In Houston last Friday night, Roger Clemens, with 329 career wins to his credit, faced off against Greg Maddux, with 305 career wins. Both pitchers recorded quality starts, though neither was his normal superlative self. Maddux eventually prevailed 3-2, thanks to a good performance from the Cubs bullpen to preserve the victory and a home run by Jeromy Burnitz providing the winning margin. As was mentioned everywhere, it was a superb night for lovers of great pitching, with the winners of 17 total Cy Young Awards taking the mound across MLB and titanic matchups in New York (Roy Halladay beating Randy Johnson 2-0) and Atlanta (Mark Mulder defeating Tim Hudson 6-5) as well as Houston.
But how rare is a game in which two 300-game winners are involved? Indeed, how much rarer is it when both pitchers are still effective pitchers at the forefront of their profession? Well, it’s pretty rare – we may have seen one for the ages on Friday.
Here are the last four pairs of 300-game winners to face off as starters, and the last time they did so.
Don Sutton vs. Steve Carlton, August 4, 1987.
Don Sutton vs. Phil Niekro, June 8, 1987.
Don Sutton vs. Tom Seaver, July 27, 1986.
Tim Keefe vs. Jim “Pud” Galvin, July 21, 1892.
And that’s it. Clemens and Maddux are the fifth pair of 300-game winners to face off against each other in the history of baseball.
Sutton and Niekro faced each other twice as 300-game winners (the other occasion was June 28, 1986, the first time it had happened in nearly 94 years). The Carlton-Sutton and Seaver-Sutton duels only happened once. Keefe and Galvin, on the other hand, faced each other four times as 300-game winners, oddly enough all in July (the game listed above, and on the Fourth in 1892, the 9th in 1891, and on July 17, 1890).
That 1890 game, the first ever to pit 300-game winners against each other, was a Players League matchup featuring Galvin’s Pittsburgh team against Keefe’s Brotherhood Giants. According to a wire service story in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, “Galvin’s curves were batted freely” and New York prevailed 8-2. The announced attendance was 585.
Interestingly, Don Sutton won his 299th game against Tom Seaver, who had 306 at the time, on June 9, 1986. Much was made at the time of their 604 combined victories, which was one less than the AL and 20th-century record (August 26, 1926 with Walter Johnson at 408 wins defeating Red Faber at 197 wins). They broke the record on July 27, which was then broken by the Sutton-Niekro and Sutton-Carlton matchups – the record is currently 645. If Clemens and Maddux face off again later this year, they could break the modern record. (I can’t quite determine the all-time record thanks to how Retrosheet keep their 1892 game logs, but Keefe and Galvin had at least 672 wins when they faced off the last time, which would be the all-time record).
It’s almost incredible to me that there are only four (now five) such pitching matchups in baseball history. What’s very interesting about the 300-game winners is that they appeared in clumps – Seaver, Niekro, Carlton, Sutton and Gaylord Perry all won their 300th games between 1982 and 1986, so there were a lot of active 300-game winners at the time. Similarly, Mickey Welch, Hoss Radbourn, John Clarkson, Keefe, and Galvin all won their 300th games between 1888 and 1892. There were other very close pairs; Kid Nichols in 1900 and Cy Young in 1901; Walter Johnson in 1920 and Pete Alexander in 1924; and Christy Mathewson in 1912 and Eddie Plank in 1915.
The problem with these latter pairs is they came along after the two-league system was established. Nichols and Young both had 300 wins and were active from 1901 to 1906, but Kid in the National League and Cy in the American. Walter Johnson was an AL player, Pete Alexander an NL man. Finally, while Mathewson played from 1912 to 1916 as a 300-win man with the Giants and Reds, Eddie Plank was first in the Federal League and then with the Browns in the American.
But in 1891, with the two-league system on its last legs, the National League had four active pitchers with 300 wins all at the same time. In addition to Galvin and Keefe, Mickey Welch and Hoss Radbourn both had passed 300 major league wins (Radbourn during the season) although of course these totals were unknown at the time. But they never seemed to face each other. Constant matchups against Amos Rusie or Cy Young or Kid Nichols, yes; but all these pitchers were still short of 300. Only Keefe and Galvin ever got matched up against each other.
It’s a bizarre accident of history, which makes last Friday night even more unique. Let’s hope that Maddux and Clemens meet again.
References & Resources
Thanks as always to Retrosheet for making this research possible,