SABR

Les Mueller

This article was written by Jim Sargent.

Former Detroit Tigers righthander Leslie Clyde "Les" Mueller may be best remembered for his single-game record of pitching 19 2/3 innings against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 21, 1945.

When he walked off the mound for the last time that evening at Shibe Park, Mueller, the hard-throwing Bengal sidearmer, had surrendered only one run to the Athletics. The marathon game later ended in a 1-1 tie after 24 innings. Umpires called the game due to "darkness," although it was about eight o'clock on a steamy summer evening. But at that time American League rules prohibited turning on the lights for a day game. Also, that Tigers-Athletics contest is still the longest tie game ever played in the AL.

Mueller's performance both highlighted and symbolized his 1945 season with Detroit. The 6'2", 190-pound sinkerball ace fashioned a 6-8 record and a 3.68 ERA for 134 2/3 innings in 34 games. More than once Les pitched well but lost a close decision, such as a 3-2 loss at Comiskey Park on August 5. On other days he pitched well but got no decision, notably in the so-called "long game" against the A's.

Still, Mueller, who pitched whenever manager Steve O'Neill needed another starter, produced six important wins and helped Detroit win the 1945 pennant by one game over the St. Louis Browns. Also, in the opening game of the World Series, Les pitched two shutout innings in relief of Hal Newhouser, who suffered a 9-0 loss against the Chicago Cubs.

Therefore, despite being used mainly as a spot starter, and despite pitching only part of one other season in the big leagues (he appeared in relief four times for Detroit in 1941), Mueller is the proud owner of a World Series ring.

On the other hand, the one-time schoolboy sensation from Belleville, Illinois, never got another shot at the majors. Les pursued his baseball dream through 1948, posting a winning record at the Triple A level. Finally, in 1949, he retired from the game he still loves.

Born on March 4, 1919, Leslie grew up in Belleville, a half-hour drive east of St. Louis. He has spent most of his life in the small town--except for a decade of baseball seasons.

Les grew up playing ball. Thoughtful, quiet, and soft-spoken, the tall young man first caught the eye of scouts as a senior at Belleville High School in 1937. That spring Les averaged 18 strikeouts a game in seven seven-inning games. His most publicized exploit was striking out 46 batters in back-to-back wins.

Pitching against Livingston High early in the season, Les struck out 30 hitters in a 12-inning 5-4 win. Three days later he hurled a complete-game 12-1 victory over Murphysboro High, whiffing 16 in a seven-inning one-hitter.

After working out with the Browns, Mueller was contacted by Tigers scout Steve O'Rourke. Les was sent to pitch batting for Detroit's Sioux City farm club. Manager Dutch Lorimer was impressed, and he recommended that Les be signed. On July 24 the Belleville graduate inked a delayed-bonus contract with Alexandria of the class D Evangeline League.

"Most of the teams offered a $1,000 bonus to sign," Mueller recalled in a 1996 interview, "and that was a lot of money then. The Tigers offered me $5,000, but only if and when I got my name on the big league roster. I decided to take the chance, and three years later I got the $5,000."

Mueller spent the remainder of that summer and the next season pitching for Alexandria. Working 38 games in 1938, Les finished with a 10-12 record, fanned 188 batters, walked 104, and fashioned an ERA of 3.68.

In 1939 he began with Beaumont of the Class A Texas League, but he was sent to Henderson, Detroit's Class C club in the East Texas League. At Beaumont Les worked mostly in relief, going 0-3 with a 4.73 ERA in 40 innings.

At Henderson, however, Mueller improved under the coaching of manager Jake Atz, who helped Les with his windup (he had been using a "windmill"). As a result, the big righthander finished the year with a 9-7 record and a 2.75 ERA. He also struck out 129 and walked 69 batters.

Back at Beaumont in 1940, Mueller, who now wore glasses to help his control, produced his best season for the third-place Exporters. He produced a record of 18-11 with an ERA of 2.18 in 263 innings, striking out 170 hitters and walking 110. He pitched 17 complete games, including a no-hitter against the Dallas Rebels on August 22. Walking two and fanning seven, Les won that gem, 1-0.

Next February the Tigers brought Mueller to spring training in Lakeland and, later, called him up for the proverbial cup of coffee.

By then Les had met and courted Peggy Brodnax, of Alexandria, Louisiana. The couple was married on January 26, 1941. Les and Peggy had three children: Les Jr., born June 30, 1943; Roger, born October 2, 1945; and Lynwood, born August 11, 1952. The former big leaguer is still going strong, but Peggy passed away October 6, 1996.

In 1998 Les married his sister-in-law Ruth Broadnax, also of Alexandria. Reflecting on his long and happy life, he quipped, "There's something about those Louisiana girls!" Les kept his home in Belleville and Ruth kept her home in Alexandria. The couple spends the winter in Louisiana and the summer in Illinois.

Talking about his professional baseball career, Les explained, "Detroit brought me up in August 1941, and I pitched relief in four games. I pitched well in three of them, and I got bombed by the Washington Senators. I pitched well against the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians, and Boston. "My first appearance in the big leagues came in St. Louis against the Browns, and my family was there. Sportsman's Park was only about a 20-25-minute drive from our farm."

Detroit lost: "Dizzy Trout started that game, and he got hammered. He got knocked out in the second or third inning, if I remember right. I pitched three innings, and Hal Manders pitched two innings."

After his four-game stint in 1941, Les went to spring training with the Tigers the following year: "I went back to Beaumont. I went to spring training with Detroit in 1941 and 1942, and in 1945 and 1946. But in 1941, I made a mistake. I had a real good year in Beaumont in 1940. I won 18 and lost 11. The manager there was Al Vincent. He went to Buffalo the following year. Put it this way: we didn't get along too well.

"When I saw (Detroit general manager) Jack Zeller, I said, 'Send me anyplace but Buffalo.' So I went back to Beaumont in 1941. And Buffalo had a real good ball club. I think I won six and lost 16 at Beaumont, with an ERA of 2.37. Imagine that? I had an earned run average of 2.37 and lost 16 games!"

In fact, among pitchers who worked more than 100 innings, Mueller's ERA ranked eighth in the Texas League. He also hurled 16 complete games, struck out 126 hitters, and walked 72.

"I pitched the opening day game in Beaumont in 1940, 1941 and 1942, which is rather unusual. In the long ball game at Beaumont, I pitched the first 12 innings of an 18-inning opening day game, which we won 1-0 in the 18th inning.

"Harvey Riebe was the catcher in that 1942 game. I looked that up in some of my older scrapbooks. Stubby Overmire got the win, pitching the last six innings. "

But World War II was under way, and thousands of Americans were being drafted. After going 5-2 in 12 games, Mueller decided to enlist. He joined the Army at the Jefferson Barracks Reception Center in St. Louis, where he also played baseball. Jefferson's team played about 70 games his first year, a few games in 1943, and none in 1944--the year Les was given his second physical to go overseas. This time the doctor discovered a hernia.

As a result, Mueller received a medical discharge in late 1944. The next February he joined the Tigers in Evansville, Indiana. The rookie worked out with the club and made new friends, including southpaw Hal Newhouser, the ace of Detroit's mound corps.

"Hal Newhouser was an exceptional pitcher," Mueller reminisced. "He would have won 20 games, no matter what, when he was at that age. He was a very competitive guy. His locker was right next to mine. I always liked Hal. Some guys he kind of rubbed the wrong way. I always found him to be a very nice person.

"A tremendous eater, I'll tell you that! He loved to eat chicken. I remember in spring training in '45, we trained in Evansville. Hal could put away two chickens without looking!

"That was a good Tiger ball club in 1945, and the Chicago Cubs were a good ball club. But there's no question in my mind that Newhouser deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."

Mueller first impressed his Detroit teammates and fans when he shut out the Yankees, 2-0, on May 31, 1945. He yielded two singles and faced only 28 batters, improving his record to 1-1.

Up to that point, however, Motor City fans didn't know much about Les. Due to rainouts, Detroit had played only 30 games, most of which were pitched by the regular rotation of Newhouser and right-handers Dizzy Trout and Al Benton. Mueller had appeared in relief three times, working a total of six innings.

But on May 24 Benton suffered a fractured a bone in his ankle, and Steve O'Neill turned to the Belleville rookie. Mueller relieved but lost, 7-2. A week later he twirled his two-hitter in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. The clutch win pulled Detroit to within one game of league-leading New York.

As the pennant race tightened, Mueller, whose outings were up-and-down, produced his greatest effort in Philadelphia on July 21. Working one out shy of 20 innings, he gave up 13 hits, walked five, struck out six, and allowed one unearned run.

The so-called long game lasted four hours and 48 minutes, but Les, who began the day at 3-4, came away without an all-important win.

On July 21, 1995, fifty years later, the St. Louis Cardinals honored the then 76-year-old former hurler by having him toss out the first ball for a Cardinals-Mets game in Busch Stadium.

Afterward, the crew-cut Mueller, pleasant, modest, and smiling, told reporters that during the long game in 1945, manager O'Neill kept asking if he felt good. Les would reply that he did.

"I always kept hoping we'd get a run, and I'd get a win, but it didn't work out that way."

Mueller estimates that he threw 370 pitches. One of his favorite highlights is the "collar" he dropped on Philadelphia third baseman George Kell, who went 0-for-10.

In the 19th Les retired the first two batters but walked the next two. He wanted to continue, but O'Neill lifted him for Dizzy Trout, who finished the game. Detroit loaded the bases in the 24th, but Philadelphia ended the threat with a double play.

Recalling that game, Hal Newhouser explained, "Steve O'Neill would keep saying to him, 'How are you doing?' 'Can you go another inning?'

"Les would say he could. We were short on good pitchers at that time, and Les's six wins really helped us. Les was slow and methodical. He had kind of a herky-jerky motion, and he threw a 'heavy' sinkerball. I remember in that game against the Athletics, he was throwing as hard at the end as he was when he started!"

But after the longest performance by a pitcher that year, Mueller won nothing but a lower ERA. In his next turn, on Sunday, August 5, he allowed 10 hits against Chicago.

"The next game I started," Les recollected, "was in Chicago against the White Sox. I was leading 2-0 going into the ninth inning. I had pitched the 19 and two-thirds, plus eight, and had allowed no earned runs, and I ended up getting beat, 3-2. So I had pitched all those innings of baseball, and all I had to show for it was one loss.

"I walked out of the Chicago clubhouse with Roger 'Doc' Cramer, one of my favorite ballplayers. I said, 'I don't know. I feel like taking my head and running it through this wall. I don't know what in the world I have to do to win a ball game.'

"It was just one of those things. There was an error involved, on an overthrow. Wally Moses was an excellent hitter. I decided to throw him an off-speed pitch, and he hit it between first and second, and the winning run scored.

"In that game, I had 3-for-4. I hit two singles and a double. I made a mistake, I never will forget. I was the first man up in one inning, and I hit that double, and I tried to stretch it into a triple. Steve O'Neill was coaching at third, and he said, 'Les, what in the world were you thinking?' The next two guys both got singles. That was a bad mistake, and maybe I would have won that game, if I hadn't tried to get a triple.

"I didn't have much luck there for a while, but it's one of those things."

Still, Mueller won three more games when Detroit needed them most, giving him a 6-8 record. With a few breaks, Les figured he could have finished 8-6 or 9-5:

"After the 1945 season, I thought I had pitched quite well and contributed quite a bit to the ball club. I had won six games, and they were all good ball games. In another ball game [on June 9, against Chicago], I hit a home run, and Detroit won, 7-6. I didn't get the win, but I got a home run with a man on, which helped win a ball game.

"It just about broke my heart when Detroit didn't keep me in 1946. I really felt like I would be with them in 1946, because I had missed three summers of baseball in the service, and I had been away three years. I figured I came back in 1945 and pitched pretty good with a 6-8 record. The only thing was my walks were high, but my hits were low, and my earned run average was respectable."

Mueller was not part of the regular rotation: "I had no idea when I was going to pitch. All the other guys, Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout, Stubby Overmire, Al Benton, until he got hurt, they had a regular routine. That made it kind of rough on me."

Detroit won the pennant on the last day of the season by defeating St. Louis. Virgil Trucks, making his first start after being mustered out of the Navy, pitched five innings. Newhouser, who eventually won his 25th game, pitched three innings of relief.

With Detroit trailing, 3-2, in the top of the ninth, Hank Greenberg slugged a grand slam home run, and Al Benton retired the Browns in order to wrap up first place.

In the World Series Steve O'Neill used mostly his regulars. Newhouser started the opener, worked the first two and two-thirds innings, and left trailing, 7-0. Mueller, the fourth Tiger moundsman, pitched shutout ball in the eighth and ninth.

Big Les was not called upon again. Trucks and Trout posted nine-inning victories in Games 2 and 4, respectively, and Newhouser went the distance for clutch victories in the fifth and seventh games.

Still, Mueller had reason to believe he could help the Tigers in 1946. Reflecting on that springtime of more than fifty years ago, he said, "I really was disappointed. Frank Shellenback was the pitching coach in 1946, and he had come over from the Boston Red Sox. One of the first things Shellenback told me was, 'Les, you know, they were calling a lot of your pitches with the Boston club.'"

To prevent that in 1946, Shellenback worked with Mueller to do a better job of disguising his delivery: "To top it all off, just before the season opened, we were coming north, and I pitched in an exhibition against the Boston Braves. I pitched four innings and shut them out. So the last two times I pitched for Detroit, I pitched two scoreless innings in the World Series, and I pitched four scoreless innings in an exhibition game. Nobody said anything about not making it. I figured, 'I'm all set.'

"The opening day game in Detroit was just about to start. They hadn't played the national anthem yet, and I was in the dugout. Somebody came in the dugout and said, 'Les, they want to see you in the office.'

"So I go up there, and George Trautman, who was the general manager at the time, said, 'We're going to send you to Buffalo.'

"I like to fell over. On my way up there, one of the pitchers on the club had heard about it, and he said, 'If anybody was going to be sent out, I thought I'd be sent out before you.'

"It was a shocker."

Les added, "So it was kind of a cold-cut day, you know. I did threaten to go home and quit playing ball. But I couldn't hang on long enough. After three or four days, I gave in and went over to Buffalo.

"In other words, I have some great memories with Detroit, and some not-so-good memories."

Later, at Buffalo, Mueller developed a sore arm.

"What happened in 1946, when Detroit sent me over to Buffalo in the early part of the year, maybe we were in the second month, about a third of the way through the season, Gabby Hartnett, who was a likable man, the kind of guy everybody liked to play ball for, was managing at Buffalo.

"I had pitched a game, I think, against Rochester. I pitched the full game, and won. It was a fairly close-scoring game, so I had to pitch hard all the way. Gabby came up to me the next day, and said, 'Les, would you do me a favor?'

"I said, 'Yeah, Gabby, if I can.'

"He said, 'Detroit called me, and they were really on me. If I pitched one of these young pitchers again out of turn, they were going to pull them out of here. I wonder if you would pitch for me?'

Mueller agreed, because he loved to play ball: "So I pitched that game, which was another complete game. So I pitched two complete games in four days.

"After the second game, I came up with really a sore arm. I couldn't raise my arm--you've heard fellows say, 'I can't raise my arm to comb my hair.' That's about the way my arm was."

An expert physician in Baltimore treated Mueller, and he regained his strength. He completed the season with a 10-8 mark and a 5.14 ERA in 150 innings. Midway through 1947 he was traded to Newark, also in the International League. Les finished the '47 season with a 10-12 record and a 4.33 ERA in 158 innings. He ended his pro career in 1948 with Newark, after spending the first two weeks with Kansas City of the American Association. For the season he was 6-5 and 4.16 in 80 innings.

For those three Triple A seasons, Les compiled a 26-25 record, again as a spot starter. He never got a chance to pitch on a regular basis in the majors, but he lost three years from the prime of his career to World War II.

"I'll tell you another story about how things can go," Mueller reminisced. "We came into Cleveland on a road trip. Steve O'Neill came up to me and said, 'Les, you may have to pitch against Cleveland tomorrow. Tommy Bridges is supposed to pitch, but his arm's been bothering him a little bit. It all depends on how Tommy feels.'

"`O.K.,' I said. 'That's fine.'

"The next day we go out to the ballpark. I look over to the Cleveland bullpen, and I see a guy walking down there to warm up. You know who it is? Bob Feller! A few minutes later, Steve comes up to me and says, 'Tommy's arm don't feel too good. You'll have to pitch.'

"An old veteran pitcher, Tommy Bridges, he saw that. And Feller ended up pitching a one-hit game, and I lost, 2-0. There was another good effort. With a little luck, I could have won eight or nine games.

"Rudy York got the only hit off Feller, and Jeff Heath hit a home run off me with a man on, I forget what inning. Those are the kind of things that happen. But when you put those all together, you can see why I was disappointed."

The loss to Feller and the Indians on September 19, 1945, turned out to be Mueller's last start in the majors. "I often wonder what would have happened," Les said, "if I could have pitched in 1946. But no big league club picked me up."

During those years players had little leverage with the club. As former Tigers catcher Harvey Riebe stated it, "Those were cruel days for players who weren't superstars. The team moved you around and used you however they wanted."

"Les Mueller is one of the nicest people I had the chance to meet in pro ball," Hal Newhouser commented in 1996. "I wish they could have kept him on the team, and I never knew why they didn't keep him in 1946."

Les returned to Belleville. Ever since high school, he had worked for Mueller Furniture, the family business founded by his father in 1927. During the baseball off seasons the righthander worked for his dad. In 1950 his father turned the store over to Les and his brother Roland. After Roland died in 1960, Les managed the business until he turned 65. Today his youngest son, Lynwood, runs Mueller's.

When he wasn't working, Les enjoyed bowling and golf. Active in various civic organizations, he served four years as an alderman in Belleville and served many years as a deacon in Belleville's United Church of Christ.

Mueller remains philosophical about his career. A charter member of the Southern Illinois Sports Hall of Fame, he was inducted in 1979. Also, Les still enjoys hearing from fans. Because he didn't appear on a baseball card, he usually signs his own photo in reply to autograph requests.

Most of his memories of The Show are positive. Les Mueller feels good about the many first-class people he met in baseball, and, of course, the former big leaguer loves his World Series ring.

Sources

Sources for this biography include clippings from the Les Mueller file in the Baseball Hall of Fame Library; stories of Mueller's 1945 games from the Detroit Free Press; telephone interviews with Mueller in February 1996, March 1996, and July 1997; several letters from Les, including one in October 2002 with additional biographical details; interview with Hal Newhouser in February 1996; interview with Harvey Riebe in March 1996; and data from The Baseball Encyclopedia (9th ed., 1994).

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