Superduperswingmen (Part 2:  1930-1950)

This series tips the THT cap in honor of the Swingman, the pitcher who pivots from the starting rotation to the bullpen and back. This pitching role eschews the comfort zone of specialization, yet emerges as something of a specialist itself, simply because not every pitcher has the flexibility demanded by this double-duty assignment. The Swingman is too often an unsung hero, making a greater contribution to team success than his individual stats might suggest, due to his capacity to handle tasks that would otherwise require two or more pitchers to fulfill.

The term Swingman has traditionally been applied to any pitcher who frequently works as both a starter and a reliever, but here we’re recognizing the most prolific of these practitioners. We define a Superswingman as:

{exp:list_maker}A pitcher who appears in 40 or more games in a season
Among those 40 games, at least 15 must be starts and at least 15 must be relief appearances {/exp:list_maker}A pitcher who presents more than one such season in his career earns the exalted title of Superduperswingman.

In our first installment, we identified every such pitcher achieving three or more such seasons in the 1900-1930 period. From this point forward, we’ll be able to narrow the focus to all Superduperswingmen with just two or more Superswingman seasons, since the achievement became less frequent beginning in the 1930s.

And in this chapter, we’ll discover some interesting ways in which the Swingman role and the developing relief specialist role began to intersect. (In this discussion, I’ll use the synonymous terms “Fireman” and “Ace Reliever” interchangeably, as both were used at the time to describe the top man in the bullpen as he was commonly deployed from roughly 1945 to 1985, as distinct from the “Closer” mode that has since become the norm.)

Curt Davis

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1934   PHI    30     51   31   18    3   20   16    5   19   17  274  283   14   60   99 2.95   160
1935   PHI    31     44   27   19    3   17   12    2   16   14  231  264   14   47   74 3.66   123
1938   STL    34     40   21    8    2   19   16    3   12    8  173  187    9   27   36 3.63   108
1939   STL    35     49   31   13    3   18   14    7   22   16  248  279   18   48   70 3.63   113

That ass-kicking 1934 season we see there was Davis’ inaugural season in the majors. But he was no raw rookie; he was 30 years old and had been a San Francisco Seals standout for five years, winning 90 Pacific Coast League games. Before that he’d pitched a season in the Utah-Idaho League, and lord only knows how long he’d been knocking around in semi-pro ball before that.

But none of that stopped Davis from pitching for more than a decade in the majors, consistently durable and effective. He was never a superstar, but he was a very fine performer.

John J. Ward on Davis in Baseball Magazine in 1935:

He has an easy motion, an air of serious-minded confidence. His control is excellent and so is his mental poise. In build he is decidedly loose-jointed and rangy. His pitching repertoire includes about everything a master hurler could wish—speed, curves and change of pace. His prime asset is his peculiar fast ball.

The fast ball is a natural sinker. At times it will drop four or five inches … fast balls that sink are a decided rarity and for that reason difficult to hit …. Davis makes no secret of his fast ball. “It is not patented, and other pitchers are welcome to copy it, if they can. I throw it,” he says, “with a snap of my wrist and the ball spins off the end of my middle finger, slightly inside, though not so much as a screw ball. This delivery was not difficult for me to master for it seemed to be my natural way of throwing a fast ball. It has never been hard on my arm or given me any difficulty whatever. I can control it better than any other type of delivery.”

Paul Derringer

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1934   CIN    27     47   31   18    1   16   15    4   15   21  261  297    8   59  122 3.59   113
1937   CIN    30     43   26   12    1   17   12    1   10   14  223  240    7   55   94 4.04    92
1944   CHC    37     42   16    7    0   26   17    3    7   13  180  205   13   39   69 4.15    85

A big right hander whose signature pitch was a 12-to-6 overhand curve, this guy was a superstar for a few years, though obviously not in any of the seasons we see above. But my favorite Derringer season has always been 1933—you know, the one in which he spent most of the year with an appallingly weak-hitting Cincinnati ball club, and somehow managed to put up a won-lost record of 7-27 with an ERA+ of 103.

Dizzy Dean

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1934   STL    24     50   33   24    7   17   14    7   30    7  312  288   14   75  195 2.66   159
1936   STL    26     51   34   28    2   17   17   11   24   13  315  310   21   53  195 3.17   124

Dean was an exceptional workhorse, of course, but as we saw with Lefty Grove last time, the standard usage pattern for the best pitchers in the game in this era was to serve as both ace starter and Ace Reliever. In 1934-35-36, Dean worked 48 games and 88 innings in relief, going 10-8 with 23 saves and a 2.85 ERA.

Carl Hubbell, the other titanic ace of this period, doesn’t quite qualify for inclusion on this list because he only had one season with 15 relief appearances. But he too worked out of the bullpen quite a bit, and was exceptionally effective: From 1933 through 1937, The Meal Ticket’s relief record in 49 games and 111 innings was 12-2 with 20 saves and an ERA of 1.78.

Bill Dietrich

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1935   PHA    25     43   15    8    1   28   18    3    7   13  185  203    7  101   59 5.39    84
1936   TOT    26     40   15    6    1   25   16    3    8   11  163  197   12   82   77 5.75    89

The radio monologues of Jean Shepherd in the 1950s and 1960s were thoroughly brilliant, and among the best were his reminiscences of his 1930s childhood as a White Sox fan. Shepherd’s description of suffering with hard-throwing “Wild Bill” Dietrich’s struggles to find the plate is about as good as it gets.

Jack Knott

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1935   SLB    28     48   19    7    2   29   15    7   11    8  188  219    8   78   45 4.60   104
1936   SLB    29     47   23    9    0   24   16    6    9   17  193  272   15   93   60 7.29    74

In our last installment, in the comment on Claude Willoughby we asserted this:

The Phillies in this period, and most especially in 1930, presented a perfect storm of conditions prone to produce ghastly pitching stat lines. You had a very high-scoring league by historical standards, and you had by far the best hitters’ park in that league, and you had an intrinsically weak and shallow Phillies’ staff, forcing its primary pitchers to work extra hard.

Throw all that together and you get the sort of line Willoughby put together in 1930.

With only slightly less amplification, all the same can be said of the St. Louis Browns of the mid-to-late 1930s.

And the unfortunate victim in this case is Mr. Knott, who wasn’t a bad pitcher at all over the course of his career: He was a league-average Swingman, a very handy guy to have around. But in 1936 he encountered a bad year, and did it with a bad team, forcing him to be overworked despite his struggles, and he did it in a bad pitchers’ park in an extremely high-scoring league. This is how a pitcher manages to surrender 174 runs in 193 innings of hellish toil.

Larry French

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1936   CHC    28     43   28   16    4   15    8    3   18    9  252  262   16   54  104 3.39   117
1938   CHC    30     43   27   10    3   16   11    0   10   19  201  210   17   62   83 3.80   101

Claude Passeau

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1936   PHI    27     49   21    8    2   28   22    3   11   15  217  247    7   55   85 3.48   129
1937   PHI    28     50   34   18    1   16   12    2   14   18  292  348   16   79  135 4.34    99
1940   CHC    31     46   31   20    4   15   13    5   20   13  281  259    8   59  124 2.50   151

These two, on the other hand, were bona fide stars whose raw stats benefited from the distinctly lower-scoring conditions of the National League versus the American throughout the 1930s. And while there was one obvious difference between the two—French was a left hander, Passeau a righty—their similarities are abundant, and indeed I’ve frequently had a difficult time keeping them straight in my mind (and things aren’t helped by my mental conflation of the name “Passeau” and the language “French”).

They were just one year apart in age. Both arrived in the majors with the Pirates, and both spent many years with the Cubs. Both were pretty big—French was listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, and Passeau at 6-foot-3, 198—but neither relied on hard stuff, as each was a master of control and an array of sinkers and breaking balls. (Indeed, Passeau’s sinker was such that he was chronically suspected of throwing a spitball.) Neither was a serious Hall of Fame candidate, but both are comfortably within everyone’s “Hall of Very Good.” French won 197 games with a .535 winning percentage and a 3.44 ERA (114 ERA+), while Passeau won 162 at a .519 rate with a 3.32 ERA (113 ERA+).

Jack Wilson

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1937   BOS    25     51   21   14    1   30   23    7   16   10  221  209   13  119  137 3.70   129
1940   BOS    28     41   16    9    0   25   15    5   12    6  158  170   17   87  102 5.08    89

“Black Jack” was a burly (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) right hander who threw extremely hard; his fastball was described as “sensational.” But after a couple of outstanding early seasons, he quickly faded.

Cliff Melton

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1937   NYG    25     46   27   14    2   19   14    7   20    9  248  216    9   55  142 2.61   148
1939   NYG    27     41   23    9    2   18   13    5   12   15  207  214    7   65   95 3.56   110
1941   NYG    29     42   22    9    3   20   10    1    8   11  194  181   14   61  100 3.01   123

The Memorial Day 1937 doubleheader between the Giants and Dodgers at the Polo Grounds:

Towering Cliff Melton, who had been a pleasant surprise all season, relieved (Slick) Castleman in the second game and took a fearful riding from the Dodgers. Dodger shortstop Woody English, in particular, gave the toothy, guileless southpaw from North Carolina a rough time.

Batting against the elephant-eared Melton, English yelled out to him, “You ought to paint those ears green!”

Melton drawled back, “What for?”

Woody rasped in reply, “To give us a good batting background, you busher!”

The good-natured lefty grinned sheepishly. But he had the last laugh. He was the winning pitcher when Johnny McCarthy singled in the winning run in the last of the ninth to give the Giants an even split on the day.

Oh, but it was a different era than ours, indeed.

Bill McGee

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1938   STL    28     47   25   10    1   22   11    5    7   12  216  216    4   78  104 3.21   123
1939   STL    29     43   17    5    4   26    9    0   12    5  156  155   14   59   56 3.81   108

Branch Rickey’s marvelous St. Louis Cardinals ball clubs are best-remembered for their great stars, of course, the likes of Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize. But perhaps a Bill McGee even better illustrates the genius of Rickey’s operation.

First off, the sheer vastness of the Cardinals’ farm system not only provided them a steady flow of top-tier talent, but even more abundantly presented depth in the journeyman ranks. The moderately talented McGee was that sort. And it was precisely the St. Louis organization that got the very best out of him:

{exp:list_maker}The franchise had the luxury of allowing him plenty of developmental experience in the minors.
Then the Cardinals were able to be promote him for just his point of peak performance in his late 20s.
Their staff depth allowed them to deploy him as a Swingman, rather than overexposing him as a frontliner.
They milked him for his three seasons of effective work, then shrewdly traded him as soon as his inevitable decline arrived.{/exp:list_maker}
And given that this was Branch Rickey doing the trading, the deal brought them a solid talent (Harry Gumbert) who provided effective work long after McGee had disappeared from the majors. As we’ll see below, the Cardinals’ production of pitching talent would only accelerate in the 1940s.

Mace Brown

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1939   PIT    30     47   19    8    1   28   18    7    9   13  200  232    8   52   71 3.37   114
1940   PIT    31     48   17    5    1   31   21    7   10    9  173  181    5   49   73 3.49   109

Brown is best known for his terrific 1938 season as a Fireman; Fred Lieb, writing in 1952, described Brown as “the Jim Konstanty of 1938.” The only thing that marred Brown’s ’38 performance was surrendering a walkoff home run to Gabby Hartnett in the gathering darkness at Wrigley Field on Sept. 28, famously described as “the homer in the gloamin’,” that moved the Cubs past the Pirates into first place.

But intensity of reliever or starter specialization was, as we’re exploring, not exactly the fashion of the day. In the seasons immediately following 1938, Brown was frequently deployed as a starter as well as in the bullpen, and as we see he performed well in the Swingman assignment.

Hugh Casey

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1939   BRO    25     40   25   15    0   15   11    1   15   10  227  228   13   54   79 2.93   138
1941   BRO    27     45   18    4    1   27   25    7   14   11  162  155    8   57   61 3.89    94

As we discussed last time regarding Firpo Marberry, and is clearly relevant again here, one of the most interesting aspects of relief pitcher usage in the 1920s and ’30s was the degree to which the widespread adoption of the Fireman model failed to take hold. This was despite several high-profile examples of good pitchers thriving in relief-ace-speciality roles—Marberry, Mace Brown, Clint Brown, Johnny “Fireman” Murphy, Jack Quinn, and others. In the early 1940s, it was still typical for even a highly successful team to have no one designated as a primary relief pitcher, let alone a “Closer.”

So, for instance, we have the 1941 Dodgers, who won 100 games and the NL pennant with no pitcher making more than 27 relief appearances. Their top reliever was our Mr. Casey here, a slider-and-sinker-righthander, who as we see also made 18 starts, in which he was 6-7 with a 4.81 ERA; he performed vastly better out of the bullpen, at 8-4 with seven saves and a 2.29 ERA in 59 innings.

But in that year’s World Series, manager Leo Durocher did rely heavily upon Casey as a Fireman. In the first game, Casey squelched a sixth-inning Yankee rally and was promptly removed for a pinch hitter. But in the third contest, Casey took over in the top of the eighth in a scoreless tie, and was battered for four singles and two runs while retiring just one hitter.

In the fateful fourth game, a must-win for the Dodgers as they trailed two games to one, Casey relieved with two outs in the fifth and put out a bases-loaded fire. He then breezed through three more scoreless innings and entered the ninth with Brooklyn holding a 4-3 lead. But with two outs and the bases empty, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen let a third strike to Tommy Henrich go to the backstop, keeping the Yankees alive. It’s Owen who’s traditionally been named as the goat of that game, but it was Casey, perhaps unnerved by Owen’s miscue, who proceeded to allow a single, a double, a walk, another double, and another walk before finally recording the third out. By that time the game was out of reach at 7-4.

Nevertheless, following 1941 Durocher would deploy Casey as a virtually full-time relief specialist, a role in which he’d deliver a couple of outstanding seasons. The tide was finally beginning to turn toward the designated Fireman as the standard—but as we’ll see below, resistance to it would remain stubborn for quite a while, even within the Dodger organization.

Kirby Higbe

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1939 CHC-PHI  24     43   28   14    1   15   13    2   12   15  210  220   10  123   95 4.67    85
1947 BRO-PIT  32     50   33   10    1   17   12    5   13   17  241  222   22  122  109 3.81   111

I’ve touted it before, but it bears repeating: seek out Higbe’s autobiography, The High Hard One. It’s a singularly fascinating story, while not altogether uplifting.

Alpha Brazle

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1947   STL    33     44   19    7    0   25   11    4   14    8  168  186    7   48   85 2.84   146
1948   STL    34     42   23    6    2   19    9    1   10    6  156  171    8   50   55 3.80   107

Murry Dickson

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1946   STL    29     47   19   12    2   28    9    1   15    6  184  160    8   56   82 2.88   120
1947   STL    30     47   25   11    4   22   13    3   13   16  232  211   16   88  111 3.07   135
1949   PIT    32     44   20   11    2   24   15    0   12   14  224  216   17   80   89 3.29   128
1950   PIT    33     51   22    8    0   29   18    3   10   15  225  227   20   83   76 3.80   116
1953   PIT    36     45   26   10    1   19   13    4   10   19  201  240   27   58   88 4.53    98

Gerry Staley

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1949   STL    28     45   17    5    2   28   14    6   10   10  171  154    7   41   55 2.73   152
1950   STL    29     42   22    7    1   20   10    3   13   13  170  201   14   61   62 4.99    86
1954   STL    33     48   20    3    1   28   15    2    7   13  156  198   21   47   50 5.26    78

Here is the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff rank in the National League in ERA+, from 1940 through 1949:

Fourth, first, first, first, first, second, first, first, third, first.

If it wasn’t the most dominating decade ever presented by a team’s pitching corps, it had to be damn close. And the Cardinals did this without the presence of any Hall of Fame pitcher, indeed none who would be a serious candidate: This wasn’t about superstars, this was all about depth, depth, depth. And the Cardinals did this without almost no significant contribution from pitchers brought in from outside the organization: This wasn’t about acquisition of established talent, this was all about farm system, farm system, farm system.

As Bill James described it, “The Cardinals of the 1940s had phenomenal depth, with the first great farm system churning out arms like IHOP frying pancakes.” The Cards’ bounty of pitching talent was such that they could achieve this immense success despite tossing aside several substantial organizationally produced arms, including Preacher Roe, Ken Raffensberger, Oscar Judd and Blix Donnelly.

The combination of fathomless depth and an organization-trumps-individual culture drove the Cards to present in this period virtually an entire staff, year after year, of Swingmen; pretty much everyone started and everyone relieved. Only two guys, Mort Cooper and Howie Pollet, stepped forward as true front-line aces, and each of them only did it for a few seasons.

Among the trio we see here, Dickson was the best overall talent. He was never a big star (neither figuratively nor literally, at 5-foot-10 and 157 pounds), but was one of the most durable and dependable pitchers in the league for a long time. In style, a couple of pitchers he might be closely compared with are Juan Marichal and Luis Tiant, in that he offered up a baffling diversity of pitches from a baffling diversity of arm angles. Dickson’s five Superduperswingman seasons ties Guy Bush for second-most all time (behind Doc Ayers with six).

As for Brazle and Staley, each followed his Swingman phase with particular success as a relief specialist, as each would be among the best in the emerging class of Firemen. Staley, as we see, encountered some rather significant struggles before becoming a relief star. Both Brazle and Staley were sidearmers (the former from the left side, the latter from the right), and both were sinkerballers; Staley, as so many pitchers did in this era, also worked a knuckleball into his repertoire of breaking stuff.

Sheldon Jones

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1948   NYG    26     55   21    8    1   34   17    5   16    8  201  204   16   90   82 3.35   118
1949   NYG    27     42   27   11    1   15    9    0   15   12  207  198   19   88   79 3.34   120

Dave Koslo

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1950   NYG    30     40   22    7    1   18   15    3   13   15  187  190   18   68   56 3.91   105
1952   NYG    32     41   17    8    2   24   11    5   10    7  166  154   10   47   67 3.19   116

The Giants’ pitching in the late ’40s/early ’50s didn’t have a run equal to that of the 1940s Cardinals, but those Giant staffs were consistently among the best in the league. The Giants had two great frontmen in Larry Jansen and Sal Maglie, and beginning in 1952 they had a great Ace Reliever in Hoyt Wilhelm, but it was the guys in between who knitted the staff together and made it an effective whole.

Probably the two best of these in-betweeners were Jones and Koslo. Neither was a star, but each turned in a solid journeyman career. Stan Musial on Koslo: “He had control and he could win at the Polo Grounds because he could keep the ball low and away. He wasn’t overpowering, didn’t have what you could call a good curve, but wouldn’t walk anybody.”

Mike Garcia

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1949   CLE    25     41   20    8    5   21   10    2   14    5  176  154    6   60   94 2.36   169
1951   CLE    27     47   30   15    1   17   14    6   20   13  254  239   10   82  118 3.15   120

Muscling one’s way up to the front row of a pitching staff that included Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn was no small challenge, but “The Big Bear” was up to it.

Lots of pitchers can throw hard, of course, but the great majority of them have to rely on the four-seamer—the high “rising” fastball—to do it. And even assuming a pitcher has the ability to keep the high fastball in the strike zone, this mighty-tough-to-hit pitch has a built-in problem: If the batter does get hold of it, it’s the offering most likely to result in a home run.

The sinking fastball, the two-seamer, is a delivery very few pitchers have the ability to throw with great velocity. Those who do possess one of the deadliest of pitching weapons: a pitch with enough heat to induce strikeouts, but without the corresponding home run risk, and indeed providing the extra bonus of double-play grounders instead. The pitcher with this WMD in his arsenal is fearsome indeed; Kevin Brown was such a perfomer, and two of the most exciting young stars in the game today feature this rare ability: Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum.

Garcia was such a pitcher. With a “rather lazy, deceptively leisurely motion,” he threw his fastball very hard and with natural sinking action, and the result was that Garcia was in the AL’s top 10 in strikeouts five times, in the top five in K/BB ratio five times (and finishing sixth another time), and yet only once in the top 10 (eighth) in home runs allowed.

He wasn’t quite of Hall of Fame quality, but overshadowed by his Hall of Famer staffmates Garcia doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered as he should. He was mostly a starter, but as we see worked out of the bullpen quite a bit as well, a role in which his wicked stuff was particuarly effective: From 1949 through 1954, Garcia made 66 relief appearances, covering 110 innings, in which his record was 7-6 with 17 saves and an ERA of 1.97.

Ralph Branca

Year   Team   Age     G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA  ERA+
1950   BRO    24     43   15    5    0   28   16    7    7    9  142  152   24   55  100 4.69    87
1951   BRO    25     42   27   13    3   15   11    3   13   12  204  180   19   85  118 3.26   120

By 1951, a full decade had passed since the Dodgers had won the pennant while not deploying an Ace Reliever over the regular season. Quite a bit had changed in baseball in those 10 years.

The period had seen an unprecedented quantity of relievers emerge as stars (even if, for most, it was quite briefly). In 1939 Clint Brown had set a new record with 61 relief appearances, but that mark was quickly tied by Ace Adams in 1942, then broken by Adams in ’43 (with 67).

Several other ace relievers came out of the bullpen at least 60 times in the 1940s: Adams himself again in 1944 and ’45, Joe Heving in ’44, Andy Karl in 1945, Ken Trinkle in 1947, Harry Gumbert in 1948, and “Fireman” Joe Page in 1949. Page achieved particular fame as the Yankees’ flamethrowing Ace Reliever in the late ’40s, twice attracting top-five MVP vote status. Then, of course, in 1950 Jim Konstanty topped them all, setting a new record with a staggering 74 relief appearances and 152 innings of dominating effectiveness that earned him the MVP award.

By 1951, then, the value of counting on a specialized primary relief pitcher was widely recognized. And while the usage pattern wasn’t yet universal, movement in that direction had high-profile momentum.

But in 1951 the Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t on that bandwagon. Durocher had set the precedent of establishing Casey in the Fireman role, but Durocher’s successors as Dodger skipper, Burt Shotton and Chuck Dressen, hadn’t consistently sustained the practice. Each toyed with this guy or that, but neither had dedicated a top reliever as the one he would regularly go to with the big game on the line.

It was in such a condition that the Dodgers arrived at the third and by-definition-final game of the pennant playoff in 1951. Brooklyn’s main reliever that year had been Clyde King, a modestly talented journeyman who’d turned in a decent year—he’d made three starts in which he’d been kicked around, but in 45 relief appearances he’d been 13-6 with six saves and a 3.72 ERA.

But the degree of confidence Dressen had in King in a high-leverage situation is vividly illustrated by the fact that when ace starter Don Newcombe got into a jam in the ninth inning of that must-win, no-tomorrow third game against the Giants, Dressen didn’t even have King warming up. Instead the pitcher Dressen called upon to pick up the save was the soon-to-be-infamous Ralph Branca.

Branca was a solid pitcher, no doubt about it. But aside from the one great season he’d enjoyed as a 21-year-old in 1947, Branca was, as we see above, a Swingman, and not one of particular excellence. In his 14 relief appearances in 1951 before that fateful last one, Branca’s record had been a so-so 1-1 with three saves and a 3.25 ERA in 27.2 innings. In the three years preceding 1951, Branca’s aggregate record as a reliever was 3-5 with nine saves and a 4.20 ERA in 43 games and 75 innings.

In short, while he wasn’t bad, Branca was hardly the sort of performer a good team generally turns to with its entire season hanging in the balance; in our modern age it’s inconceivable that a manager would hand the ball to such a pitcher with one out in the bottom of the ninth and runners on second and third, and the winning run digging into the batter’s box. In our modern age a manager would at such a juncture hand the ball to his Closer. (Actually, in our modern age a manager would almost certainly have inserted his Closer at the start of the inning, but I digress.)

The 1951 Dodgers didn’t have a Closer, of course, as the specialized role hadn’t yet been invented. But, as indicated by their complete bypassing of King in this crucial spot, neither did the 1951 Dodgers have a reliable Fireman. Nor did they have a Mike Garcia-style (or Dizzy Dean-style) top starter who served as a Fireman in a pinch; the only other regular starter than Newcombe the Dodgers had that year was Preacher Roe, who made just one relief appearance. Thus they were reduced to calling upon Branca.

Now, Closers blow saves sometimes. Fireman/Ace Relievers did too, and so as well did Garcia-style aces; even the best pitchers get beat sometimes. But one of the principles of any contest is that if you’re going to get beat, at least you want to get beat with your best. With all due respect to Ralph Branca, the Dodgers in that playoff game in 1951 didn’t get beat with their best, and it seems pretty clear that following this enormously visible episode there was very little credibility left in resistance to the adoption of the Fireman/Ace Reliever model.

Next installment

The Superduperswingmen of the 1950s and 1960s.

References & Resources
The info on pitchers’ stuff repertoires, including the Baseball Magazine quote on Curt Davis, comes from Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, New York: Fireside, 2004.

The stats on pitchers’ innings, won-lost, and ERA records while working in relief come from the one and only original MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, New York: MacMillan, 1969; still the only comprehensive source for such data for pre-Retrosheet seasons of which I’m aware.

The Cliff Melton anecdote is from Fred Stein, Under Coogan’s Bluff: A Fan’s Recollection of the New York Giants Under Terry and Ott, self-published, 1978, p. 58.

The Mace Brown characterization is from Fred Lieb, “The Pittsburgh Pirates,” in The National League, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966, p. 73.

Kirby Higbe with Martin Quigley, The High Hard One, New York: Viking, 1967.

Bill James, “Young Pitchers,” in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006, Skokie, Ill.: ACTA Sports, 2005, p. 117.

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