Baseball's Greatest Pitchers

By Don Weiskopf

Cy Young, Boston Red Sox

Cy Young left a legacy as a pitcher that is unlikely to ever be matched. The right-hander won 511 games during his major league career, almost 100 more than any other pitcher in history. He recorded 30 victories on five occasions and won more than 20 games 15 times.

Cy Young

Young's best season came in 1901 when led the league in strikeouts, wins and ERA. It was the first year of the American League and he set the bar high, winning its Triple Crown. In 1903 he won two games in the first modern World Series, helping the Boston Red Sox to victory. On May 5, 1904, Young pitched the first perfect game in American League history when he led the Boston Red Sox to victory over Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, a day he considered to be his greatest in baseball.

The pitcher threw three no-hitters throughout his time in the sport. He still holds the records for most career innings pitched with 7,356, games started with 815 and complete games with 749. He is the fourth all-time with 76 career shutouts. Young threw his first no-hitter on Sept. 18, 1897. He did not walk a batter, but his team committed four errors. One was originally ruled a hit, but Cleveland's third baseman sent a note to the press box after the eighth inning indicating that he had actually made an error. So the ruling on the field was changed. Young considered the game to be a one-hitter, despite a valiant effort from his teammate.

In 1908 he pitched his third no-hitter and was the oldest man to ever accomplish the feat, at 41 years and three months old. His record lasted 82 years until Nolan Ryan threw a no-no in 1991 at the age of 44.

Young led his league in victories on five occasions, in 1892, 1895, and from 1901 to 1903, and finished second two more times. In 1892 he reached a career-high in wins with 36. He led the league in ERA twice with a 1.93 in 1892 and a 1.62 in 1901, and was second three times in the same category.

For 19 straight years, the right-handed pitcher was in the top 10 in the American League for number of innings pitched. In 14 of those seasons he was among the top five finishers. Young did not throw two consecutive incomplete games until he was already 10 years into his baseball career. Young also holds the record for the most victories by a player at age 34 (33), 35 (32), 36 (28), 37 (26), 40 (21) and 41 (21).

He left the game at the age of 45 with a reputation for continued greatness over his tenure that has yet to be matched in the history of baseball. Each year the top pitcher from both leagues is awarded in his honor.

Contributing to this story was the National Baseball Hall of Fame,

Christy Mathewson, New York Giants

Christy Mathewson was the first great pitching star of the modern era, and is still the standard by which greatness is measured. He changed the way people perceived baseball players by his actions on and off the field. His combination of power and poise -- his tenacity and temperance -- remains baseball's ideal.

Christy Mathewson

"Christy had knowledge, judgment, perfect control and form," said Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack of Mathewson. "It was wonderful to watch him pitch -- when he wasn't pitching against you." Born August 12, 1880 in Factoryville, Pa., Mathewson attended Bucknell University and played on the school's baseball and football teams. He began playing semiprofessional baseball when he was 14 years old. He played in the minor leagues in 1899, with a record of 21 wins and two losses.

He signed his first pro baseball contract in 1899, a rarity for a college-educated player in that era. In 1900, Mathewson was traded from the New York Giants to the Cincinnati Reds and back to the Giants in a round of deals that included a trade for future Hall of Fame pitcher Amos Rusie. Using his famous "fadeaway" pitch, what today would be called a screwball, Mathewson, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-hander, baffled hitters with pinpoint control and a good fastball.

Delivering all four of his pitches with impeccable control and an easy motion, he was the greatest pitcher of the Deadball Era's first decade. "He could pitch into a tin cup," said Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers. He set a modern era record for wins by a National League pitcher with 37 in 1908, coupled with a 1.43 ERA and 259 strikeouts, with a second Triple Crown. He held hitters to an exceptionally low 0.827 WHIP.

Unfortunately, the Giants were unable to win the pennant due to what was ultimately known as Merkle's Boner, an incident that cost the Giants a crucial game against the Chicago Cubs, who eventually defeated the Giants in the standings by one game. Mathewson won 20 games in his first full big league season in 1901, and had at least 30 wins a season from 1903-05.

From 1903-14, Mathewson never won fewer than 23 games in a season and led the National League in ERA five times. He led the NL in strikeouts five times between 1903 and 1908. He compiled a 2.13 ERA over 17 seasons. In the postseason, he pitched three shutouts in three starts in the 1905 World Series. Mathewson finished his major league pitching career with 373 wins against just 188 losses, a figure that leaves him tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander for the most wins in National League history and third-most all-time. He was one of the first five players in 1936 to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Contributing to this story were Wikipedia, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Walter Johnson, Washington Senators

Walter Johnson was one of the most dominant pitchers the game of baseball has ever seen. He was renown as the premier power pitcher of his era with the Washington Senators.

Walter Johnson

In 1911, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice popularized the nickname "The Big Train" in referring to Johnson. Ty Cobb recalled Johnson's fastball as "just speed, raw speed, blinding speed, too much speed." He established several pitching records, some of which remain unbroken. Later, Johnson added to his arsenal when he developed a curveball in the early 1910s and put together a string of ten straight twenty win seasons.

Hall of Fame great Ty Cobb summed up what it was like to face Johnson. "We couldn't touch him. Every one of us knew we had met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark." During his career, Johnson amassed eleven seasons with a sub 2.00 ERA and completed 531 of his 666 career starts. He remains by far the all-time career leader in shutouts with 110, second in wins with 417. Johnson held the career record in strikeouts for nearly 56 years, with 3,508.

He was the only player in the 3,000 strikeout club (achieved July 22, 1923) for 51 years when Bob Gibson recorded his 3,000 strikeout on July 17, 1974. Johnson led the league in strikeouts a Major League record 12 times, one more than current strikeout leader Nolan Ryan. He had a 38-26 record in games decided by a 1-0 score. He lost 65 games because his teams failed to score a run. His gentle nature was legendary, and to this day he is held up as an example of good sportsmanship.

Born on a rural farm near Humboldt, Kansas, Johnson and his family moved to Clifornia's Orange County in 1902. In his youth, he split his time between playing baseball and working in the nearby oil fields. Johnson later attended Fullerton Union High School where he struck out 27 batters during a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High School.

He later moved to Idaho, where he pitched for a Weiser-based team in the Idaho State League. Johnson was spotted by a talent scout and signed a contract with the Senators in July 1907 at the age of nineteen. He played his entire 21-year baseball career for the Washington Senators (1907-1927). Johnson later served as manager of the Senators from 1929 through 1932 and for the Cleveland Indians from 1933 through 1935.

Contributing to this story were the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Wikipedia; and

Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians

Bob Feller came off an Iowa farm with a dazzling fastball that made him a national celebrity at 17 and propelled him to the Hall of Fame as one of baseball's greatest pitchers.

Bob Feller

Joining the Cleveland Indians in 1936, Feller became the biggest draw since Babe Ruth, throwing pitches that batters could barely see, with fastballs 100 miles an hour, curveballs and sinkers. Hall of Famer Ted Lyons recalled, "It wasn't until you hit against him that you knew how fast he really was, until you saw with your own eyes that ball jumping at you."

A high-kicking right-hander, Feller was a major league phenomenon while still in high school in Van Meter, Iowa. He was soon blazing the ball past batters in high school and American Legion baseball, and in July of 1935, the Indians scout Cy Slapnicka arrived on the Feller farm and signed him at age 16. He joined the Indians for the summer of 1936. On July 6, four months before his 18th birthday, he struck out 8 of the 12 batters he faced in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals' heralded Gashouse Gang.

His debut as an Indians starter was spectacular: he struck out 15 batters. Three weeks later he struck out 17, tying Dizzy Dean's major league record. He pitched his opening-day no-hitter on April 16, 1940, defeating the Chicago White Sox 1-0 at Comiskey Park. He won 27 games that season.

Two days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Feller enlisted in the Navy. After attending gunnery school, he joined the crew of the battleship Alabama in September 1942 and served as chief of a 24-man anti-aircraft battery during eight amphibious invasions in the Pacific.

After his return from the war, Feller threw his second no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in April 1946. He pitched his third no-hitter in July 1951, against the Tigers, tying the major league record. Feller struck out 2,581 batters in his career. His three no-hitters included the only one ever thrown on opening day. He won 266 games in his 18 seasons, all with the Indians, but military service in World War II interrupted his career in his prime and might have deprived him of 100 more victories.

Feller entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 with Jackie Robinson. They were the first to do so in their first year of eligibility.

Contributing to this story were Richard Goldstein of The New York Times and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Dizzy Dean, St. Louis Cardinals

Every ballplayer can remember the passion they had for the game as a kid. Dizzy Dean kept that passion and excitement all the way through his major league career. "When ole Diz was out there pitching, it was more than just another ballgame," said his teammate Pepper Martin. "It was a regular three-ring circus and everybody was wide awake and enjoying being alive."

Dizzy Dean

Born Jay Hanna Dean on January 16, 1910 in Lucas, Arkansas, Dean attended public school only through second grade. His colorful personality and eccentric behavior earned him the nickname "Dizzy". "Nobody ever taught him baseball and he never had to learn," said sportswriter Red Smith. "He was just doing what came naturally when a scout named Don Curtis discovered him on a Texas sandlot and gave him his first contract."

Dean made his professional debut in 1930 and worked his way up to the major leagues that same year, throwing a complete game three-hitter for a win with the St. Louis Cardinals. Dean became a regular starter in 1932, leading the league in shutouts and innings pitched. It was also the first of four straight seasons he led the league in strikeouts.

In 1934, Dean went 30-7, leading the league in wins with a 2.66 ERA to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Dean was thought of as a leader of the "Gashouse Gang", a nickname given to the '34 Cardinals. Along with his brother Paul, also a pitcher on the team and often referred to in the media as "Daffy", the Cardinals became hardworking, gritty players during the Great Depression. The team captured the National League pennant and beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Dean won 28 and 24 games in 1935 and 1936 respectively, finishing second in MVP voting in both seasons.

In 1937, Dean suffered an injury after being hit in the toe by a line drive. Trying to return from the injury too quickly, Dean hurt his arm and largely lost his effectiveness. Traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1938, Dean spent four seasons in Chicago, including appearing in the 1938 World Series, which the Cubs lost to the New York Yankees.

He appeared again for the St. Louis Browns in 1947 as a promotional stunt, pitching just four innings before retiring. The four-time All-Star won 150 games in 12 seasons with 1,163 strikeouts and a 3.02 career ERA. Dean became a radio and television announcer after his playing career was over. He was popular with audiences despite often mispronouncing players' names. He was the voice of the Cardinals, Yankees and the CBS and NBC Game of the Week from the 1940s through 1965.

Dean was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. He died on July 17, 1974 at the age of 64.

Contributing to this story were the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Wikipedia; and

Warren Spahn, Milwaukee Braves

Warren Spahn is considered the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history, with more major league wins (363) than any other pitcher. He was a complete player for the Milwaukee Braves who helped himself at bat and in the field.

Warren Spahn

From 1949 to 1963, Spahn was baseball's most successful left-hander. He won 20 games 12 times in 15 seasons, led the National League in wins eight times, and never had an ERA above 3.50. He was aided by the addition of two new pitches: a wicked screwball that became more important as his fastball lost its pop, and a slider that gave him four quality pitches. Teammate Johnny Sain called him "one of the smartest men ever to play the game."

Regarded as a "thinking man's pitcher who liked to outwit batters, Spahn once described his approach on the mound: "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." He began to master changing speeds and location to keep hitters off balance. The Braves pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt said, "Warren makes my job easy. Every pitch he throws has an idea behind it."

He was the mainstay of the Braves' pitching staff for two decades. He won 20 games a Major League record-tying 13 times, pitching two no-hitters. Spahn led the National League in strikeouts four consecutive years. In 1948, he was immortalized in baseball love by the jingle, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain," a reference to the Braves' lack of pitching depth.

His career was delayed by military service in World War II. After pitching superbly in the minors in 1942, Spahn entered the army in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery as well as a Purple Heart during his service in Europe which included action at the Battle of Bulge and the battle for the bridge at Remagen.

Spahn did not earn his first major league win until 1946. He had been with the Braves in the spring of 1942, but was reportedly sent down to the minor leagues by manager Casey Stengel because he refused to brush back Pee Wee Reese in an exhibition game. It was, according to Stengel, the worst mistake he ever made. Relying mostly on a fastball and curveball, Spahn had a modest 8-5 record, but in 1947, he was 21-10 and led the National League in Earned Run Average (2.33). His legendary ability was equaled by his endurance. Spahn had a deceptive pick-off move to first base. At age 42, he pitched into the 16th inning against the Giants, losing 1-0 when Willie Mays hit a home run on Spahn's 201st pitch.

Contributing to this story were the National Baseball Hall of Fame; the Ford Library; Wikipedia, and

Early Wynn, Cleveland Indians

Early Wynn, the Hall of Fame right-hander, won 300 games over 23 major league seasons, dominating American League batters with a legendary meanness to match his talent. Nicknamed Gus, Wynn got along well with his teammates, but was a grim, scowling presence on the mound.

Early Wynn

His career began to flourish in 1949 after he was traded to the Cleveland Indians and was taught to throw reaking balls by their pitching coach, Mel Harder, a star right-hander of the 1930s. He combined his physical gifts with intimidation and determination to overcome early struggles to become one of the most dominant players of his era. "Since the first time I saw my father play semipro ball in Alabama, it has been my greatest ambition and desire to be a big league ball player," Wynn once said.

It was during his early years with the Senators that he began to gain a reputation for meanness on the mound, exemplified by his willingness to knock down a batter if the occasion warranted. After nine seasons with mediocre Washington teams, in which he had a 72-87 record, Wynn was traded with first baseman Mickey Vernon to the Indians prior to 1949.

The move to Cleveland where he teamed up with Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia gave the team one of baseball's great pitching rotations. After compiling a 163-100 record for the Indians from 1949-57, he was traded to the White Sox. In 1959, at age 39, Wynn led the league in wins (22), was named the Cy Young Award winner, and helped pitch the White Sox to the 1959 American League pennant.

Wynn finished his big league pitching career with a record of 300-244, struck out 2,334 batters in 4,564 innings, and had an earned run average of 3.54. He won at least 20 games in a season five times, and was named an All-Star every season from 1955-60. He was also a switch-hitter who tallied 90 pinch-hit appearances, including a grand slam, making him one of the five pitchers to attain that feat. When he finally retired in 1963, Wynn had pitched longer than anyone else in baseball history. He became the Indians' pitching coach succeeding Harder, his former mentor.

He later served as a coach for the Twins and a broadcaster for the Blue Jays and White Sox. In 1999, Wynn was included on the Sporting News list of the 100 greatest players in baseball history. He served in the U.S. Army Tank Corps in the Philippines, spending all of the 1945 season and part of the next in the military before rejoining the Senators.

Contributing to this story was the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Richard Goldstein, The New York Times.

Whitey Ford, New York Yankees

The heart of baseball's greatest dynasty was Whitey Ford, who won a higher percentage of his decisions than any other modern pitcher. Nicknamed "The Chairman of the Board", Ford spent his entire 16-year career with the Yankees.

Whitey Ford

He is a ten-time MLB All-Star and six-time World Series champion. In the post-season, Ford won both the Cy Young Award and World Series Most Valuable Player Award in 1961. Since his Hall of Fame election in 1974 following his retirement, he became the embodiment of the New York Yankees team that was baseball for the postwar generation. "I don't care what the situation was, how high the stakes were -- the bases could be loaded and the pennant riding on every pitch, it never bothered Whitey. He pitched his game," said Mickey Mantle, who along with Ford and Yogi Berra powered Yankees Dynasty III that produced 14 American League pennants and nine World Series titles from 1949-64.

Edward Charles Ford was born October 21, 1928 in New York City. Signed to an amateur free contract by the Yankees prior to the 1947 season, Ford quickly rose through the minor leagues -- surfacing himself in a Yankee rotation filled with veterans like Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat and Allie Reynolds. In 20 games, Ford went 9-1 with a 2.81 earned-run average and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. In the World Series, Ford started Game 4 and pitched for 26 of the 27 outs, recording a 5-2 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies that clinched the Series for the Bronx Bombers.

Ford spent the next two seasons in the Army, returning in 1953 after two more Fall Classic wins by the Yankees. Ford picked up where he left off, going 18-6 while helping New York win its fifth straight World Series championship -- a record that has not been approached since. Over the next seven seasons, Ford averaged 15 wins per year despite manager Casey Stengel's cautious use. Ford never pitched in more than 255 innings a season during that span but did appear in 11 World Series games, winning six en route to a record 10 Fall Classic wins.

Stengel was fired following the Yankees' 1960 World Series loss to Pittsburgh. The next season, new manager Ralph Houk began pitching Ford every fourth day -- and the little lefty thrived on the extra work, going 25-4 to win his first Cy Young Award. The Yankees won the Series that year and the next, then added two more AL pennants in 1963 and 1964.

The dynasty ended in 1965 with a sixth-place finish, but Ford still went 16-13. From 1961-65 -- starting at the age of 32 -- Ford averaged 260 innings per season. He suffered through his only two losing seasons in 1966 and 1967, posting a combined 4-9 record while battling injuries. When he retired before the 1968 season, Ford's final mark was 236-106 -- good for an unbelievable .690 winning percentage that is the best among modern pitchers with at least 150 victories.

In the postseason, Ford was 10-8 with a 2.71 ERA. He set a record with a stretch of 33 1/3 shutout innings and was named the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1961.

This story was written by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Carl Hubbell, New York Yankees

Carl Hubbell is best known for his standout single-game performances, the most memorable one during the three innings he spent on the mound in the 1934 Major League All-Star Game. With his masterful delivery of the screwball, Hubbell was the premier left-handed pitcher of the 1930s, and one of the finest in baseball history. Carl Hubbell

His success with the screwball made the pitch famous. Thrown with the wrist snapping in instead of out, the delivery broke the ball in the opposite direction from a normal curveball. He threw it with pinpoint accuracy as he did his fastball. He won 253 games and lost 154 from 1928-43, with a 2.98 ERA in 3,590 innings.

Carl Owen Hubbell was born in Carthage, Missouri on June 22, 1903, but he grew up in Meekeer, Oklahoma. Just before his 20th birthday, he began his professional baseball career with Cushing of the Class D Oklahoma State League. Five years later, Hubbell was still in the minor leagues, but he had begun to develop his special delivery. Most successful pitchers, he noted, had some type of sinkerball. He tried to acquire one by starting to snap his wrist, and out came the screwball.

In mid-1928, he was pitching for Beaumont in the Texas League when the Giants, managed by John McGraw, bought his contract and called him to New York. Before the season ended, he had won 10 games and lost 6. From 1933 to 1937 he had five straight 20-win seasons, helping his team win three pennants and a World Series championship. In the 1933 Fall Classic, Hubbell pitched two complete-game victories, one of them an eleven inning, 2-1 win.

In his six career World Series starts, the left-hander was 4-2 with 32 strikeouts and a 1.79 ERA. In 1936, Hubbell was the first-ever unanimous pick for the National League Most Valuable Player Award with a 26-6 record. He finished the regular season with 16 straight victories, leading the Giants to the World Series.

The Giants, with Hubbell as their ace, won pennants in 1933, '36 and '37. They won the World Series in 1933, with Hubbell allowing only 6 hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. Hubbell's name will always be associated with the 1934 All-Star Game, in which he struck out five future Hall of Fame hitters in a row.

Charlie Gehringer had opened the game for the American League with a single, followed by a walk to Heinie Manush. Hubbell was then faced with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. His catcher, Gabby Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs, went to the mound and told Hubbell: "Never mind the junk. Throw that screwball, and it'll get them out." Hubbell promptly struck out Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx to end the inning, then opened the second inning by striking out Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. He won 24 consecutive games in a streak, and he continued to win more than 20 games each season.

Hubbell, however, developed elbow trouble. When he was 35 years old, his left arm bent because of his heavy use of the screwball. He retired in the middle of 1943 with a 4-4 record, and he accepted an appointment as director of the Giants' farm system. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947.

Contributing to this story was the National Baseball Hall of Fame, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and SABR.Org.

Hal Newhouser, Detroit Tigers

Hal Newhouser, the Detroit Tigers' Hall of Fame left-hander was the only pitcher to win two consecutive Most Valuable Player awards. He was the American League's top left-hander of the 1940s. He developed an explosive but hard-to-control fastball and a good overhand curve ball. He posted records of 29-9 in 1944 and 25-9 in 1945, winning the MVP award each season, and had a 26-9 mark in 1946. He won his first game as a pro, striking out 18 batters.

Hal Newhauser

Pitching for the Tigers from 1939 to 1953, then for Cleveland in his final two seasons, Newhouser had a lifetime record of 207-150, and a 3.06 earned run average. He led the American League in wins and strikeouts in the majors in 1944, and he captured the league's MVP award. He was even better in 1945, winning the AL's pitching Triple Crown after leading the league in wins, earned run average, and strikeouts and being named MVP for the second straight year.

Newhouser ended the year by winning two games in the 1945 World Series against the Cubs, including Game Seven. He threw a complete game, striking out 10, in pitching the Tigers to a Game 7 victory over the Cubs. Newhouser led the American League in ERA again in 1946 and nearly won a third MVP award, finishing second to Ted Williams. As a reliever, he played a key role for the Indians' 1954 pennant winners.

He was often matched against the Indians' Bob Feller, the league's top right-hander of the 1940s. On the final day of the 1948 regular season, Newhouser bested Feller, 7-1, before more than 74,000 at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium to drop the Indians into a tie for first place with the Red Sox. He remained a dominant pitcher after World War II, averaging more than 19 victories a season from 1946 to 1950. His determination complemented his talent: he completed 212 of his 374 starts. "You couldn't get the ball away from him -- he hated to be pulled from a game," recalled Joe Ginsberg, the former Tigers catcher.

Newhouser recalled one game when he pitched in Yankee Stadium and gave up five runs in the first inning. "It would have been easy to quit," he said, "but I shut 'em out the rest of the way and we came back and won the game." His philosophy was: Never give up and never give in.

After his fourth 20 win season in 1948, however, Newhouser began experiencing arm troubles and he won just 18 games after his 30th birthday. He briefly rejuvenated his career with none other than the Indians in 1954, serving as a reliever and helping the club win the American League pennant. Newhouser went on to a successful scouting career after his playing days, his signings including Dean Chance and Milt Pappas.

Contributing to this story were Richard Goldstein of The New York Times, and the Society of American Baseball Research.

Coaching Clinic Newsletter Minor League
Photo Gallery News Release High School/College/Senior Major Leagues
Performance Enhancing Drugs World Baseball Feature Stories About us


Copyright© Weiskopf