Catfish Hunter and other Yankee pitchers who made the Hall of Fame primarily for other teams

25 09 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

Most of the Yankee pitchers in the Hall of Fame are there mostly, if not exclusively for their achievements with other teams:

Catfish Hunter

Catfish is the only pitcher in this post who added notably to his Hall of Fame credentials as a Yankee (the Yankee 300-game winners are in a separate post). He’s in the Hall of Fame, though, for his pitching for the Oakland A’s.

Catfish won 167 games for the A’s, concluding with four straight 20-win seasons. He also was 7-2 in the post-season (4-0 in the World Series), the best pitcher on a team that won three straight World Series. He won the Cy Young Award in 1974 and was in the top four in Cy Young voting the other two World Series years. He pitched a perfect game for the A’s.

But stingy A’s owner Charlie Finley, who couldn’t stand to pay the cost of maintaining a championship dynasty, violated Hunter’s contract and Catfish became baseball’s first big-name free agent. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, hungering for the kind of success Finley had achieved, snapped Hunter up.

His pitching dominance continued in Catfish’s first season with the Yankees, a 23-14 season with a solid 2.58 ERA. Jim Palmer beat him out for the Cy Young Award. But the Yankees finished third, 12 games behind the Red Sox.

As the Yankees ascended to championship level, Hunter declined. He had a respectable 17-15 record and his final All-Star appearance in 1976, when the Yankees won their first American League championship since 1964. He became the fourth pitcher that year to win his 200th game by age 31. He seemed on the path to 300. But he was really nearing the end of his path. He was about the Yankees’ third-strongest starting pitcher on that team, behind Ed Figueroa (19-10) and Dock Ellis (17-8).

But he was still Catfish, so he started Game One against the Royals, winning a 4-1 complete game, his last excellent post-season outing. In Game Four, he gave up five runs without getting an out in the fourth inning, taking the loss.

In Game Two of the World Series, Catfish pitched respectably in a 4-3 complete-game loss to the Reds, who swept the Series.

Many great pitchers decline to a solid year at one point in their career, then return to greatness. But Hunter’s decline was real and continuing. He went only 9-9 in 1977. He was the Yankees’ fifth starter, behind Figueroa, Ron Guidry, Mike Torrez and Don Gullett.

Hunter didn’t even appear in the American League Championship Series against the Royals. But Billy Martin used him to start Game Two of the World Series in a bold move.

Hunter had not gone on the disabled list, but something was clearly wrong. Martin had not used him since a Sept. 10 outing against the Blue Jays, when Catfish gave up six runs without making it out of the fourth inning. Martin even started reliever Dick Tidrow down the stretch instead of Hunter.

But Martin had worn out his pitching staff in the ALCS. Figueroa started Game Four Oct. 8, but left in the fourth inning after pitching ineffectively (as I’ve written before, I was there and closer Sparky Lyle amazingly came on in the fourth inning and finished the game for the win).

In Game Five against the Royals, Guidry started on two days’ rest and was ineffective. Torrez, the Game Three starter, pitched in relief, going five-plus innings for the second time in three days. Lyle got the win when the Yankees scored three ninth-inning runs.

In the World Series, which started Oct. 11, Gullett went eight innings in the opener (a 12-inning game won by Lyle, winner of three straight post-season games).

So for Game Two, Martin had a choice between three good pitchers who desperately needed rest — Figueroa, Torrez and Guidry — or a fading Hall of Fame pitcher who’d been resting for a month. With a 1-0 lead in the series, Martin gave the ball to Hunter. If the Catfish had regained the magic in his arm after resting for a month, the Yankees would head to Los Angeles with a 2-0 lead and a well-rested pitching staff. If not, at least they would have that well-rested staff.

Catfish had nothing. He gave up five runs in less than three innings, pitching with a lot of heart, but no stuff.

But Martin’s strategy worked perfectly. Torrez and Guidry pitched complete-game wins in the first two games in Los Angeles, to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead. After the Dodgers pounded Gullet for a Game Five win, Torrez was on the mound for all nine innings again in Game Six, when Reggie Jackson took command by belting three homers.

Catfish’s Game Two start was the epitome of the baseball expression “taking one for the team” (usually a reference to a batter taking a ball in the shoulder or hip to get on first base). If Hunter won, he just added to the Catfish legend. But even by losing, he gave Torrez and Guidry the rest they needed win the Series for the Yankees.

Catfish rebounded with a 12-6 season in 1978, though he only had 20 starts, his season shortened by an arm injury and a diabetes diagnosis. He pitched well in the post-season, though, winning World Series Games Two and Six (the clincher) with respectable outings.

That was a fitting swan song for Catfish and he was gone not long afterward. He went 2-9 in 1979 and retired.

He should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he won only 224 games and he was a Yankee for five years, so the two strongest biases in Hall of Fame voting (anti-Yankee and pro-longevity) worked against him. Still, his credentials were undeniable. He was elected in 1987, his third year on the ballot.

In a tragic connection with the Yankees, Catfish was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and died at age 53 in 1999.

Stan Coveleski

Coveleski won his spot in the Hall of Fame by winning 20 games four times for the Indians and once for the Senators, and getting an ERA crown with each team.

He won three World Series games against the Dodgers in 1920, the first of two times the Indians won. All three were complete games, including a Game Seven shutout. He gave up just one run in each of the other two games.

Coveleski played his final season for the Yankees in 1928, going 5-1.

Burleigh Grimes

Grimes made the Hall of Fame primarily on the strength of his pitching in nine years as a Dodger, but a 25-win season as a Pirate helped. His 1-2 performance with the Yankees, one of three teams Grimes pitched for in 1934, barely mattered. Grimes ended with a 270-212 record and three 20-win seasons.

Tommy John has as strong a Hall of Fame case, even if you don’t give any credit for his comeback from the surgery that bears his name.

Dazzy Vance

Vance had his Yankee cameo on the other end of his career, going 0-3 in 1915 and 1918 for the Yankees, before moving to the Dodgers in 1922 at age 31 and starting on the path to Cooperstown. With three 20-win seasons and 197 wins, his Hall of Fame case is nowhere near as strong as Tommy John’s.

Clark Griffith

Griffith is really a stretch for this list, since he’s in the Hall of Fame as an executive for another team and also pitched primarily for other teams. But he’s a Hall of Famer who pitched for the Yankees, so I included him.

Griffith made the Hall of Fame for his 35 years as owner of the Washington Senators, which followed his managing the Senators from 1912-20, and for his role, when he was still pitching, in the formation of the American League.

But the Senators sucked for most of Griffith’s tenure. They did win the 1924 World Series and won two other American League championships, but for much of Griffith’s ownership, the joke was that Washington was “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

Griffith was a valid Hall of Fame contender, though, for his 19th-century pitching for the Chicago Cubs (six straight 20-win seasons) and his 24-7 1901 season for the White Sox. And he pitched more and better for New York than Grimes, Vance or Coveleski.

All Griffith’s New York pitching was for the New York Highlanders before they became the Yankees. But I included Jack Chesbro on the list of Hall of Famers who made it to Cooperstown primarily for their pitching as Yankees. So I include Griffith here.

He was the Yankees’ player-manager from 1903-8. After a respectable 14-11 season in 1903, he declined to 7-5 in 1904 and used himself out of the bullpen after that, leading the league in games finished in 1905-6.

Back then there was no such role as closer, and the person who finished the most games didn’t often enter with a lead (a starter who was leading got to finish the game). Griffith went 9-6 in 1905 with just seven starts and one save. All of those numbers were 2 in 1906.

Griffith finished the 1906 season with 237 wins and never won again. He was a player-manager with the Yankees in 1907, Reds in 1909 and Washington 1912-14, but played only eight games, one of them at second base, those final five years.

In 20 years as a manager, Griffith finished first with the White Sox in 1901 (before the World Series started), but never finished first again. He finished second four times, last once and seventh (in eight-team leagues) twice. He was a pretty average manager, finishing with a 1,491-1,367 record, winning 52 percent of his games.

After Griffith’s death, his nephew and adopted son Calvin Griffith took over the team and moved it to Minnesota.

300-game winners

Three of the Yankees’ 300-game winners fit in this group as pitchers who made the Hall of Fame primarily for their achievements with other teams: Randy Johnson, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry. I dealt with the 300-game winners in an earlier post in this series.

Also in this series

Other posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Correction invitation: I wrote this series of blog posts over several months, mostly late at night while unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.

Style note: The Hall of Fame has had various committees and rules through the years to elect players who were passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America as well as umpires, managers, executives and other baseball pioneers. I am referring to them all in this series as the Veterans Committee unless the specific context demands reference to specific committee such as the current era committees or the Special Committee on Negro Leagues. Baseball-Reference.com has a detailed history of the various committees.

 

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21 responses

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[…] These pitchers, of course, are not all the Yankee starters in the Hall of Fame. Coming posts will review the Yankees’ 300-game pitchers (all of whom threw primarily for other teams) and other Hall of Famers who made it to Cooperstown mostly on their pitching for other teams. […]

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[…] of Famers Stan Coveleski, Sam Rice, Goose Goslin and were also Senators teammates. We’re up to 22 Hall of Fame […]

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