World Series workhorses

Pose this trivia question to your fellow fans and students of the game: When was the last complete game pitched during a World Series, and who accomplished it?

I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. The answer is Cliff Lee in 2009. In the first game of the series, Lee and the Phillies defeated CC Sabathia and the Yankees by a 6-1 score.

Now I’m not going out on a limb here to proclaim that that was the last complete game you’ll ever see in a World Series. If you’re collecting Social Security, however, it very well might be the last one in your lifetime. The way starters are handled today, one suspects that if a Don Larsen wannabe were working on a perfect game in the 2013 World Series, he’d be lucky to make it through seven innings.

Lee’s feat occurred four years ago. If you wonder who last did it before Lee, flash back to 2003 when Josh Beckett of the Marlins shut out the Yankees in the sixth and final game.

I would say two complete games in a decade qualifies as a rare occurrence. Fifty games, a hundred starts, two complete games … you don’t need a calculator to figure out that only two percent of all World Series starts in the past 10 years have resulted in a complete game.

Needless to say, it wasn’t always that way. Looking backwards over innings pitched and complete games shows how the situation evolved—or deteriorated, if you’re from the old school.

You have to go back to the 1992 World Series to find a pitcher (the Braves’ Tom Glavine) who had two complete games.

You have to go back to 1977 to find a staff (the Yankees) with three complete games (Mike Torrez with two, Ron Guidry with one).

Now let’s approach the topic of complete games from the other direction. Instead of looking back from 2013, let’s look forward from 1903. Specifically, what was the first pitching staff that could not produce a complete game in a World Series, and what was the first Series in which neither staff had a complete game?

Every pennant-winning staff had at least one complete game in every World Series through 1926. Then came the 1927 Yankees against the Pirates. The Yankees outscored the Pirates 23-10 in a four-game sweep. Obviously, the Pirates’ starters were not particularly effective, and the need for offense necessitated their being pulled for pinch-hitters.

The same situation occurred the next year when the Yankees swept the Cardinals. This time around, the Yanks outscored the opposition by 27-10, largely thanks to Babe Ruth (three home runs, .625) and Lou Gehrig (four home runs, .545). Clearly, the circumstances were not conducive to complete games by St. Louis pitchers.

But over the next three decades, both sides had their share of complete games. Then came 1959, when the Dodgers beat the White Sox in six games. For the first time ever, neither team had a complete game. This particular piece of World Series history seems to have been overlooked—or perhaps overshadowed is the correct word.

After all, this was the White Sox’s first World Series appearance since the Black Sox scandal four decades before. It was not only the first Series for the Dodgers since they had vacated Brooklyn, it was also the first Series played on the West Coast. Also, a number of attendance records had fallen thanks to the capaciousness of the Los Angeles Coliseum.

With starters like Bob Shaw, Early Wynn, Dick Donovan, Johnny Podres, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the odds would seem to favor a complete game somewhere among the line. But it never happened.

But 1959 goes into the books as an anomaly; it wasn’t the beginning of a trend. Indeed, in the following decade, low-scoring games became more and more common, culminating in the famed “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968.

That year, the World Series was something of a showcase for those who finish what they start, as both Bob Gibson of the Cardinals and Mickey Lolich of the Tigers pitched 27 innings without yielding to a relief pitcher. A special nod goes to Gibson, as he also had three complete games against the Red Sox in the previous World Series, and in 1964, he also pitched 27 innings, though he received credit for only two complete games (one of his complete games was a ten-inning affair. In another game, he came out after eight innings, hence 27 innings total).

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

Gibson wasn’t the only stalwart starter during the 1960s. In 1966, the Baltimore Orioles used only one reliever (Moe Drabowsky) in their four-game sweep of the Dodgers. The same goes for 1963 when the Dodgers used only Ron Perranoski, who relieved Johnny Podres with one out in the ninth inning of the second game (of four) against the Yankees.

The turning point for complete games during the World Series was the Oakland A’s dynasty of 1972-1974. The A’s had Rollie Fingers in the bullpen and used him at every opportunity, even though they had such capable starters as Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue.

Their opponents (Reds, Mets, and Dodgers, respectively), however, also refused to allow their starters to go the distance. The Reds were managed by Sparky Anderson, “Captain Hook,” who relied on Pedro Borbon, Clay Carroll, Tom Hall and Ross Grimsley coming out of the pen. The Mets and Reds also relied on their bullpens, particularly their late-inning specialists (Tug McGraw and Mike Marshall).

After the A’s dynasty passed into history, it was still possible to pitch a complete game in the World Series, but during the last quarter of the 20th century, managers went to the bullpen more and more. As pitching staffs ballooned (12 seems to be standard now), they had more arms to choose from.

Today, even if you are at the back end of the bullpen, if your team wins the pennant, your chances of appearing in the World Series are excellent. In the 2012 Series, for example, the Tigers scored just six runs while being swept by the Giants. Even so, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy used 10 pitchers in those four games.

This rambling preamble is to provide a frame of reference for two world-class World Series workhorses who put all of the aforementioned pitchers to shame. They are not well known today despite their achievements, so let’s introduce them before we check out what they did in the World Series.

In the first decade of the 20th century, one of the most durable hurlers was George Mullin of the Detroit Tigers. Arriving on the scene in 1902 at age 21, Mullin went 13-16 with a 3.67 ERA. He pitched 260 innings, which was not an unusually high number in those days, but after all, he was just a rookie and, as it turned out, it was his lowest total of the decade.

Two years later, he was 17-23, but his innings count was up to 382.1 and he completed 42 of 44 starts. In 1905, he led the league in batters faced with 1,428; ditto for 1906 when he faced 1,761 batters. Unfortunately, his durability was not reflected in his record, as he was 91-93 after his first five years with the Tigers. The fact that he led the league in walks from 1903-1906 surely kept him from winning more games.

During those years, Mullin’s efforts were largely unnoticed because his team was going nowhere. When Mullin joined the Tigers in 1902, they finished in seventh place with a 52-83 record. For the next four years, they were also-rans, finishing above .500 only in 1905 when they finished third with a 79-74 record and an 18-year-old rookie named Ty Cobb.

By 1907 Cobb and the Tigers were starting to make some noise. Cobb led the league in batting average (.350), hits (212), RBIs (119), slugging (.468), stolen bases (49), and total bases (283). And the Tigers won their first pennant in franchise history. The big pitching star was Wild Bill Donovan with a 25-4 record.

Mullin won 20, but he also lost 20 (he remains the only pitcher to lose 20 games during the regular season and then start a World Series game), finishing the season with a 2.59 ERA in 357.1 innings.

When all was said and done, the Tigers lost the World Series to the Cubs, four game to none with one tie. Mullin pitched and lost two games, but he hardly disgraced himself with a 2.12 ERA.

The Tigers won the pennant again (and Cobb won the batting title again, this time with a mere .324 average) in 1908, but again they bowed to the Cubs in the Series. This time around, they managed to win one game, and Mullin was the winning pitcher. This Series, of course, was the last title the Cubs ever won. Few witnessed it in person, however, as the Detroit crowd of 6,210 for Game Five was the smallest ever to witness a World Series game.

The Tigers went to the Series again in 1909, but this time they were facing the Pirates. After losing the previous two Series, the Tigers were on the spot. With a composite record of 1-8-1 in Series play, the Tigers had been all but toothless.

The big pre-Series hype concerned Cobb versus Honus Wagner. Cobb was now a force to be reckoned with in the American League., as his name dominated the AL offensive leader board. Teammate Donie Bush had bested him in walks (88 to 48); another teammate, Sam Crawford, surpassed him in doubles (35 to 33). The only opponent to outdo him was the A’s Frank Baker, who hit 19 triples to Cobb’s 10. Every other major offensive category belonged to Cobb.

When all was said and done, the old pro Wagner had outdone the young Turk Cobb (playing in his last World Series at age 22), but the Series was really notable for the achievements of two starting pitchers.

The prominence of Mullin in the Series should have been no surprise, given his 1909 season. He pitched a one-hitter against the White Sox on Opening Day, then reeled off 10 more victories before finally racking up a digit in the loss column.

For the season, Mullin went 29-8 with a 2.22 ERA. He pitched 303.2 innings and completed 29 of his 35 starts. The Tigers’ MVP for the 1909 World Series was surely Mullin, who, after more than 100 years, still holds the record for innings pitched (32) in a seven-game series .

Given his regular-season stats, Mullin was the obvious choice to open the Series on Oct. 8. He did not disappoint, giving up just one earned run. Unfortunately, his teammates made four errors behind him, so the Tigers dropped the first game in Pittsburgh by a 4-1 score. The winning pitcher was a rookie named Babe Adams, who was in the process of making a name for himself. More about him later.

Mullin returned in Game Four on Oct. 12 and shut out the Bucs, 5-0. The Tigers and Bucs were now even at two games apiece. Unfortunately, Adams pitched the Pirates to a victory in Game Five, so the Tigers faced elimination in Game Six.

Now, Mullin certainly was the type of guy you’d love to have on the mound when the season is on the line. And World Series lore is replete with pitchers coming back on short rest when their teams really needed them. Generally, with four-man rotations, that would mean two days rest instead of three. In Mullins’s case, it meant just one day’s rest, as Game Six was scheduled for Oct. 14.

So if Mullin just wasn’t up to the task, it would not have been surprising. But Mullin came through. It wasn’t a masterpiece (he gave up three runs in the first inning), but he held on for a 5-4, complete-game victory.

So through the first six games, Mullin was 2-1 with three complete games. He had been on the mound for half the innings played to that point in the Series. Certainly he had earned the right to be a spectator in Game Seven. And with Wild Bill Donovan on the mound for the Tigers in Game Seven on Oct. 15, the Tigers appeared to be good hands, anyway.

Donovan was on the downside of his career, but he had a 2.31 ERA during the regular season and had won his only start in the Series, a 7-2 complete game. Unfortunately, in Game Seven, Wild Bill lived up to his name, and he was up against the aforementioned Adams, who was appearing on two days’ rest.

After three innings in Game Seven, the Tigers were behind 2-0. More disconcerting, Wild Bill had yielded six walks and had walked in both runs. The game was not out of hand, but what to do to prevent it from getting so? Clearly, leaving Donovan on the mound was highly unlikely to result in victory.

So it is understandable that manager Hughie Jennings would turn to Mullin one last time, even though he had pitched 18 innings over the previous three days. Jennings should not have been surprised that Mullin was less than dominant. He pitched the rest of the game, giving up four earned runs in six innings. The fact that he did that well with a tired arm is remarkable.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught as Adams pitched his best game of the series, shutting out the Tigers 8-0. Adams went down in history as the first rookie to win three games in a World Series. For the three games, his ERA was 1.33. So Adams’ feat was definitely one for the books.

Yet Mullin’s endurance feat is not celebrated; indeed, it is barely recognized. As overworked as he was, he still managed a 2.25 ERA for the series.

You could read many an account of the 1909 World Series without any mention of Mullins and his record. This might be understandable if Mullin was a one-year wonder. But when he retired (after the 1915 season, including two years in the Federal League), he had a 228-196 lifetime record. Not quite Cy Young territory, but certainly a notable career.

The real mystery is not so much why Jennings brought the tired Mullin in to pitch in the fourth inning of game seven, as it is why he left him in. Mullin’s season began with a bang and ended with a whimper. I guess one could say that Jennings was beating a dead workhorse.

When the score was 7-0 after six innings, why didn’t Jennings bring in somebody else to do the mop-up work? Counting Mullin, he had only used five pitchers through the seven games. It’s not as though there was no one else available.

Perhaps Jennings just lost heart. At some point in Game Seven, he realized he was going to lose his third straight World Series. So what difference does it make who’s on the mound? Mullin had been his workhorse all year; indeed, he had been a Tigers workhorse since his rookie year, so why not leave him out there?

As impressive as Mullin’s feat of endurance appears today, he does not hold the ultimate record for innings pitched in a World Series. For that record, we must go all the way back to 1903 and the first World Series. This record will never be broken, as it was set in eight games, and we stop at seven now. Even so, if we still played a best-of-nine format today, Deacon Phillippe’s record likely would remain unchallenged.

In 1903, the American League champion Boston Pilgrims featured three 20-game winners. Young, at age 36, went 28-9 and finished 34 of his 35 starts. (He hit .321 in 137 at-bats, so lifting him for a pinch-hitter wasn’t necessary.) He was a long way from his final win total of 511, but even so, he had assumed the mantle of baseball’s all-time wins leader with 379 victories.

In the rotation behind Young were two younger pitchers, Bill Dinneen, age 27, who was 21-13 with 32 complete games in 34 starts, and Tom Hughes, age 24, who finished at 20-7 with a “mere” 23 complete games in 31 starts.

Given travel days, three capable starters should have been sufficient for the Red Sox. But as it turned out, they made do with two. Hughes started and lost Game Three, but he only pitched two innings. As it turned out, those were the only two innings of the Series not pitched by either Young or Dinneen.

Not to be outdone, the Pittsburgh Pirates also had an impressive starting rotation consisting of Sam Leever, Charles Louis “Deacon” Phillippe and Ed Doheny. When the regular season ended, Leever and Phillippe both had the stats to qualify as aces, while Doheny won 16 games for the second consecutive year.

Phillippe had been a solid starter since his rookie year in 1899 with Louisville. He had been a 20-game winner every year. In 1903, he was 25-9 with a 2.43 ERA and four shutouts.

Leever had a slightly lower profile before 1903. He was 66-48 with but one 20-win season, but his 21 wins in 1899 were tarnished by 23 losses. Still, he gave the Pirates 379 innings that year, so it’s doubtful that they complained too much about his sub-.500 record.

In 1903, however, he put it all together. He went 25-7 with a 2.06 ERA and seven shutouts. This was marginally better than Phillippe, but I suspect player-manager Fred Clarke could pencil in either one as a Game One starter without any misgivings. With a one-two punch like Leever and Phillippe, what did it matter who pitched the first game? You might as well flip a coin. This was a best-of-nine format, so there would be plenty of innings to go around.

At least, there would be if everyone had remained healthy. But Leever had injured his shoulder while trap shooting and was doubtful. Doheny suffered a nervous breakdown and was not available to pitch in the Series. Indeed, he never pitched again anywhere.

So Phillippe was the obvious choice to open the series. He was more than equal to the task, as the Pirates defeated Young and the Red Sox by a 7-3 score. After the Red Sox evened the Series the next day, Phillippe came back on one day’s rest to defeat the Bucs by a 2-1 score. After two off days, he went back to the mound and secured his third complete-game victory (5-4) in six days. So the Bucs had a commanding three-to-one lead in the series, and they had won their last game.

In Game Five, Young defeated Brickyard Kennedy (could a ballplayer ask for a better nickname?) in the last game the latter ever pitched, and the next day Dinneen defeated Leever, who pitched not just in pain but in vain.

With the series knotted at three games apiece, Phillippe got the call again. With three days rest, he had one more than his opponent, Young. The extra rest didn’t matter, however, as the Red Sox defeated Phillipe, 7-3. So the Red Sox needed just one more victory to take the Series.

Facing elimination, Pirates manager Fred Clarke went with Phillippe one last time. This time, Phillippe was going with two days’ rest while his opponent, Dinneen, had the luxury of twice as much time off. Dinneen threw a 3-0 shutout, giving the Pirates the series.

When the smoke had cleared, Phillippe had thrown five complete games (44 innings) in 13 days. Take away the nine innings Phillippe pitched in the eighth game, and he still would have tallied 35 innings in the first seven games—three more than Mullin got six years later during his record-setting seven-game series.

Like Mullin, Phillipe toiled for the losing team, so his efforts, however remarkable, got short shrift. Also, the world Phillipe and Mullin lived in was one without pitch counts and quality starts. In those days, an innings-eater was all but synonymous with a starting pitcher. The primary statistic was wins and losses. If you lost the game, who cares how many pitches you threw or how many innings you pitched?

As baseball history has rolled on and the game has evolved, we have now reached a point where it is inconceivable to imagine a World Series starter even coming close to Mullin and Phillipe. Some records are not made to be broken, only marveled at.

Oh, you can still see an iron man today—but not at the ballpark. Go to the movies.

Print This Post
Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
dennis Bedard
dennis Bedard

Great history.  There has to be an explanation for this.  I read once that the fences in the last part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th were much farther out making the home run rare.  Does anyone have any information on this?

Some parks were, some were not, and some were in some places and not in others – parks like the Polo Grounds could be 475+ to dead center (look at the Mays catch on Wertz, you see a 483 mark) but about 260 to the RF corner. Yankee Stadium had Death Valley in left center and a 457 foot center most of it’s existence = and 296 in RF. Maris’ 61 went over a 344 mark – and it was not down the line. Maybe bigger was it was once a shame to strike out – Ruth was criticized for… Read more »
Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider
I miss complete games generally and, especially in the World Series. To me, there is something about having the starter out there for the last out-rather than a closer-that makes it more dramatic. It’s another symptom of overspecialization in sports but there is no point in lamenting something that will never return.  And if pitchers completed games, managers like Tony LaRussa would never have a chance to overmanage and get on TV all the time. It always annoys me when people compare such-and-such pitcher’s playoff performances to Gibson or Koufax without acknolwedging the difference between those two pitching complete games… Read more »

Certainly some old parks had short porches that would make ordinary players occasionally hit one out, though playing with the same ball and swinging heavier bats made it a risky proposition.

Fingers seems to be the name mentioned in the A’s dynasty whereas the Reds’ machine gets the whole committee named.  Darold Knowles should be better remembered as the co-closer and in fact was the first to ever pitch in all seven games (1973) of a full series.