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The Best Pitcher in Baseball History?

July 03, 2019

First, let me wish America a happy 243rd birthday!  Our founders were, in my opinion, divinely inspired to create the Declaration of Independence and then the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.  What a crazy experiment that combined Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Enlightenment thought into a rich stew that minimized the power of government and maximized the power of the individual.   We have had our problems along the way, of course, but those founding documents certainly outlined our divinely inspired value system.

Now, let’s talk baseball, our national pastime.  So, who was the greatest pitcher in baseball history?  Well, I’m biased because I grew up in Southern California as a Dodger fan.  So, of course, Sandy Koufax gets my vote.  My dad took me to see Sandy strike out fifteen Minnesota Twins, setting a World Series record in 1965.  He was a joy to watch pitch. 

However, let’s take a broader view and see if you can guess who many have called the greatest pitcher.  He was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1906 and died in 1982.  This is what some Hall of Fame baseball players said about this man:

  • Joe DiMaggio, who faced hundreds of the best pitchers over his many years as a Yankee standout, called him “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
  • Dizzy Dean, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals said, “If he and I were pitching on the same team, we’d clinch the pennant by the fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time.”
  • Bob Feller, the heralded Cleveland Indians pitcher many believe was the greatest pitcher ever, said of this man, “He may have been better than me.” Feller was not known for praising others who were compared to him.

This pitcher was a natural showman who said many clever things, including:

  • Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.
  • Avoid fried foods which angry up the blood.
  • Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
  • I don’t generally like running. I believe in training by rising gently up and down from the bench.
  • Mother always told me, if you tell a lie, always rehearse it. If it don’t sound good to you, it won’t sound good to no one else.
  • My pitching philosophy is simple: Keep the ball away from the bat.
  • Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

Have you guessed who this pitcher was?

I did a speech on this man when I was in college.  It’s often impossible to separate fact from fiction, but I remember two things I said in that speech about him.  “When I was ten and when I was fifty, I could throw a baseball, and you’d better believe it.”  Also, when he faced Babe Ruth in an exhibition baseball game, he told his outfielders to all come in and sit in the dugout.  “I won’t need you against the Babe.”  Then, as the story goes, he struck the Babe out three times that day.  Fact or fiction:  You decide.

OK, if you haven’t guessed his name yet, here are a few more tidbits about him.  He played in the Negro leagues from 1926 to 1948 because blacks were banned from the major leagues.  Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed him in 1947.  Keeping statistics was sketchy at best in the Negro leagues, so this pitcher kept his own statistics.  Again, you be the judge of his accuracy, but here’s what he wrote in his almanac:

  • I pitched in more than 2500 games, and I won about 2000. (By comparison, Cy Young set the major league record of 511 wins, and Warren Spahn won 363 games, the highest among all major league pitchers in baseball’s modern era.)
  • I struck out 22 batters in one game, pitched 62 consecutive scoreless innings, and won three games in one day.

He didn’t make it to the major leagues until he was 42.  That is not a misprint.  In his rookie season, 1948, the Cleveland Indians brought him up to the major leagues during their pennant run that year.  He had 6 wins and 1 loss that year, and became the first African-American pitcher to pitch in the World Series.  He was part of Cleveland’s World Series championship that year.  He pitched until 1953 when he retired at the age of 47.  Bill Veeck, owner of the Kansas City Athletics, brought this pitcher out of retirement in 1965 when he was 59—again, no misprint—to pitch three innings against the Boston Red Sox.  He shut out the hard-hitting Red Sox for those three innings, issuing just one hit to future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.  He was the oldest player to ever play in the major leagues.

I’ll bet some of you have guessed that I have described Leroy Satchel Paige, the great star of the Negro leagues from 1926 to 1947.  Satchel was selected for two All-Star games when he was in his mid-40s, and he became the first player from the Negro leagues to be selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Vin Scully, the great Dodger radio and television broadcaster from 1951 to 2016, told a Satchel Paige story involving a bet for a bottle of scotch.  It seems there was a hole about twice the size of a baseball in the wooden fence at a particular ballpark.  Satchel bet another player that he could stand the same distance from the pitcher to the batter and throw a ball through that hole.  He won the bet. 

Speaking of Vin Scully, I wrote an Atchley Angle on Vinnie a few years ago that was, by far, the Atchley Angle that more of you responded to than any other.  Vin Scully fell in love with baseball as a young boy in Brooklyn in 1936 and became one of the radio announcers for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950.  He retired in 2016 after broadcasting Los Angeles Dodgers’ games for 57 years.  So, we have attached that piece for you to enjoy for the first or second time.