Toeing the Mound from Teenage to Middle Age

Bert Blyleven debuted at age 19 and never looked back. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Bert Blyleven debuted at age 19 and never looked back. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

If career longevity is your goal, one job classification to avoid is major league pitcher. Given the wear and tear on their arms, graybeards on the mound inspire admiration and wonder. Especially rare are pitchers who get their feet wet in the majors as teenagers and are still in there pitching when they hit 40, in other words, more than 20 years.

In major league history, there are just three pitchers who won a game before age 20 and remained on the job long enough to pick up a victory at age 40 or later. This is a real stumper of a trivia question (and the picture above already supplies you with one third of the answer), so if you want to ponder the identities of the other two for a while, then don’t read any further just yet. But if you just want to cut to the chase…

Of the three men who fit the above category, two are in the Hall of Fame. Herb Pennock was the first to be inducted.

Born on Feb. 10, 1894 in Kennett Square, Pa., to Quaker parents whose ancestors went back to the days of William Penn, Pennock was a prep school star who attracted the attention of Connie Mack in nearby Philadelphia. After signing with the A’s in May 1912, he made his first appearance for the team at age 18 on May 14, 1912, in a 7-0 loss to the White Sox. He finished the 1912 season at 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 50 innings. It was not a stellar rookie season, but for someone fresh out of high school it was certainly adequate.

Pennock was fortunate as he got to play for three dynasties: Connie Mack’s “$100,000 Infield” A’s, the Babe Ruth-era Red Sox, and the Babe Ruth-era Yankees. A lanky left-hander (6-foot, 160 pounds), Pennock was a switch-hitter with a lifetime batting average of .191, respectable enough for a pitcher.

He sported a record of 11-4 and 2.79 in 151.2 innings for Connie Mack’s pennant-winning A’s in 1914 and threw three scoreless innings in the World Series for good measure. Unfortunately, Mack dismantled the team after the A’s lost the World Series to the Miracle Braves.

Pennock lingered into the 1915 season and actually began the season with a one-hit shutout against the Red Sox. From there his season went downhill rapidly and he fell out of favor with Mack, who put him on waivers on June 6. The Red Sox were only too happy to scoop him up. As it turned out, Pennock still had 19 seasons left in him, and Mack could regret his decision at leisure.

Initially, Pennock was used sparingly by the pitching-rich Red Sox and bounced back and forth between the Sox and the minor leagues, but by 1917 (he was still only 23 years old) he was up for good, pitching 100.2 innings and going 5-5 with a 3.31 ERA.

After a year off for World War I, Pennock toiled for the Red Sox from 1919 to 1922, giving them more than 200 innings each season. The results, however, were underwhelming (59-52). After 1922, his worst season in that stretch, the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees for three unheralded players and $50,000. Like the A’s in 1914, the post-Ruth Red Sox were selling players left and right. Pennock was just one of a number of players who were traded or sold to the Yankees, but he did not make the transition till after that 1922 season when the Red Sox finished last.

When Pennock joined the Yankees in 1923 he was 29 years old. His best years were yet to come. Arriving in time for the opening of Yankee Stadium and the franchise’s first World Series title, he led the AL in winning percentage (.760) with a record of 19-6. From 1923 to 1928, he was a key member of the team, winning 115 and losing just 51. His World Series record was also outstanding: he won all five games he started (two in 1923, two in 1926, and one in 1927) and pitched four innings in relief in 1932, giving up just one earned run. His composite World Series ERA is 1.95 in 55.1 innings.

Age began to take its toll in 1929 when Pennock was 35. From then on his innings pitched shrank (all the way down to 65 in 1933) while his ERA grew (4.28 was his best showing) from 1929 through 1933. Somehow, he still managed to find a way to win, as he went 47-33 from 1929 through 1933. Nevertheless, the Yankees released him, and he returned to the Red Sox for a curtain call.

His final year with the Red Sox was limited (62 innings) but since he was 2-0 with a 3.05 ERA, he didn’t disgrace himself. Since the Red Sox were just a so-so team, finishing in fourth place 24 games behind the pennant-winning Tigers, Pennock’s performance was pretty much in keeping with his team’s. His final victory came on June 1, 1934, when he hurled a nine-hit shutout against the Senators at Griffith Stadium.

Pennock’s final appearance, at age 40, was against the Indians on Aug. 27, 1934 at Fenway Park.  Though his first and last games left something to be desired, almost everything in-between was noteworthy, as reflected by his career mark of 240-162.

After retiring as a player, Pennock served as a coach with the Red Sox for three seasons before moving into the front office and becoming involved with minor league operations. In 1944 he moved on to the Phillies, for whom he served as general manager. On Jan. 30, 1948, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage after going through a revolving door at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and collapsing into the arms of Bob Carpenter, the Phillies’ owner. To a large degree, the 1950 Whiz Kids were the result of his efforts, but he never got to enjoy the fruits of his labors.

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The payoff of being polite.

His death came one year too late to prevent his reputation from being sullied. Supposedly, he phoned  Branch Rickey in 1947 and told him the Phillies would boycott if Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to Philadelphia. It was decidedly un-Quakerly behavior, the sole blot on his legacy.

The second member of the teenage-to-middle-age triumvirate is Rik Aalbert Blijleven, better known as Bert Blyleven, born in Zeist, Holland on April 6, 1951.

Blyleven moved to Canada with his family at age 2 and then on to Orange County, Calif. The Twins drafted him out of high school in the 1969 draft. He made his major league debut at age 19 on the strength of just 21 minor league starts.

Blyleven was called up to take the place of the injured Luis Tiant in the Twins’ rotation and made his debut on June 5, 1970 at RFK Stadium in Washington. Despite giving up a home run to Lee Maye, the first batter he faced, he pitched seven innings and gave up no more runs, garnering a 2-1 victory with a save from Ron Perranoski.

From there on, Blyleven never looked back. The Twins had won their division the year before (and would do so again in 1970), so they would never have wasted a spot in the rotation on a young pitcher attempting to find himself. Blyleven hit the ground running and just kept going forward.

Even though he missed the first third of the 1970 season, he finished his rookie year with a 10-9 record in 164 innings. The Sporting News named him rookie pitcher of the year but the Topps All-Star right-hander was the Expos’ Carl Morton, who peaked early with a record of 18-11 but retired at age 32 with a career mark of 87-92. Blyleven outlasted Morton in more ways than one, as Morton died of a heart attack while jogging in 1983, while Blyleven remained active through the 1992 season.

While he had just one 20-win season (1973), Blyleven was in double digits 10 years in a row from 1970 through 1979 while pitching for the Twins, Rangers and Pirates. In 1984 he had one of his best seasons, going 19-7 (2.87 ERA) for the Indians at age 33.

Blyleven had a second tour of duty with the Twins, then moved on to the Angels for the last three seasons of his career (1989-1992, sitting out the 1991 season due to rotator cuff issues). He went to spring training with the Twins in 1993 but was not offered a roster spot. When he retired, just shy of his 42nd birthday, his career total of 3,701 strikeouts placed him No. 3 on the all-time list (he is currently No. 5, having been surpassed by Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens). His 60 career shutouts place him ninth in major league history, just one behind Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver.

Blyleven had 287 victories when he retired. Had he hung around long enough to reach 300 victories, he might not have had to wait till 2011 (his first year of eligibility was 1998) to be voted into the Hall of Fame. Given today’s win totals for starting pitchers, a total of 287 would likely ensure a faster trip to Cooperstown.

As to why he hung around so long, Blyleven explained, “I want to stay around longer than the pitchers who were at the top when I came into the big leagues. I don’t want to be gone and have all the old guys – Seaver, (Steve) Carlton, Ryan and (Don) Sutton – still pitching. I got rid of (Jim) Palmer, now I want to outlast the rest of them.”

And so he did. His final victory came on Sept. 6, 1992, when the Angels defeated the Orioles (5-2) in Anaheim. This was victory No. 287, and though he would get five more starts before the end of the season, there would be no more victories. He was 8-7 after his victory over the Orioles, but ended his career with a five-game losing streak. His final appearance coincided with the final game of the 1992 season in Anaheim. He was far from the top of his game, giving up 12 hits and six earned runs in 4.2 innings.

Like Pennock, Blyleven remained in the game after retiring as a player, not as an executive but as a broadcaster for the Twins, who retired his number (28) when he finally made it to Cooperstown. Though he has been a color commentator for the Twins for 20 years, that is still three years fewer than his career as a player.

The third member of the teenage-to-middle age trio is the most unlikely of the three. He isn’t in the Hall of Fame and never will be. In fact, he wasn’t even a .500 pitcher. He is one of just 29 players to appear in major league games in four decades (late 1970s through early 21st century), but is best known for once holding the major league record for most teams played for (12). This mark was later tied by Ron Villone and Matt Stairs, and surpassed (13) by Octavio Dotel. But when Mike Morgan retired after the 2002 season, he had the record all to himself.

Morgan was a first-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s on June 6, 1978. Five days later he made his major league debut. It might seem rather unseemly to force-feed a pitcher of such tender years to the majors, but the A’s were going through their post-dynasty doldrums. Owner Charlie Finley might have been looking to Morgan’s debut to create some buzz and attract a big crowd, much as 18-year-old David Clyde had done in Texas on June 27, 1973, when the franchise recorded its first sellout.

As it turned out, Morgan’s Sunday afternoon debut attracted 17,157, a long way from a sellout, but the best crowd of the series. The post-1975 exodus of Finley’s best players had gutted the A’s and attendance, never robust even in the team’s dynasty years, had dropped by more than 50 percent, from 1,075,518 in 1975 to 495,599 in 1977.

Curiously, Morgan was not the only 18-year-old to toe the mound for the A’s that season. Tim Conroy, another first-round pick, made his debut on June 23 against the Royals. It did not go well and Conroy was sent down to the minors, not to resurface till 1982.

Facing Scott McGregor and the Baltimore Orioles in his debut, Morgan went the distance after a shaky first inning, gave up 10 hits and three runs (two earned). Unfortunately for him, McGregor pitched a six-hit shutout. After a 19-5 start, the A’s had started living down to preseason expectations, and by the time Morgan made his debut they were in the midst of a losing streak that would drop them to 32-33.

Morgan’s next starts were less encouraging, and it was obvious he needed some seasoning, so he was sent down to Triple-A Vancouver. After that 19-5 start, the A’s went 50-88 the rest of the way, finishing fifth in the AL West.

Morgan’s stats in Vancouver were not encouraging (5-6, 5.58) but considering he was fresh out of high school, they were not that bad. The next season he improved to 5-5 and 3.48 for Triple-A Ogden but only 2-10 and 5.94 for the A’s. Still, he had achieved his first major league victory at age 19.

The A’s gave up on Morgan after the 1980 season, and he was traded to the Yankees for Fred Stanley, who batted .193 in 1981 and 1982 for the A’s before retiring. Obviously, the A’s gave up on Morgan too soon, but it gave him an opportunity to get an early start on the long major league odyssey that would take him from the A’s to the Yankees, the Blue Jays, the Mariners, the Orioles, the Dodgers, the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Reds, the Twins, back to the Cubs, the Rangers and the Diamondbacks. One can easily imagine him waking up in a hotel and trying to remember what team he was pitching for.

While Morgan is not in the same league with Pennock and Blyleven, in a sense he is in a league of his own: the ultimate journeyman. In truth, it is a bit of a mystery as to why his services were always in demand. Had he been a left-hander (always in short supply), that might have explained it. But with so many right-handers available, and new ones in the pipeline every season, how did Morgan manage to stick around so long?

Morgan’s career record was 141-186 with a 4.23 ERA. He was in double figures in wins seven times; in double figures in losses 11 times. His best year was 1992 when he went 16-8 for the Cubs with a 2.55 ERA. His most unusual year was 1999, when he somehow managed to fashion a 13-10 record for the Rangers despite a 6.24 ERA.

For the most part, Morgan labored in obscurity, as he did not reach the postseason till age 38 in 1998 when he appeared in the NLDS with the Cubs, who had re-acquired him late in the season.

Three years later, he was unscored upon in three appearances for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series. At age 42 he finally had a ring. Probably no one in the D-backs’ dugout felt more joy when Luis Gonzalez blooped a single off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning to win Game Seven.

That would seem to be an ideal time to retire, but Morgan returned in 2002 for one more season. With a 1-1 record and a 5.29 ERA in 34 innings, it was a bit of an anticlimax. His last appearance was as part of a chain of relief pitchers in a 19-1 blitzing at the hands of the Dodgers on Sept. 2, 2002. The Diamondbacks returned to the postseason in 2002 but they chose to leave Morgan off the roster. Taking the hint, he finally retired.

So no Hall of Fame for Morgan, but he is a member of a very small fraternity of pitchers who cane early and stayed late. With that distinction, plus his status as a traveling man, he certainly fashioned a career that was noteworthy if not superlative.

Will the firm of Pennock, Blyleven & Morgan ever welcome another partner? It is difficult to say, as teenagers are not exactly plentiful on major league pitcher’s mounds. Edwin Jackson just missed, as he debuted on his 20th birthday in September 2003. Clayton Kershaw would have been a solid candidate, but he made his debut two months after turning 20. So turning the aforementioned trio into a quartet is unlikely, at least in the near future.

Meanwhile, if you see a teenager take the mound in a major league game, look up his birthday and see if you can program your email service to send you a reminder on the pitcher’s 40th birthday. You never know…you both may still be around 20-some years from now.


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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.
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Bob Sacamano
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Bob Sacamano

Felix Hernandez has to be a good bet, as he went 4-4 way back in 2005. He’s been amazingly durable so far… until this year, that is.

Julio Urias is the only other pitcher currently eligible, having just debuted this year.

Liam
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Liam
What about Nolan Ryan? 27 years in the bigs and made his debut at 19 according to BR. I do see that he doesn’t qualify because he didn’t get a W in his first season, but he has to be the most impressive in terms of longevity in my books, especially considering his pitching style. Would be interested to see how much or little this list expanded if the qualifications were just debut as a teenager, retire as a forty year old, at any position. Pre say WW II for a debut as a teenager isn’t nearly as impressive as… Read more »
Walter E. Kurtz
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Walter E. Kurtz
You know, it IS strange how that with all the improvements in surgery, biomechanics, stats, etc, that pitchers seem to have shorter careers, but “somehow” GREATER ONES!!! The “pundits” like to point to a couple of Pedro Martinez seasons as being the “greatest ever”, yet, never prefacing those great numbers with, “yeah, but he threw a hundred innings less than other, “pre-history legends” in a season (would Pedro have pitched to those ERAs if he hit 275 + innings/year? Exactly). And when you look at how many years that a good amount of pitchers would go over 300 Effective Innings……… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Get off my lawn! Bring back manual transmissions! And damn these computers, let’s use slide rules!

Carl
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Carl

Great article and a wonderful trivia question. Thought I knew the answers, especially when Blylevin was given. Just knew it was Ryan and the other was Feller. Ryan didn’t get a W at 18 though and Feller retired at 37. Dang.

Allen Twillie
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Allen Twillie

Hardball Times is amazing! The tidbits I pick up here are just fascinating. Please keep writing and posting. I’ll keep reading and telling friends!

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UT will begin rolling out Nike-branded apparel for football and other sports over the upcoming weeks. Rocky’s Locker, the official apparel store of Rocket Athletics located in Savage Arena, will also be featuring new Nike apparel.

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