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.


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