Cellar-Dwellers Also Have Heroes

This article was written by Tom Jozwik

This article was published in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal


“The last shall be first” is a Biblical prediction which has some basis for truth in major league baseball. Beginning in 1877, players on last place teams have been on numerous occasions league leaders in various hitting and pitching categories.

Hitting categories considered as a basis for this article are: Batting average, slugging average, home runs, runs batted in and total bases. Pitching categories taken into account are:  Earned run average, games won, complete games, and strikeouts. Players tying for league leadership, rather than leading outright, have not been included. Those who played some games with a second club in the season they led the league are also excluded.

Hurlers on cellar-dwelling clubs, and this includes those in a division alignment since 1969, have fared slightly better than non-pitchers as league leaders. There have been 28 pace-setting pitching performances, as opposed to 26 top batting feats. The department most commonly excelled in has been complete games, with 13 pitchers and 15 performances represented. John B. Taylor of St. Louis led in 1898 even though his club finished last in a 12-club league.

Hitters have most frequently (10 times) led in the home run category. Both Frank Howard of the Washington Senators and Cy Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies captured a pair of home run titles, whereas the Cincinnati Reds’ Charles “Red” Lucas and the Atlanta Braves’ Phil Niekro each paced the senior circuit in complete games two years running. Niekro could make it three in a row in 1979.

Only one pitcher on a last place team-Steve Canton of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972- has ever topped a major league in games won.

Just four doormat team members have managed to pitch their way to ERA leadership, all in relatively recent baseball history. Bob Friend turned the trick for the 1955 Pittsburgh Pirates. Dick Donovan for the 1961 Senators, Carlton for the 1972 Phillies and Craig Swan for the 1978 New York Mets. Nine hurlers have emerged from the basement as strikeout kings.

Last place teams have contributed just two batting champions. Larry Doyle won the title with the New York Giants in 1915, and Richie Ashburn was the batting leader as a member of the 1958 Phillies. (Ironically, the lowly Phils tied pennant-winning Milwaukee for National League team batting average honors that season, with a .266 mark.)

Three players on last place teams have been league leaders in runs batted in, five have led in slugging percentages, six have set the pace in total bases.

Monumental slugging displays by different members of the Senators occurred 11 seasons apart. In 1957, Roy “Squirrel” Sievers won two-thirds of a triple crown, capturing American League home run and RBI honors; for good measure, Sievers led the AL in total bases that year. In 1968, Frank Howard paced the junior loop in homers, total bases and slugging average; “Hondo” is the only last place team performer who has attained league leadership in as many as four of the hitting categories under consideration.

In addition to leading his league in wins and earned run average, Steve Canton hurled the most complete games and fanned the most batters in the NL in 1972. It was a remarkable performance for any hurler. Only one other last-place pitcher-Phil Niekro-has led his league in more than one of the five pitching departments in a single season. Niekro topped the NL in strikeouts and complete games in 1977.

Following are chronological lists of the hitting and pitching leaders from last place clubs.

 

Hitters

 

Year

Player

Team

League

Category

Number

Pct.

1877

Lipman Pike

Cincinnati

NL

HR

4

 

1890

Denny Lyons

Philadelphia

AA

SA

 

.531

1901

Sam Crawford

Cincinnati

NL

HR

16

 

1905

George Stone

St. Louis

AL

TB

259

 

1915

Larry Doyle

New York

NL

BA

 

.320

1918

George Burns

Philadelphia

AL

TB

236

 

1919

Gavvy Cravath

Philadelphia

NL

HR

12

 

1920

Cy Williams

Philadelphia

NL

HR

15

 

1923

Cy Williams

Philadelphia

NL

HR

41

 

1926

Cy Wffliams

Philadelphia

NL

SA

 

.568

1930

Chuck Klein

Philadelphia

NL

TB

445

 

1935

Jimmie Foxx

Philadelphia

AL

SA

 

.636

1935

Waily Berger

Boston

NL

HR

34

 

1935

Waily Berger

Boston

NL

RBI

130

 

1947

Ralph Kiner

Pittsburgh

NL

SA

 

.639

1947

Ralph Kiner

Pittsburgh

NL

TB

361

 

1950

Ralph Kiner

Pittsburgh

NL

HR

47

 

1957

Roy Sievers

Washington

AL

HR

42

 

1957

Roy Sievers

Washington

AL

RBI

114

 

1957

Roy Sievers

Washington

AL

TB

331

 

1958

Richie Ashburn

Philadelphia

NL

BA

 

.350

1968

Frank Howard

Washington

AL

SA

   

1968

Frank Howard

Washington

AL

HR

44

.552

1968

Frank Howard

Washington

AL

TB

330

 

1970

Frank Howard

Washington

AL (East Div.)

HR

44

 

1970

Frank Howard

Washington

AL (East Div.)

RBI

126

 

 

Pitchers

 

Year

Player

Team

League

Category

Number

 Pct.

1886

Matt Kilroy

Baltimore

AA

SO

513

 

1898

John B. Taylor

St. Louis

NL

CG

42

 

1900

Pink Hawley

N. Y. Giants

NL

CG

34

 

1901

Noodles Hahn

Cincinnati

NL

CG

41

 

1906

Irv Young

Boston

NL

CG

37

 

1907

Stoney McGlynn

St. Louis

NL

CG

33

 

1924

Sloppy Thurston

Chicago

AL

CG

28

 

1928

Red Ruffing

Boston

AL

CG

25

 

1931

Red Lucas

Cincinnati

NL

CG

24

 

1932

Red Lucas

Cincinnati

NL

CG

28

 

1940

Kirby Higbe

Philadelphia

NL

SO

137

 

1951

Ned Garver

St. Louis

AL

CG

24

 

1955

Bob Friend

Pittsburgh

NL

ERA

 

2.83

1956

Sam Jones

Chicago

NL

SO

176

 

1959

Camio Pascual

Washington

AL

CG

17

 

1961

Dick Donovan

Washington

AL

ERA

 

2.40

1969

Sam McDowell

Cleveland

AL (East Div.)

SO

279

 

1972

Steve Carlton

Philadelphia

NL (East Div.)

ERA

 

1.97

1972

Steve Carlton

Philadelphia

NL (East Div.)

GW

27

 

1972

Steve Carlton

Philadelphia

NL (East Div.)

CG

30

 

1972

Steve Canton

Philadelphia

NL (East Div.)

SO

310

 

1973

Gaylord Perry

Cleveland

AL (East Div.)

CG

29

 

1974

Nolan Ryan

California

AL (West Div.)

SO

367

 

1975

Frank Tanana

California

AL (West Div.)

SO

269

 

1977

Phil Niekro

Atlanta

NL (West Div.)

CG

20

 

1977

Phil Niekro

Atlanta

NL (West Div.)

SO

262

 

1978

Craig Swan

New York

NL (East. Div.)

ERA

 

2.43

1978

Phil Niekro

Atlanta

NL (West Div.)

CG

22

 

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