Born to Play Ball - Right-Handed Pitchers
Walter Johnson (1907-1927)
The Big Train
"He's got a gun concealed about his person. They can't tell me he throws them balls with his arm."
- Ring Lardner
Like Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson was well ahead of the game. A fastball like his would not be seen until Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. Easily he was the power pitcher of the era and, although he played for the traditionally weak Washington Senators, he won 20 games twelve different years and over 30 in two seasons. Amassing 417 wins, he is second only to Cy Young's untouchable win mark of 511. But Johnson also has a record that will never be touched - 110 career shutouts, a mark twenty above second place Pete Alexander. His finest year was 1913 when he went 36-7 with a miniscule 1.14 ERA. His career ERA of only 2.17 is remarkable.
He was considered the ultimate gentleman on the field, although he holds the career record of hit batsmen. He had several legendary pitching duels with another Hall of Famer, Babe Ruth, usually on the losing end. He held the strikeout record for 56 years, a mark many thought impossible to break until Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan came along.
Johnson was an excellent batter whose .433 average in 1925 remains a record for a pitcher. In one season, he hit more home runs than Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie. He was one of the five original players inducted into the Hall of Fame. After his playing days were done, he managed his team, the Senators, and later the Cleveland Indians.
Grover Cleveland Alexander (1911-1930)
"Alex had the most perfect control of any pitcher I ever saw."
- Max Carey
Named after the President of the United States, Alexander was one of thirteen siblings from a Nebraska farm family. As a child he hunted birds by throwing rocks with uncanny accuracy, a trait he carried over to the baseball diamond. He was a pinpoint pitcher with both his fastball and great curve. He holds the record for wins by a rookie (28) and shutouts in a season (16). He began his career with the Philadelphia Phillies where he had his best years before being sold to the Chicago Cubs in 1918. He pitched only three games in Chicago before being sent to France during World War I, where shelling cost him hearing in one ear and where he began a long struggle with epilepsy. Alexander turned to alcohol to combat the effects of the war and his disease. He soon was addicted.
Alexander's nickname, "Pete," probably was no complement, for in an age of Prohibition bootleg liquor was nicknamed pete - something Alexander found all too frequently - and the name stuck. The alcoholism and epilepsy diminished what promised to be a career no less stellar than Walter Johnson and Cy Young. After the war, he never again won 30 games.
His last team was the St. Louis Cardinals, and in 1926, he created a sensation in the World Series against the Ruth-led Yankees. He beat the Yanks in games 2 and 6, then got drunk the night before the seventh game, figuring he would not be pitching. The Cards were leading 3-2 in the seventh inning, but the bases were loaded with two outs. Manager Rogers Hornsby called on the half-awake Alexander, who took the mound and struck out the next six batters before walking Babe Ruth in the ninth inning. Ruth attempted to steal second but was thrown out to end the World Series.
Despite his handicaps, Alexander is third all-time in wins, 190 of which came in his first seven seasons. His 90 shutouts (61 in those first seasons) are second all-time. Alexander died penniless in a rented room back home in Nebraska.
Cy Young (1890-1911)
"Y is for Young, The Magnificent Cy; People batted against him, But I never knew why."
- Ogden Nash
If there were a Cy Young Award when he played, he would have won a dozen of them. Born in Gilmore, Ohio, Denton True Young got his nickname "Cy," short for cyclone, because of his fastball. He pitched for 23 years and set records for pitching that will never broken: 511 wins, over 7,000 innings pitched, and started more than 800 games with 749 complete games. He was a physical marvel; Young boasted that he never had a sore arm. He regularly pitched over 300 innings (over 400 five times) in a season.
Young tried not to throw too much. "I figured the old arm had just so many throws in it, and there wasn't any use wasting them." And before games, "I never warmed up ten, fifteen minutes before a game like most pitchers do. I loosen up, three, four minutes ... I'd take a few warm-up pitches and be ready. Then I had good control. I aimed to make the batter hit the ball, and I threw as few pitches as possible. That's why I was able to work every other day."
He had pinpoint control, a great fastball and curve, and became the first to perfect the "slow ball" or changeup. Pitching for five different teams in his career, he still holds the most wins record for the Red Sox. As a member of Boston, he had the distinction of throwing the very first pitch in the first World Series against Pittsburgh, as well as the very first perfect game in American League history.
Roger Clemens (1984-2007)
"Everybody kind of perceives me as being angry. It's not anger, it's motivation."
- Roger Clemens
Drafted in the first round of the 1983 draft by the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens "rocketed" through the minor leagues and began his major league career in less than a year. He has been one of the most dominant pitchers of the 1980s, 90s, and the 21st century. He is only one of four pitchers to amass 300 wins and 4,000 strikeouts in his career. As the only seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens is also the oldest recipient. He is tied for the most strikeouts in a nine inning game (20), and he is the only one to do it twice.
In 1996, the Red Sox did not re-sign him, stating that he was in the twilight of his career. Ten years, four Cy Youngs, 150 wins, two World Series rings, six All Star Games, and some 2,100 strikeouts later, he hardly looked as if he was at the end of his playing days.
As talented as he has been, his competitiveness and combativeness may have been his strongest attributes. He never shied away from a batter, and his brushback pitch was legendary. Batters who showed him up were on their toes when they next came to bat against the Rocket. How competitive was he? Training in an exhibition game in 2006, Roger found himself pitching against a minor league team on which his son, Kody, played. In his first at-bat, Kody hit a Clemens pitch for a home run. The next time the son came to the plate, Roger threw a "message" pitch that almost hit his son.
In 1986, Clemens was named the American League MVP. Legendary slugger Henry Aaron, when asked, said he did not believe pitchers should be eligible for the award because they didn't play every day and they had the Cy Young Award. "I wish he [Aaron] were still playing," stated Clemens. "I'd probably crack his head open to show him how valuable I was."
*Note: The Mitchell report on steroid use in baseball had just been made public as of this writing. Roger Clemens was named in the report but adamantly denied using steroids and human growth hormones.
Christy Mathewson (1900-1916)
"Mathewson pitched against Cincinnati yesterday. Another way of putting it is that Cincinnati lost a game of baseball. The first statement means the same as the second."
- Damon Runyon
He was one of the original players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson in 1936. In an era of hard-drinking, hard-living players, Mathewson was a clean-cut college boy from Bucknell, where his fellow students elected him class president. He sang in the glee club, was a member of a literary club, and even wrote a series of children's books.
But on the mound he was a fierce competitor, winning 20 or more games in 13 different seasons, and posting a career earned run average of only 2.13 to lead his New York Giants to four pennants. He holds the NL mark for career victories and posted a record four shutouts in World Series play.
Mathewson enlisted in 1918 during World War I. Tragically, he was accidentally gassed and developed tuberculosis, a disease that claimed his life in 1925.
Tom Seaver (1967-1986)
"Blind men come to the park, just to hear him pitch."
- Pete Rose
In 1967, Tom Seaver joined the worst team in baseball, the New York Mets. He won the Rookie of the Year and began a career as the greatest player in Mets history. Known as "The Franchise," Seaver was the ace of the pitching staff, winning three Cy Youngs and leading his "Miracle Mets" to a World Series title in 1969.
He was only the fifth pitcher to record 3,000 strikeouts and won his 300th game in 1985, finishing his career with 311, a mark that surely would have been higher had he played for better teams. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, receiving the highest percentage of votes of all time.
Bob Gibson (1959-1975)
"Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn't score any runs."
- Tim McCarver
Despite childhood health problems such as rickets, asthma, and a heart murmur, Bob Gibson excelled in sports, especially baseball and basketball, playing the latter in college at Creighton. He played a year for the Harlem Globetrotters before opting for baseball; he wanted to compete, not clown around. After only one year in the minors, Gibson joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, recording the first of nine 200 strikeout seasons. He became only the second pitcher to amass 3,000 strikeouts.
He was one of the fiercest competitors to take the mound, with one of the most intimidating stares that could wilt grown men with bats in their hands. He would regularly hit batters who showed him up. Dusty Baker recalled a discussion he had with the great Hank Aaron: Aaron: "Don't dig in against Bob Gibson; he'll knock you down. Don't stare at him. He doesn't like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don't run too slow, don't run too fast. If you want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don't charge the mound, because he's Gold Glove boxer." Baker: "Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?" The streak ended that night.
In 1964, Gibson led the Cardinals to an improbable come-from-behind surge to snatch the pennant from the Phillies. In the World Series, Gibson shined in the Cardinals' defeat of the Yankees. He pitched in the 1967 World Series, and fanned 17 batters in Game One of the 1968 Fall Classic.
True to his athletic prowess, Gibson was also a great hitting pitcher, hitting over .300 one year and smacking 24 home runs in his career.
Greg Maddux (1986-Present)
"Greg Maddux could put a baseball through a Life Saver if you asked him."
- Joe Morgan
A perennial Gold Glove winner, Greg Maddux has been one of baseball's most accurate pitchers, a nibbler of the corners, and a player who thinks one step ahead of the hitters. His studying of every opponent (hence the Professor nickname) made up for his pitch velocity. He won four consecutive Cy Young Awards, has won over 300 games and became the ninth player to notch 3,000 strikeouts. From 1992 to 1998 he posted an ERA a full one run below the league average. He won more games than anyone else in the 1990s.
One-time teammate, John Smoltz, stated that for Maddux, "Every pitch has a purpose. Sometimes he knows what he's going to throw two pitches ahead. I swear, he makes it look like guys are swinging foam bats against him."
Bob Feller (1936-1956)
"I just reared back and let them go."
- Bob Feller
He would have won 300 games and racked up 3,000 strikeouts had he not served four years in the Navy during World War II. Bob Feller possessed a blazing fastball that made him the winningest pitcher in Cleveland Indian history. He threw three no-hitters and an amazing twelve one-hitters.
As a 17-year-old farm boy from Van Meter, Iowa ("The Heater from Van Meter"), he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings of an exhibition game, which got him quickly noticed. In his first major league start he struck out 15 and a legend was born. But with that velocity, accuracy was sometimes lacking. When he retired in 1956, he held the career mark for walks allowed and still holds the season record of 208 base-on-balls. About his early career, Feller said, "I didn't know much. I just reared back and let them go. Where the ball went was up to heaven. Sometimes I threw the ball clean up into the stands." Imagine how edgy the batter was!
Nolan Ryan (1966-1993)
The Ryan Express
"He's baseball's exorcist, scares the devil out of you."
- Dick Sharon
Nolan Ryan is baseball's all-time leader in strikeouts and, by the way, walks. He won over 300 games but lost almost as many. For him, each pitch was all or nothing; he would gladly give up a walk but he wouldn't give the batter anything to hit. In his 27 years in the majors, Ryan amassed seven no-hitters, the most ever by any pitcher. He holds the season mark for strikeouts and he has more than a thousand K's over the second place Roger Clemens. He also holds the dubious distinction of most wild pitches. He never won a Cy Young Award and played in only one World Series.
Ryan threw more 300-strikeout seasons than any other pitcher, and he played mostly for losing teams. He remains the oldest pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter.
Ryan was a physical marvel, firing 100 mph fastballs well into his 40s. He and the legendary Cap Anson played more seasons than any player in history (27), yet he remained one of the game's power-pitchers, even at age 46. His last pitch was recorded at 98 mph despite a torn ligament in his arm.