You may not be surprised to know that I collect baseball memorabilia. I own a Lou Brock autograph on perhaps my favorite baseball card ever, his 1977 Topps beauty. Another prized possession is a bowling pin my wife collected for me at a 2010 charity bowling event signed by the likes of Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen, and Jeremy Hermida. And a third is a gorgeous Bob Feller photograph taken at Yankee Stadium in 1937 when he was still just 18 – and already pitching for the Indians.
These are all important to me for different reasons. The Feller piece is important because I had the opportunity to talk to him for a while when he signed it. As great as it is to go to Spring Training today, it used to be a whole lot more special. As a kid, I remember getting Ted Williams to sign an autograph book for me. He was surrounded by about six (six!) people as he walked from one field to another in Winter Haven. With Feller, there was even less of ado. He was sitting by himself, signing autographs, asking for five bucks for the now closed Bob Feller Museum. I don’t remember anything we talked about. And I don’t even remember how old I was within a couple of years. Today, you can but the exact same photo, signed by Feller and authenticated by the industry’s most trustworthy source, for $15. I don’t care. I will always treasure that autograph.
The Best Pitchers of the 1940s
#10 Rip Sewell: The man best known for the Eephus pitch was actually a fine wartime hurler, pitching like an All Star in both 1943 and 1944. He was also a very effective pitcher back in 1940, but otherwise just an innings eater. Though he was less than half as valuable as our decade leader, he’ll always be remembered for the Ted Williams long ball he allowed in the 1946 All-Star Game off the Eephus. I toyed with putting Eddie Lopat here based on his postseason work, a 4-1 record and 2.60 ERA in seven World Series starts. However, just one of those starts was in the 1940s, and it wasn’t impressive.
#9 Mort Cooper: A stud WWII pitcher, Cooper won the 1942 NL MVP and 20 games that year and the next two. Those three seasons represent more than half of his 128 career wins, as elbow injuries took their toll over the years. His most important start was likely in Game 5 of an even 1944 World Series against the crosstown St. Louis Browns. Cooper went the distance, pitching a 7-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts. The Cards closed things out the next day. Overall, Cooper was worth 54% of our leader on the decade.
#8 Bobo Newsom: One of baseball’s great characters, Newsom, for whatever reason, couldn’t remember anyone’s name. So he called everyone “Bobo”? I don’t think that’s the name I’d choose. Anyway, Bobo pitched for nine teams, over four decades, and lost exactly 20 games three times. And along with Jack Powell, he’s one of only two pitchers ever to win 200 games and have a losing record. Trivia and eccentricity aside, Newsom had some special campaigns, especially the 1939 and 1940 seasons when he was worth 7+ WAR. Overall, we’re looking at 60% of the value of our winner.
#7 Claude Passeau: For the second time on this list and third time in this post, we get to mention Ted Williams. Teddy Ballgame ended the 1941 All-Star Game, walking off for the AL by taking Passeau deep in one of the righty’s four appearances in the Midsummer Classic. A really solid #2 starter and worth 62% of our decade leader, Passeau put up between 3.7 and 5.4 pitching WAR seven times, topping that number in 1940 at 6.8. His best start ever was one of the best starts in World Series history, a one-hit shutout for his Chicago Cubs against the Detroit Tigers in 1945.
#6 Dutch Leonard: While he wasn’t related to the Deadball Era pitcher of the same name, apparently he was nicknamed after him. The knuckleballer won 191 games over 20 seasons in the bigs, making four All-Star teams and putting up over two-thirds the value of the decade leader. Never great, Leonard was at his best in 1947 and 1948, both times putting up over 6 WAR on the mound. Trivially, he pitched the Senators to victory at Yankee Stadium in the first game of a July 4, 1939 double header. After that game, Lou Gehrig delivered his “luckiest man on the face of the earth” classic.
#5 Harry Brecheen: One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed writing this series is that I learn so much. For example, I’d have lost a bet on Brecheen’s nickname and sounded kind of silly along the way. For whatever reason, I believed it to be “The Hat”. It’s actually “The Cat”. And Gregory H. Wolf at the SABR Bio Project explains he got that name because of his quick reflexes and excellent defense on the mound. From 1944-1949 he won at least 14 games per year and was absolutely great in 1948, leading the NL in pitching WAR. Most notable about Brecheen is his World Series performance, which is the reason a pitcher with just 64% of the leader is in fifth place on the list. In 32.2 innings over three Series, he allowed only three runs, good for a 0.83 ERA. His best work was in 1946, winning Game 2, Game 6, and Game 7, which is remembered as the game during which Enos Slaughter made his mad dash.
#4 Bucky Walters: Walters won the pitching triple crown and MVP in 1939, one of his three win titles and two ERA titles. Unfortunately for him and his Reds, they ran into an all-time great Yankee team in the World Series that year. Walters lost the second and last games of the sweep. The next year, he and Cincy came back with a vengeance. With their backs against the wall, Walters threw a shutout in Game 6. They came back the next day against Bobo Newsom to close things out. He was only truly great in 1939. Still, the man with 74% of our decade leader was the National League’s top pitcher from 1934-1952. Really impressive.
#3 Dizzy Trout: Trout’s may be my favorite of all SABR Bio Project entries. Warren Corbett starts it off by writing, “Consumer alert: Some of the stories repeated here probably are not true. The difficulty is, we don’t know which ones.” That’s how cool the legend of Dizzy Trout is. He was an absolute stud with 9.8 WAR on the mound in 1944. He finished second in the MVP voting to teammate Hal Newhouser that year despite 11.3 total WAR compared to 8.7 for Prince Hal. He also had a better ERA and 27 wins compared to 29 for his teammate. Plus, he threw 40 additional innings. The mystery continues when we note that Trout beat him by three first-place votes, 10 to 7. All in all, this may be the hardest MVP decision to understand of all-time, at least for me. Was it just Newhouser’s strikeout title? Hmm, I don’t know. I do know that Trout’s decade is about 81% as valuable as our decade leader, the aforementioned teammate.
#2 Hal Newhouser: Yes, Newhouser has the highest total for the decade by my formula, but I don’t think he was the best pitcher of the decade. As great as he was in 1944, he was even better in 1945, winning his second consecutive MVP and the pitching triple crown. Then in 1946, he was almost as good. We’re talking 30.5 adjusted WAR over three seasons. I wonder what would happen to Newhouser if he were up for Hall consideration today. Sure, he made six All-Star teams and won four victory titles and two MVP trophies, but he retired with only 207 total wins, winning just 56 total games in five years at the start plus five years at the end of his career.
#1 Bob Feller: When voting for HoME induction, we don’t speculate what would have happened had players not missed time due to military service. That’s is a tough call, I admit. A few years ago, Eric did some interesting work looking at what might have happened if we voted differently and substituted some war credit. Well, here I do vote differently. Feller clocks in at 93% of Newhouser’s decade total. He did that while missing all of 1942-1944 and most of 1945 while serving in the Navy. In the three full seasons before military service and the one after returning, he posted 37.59 adjusted WAR. If we fill in that level of WAR for the time he missed, we’re looking at someone almost 50% better than Newhouser. Here’s what else would happen. Feller would no longer rank as my #32 pitcher all-time. He’d shoot all the way up to #8, right between Lefty Grove and Tom Seaver. That’s right, 8th best ever. Maybe my photo would be worth $20 then.
I hope you return in a week for the 1950s. There may be some surprises.