Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Truth About Jack Nabors And The Wild Pitch

I walked out of the Seattle Public Library this morning, grinning gleefully and clutching a printout in my grubby little hands, secure in the knowledge that I was right, and several authors (and assumedly, their fact-checkers) were wrong.

The printout was of a baseball box score article titled "Champions Capture Two", detailing a double-header that the Red Sox played against the Athletics on June 24, 1916. The Sox won both games, which is not surprising, given that this was the year the Philadelphia Athletics managed to lose 117 games while only winning 36, and the Red Sox had won the World Series in 1915 and were on their way to winning it a second straight time in 1916.

Infact, the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics easily stand as one of the worst baseball teams of all time. Their 117 losses was an American League record until the 2003 Detroit Tigers managed to lose 119 -- and even they had a higher winning percentage, being 43-119 and .265 to the Athletics' .235. This is a team that finished 40 games out... of seventh place. It almost takes talent to be that bad.

The most hapless of the happy was a pitcher named Jack Nabors. Look him up if you don't believe me -- this man has a lifetime pitching W-L record of 1-25. Nabors had a W-L record of 1-1 after the A's won a game against the Red Sox on April 22, 1916 -- and after that, he dropped 19 straight decisions, giving him a record of 1-20 for the year. His roomate, Tom Sheehan, had a record of 1-16, making the pair of them a combined 2-36, despite their vaguely respectable ERAs of 3.47 and 3.69.

Nabors was not a good pitcher by most ways of counting it. The man made 13 errors in 1916 for a fielding percentage of .827. Unlike other pitchers with hard luck, he didn't help his case with the bat either, going .101/.139/.101 and scoring one run himself all year. In 212 innings, he gave up 206 hits, walked 95 and struck out 74. Still, according to one article about him, he was partially a victim of bad luck and lousy run support to some extent -- he lost five games by one run, another five by two -- on fourteen occasions, the A's scored two or fewer runs for him, and in five of those occasions, they were shut out. I'm sure if he'd played for another team, he might have won as many as five or six games that year!

Anyway, a quite amusing story that is often told about Jack Nabors is about one of his particularly stunning losses. I've read this story in at least three places, all told with varying details, but the final score is always cited the same:

From On A Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place:

   Tom Sheehan told a story: "Once we go to Boston for a series. I pitch the opener and give up one hit, by Doc Hoblitzell. But it happens to follow a walk and an error by Witt [one of 78 errors he made that year] and I lose, 1-0.
   Now Nabors pitches the second game and he is leading, 1-0, going into the ninth. He gets the first man. Witt boots one and the next guy walks. Hooper is up next, I think, and he singles to left and the guy on second tries to score.
   Well, Schang has a good arm and he throws one in that had the runner cold by fifteen feet. But we have one of those green catchers. I'll never forget his name, Mike Murphy. The ball bounces out of his glove, the run scores, the other runner takes third, and it is 1-1.
   Nabors winds up and throws the next pitch 20 feet over the hitter's head into the grandstand, the man on third scores, and we lose another, 2-1.
   Later I asked Nabors why he threw that one away.
   "Look," he said, "I know those guys wouldn't get me another run, and if you think I'm going to throw nine more innings on a hot day like this, you're crazy."

And the way I originally read this story was in The Baseball Hall of Shame's Warped Record Book:

   On his way to a record 19 straight defeats in 1916, hard-luck pitcher Jack Nabors became resigned to losing.
   Although he pitched his heart out and recorded a decent 3.47 ERA in over 200 innings, he won only one game and lost 20 with the last-place A's - a weak-hitting club that won only 36 games all year.
   Nabors's frustration was never more evident than during the no-hitter he was pitching against the Boston Red Sox. Holding on to a 1-0 lead, Nabors got the first out in the ninth inning before walking the next batter.
   Shortstop Whitey Witt then booted a potential game-ending double-play grounder, putting runners on first and second. A moment later, the heartsick Nabors lost his no-hitter on a single to center.
   But there was still hope of victory. Centerfielder Wally Schang scooped up the ball and fired home to head off the run. The throw was perfect. But catcher Billy Meyer got tangled up in his own feet and the ball caromed off the heel of his glove as the runner scored the tying tally. The other runners moved up an extra base on the play at the plate and now were perched on second and third with one out.
   Nabors surveyed the situation. He looked at the runner on third, took a deep breath... and deliberately hurled the next pitch high off the backstop, allowing the winning run to trot across the plate.
   "What did you do that for?" Meyer asked Nabors.
   "Listen," the weary pitcher said grimly. "I knew we'd never get another run. If you think I'm gonna pitch eight more hitless innings in this hot sun, you're nuts."

The story's also in Baseball Anecdotes, where they list Witt as getting 70 errors that year (he had 78) and the rest of the story is the same as Sheehan's quote.

Here's the thing. I really do think this is a hilarious anecdote and very descriptive of the 1916 Philadelphia Pathetics, but the facts just didn't seem right to me. For one, I completely doubted that there was any way in heck that Nabors possibly had a no-hitter going. And when I looked at the 1916 Athletics Game Log on Retrosheet, the only game that Nabors started and the A's lost to the Red Sox 1-2 was the opening game, Nabors pitching vs. Babe Ruth. So I was starting to think that this might have just been a crazy story told by an old man whose memory was failing him, not a set of actual events from an actual game. The details of the story as written suggested that the Wild Pitch game happened against the Red Sox sometime when it was hot out. Well, the A's played in Boston in April, June, and October. Tom Sheehan did infact pitch and lose a 1-0 game on June 23, 1916, the day before Jack Nabors pitched and lost the second game of the series on June 24, 1916. Thing is -- that game was lost by a score of 2-3, not 1-2.

So, either the details of the story were wrong, or Retrosheet was wrong. The lesson to be learned here is: Never doubt Retrosheet.

I've got the printout of the New York Times box score and article from the June 24, 1916 games. The text summary for the first game reads as follows:

   BOSTON, June 24.-- The Red Sox took a double-header from the Athletics today, the score of the first game being 3 to 2 and of the second being 7 to 3. Hooper stole home in the first inning of the opener, his single being the only hit off Nabors up to the ninth, when singles by Hooper and Janvrin, errors by Nabors and Murphy, a wild pitch, and a fly to Schang let in the needed two runs.

And here's the boxscore (the Assists column is too blurry on the Philly side):
      BOSTON.                         PHILADELPHIA.
Hooper, rf 4 2 2 2 0 Witt, ss 4 0 1 5
Janvrin, 2b, ss 3 1 1 0 2 King, 3b 4 0 2 0
Lewis, lf 4 0 0 4 0 Strunk, cf 4 0 1 2
Hoblitzel, 1b 4 0 0 9 1 Schang, lf 5 0 1 3
Walker, cf 3 0 0 1 0 Lajoie, 2b 4 1 0 0
Gardner, 3b 3 0 0 0 0 McInnis, 1b 3 0 1 13
Scott, ss 1 0 0 3 3 Walsh, rf 3 1 2 2
McNally, 2b 0 0 0 0 1 Murphy, c 3 0 0 1
Carrigan, c 2 0 0 8 1 Nabors, p 3 0 0 0
Agnew, c 0 0 0 0 0
Leonard, p 2 0 0 0 2 TOTAL....33 2 8 26*
Mays, p 0 0 0 0 0 (* 2 out when winning run scored)
a Henriksen 0 0 0 0 0
b Thomas 1 0 0 0 0
c Ruth 1 0 0 0 0

TOTAL....28 3 3 27 10

a-Batted for Scott in eighth inning
b-Batted for Carrigan in eighth inning
c-Batted for Leonard in eighth inning
Errors-Scott, Witt, Murphy, Nabors.

What are the errors in the stories as told, assuming this box score is correct?

  • The score was 1-0 and his wild pitch let in a run to lose it 2-1. No. The box score confirms that the score was 2-1 A's going into the ninth, with a Boston run in the 1st and 2 Athletics runs in the fourth, and the two runs for Boston in the ninth made it 3-2. Retrosheet confirms the 3-2 score as well.

  • It was a no-hitter. No. It was a one-hitter, though.

  • He got the first guy in the ninth inning out. At the bottom of the Red Sox lineup is listed Henriksen, Thomas, and Ruth, batting for Scott, Carrigan, and Leonard in the eighth inning, the 7-8-9 batters. Henriksen is not credited with an AB, so I do believe he walked. Now, due to the article text listing "singles by Hooper and Janvrin in the ninth", we know that Hooper got a hit in the ninth inning. Since Ruth batted in the 9-slot in the eighth inning, it stands to reason that Hooper, in the 1-slot, led off the ninth inning. Since Hooper and Janvrin are also listed as scoring runs in the 9th, Hooper can't have gotten out.

  • Schang was the center fielder. The box has Strunk listed as the CF for both games of the doubleheader, with Schang playing LF the first game and catching the second.

  • Billy Meyer was the catcher. No, Sheehan at least had it right that Mike Murphy was the catcher, and that he made an error in the ninth inning. Murphy played in 14 games that year, 15 in his entire MLB career, and that one error, his only ever, gave him a career .973 FP. My guess is his career was cut short more by his batting (.111/.143/.111 in 27 AB) and that he was cursed by the 1916 Athletics.

    Billy Meyer, as a matter of fact, was only the team's regular catcher that year because Wally Schang injured his hand on opening day and spent most of the season in the outfield. Meyer ended up missing half the season due to appendicitis, and in 1917 became a true backup to Schang. He never panned out in the majors as a player again, although he later had a stint as a beloved manager in Pittsburgh in the late 40's and early 50's.

  • The sequence of the 9th inning was 'out, walk/boot, boot/walk, single, wild pitch'. While I'm not following the text of the article as if it's the literal order in which things happened, take a look at the box score again. It says (in the notes I didn't type in) that there were no doubles hit for the Sox, and only Hooper stole a base (in the first inning), and Boston only got first base on one error. My guess is that in the first inning, Hooper singled, Janvrin walked, Lewis reached on a fielder's choice, moving Hooper to third but Janvrin was out at second, and Hooper stole home.

    To me, it seems like what may have happened in the ninth is: Hooper singled. Janvrin singled, advancing Hooper to second. (He probably grounded to Witt, who couldn't quite get his hands on the ball in time to make a double play, and instead it was ruled an infield single.) In the next play, Hooper and Janvrin advanced to second and third, while somehow Lewis was out and Nabors made an error. Hoblitzel comes up and pops the ball up to short left field. Schang catches it for the second out, and fires the ball home to try to catch Hooper. Murphy bobbles the play badly, and Hooper scores and Janvrin moves to third. With Walker at bat and the score now tied, Nabors throws the legendary wild pitch that ends it 3-2.

    Or maybe the box score is wrong too. Or, it's possible the "error" Nabors was charged with was the deliberate wild pitch.

  • Did he even throw the wild pitch to end the game? Wouldn't you expect the article to mention that the game ended on a wild pitch if it had actually happened that way? I have been trying to reconstruct the ninth inning to sync with the story, but it's quite possible that the wild pitch happened before a sac fly to Schang.

  • Where did he throw the wild pitch to? I have to admit that throwing it into the grandstand is a more entertaining notion than throwing it into the backstop. Who knows.

Other notes about the game: Carl Mays pitched the last inning of the first game of the doubleheader and then also pitched a complete game for the second game of the doubleheader.

Pitching lines for the first game:
Nabors: 8.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 0 HR
Leonard: 8 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 5 BB, 6 K, 0 HR
Mays: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 0 HR

Yeah, he actually had a one-hitter going against the first-place team without being able to strike anyone out AND with a team that made 312 errors all year (in a league where the rest of the teams averaged out to 218 errors). The mind boggles.

Believe it or not, Nabors's story gets even sadder after this. He contracted the Spanish Flu that swept the world in 1918-1919, and pretty much spent the last three years of his life bedridden until his heart and lungs gave out in 1923, a few weeks short of his 36th birthday.

By the way, if anyone has any further information about the game, or access to Philly or Boston newspapers of the time that may have actual play-by-play information, or any suggestions for other places I can research this, it's gladly taken. I love looking into little details like this, though I'm amused that the Periodicals aide at the library didn't even blink when I specifically said, verbatim, "I need to access a newspaper that would have the box score of a baseball game played between the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics on June 24, 1916. Can you help me?" I guess they get bizarre requests all the time.

Anyway, today is Connie Mack's 143rd birthday, so I suppose it's only fair to be knocking one of the worst teams he ever managed. Baseball history is great this way -- I originally intended to write an article about Losing Pitcher Mulcahy, to honor Ryan Franklin's non-tender, but then when looking through books about lousy Philadelphia pitchers, came across the Nabors discrepancy instead. God, I love this stuff.

(Did anyone actually read this far? Is it interesting at all for me to share my research into historical quirks like this?)

As an aside, and here's your trivia question for the day: In 1916, there were four pitchers in the AL who lost 20 games or more. Three of them were on the horrible Philadelphia Athletics -- Elmer Myers (14-23, 3.66 ERA, 4.83 RA), Joe Bush (15-24, 2.57 ERA, 3.42 RA), and the aforementioned Hard Luck Nabors (1-20, 3.47 ERA, 4.65 RA) . Can you name the fourth (without looking it up)? Trust me when I tell you it's not someone you'd usually associate with *losing* 20 games in a season.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great story. Thanks for taking the time to look it up.