Baseball’s biggest losers deserved better

It’s often said that you have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games in a season. If you weren’t any good, you’d be out of the rotation long before you hit 20 in the loss column.

Multiply 20 by 10 and the principle still holds. You have to be a pretty darn good pitcher to lose 200 major league games. After all, there are plenty of former MLB pitchers who never got close to 200 total appearances, much less 200 decisions, win or lose.

As a general rule, when you see pitchers on the list of most lifetime losses, you are looking at Hall of Fame pitchers or at least candidates worthy of consideration. For the most part, these innings-eaters have posted even more victories than losses, so they are on the positive side of the ledger when they retire.

Cy Young is at the top of the list with 316 losses, but there’s no way Major League Baseball would name an award after a loser, right? Young’s 511 victories overshadow the losses, and he retired with a superb winning percentage of .618.

Next comes Pud Galvin, the only other pitcher with more than 300 losses. He ended up with a .540 winning percentage (based on a 361-308 record), nowhere near Cy Young, but he wasn’t just spinning his wheels on the mound.

Once we go below 300 losses, we see more renowned names, such as Nolan Ryan (292 losses), Walter Johnson (279), Phil Niekro (274), Gaylord Perry (265) and Don Sutton (256). Hall-of-Famers all, they need no introduction. But that may not be the case with the next name on the list.

John Joseph “Jack” Powell (born July 9, 1874) is a Deadball Era player whose claim to fame is that he lost more games (254) than any other hurler not in the Hall of Fame. Likely the reason he has been bypassed by Cooperstown is that he lost more games than he won (245). In other words, he has the most losses of any hurler with a winning percentage below .500.

In a big league career spanning 1897 to 1912, Powell pitched for the Cleveland Spiders, the New York Highlanders, and both St. Louis franchises. Some of these teams were good, some were bad, and some were atrocious. None won a pennant, so don’t waste your time looking for Powell’s post-season record.

It all started out well enough for Powell. As a 22-year-old rookie with just one year of minor league ball (with the Fort Wayne Farmers of the Inter-State League) under his belt, he went 15-10 for the Spiders.

Sophomore jinx? Nope, he went 23-15 the following year. When the Cleveland owners gutted the team and transferred the best players to the St. Louis Perfectos (forerunners of the Cardinals) in 1899, Powell was among those chosen, and he did not disappoint, going 23-19. He continued to eat innings but the next two seasons the results were mediocre, as he went 17-16 and 19-19.

In 1902 Powell quit the Cardinals and jumped to the Browns during their inaugural year (they had moved to St. Louis after one year in Milwaukee) and rebounded to 22-17. The Browns finished at 78-58, good enough for second place in the American League in 1902. But the following season, after a 15-19 season, even though Powell had lowered his ERA from 3.21 to 2.91, the Browns shipped him off to the New York Highlanders.

A curious footnote to this portion of his career was Powell’s employment as a relief pitcher. His ability to warm up quickly made him a valuable man out of the bullpen and subsequent research revealed that he led his league or tied for the league lead in saves from 1901 to 1903. Granted, we’re talking about two or three saves a year here, since starting pitchers were expected to go the distance in those days. During this same three-year period, Powell himself pitched 102 complete games, yet he wasn’t close to the league leaders in that department.

In 1904, when Powell joined the Highlanders, forerunners of the Yankees, they were a long way from a dynasty, though they did go 92-59 in 1904, and Powell (23-19) experienced his only pennant race. But Powell was 30 years old, and his winningest years were behind him. Though he pitched till age 38, he had just one more winning season (1908 when he went 16-13). Curiously, his ERA shows he was still an effective pitcher. He registered a 3.50 ERA with the Highlanders in 1905, but after that, playing out his career in a second tour of duty with the Browns, his ERA ranged from 1.77 to 3.29.

Of course, playing for the Browns rarely enhanced any pitcher’s won-loss record. During Powell’s first seven seasons with the Browns, he was 93-96. Not great but, by Browns’ standards, hardly a disaster.

Then in the last three years of his career (1910-1912) the Browns went 47-107, 45-107, and 53-101, finishing 57, 56½, and 53 games out of first place. Powell went 7-11, 8-19, and 9-17 during those years. That 24-47 stretch closed out his career record with the Browns at 117-143, and doomed him to a sub-.500 career. With ERAs of 2.30, 3.29, and 3.10 during his three final seasons, he surely deserved better.

One can appreciate Powell’s dilemma. He was an effective pitcher right up to the end, yet despite his best efforts, his legacy was deteriorating to the point where he had to retire as a “losing” pitcher.

What’s an aging hurler to do? Well, after those three dismal seasons with the Browns, he was nine games below .500 for his career, despite a 2.97 career ERA. He must have figured he didn’t have time to turn it around, and after 4,389 inning pitched (30th all-time), he was likely tired—so he hung ‘em up. (He did, however, play Double-A ball in 1913 and 1914.)

Powell’s consolation prize for logging so many seasons with the Browns was that he loomed large in their record books. Though he retired four decades before the Browns moved to Baltimore, he remained the team’s all-time leader in games started, innings pitched, strikeouts, and shutouts. Only Urban Shocker had more victories (126).

All well and good, but put them all together and they don’t spell Cooperstown. A relief specialist might get by with a losing record (e.g., Rollie Fingers, who was 114-118, and Bruce Sutter, who was 68-71) if he has a lot of saves, but that won’t work for a starting pitcher. If a starter aspires to Cooperstown, he must win more than he loses, no matter how many lousy teams he plays for.

Powell had four 20-win seasons and he still ranks 15th on the all-time list of complete games. His 45 shutouts ranks him in a tie for 26th place all-time. It’s a shame Powell didn’t get a chance to pitch for better teams, but those are the breaks.

Indeed, when one looks at the “loss leaders” below Powell, the HOF roll call continues: Eppa Rixey, Bert Blyleven, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, and Early Wynn. So of the top 14 leaders in career losses, Powell is the only one without a plaque in Cooperstown. If you’re curious, No. 15 on the list is Jim Kaat, who finished at 283-237.

Powell finished with 499 career decisions. Just one more decision and he would have had the 500 benchmark all to himself among losing pitchers. But he does have company at the 400+ level. So let’s pay tribute to a couple more unsung heroes.

Bob Friend lost 230 games pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates for all but one season. He finished three victories short of 200 victories. Friend had the misfortune to pitch for the Bucs during what was arguably the nadir of the franchise. The team finished below .500 from 1949 through 1957. Of course, that is nowhere near the team’s current record of 20 straight sub-.500 seasons, but the Pirates during Friend’s formative years were exceptionally bad. Their worst record was 42-112 in 1952; the club’s deepest last-place finish was 1953 when the Bucs were 55 games behind the Dodgers; and attendance bottomed out in 1955 at 469,397.

Friend was a 20-year-old rookie in 1951 so he was on hand for the all the Pirates’ lowlights of the early 1950s. In truth, his own record for the first four years was nothing to write home about (in fairness, GM Branch Rickey had rushed him to the big leagues), as his ERA varied from 4.18 to 5.07. But those four seasons must have given him some valuable experience, because he went 14-9 with a league-leading 2.87 ERA in 1955. He peaked with a 22-victory season in 1958 (tying Warren Spahn for the NL lead) and won 18 games during the Pirates’ 1960 championship year.

By 1966, at age 36, he found himself pitching for the Yankees and the Mets when both teams were doormats. He must have felt he had come full circle, so he retired after the 1967 season at age 36.

As of this writing, he is still the Pirates’ all-time leader in batters faced (14,644), innings pitched (3,480), strikeouts (1,682), and games started (477). The flip side of his longevity is franchise leadership in home runs (273), earned runs (1,372), losses (218), hits (3,610), and walks (869).

A few years ago I encountered Friend at an autograph session at PNC Park. I’m happy to report that he appeared to be none the worse for wear (3,611 innings pitched). At the time he was pushing 80 but looked hale and hearty. Hope that’s still the case.

Next on the loss list is Bobo Newsom, who frequently appears on lists of baseball’s most colorful characters. Newsom won 211 games and lost 222. Like Powell and Friend, Newsom spent most of his career with bad teams, notably the Philadelphia A’s (twice), the Browns (three times), and the Washington Senators (five times!).

Newsom started his major league career with Brooklyn at age 21 on September 11, 1929, just before the stock market’s decade-long boom was about to go south. He bounced back and forth between the majors and minors until 1934 when he became a regular in the Browns’ rotation, going 16-20. After a few indifferent years, he had a string of 20-victory seasons with the Browns and Tigers from 1938-1940.

That first 20-game season was quite a feat, considering he had a 5.08 ERA and the Browns won only 55 games. By contrast, his 1940 record with the Tigers was 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA. He topped it off with an outstanding performance in the World Series against the Reds. He won two games (including a Game Five shutout after the death of his father) before Paul Derringer out-dueled him, 2-1, in Game Seven. Even so, Newsom had nothing to be ashamed of, as he had a 1.38 ERA in 26 innings. At age 33, he had reached his zenith. It was all downhill after that, but it turned out to be a surprisingly long journey.

Newsom lost 20 game for the Tigers in 1941, followed by 19 for the Dodgers and the Senators in 1942. He continued to log innings during the World War II seasons, losing 20 games again in 1945, this time for the A’s. He was a likely candidate for retirement when the front-line talent came back from the front lines in 1946, yet he managed to hang on.

He was 38 years old at the beginning of the 1946 season and managed to stick around three more years with fair-to-middling results. As a member of the Yankees, he even managed to work his way into the 1947 World Series.

And more than likely, that should have been the end for Newsom. But no! At age 41, he went to Double-A ball—for three seasons! At the time, his big league record was 205-217, so perhaps he harbored some hope of returning to the big leagues and boosting his victory mark beyond his loss mark.

In 1952, he was back in the big leagues with the Senators and the A’s. He retired after the 1953 season, his losing record intact, yet the fact that he had pitched till age 46—after making a comeback at age 44—is more remarkable than the results themselves.

Before ending this survey, honorable mention must go to Charlie Hough, who ended up at 216-216. Hough pitched 25 seasons and would have had a winning record had he hung it up after his 18-13 season with the Rangers at age 39 in 1987. Unfortunately, that was his last winning season. He hung around for another seven years of losing records, thus assuring he would not go down in baseball history as a winning pitcher. In fact, just one more errant knuckleball in a tight game and Hough would have been below .500 for his career.

Looking back on the careers of these durable hurlers, can we learn anything from their travails? Well, for one thing, the reserve clause must be called to account, as it had the effect of binding good pitchers to bad teams. Had they been able to play out their contracts and put their services on the open market, they would have had the chance to pitch for better teams and would have ended up with better records and a better shot at Cooperstown.

But the ultimate lesson to be learned is this: You don’t have to be a winning pitcher to have a distinguished career.

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Comments

  1. Mike Erickson said...

    Outstanding article. It’s fascinating to read about the players of yesteryear. Love that gem on Newsom where he won 20 games with a 5.08 ERA for a team that won only 55 games. The career stat that always jumps out at me was how Nolan Ryan had only a 324-292 record (just a .526 winning pct.) despite being recognized as one of the greatest of all time. (Plus his 7 no-hitters is ridiculous!)

    An article like this one doesn’t spark a ranging dabate (like a piece about, say, steroids does), but don’t let that stop you in future articles. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I thank you for it.

  2. Marc Schneider said...

    What this suggests, too,is that, while people talk about how players today play only for the money, that players in the past hung on as long as they could for the money.  Some of these guys probably would have retired earlier if they had made the kind of money that today’s players make.  It couldn’t have been fun trudging out year after year on bad teams as you are getting older.  But they needed the money and, in many cases, didn’t have any other skills.  Playing golf fulltime like retired players can do today was probably not an option.

  3. Paul G. said...

    Minor Quibble: The 1899 Cleveland/St. Louis syndicate scheme involved an almost complete swap of the two teams’ 1898 rosters.  Powell was not as much chosen as part of the package.  Not that the 1898 St. Louis squad had much talent.

    Also, do be careful with ERAs.  A 3.50 ERA can range from great to terrible depending on the year.  The AL’s league ERA in 1905 was 2.65 so 3.50 is bad.  Powell had an ERA+ of 83 with New York that year, roughly equivalent to what (the disappointing) Ivan Nova did with New York in 2012.

    Fun article.

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