Even in the days when guys like Hoss Radbourne and Jack Chesbro were winning 59 games (in 1884) and 41 games (in 1904) respectively, it was still a pretty big deal for a pitcher to win 20 games. This convention held true through baseball history, even lending credence to a seasonal performance despite the 20-game winning pitcher’s inherent crappiness (Wayne Garland, Bill Gullickson, Jon Lieber).
But what of the fellows who fell one game short of infamy? The guys who can never use “I’m a 20-game winner” as a pickup line on a fledgling baseball Annie? The doorstep guys ostracized because of a lucky bounce or lack of run support?
Let’s call our 19-game winners/20-game-nonwinners The Blasskickers, after patron saint Steve Blass. Blass, of course, won 19 games in 1972 and, having fallen one victory short, apparently snapped. After having averaged slightly under three walks per nine innings throughout his career, Blass suddenly couldn’t throw strikes in 1973. In 87 innings, he walked 84 and hit 12 bewildered batsmen.
Steve’s not the only Blasskicker with an interesting back story.
There’s his teammate Dock Ellis, who, before winning 19 in 1971, dropped a hit of acid before a 1970 game. He naturally pitched a no-hitter. If you’re reading this, you almost certainly know the story (see: Barbara Manning songs; LSD, users of; Baseball Babylon, etc.). If anyone has television or film footage of this remarkable achievement, please send it to Mike or Steve, at the address listed in the front of this magazine. They’ll reward you handsomely. (We have no cash to offer—SR.)
Whereas the Big Red Machine was never known for its starting pitching, Jack Billingham won 19 games for the team in both 1973 and 1974. In a rarity for the early 1970s Reds, the team didn’t win pennants either year. I blame Billingham. Loser.
Also in 1974 came the first quality, relatively speaking, season by Jim Bibby. We could call him a Blasskicker Extraordinaire, but it’d make more sense to call him Mr. 19. In ‘74, he won 19. He also won 19 for the 1980 Pittsburgh Pirates, making him one of two cats on this list to win 19 for two different teams. The reason I really like Bibby, though, is that he also lost 19 for Texas in 1974. Man, talk about cutting it close. He could have been 18-20. Or 20-18. You’ll never be Mr. 19 by going 20-18.
He’s also kind of a 19-game winner in overall life. His brother is Henry Bibby, a UCLA Bruin great on those Bill Walton teams in the early 1970s. His nephew is Mike Bibby, a damn good NBA player in his own right. Mike Bibby could probably buy and sell Mr. 19 several times over.
The coolest 19-game winner, nudging Dock Ellis, was Detroit’s Mark Fidrych, who would have won 20 except that he wasn’t called up to the team until the season was a few weeks old. Poor guy. Good pitcher. Good fastball and curve. Great control, except in the crotch area. The rumor about him was that a jealous husband twisted his arm.
A future Tiger, Frank Tanana, also won 19 games in 1976 for the Angels (he played a key role when the Tigers stole the 1987 division title from the Blue Jays; that’s a completely different story). The thing about Tanana was that he threw, like, almost as fast as Nolan Ryan and was a bit arrogant as well. Then he found God and, well, I don’t know if it was the natural aging process or an arm injury or the whole God thing or what but all of a sudden, he became a really lame-looking finesse pitcher. A finesse pitcher who lasted forever, but, nonetheless, a finesse pitcher really into God, which made him, let’s face it, not cool. He was no Fidrych, anyway.
Former Cub Burt Hooton came up one short in 1978, when hurling for the Dodgers. Hooton was an early knuckle-curve auteur, pitching a no-hitter in his fourth major league start, in 1972. I think his nickname was “Happy,” and supposedly, it was one of those ironic nicknames often given to a sourpuss guy. Probably wasn’t too happy that he never won 20.
Steve Rogers of the Expos was always considered one of the game’s best pitchers during the latter 1970s. Yet, like his really good bridesmaid team, he never quite finished the job, falling short of the 20-game mark in 1982. Can’t believe that’s the most he ever won; I’m gonna check it. Yup, he won 17 twice, and had a career ERA of 3.17. If he were pitching today, he’d be on the Yankees. And probably winning 20.
Then there’s crusty John Denny, who won the Cy Young Award with his 19-win season in 1983. Can’t remember where I read this, but wasn’t Denny supposed to be a jerk? Or was that John Smiley? I always get those guys mixed up. (If John Smiley’s a prick, would they, as they did with Happy Hooton, call him Smiley Smiley? Do you think John Smiley is a Brian Wilson fan?)
Dan Petry won 19 for the Tigers in 1983, then won 18 for them the next year as the team out-and-out dominated baseball. Mark Langston won 19 for the 1987 Mariners and 19 for the 1991 Angels. Storm Davis and Mike Moore both won 19 for the 1989 A’s. Man, baseball was boring back then. Hmmm. Who won the 1989 Cy Youngs? Bret Saberhagen, for Kansas City. Boring. Mark Davis for San Diego. Are you kidding me?
Mike Mussina won 19 games for both the 1995 and 1996 Orioles. I remember this well. In the game after Roberto Alomar spit on John Hirschbeck (the Orioles clinched the wild card that game), Mussina gave up a home run to someone to tie the game in the ninth. Maybe I don’t remember it. Maybe he lost his bid in the same Roberto Alomar game. Bet’cha Mussina remembers it. Dude’s got his economics degree, in just three years, from Stanford. Man, with his stuff, he should have won 20 four different times and pitched two no-hitters. And with his brain, he should be a special assistant to Alan Greenspan.
During the late 1990s, a bunch of yawners won 19. Shawn Estes did it in 1997 for the Giants. Aaron Sele did it in 1998 for the Rangers. Shane Reynolds did it in 1998 for the Astros. Kevin Tapani did it in 1998 for the Cubs. Tapani won his 19 despite his 4.85 ERA. God, what’s this game become? Oh yeah, that’s right, 1998, the ‘Roid Year. Never mind.
Which leads us to Mark Buehrle, who won 19 games for the 2002 White Sox. Remember The Simpsons episode where Homer and Bart tricked Marge into thinking the lumberjack who branded her favorite paper towel brand was coming over to the Simpson household. “Mmmm, Burly,” she cooed, referring to the paper towel’s brand name? They should play that sound bite at Comiskey Park (or whatever it’s called now, Somefuckingcellphone Park?) whenever Buehrle (pronounced like Marge’s paper towel brand) takes the mound. Or at least until Buehrle, who’s off to a great start this year, wins 20. Then they can play, I don’t know, how about “Yellow Pills?”
You know, by the band 20/20?
Art Webster is a Portland, Oregon writer, a hopeless Cub fan and a songwriter who plays in a series of obscure projects. He contributes regularly to Portland's Barfly Magazine and Narc.