14 Straight Southpaw Starters? Slim Chance

Cubs’ manager Fred Mitchell vowed to use only left-handed starters in the 1918 World Series. (via The Sporting News archives)

If you do much reading about the Deadball Era, you have likely come across the name of southpaw Harry Sallee (usually referred to as Slim, since he started out with 148 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame), who pitched for the Cardinals, Giants and Reds.

Sallee (born Feb. 3, 1885 in Higginsport, Ohio) first turned heads when he went 22-5 for the Williamsport Millionaires (a nickname since appropriated by Williamsburg High School) of the Class B Tri-State League in 1907.

He broke into major league ball with the Cardinals, who were also-rans during his tenure, which began in 1908. The Cards managed to rise as high as third place in 1914, but that was the only time they were in the first division or above .500 while Sallee was on the roster. Nevertheless, he managed to fashion a respectable record (106-107, 2.67 ERA) while he pitched for them. Those 106 wins and 107 losses led the franchise during the Deadball Era (1901-1919). He also led the pack in games (317), innings (1,905.1), and strikeouts (652).

At age 31, however, Sallee appeared to be going downhill. After the first three months of the 1916 season with the Cards, he was 5-5 with a career-high ERA of 3.47. Nevertheless, John McGraw acquired him for the Giants, who were much more competitive. As soon as he was traded, Sallee got his second wind, going 9-4 the rest of the season with a 1.37 ERA. His success carried over to 1917 when he went 18-7 with a 2.17 ERA. He played a key role in getting the Giants to the World Series, where he had a date (actually three dates) with destiny.

Sallee started the first game of the 1917 World Series for the Giants, who had won 98 games in the regular season. He was facing the Chicago White Sox, who had won 100. Sallee went the distance but Eddie Cicotte of the Sox was just a little bit better, and Sallee ended up on the losing end of a 2-1 score. Even so, it was the beginning of a remarkable World Series streak involving National League pitching.

The Giants had outstanding starting pitching, and it so happened that three of them were southpaws (the others were Ferdie Schupp and Rube Benton). After Sallee opened the series, it was Schupp in Game Two (no decision in a 7-2 loss), Benton in Game Three (a shutout victory over Cicotte), Schupp in Game Four (a shutout victory over Red Faber).

Sallee returned in Game Five.  He lasted 7.1 innings but gave up seven earned runs in an 8-5 loss. Benton returned in Game Six but ended up on the losing end of a 4-2 score.  So the White Sox were champs in six games. The Giants’ string of left-handers was unusual, but the end of the Series was not the end of the story.

In 1918 Fred Mitchell, manager of the pennant-winning Cubs, stated that he would start only left-handers against the Red Sox in the World Series. With the Green Monster looming in left field as a target for right-handed batters, Mitchell’s decision is puzzling. This was, of course, the Deadball Era, so the Green Monster was not quite as monstrous as it is today. In fact, it was covered with advertisements (try doing that today and Massachusetts might bring back the death penalty), so even greenness was in short supply.

Also, given the left-field terrace (similar to the one at Redland Field in the NationalLeague), playing left field was hazardous. The Red Sox left fielder, Duffy Lewis, was renowned for his ability to traverse the terrace, but Les Mann, the Cubs left fielder, had no such expertise. As a member of the 1914 Miracle Braves, who chose to play the World Series at Fenway Park, Mann had been there before, but as a right fielder.

So one would think the Cubs would want to pitch right-handers so as to make it more likely that fewer balls would be hit to left field. It’s not as though the Red Sox had an abundance of left-handed hitters who had to be neutralized. Babe Ruth and Harry Hooper were certainly worthy of respect, and Amos Strunk was a decent hitter. The only other left-hander was Dick Hoblitzell, who came to bat just 69 times and hit .159. There were three switch-hitters (Wally Schang, George Cochran and Frank Truesdale) on the squad but none was a formidable offensive threat from either side of the plate.

Since the Cubs had just two left-handers (Lefty Tyler and Hippo Vaughn) on the staff, Mitchell’s decision to start only lefties raised some eyebrows.

Not that Tyler and Vaughn weren’t worthy. During the regular season, Tyler had a 19-8 record with a 2.01 ERA, and Vaughn was even better. Vaughn, by the way, was 6-foot-4 and weighed anywhere from 215 to 300 pounds.  One suspects that at some point in Vaughn’s career a sportswriter described him as a portly port-sider. Trivia stumper: His given name was James.

Whatever he weighed in 1918, Vaughn chose the war-shortened regular season to have a career year. He led the league in victories (22), ERA (1.74), innings pitched (290.1), strikeouts (148), and shutouts (eight). This was the peak of an outstanding stretch of seven seasons (1914-1920) when he won 143 games.

Had Grover Cleveland Alexander been available, Mitchell might have reconsidered his all-lefty policy.  Alexander, who had been acquired by the Cubs before the 1918 season, had won 190 games for the Phillies from 1911-1917, but he made just three appearances as a Cub in 1918 before reporting for military service.

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Curiously, Mitchell had a viable right-handed option he did not exercise. Claude Hendrix went 20-7 on the season, leading the NL in winning percentage (.731). His participation in the World Series was limited to one inning in relief. This was one of two innings in the series not pitched by Vaughn or Tyler (the other inning was pitched by Shufflin’ Phil Douglas, who gave up an unearned run and took the loss in Game Four).

Vaughn started Game One on Sept. 5, Game Three on Sept. 7, and Game Five on Sept. 10. Tyler started Game Two on Sept. 6, Game Four on Sept. 9, and Game Six on Sept. 11. Due to wartime travel restrictions, only one travel day (Sept. 8) was in the mix.  Amazingly, Vaughn and Tyler not only withstood the workload, they thrived.

Vaughn pitched three complete games and ended up with a 1.00 ERA. Tyler pitched 23 innings and fashioned an ERA of 1.17. Unfortunately, they received little in the way of offensive support (.210 batting average, 10 runs in six games), so Tyler’s record was 1-1 and Vaughn was 1-2.

As good as Tyler and Vaughn were, the Red Sox had some pretty fair pitchers themselves, namely Bullet Joe Bush, Carl Mays, Sad Sam Jones and Babe Ruth, who continued his record World Sereis scoreless inning streak via a first game shutout and seven scoreless innings in game Three. Mays and Ruth won two games apiece. Curiously, Ruth never came to the plate in the games he did not pitch. He had a two-RBI triple in five at-bats, but his only appearance on the field, aside from the pitcher’s mound, was as a sub in left field in Game Six.

The Red Sox scored just nine runs and hit just .187 (a record low for a winning World Series team) yet managed to prevail in a punchless six-game series. The winning team never scored more than three runs, the losing team never scored more than two. The combined total of runs scored was 19, an average of slightly more than three per game.

The continuation of the left-handed pitching streak got little, if any, attention at the time. To be sure, there were plenty of other talking points in this oddball series:

  • First, the shortened season resulted in an early September series. The Fall Classic was a misnomer that year.
  • The attendance was hardly robust (the final game at Fenway was witnessed by just 15,238). As a result, the payout was meager ($1,103 for the winners, $671 for the losers).
  • All six games were played in less than two hours.
  • When the national anthem was played during the seventh inning of the first game, it marked the first time the tune had been played at a baseball game.
  • The Chicago games were played at Comiskey Park, which had a larger capacity than Weeghman Park (n/k/a Wrigley Field), the Cubs’ home. Since the White Sox had won the pennant in 1917 and would do so again in 1919, the   World Series was played at Comiskey three years in a row.
  • The Red Sox were now five for five in World Series championships.

In 1919 the Black Sox scandal overshadowed a lot of things. One of them was the conclusion of the National League’s string of consecutive left-handers.

Cincinnati left-hander Dutch Ruether was the Game One victor by a 9-1 score. Notably, he was also an offensive force, going 3-for-3 with two triples and three RBI. This was the first appearance by the Reds in the World Series.

That brings us to the Reds’ Game Two starter, our old friend Slim Sallee, who had been acquired by the Reds before the 1919 season. The Giants, thinking he was washed up at age 33 after an 8-8 season in 1918, had made him available.  He responded with a 21-7 season for the Reds. It was the only 20-win season of his career.

The third time was the charm. Game Two was Sallee’s third Series start, and he finally notched a victory. He went the distance in a 4-2 victory over the White Sox on Oct. 2 at Redland Field. The Series went on for six more games (this was best-of-nine) but the streak of left-handers ended at 14 with Sallee’s victory. Reds manager Pat Moran gave the starting assignment to right-hander Ray Fisher the next day at Comiskey.

The streak was over, but Sallee got one more start in Game Seven. He didn’t make it out of the fifth inning, and took the loss in the 4-1 White Sox victory. So the book was closed on his postseason career.  Sallee won one and lost threre, pitched 28.2 innings, and had an ERA of 3.45. Unfortunately, his lone victory in the 1919 Series is somewhat tainted, as his opponent was Lefty Williams, one of the more unsavory members of the Black Sox, who was uncharacteristically wild (six walks) that day.

Sallee retired after the 1921 season with a 174-143 record and a 2.56 ERA. Not quite good enough for Cooperstown, but he is enshrined in the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame.

If Sallee’s World Series record was lackluster, his participation in the three-year, 14-game streak assures he will remain in the record books. Curiously, a fellow named Slim started three games, while another fellow named Hippo started three. How’s that for balance? If you’re wondering, the other starters were closer to the mean. Tyler was 6-foot, 175 pounds; Ruether 6-foot-1, 180, and Benton 6-foot-1, 190. Ferdie Schupp was a tad shorter and lighter at 5-foot-10 and 150.

So what are the chances that 14 straight World Series games would be started by left-handers?

Slim.

What are the chances that the same man would start and end the streak?

Slim.

What are the chances that he would commence and terminate that streak two years later against the same team, the White Sox?

Slim. Actually, one could say it started with the White Sox and ended with the Black Sox.

Sallee fulfilled biblical prophecy (Matthew 20:16), which states, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” His composite World Series record was not outstanding, but he was the alpha and the omega of the 14-game streak of left-handers.

Resources & References

  • Eric Enders, 1903-2003: 100 Years of the World Series
  • Josh Leventhal, The World Series; an Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Fall Classic
  • Jan Finkel, SABR Biography of Hippo Vaughn
  • Jacob Pomrenke, SABR Biography of Lefty Williams
  • Paul Sallee and Eric Sallee, SABR Biography of Slim Sallee
  • Baseball Almanac
  • Baseball-Reference


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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87 Cards
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87 Cards
In 1919, Sallee won 21 games for the World Serie Champion Reds (1919 was the Black Sox World-Series year) and walked 20 batters. Sallee was around the plate his whole career…. 1.8 BB/nine-innings..#57 all-time (Candy Cummings 0.47 is #1. I read in his SABR Bio that Sallee wound-up from the extreme-first base side of the rubber and threw across his body to get differing arm angles for his release. How he did that and maintained control and arm-health are for interest to me. The only other hurler to win twenty and walk less in a season? Christy Mathewson 1914…. 24… Read more »
Frank Jackson
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Frank Jackson

An obvious mistake in paragraph 2…should be Williamsport HS not Williamsburg. Don’t know what I was thinking. I apologize for the oversight.

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