World Series Rarities: The Three-Game Winners

This article was written by Lloyd Graybar

This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal


During the 1981 World Series, pitcher George Frazier of the Yankees achieved the dubious distinction of losing three games. He was the first to drop three unintentionally (Claude Williams of the infamous Black Sox lost a trio in 1919). Less rare, but nevertheless a pitching achievement to be proud of, is winning three games in a single Series. Only 12 pitchers have done it, the most recent being Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers in 1968. Since 14 Series have been played since then, one is tempted to wonder when, and if, another pitcher will be able to win three times in one Series. Under what conditions has it been accomplished?

When the first World Series was played in 1903, it would have been difficult to predict that the most momentous annual event in American sports was beginning. Although the Red Sox were playing the exciting Pittsburgh Pirates of Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner, the Boston Evening Transcript – the paper of blue-blooded Boston — ignored the spectacle, preferring to devote its limited sports attention to Harvard doings. While the Boston Globe had an avid commitment to the Red Sox, its extensive coverage listed the Boston-Pittsburgh Series as simply the most noteworthy of half a dozen post-season series between teams from the American and National Leagues.

The 1903 World Series proved to be memorable, however, not only for its priority in World Series annals but for what happened on the field. After falling behind three games to one, the Red Sox captured the Series by winning four straight games. This was under the old best five-of-nine format that was used on and off through the 1921 World Series. Moreover, each side produced a three-game winner, the first and still the only time this has happened! For the Pirates, it was Charles “Deacon” Phillippe, a 3 1-year-old hurler who had just completed his fifth successive 20-victory season and who was working overtime in the Series to fill a gap in the Pirates pitching rotation created by injuries.

Winning three of the Series first four games in an unusually inclement October, Phillippe seemed to be carrying the Pirates to victory single-handedly, beating Boston aces Cy Young and Bill Dinneen in games one and four and journeyman Tom Hughes in game two. The Pirates now had to win only two of the next five games the first three at home to clinch the Series. To say the least, their fans were an asset, hurling shreds of paper in front of Red Sox fielders and setting up a tremendous din at opportune times. “The wild children of the Monongahela and Allegheny,” complained the Globe, “were howling like wolves to shake (Boston) nerves.” Somehow the Red Sox steeled themselves. In each of the next three games they pounded out ten or more hits, gaining two wins for Cy Young, the first-game loser, and one for Bill Dinneen, a 21-game winner in the regular season and victor by a shutout in game two. A rain postponement enabled Phillippe to pitch both the seventh and eighth games. In the finale at Boston, his opponent was Dinneen who had four full days of rest since his previous start in game six. He was at the top of his form and held the Bucs to four scattered hits en route to a 3-0 shutout, his third win in four

Series decisions.

No World Series was played in 1904, but in 1905 the lordly New York Giants condescended to legitimize the championship series by appearing after their owner had refused to let his team participate in it the previous year. Still another three-game winner emerged, the immortal Christy Mathewson. Although he was coming into the Series fresh from his second consecutive 30-win season, his dominance of the pitching was far from preordained. Number two man for the Giants was Iron Man Joe McGinnity, now on the downside of his Hall of Fame career but still a 21-game winner. The rival Philadelphia Athletics had three future Hall of Famers on the mound: Chief Bender, Eddie Plank, and Rube Waddell. The last, generally considered the best southpaw in baseball, had been injured in a friendly scuffle a few weeks before the Series and unfortunately had to sit it out.

It’s difficult to believe that Waddell’s absence was decisive, for in the opener, Mathewson held the A’s to four hits en route to a 3-0 whitewashing of Plank, his old college pitching rival. After Bender evened the Series with another shutout, Mathewson and McGinnity took over, hurling the Giants to 9-0, 1-0, and 2-0 triumphs. It was a feat never duplicated in Series history: all five games had ended in shutouts. In the process of pitching three of his team’s four shutouts, Mathewson yielded a total of only 13 hits. For the remainder of his career he would be considered a hard-luck hurler in World Series competition, but in 1905 Mathewson was the toast of New York. Commenting on the third game, Mathewson’s most powerful, the New York Times said: “In the aggregate a eulogy of today’s play would point without discrimination to the nine men who did the work as a whole but individually only to that professor of occult speed and pretzel curve, Christy Mathewson.”

After a lapse of three years, three-game winners reappeared for the Pirates in the 1909 World Series and for the Athletics in 1910. For the Pirates the pitching hero was a surprise, Babe Adams, a 27-year-old rookie, who had won only a dozen games in limited use during the regular season. Against the Detroit Tigers of Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, Adams pitched six-hitters in his first two starts. Adams again took the mound in the climactic seventh game. This time he blanked the Tigers by an 8-0 score. Avarice might have cost the Tigers the Series, for the game normally should have been played a day earlier, making it unlikely Adams could have pitched a third time. But anxious to sell as many high-priced reserved seats as possible, the Tigers had secured permission to hold the deciding game on Saturday rather than on Friday as scheduled. The Tigers were consequently able to sell almost twice as many tickets as they had for Thursday’s sixth game. But as a result, Adams had the chance to compile the second most impressive Series pitching performance to date, crowding such Pirate stars as Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke “into the background.” At a celebration, Adams shared his glory with his father. He said that “back home on the farm my father taught me to finish what I started.”

The following year still another pitcher dominated the Series: the Philadelphia Athletics’ Jack Coombs. A 28-year-old righthander, Coombs had pitched indifferently for the A’s for four years only to shine in 1910 as Connie Mack’s ace. He won 30 games that year with an ERA of 1.30. Even though Mack still had Bender and Plank on his pitching staff, Plank’s sore arm meant that the burden would fall entirely on Coombs and Bender. The two were up to it. After Bender won the initial game in Philadelphia, Coombs took over, beating the Chicago Cubs by scores of 9-3 in game two on Tuesday, 12-5 in game three on Thursday, and 7-2 in the fifth and final game on Sunday. The 7-2 score, remarked the New York Times, did “not show what a battle (Coombs) had, to win against Three-Finger Brown and eight other Cubs, fighting like mad demons to hang on to a small corner of that pennant to which their bruised fingers still clung.” (From this one can see that sports hyperbole is not new.) Breaking the game open with a five-run rally in the eighth, the A’s were champions and Coombs baseball’s latest October hero.

Winning three games in any Series was an achievement, but like Mathewson five years before Coombs had done it in a Series that lasted only five games. Although his pitching did not approach that of the immortal Mathewson, in one respect Coombs was his equal: both men had pitched and won three games in a span of only six days.

In the next decade, the World Series produced another trio of three-game winners: Smoky Joe Wood of the Red Sox in 1912, Urban “Red” Faber of the White Sox in 1917, and Stan Coveleski of the Indians in 1920. All, however, had at least a week’s time in which to win their games.

Of the three, Coveleski was clearly the best. Wood and Faber each lost a game and gained one of their three victories in relief. Coveleski was superb, holding the Dodgers to only two runs in his three starts which he won by 3-1, 5-1, and 3-0 scores. While statistics indicate that Christy Mathewson’s three shutouts in the 1905 Series were the best overall Series performance ever by a pitcher, an argument can be made on Coveleski’s behalf. One writer argued that Coveleski had indeed been the best, reasoning that a spitball pitcher in Coveleski’s case “a greased Pole”, punned the New York Times — throws with great strain; to pitch three superb games in an eight-day span had to be the equal of any previous World Series pitching performance. Referring also to Coveleski’s ethnic origins, the Plain Dealer added, “These Poles are powerful men. . . . He is a mighty pitcher.” Ironically, two men who were as well qualified as anyone to evaluate Coveleski’s performance were witnesses to his feat. Umpiring at first base in the climactic game was Bill Dinneen, the Red Sox hero of 1903, while watching from the Indians’ bench was Joe Wood, the Red Sox star of 1912, now a reserve outfielder for the Tribe.

Eight hurlers had now won three games in a single World Series, and only 17 Series had been played. Winning three games was anything but the rarity I have termed it. It would now, however, be 26 years before another pitcher would dominate a Series to the extent of winning three games. Several had opportunities to do so, but something, perhaps just the law of averages, intervened.

In 1921, Waite Hoyt of the Yankees won two early games against the Giants, only to lose the deciding seventh game 1-0. Four years later, Walter Johnson of the Senators pitched two strong victories over the Pirates at the age of 37 but was hammered from the box in the Series finale. The following year, 1926, a 39-year-old, Grover Cleveland Alexander, won twice as a starter (movie fans will recall that he bore a remarkable resemblance to the incumbent President) as the Cardinals beat the mighty Yankees, saving an additional game in relief as well. In 1930, George Earnshaw pitched three strong games for the Athletics, winning his first two efforts against the Cardinals but leaving the third for a pinch hitter with the score tied at zero. Not until 1940 did a pitcher again come close to winning three games in one Series: Bobo Newsom pitched two commanding games as the Tigers beat the Reds, but although he held Cincinnati to only two runs in the seventh game wound up on the short end of a 2-1 score. In 1945, Hank Borowy of the Cubs was involved in four decisions, the most since Faber in 1917, but could only split even. Pitching with only a day’s rest in the seventh game, he never retired a batter as he failed to gain what would have been his third victory.

The string was finally broken the following year when Harry “the Cat” Brecheen of the Cardinals became the ninth man — and the first southpaw — to win three in a Series. He won two impressively pitched starts over the supposedly invincible Boston Red Sox of Ted Williams, his final win coming in relief in the seventh game.

Not for another 11 years would a pitcher again win three games. Yankee hurler Spec Shea had a chance in the seventh game of the 1947 Series, but was pounded out of the box early though the Yankees later rallied to win the game and the Series. In the same Series, Dodger reliever Hugh Casey earned two early decisions but in three more appearances added a save rather than the elusive third win. A decade later the tenth man was at last added to the elite roster of three-game winners. He was Lew Burdette of the Braves who pitched masterfully throughout a seven-game Series as he beat the Yankees by scores of 4-2, 1-0, and 5-0. An ex-Yankee farmhand, Burdette yielded seven hits in his first mound appearance and only six as he bested Whitey Ford in game five. Three days later, Burdette was unexpectedly back on the mound when scheduled starter Warren Spahn was felled by the flu. Again holding the Bombers to seven hits, he beat the Series pitching hero of the previous year, Don Larsen, 5-0. He became only the fifth man, the first since Coveleski, to pitch and win three complete games in one Series. Although Yankee reserve Joe Collins suspected Burdette of tossing a spitter, the New Yorkers lavishly praised Burdette. Columnist Arthur Daley of the Times said that Burdette had pitched with “exquisite artistry.” Yogi Berra called the pitcher a “right-handed Eddie Lopat,” and Casey Stengel described Burdette’s hurling with unaccustomed clarity. “He did a big job,” said the Yankee manager, “He was the big man in the Series. He took care of us all the way. He stopped all our hitters. . . . He was just as good in the third game as he was in the second and as he was in the first. . . . He made us hit the ball on the ground in nearly every tight spot. He was great.”

No pitcher had had an opportunity to repeat as a three-game Series winner since Jack Coombs in 1911. But he had won only once in his second Series. Burdette was given a chance when the Braves again went to seven games against the Yankees in the 1958 fall classic. Winning his first start, he lost his opportunity for glory when for the first time he was driven from the mound in the fifth game. The following game teammate Warren Spahn, already triumphant in two games, had his chance to wrap up the Series. He held a narrow lead until the sixth when the Yankees tied it and became the loser as the now hot Yankees rallied to even the Series in the tenth. Burdette pitched well the following day, but Bob Turley pitched better and won.

As early as 1960, another hurler came close to winning three, when Vernon Law, a winner in the first and fourth games of a somewhat bizarre Pirates-Yankees Series, started the seventh game. Law had a 4-0 lead as late as the fifth but weakened and was knocked from the box. Although the Pirates later won in dramatic fashion, Law did not figure in the decision.

A truly remarkable pitcher — Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals — emerged four years later to lead his team to a seventh-game defeat of the Yankees. Although he lost his first Series start in 1964, he won two games, including the seventh. Three years later, he did even better against the Boston Red Sox, holding them to six hits and one run in game one, five hits and no runs in game four and three hits and two runs in game seven.

Throughout the Series, Gibson had what everyone recognized as competitive spirit at its best. “Listen, Gibson’s got some kind of vicious desire, hasn’t he?” his batterymate Tim McCarver summed things up. “Tenacious. That’s what he is, tenacious. He pitches on guts. You can see it. He challenges anybody. Hell, he’d challenge Michael the Archangel, if he had to.”

The next year, Gibson did have to challenge a Michael, not the Archangel Michael, but Michael John Lolich, a 28-year-old Detroit Tiger southpaw, playing like most of his teammates, in his first World Series. Like many previous Series pitching heroes, for instance Burdette in 1957, Coveleski in 1920, Faber in 1917, and Adams in 1909, Lolich was not regarded as the ace of his team’s mound staff. These honors went instead to Denny McLain, the first 30-game winner in a generation.

Since both teams had clinched their respective pennants early enough to lead with their aces, Gibson and McLain faced each other in both the first and fourth games. In neither game was McLain at or even near his best. Gibson was superb in both, setting a Series record with 17 strikeouts in the opener and then fanning ten more Tigers in his next start as he set another record by winning his seventh consecutive game dating back to the 1964 World Series. Lolich, however, kept the Tigers in the Series — barely — when he won the second and fifth games. In the second game he helped his cause with a home run, the only one he ever hit in the majors.

With the Tigers down three games to two, manager Mayo Smith decided to rely on his two aces the rest of the way. McLain would pitch the sixth game with only two days rest. McLain won his game, but the Cardinals now had several things going for them in the finale: their home field, the record of never having lost the seventh game of a World Series, and Bob Gibson, pitching with three days’ rest against a tired Lolich. And Gibson had been the victor in the seventh game of both the `64 and `67 Series.

For six innings, Lolich blanked the Cardinals on four hits. Gibson did even better, holding the Tigers to one hit over that span. He also got the first two Tigers to face him in the seventh. “But suddenly,” wrote the New York Times, “the inning, the game and the Series veered away from him.” Aided by a misjudged line drive to center field, the Tigers struck for three quick runs. Lolich continued his shutout until the Cardinals broke through on a solo home run by Mike Shannon in the ninth. He retired the next and last batter on a foul ball. The Tigers were champions. “All my life,” the exuberant Lolich exclaimed (almost as if he were quoting John R. Tunis and the other writers of sports fiction that he had perhaps read in his youth) “somebody has been a big star and Lolich was No. 2. I figured my day would come, and this was it.” “Everybody thought it would be a big showdown between McLain and Gibson,” he added, “I’m glad it turned out to be me.” “Lolich is the guy you’ve got to give credit to,” said Cardinal slugger Orlando Cepeda. “He worked hard. He pitched with two day’s rest. He won three games in the Series. Nobody else did much for them. Him, he did it.”

No one has done it since. The pitcher who came closest was Red Sox star Louis Tiant who in the memorable 1975 Series started all three games that his team won, the first, fourth, and sixth. But after shutting out the powerful Cincinnati Reds in the opener, he was never again especially effective. Although he struggled to win game four, he was driven from the mound in the eighth inning of game six and was spared a defeat when his team rallied to tie the game in the home eighth and won four innings later on Carlton Fisk’s unforgettable home run. An even dozen pitchers have thus far won three games in a single World Series, on every occasion but one — Deacon Phillippe in the very first Series — leading their teams to victory. About as many more have had the chance to win three games, but failed. An interesting thing to note, of course, is that by 1920 there had been eight three-game winners. In only 17 World Series! In 62 Series since then, there have only been four such dominant pitchers. Why have things happened this way?

A tempting explanation would be that prior to 1921 several series were played under the five-of-nine format. This certainly helps account (postponements were also a factor) for what happened in the 1903 World Series when both Bill Dinneen and Deacon Phillippe won three times and a third pitcher, Cy Young, won twice in three decisions. But Stan Coveleski in 1920 was the only other hurler to capitalize on this circumstance.

Three other pitchers also were artificially aided in their quest for World Series glory — Wood, Faber, and Brecheen who all picked up one of their three wins in relief. This leaves only six pitchers who have won three times in starting assignments in World Series competition played under the best four-out-of-seven format. Four of these, Babe Adams, Lew Burdette, Bob Gibson, and Mickey Lolich, won theirs in do-or-die seventh games. Christy Mathewson and Jack Coombs somehow crammed their three triumphs into five-game series. Coombs was given vigorous batting support, while Mathewson came through with an unparalleled three shutouts. Both, of course, won in the days when starting pitchers normally finished what they started, each pitching well over 30 complete games in their big seasons.

Other factors must be considered: the advent of the lively ball, the relief ace, and in recent years the playoff system and night games in the Series. No pitcher has won three games since the playoffs started, it being likely that the additional strain of having to hurl one or more games under playoff pressure will make it almost impossible for a pitcher to emulate the remarkable success of hurlers like Mathewson, Burdette, Gibson, and Lolich. To judge the impact of the playoffs on World Series pitching it is only necessary to look at the 1981 competition. Because of his position in the playoff rotation, Dodger ace Fernando Valenzuela could not make his initial

Series appearance until the third game! Prior to the introduction of the playoffs, a pitcher like Valenzuela probably would have opened the Series and been available for up to two or more starts. Having to pitch at night as is now the case could also be disruptive.

If a pitcher is again to win three games in a Series, it will almost certainly have to be in a six or seven-game Series, and perhaps one in which weather causes postponements. Another possibility is that the next three-game winner would be a relief hurler. If George Frazier could lose three games in relief, the combination of circumstances could also be there to win three. No reliever has yet won more than twice in one Series — that distinction being achieved by five firemen from 1921 to 1975 — but the next three-game winner could perhaps be a hurler like Rollie Fingers who, if necessary, can pitch six times in seven games as he did in both 1972 and 1973.

Although the odds do appear to have shifted against the three-game winner in recent years, when — and if — one does make it, he will add his name to a select group of hurlers who have provided baseball with some of its most memorable moments.

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