Thursday, October 19, 2000

Can't Buy a Hit: Notable No-Hitters


In our last column, we examined the career of Virgil Trucks, with particular emphasis on the two no-hitters that he pitched amidst an otherwise dreary season for him and his team, the Detroit Tigers of 1952. This season that just ended featured another rarity regarding no-hitters: the absence of one. For the first time since 1989, no pitcher in Major League Baseball threw a no-hitter. The year was not totally void of pitching perfection, however: the Red Sox’ Tomo Ohka pitched a perfect game for Triple A Pawtucket, prior to his emergence as a member of the starting rotation in Boston.

When it comes to no-hitters, certain ones tend to stick out more than others. Certainly the most impressive form of no-hitter, the perfect game, gets a fair amount of attention. No talk of the impending Subway Series is complete, it seems, without somebody mentioning Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees in Game Five of the 1956 World Series against the rival Dodgers, the only no-hitter in postseason history. Perhaps this was payback for the Dodgers, as their own Carl Erskine had thrown a no-hitter earlier that year against the subway-accessible New York Giants.

Some no-hitters are memorable due to sheer volume, mainly Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters (four for the Angels, one for the Astros and two for the Rangers) and Sandy Koufax’ four for the Dodgers. Others are simply more famous because they fell on certain days: the Indians’ Bob Feller threw the first of his three no-hitters on Opening Day in 1940 against the White Sox, the only Opening Day no-no; for the second of his two no-hitters, the Phillies’ Jim Bunning threw a Father’s Day perfect game in 1964 against the Mets, a team that only their mothers could love after they lost 109 games that year; and, the Independence Day no-hitter that the Yankees’ Dave Righetti threw against the Red Sox, a team that had clearly been granted freedom from their bats. And then there were Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters in June 1938, a feat that will likely never be broken.

Today we will take a closer look at a few other no-hitters that have something particularly unique about them. On October 15, 1892 (yes, American League fans, there was professional baseball prior to 1901!) Cincinnati’s Bumpus Jones made his major league debut. In what might seem like an auspicious beginning, Jones pitched a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning 7-1. He was not perfect, as he gave up four walks, and he did not pitch a shutout, as an error led to an unearned run. But it was quite a start, and was his only start outing of the season. Surely this must have led to an illustrious career? Well, not exactly. Jones split the next year between Cincinnati and the New York Giants, appearing in seven games overall, while going 1-4 with an ERA over 10. Jones would never pitch in the majors again. He remains the only player in major league history to throw a no-hitter in his first game. He also holds the record for the latest no-hitter thrown in a calendar year.

Bobo Holloman began his major league career in 1953 with the perennially challenged St. Louis Browns. After spending the early part of the year failing as a relief pitcher, Holloman convinced his manager, Marty Marion, to let him start. Marion probably figured that if Holloman started, at least he couldn’t blow the game in relief. In his first start on May 6, he threw a no-hitter, beating the Philadelphia Athletics 6-0. His career night included three RBI and two hits, the only hits of his career. He would win two more games that year, but neither Holloman’s career nor the St. Louis Browns would be around after 1953. The Browns became the Baltimore Orioles the next year and Holloman became an ex-major leaguer.

Ted Breitenstein of the St. Louis Browns also pitched a no-hitter in his first start (but not first game) in 1891, but somehow avoided the fate of these other chaps. He would throw another no-hitter in 1898 for the St. Louis Cardinals, and won 160 games over 11 seasons. In 1998 the Blue Jays’ Roy Halladay was one out away from throwing a no-hitter in his second major league game, giving up a solo home run and walking none. Interestingly enough, Halladay had an ERA over 10 for the 2000 season. A Bumpus in the making, perhaps (UPDATE: WOOPS)?

On June 23, 1917 the Washington Senators were in Boston to face the Red Sox. The starting pitcher for the Red Sox that day was Babe Ruth, who was on his way to his second consecutive 20-plus win season. The first batter facing Ruth, Ray Morgan, reached on a walk, but Ruth did not agree with umpire Brick Owens’ call. Somewhere in between "Keep your eyes open" and "What did I do?" Ruth slugged Owens and was tossed from the game. Surely the Senators must have been relieved to have the great Ruth out of the game. Well, in came Ernie Shore, pitching on two days rest. Two years earlier, Shore had asked for a room reassignment because his roommate, Ruth, had poor sanitary habits. Yet again, Shore was asked to clean up Ruth’s mess. He promptly retired Morgan on a steal attempt; his day was just beginning. Shore proceeded to then retire 26 consecutive Senators’ batters, pitching the only perfect game in relief in major league history. Ruth, tired of walking batters, would later be known for doing a few things at the plate, including walking more than any other player in history, 2,062 times. That record though, will fall next year, as Rickey Henderson is at 2,060.

Our last no-hit oddity is bit more recent. It has been no secret in baseball the past few years that the thin air in Denver has led to some inflated hitting statistics for members of the Colorado Rockies. The ball tends to travel farther and pitchers’ breaking pitches tend to break less, giving hitters quite an advantage relative to other ballparks. So it’s no surprise that the Rockies have put up some otherworldly hitting statistics while playing at Coors Field. When the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo came in to face the Rockies on September 17, 1996, the Rockies were hitting .348 at home, had scored a then-major league record 632 runs at home and had the highest home-field winning percentage in the league. Nomo, perhaps used to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, pitched like he was at home. In his backyard. Pitching against the neighborhood kids. After a long rain delay, Nomo no-hit the Rockies that game, yielding four walks and striking out eight. Interestingly enough, Nomo claimed that because of the condition of the pitcher’s mound, he actually had to change from his usual windup to pitching from the stretch (which tends to slow down pitches) for better balance. The Dodgers seemed to have no problems with the weather, however, as they won 9-0. Bob Dole, seeking a late season push in his presidential campaign, told Southern California voters after the game that he wanted to be like Hideo Nomo of the "Brooklyn" Dodgers. Ouch. Saying "Los Angeles" there might have made the top listing on his resume "President, United States" instead of the current posting of "Spokesperson, Erectile Dysfunction." At least he now understands why the Rockies had trouble scoring that night.

Wednesday, October 04, 2000

1952: The Odd Year of Virgil Trucks


In our last column, we explored the crazy season being enjoyed by some pitchers in the American League this year, in which pitchers with great records, like Pedro Martinez, were losing to pitchers with terrible records like Steve Trachsel and Steve Woodard (maybe it's a Steve thing). Today we are going to look at a pitcher who had a pretty solid career overall, but who oddly enough achieved baseball immortality amidst his worst season.

Virgil "Fire" Trucks broke in with the Detroit Tigers in late 1941, pitching all of two innings. In 1942, Trucks was 14-8 in his first full season and followed that with a solid 16-10 record the next year. Though Trucks is commonly grouped with fellow Tigers’ pitchers Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout as members of the Tigers’ famed TNT pitching line, history would show that those other pitchers would enjoy their best seasons when Trucks was not in the rotation. While Trucks was off defending his country during World War II, his teammates were busy mowing down opposing batters. So good were Trucks’ co-pitchers, in fact, that Newhouser won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1944 and 1945 (the only pitcher to win consecutive MVP Awards), with Trout coming in second in the voting in 1944.

Trucks missed the entire 1944 season and only pitched in one regular season game in late 1945. Nearly two years off might make a pitcher rusty, you’d think. Well, only one week after being discharged from the Navy, Trucks started and won game two of the 1945 World Series, which the Tigers won in seven games over the Cubs. When Trucks resumed his full time role in 1946, he continued his strong pitching, winning 73 games over the next six seasons (including 19 in 1949), to bring his record entering the 1952 season to 103-72.

And then the craziness began. A quick glance at his record might make you think that his season was much worse than the prior one, as he went 5-19 in 1952, after going 13-8 in 1951. But in many ways he pitched better in 1952. He gave up fewer hits per inning, fewer runs per inning and fewer walks per inning in 1952, while also striking out more batters per inning, holding batters to a lower batting average, pitching two more shutouts and posting a lower Earned Run Average.

So what gives? Well, certainly run support had a lot to do with it. The ’51 Tigers hit .265 and scored 4.5 runs per game, while the ’52 Tigers hit just .243 and scored only 3.6 runs per game (my editors are advising me to be less granular, so I won’t go into how they did in just the games that Trucks pitched). So while Trucks’ ERA dropped almost half a run, his team scored almost one fewer run per game. The old one-step-forward/two-steps-back approach. The 1952 Tigers also posted the worst winning percentage in team history, going 50-104, for a .325 winning percentage (UPDATE: the 2003 Tigers plowed through this, posting a 43-109 record, for a .265 winning percentage). Truly a banner season in Detroit.

But wait, there’s more. In the midst of posting his worst career season (based on record, of course), Trucks threw two no-hitters in 1952. The first came against the Washington Senators on May 15th, with the Tigers winning 1-0 after a ninth inning home run by Vic Wertz (in celebration, Trucks jumped up in the dugout, cracking his skull on the ceiling; he would endure). Instead of Trucks being pulled away by the military, this time the military pulled away the fans. The park was nearly empty that day in Detroit, as the city was holding a parade for General Douglas MacArthur, home from Korea. Just over 2,000 people saw this remarkable game.

The next no-no came on August 25th, in New York against the Yankees. Not surprisingly, the anemic Tigers’ offense only managed to score one run that game, but it was enough. It was the fifth time in team history that the Yankees had been no-hit; it has only happened once since (and not since 1958; UPDATE: Six Astros' pitchers combined to no-hit the Yankees in 2003). This second gem brought some light into an otherwise dismal Tigers’ season, which included changing managers mid-season. One no-hitter per manager. Not too shabby.

Trucks was traded out of Detroit after the ’52 season, and spent the next eight seasons kicking around the American League, making stops in St. Louis, Chicago (where he won 47 games in less than three full seasons), Detroit (again), Kansas City and New York. Trucks’ brush with success was not without precedent: he had thrown four no-hitters in the minor leagues. He nearly threw another in 1954, pitching a one-hitter for the White Sox. His victim? The Detroit Tigers…in Detroit. Home, sweet home.