Bridging The Gap To Greatness

Someone far wiser than me once said: If you have to make a case for the Hall of Fame … he doesn’t belong.

It’s a pretty good general rule. Like all rules there are exceptions; players who had outstanding careers that may have flown under the radar for whatever reason: Arky Vaughn, George Davis, and maybe Richie Ashburn weren‘t recognized for decades after they retired. There are some players also who probably deserve induction: Ron Santo, Bert Blyleven, Carl Mays and perhaps Joe Gordon. Just because you have to make a case for them doesn’t mean they’re not necessarily deserving.

Then there are players who — in my humble opinion — are right on the border. They’re my favorites since they make great debating topics to pass the hours of the offseason. Some on my debating honor roll include Lon Warneke, Robert Lee “Indian Bob” Johnson, Bill Freehan, Bob Caruthers, Tony Oliva, and today’s contestant: The Detroit Tiger’s diminutive right handed ace of the 1930′s — Tommy Bridges.

Bridges career began in 1929 with the Wheeling Stogies of the Class C Middle Atlantic League, where — with the use of a blazing fastball and nasty curve — he posted an impressive record of 10-3. He followed that up with a 7-8 mark with the Evansville Hubs of the Three-I League. In a feat reminiscent of Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens, Bridges whiffed 20 in a game, and at the tender age of 23, was called up by the Detroit Tigers. Bridges made his major league debut on August 13, 1930, in a relief appearance against the Bronx Bombers. All he did was get Babe Ruth to ground out and fanned Lou Gehrig. Bridges also had some adventures that year. One of his three wins came against the moribund St. Louis Browns where he issued a dozen free passes in a 7-5 win.

The game against the Brownies was a microcosm of what would be Bridges’ biggest career bugaboo … the base on balls. His first full season at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull saw Bridges’ potential and his flaws on full display. He finished third in the AL in strikeouts/9IP, yet he walked more than he whiffed (108 BB in 173 IP). He finished the season 8-16, with an ERA (4.99) that was worse than the league average (4.60). One bright spot on the season was a three hit, 3-1 masterpiece against the league-leading Yankees on May 16th that dropped New York out of first place.

Despite finishing second in the Junior Circuit in walks, Bridges turned a major corner in 1932. He finished fifth in the American League in ERA with a 3.36 mark (140 ERA+) and barely missed three no-hitters … one of them a perfect game. On August 5, in an incident that would’ve caused Curt Schilling’s and Bob Brenly’s blood to boil, Bridges retired the first 26 Washington Senators to face him. Detroit was ahead 13-0 in the ninth and the Senators pitcher — Bobby Burke — was due up. Walter Johnson, now the Senators’ manager, sent curveball-hitting specialist Dave Harris to bat. Harris was leading the league in pinch hits with 14 and added to his lead with a clean single to left field. Bridges retired the next hitter for the one-hit shutout and later waxed philosophic: “I would rather earn it the competitive way than have it handed it to me.” On September 24th, in a feat reminiscent of Dave Stieb (who interestingly is Bridges most comparable pitcher according to Baseball-Reference), Bridges went into the ninth inning with yet another no-no on the burner against the hapless Browns. He surrendered a pair of hits, yet still finished up his 7-0 whitewash of St. Louis. This game was also notable for the resignation of Tigers’ manager Bucky Harris. Bridges ended the campaign 14-12.

1933 was almost a carbon copy statistically for Bridges as he again went 14-12 (with a loop leading four shutouts) with an identical ERA+ of 140 (3.09 ERA…good for second in the AL). He logged 233 innings and finished fourth in the loop in punch outs with 120, and for the first time in his career, he struck out more than he walked. On May 24, 1933, Bridges again tossed a one-hitter, and once again it was against the Senators. He achieved a bit of history in that the lone hit he gave up was a solo shot to Joe Kuhel. It was the first time in American League history that the only hit given up in a one-hitter was a homer.

A Gift From Above…Connie Mack

The baseball gods smiled on both the Detroit Tigers and Tommy Bridges, as the A’s traded backstop Mickey Cochrane to the Tigers for catcher Johnny Pasek and $100,000. That move would both turn the Tigers into champions and morph Bridges from promising youngster to shining star. Bridges would enjoy his first of three consecutive 20-win seasons. In addition, he again finished in the top 10 in ERA, as well as fifth in strikeouts, second in innings pitched and complete games, while still issuing far too many walks. Regardless, his 104/155 BB/K ratio was the best of his career to date. Bridges’ achievements resulted in being named to his first All Star team.

On July 13, he was on the wrong side of history as he surrendered Babe Ruth’s 700th homerun. The Tigers lost to the Cardinals in the 1934 World Series and Bridges lost his first World Series start (in Game Three). It would be his only loss in the Fall Classic. With the World Series deadlocked at two games apiece and with the series set to back to Detroit, Bridges showed his mettle when he locked horns with Dizzy Dean in Game Five at Sportsmans Park. Bridges’ route, going 3-1 win over Dean, put the Tigers in a commanding position to win it all. However, the Cardinals swept both games back at Navin Field. Bridges again appeared in Game Seven after the Cardinals took a not-to-be-headed 7-0 lead off of Elden Auker. Interestingly, Bridges showed superb command in his 17.3 innings of work, surrendering a single walk while striking out twelve.

Bridges’ command continued to improve as he gained mastery over his live fastball and bowel-locking curve. Bridges again entered the 20-win circle going 21-10 with a league leading 163 strikeouts and tied his career high in shutouts with four. On September 21st, he opened a twi-night doubleheader sweep of the St. Louis Browns that clinched a repeat of the AL flag.

In the 1935 World Series, Bridges went the distance in an 8-3 romp of the Chicago Cubs in Game Two. Bridges went from star to hero in Game Six. The score was knotted at 3-3 in the ninth inning when Stan Hack opened the inning with a triple. Bridges put away the next three and stranded Hack at the hot corner. In the bottom of the frame, Cochrane reached second with two out. While Bridges was taking a nicotine break in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse, Goose Goslin singled Cochrane home making the Tigers world champions. Bridges explained his absence thusly: “I heard the roar of the crowd when [Cochrane] got a hit and decided to stay right here for luck.” Cochrane was effusive in his praise of his batterymate: “A hundred and fifty pounds of courage. If there ever is a payoff on courage this little 150- pound pitcher is the greatest World Series hero.” In regular season action, Bridges notched 1.15 strikeouts for every walk. In the battles of October, he struck out 4.2 for every freebie issued.

Bridges’ finest season may well have been 1936. For the second straight year, he led the loop in strikeouts. He also topped the AL in wins and games started and finished in the top five in ERA, shutouts, innings pitched and complete games (and enjoying personal bests in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games). Bridges posted a stellar ERA+ of 137 in 294.7 IP. For his efforts, he was named to his third consecutive All-Star team. It ultimately went for naught as Mickey Cochrane suffered a breakdown early in the season, and slugger Hank Greenberg broke his wrist. This, coupled with the Yankees’ debuting a young Turk purchased from the Pacific Coast League named Joe DiMaggio, caused the Tigers to finish a distant second — 19.5 games out.

A number of factors brought Bridges back to earth in 1937. He was now 30; he had logged 844 hard innings over the previous three seasons — and was second in complete games over that span — as evidenced by his high walk and strikeout totals, and Mickey Cochrane could no longer handle regular catching duties. Bridges was limited to 31 starts and his record fell to 15-12. Also, for the first time since his sophomore season, his ERA rose above four (4.07). Despite his struggles, he was named to his fourth consecutive All-Star team. He didn’t have a bad season, the AL’s ERA was a lofty 4.67. He finished fifth in the circuit in strikeouts and walked an average of 3.34 batters per nine innings (the best mark of his career to that point) in 245.3 IP. It would, however, mark the final time in his career that he would top 200 innings.

No longer able to take a regular turn in the rotation, Bridges saw additional work in the bullpen. Limited to 20 starts in 1938, Bridges managed to complete thirteen of his starts and finished 13-9. Despite logging just 151 innings, he still finished 10th in strikeouts while walking just 58.

Finishing Strong

Although unable to handle the workload of a top-of-the-rotation starter, Bridges, at the age 32, caught his second wind. He completed 16 of 26 starts, went 17-7, and for the first time in his career, struck out twice as many as he walked. His 3.50 ERA (140 ERA+) was good for seventh in the league, and despite tossing less than 200 frames, finished third in the AL in strikeouts (129). For this he was named to his fifth All Star team in six years and picked up the win.

Bridges continued pitching effectively helping the Tigers cop the AL flag in 1940. Again, he couldn’t crack the 200-inning mark, but still finished in the top five in strikeouts (second in K/9 IP) and in the top 10 in ERA. Although he finished the year 12-9, he was recognized for his stellar mound work by being named to his sixth and final All Star team. He saved his best for the Fall Classic against the Reds. Given the start in Game Three, Bridges held the eventual champion Reds to one run over seven innings. Bridges began to tire and gave a run in the eighth and two in the ninth but got the win 7-4, walking one and striking out five. In 1941, Bridges continued hot, but the Tigers were not, as Detroit went from the AL penthouse to the second division. Bridges completed almost half his starts, posted an ERA of 3.41 in a league where the average in the AL was 4.56, yet only won fewer than ten games for the first time since 1932.

With World War II raging, Bridges remained effective — albeit against diminished competition. Still not a full time starter, Bridges would start 44 games over 1942 and 1943, finishing exactly half. So effective remained his curveball that in 1941, Bridges’ hook caused speculation that he was throwing the spitter. When umpire Bill Summers queried Tommy if he was loading up during a game, Bridges answered innocently: “Why, Mr. Summers, don’t you know the spitball has been outlawed for years? How would I ever learn to throw one?”

On another occasion, Yankees skipper, Joe McCarthy, accused him of “gross expectoration” on the ball. When McCarthy asked the umpire to check the ball, catcher Birdie Tebbetts of the Tigers “accidentally” threw the ball into the outfield where all three outfielders clumsily handled the ball before giving it to the umpire. Bridges posted an aggregate ERA of 2.56 winning 19 and losing 14 in 366 IP. The most notable outing during this span occurred in the second game of a day-night double header, August 11 1942, where Bridges tossed 14 shutout innings against Cleveland that was halted because of darkness. Then at age 37, Bridges was called to military service. He returned in 1945 and pitched an ineffective relief stint in Game Six of the World Series, however Bridges was able to celebrate his second World Series championship of his distinguished career. After 21.3 mediocre innings in 1946, Bridges was released by the Tigers at the age of 39.

Epilogue

Bridges spent 1947 in the Pacific Coast League pitching for the Portland Beavers and led the league with a 1.64 ERA while going 7-3. He finally got his no-hitter … a lone walk to Seals first baseman, Battle Malone “Bones” Sanders, on four pitches to open the eighth (and was quickly retired on a double play) cost him a perfect game. He did the deed against the San Francisco Seals on Sunday, April 20, 1947, winning 2-0. Bridges threw just 92 pitches to 27 batters and fanned five. Bridges served as a coach and scout for the Reds in 1951 and scouted for the Tigers for three years from 1958 to 1960. He concluded his big league career with the New York Mets from 1963 to 1968, again as a scout.

Tommy Bridges: Overlooked Hall-of-Famer?

So, we have a pitcher who was a key player on a great team, enjoyed multiple 20-win seasons, and was among the league leaders in significant statistical categories. On the surface, a promising Hall of Fame candidate. In his book The Politics of Glory, Bill James introduced another way of looking at a player’s Hall of Fame case: “The Ken Keltner List.” It’s a series of subjective questions about a player’s accomplishments and recognition during his career. The questions are as follows, with answers as they pertain to Bridges:

Was he ever regarded as the best pitcher in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best pitcher in baseball?

No.

Was he the best pitcher on his team?

Yes. Although some had better individual years, Bridges was the Tigers best overall starter from 1934-37.

Was he the best pitcher in his league?

That would be Lefty Grove. That’s a pretty high standard though since Grove was among the greatest of all time. Other than Grove, was he the best? It would be neck and neck between Bridges and Wes Ferrell. I’d say Ferrell was better before 1934, Bridges better from 1934-37.

Was he the best pitcher in baseball?

No — see above.

Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Yes. Bridges was staff ace of the 1934-35 pennant winning Tigers.

Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

Yes. From ages 30-39 Bridges was 89-64, 3.48 ERA (AL ERA over that span — 4.21). It should be noted those totals were padded somewhat facing wartime talent in 1942 and 1943.

If he retired today, would he be the best pitcher in baseball not in the Hall of Fame?

I’ll use two measures: RSAA and adjusted ERA+. Among eligible 20th-century starters, Bridges has the second highest RSAA of any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame (301). Bert Blyleven has 318. Using ERA+, Bridges has the fifth highest behind Harry Breechen, Spud Chandler, Noodles Hahn, and Jack Pfiester, all of whom had far shorter careers. Bert Blyleven’s career had more value, but Bridges had a higher peak. Both pitched well in the post season. Nod goes to Blyleven. Bridges is probably the second best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame.

Are most of the players who have comparable triple-crown stats in the Hall of Fame?

Of his top 10 comparable pitchers, two are in the Hall of Fame: Dazzy Vance and Hal Newhouser. A third — David Cone — might get there if the VC is caught napping.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

No (I’m referring to adjusted stats here).

How many Cy Young-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win a Cy Young? If not, how many times was he close?

They didn’t have the Cy Young award in Bridges’ day, but he would’ve been a good candidate in 1936 (first in wins and strikeout, second in innings pitched, fourth in ERA).

How many All-Star type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most other players at his position who made the Hall of Fame play in a comparable amount of games or have a comparable amount of All-Star seasons?

He was named to six All-Star teams, a good total for a pitcher. Contemporary Hall of Fame hurlers — Carl Hubbell was named to nine, Lefty Grove and Red Ruffing were named to six, and Dizzy Dean to four. Bridges stacks up well here.

If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Yes.

We see Bridges stacks up pretty well. He does have a few significant knocks, however. He didn’t win 200 games. He could no longer throw 200 innings after he turned 30. In fact, he only had six seasons of over 200 IP. He gave up boatloads of walks. He seemed to be well regarded in his time. He wouldn’t be the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame were he inducted, and it wouldn’t be a terrible pick. However, if Bert Blyleven isn’t in the Hall of Fame, it’s pretty difficult to say Bridges belongs there.

That said, he was a pretty terrific pitcher.

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