Snakebit Pitchers of the Deadball Era
It's all too easy for the casual fan to dismiss a pitcher with a losing record as a second-rate performer, but even a quick glance below the surface reveals that many hurlers have performed well with little run support.
Put a solid or better-than-average pitcher on a team with poor defense, shoddy fundamentals, a weak-hitting lineup or all of the above and bad things often happen in the win column. Who can rightfully blame the guy on the mound if he is victimized by inept fielding and a lack of offense?
The only fair measurement is to compare pitchers against their peers in earned run average, baserunners allowed and other statistics that rely less on the quality (or lack of same) of the position players in the lineup. So who are some of the least fortunate hurlers in major league history? A long list of guys spent one or more seasons cursing their sad fates, pulling their hair out or quietly suffering an undeserved blemish on their records.
Few remember the original Milwaukee Brewers, a team that finished last in the American League's inaugural season (1901). It was an omen of things to come, as the team became the perenially hapless St. Louis Browns the following year.
Ned Garvin's 3.46 ERA was 20 points better than the league average of 3.66, but that didn't prevent him from going 7-20. Things got even worse in 1904, when Garvin's 1.68 ERA was good for second place in the National League.
The right-hander went 5-15 for a weak-hitting Brooklyn Superbas squad that had three regulars with sub-.200 batting averages. A 12-inning, 0-1 stint with the New York Highlanders (2.25 ERA, three earned runs) after being picked up on waivers in September gave the hard-luck hurler an overall record of 5-16 despite his stingy 1.72 ERA. Garvin's ERA was more than a run below the NL's 2.73 average. Noodles Hahn of the Reds (16-18, 2.06 in 1904) almost looks like a magnet for good fortune when compared to the jinxed Garvin.
Could Cy Young have ended up with even more victories than his unbreakable record of 511 wins? His 1.82 ERA (third in the AL in 1905) was accompanied by an 18-19 record. Young was 0.83 run better than the league's 2.65 total, and a few more hits at key moments would have surely resulted in some extra wins.
Harry Howell of the last-place Browns didn't deserve to go 15-22, as his fine 1.98 ERA was sixth in the league.
Bob Ewing's 17-19 record with the sixth-place Reds in 1907 looks out of place next to a 1.73 ERA that was sixth best in the league. In the AL, George Winter's 12-15, 1.99 season with the seventh-place Red Sox and Cy Falkenberg's 6-17, 2.35 performance for the last-place Senators point to poor support.
Lew Richie's 7-10 record belies his 1.83 ERA (sixth in the NL) for the Phillies in 1908. Right behind Richie among the ERA leaders were Andy Coakley (8-18, 1.86) of the Reds and Kaiser Wilhelm (16-22, 1.87 ERA) of the Dodgers. Those pitchers should have filed a class-action lawsuit for nonsupport.
Nap Rucker didn't deserve a 13-19 record to go with his 2.24 ERA for the Dodgers in 1909. Catcher Bill Bergen's .139 average and three extra-base hits in 346 at-bats killed the team's run production. Walter Johnson got the worst breaks among major league pitchers that year, as he was 13-25 with a 2.21 ERA for the last-place Senators. George Mullin's virtually identical 2.22 ERA for the pennant-winning Tigers led to 29-8 record. Replace some of the Big Train's time in Washington with stints on winning teams, and he surely could have been a 450-game winner.
Ed Walsh put together one of the finest seasons of all time with his 1.27 ERA (or half the AL average of 2.53) in 369.2 innings pitched for the White Sox in 1910. So how did the Hall of Famer end up with an 18-20 record? The team's seven home runs, .211 batting average and .261 slugging percentage were dreadful even by the standards of the deadball era. Smoky Joe Wood's 1.68 ERA for the Red Sox was a more accurate indicator of his performance than a 12-13 record.
ERAs rose significantly in both league in 1911, and Phillies' starter Earl Moore (15-19) caught few breaks. He led the National League in losses despite a 2.63 ERA that was 0.76 below the league average of 3.39.
Red Sox lefty Ray Collins pitched far better than his 11-12 record might suggest. His 2.39 ERA was nearly a run better than the AL average of 3.34. It wasn't the first time Collins received less offensive support than he deserved, as he led the league with a 1.62 ERA in 1910 and had a 13-11 record to show for it.
Collins made hitters earn their way on base. He finished second through seventh in least walks per nine innings allowed among American League hurlers in five consecutive seasons (1910-14). In 1,336 career innings, the Vermont native gave up just 269 free passes, or 1.81 per nine innings.
Rucker was cursed again in 1912. Being third in the National League with a 2.21 ERA (NL average 3.40) should have led to a better result than 18-21. Brookyn finished the season in seventh place with a 58-95 record, well under its Pythagorean estimate of 66-87. Jack Warhop's 2.86 ERA was nearly half a run better than the AL standard of 3.34, but he went 10-19 for the last-place Yankees.
Another Brooklyn moundsman - lefty Frank Allen - was the Rodney Dangerfield of 1913. His 2.83 ERA (league average 3.20) looks like a typographical error next to a 4-18 record. The American League ERA of 2.93 was 0.27 lower than the competition. Red Sox rookie Dutch Leonard didn't deserve a losing record (14-16) to go with his 2.39 ERA. That performance was just a small taste of things to come, as Leonard's 19-5 season in 1914 was accompanied by an all-time best 0.96 ERA.
The Federal League debuted in 1914. Nick Cullop (14-17) of the Kansas City Packers may have regretted jumping to the new circuit, since his 2.34 ERA was 0.86 better than the 3.20 average for the Feds. Joe Benz of the White Sox (14-19, 2.26) didn't deserve to lead the AL in defeats, while Warhop (8-15, 2.37) endured another season of meager support.
Cubs' righty Bert Humphries went 8-13 with a 2.31 ERA (2.75 NL average) in 1915. He gave up just 23 walks in 171.2 inning pitched. Erv Kantlehner of the Pirates (5-12, 2.26) was one of the team's better hitters with a .288 average.
Jesse Barnes of the Boston Braves took it on the chin in 1916, as he went 6-14, 2.37. Pirates' righty Frank Miller was under .500 (7-10) even with a career-best 2.29 ERA. George Mogridge went 6-12, 2.31 for the fourth-place Yankees, and his ERA was exactly half a run better than the American League average. Joe Bush was the undeserving major league leader in losses (15-24, 2.57) for the pathetic 36-117 Philadelphia A's.
Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey endured one of his nine losing seasons in 1917 when he went 16-21 with a fine 2.27 ERA for the second-place Phillies. An ERA that was 0.43 under the NL average was quite a feat in the tiny, hitter-friendly Baker Bowl, but the left-hander still led the league in losses. Rixey's .515 career inning percentage (266-251) is the worst of any starting pitcher in Cooperstown. Jeff Pfeffer's 2.23 ERA was better than his 11-15 campaign for the seventh-place Dodgers. George Dumont's 2.55 ERA went with a 5-14 record for the Senators.
No team played more than 129 games in 1918, as the season was shortened because of the First World War. Brooklyn's Rube Marquard (9-18, 2.64) and White Sox knuckleballer Eddie Cicotte (12-19, 2.64) led their respective leagues in defeats despite having identical ERAs that were slightly better than league standards.
Bill Doak (9-15, 2.43) and Red Ames (9-14, 2.31) of the last-place Cardinals deserved a better fate. It's hard to believe today, but this was the era when the St. Louis Browns were the city's favorite club. Things didn't change for the Cardinals until they won the first 20th century pennant by a St. Louis team in 1926.
As for Ames, it wasn't the first time he got a raw deal. In 1914, the righty led the majors - Federal League included - in losses when he went 15-23 for the last-place Reds. Ames' 2.64 ERA was slightly better than the 2.78 National League total for the year.
Dick Rudolph didn't have many fond memories of 1919. His 2.17 ERA was an impressive 0.74 below the National League's cumulative 2.91, but the Braves ace finished at 13-18. Veteran Claude Hendrix of the Cubs went 10-14 with a 2.62 ERA. Ironically, Hendrix led the NL with a .731 winning percentage (19-7) in 1918 when his 2.78 ERA was just above the league's 2.76 total. In his case, the scales of baseball justice balanced quickly.
Why did a large number of pitchers end up with often terrible won-loss totals while performing well in the early 1900s? There were no early picks in annual drafts for losing teams, no revenue sharing, no building through the farm system. Scouting young talent was in its infancy, and the process was about as primitive as the Ford Model Ts that were a symbol of the era.
In such an environment, the difference between first place and the cellar was often light years apart. Even today's last-place squads almost always win 35 to 43 percent of the games played. Losers such as the 1904 Senators (38-113, .252), 1905 Superbas/Dodgers (48-104, .316), 1909 Braves (45-108, .294) and Senators (42-110, .276), 1911 Braves (44-107, .291) and Browns (45-107, .296) and the 1915 and 1916 A's (43-109, .283 and 36-117, .235) were utterly putrid.
With no free agency, top of the rotation starters for the worst teams were often stuck in hopeless situations for the bulk of their careers. In such circumstances, winning 20 games was a fantasy. Avoiding a 20-loss season became a modest goal.