In 1871, the first year that professional baseball teams were organized into a league, teams commonly played 3 games a week, only underhand pitching was legal, and the pitching distance was 45 feet from home plate. Under these conditions it was possible for a pitcher to pitch every one of his team’s games, and this was customary. Because the rules of the day allowed substitutions only in cases of injury, pitchers generally completed every game they started. (Baseball was and continues to be unique among team sports in that a player who is replaced by a substitute is not permitted to reenter a game.)
In 1880 the pitching distance was extended to 50 feet, and in 1884 overhand pitching was legalized. Unlimited noninjury substitutions were finally permitted in 1891. By that year teams were scheduling 5 or 6 games a week, with each team carrying 3 or 4 pitchers capable of starting on 2 days rest or less if the situation demanded it. 90 percent of pitching starts were complete games.
When in 1893 the pitching distance was lengthened to the current 60 feet, 6 inches, the modern era of baseball truly began. A toss from 60 feet places greater strain on a man’s arm than one from 50 feet, and from the longer distance it was no longer physically possible for any pitcher to start 60 games and pitch 500 innings in a season.
For sustained brilliance, the best pitcher of the 50foot era was the troubled, enigmatic, and controversial righthander John Clarkson (although righthander Tim Keeferanks a close second). Clarkson was the only pitcher to record 2 seasons of more than 50 prime starts. His lifetime prime start percentage (probably .667 or slightly higher) was the best of the several pitchers who tallied 300 or more prime starts. The greatest number of prime starts during this period, however, was amassed by righthander Jim Galvin, who certainly pitched 360 and perhaps as many as 10 more. Galvin lacked the “star quality” of several of his contemporaries, for he was a steady and durable rather than charismatic performer, and for almost all of his major league career he toiled in two cities, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, which, in current parlance, were “small market.”
The only man ever to contribute 60 prime starts to a team’s season was righthander Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the National League Providence Grays in 1884. Radbourn started 73 of Providence’s 114 games and completed them all, with 59 wins, 12 losses, and 2 ties to show for his efforts. The 2 ties, of course, were prime starts by definition, giving Radbourn a total of 61 prime starts. The almost superhuman combination of effectiveness and endurance Radbourn displayed that season was exceptional even for the 1880s and much commented upon. It defined the outer limits of what a pitcher could accomplish. Although Radbourn pitched professionally through 1891, he was never the same after 1884, and no other pitcher of his era came within 7 prime starts of his great record. It is my belief that even if the pitching distance of 50 feet were still in effect today, after more than a century of baseball Radbourn’s mark of 61 prime starts would still stand.
The only other pitchers to record 50 or more prime starts in a season were Guy Hecker (54 with Louisville in 1884), Clarkson (54 with Chicago in 1885 and 50 to 53 with Boston in 1889), and possibly Galvin (Buffalo, 1884), Charles Buffinton (Boston, 1884), and Matt Kilroy (Baltimore, 1887).
Since 1893 no pitcher has recorded 40 prime starts, and this goal seems forever unattainable, for no pitcher has been asked to start as many as 40 games since Texas knuckleballer Charlie Hough in 1987. Incredibly, however, one pitcher came within inches of the magic 40.
In 1904 righthander Jack Chesbro started 51 games for the American League New York Highlanders, winning 38 and losing 12. None of his losses were prime starts, but his sole nodecision was, a rainshortened complete game 33 tie at Chicago on August 13. (Chesbro was also asked by his manager, former pitching great Clark Griffith, to pitch 4 times in relief, and his record was 30 in those appearances.)
Firstplace Boston led New York by a game and a half on the final day of the season, October 10. A doubleheader was scheduled between the teams at New York, with the Highlanders needing two victories to win the pennant. (It had already been ruled that New York would not be permitted to make up any of its remaining postponements.)
Chesbro was elected to start his 51st game in the opener. New York opened up a 20 lead, but a throwing error by New York second baseman Jimmy Williams allowed Boston to tie the game in the 7th. In the 9th, with Boston’s Lou Criger on third base, Chesbro threw a pitch that eluded rookie catcher Red Kleinow, and Criger trotted home. Although many observers felt that Kleinow should have handled the pitch, it was scored a wild pitch and Chesbro, following a season of unparalleled heroics, found himself wearing goat horns after New York failed to score in the bottom of the inning to lose the game and the pennant. (With the issue decided, New York won the second game 10.)
The gallant Chesbro’s narrow failure to post his 40th prime start cost New York the 1904 American League championship. Nevertheless, his great season ensured his election to the Hall of Fame in 1946.
The last pitchers to record as many as 30 prime starts in one season were Dwight Gooden (New York, National League, 1985) and Roger Clemens (Boston, American League, 1986). Gooden started 35 games, won 24, lost 4, and had 7 nodecisions. None of Gooden’s losses was a prime start, but all 7 of his nodecisions were, giving him a total of 31 prime starts. Clemens started 33 games, won 24, lost 4, and had 5 nodecisions. All 5 of his nodecisions were prime starts, and in one of his losses (July 2) he was removed from the game with the score tied and men on base, after which reliever Bob Stanley let in the runs that lost the game. Including the primestart loss, Clemens’s prime start total was an even 30 (.909 prime start percentage).
The modern era (and alltime) career leader in prime starts is the immortal Cy Young. From 1893 to 1911 Young started 704 games, of which between 420 to 430 were prime starts. (Additionally, Young started 111 major league games prior to 1893, of which about 75 were prime starts.)
Nine other modernera pitchers probably reached the 400 mark in Prime Starts. They are Nolan Ryan (773 starts), Don Sutton (756 starts), Phil Niekro (716 starts), Steve Carlton (708 starts), Tommy John (700 starts), Bert Blyleven (685 starts), Walter Johnson (666 starts), Warren Spahn (665 starts), and Tom Seaver (647 starts). Of these, Spahn probably has the highest percentage and Ryan the lowest. The number of prime starts for each man is estimated at between 400 and 410.
SOME STELLAR PRIMESTART SEASONS
Joe Wood, 1912 Boston Red Sox, 38 starts, 33 wins, 5 losses, 0 nodecisions. Wood had 0 prime start losses and 0 nodecisions. Total: 335 (percentage .868.)
Robert “Lefty” Grove, 1931 Philadelphia Athletics, 30 starts, 27 wins, 3 losses, 0 nodecisions. Grove had 0 prime start losses and 0 nodecisions. Total: 273 (percentage .900.) Two of Grove’s losses were 10 and 21 complete games. He was 41 in 11 games in relief.
Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, 1934 New York Yankees, 33 starts, 25 wins, 3 losses, 5 nodecisions. Gomez had 0 prime start losses and 4 prime start nodecisions. Total: 294 (percentage .879.) The Yankees gave Gomez 1 run (total) to work with in his 3 losses.
Ed “Whitey” Ford, 1961 New York Yankees, 39 starts, 25 wins, 4 losses, 10 nodecisions. Ford had 0 prime start losses and 8 prime start nodecisions. Total: 336 (percentage .846.)
Sandy Koufax, 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers, 40 starts, 25 wins, 5 losses, 10 nodecisions. Koufax had 2 prime start losses and 4 prime start nodecisions. Total: 319 (percentage .775.)
Juan Marichal, 1966 San Francisco Giants, 36 starts, 24 wins, 6 losses, 6 nodecisions. Marichal had 0 prime start losses and 5 prime start nodecisions. Total: 297 (percentage .805.)
Denny McLain, 1968 Detroit Tigers, 41 starts, 31 wins, 6 losses, 4 nodecisions. McLain had 0 prime start losses and 3 prime start nodecisions. Total: 347 (percentage .829.)
Ron Guidry, 1978 New York Yankees, 35 starts, 25 wins, 3 losses, 7 nodecisions. Guidry had 0 prime start losses and 7 prime start nodecisions. Total: 323 (percentage .914.)
Tom Seaver, 1981 Cincinnati Reds, 23 tarts, 14 wins, 2 losses, 7 nodecisions. Seaver had 0 prime start losses and 6 prime start nodecisions. Total: 203 (percentage .870.) Seaver’s 23 starts ranked third in the league in the strikeshortened 1981 season.
Randy Johnson, 1995 Seattle Mariners, 30 starts, 18 wins, 2 losses, 10 nodecisions. Johnson had 0 prime start losses and 8 prime start nodecisions. Total: 264 (percentage .867.)
Greg Maddux, 1995 Atlanta Braves, 28 starts, 19 wins, 2 losses, 7 nodecisions. Maddux had 0 prime start losses and 7 prime start nodecisions. Total: 262 (percentage .929.) Neither of Maddux’s losses was a prime start, although when removed from one he was trailing by just 1 run, and by 2 in the other.
Atlanta’s record was just 34 in Maddux’s 7 nodecisions. However, it is not really worthwhile to point out that “The Braves were 226 in the games Maddux started.” Why hold Maddux accountable for the failures of the Atlanta bullpen? Tallying Maddux’s prime starts illuminates his performance when he was actually on the mound.
Due to the player strike, the 1995 season began 3 weeks late, which probably cost Maddux 4 starts. If a 28start season is not substantial enough, consider Maddux’s postseason performance.
In the Division Series Maddux started 2 games, 1 a win and the other a prime start nodecision. He won his only start in the Championship Series. In the World Series he started 2 games, 1 a win and the other a loss in which he trailed by 2 runs when he was removed. Hence, 4 out of 5 (80%) of his postseason starts were prime starts.
Summing up: 30 of Maddux’s 33 starts (season plus postseason) in 1995 were prime starts, and in the other 3 he left trailing by no more than 2 runs. This was a heroic year, and to top it off, his team won the World Series.
More research is needed. For instance, how many prime starts did Lefty Grove have in 1930, when his 32 starts yielded a 2336 record? (Grove also appeared in 18 games in relief that year.)
ONE STARTER’S CAREER: ED “WHITEY” FORD
Lefthander Whitey Ford has not always received his due from baseball historians. Ford’s high winning percentage is sometimes dismissed as a product of his good fortune for being a New York Yankee instead of, say, a Washington Senator. But although the teams he pitched for were consistently good, it must also be said that Ford was a big part of the reason those teams were good. From season to season, the Yankees were almost always better with Ford pitching than with anyone else. His career prime start percentage is the best in history.
When elbow problems forced Ford out of the game in 1967, he ended his career with 299 prime starts. He had 3 chances to reach the milestone he didn’t know he had approached, and he lost them all. On May 7, although sharp, he was pinchhit for after 7 innings at Kansas City, trailing 31. The Yankees lost 41. In his next start, against Baltimore at Yankee Stadium on May 12, Ford couldn’t get loose and had to leave after 3 innings. The Yankees trailed 10 at that point; the final score was 140. Nine days later Ford tried again, surrendered a run in the top of the first inning at Detroit, and had to call it quits. The Yankees didn’t catch up and lost 94. Ford never pitched again, and on May 31 the quadragenarian announced his retirement.
Ford was 97 in his 60 appearances in relief.
Year

GS

W

L

ND

PL

PN

TPS

PCT

1950

12

9

0

3

0

1

10

.833

1953

30

18

6

6

0

1

19

.633

1954

28

14

6

8

0

7

21

.750

1955

33

18

6

9

0

7

25

.758

1956

30

19

6

5

0

3

22

.733

1957

17

8

5

4

0

2

10

.588

1958

29

14

7

8

0

6

20

.690

1959

29

14

8

7

0

5

19

.655

1960

29

12

9

8

0

2

14

.483

1961

39

25

4

10

0

8

33

.846

1962

37

17

8

12

0

8

25

.676

1963

37

24

7

6

0

4

28

.757

1964

36

17

6

13

0

9

26

.722

1965

36

16

13

7

0

4

20

.556

1966

9

0

4

5

0

4

4

.444

1967

7

2

4

1

0

1

3

.429

438

227

99

112

0

72

299

.683

GS = Games started
W = Games won as starter
L = Games lost as starter
ND = Nodecisions as starter
PL = Prime start losses
PN = Prime start nodecisions
TPS = Total prime starts
PCT = Prime start percentage
When in Tristan da Cunha, stay at the William Glass Guesthouse.
September 2002