-6-3)
  • a relay man was involved in retiring a batter at third base trying to stretch a double (9-4-5)
  • Parker’s throw home on a bases-loaded single was cut off; eventually the runner who started on second was retired (9-3-6-2-5, haven’t been able to find more details)
  • Parker’s throw to third apparently beat a batter trying to stretch a double, the batter was retired when the third baseman threw back to second (9-5-6)
  • Parker’s throw home apparently beat a runner trying to score from second on a single, but the runner was retired in a rundown (9-2-5-1)

Only four of Parker’s assists accounted for the first out of the inning. Ten were the second out and 12 ended the inning. By inning, the most assists came in the first, 6 of them. Other assists by inning: second (4), third (1), fourth (5), sixth (4), seventh (2), eighth (2), ninth (1, the force out) and tenth (1. retiring the batter trying to stretch the single that had just scored the go-ahead run). Parker had no assists in the fifth inning.

My question is, how much good did Parker’s assists do for the Pirates? In the 24 games in which he had an assist (including two games in which he had two), the Pirates went 10-14 for a .417 winning percentage (and they lost both the games in which he had two assists). In their other games in 1977 the Pirates went 86-52 for a .623 percentage. Granted most of Parker’s assists came when the Pirates were already behind. But in the five games in which Parker had an assist with the score tied, they went 3-2, pretty much exactly what their winning percentage was in other games. And in the three games in which the Pirates were leading when Parker recorded an assist, they went on to lose one of them.

The Pirates did rally to win five games they were trailing when Parker got an assist, and surely the outs he contributed played a role in that.

ADDED 8/10/15: Let’s take the same close look at Roberto Clemente’s 27 assists in 1961, the most for any major league outfielder in (as this was written) 71 years. Clemente did this in the last season with a 154-game schedule, as the National League still had just eight teams, and he played the field in only 145 of them. (By the way, outfield assists per inning were almost 4% more common in 1961 than in 1977.) Clemente had assists in four straight games (June 1-4), six assists in an eight-game stretch (May 30-June 6) and two assists in a single inning (the third inning on Sept. 4)!

As was the case with Parker in 1977, Clemente had one assist on a force out in ’61. It happened May 13, in the top of the second, after Cincinnati’s Gordy Coleman led off the inning with a walk. “Coleman held up at first on Bob Schmidt’s drive to short right,” according to the next day’s Pittsburgh Press, “and Clemente’s throw to Dick Groat forced Gordie.” (See photo cutline below.)

Clemente forceClemente also had two assists that didn’t result in an out because of an error. The first came on June 6. In the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis singled and Wally Moon advanced from first to third; Clemente threw to first base, after Davis had rounded the bag (Roberto was fond of throwing behind runners to catch them by surprise, as we’ll see), but first baseman Dick Stuart dropped the ball when trying to tag Davis. The second came on July 9 at Milwaukee. In the bottom of the first, with Frank Bolling on first, Eddie Mathews singled; Clemente threw to second base, and when he did, Bolling was sent home. Dick Groat took Clemente’s throw and threw to the plate in time to retire Bolling, but catcher Smoky Burgess dropped the ball. (Groat’s assist doesn’t appear in the Retrosheet play-by-play but is part of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette game story.)

Roberto Clemente's 1961 Topps card ("Roberto" was just a little too exotic for America then, I guess)

Roberto Clemente’s 1961 Topps card (“Roberto” was just a little too exotic for America then, I guess)

Including the assist on June 6, Clemente had 17 throws that led directly to retiring the runner (or should have), without another throw involved. His assists weren’t as evenly distributed on the bases as Parker’s were, with six at first base, six and second, two at third and three at home. Aside from the force out at second base, here are the other 16:

  • threw behind the runner at first base to retire him after a single (4, including the error)
  • doubled runner off first after a fly out (2)
  • retired runner at second trying to stretch a single (5)
  • retired runner trying to go from first to third on a single (2, on consecutive days Sept. 3-4)
  • retired runner trying to score from second on a single (2)
  • retired runner trying to score on a fly ball (1, which came during Clemente’s only appearance in center field and came in the ninth inning of a game in which the Pirates were trailing 10-0)

Clemente had 10 other assists in which another throw retired the runner. One of them was the dropped ball at home against Milwaukee. Here are the other nine:

  • on a fly out to right with runners on first and second, Clemente’s throw to third did not catch the runner advancing, but the third baseman threw to retire the runner trying to advance from first (9-5-4)
  • Clemente’s throw to second was too late to retire a batter who had hit a double with a man on first, but the shortstop threw to third base to catch the runner who had gone too far around third and tried to get back (9-6-5)
  • on a sacrifice fly with runners on first and third, the runner on first was retired trying to advance to second (9-3-6, I can’t find an account that tells me whether the first baseman took the throw on the bag or if he cut off a throw going home)
  • the relay man threw out a runner trying to score from first on a double (9-4-2)
  • Clemente’s throw home was too late to retire a runner who scored from second, but the catcher then threw to retire the batter who had rounded first (9-2-6-3)
  • on a single with men on first and second, Clemente’s throw home was cut off and the batter was retired in a rundown between first and second (9-3-6-4-3)
  • Clemente threw to first base after a single and the first baseman threw to retire the batter trying for second (9-3-6)
  • Clemente threw to second base after a single and the batter, who had rounded first thinking the throw was going to third, was caught trying to get back to first (9-4-3)
  • on a single with a man on first, Clemente’s throw to third was too late to retire the runner, but the batter was retired trying to take second (9-5-3-4)

Nine of Clemente’s 27 assists made the first out of the inning, 11 made the second and 7 made the third. (I included the would-have-been outs for the dropped throws.) He had the most assists in the fifth inning, 7 of them; others came in the first (4), second (3), third (3), fourth (4), sixth (2), seventh (1), eighth (2) and ninth (1), 21 of the 27 assists came in the first five innings.

Nine of Clemente’s assists came with one team leading by four runs or more. That was also true for seven of Dave Parker’s assists. I wouldn’t have guessed there would be that many in relatively one-sided games.

It doesn’t appear that, as a whole, Clemente’s assists did any more to help his team than Parker’s did. In the 23 games in which he had at least one assist that resulted in an out (he had two assists in two games), the Pirates were 9-14 (and lost both games in which he had two assists), while they had a winning record (66-65) in other games. Only twice did the Pirates win a game they were trailing when Clemente got an assist. They won all five games in which they were leading when Clemente got an assist, but in four of those games they were already ahead by at least three runs. It’s true that Clemente’s assist was crucial in the other win, in the second game of a doubleheader on August 8. Clemente threw out Tony Gonzalez trying to score from second on a single for the third out of the sixth inning; had Gonzalez scored, the game would have been tied and the Phillies would have had two men on base. The Pirates went on to win by just one run.

The 1961 Pirates had a 2-6 record in games that were tied when Clemente got an assist (one of those wins being the game in which he got a force out), considerably worse than their overall record, although again he may have played a key role in one of those wins. He threw out Daryl Spencer trying to score (with a relay from Dick Groat) in the second inning of a game on May 17 the Pirates went on to win by one run.

Small sample sizes abound here, so I should be loath to draw any Big Conclusions, but I was surprised to find out how many of these assists came in games in which the team on the bases was already ahead, and I really wasn’t aware how much less common outfield assists are in the modern day.

The major league baseball games that were played while Apollo 11 landed on the moon

I wrote about some of the minor league games played the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing in this post.

NY Times moon frontThe first moon landing was on Sunday, July 20, 1969. Apollo 11’s lunar module touched down at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon’s surface at 10:56 p.m.

I was 11 years old, and the quest to put humans on the moon had been going literally as long as I could remember. It finally happened that day, one of the greatest accomplishments of human history, and it was covered live on all the television networks.

I was glued to the TV that day and night. Who wouldn’t be?

Well, about 200,000 people decided to go to a major league baseball game that day and heard about the historic event at the ballpark.

There was a full schedule of major league games that Sunday, the last day before the All-Star break. Games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were rained out. Eight of the ten teams that hosted games the day of the moon landing, all but Atlanta and Seattle, exceeded their average attendance for the season, most of them by a considerable amount. Of course, a typical Sunday would see higher-than-season-average attendance, but a typical Sunday doesn’t also feature MEN LANDING ON THE MOON FOR THE FIRST TIME. ON LIVE TV.

Game Game time (EDT) Attendance Season average
Detroit at Cleveland (DH) 1:00 13,512 8,611
Cubs at Philadelphia (DH) 1:05 12,393 7,316
Mets at Montreal (DH) 1:35 27,356 16,842
San Diego at Atlanta 1:35 12,282 19,707
Washington at Yankees 2:00 32,933 15,940
Baltimore at Boston 2:00 31,174 25,113
Kansas City at White Sox (DH) 2:15 12,691 6,553
Los Angeles at San Francisco 4:00 32,560 11,805
Oakland at Anaheim (DH) 4:00 17,835 9,849
Minnesota at Seattle 5:00 8,287 9,161

The average attendance I’ve listed for the White Sox is the average for their games in Chicago; they played 11 home games in Milwaukee that year.

The lunar landing took place while eight of the day’s games were in progress. I’ve read at least one first-person newspaper account of every game. Here’s what happened. (I should point out Larry Granillo covered some of this material in a post he did on the 40th anniversary of the landing that was reposted on BaseballProspectus.com after Armstrong’s death in 2012.)

A more typical morning-after front page

July 21, 1969

Cleveland: While the Indians exceeded their average attendance, the figure was a disappointment, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Russell Schneider wrote the next day:

When the schedule was drawn up last winter, it seemed like yesterday would be the prime date of the summer for the Indians — a double header against the World Champion Tigers. But that was before (1) the Tribe’s collapse, (2) the Baltimore Orioles’ surge, (3) the moon landing and (4) heavy rains yesterday morning. Consequently, with many fans staying away to watch the astronauts on TV and because of the rain, instead of an anticipated 40,000 crowd, only 13,512 fans showed up…

Alas, Russ didn’t tell us how the news of the moon landing was broken to those who did show up, although he did manage to work the landing into his game story: “It was almost as difficult for the Indians to reach the plate as it was for Apollo 11 to reach the moon yesterday.” (Hey, the Indians scored seven runs in the two games…that doesn’t exactly sound like a 250,000-mile trip around the bases to me.)

I don’t have access to the Detroit newspapers or the Akron Beacon Journal, maybe one of their writers had details on how the landing was acknowledged during the game. If you can help, please let me know in the comments section below.

ADDED 7/22/15: Many thanks to SABR member Dennis VanLangren, who directed me to a game story in the Sandusky (Ohio) Register. Marc Katz reported Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon “five seconds” after Tony Horton struck out to end the first game of the doubleheader, although Katz did not report how the landing was announced to the crowd. He also said the Indians “listened to the space happening in the dressing room between games.”

ADDED 2/15/16: I’ve now found this account in the Detroit Free Press from George Cantor:

The ending of the exciting [doubleheader] opener was really a classic of suspense in Detroit. The end of the game, with Tony Horton batting and the bases loaded, coincided with the landing of the Lunar Module and all the radio stations cut away to record that bit of history.

It wasn’t until about 10 minutes later with the astronauts safely on the Moon that baseball fans learned that the Tigers had come through safely, too, by striking our Horton.

I still haven’t found an account of how the landing was observed at the ballpark.

Philadelphia: Bus Saidt tells the story in the next day’s Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times:

At 4:20 yesterday afternoon [this would be right after the Cubs batted in the top of the third in the second game of the doubleheader, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune], Phillies’ PA announcer Eddie Ferenz asked for the Connie Mack Stadium crowd’s attention, then informed one and all that the United States of America had landed a man on the moon.

Immediately, members of both the Chicago Cubs and Phillies lined up along the baselines, there was a moment of silent prayer for the continue safety of our gallant astronauts and for the further success of their mission.

Then the crowd let out a yell and joined in the singing of “God Bless America” with Kate Smith.

Of course the record didn’t play properly, the record playing-system sounded like you would expect of one which first was used right after Tom Edison invented the phonograph, but there was no disguising the genuine emotion generated by the historic moment.

It was the best play the Phillies made all day. [The Phils were swept in the doubleheader, scoring just one run in the process.]

Almost five months later, the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League used Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” in place of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a game, beginning a longtime tradition.

An Associated Press photo taken during the celebration appeared in a number of newspapers the next day; this was in the Omaha World-Herald (note the cutline incorrectly places the ceremony between games of the doubleheader):

Phillies Cubs

Montreal: The Mets and Expos had finished the first game of the doubleheader before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon but took an extra-long break between games, pausing from 3:55 until 4:30 p.m. Eastern time so fans could listen to broadcast coverage of the landing over the public address system.

Atlanta storyAtlanta: The brief item at left in the Atlanta Constitution says the game was “halted momentarily in the seventh inning” to observe the landing (it doesn’t say who was at bat or even which half of the inning it was). Wayne Minshew reports the crowd “was asked to say a silent prayer for the astronauts who manned Apollo 11. Organist Bob Fountain played ‘God Bless America’ following the silent prayer, then the game was resumed.”

New York: Arming thousands of prepubescent boys with clubs may not sound like a great idea in the 21st Century, but in the 1960s it was good clean fun. And it had a name: Bat Day, which was annually one of the most popular promotions at Yankee Stadium (Hard Liquor and Handgun Night had not yet been invented). As a result the Yankees had a sizable crowd on hand for their game against the Washington Senators, including 17,000 youngsters with bats. (By the way, there was an actual academic research paper that found the Yankees’ 1990 Bat Day “did not increase the incidence of bat-related trauma in the Bronx and northern Manhattan.”)

Never been to a Bat Day? This is what one looks like.

Never been to a Bat Day? This is what one looks like.

The moon landing took place in the top of the eighth inning, and Leonard Koppett described what happened next in the next day’s New York Times:

Ken McMullen, the Washington third baseman, was batting against Jack Aker, with men on first and third and nobody out. The count on him had just gone to one ball, two strikes.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” came the voice of Bob Shepard, the public address announcer.

The umpires, according to prior arrangements, waved their arms and stopped play.

“You will be happy to know,” Shepard continued, “that the Apollo 11 has landed safely…”

And a tremendous cheer drowned out the words “on the moon.”

The cheering continued for about 45 seconds. On the scoreboard, the message section read “They’re on the moon.” People stood. They waved the bats back and forth. Shepard kept talking, but his words could not be made out through the din.

On the field, the players seemed confused, or impatient. Most did not turn toward the scoreboard. Finally, the announcer could be understood, and he asked the crowd for a moment of silent prayer for the safe return of the astronauts.

The crowd stilled. After a few seconds of silence, a recording of “America the Beautiful,” sung by a chorus, blared through the loudspeakers. At the end of the song, another mighty cheer arose, just like the one that usually greets the completion of the National Anthem before a game.

The game resumed at 4:21 P.M.

The Times also included a photo taken when the landing was announced:

Yankee moon landing

ADDED 7/10/17: Hey, it turns out there’s video with audio of Shepard announcing the landing!

Boston: Jack Clary had detailed reporting of the event in the next day’s Boston Herald-Traveler. It started with the pregame playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

The crowd stood for a couple of moments of silent prayer before the game before an all-out effort in singing the National Anthem. “I even sang I was so proud,” [Reggie] Smith said, “and I generally just listen.”

Herald-TravelerClary went on to describe how the news of the landing was broken to the crowd:

Reggie Smith…had just ended the Red Sox half of the seventh inning by forcing Carl Yastrzemski at second base when Mission Control in Houston heard from the moon: “This is base Tranquility. The Eagle has landed.” [Of course, what Neil Armstrong actually said was, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”]

Two minutes later, public address announcer Sherm Feller told the Fenway Park customers and they began an ovation that lasted 57 seconds. The huge throng stood for the last 35 seconds of that salute while organist John Kiley played a nameless tune — “just something dramatic to fit the occasion.”

…Portable radios were in evidence throughout the afternoon and even before the landing was announced over the PA system, a great murmur had begun to swell in the grandstands.

“I didn’t think they were cheering my force out,” Smith said with a grin after the game.

Clary then put the events of the bottom of the seventh inning on the same timeline as the descent to the moon.

[Syd] O’Brien led off the seventh and Houston’s Mission Control reported the Lunar Module 920 feet above the moon’s surface….Aldrin and Armstrong flew past their landing site in a “football field-like crater” and were just 220 feet away as [Mike Andrews] lashed a single to left….Man was just 100 feet away from the first landing on the moon when Yaz forced Andrews…Reggie stepped to the plate as the Eagle began its final few feet of descent.

For Reggie Smith, the moon landing had extra significance, as described in a Herald-Traveler sidebar to the game story:

His brother Lonny worked at MIT as a bacteriologist on that phase of the Apollo program and now has returned to California where he is engaged on research in rocket fuels.

One of the Red Sox center fielder’s best friends, Willard Barnes, also worked at MIT on the lunar orbit phase as part of a North American Rockwell team that was acutely engaged in the computer phase of the flight’s orbit around the moon.

I’d love to know a little more about Lonny (or Lonnie) Smith and Willard Barnes but have not been able to find anything. If you can provide any information, please leave it in the comments.

Chicago: Richard Dozer started his Chicago Tribune game story with the moon landing:

Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard must have given Walter Williams a fright when it belched sparks and noise to salute his infield single in the seventh inning of yesterday’s first game between the White Sox and Kansas City Royals.

Actually, it had been synchronized to the moment of the moon landing, and Walter, who seems to be in the right place at the right time, at least as often as any of his teammates, was merely doing his part to trigger a two-run rally against the Royals.

The White Sox went on to lose both games of the doubleheader. Dozer had no other details of how the moon landing was observed at the ballpark, but the Tribune did include this photo:

White Sox

San Francisco: I’ve read four different accounts of this game (in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner and the Los Angeles Times and Herald-Examiner), none of which offer any real detail about how the news of the landing was announced. A story in the news section of the Examiner, about what was going on around the city at the time of the landing, included this: “Out at Candlestick Park a crowd of 32,500 watching the Giants-Dodgers game let out a huge roar when the moon landing was announced over the public address system.” The only mention of the landing in Bob Stevens’ game story in the Chronicle was that the crowd was “remarkably large in light of the Apollo 11 moon landing.” (It was the Giants’ largest crowd of the season to that point and would wind up being their second-largest of the year.) Bob Hunter, in his Herald-Examiner game story, noted Dodger third baseman Bill Sudakis walked to load the bases in the top of the first inning “at the exact moment when the astronauts landed.”

ADDED 11/20/15: Here’s a little more detail from a UPI story in the Palm Springs Desert Sun of July 21:

After walking Bill Sudakis to load the bases and Ted Sizemore at the plate, as the two clubs and 32,560 fans paused for a moment of silence. [sic] It was precisely 1:17.

[ADDED 12/16/15: I’ve obtained a copy of the recording of the Dodgers’ radio broadcast of this game, which seems to be the only recording of any of that day’s games that has survived. Jerry Doggett was calling the game in the first inning with Sudakis at bat:

Outside, ball four, the Dodgers have loaded them up. (brief pause) And as Sudakis walks to first base, the astronauts have landed on the moon. (brief pause) Boy, that’s quite a moment in our history. (Brief pause) [Giants manager] Clyde King now goes out to the mound to talk to [pitcher Gaylord] Perry, the second walk given up. The Dodgers have loaded the bases. (Public address system audible in the background) Here’s an announcement at Candlestick Park now, and we’re going to turn it to the p.a. system. (p.a. unintelligible, then “…has landed on the moon at 1:16 p.m.,” followed by cheering, then p.a. announcer resumes, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our game, now we ask you to rise…” followed by more unintelligible comments, and then Doggett comes back on) A moment of silence here at Candlestick Park in observance of the landing on the moon. (During the silence it sounds as if some of the NASA audio is playing on the p.a. system, then the p.a. announcer says, “Thank you,” the crowd cheers, then Doggett resumes) So a great moment in our world history, just accomplished by our three [sic] astronauts who have landed on the moon, two have landed of course, we’ll have further reports and details later on as we go through the afternoon. The pitch to [Ted] Sizemore…

Coincidence or not, the break for the landing observance changed Gaylord Perry’s fortunes on the mound. Prior to that, he had faced seven batters, allowing four hits, two walks and three runs. After that, he faced 28 batters, allowing three hits, no walks and no runs.]

This game is the most famous of the games that were played that day, because it featured Perry’s first major league home run, in his eighth season. (He would hit five more before retiring in 1983.) Associated Press baseball writer Hal Bock led his roundup of the day’s National League games with this:

The way Gaylord Perry swings a bat, he stands as much chance of hitting a home run as…oh…as a man does of walking on the moon.

Well, Perry and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin made it together Sunday. The San Francisco right-hander tagged his first career homer and pitched the Giants to a 7-3 victory over Los Angeles, tightening up the National League’s West Division race while the astronauts took a moon stroll that tightened up the universe.

Here’s the headline the Greensboro (N.C.) Record put on Bock’s story:

Gaylord Perry

And in the Baton Rouge (La.) State-Times:

Gaylord Perry 2

But Bock’s is not the story that became famous. The one that did was told by Pat Frizzell in The Sporting News issue of August 9, 1969:

[Perry’s home run] recalled to Harry Jupiter, formerly of the San Francisco Examiner, that back in 1962 he watched Perry in batting practice one day and remarked to Alvin Dark, then Giant manager, that Gaylord might be a hitter.

“No way,” scoffed Dark. “We’ll have a man on the moon before he hits a home run.”

So, just 25 minutes after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, Gaylord whacked his first big league homer.

There’s no evidence Jupiter, or anyone else, had this anecdote in print before the moon landing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Both Perry and Dark told the story often over the years since.

Anaheim: Here’s the headline on the game story in the next day’s Los Angeles Times:


From Mitch Chortkoff’s story:

The Angels divided a doubleheader with the Oakland Athletics Sunday on an afternoon when baseball was minimized by the major news event of the day.

The opening game was 17 minutes old, and Oakland’s Rick Monday was at bat in the second inning when the contest was halted, and the following words were flashed on the message board in left field:

“We have landed on the moon.”

The Ball Day crowd of 17,835 cheered its approval, and then the game resumed.

…The second game ended five minutes before Apollo 11 astronauts began preparations for their unprecedented walk on the moon. In anticipation of the event, however, all but about 3,000 spectators departed the ballpark before the second game ended.

The A’s starting pitcher in the first game was 19-year-old Vida Blue, making his first appearance in the major leagues. He was the only player to debut in the big leagues the day of the moon landing.

SeattleSeattle: Play didn’t begin in Seattle until about 45 minutes after the moon landing. Hy Zimmerman doesn’t include a mention of what happened at the time of the landing in his Seattle Times game story, his only allusion to the events of the day being that the crowd of 8,287 — the smallest at the day’s major league games — was “presumably held to that number by the moon landing and pregame showers.” But an Associated Press roundup of what was happening at various places in America at the time of the landing included this:

…pregame ceremonies before an American League baseball game between the hometown Pilots and the Minnesota Twins were interrupted by an announcement of the moon landing. The fans cheered, stood up and sang “America the Beautiful.”

(That’s “America the Beautiful” 2, “God Bless America” 2 for those keeping score.)

Alas, Seattle pitcher Jim Bouton didn’t include any mention of the moon landing in his entry for the day in his published diary of the 1969 season, “Ball Four,” but Jim was preoccupied by the tough outing he had on the mound that day in the Pilots’ loss.

The Pilots actually lost two games that day. The previous night’s game was suspended in the 16th inning, tied 7-7, because of the American League’s 1 a.m. curfew and was resumed before Sunday’s scheduled game began. It turned out to be a big day for Twins pitcher Jim Perry, Gaylord’s older brother. Perry finished the suspended game, pitching two shutout innings and scoring the winning run after an 18th-inning double, then shut out the Pilots in the scheduled game to earn his second victory of the day.

An ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the morning after the landing

An ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the morning after the landing

The biggest crowd at any ballpark on the day of the first landing on the moon was not there to see a baseball game. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reported 81,032 people were at Dodger Stadium for an afternoon address by the president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower Society. He predicted Armageddon would take place in the mid-1970s, although church officials admitted they weren’t quite as sure of that as they had been when they forecast Armageddon would occur in 1925.

(My earlier post has information about some of the minor league games that were played that day and night, including a story involving baseball clown Max Patkin that made it into his autobiography and obituary.)

From “aw, rats” to redemption: Miss Bloomington sings the National Anthem at two ballparks in 1976

This isn’t the first blog post I’ve written based on something I found out about listening to an old radio broadcast. This time I was listening to the WJR Radio broadcast of the Tigers-Angels game of August 17, 1976. As the Tigers came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, Ernie Harwell passed along this news:

We’ve got a bulletin here on our Western Union ticker, we want to give it to you just as it came in to us. It says, “Tonight is Bloomington Night at the Met.” That’s in Bloomington, Minnesota. [The Minnesota Twins played their home games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, commonly referred to as Met Stadium or the Met.] “In honor of the occasion, Miss Bloomington led the multitudes in the National Anthem. Three-quarters of the way through she lost her place, said, ‘Oh, rats,’ and walked off the field.”

Harwell’s broadcast partner Paul Carey responded with a hearty laugh. Seconds later, Tiger catcher Bruce Kimm hit the only home run he would ever hit in the major leagues to break a 2-2 tie, and Detroit’s rookie pitching sensation Mark Fidrych would go on to defeat the Angels 3-2.

Met StadiumAs soon as I heard Ernie share this story I knew I had to find out more about what happened that night, and what happened to that singer. Especially since this happened in Minnesota; two weeks after this game was played I arrived in Minnesota to start college and I would stay there (Minnesota, not college) for most of the next 30 years; I skipped a few classes to take in a Twins game at the Met.

Little did I know when I started chasing details of this story that there would be a second part to it. Nor did I know I would have a delightful conversation with a woman who can still laugh about this almost 40 years later.

* * * * *

From the Aberdeen (S.D.) American-News of Aug. 18, 1976

From the Aberdeen (S.D.) American-News of Aug. 18, 1976

Her name was misspelled in the first news stories as Stephany Nielsen; she was actually Stephanie Nilson, a 19-year-old graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School who was about to enter her sophomore year at the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University), an all-women’s college in St. Paul (a fine school from which my wife graduated). Being Miss Bloomington may not have been enough to earn her the honor of singing the anthem on Bloomington Night, but she was an accomplished singer, majoring in voice at St. Kate’s with plans to become a professional opera singer.

StephanieStephanie sang the anthem without accompaniment and was disconcerted by the delayed echo of her voice coming over the loudspeakers. After she sang “Gave proof through the night,” she got confused about where she was in the song and stopped, then after a few seconds threw up her hands and said, “Aw, rats” (or as the Minneapolis Tribune perhaps more accurately recorded it, “Aaaaw rats!”).

“She smiled graciously, bowed, and a sympathetic audience applauded,” according to an Associated Press report. (The official attendance that night was 7,850. By the way, other AP stories said she got through the line “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave” before giving up, but that is incorrect.)

But Stephanie didn’t run and hide in shame…she went back to her seat near the Twins dugout, where she watched the Twins lose to the Orioles, 10-3. (Patrick Reusse, now a Minneapolis StarTribune sports columnist but then the Twins beat writer for the St. Paul Dispatch, led his game story with Stephanie’s anthem breakdown, then added, “After that, things deteriorated as far as the Twins were concerned.”)

From an Associated Press story:

Miss Nielsen told a reporter the two-second delay caused by the echo “threw me off. But I wasn’t nervous. I was enjoying it, but that echo made it difficult.

“I could feel everybody in the audience laughing. But I didn’t feel they were laughing at me. They were laughing with me.”

Stephanie’s boyfriend, Jim Moen, told the reporter, “She blew it at her opening night at the Met” (playing on the fact that the stadium shared a nickname with New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera, for whom Stephanie no doubt would have loved to sing).

“At first I suppose I was embarrassed,” she told another reporter the next day. “But it’s only human and it happens to everybody. I guess I’m just a clown at heart. I’m glad the audience reacted the way they did. That really helped.”

The wire-service account of Stephanie’s misadventure made it into many of the nation’s newspapers in the days to come and gave headline writers something to play with:

From the St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 18, 1976

From the St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 18, 1976

From the Miami News, Aug. 19, 1976

From the Miami News, Aug. 19, 1976

From the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, Aug. 19, 1976

From the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, Aug. 19, 1976

From the Peoria (Ill.) State Journal-Register, Aug. 20, 1976

From the Peoria (Ill.) State Journal-Register, Aug. 20, 1976

Futire media mogul Ted Turner participated in many of his promotions in his first year as owner of the Atlanta Braves in 1976.

Future international media mogul Ted Turner participated in many of his promotions in his first year as owner of the Atlanta Braves in 1976.

One of the people who read Stephanie’s story was Ted Turner, then in his first season as owner of the Atlanta Braves. Among the reasons Turner was able to buy the team in the first place was that attendance had been pathetically low, and Turner vowed to increase the number of paying customers by staging as many crazy promotions as possible: motorized-bathtub races, mattress-stacking contests, a tightrope walk across the top of the stadium by daredevil Karl Wallenda, ostrich racing, “Headlock and Wedlock Day” (weddings at home plate before the game, professional wrestling on the field afterwards).

When Turner heard about Stephanie Nilson, he decided to make her part of the show at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and invited her to take another shot at singing the anthem the next week, on August 23. “I’m glad to do it again, but I hope I don’t blow it,” Stephanie told a reporter after accepting Turner’s offer.

Stephanie succeedsThis time Stephanie took the field holding a card with the lyrics written on it. (“Someone suggested it,” she told a reporter. “It’s easy to get lost under pressure like that.”) But she didn’t need to look at it as she got through the anthem without incident. “She received generous applause for her flawless performance and waved to the crowd,” the Associated Press reported. As was the case with her bungled performance, the encore received significant national media attention.

Ted Turner doubled up on promotions that night…in addition to featuring the singing beauty queen, he staged a pregame “Baseball Olympics” in which one of the events saw Turner and Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw compete to see who could push a baseball from third base to home plate the fastest using their nose. Yeah, that got some attention…

Tug McGrawTed Turner pushingAnd with that Stephanie Nilson’s 15 minutes of fame came to an end (although she was mentioned in a January 1977 Sports Illustrated story about difficulties singing the national anthem before sporting events). So what happened to her after that?

* * * * *

Stephanie todayThe alumni office at St. Catherine University was kind enough to get me in touch with Stephanie, who is now Stephanie Askew and, along with her husband, owns an art gallery in Redstone, Colorado. (Jim Moen, the boyfriend who made the crack about Stephanie blowing her opening night at the Met? Stephanie married him after she graduated from St. Kate’s in 1979, but they divorced.) Stephanie’s watercolor paintings are on display at the gallery.

She has also had a long career as a professional singer, which continues today. Walking off the Met Stadium field without finishing the national anthem didn’t leave any emotional scars. Here’s part of the phone conversation we had.

Me: Had you ever sung the national anthem at an event before that Twins game?

Stephanie: Yes, but never where I had the echo from across the field. I wasn’t ready for that. Nobody told me about the echo.

Me: When did you realize things were going wrong?

Stephanie: Right away. (laughs) I thought, oh my gosh, this is tricky, I’m going to have to really concentrate. I reached that point where I couldn’t think of where I was as it was coming out of my mouth, and I just totally lost it. What I did, throwing my hands up in the air and saying “oh, rats” was, thankfully, instinctively correct. I could have said other things, but I wasn’t a cusser, so I’m thankful that didn’t come out.

Me: That’s one of the things I love about this story. “Oh, rats” is such a Minnesota response.

Stephanie: (laughs) Yeah. Exactly.

I remember Tony Oliva was the first one to reach me. Two guys came bolting from the dugout, and one of them was Tony, and he grabbed me and swung me around – I’m wearing a dress – and he’s hugging me, thinking I am the funniest thing. Maybe he ran out to give me some moral support, too. They carried me back and it was hilarious.

Me: That’s another thing I love…you didn’t go hide, you stayed and watched the game and talked to a reporter.

“Aw, rats.” (opens envelope) “What are the last words of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’?” (Okay, I don’t know if that’s how Johnny talked about Stephanie Nilson, but he could have…)

Stephanie: I was so embarrassed, but we were laughing about the whole thing. My boyfriend was the one who said I blew my debut at the Met, that was his little tidbit immediately, and I thought, that’s pretty funny. “Opera singer blows her debut at the Met.” How clever is that? I have a funny sense of humor, so we just laughed about the whole thing. I was just amazed by all the press and the stories. Johnny Carson talked about me on his show.

Me: I also love that you didn’t let this experience scar you.

Stephanie: (laughs) Because I have a sick sense of humor. I can laugh at myself, that’s the best part. Things happen. Fortunately everybody else laughed with me. When I stood there and threw my hands up in the air and said “oh, rats,” the sound of the roar of laughter, I’ll never forget that.

Me: How did you find out about Atlanta?

Forgetful singerStephanie: My chaperone [with the Miss Bloomington pageant] called and said, guess what, you’ve just been invited to go to Atlanta, three days, all expenses paid, and meet Ted Turner, he wants to give you another chance. And I’m like, are you kidding me? He said, “And we ARE going.” We are? We’re going? I’m so embarrassed, you’re going to make me go? And he said, “You’re going.”

A photo from Stephanie's personal collection, in Atlanta with her Miss Bloomington chaperones, Todd and Barb Peterson

A photo from Stephanie’s personal collection, in Atlanta with her Miss Bloomington chaperones, Todd and Barb Peterson

Stephanie singing in Atlanta, from her personal collection

Stephanie singing in Atlanta, from her personal collection

We had the best time, I enjoyed it. I have pictures of Ted Turner, standing right next to me in a group. There’s a funny one, I always think I’m going to have it blown up, I could blackmail him. He was saying something to me so his head was turned to me, he was taller so he was looking down, and it looks like he’s looking right down my dress.

Me: I wouldn’t put it past him.

Stephanie: It was a classic. Now I look back and go, wow, I was with Ted Turner.

[ADDED 4/6/16: Stephanie found the photo. She’s right, it is a classic…]


Fortunately they didn’t have an echo problem [at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium]. The speakers were wonderful. They had a huge scoreboard, and when I was singing, there was my name in lights, “Stephanie Nilson sings again,” and I thought, this is hilarious. What a silly thing! If I’d sung it correctly [in Minnesota] nobody would have cared, but because I made a mistake… Everybody loves the underdog.

The Twins gave me another chance shortly after I returned from Atlanta. That time it was perfect.

Me: The echo didn’t bother you?

Stephanie: I kind of just put it out of my head. I had my cue card; I didn’t have to use it, but I was ready. [Stephanie doesn’t remember the date of this game; I’d love to find out.]

A photo of the scoreboard in Atlanta from Stephanie's personal collection

A photo of the scoreboard in Atlanta from Stephanie’s personal collection

From the Greensboro (N.C.) Daily News, Aug. 25, 1976

From the Greensboro (N.C.) Daily News, Aug. 25, 1976


A plaque at the Mall of America marks where home plate stood at Metropolitan Stadium

A plaque at the Mall of America marks where home plate stood at Metropolitan Stadium

In later years, when I would go to visit my family in Minnesota, I would take my children to the Mall of America [built on the site of Met Stadium], where they have home plate from the Met, and we go and stand on home plate and take pictures because they know that’s my claim to fame. We stand there and we all laugh. They laugh at Mommy. The house that my parents first rented when we moved to Bloomington when I was three years old had to be torn down to build the Mall of America.

Me: How did you get started singing?

Stephanie: For some reason in elementary school they always pulled me out to do any of the little singing parts because they said I had a really pretty voice. In middle school my music teacher knew I had more of an operatic voice so he selected the operetta “Naughty Marietta” for us to do. I was the lead role, and I got really hooked, I just loved classical music and the opera.

In college my voice teacher was Marguerite Gignac Hedges; she got me scholarships and took me under her wing. I had a lesson with her every day of the week, and she didn’t do that for all her students. Every day I went in for 30 minutes and we did exercises. She was so wonderful to me. She wanted me to go to Europe to study, so we found a program and I spent a whole year in Europe, 12 months in Vienna and Germany, in ’77 and ’78. That was the highlight of my life, and I really learned so much.

When I graduated I moved to Texas and I taught voice lessons and I joined some operatic groups there. I sang opera in Dallas for years. I also did commercial jingles and I was always doing some type of music in my church. And then I got to sing with big bands. There is a group called New Horizons for people 50 years of age and older. In Dallas they had a big concert band and also had a 20-piece jazz band. When I was 50 I found out about this group; I auditioned and they grabbed me, and I sang with them for eight years. We would tour throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, retirement communities, senior centers, nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, private parties. I sang all of the great tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s; my God, I was in heaven! [Here’s Stephanie singing with the band. Oh heck, here’s another.]


A photo from Atlanta from Stephanie’s personal collection. I’m guessing that guy had just landed and said, “Take me to your leader,” and Stephanie was the closest person around wearing a crown.

I didn’t think I would have a place to sing here when I moved here three years ago [Redstone‘s population is only about 100], and now I have so much singing stuff going on I can hardly make time for my job. I get to sing opera here! There is a group in Glenwood Springs that has a big band and a orchestra, so now I’m performing opera with the orchestra and I do my big band music with this amazing band. My husband gets to play drums with the band, too, so that’s kind of fun. We have a girl group, three of us we call the Redstone Rubies, and we do three-part harmonies and dress up in full costumes and wigs and do the Supremes and country-western and the ‘60s, it’s just hysterical. We do two concerts a month in front of our gallery.

I’ve been so fortunate my whole life. I turn 59 in September and I’m still singing opera. What is so exciting is my voice teacher from St. Kate’s, she’s 86 years old and she summers in Aspen which is 50 minutes away, so I still get to see her. Last summer I was doing a classical recital and she coached me for three weeks, we prepared my concert. Here she is at 86 and she’s helping me still. Isn’t that cool?

That funny baseball thing that happened was just such a fluke, it’s such a funny story. I actually am singing the national anthem with my Redstone Rubies here on the Fourth of July and I shared that story with them a few weeks ago, and they just rolled with laughter. If you can make people laugh, that’s a good thing. I’ve had an extremely joyful life with music.

Thanks to my friend Brendan Henehan of Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” for finding and sharing with me several Minneapolis and St. Paul newspaper items about Stephanie.

Did Max Patkin perform for a crowd of four people…and other things that happened in baseball the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon

The Clown Prince

I’ve written more about the major league games that were played on the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing in this post.

Apparently Max Patkin, the minor league pitcher turned baseball clown, told this story many times over the years. When Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call reporter John Kunda asked Patkin in 1990 what was the smallest crowd he ever performed for, Patkin replied:

“I’m in Great Falls, Mont., and only four people show up for the game. Two of them were the parents of the pitcher. That was the night they put a man on the moon. Are they gonna watch that or watch me?”

In Max’s 1994 autobiography, “The Clown Prince of Baseball,” he wrote the show he put on in Great Falls had to be the toughest he ever did.

Drew four people — it was 1969, the Sunday afternoon the astronauts landed on the moon. The general manager asked me if I would cancel, and I didn’t want to blow the pay day, so I said I’d go on. He said he’d scatter some television sets around the ballpark, but only four people showed up, and two of them were the parents of the starting pitcher.

I did my whole act and afterwards the general manager said, “Max, I can’t believe you worked that hard with nobody in the ballpark.”

And I told him, “All those kids [players] were rookies, they’d never seen me before. They were enjoying it.”

When Patkin died in 1999, the incident even made it into his New York Times obituary. Richard Goldstein wrote:

He appeared before big crowds in the majors, but there was also the time when he performed before a crowd of four, two of the spectators being the parents of one of the starting pitchers. That was in Great Falls, Mont., the night of July 20, 1969, when the rest of America was watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.

Did it really happen? Or was Max exaggerating a bit…or a lot…to make it a better story? I can’t answer the question definitively. My hunch is he probably exaggerated, but maybe not by a lot.

Apollo 11 did indeed land on the moon on Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EDT. Patkin GFAnd Max Patkin did perform in Great Falls on July 20. While the Great Falls Tribune does not have any coverage of his appearance after the fact, the newspaper’s July 20 edition indicates Patkin will perform that day, as seen at right. (My great thanks to Eva McDunn of the Great Falls Public Library for sharing copies of the library’s microfilm of the Tribune stories included here.)

The Great Falls Giants were members of the rookie level Pioneer League. Note this story says Patkin was scheduled to perform “before the afternoon game of the split doubleheader.” That game was scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. local time (Mountain Daylight), about 45 minutes before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon. If this is indeed what happened, it means Patkin did not perform on “the night of July 20” while “the rest of America was watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon,” as the Times obituary says. Patkin would have performed before the astronauts even landed, although it would be understandable if the baseball fans of Great Falls had chosen to stay home to watch the live coverage of the landing carried by all the television networks.

So how many people did show up to watch Patkin’s antics? It doesn’t appear anyone from the Great Falls Tribune was among them; the account of the games in the next day’s paper, which I will share in a moment, has just the barest of details and is unbylined, which I take to mean it was provided by the team, probably in a phone conversation with someone at the Tribune. There is no description of Patkin performing before mostly empty seats.

Maybe you’re thinking, well, how about the official attendance? Here’s the problem: the games were a split doubleheader, starting at 1:30 and 7:30. Nowadays in the majors, a split doubleheader means separate admissions, so there would be an attendance figure for each game. But it’s not clear that was the case in Great Falls that day. An attendance is listed only after the second game in the box scores of the next day’s Tribune, and the attendance is listed as 230…which is certainly more than four. But I have to assume that’s the total number of people who attended either game. How many of them were there before the first game started to watch Max Patkin? We’ll never know for sure if there were only four people on hand, but it certainly wasn’t much of a crowd, and however many there were it may well have been the smallest group Max ever performed for. Combine that with the moon landing and it’s an irresistible story.

Here’s the game story and boxes from the July 21 Tribune: Great Falls boxesNote the visiting team in the first game is misidentified in the box as Caldwell, another team in the Pioneer League. But the opponent in both games was Twin Falls, Idaho. That team is identified as Magic Valley in the 1970 Sporting News Baseball Guide and other reference works, but the newspapers from league cities I’ve looked at consistently used Twin Falls.

By the way, Great Falls’ announced attendance was not the smallest in the Pioneer League on July 20. The box score in the Idaho Falls Post-Register for the local team’s doubleheader against Salt Lake City lists the attendance as “150 (estimated).” That twin bill was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. and would have been in progress when Neil Armstrong took his small step at 8:56 local time. The other games in the league that day were a doubleheader at Billings that started at 2 p.m.; the attendance listed in the next day’s Billings Gazette was 390.

Max Patkin was capable of beating these numbers, even in the Pioneer League. Bob Addie’s column in The Sporting News of September 20, 1969 quoted Patkin as saying he performed before a league-record crowd of 7,200 in Salt Lake City that year and 2,400 in Ogden, Utah, No doubt Great Falls management, which scheduled Patkin’s appearance before the moon landing conflict was known, expected more bang for Max’s bucks.

I did a little more poking around about minor league games played on July 20, 1969. From the Des Moines Register:

The crowd of 1,517 who watched the Iowa Oaks lose their second baseball game of the day to Omaha at Sec Taylor Stadium finally had something to cheer about when the public address announcer told them Americans were walking on the lunar surface.

Baseball fans weren’t the only ones in Des Moines blowing off the moon business that night; the Register reported 400 people attended the regular Sunday night band concert on the steps of the Iowa Statehouse, and another 400 turned up for the Sunday night community sing at Greenwood Park. (The Register also reported receiving a phone call from a woman who asked, “You don’t really believe all this, do you? It’s all a fake.”)

AlbuquerqueThe Albuquerque Journal story of the local Dodgers’ Texas League game against Memphis said the crowd of 852 was less than a third of what the average Sunday attendance had been prior to that in 1969.

The Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard story of the Emeralds’ Pacific Coast League game against Tucson included this: “The crowd of 1,028, undoubtedly held down by television viewing of the Moon landing, was the smallest of the season at Civic Stadium.”

From the Amarillo (Tex.) Globe-Times: “Some 1,354 baseball fans watched the Amarillo Giants’ 4-3 victory over the Arkansas Travelers….personal radios were much in evidence, and a cheer went up from the crowd when the announcement came over the PA system that the landing was an accomplished fact.”

It wasn’t just professional baseball games Americans were attending instead of watching what was going on on the moon…the attendance for a Central Illinois Collegiate League doubleheader in Springfield was announced as 1,117. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon as the night’s next-to-last batter was striking out.

The biggest crowd at any ballpark on the day of the first landing on the moon was not there to see a baseball game. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reported 81,032 people were at Dodger Stadium for an afternoon address by the president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower Society. He predicted Armageddon would take place in the mid-1970s, although church officials admitted they weren’t quite as sure of that as they had been when they forecast Armageddon would occur in 1925.

One final note about what folks were doing instead of sitting in front of their televisions on July 20, 1969: the Omaha World-Herald reported 156 people attended a performance that night in Brownville, Nebraska of a play, “Fashion,” put on by a Nebraska Wesleyan University theatrical group. The director “stopped the play between the third and fourth acts and placed a television set on the stage,” and the audience watched the moon walk for about 20 minutes before the play resumed.

If you come across any stories about what was going on at baseball games on the day of the Apollo 11 landing, please share them with me in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to credit you in an updated version of this post.

Congratulations, Wally Holborow, you got your record back from Carlos Frias

(Much of this post is repurposed from an earlier post of mine.)

Carlos Frias pitched his way out of the major league record book on May 1, 2015. Well, his record wasn’t exactly in any book…I was probably the only person who knew he held it aside from the person who told me, Sean Forman, creator of Baseball-Reference.com. Sean was kind enough to use his database for me when I was trying to identify the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history. I thought one way to do so would be to use the “game score” that Bill James first published in his 1988 Baseball Abstract and look for the pitchers with the biggest difference between their best-ever game score and their second-best. That might be a sign that their best game was a fluke and, hence, unlikely.

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.

When Sean ran the numbers for me earlier this year, the pitcher with the biggest difference between his two highest game scores was Carlos Frias, who to that point had two major league starts, both in 2014 for the Dodgers.

Carlos Frias

Carlos Frias

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 in 2014, so that 69-point difference between his best and second-best starts ever was the largest of all time (at least since 1914).

But Frias got another chance to start on May 1, 2015, and pitched 5-1/3 shutout innings against Arizona a for a game score of 62. That gave the record for biggest difference between top two game scores back to the man who held it before Frias — Wally Holborow.

Wally Holborow in 1948

Wally Holborow in 1948

With major league caliber players at a premium during World War II, Holborow went to the majors directly from the semi-pro ranks in 1944 at age 30. He had been pitching in his native New York and was with the high-profile Brooklyn Bushwicks when he signed with the Washington Senators. 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 Post

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. He made three relief appearances and was the winning pitcher in the third of them when the A’s rallied after he was lifted for a pinch-hitter.

Six days later Holborow was called on to make his second career major league start in 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? Connie was 85 years old, after all; maybe he was resting. But for whatever reason he allowed Holborow to go 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 relief appearance for the A’s, finishing his major league career with a 2-3 record and a 3.31 ERA, and then went back to the Bushwicks. Any further information about Wally Holborow would be much appreciated.

I’ve ranked Holborow’s 1945 shutout the sixth-most unlikely pitching performance in major league history; my complete list is at the end of this post, and I’ve written much more about number one and number three on my list here. The complete list of largest differences between best and second-best career Game Scores is here.