SABR

Les Sweetland

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

More than 80 years have passed since Lester Sweetland pitched the last game in his five-year big-league career, but baseball enthusiasts still occasionally invoke his name when discussing the pitcher who has the dubious achievement of having posted the highest earned-run average in a major-league season. Breaking in with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, Sweetland played on some of the worst teams of his era. In his first two seasons (1927-28), he lost 25 games and won only five. (The tail-end Phillies won only 94 games in the two seasons.) After a promising season in 1929, with a 13-11 record as the Phillies climbed to fifth place, Sweetland suffered through a horrendous season in 1930. On a pitching staff that had the highest team ERA in big-league history (6.71), Sweetland established a new major-league record for the highest single-season ERA (7.71) for the 52-102 Phillies. Sweetland’s and the Phillies’ 1930 figures were still records as of 2013.

A career as a major-league pitcher was far from foretold when Lester Leon Sweetland was born on August 15, 1901, in St. Ignace, Michigan.i Located across the strait from Mackinaw City where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, St. Ignace is considered the gateway to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and is the seat of Mackinac County. Lester’s father, John Javerse Sweetland, born in 1871, worked on boats in the coastal town, then a center for fur trading and fishing. In 1896 he married Mary Joseph Smith, his second wife. Together they had three boys, Ernest, Walter, and Lester, born between 1898 and 1901. Living with modest means during harsh times in an unforgiving climate, the Sweetlands suffered the death of Walter in 1904. John became a millwright and worked in local factories. According to Sweetland, the family lived in Seattle, Texas, and New Orleans before settling in Melbourne, Florida, by 1910.ii At that time, Melbourne, located on the Indian River in Brevard County, Florida, on the Atlantic coast, was a sleepy town of a few thousand residents but was growing quickly in population, along with the rest of the state, with the advent of the automobile. Raised in Melbourne, Sweetland was a tall, lanky youngster, and began to play baseball on local sandlots, gradually progressing to county semipro leagues.

At 5-feet-11 and weighing just 155 pounds, the left-handed Sweetland may not have intimidated batters with his stature, but he impressed them with his pitching. While the closest major-league team, the Washington Senators, was more than 900 miles from Melbourne, Organized Baseball along the Atlantic coast of Florida was rapidly developing in the first decades of the 20th century. Playing for Fort Lauderdale, a town team in the loosely organized East Coast League, in 1920iii and for Cocoa the following season, Sweetland developed the nickname Sugar, a play on his last name, but also a reference to his sweet, knee-buckling curveball.iv Signing initially with the Jacksonville Indians in the Class C Florida State League in 1922, Sweetland split the season between Jacksonville and the Orlando Bulldogs, posting a combined 6-7 record in 106⅓ innings. Known for his running speed, the right-hand-hitting Sweetland also played in 34 games as an outfielder, batting .213.

On the strength of his performance in 1923, including a 15-6 record while surrendering a league-low 7.0 hits per nine innings for Orlando in the six-team league, Sweetland was purchased by the Charlotte Hornets in the Class B South Atlantic (Sally) League. In his two years pitching for player-manager Ray Kennedy, Sweetland helped lead the Hornets to consecutive second-place finishes, an agonizing one game out in both seasons. A hard-luck loser in 1924, Sweetland won just six of 13 decisions but posted the league’s best ERA (2.92) and allowed a league-low 7.1 hits per nine innings. Overcoming arm miseries that limited him to 111 innings in 1924, Sweetland posted a 12-5 record in 154 innings in 1925, but his ERA soared to 4.32. Adept at the plate, he also batted .353 and .280 for the Hornets in 1924 and 1925.

Prior to the 1926 season, Sweetland was transferred to the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Spartans in the Sally League. Pitching for player-manager Mike Kelly, Sweetland posted unspectacular numbers (11-10 with a 4.04 ERA in 185 innings) for the fifth-place Spartans; however, the 24-year-old pitcher benefited from increased attention given to the league by scouts who flocked to see Wilcey Moore, the winner of 30 games for the Greenville Spinners in 1926. Moore signed with the Yankees and enjoyed a highly publicized career year as a reliever and spot starter in 1927.

Phillies scout Joseph “Patsy” O’Rourke, a career minor-league infielder save for one season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1908, was impressed with Sweetland’s poise and even more with his potential. After Sweetland won nine of 17 decisions and logged 153 innings in the first half of the 1927 season for the Spartans, O’Rourke signed the thin left-hander.v Major-league teams were no longer able to draft prospects from the three highest minor leagues at a set price after the draft system was changed in 1921. The result was a drastic (and some argued dangerous) increase in prices paid for minor-league players. Scouts began scouring the lower minor leagues for capable and relatively inexpensive players. Phillies owner William Baker, a notorious miser who traded 30-game winner Pete Alexander to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1917 season instead of increasing his salary, viewed Sweetland’s signing as an economical way to acquire talent. O’Rourke also recommended that Philadelphia select pitcher Ray Benge (winner of 49 games for the Phillies from 1929 through 1932) from the Class A Texas League in the 1927 rule 5 draft, and also signed future Hall of Famer Chuck Klein from the Class B Central League in 1928.

The Phillies were arguably the laughing stock of the National League when Sweetland arrived in Philadelphia on July 3, 1927. Since Alexander’s unimaginable departure in 1917, the team had strung together nine consecutive losing seasons (mercifully ending in 1932 after 14 seasons). The ‘27 Phillies had an average hitting team, but first-year manager Stuffy McInnis was saddled with the league’s worst pitching staff, one that had ranked last in the National League in ERA every year since the Baker-Alexander brouhaha. “I wasn’t scared when I reported [to the Phillies],” said Sweetland, “because I figured I’d never pitch again. But two days later (McInnis) gave me the ball.”vi Before Sugar had the opportunity to pitch, he made his big-league debut as a pinch-hitter for Claude Willoughby in the ninth inning on July 4 at the Baker Bowl against the Boston Braves. Sweetland drew a walk and then scored on shortstop Jimmy Cooney’s sacrifice for the Phillies’ second and final run in an 8-2 defeat. The next day Sweetland made an exciting pitching debut, going the distance and surrendering 11 hits and four runs (three earned). He earned the victory when the Phillies rallied for two runs in the ninth inning, highlighted by pitcher Jack Scott’s run-scoring sacrifice as a pinch-hitter for Sweetland.

In the regular starting rotation for most of his three months with the Phillies in 1927, Sweetland completed six of his 13 starts and made eight relief appearances. While the Phillies surrendered a league-high 11.4 hits per nine innings, the 26-year-old Sweetland fared even worse (12.8 hits per nine innings) as teams batted a cumulative .358 against him. Eight times he gave up at least ten hits, highlighted by a curious game on August 27 against the Chicago Cubs in Philadelphia. Returning to the mound in the top of the tenth inning in a 5-5 tie, Sweetland gave up five runs before being relieved by Willoughby, but not before Sugar had been tagged for a career-high 18 hits and ten runs in 9⅔ innings to absorb the loss. On a last-place team (51-103) with the league’s worst pitching staff (5.36 ERA) featuring Jack Scott (9-21, 5.09), Alex Ferguson (8-16, 4.84), and Hub Pruett (7-17, 6.05), Sweetland finished with two wins in 12 decisions and posted a 6.16 ERA. His 103⅔ innings led all big-league rookies.

The Phillies named Burt Shotton, a former outfielder most notably with the St. Louis Browns, as their manager for the 1928 season. “The twirling corpse is stronger than ever,” Shotton said confidently in reference to Sweetland and newcomer Benge. However, the sportswriter suggested that Shotton “faces the 1928 baseball campaign looking through rose-tinted glasses.”vii Sweetland made the 90-mile trek from his home in Melbourne to his first major-league camp in Winter Haven. Impressed with the left-hander’s conditioning, desire, and work ethic, Shotton took Sweetland under his wing and saw unlimited potential. “I am working with Lester Sweetland. He should develop into a star,” Shotton boldly predicted.viii

After beginning the season with two relief appearances, Sweetland tossed complete games in his first three starts of the season, but lost each in heartbreaking fashion in his final frame. After losing twice in five days to the Robins in Brooklyn, Sweetland pitched a career-high 10⅔ innings against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on May 6, surrendering a run in the 11th inning to lose 5-4. Blessed with quick instincts and possessing excellent range as a fielder, he set a National League record for pitchers with ten assists in that loss to the Cubs. “My trouble was wildness. When I got wild, I had a hard time getting back on track,” said Sweetland, who walked 19 in the three losses.ix Following an ineffective May (7.39 ERA), he was relegated to the bullpen in June. He made a spot start against Brooklyn and lasted just a third of an inning (Willoughby was the eventual loser), then spent the rest of the season in the rotation and bullpen, and limped to an unsightly 3-15 record. Sweetland’s 6.58 ERA was the league’s worst for any pitcher with at least 100 innings, and his 15 hit batters led the league. The Phillies won just 43 games with 109 losses, were outscored by 294 runs, and again were last in the NL in team ERA (5.61).

After missing much of 1929 spring training with the flu, Sweetland inaugurated his third season by pitching a complete-game 5-2 victory over the Brooklyn Robins in the Baker Bowl on April 20. “[Sweetland] curved the Phillies into their first victory,” reported the Associated Press.x Unexpectedly, the Phillies got off to a fast start and boasted a record of 21-20 on June 6, the latest the team had been above .500 since 1917. Seemingly overnight the Phillies had been transformed into the most feared hitters in the National League. Chuck Klein, in his first full season, led the league with 43 home runs, knocked in 145 runs, and batted .356; also in his first full season, first baseman Don Hurst hit 31 round-trippers, drove in 125 runs, and batted at a .304 clip. Lefty O’Doul, acquired in the offseason from the New York Giants, assaulted batting records, notched a then major-league record 254 hits, and led the league with a .398 average.

A 19-41 record in June and July reminded fans that the Phillies were not pennant contenders; nonetheless, the team rallied to conclude the season by winning 33 of 57 on the strength of their powerful offense and unexpectedly decent pitching. Years later, Sweetland, a low-ball pitcher who relied on his fielders for help, recalled, “I had a good sinker.”xi At no time was that more evident than on August 2 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh when Sugar hurled his first big-league shutout, surrendering 11 hits without an outfield putout in a 2-0 victory over the Pirates. A quick worker on the mound, Sweetland fashioned his second shutout of the season by holding Brooklyn to four hits at Ebbets Field on August 26. After tossing complete games in four consecutive starts and notching two saves in August, Sweetland earned his career-high 13th victory in his final start of the season, a seven-inning outing against the Giants on October 5. At 71-82, the Phillies finished in fifth place, their best showing since 1917.

Though the Phillies again ranked last in the NL in pitching with a 6.13 ERA, Sweetland (13-11, 5.11 ERA) and right-hander Claude Willoughby (15-14, 4.99) gave the Phillies hope for 1930, especially considering the team’s potent offense. The promise of the two pitchers was not lost on George Phair, a baseball writer for the New York American who liked to sing “My country ’tis of thee, Sweetland and Willoughby, of thee I sing” when he covered games at the Baker Bowl.xii By winning seven of his last nine decisions and posting a 3.56 ERA in 91 innings in 1929, Sweetland had seemed to be on target to fulfill manager Shotton’s prediction of stardom for him; but the pitcher turned out to be a veritable Jekyll and Hyde. He pitched well in his 13 victories, posting a respectable 3.71 ERA in them; but in all other games he had a dismal 6.47 ERA. New York Times writer Roscoe McGowen called Sweetland “probably the best” pitcher on the Phillies, yet cautioned that the “Phillies hopes centre on hitters [in 1930].”xiii

Called Lester (and not Les) in newspapers throughout his playing career, Sweetland pitched the best game of his big-league career, a three-hit shutout of the Robins on April 15 in front of the largest Opening Day crowd to date at Ebbets Field, estimated at 27,000.xiv In the eighth inning he rapped a double and scored the only run of the game on Klein’s single. Always capable with the bat, Sweetland batted a respectable .272 (78-for-272) for his career. He followed up his shutout with another complete-game victory over the Robins in his second start, but as the offense reached its peak, 1930 was the “Year of the Hitter” and it was not kind to the Phillies and their pitchers. The collective ERA for the National League was 4.97; only five pitchers with enough innings for the title could “boast” an ERA under 4.00. Four of the eight NL teams scored at least 900 runs, six scored at least 800, and the league as a whole batted .303. After his impressive start, Sweetland’s season took a nose dive: in his next ten starts he lasted just 39⅔ innings while opponents batted .415 against him, resulting in a walloping 11.34 ERA, and a demotion to the bullpen. In a spot start on July 21 Sweetland hurled a complete-game victory on July 21 against the Pirates and won his way back into the rotation. More effective and with better control in his ensuing nine starts, he averaged more than seven innings per outing, but a soul-crushing loss on August 31 to the Robins seemed to have sapped the life out of the pitcher. At Ebbets Field, Sweetland surrendered 17 hits and a career-high 11 runs (10 earned) in five innings. He logged just 13⅔ innings in five appearances in September to conclude one of the most forgettable seasons in NL history. With a 7-15 record, Sweetland surrendered 143 earned runs in 167 innings and established a major-league record for the worst single-season ERA (7.71). Hugh Fullerton of the Associated Press referred to Sweetland as a “cousin” of NL hitters (suggesting a pitcher whom batters enjoy facing) in light of their .373 batting average against him.xv

Accustomed to his team’s poor pitching from previous seasons, manager Shotton could not have been prepared for 1930 and juggled his rotation all year searching for a solution. Willoughby went 4-17 with a 7.59 ERA; Hal Elliott posted a 7.67 ERA; and Hap Collard’s ERA was 6.80. Only Phil Collins (16-11, 4.78 ERA) and Ray Benge (11-15, 5.70 ERA) provided a semblance of consistency. For the 13th consecutive season, the Phillies, winners of just 52 games, ranked last in team ERA with a record-setting 6.71 mark.

Less than two weeks after the 1930 season, the Chicago Cubs, still smarting from a late-season collapse and second-place finish to the St. Louis Cardinals, purchased Sweetland from the Phillies for a price variously reported at $25,000 and $40,000. “[Sweetland is] a southpaw of possibilities,” said Chicago sportswriter Irving Vaughan, who dismissed Phillies owner William Baker as a “benefactor whenever pennant contenders wave the flag of distress along with a well-padded checkbook.”xvi Herbert Barker of the Associated Press called Sweetland an “effective southpaw,” despite his pitching woes in Philadelphia, and foresaw success.xvii

The ever-combative Rogers Hornsby, preparing for his first full season as the Cubs skipper, harbored no doubts that Sweetland (and 34-year-old Jakie May, acquired from the Cincinnati Reds) would rebound and have solid years with the Cubs: “They [will] win games for us that they’d lose with those other clubs … [and] get better fielding behind them. They [will] pitch with more confidence.”xviii Relegated to the bullpen to start the season, Sweetland relieved Sherriff Blake with two outs in the second inning on April 24, trailing Pittsburgh, 5-0. Limiting the Pirates to six hits over 7⅓ innings, surrendering just one run, and rapping out three hits himself, Sweetland earned his first victory for the North Siders on the strength of Hornsby’s three home runs, and worked his way into the starting rotation. With complete-game victories in four of his next five starts en route to a career-best five-game winning streak and a 2.91 ERA, the undefeated Sweetland surprised even Hornsby. “Sweetland’s success this year is based on three kinds of pitches, his hook, his fast one, and his change of pace,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune.xix

Taciturn, reflective, and typically in control of his emotions, Sweetland chafed under Hornsby’s aggressive and confrontational style of managing. After a brutal outing against Brooklyn on June 18, (nine hits and seven runs in 4⅓ innings), Sweetland lost both his spot in the rotation and Hornsby’s confidence, and pitched just seven times (two starts) over the next seven weeks. Given a start on August 4, Sweetland tossed a complete game to defeat the Cincinnati Reds in what proved to be his final big-league victory. He started three more games for the Cubs in August, completed two of them, but was plagued by wildness (he issued a career-high ten walks against the Pirates on August 10) and lost each start. With an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Hornsby, Sweetland made just four relief appearances in mop-up situations in September. With a bitter ending to his promising start, he concluded the season with an 8-7 record and a 5.04 ERA in 130⅓ innings.

During spring training on Catalina Island, California in 1932, Sweetland was surprised to learn two weeks before the end of camp that he had been optioned to the Cubs’ Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels. Holding out and refusing to sign, Sweetland eventually came to terms to avoid suspension, but floundered.xx Released in July with a 6-8 record and a 6.26 ERA, Sweetland spent his final year and a half in Organized Baseball on an odyssey that led him to three different teams, Jersey City, Brooklyn’s affiliate in the International League in 1932 after his release, and then in 1933 to the Boston Braves’ Harrisburg team in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League, and finally to the Montreal Royals in the International League. Hobbled by sore knees, he retired at the end of the 1933 season. Sweetland won 33 games and lost 58 while posting a 6.10 ERA in his five-year big-league career. He won 77 in his eight-year minor-league career.

Residing in and around Florida’s Brevard County during his playing career, Sweetland had married Gladys Mills in 1930. Finding life difficult during the height of the Great Depression, he was recruited in 1934 to pitch for the Logan Squares, a semipro team based in Chicago.xxi After working on a government (in all likelihood a Works Progress Administration) contract in Osceola, Arkansas, for much of 1935, Sweetland was lured to Mayfield, Kentucky, to serve as player-manager of the Mayfield Clothiers, Brooklyn’s affiliate in the Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee (Kitty) League. With the team struggling, Sweetland occasionally pitched and played first base, but was relieved of his managing duties by midseason.xxii

With his second wife, Emma, Sweetland moved to Detroit hoping to secure work in local factories, but found the transition to life without baseball difficult and a job even more elusive. He wrote to Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane, whom he knew from their years playing in Philadelphia. According to Sweetland, Cochrane forwarded the letter to Tigers owner Walter Briggs, who owned an automobile-body manufacturing company, and within days Sweetland had a job. “I went to work for Chrysler [in 1936],” Sweetland said, “and stayed there for more than 25 years, working as a production man stamping medal.”xxiii

After retiring from baseball, Sweetland was not close to the sport. In the 1960s he retired from Chrysler and settled in Brevard County with his wife. On March 4, 1974, Sweetland died at the age of 74 in Melbourne. He is buried at the Fountainhead Memorial Park in Palm Bay, Florida.

 

Sources

Chicago Daily Tribune

New York Times

The Sporting News

Ancestry.com

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.com

Lester Sweetland player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York

 

Notes

i There is some confusion over Sweetland’s birth name. Baseball-Reference.com gives the name Leo Lester; Ancestry.com and other legal documents give the name Lester Leon Sweetland.

ii The Sporting News, December 30, 1967, 33.

iii Cynthia A. Thums, Sport Lauderdale: Big Names and Big Games (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2007), 24.

iv “Cocoa Team Hands Defeat to Indians,” New Smyrna (Florida) Daily News, September 30, 1921, 1.

v The Sporting News, May 2, 1956, 34.

vi The Sporting News, December 30, 1967, 33.

vii Ibid.

viii Syracuse Herald, April 6, 1928, 22.

ix The Sporting News, December 30, 1967, 33.

x Associated Press, in the Independent (Helena, Montana), April 21, 1929, 12.

xi The Sporting News, December 30, 1967, 33.

xii Ibid.

xiii Roscoe McGowen, “Phillies Hope Center on Hitters,” New York Times, March 22, 1930, 24.

xiv Associated Press, “Sweetland’s Arm, Bat help Phils Win,” in the Chicago Daily Tribune, April 16, 1930, 20.

xv Hugh S. Fullerton, Jr., Associated Press, “Phillies Come to Life to Win Over Robins,” in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, August 1, 1930, 10.

xvi Irving Vaughan, “Cubs Purchase Sweetland from Phillies,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1930, 2T.

xvii Herbert W. Barker, Associated Press, “Major League Clubs in Deals,” in the Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, October 14, 1930, 32.

xviii John Kieran, “Sports of the Times. Interviewing a Distinguished Visitor,” New York Times, May 12, 1931, 36.

xix “Sweetland Proves Owner Wrigley Knows a Pitcher,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1931, 27.

xx San Antonio Light, March 27, 1932, 32.

xxi Chicago Daily Times, May 10, 1934, 19.

xxii Wilton Garrison, “Sport Shots, Spartan (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, July 5, 1936, 18; “Portageville Shows New Form in Beating Mayfield Team 3-1,” Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeu, Missouri), June 25, 1936, 7.

xxiii The Sporting News, December 30, 1967, 33.

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