Rocketing Back to the Past
Curmudgeons might point to Roger Clemens' recently inked contract with the Yankees and his sweetheart "stay at home except for game days" deal with the Astros in 2006 as the ultimate proof of what's wrong with baseball in the 21st century.
How can a player begin his season when he wants, avoid road trips and make a king's ransom to boot? Not counting the Rocket's very lucrative salary and flexible schedule, there actually is a precedent of sorts in the distant past.
Not every team in the 1930s and 1940s adhered to a strict four-man rotation. Traditional Sunday doubleheaders followed by Mondays off allowed for an occasional exception to the rule.
In a few cases, former staff aces or workhorses who weren't up to the rigors of going every fourth day became "Sunday pitchers" who would take the mound once a week during the doubleheader. The rest of the rotation saw action every fourth game, and often having Mondays off meant that Depression-era hurlers sometimes worked every fifth day.
While the term Sunday pitcher is usually accurate, it can also be expanded a bit to include middle-aged spot starters who sometimes pitched on weekdays. The old warhorses who held this role were not relievers who made an occasional emergency start. According to the mentality of the time, the bullpen was for second-rate performers. Pride and the pitching philosophy of the era wouldn't allow graying starters to be used just in late-inning roles.
Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey closed out his career at age 42 in 1933. Pitching for the last-place Reds, the left-hander went 6-4 in 16 games (12 starts, five complete games). Rixey's 3.15 ERA in 94.1 innings pitched matched his career total and was slightly below the NL average of 3.34. With just 10 strikeouts (or 0.95 per nine innings pitched) and 12 walks, Reds' fielders were on their toes when Rixey was on the mound.
Red Lucas filled a pair of supporting roles during his last three major league campaigns. He posted a career-best 15-4 record with a 3.18 ERA for the Pirates in 1936. The right-hander pitched 175.2 innings in 27 games (22 starts, 12 complete games), with 53 whiffs and just 26 walks.
At age 35, Lucas nosedived to an 8-10 mark and a 4.27 ERA in 1937. In 20 games (all starts, nine complete games) and 126.1 innings pitched, Lucas' strikeout-to-walk ratio was an unimpressive 20-to-23. Lucas finished with a 6-3, 3.52 record in 1938, completing four of his 13 starts.
It was his bat that made Lucas a more valuable commodity than other pitchers. He was 114-for-437 (.261) as a pinch-hitter, going 9-for-40 (.225) as a lefty pinch-hitter in 1936 and 9-for-37 (.243) in that role in 1937. Lucas' .281 lifetime average includes six seasons above .300.
Two Hall of Famers thrived when they got what amounted to a weekly start. At age 38, Lefty Grove went 14-4 (.778) with an American League leading 3.08 ERA for the Red Sox in 1938. Grove appeared in 24 games (21 starts, 12 complete games) and tossed 163.1 innings.
He followed that up with 15-4 record (.789, second best in the majors) and his ninth and final AL ERA championship (2.54) in 1939. In 23 games - all starts - Grove went the distance 17 times. He closed out a superb career with 7-6 and 7-7 records, which gave Grove exactly 300 wins.
Ted Lyons (260-230 lifetime) is underrated because of his long tenure with the perennial second-division White Sox. The right-hander made 132 starts with no relief appearances from 1937 to 1942 for an average of 22 games (exactly one in seven with a 154-game schedule) over a six-year period. The results were impressive.
A 12-7 record with a 4.15 ERA (AL average 4.62) in 1937 was followed by a 9-11 record in 1938. Lyons deserved better, as his 3.70 was 1.19 below the league total of 4.89 and eighth best in the league. He completed 17 of 23 starts. Lyons' 2.4 walks per nine innings was third best in the American League.
The fourth-place White Sox went 85-69 in 1939. That was a rarity for Lyons, who seldom played on winning or first-division squads. He was a major contributor to the team's success, with a 14-6 record in 21 starts (16 complete games). A 2.76 ERA was a whopping 1.95 better than the AL average and second only to Lefty Grove. A miserly 26 walks in 172.1 innings pitched was best in the league (1.36 per nine innings pitched) as was a WHIP of 1.089. Lyons was no slouch at the plate, hitting .295 while going 18-for-61.
Once-a-week success continued in 1940, when Lyons was 12-8 with a 3.24 ERA, which was more than a run better than the AL total of 4.42. Never a strikeout artist, Lyons surrendered just 37 walks in 186.1 innings pitched to reign again as the league's control master while completing 17 of 22 starts with four shutouts. A WHIP of 1.208 was third best in the AL.
The old righty didn't become fragile at age 40. Lyons completed 19 of 22 Sunday starts and finished 1941 with a 12-10 record and 3.70 ERA. Opposing hitters had to come up swinging, as Lyons gave up just 37 walks in 187.1 innings pitched (1.78 per nine innings pitched) to lead the American League for the third consecutive year.
Not many pitchers have one of their best seasons at age 41, but that's what Lyons did in 1942. His 14-6 record and league-leading 2.10 ERA were one of the few bright spots for the sixth-place White Sox (66-82). Lyons completed all 20 of his starts, averaging just over nine innings a game with 180.1 innings pitched. His 1.07 WHIP and just 26 walks (1.3 per nine innings pitched) were second in the AL, and Lyons hit .270 with just six strikeouts in 74 at-bats. In six seasons as a Sunday pitcher, Lyons went 73-48 (.603) while consistently being among the league leaders in various categories.
A bachelor, Lyons volunteered for duty in the Marine Corps following the season. He returned in 1946 and performed well in five Sunday starts with little run support. His 1-4 record was accompanied by a 2.32 ERA in 42.2 inning pitched. Lyons retired as a player to manage the White Sox after Jimmie Dykes was fired.
Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons was an innings-eater for the New York Giants before thriving with a reduced load for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 38-year-old knuckleballer went 16-2 for a major league best .889 winning percentage in 1939. Fitzsimmons completed 11 of 18 starts and relieved twice in a 134.1 inning season. After going 6-1, 2.07 in 1940, Fitzsimmons was all but finished, pitching just 10 games in 1941 and 1942.
A Sunday pitcher helped the St. Louis Browns win their only pennant in 1944. Denny Galehouse couldn't quit his war-related factory job in Akron, Ohio, since leaving would expose him to the military draft. Desperate for scarce talent, the Browns decided to let Galehouse catch a train on Saturday to wherever the team was playing the next day. The right-hander would appear in the first game of the Sunday doubleheader and immediately return home.
Then a most unusual thing happened: the Browns were leading the league and in the thick of a pennant race. Galehouse weighed the odds of being drafted (he was married with children and over 30, which reduced the chances of a letter from Uncle Sam) and decided to join the team full time.
That gamble paid off as the scrappy, low-budget Browns won the American League championship on the final day of the season. Galehouse (9-10, 3.12 ERA) started Game 1 against the heavily-favored Cardinals. With Mort Cooper (22-7, 2.46) on the mound, the Redbirds looked like a sure thing, but Galehouse went the distance in a 2-1 Browns' victory. Galehouse did almost as well in Game 5, but lost a 2-0 rematch to Cooper.
Veteran pitchers with plenty of mileage on their arms have always been sought as spot starters, long relievers and mentors to younger hurlers, but Sunday starters were confined to a time when doubleheaders were the rule. As a power pitcher who is expected to be a high-profile impact player and not just a member of the supporting cast, Roger Clemens is a unique case in baseball history.
While he won't be starting once every weekend, Clemens' total workload (barring injury) for the season projects to something similar to what Grove and Lyons did in the last years of their careers. The money? No comparison there.