Some players are fortunate enough to play major-league baseball for several years. Others, like Moonlight Graham, play only one game, often for only an inning or two during a late-season lopsided matchup.
Harvey Freeman was closer to the latter category. He was one of 330 pitchers between the start of the twentieth century (1901) and the last year before the American and National Leagues expanded beyond eight teams (1960) who recorded a single career win. Freeman pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1921, joining the team in July and remaining with them for the rest of the season.
The Athletics were enduring another dreadful season during Freeman’s time in Philadelphia. Connie Mack’s team found itself in familiar territory: the American League basement, where it had finished every season since 1915. Entering a Tuesday afternoon game against the AL-leading Cleveland Indians on August 9, the 38-66 Athletics were 27½ games behind the Indians and seven games behind their nearest competitor, the seventh-place Chicago White Sox. Philadelphia muddled through a 10-20 July record, and was riding a three-game losing streak heading into the third game of a four-game series with the Indians.
When Freeman arrived at Shibe Park that day, Mack gave him surprising news. The rookie from Kalamazoo, Michigan, would make his first major-league start – against a formidable opponent.
The Indians were a complete contrast to Philadelphia. At 66-39, they were leading the second-place New York Yankees by 1½ games, with the third-place Washington Senators nine games back. The reigning World Series champions enjoyed an 18-10 July record, but opened August with a five-game losing streak from July 31 through August 5, the third time the Indians endured a five-game losing streak during the season. Cleveland had won its last five games against Philadelphia, including a July 10 doubleheader sweep in Cleveland and the first three games of the August visit to Philadelphia. The Indians were guided by player-manager Tris Speaker, with veterans Charlie Jamieson, Elmer Smith, and Larry Gardner leading the club and shortstop Joe Sewell having a breakout campaign in his first full major-league season.
Speaker selected Ray Caldwell to start for the Indians. The 33-year-old veteran was in the 12th and final season of his career. He had won 20 games for the first time in 1920, his first full campaign with Cleveland. Entering the game, Caldwell had a 3-2 record with two saves and an uncharacteristically high 6.05 ERA through 86⅓ innings. The 6-foot-2 right-hander, who played a handful of games as an outfielder through his career, threw a spitball and knuckleball.1 In 1920 Organized Baseball established a limited ban on spitballs; only two pitchers from each team were permitted to throw the pitch. The rules changed again in 1921. Now, no new pitchers could legally throw spitballs, though current hurlers would be grandfathered in. Caldwell was one of the 17 pitchers allowed to throw spitballs from 1921 onward.2
Freeman strode to Shibe Park’s mound in the top of the first. A 23-year-old right-hander, he had pitched in six games so far, recording no decisions during those appearances. His 4.85 ERA in 13 innings included one game in which he pitched six relief innings and four one-inning appearances. He debuted during the first game of the July 10 doubleheader against Cleveland, throwing a scoreless eighth inning in the 10-0 Athletics loss.
But Freeman took the field against the Indians “with a smile on his face, a cap perched at a nasty angle, and a good old baseball in his hand.”3 Cleveland wasted no time challenging the rookie. Leadoff hitter Jamieson doubled. Bill Wambsganss singled to third base, but Jamieson was tagged out at third base by Dugan. Wambsganss was forced out at second base on Speaker’s fielder’s choice. Smith grounded out to end the inning; Freeman had survived his first time pitching a first inning for the A’s.
Caldwell experienced an easier beginning, as the Athletics’ first-inning offense consisted of two fly balls and a pop fly. Both pitchers quickly settled down; each allowed only one hit in the next two innings.
Cleveland remained ineffective when the heart of the order faced Freeman for the second time. Smith drew a leadoff walk in the fourth inning, but Gardner hit into a fielder’s choice to force him at second base, and Sewell grounded into a double play. Freeman had blanked the Indians through the first four frames.
In the Athletics’ fourth inning with one out, Johnny Walker reached second base when Sewell booted a grounder, then threw wild to first base.4 One out later, Frank Welch hit a triple “to right centre that wrapped itself around Smith’s feet.”5 Walker scored for a 1-0 Philadelphia lead.
Freeman continued pitching well. In the fifth inning, Steve O’Neill hit a one-out single, but Freeman picked him off. In the sixth, Freeman induced three consecutive groundouts.
Tillie Walker extended Philadelphia’s lead in the bottom of the sixth by hitting a home run to left field, his 14th homer of the season. Johnny Walker struck out looking, and Perkins flied out. The Athletics were now ahead, 2-0.
The Indians finally reached Freeman in the seventh inning. Smith and Gardner walked. Sewell singled, and suddenly the bases were loaded with no outs.
Doc Johnston hit a fly ball to short right field that the A’s misjudged, allowing Smith to score Cleveland’s first run. O’Neill plated Gardner and Sewell with a single to center, giving the Indians a 3-2 lead. With no outs still, they threatened to expand their advantage, but Caldwell lined out to a leaping Johnny Walker at first base, and O’Neill was doubled off first for the unassisted double play. Jamieson ended the inning on a foul popout, but the Athletics now trailed.
Pitching with the lead for the first time in the game, Caldwell retired Welch and Dugan to start the bottom of the seventh inning but Dykes singled to right field. Emmet McCann, a light-hitting shortstop born and raised in Philadelphia, doubled Dykes home to tie the score, 3-3.
Freeman recovered from his seventh-inning struggles to pitch a flawless eighth; he retired the heart of Cleveland’s order on three groundouts.
The Athletics started quickly in their half of the eighth. Witt singled and advanced to third on Tillie Walker’s single. Caldwell recovered to strike out Johnny Walker, and Perkins popped out to short on a fastball after seeing some slow curves. The Athletics were about to allow a golden opportunity to slip through their hands. However, with two outs, Welch singled to left-center field, scoring Witt. The Athletics regained the lead, 4-3. Dugan flied out as Philadelphia couldn’t muster an insurance run.
On the verge of upsetting the league-leading Indians and earning his first career victory, Freeman returned to the mound for the ninth inning clinging to a one-run lead. Gardner reached base on a muffed grounder by Johnny Walker. Sewell lined out to center field. Joe Evans ran for Gardner. Johnston singled, and Evans moved to second base. O’Neill, who already singled twice and plated two runs, flied out to left field.
With two outs, the tying run in scoring position, and the go-ahead run at first base, Jack Graney pinch-hit for Caldwell. Freeman struck out Graney on a called third strike,6 preserving Philadelphia’s 4-3 win.
Freeman earned his first – and what turned out to be his only – career win and pitched a complete game, allowing three runs on eight hits. When Athletics fans heard that Freeman would start that afternoon’s game, they were justifiably skeptical, but Freeman “made the world’s champions from Cleveland look as if they had checked their base hits outside the grounds.”7 The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s account noted that “[Freeman] had a curve and a change of pace that were as bewildering as the feats of Houdini are to the average audience.”8
The game was a rare bright spot for both Freeman and the Athletics in 1921. He pitched in 18 games for Philadelphia in 1921– and the Athletics lost every time he pitched, except for his unexpected win against Cleveland at Shibe Park. He finished 1921 – and his major-league career – with a 1-4 record and a 7.69 ERA. Freeman returned to the minor leagues in 1922 and played three more minor-league seasons, but never returned to the majors. The Athletics finished in the American League basement for the seventh consecutive season in 1921 with a 53-100 record, 45 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees.9
Besides the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and the following:
James, Bill, and Jim Henzler. Win Shares (Morton Grove, Illinois: STATS, Inc., 2002).
Macht, Norman. Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).
2020 Cleveland Indians Media Guide
2020 Oakland Athletics Media Guide
1 Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (New York: Fireside Books, 2004), 154-155.
2 Dennis Bingham and Thomas R. Heitz, “Rules and Scoring,” in John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, and David Pietrusza (eds.), Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball (New York: Viking Press, 2004), 2446-2447.
3 “Schoolboy Hurler Lifts Spoke’s Scalp,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1921: 14.
4 The Philadelphia Inquirer said that after Sewell threw wild to first base and Johnny Walker advanced to second base, first baseman Doc Johnson “recovered the ball and made another wild throw to second. So, Johnny went to third.” (“Schoolboy Hurler Lifts Spoke’s Scalp,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1921: 14). Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com game accounts keep Johnny Walker at second base without attributing an error to Johnson or Walker advancing to third base.
5 “Schoolboy Hurler Lifts Spoke’s Scalp”
6 Stuart M. Bell, “Mr. Freeman’s Dink Ball Stupefies Indians and Athletics Win by 4 to 3 Score,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 10, 1921: 18.
7 “Schoolboy Hurler Lifts Spoke’s Scalp.”
8 Bell, “Mr. Freeman’s Dink Ball.”
9 Center fielder Frank Welch was 3-for-4 with a single, double, triple, and two RBIs; the single drove in the winning run. Welch finished the season with seven home runs, 45 RBIs, a .285 batting average, and a .759 OPS. Tillie Walker, the other Athletic with a multi-hit afternoon (2-for-4, including a home run), led Philadelphia with 23 homers, 101 RBIs, and an .892 OPS.