On Jan. 21, 1972 Alan Benes was born. In his major league career, he would win 29 games, or 126 fewer than his older brother Andy. Richard returns to one of his favorite subjects, looking at the “other brother” of great pitching families.
Orison Swett Marden, a sort-of Gilded Age Deepak Chopra, once wrote that the “greatest thing a man can do in this world is to make the most possible out of the stuff that has been given him.” That’s not bad advice to live by, doing the best you can with the tools you have, but it did bring me back to one of my favorite topics.
In the past I have written about the “other brother” of those who have achieved baseball glory, like Trevor Hoffman’s brother Glenn, or Jose Canseco’s brother Ozzie. It is players like these, doing the best they can with the “stuff that has been given,” who must sometime wonder why their siblings apparently were given so much more.
And while truly great players (Hank Aaron, Honus Wagner) have had utterly pedestrian siblings reach the majors, pitchers especially seem to specialize in this. Of the 22 men to win 300 or more games, five had brothers who pitched—to varying degrees of success—in the majors.
That’s nearly a quarter of 300-game winners, and the list is even more impressive when you consider that Pedro Martinez, who won’t win 300 games but had the greatest peak of any pitcher in history, also had a pitching brother.
But while sorting through all the pitching brothers could fill a whole year’s worth of columns itself (and force me to actually write about Alan Benes) I will instead just look at the 300-game-winning five. Starting from the past, and moving forward:
John Clarkson, and his brothers, Dad Clarkson and Walter Clarkson
Arguably the most obscure 300-game winner in history (his only real competition is Mickey Welch) Clarkson nonetheless compensates by having not one, but two pitching brothers. “Dad” and Walter combined to win 57 games, a total that could be multiplied five and a half times and still not match John’s 328.
In fairness, John pitched primarily in the 1880s, starting as many as 70 games in a season. That’s not to take away from his pitching ability; he appeared in the top 10 in ERA eight times in his 12-year career.
Meanwhile, Dad (his real name was Arthur; he was the middle brother and I have no idea where that nickname comes from) also pitched in the 1880s, but lacked the quality of his brother. Walter was 17 years younger than Jack and pitched exclusively in the 1900s, when inning totals no longer matched what his older sibling could do. Nonetheless, he too was not the talent his brother was.
Christy Mathewson, and his brother, Henry Mathewson
Can you name the most successful pitching brother pairs of all-time? Without getting into exact win totals, the top five are the Niekros, Perrys, Clarksons, Madduxes and Mathewsons. The Mathewson family total is 373, which is, of course, also the career total of Christy.
This tells you a lot about Henry Mathewson, Christy’s younger brother. Like Big Six, he attended Bucknell University and pitched for the Giants. Unlike the elder Mathewson, he was terrible. Henry’s first season in New York was 1905; he pitched 10 innings and gave up six runs. He pitched a scoreless inning in 1906 but that was it. Henry finished with a career 4.91 ERA, which would be an ERA over six in 2008.
I suppose Henry could claim that he and Christy averaged more than 185 wins each, but that seems cold comfort.
Gaylord Perry, and his brother, Jim Perry
Of course, not all brother pairs are of the Clarkson/Mathewson one shining star variety. Sometimes there is a clear superior talent, but one would not be displeased to have the other. Such is the case of Gaylord and Jim Perry who, not coincidentally, rank second among all-time brother wins with 529.
Gaylord, of course, is well known for throwing (or not throwing, depending when you asked him) the spitball, and it carried him to 314 wins, the 1972 and 1978 Cy Young Awards, and the Hall of Fame. Jim was never quite the pitcher Gaylord was, but he did win 215 games and the 1970 Cy Young Award when he went 24-12 for the Minnesota Twins.
Given time on better teams—collectively the pair appeared in the playoffs only four times—they might have accumulated enough wins to overcome our next pairing.
Phil Niekro, and his brother, Joe Niekro
Speaking of pairings in which either brother would be fine to have on your team, there’s the family Niekro. Phil finished with 318 wins, and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame, while Joe had 221 victories. Individually, neither Phil nor Joe were better pitchers than Gaylord or Jim Perry, respectively, but as knuckleballers they both held on for many years, with Phil not retiring until he was 48.
That helped them earn their collective 539, still the most ever by siblings. Phil was clearly the better of the pair—Joe actually has the most wins of any pitcher with a career ERA worse than average—but both were capable of pitching huge numbers of innings at a high level of effectiveness.
Greg Maddux, and his brother, Mike Maddux
As bad as Henry Mathewson was, it really didn’t matter, because he didn’t have much of a chance to hold a candle to Christy. The same goes for Mike Maddux. You don’t need me to run down Greg Maddux’s accomplishments, so I will just say that there is a very strong case to be made that he was the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
Mike Maddux, meanwhile, was, well, not the greatest pitcher to ever live. Mostly a reliever, he could be very effective (he posted two back-to-back strong seasons for the Padres in 1991-92) but finished his career with an essentially average ERA and just 39 wins. That many wins was a good pair of seasons for Greg, so you can understand why Mike is now making his name as the very talented pitching coach of the Brewers.
So perhaps Mike Maddux, Dad Clarkson and others will never have the Hall of Fame glory of their siblings. Nonetheless, they did as would make Orison Marden proud, making the best of what they had. And so did Alan Benes, Mark Leiter and others lucky enough to be related to the merely good. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.