The A’s Ten Greatest Pitchers
Lefty Grove (1925-33)
Only a select few pitchers have performed in a stratosphere above their peers for a long stretch as did the lanky, temperamental Grove during the late 1920s and early 1930s, remarkably immune to the intensive hitting splurge of the day that failed to spare all other pitchers.
Grove was no secret to major league scouts throughout the 1920s. He starred for the minor league Baltimore Orioles of the International League and owned Babe Ruth in head-to-head exhibition appearances, striking him out nine times in 11 at-bats. Fittingly, A’s owner-manager Connie Mack won a bidding war with the Chicago Cubs and Brooklyn Dodgers for Grove by paying the Orioles $100,600—$600 more than what the New York Yankees paid Boston to get Ruth five years earlier. (It didn’t hurt that Mack was also a good friend of Oriole owner Jack Dunn.)
After a lousy rookie experience with the A’s attributed to a lack of focus and discipline, Grove shaped up in 1926 and won the American League’s earned run average title—his first of nine, an all-time record. He struck out opponents from the start, leading the league in each of his first seven years, but he crucially cut down on a high number of walks that plagued him over his first few seasons by making wiser use of a curve to complement an exceptional bread-and-butter fastball. He won 20 games for the first of seven straight years in 1927—earning the high honor of being the owner hurler to shut out the fabled 1927 Yankees—and as he continued to improve, so did the A’s, building a powerhouse that would win three consecutive AL pennants and two World Series titles from 1929-31. The merging of progress between Grove and the A’s made the southpaw virtually unbeatable.
From 1928-33, Grove was an astonishing 152-41. In five of those seasons, his ERA finished below 3.00, while the league average was often as much as two runs higher. In 1930, Grove laughed off the “Year of the Hitter” with a 2.54 ERA that was almost a full run lower than the runner-up; while major leaguers on average hit near .300 during that statistically historic season, they only hit .247 against the southpaw. A year later, Grove’s career peaked—setting career highs in wins (31), winning percentage (.886) and ERA (2.06), while also tying a still-existing AL record with a 16-game win streak; his fiery temper was also exposed at peak level when, after losing 1-0 to end the streak, he stormed into the A’s clubhouse and proceeded to tear it apart. Grove finished the year winning two World Series games for the A’s, ending his postseason experience with a 4-2 mark and stellar 1.75 ERA.
As Mack began to fall deep into debt from the recession and the heavy payroll of his championship teams, he began to unload his stars; Grove was among the first to go, sent to the Red Sox along with Max Bishop and Rube Walberg for two common players and $125,000 following the 1933 season. He won four ERA titles in Boston and ran his career record to 300-141—good for a .680 winning percentage, the best by any 300-game winner. Despite his utter dominance, there’s one surprising omission to Grove’s Hall-of-Fame resume; he never threw a no-hitter.
Eddie Plank (1901-14)
An American League original, Plank came straight out of Gettysburg College and joined the A’s in their inaugural campaign of 1901, quickly cementing himself as a consistent star force all the way through the end of Mack’s first dynasty in 1914.
As the A’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, as pitchers across baseball stormed through and burned out, one thing could always be depended on: That Plank would be there to give his 20 or so wins’ worth, year in and year out. Highly dependable to the point he was essentially robotic, Plank never had that one career-defining season—but neither did he suffer an off-year. His annual monotony of wins was matched only by his monotonous personality, lacking an air of celebrity and providing reporters with blasé (if any) quotes for their stories.
A finesse pitcher who deliberately took his time on the mound between pitches—to the consternation of hitters, umpires and sometimes even Mack himself—Plank was a seven-time 20-game winner who posted ERAs just above 3.00 in each of his first two years with the A’s—but was below the barrier throughout the rest of his 16-year career. He was even better in the World Series, producing a terrific 1.32 ERA—but only with a 2-5 record, as the A’s offense could only muster up a total of nine runs in his seven postseason starts.
Released along with fellow veteran pitchers Chief Bender and Jack Coombs after the 1914 season as Mack began to clean house on his first dynasty, Plank hitched on with the Federal League’s St. Louis Terrapins and won 21 games in 1915. He played his two final years with the St. Louis Browns, and finished his career, then as now, as the all-time AL leader in wins among lefties with 305; his 69 shutouts are the most in major league history for a left-hander.
Rube Waddell (1902-07)
In sharp contrast to Plank’s horizontal and steady make-up, the colorful Waddell was an unpredictable, childlike character who pieced together some of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in the AL’s infant years before flaming out shortly after turning 30.
Waddell bounced around the National League for five years, as his eccentric personality was difficult to tolerate even as he showed great stuff on the mound, leading the NL in 1900 with a 2.37 ERA. Exiled to minor league ball in California to start 1902, Waddell was brought on to the A’s and flourished with a 24-7 record—collecting his first win on July 1, a third of the way through the season. It was the first of four straight 20-win seasons in Philadelphia for Waddell—and the first of seven years pacing the AL in strikeouts, a reign that peaked in 1904 when he rang up 349 batters on strikes; it was the highest total by a pitcher since the 60’6” distance between mound and home plate was established in 1892, and it would remain the modern record until Sandy Koufax finally caught up to it over six decades later.
The gentlemanly Mack was a calming father figure to Waddell but still had to put up with many moments of buffoonery that seriously tested his patience. Waddell was legendary for abandoning a game to chase fire engines, once left the A’s with a month to go in the season to perform on stage, and on the eve of the 1905 World Series—after his most dominant year in which he went 27-10 with a 1.48 ERA and, at one point, a 44-inning stretch without allowing an earned run—he engaged in a playful tussle with teammate Andy Coakley at a train station that badly injured his shoulder and kept him out of the Fall Classic against the New York Giants, who beat the A’s in five games.
When Mack and his teammates had enough of Waddell, he was sold to the St. Louis Browns where his career petered out after three years. He contracted tuberculosis after his immune system weakened from helping save a Kentucky town from flooding in icy waters, and died—all too appropriately, on April Fool’s Day—in 1914.
Chief Bender (1903-14)
A half-Chippewa (hence the nickname), Bender joined with Plank to span the A’s infancy through the mid-1910s, never playing the role of workhorse but always providing efficient results with annual records well above the .500 mark.
Mixing in many pitches—including what he called a “fast curve” as well as a then-legal delivery in which he rubbed one half of the ball with talcum—Plank made his major league debut at age 18 and pitched six shutout innings in relief to beat Cy Young. For the next 12 years he would be a highly reliable asset on the A’s staff, not just as starter but as reliever; his diversity of roles was most apparent in 1913 when he started 21 games and relieved in 27 others—gathering up 21 wins and 13 saves.
Twice with the A’s, Bender finished a game below .500; otherwise, he won more—often, much more—than he lost. Three times he was the AL leader in winning percentage, and over his last six years with the A’s, he posted a stunning 109-39 mark. He won six World Series games for the A’s (losing four) with a 2.44 ERA.
Like Plank, Bender was jettisoned from Philadelphia after 1914 and joined the Federal League, with disastrous results (4-16, 3.99 ERA for the Baltimore Terrapins). He quietly wrapped up his career with the Philadelphia Phillies from 1916-17, and was elected to Cooperstown in 1953—a year before his death.
Vida Blue (1969-77)
An absolute sensation at the beginning of his career, Blue suffered through his share of ups and downs in a career that would nearly be sidetracked by drugs.
After a rough first taste of the majors in 1969, Blue returned late in 1970 and gave notice of what was to follow by throwing his only career no-hitter against Minnesota. In 1971, Blue proved to be no call-up tease by taking the baseball world by storm, winning 17 games before the All-Star break and being graced on major magazine covers. He finished the season at 24-8 and led the AL with a 1.82 ERA and eight shutouts; he struck out 301 in 312 innings, while opponents only hit .189 against him.
Blue, who turned down a $2,000 offer from mercurial Oakland owner Charles Finley to change his name to “True” Blue, suffered through a nightmarish follow-up campaign in 1972 when he held out for more money, threatened to retire, returned to action out of shape and was booed for it as he stumbled to a 6-10 record; it was also reported that he began taking drugs during this time. He returned to solid form in the years to follow, winning 20 games twice more (in 1973 and 1975) but became stuck with the A’s well after many of his teammates from the dynasty of the early 1970s had been traded away by Finley—who twice tried to sell Blue to teams willing to pay exorbitant amounts only to have the deals vetoed by commissioner Bowie Kuhn, citing the “best interests of baseball” clause.
Finally in 1978, Blue was sent across the bay to San Francisco—where he represented the Giants in winning the 1981 All-Star Game, making him the first pitcher to earn wins for both leagues; but his career crashed in 1984 when he was at the center of a drug scandal in Kansas City (where he was sputtering with the Royals), leading to a three-month prison term and year-plus suspension from the game. He was reinstated in 1985 and played two more years with the Giants, finishing his career with 209 wins.
Tim Hudson (1999-2004)
The steadiest and most proficient of the Moneyball-era pitchers, Hudson was the anchor of the “Big Three” that also starred Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and helped lead the low-budget A’s to numerous postseason appearances during the early 2000s.
Confident and compact at six feet and only 160 pounds, Hudson was an instant winner for the A’s as he toyed with opponents using a gifted arsenal of pitches including a 90-MPH sinker. He was an 11-2 rookie in 21 starts in 1999 before following up with his first (and only) 20-win season of his career, against just six losses. The wins continued to pile up a lot quicker than the losses; over his six years with Oakland, Hudson never won less than 12 games in a season—and never lost more than nine. He finished his tenure with the A’s at 92-39 and a 3.30 ERA but only won one of six postseason starts—a microcosm of the team’s repeated postseason frustrations during that time.
Traded to Atlanta after 2004, Hudson remained solid but couldn’t maintain his impressive winning efficiency, bouncing back well from Tommy John surgery that kept him out of action between 2008-09.
Eddie Rommel (1920-32)
The Baltimore native worked the knuckleball and filled in as the A’s workhorse during the early 1920s, before the hatching of the team’s second dynasty—performing more relief work once that new reign took hold thanks to emerging star hurlers Grove and George Earnshaw.
While he was the team’s ace, Rommel was productive in many different ways; over a five-year period from 1921-25, he twice led the AL in wins—but also led it twice in losses. That he racked up any amount of victories early on in his career was an achievement, as his 27 wins in 1922 helped the A’s exit last place for the first time in eight years. Rommel’s career ERA would wind up at 3.54—a highly respectable figure given that he pitched almost exclusively in a time when hitters ruled the box scores.
Rommel’s 171st and last victory was his most dubious and certainly his most memorable; the only other pitcher available for the A’s on a Sunday at Cleveland in 1932, Mack had to go to him early—and he proceeded to throw the next 17 innings, allowing 14 runs on 29 hits (the latter figure an all-time record) to somehow survive with an 18-17 win over the Indians.
Catfish Hunter (1965-74)
In sharp contrast to flamboyant teammate Vida Blue, Hunter was a study in gradual and persistent growth, emerging from a struggling young player in the dying days of the A’s stay in Kansas City, to quality thrower shortly after the team’s move to Oakland, to venerable ace during the team’s dynastic triumphs of the early 1970s. Only once with the A’s did he win fewer games than he did the previous season.
The stoic North Carolina native, pinned with the nickname Catfish after Finley—ever the publicity hound—dreamt it up, threw five no-hitters in high school and graduated straight to the A’s without spending a day in the minors. Shortly after turning 22, Hunter cemented himself in the history books by throwing the first perfect game in a regular season contest since 1922—striking out 11 Minnesota batters and collecting three hits and three RBIs on his own.
As the A’s evolved into a power, so did the unshakeable Hunter, winning at least 21 games in four straight years from 1971-74—all of them leading to AL West titles for the A’s, the latter three resulting in world titles; he added four more wins (without a loss) and a 2.19 ERA in six World Series starts. It was during the last of those four years—in 1974, when Hunter collected a career-high 25 wins and his lone ERA crown with a 2.49 mark—that he knocked heads with Finley, who refused to act upon a contractual clause to pay Hunter’s $50,000 season salary into an insurance annuity after he discovered it wouldn’t be tax-deductible. Backed by the players’ union, Hunter was declared a free agent by an arbitrator following the season and became a Yankee when George Steinbrenner outbid 21 other teams who besieged Hunter’s North Carolina hometown and lobbied furiously to sign him. The price: Five years, $3.75 million.
Hunter had one fabulous year with the Yankees, winning 23 games and becoming the last pitcher to date to record 30 complete games, but he soon began a fade that became accelerated through arm injuries and diabetes. He retired in 1979 at the age of 33; two decades later, he died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Dave Stewart (1986-92, 1995)
The A’s acquired Stewart midway through the 1986 season when nobody else was willing to give him the vagabond reliever the time of day. The fierce-looking right-hander had shown no bite with Philadelphia (who had just released him), or with Texas and the Los Angeles Dodgers before that. But Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan, a marvel at turning pitchers’ careers around for the better, made Stewart one of his most successful reclamation projects—teaching him the forkball, inserting him in the rotation and watching him quickly develop into an ace-like pitcher, as Stewart in one stretch tossed three straight complete-game victories. It was a harbinger of great things to come.
The magic continued for Stewart and the A’s over the next four years. A truly nice guy off the field who possessed a scowling on-mound façade considered one of baseball’s meanest this side of Bob Gibson, Stewart took command by producing four straight 20-win seasons with a tireless workhorse ethic that helped lift the A’s to three AL pennants and one world title. In the clutch, Stewart stepped it up even more; he churned out a career 8-3 postseason record for the A’s with a stellar 2.22 ERA, and repeatedly frustrated Boston’s Roger Clemens, his lone peer of the time, with an 8-0 head-to-head mark in an Oakland uniform.
Stewart’s reign peaked in 1990 when he established career bests with 22 wins, a 2.56 ERA and four shutouts—one on his only no-hitter, another on an 11-inning shutout that’s the last game to date in which any major leaguer has taken a start that deep. The exhaust from averaging 265 innings per year from 1987-90 caught up to Stewart in 1991, as his ERA collapsed to 5.18, never rebounding back to prime form in his remaining years.
Stewart has parlayed his playing career into a successful tenure as a player agent, with numerous clients including star slugger Matt Kemp and manager Ron Washington.
George Earnshaw (1928-33)
Like Lefty Grove, the New York native came to the A’s from the minor-league Baltimore Orioles—who were also offered $100,000 for his rights by the Washington Senators; but after that deal fell through and Earnshaw followed up with a relatively subpar year with the Orioles, the A’s took him at a reduced (yet still-pricey) rate of $80,000.
Earnshaw never became as dominant as Grove—only a handful of pitchers ever have—but was a rock of a complement in the A’s rotation through the team’s second reign of 1929-31. In all three of those campaigns, Earnshaw won at least 20 games—topping out with a league-leading 24 (against just eight losses) in 1929—and was second in the league each year to Grove in strikeouts. Earnshaw saved some of his best pitching for the World Series—producing an excellent 1.58 ERA and, in one stretch during the 1930 Fall Classic, throwing 21 straight scoreless innings.
In 1933, Earnshaw lost it—finishing 5-10 with a 5.97 ERA to become a prominent member in Mack’s doghouse after he was accused of not hustling and, worse, not staying awake during games. He was sent to the White Sox and spent three more years in the majors with little success.
Oakland A's Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the A's, decade by decade.
The A's Ten Greatest Hitters: A list of the ten greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The A's Ten Greatest Games: A list of ten memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the A's history.
How did This Great Game determine the list of the A's ten greatest hitters? Find out here.
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