Roy Face's Incredible 1959 Season
This article was published in the 2018 The National Pastime.
In 1959, ace Pittsburgh Pirates fireman Roy Face set a major-league record by winning 18 games in relief against one loss. His .947 winning average also established the record for pitchers with at least 15 decisions. Face’s incredible numbers far exceeded those of the Pirates, who went 78–76 and finished fourth, nine games behind the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers. In an era without established closers or setup men who pitched in only one inning, Face threw 93⅓ innings and pitched two or more innings in 24 of his 57 appearances. Face was retroactively awarded 10 saves for his 1959 efforts in 1969, when his performance was analyzed under the new rules established to determine saves. He was also charged with nine blown saves.
How did Face amass these impressive totals? Was it the result of entering numerous tie games and benefitting from Pittsburgh rallies? Did he surrender tying or go-ahead runs only to be bailed out by his team’s offense? This article will present a narrative description of Face’s season with an analytical breakdown of each of his 19 decisions. The article will also present a brief summary of his 10 saves. The primary source for this analysis comes from game breakdowns on Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.
After four minor-league seasons, Face, a Rule 5 draftee from the Brooklyn Dodgers, made the jump from the Class AA Fort Worth Cats to the Pirates for the beginning of the 1953 season. In his major-league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 16, he retired Stan Lopata before giving up two doubles, a single, a walk, and another single before Johnny Hetki was summoned from the bullpen to replace the 25-year-old hurler. At 5-foot-8, Face was an unlikely candidate for major-league stardom, and he started the 1954 season with the Class AA New Orleans Pelicans, managed by Danny Murtaugh. Needing an off-speed pitch, Face ultimately mastered an uncommon one that would make him successful in a major league career that spanned 16 seasons and 848 appearances. As Jim O’Brien, the author of numerous books on the Pirates, wrote in 2005: “He didn’t invent the fork-ball, but he certainly made it famous. He still likes to show people how he placed the baseball between two of his fingers to throw that pitch. Most people can form a 'V' or victory sign, but Face can form a 'U' with his two fingers.”1
An analysis of Face’s 1959 season reveals two significant statistics. The first is that half of his 18 wins came when he entered a tie game. In three of those, he gave up the go-ahead run, but the Pirates rallied and gave Face the win. The second is that 10 of his wins, including the last seven, were in extra-inning games. There is an overlap of six games in those two categories (May 3 and 7; June 8 and 25; August 30; September 19).
Face’s first victory of the season came at Forbes Field at night on April 22 against the Cincinnati Reds, when he entered the game with the score tied 7–7. Gus Bell greeted him with a home run to push the Reds ahead 8–7. But Face retired the next six Reds and the Pirates scored two runs to secure the win.
Face’s May 3 effort in the first game of a doubleheader was one of his strongest of the year. The score was tied 3–3 when he entered the game in the eighth inning in relief of Vern Law. He retired all nine Phillies batters that he faced and his teammates rewarded him with an extra-inning victory when Bill Mazeroski singled with the bases loaded and two outs in the 10th.
On May 7, Face relieved Law in the top of the 10th inning of a 4–4 game against the Phillies. Face pitched to four batters, surrendering only a two-out single to Ed Bouchee. Ted Kluszewski slammed a home run leading off the bottom of the inning to provide Face his fourth victory of the season.
Just a bit over one month later on June 8, Face entered a game against San Francisco in the ninth inning with the score 9–9. Although Face gave up three hits in the inning, the Giants could not score a run. Face pitched well in the 11th and 12th innings, retiring all six hitters he faced. The Pirates won the game in the bottom of the 12th when Harry Bright hit a three-run homer off of Mike McCormick. The victory advanced Face’s record to 8–0.
On June 14, Face was called in from the bullpen in the eighth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Dodgers with the score tied, 3–3. The Pirates scored three runs in the eighth inning to take the lead and Face shut down the Dodgers in the top of the ninth to record his 10th win. He struck out four of the eight Dodgers he faced.
He entered the June 18 game against the Chicago Cubs with the score tied 2–2 in the bottom of the ninth. The Pirates scored twice in the 13th and Face was 11–0. He pitched to 18 batters in five innings, striking out four and reducing his ERA to 1.34.
On June 25, the Pirates and Giants were locked in a 1–1 pitching duel between Harvey Haddix and Stu Miller. Face kept the Giants off the scoreboard by retiring seven of the first eight batters that he faced, with his lone hiccup a two-out walk to Darryl Spencer in the 11th inning. Roman Mejias delivered a two-run home run in the top of the 12th off of Eddie Fisher to provide the winning edge for the Bucs, and Face held off the Giants despite giving up two singles and a walk. His ERA dropped to 1.18.
In the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies on August 30, Face relieved Don Gross in the 10th inning of a 5–5 tie. He gave up a home run, but Dick Stuart kept Face’s victory streak intact when he doubled home Don Hoak and Bill Virdon to provide the margin of victory in a 7–6 win.
Face picked up his only loss of the 1959 campaign against the Dodgers in the first game of a doubleheader on September 11. Eight days later, he came in against the Reds with the score tied 2–2 in the ninth inning. Face pitched to 15 batters over four innings, giving up the go-ahead run to the Reds in the 12th. The Pirates bailed out their relief ace by scoring twice in the bottom half to claim a 4–3 victory.
MORE EXTRA-INNING WINS
Six of the 10 extra-inning wins required a single extra frame, while the other three went 11, 12, and 13. Seven of the extra-innings victories were at Forbes Field, a pretty strong number of walk-off wins. The six games (May 3, May 7, June 8, June 25, August 30, September 19) Face won after entering a tie game that also went extra innings are detailed above. The other four games are discussed in this section.
On July 9, he came on in the ninth inning against the Cubs and gave up the tying run. Harry Bright, pinch-hitting for Virdon, singled in Roberto Clemente to win the game in the bottom of the 10th.
In the first game of a July 12 doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals, Face entered in the top of the eighth after Haddix, who'd started the inning with a 5–1 lead, gave up three runs. In the top of the ninth, Face gave up a run-scoring single to tie the score. Clemente singled in Dick Schofield with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th to give Face his 14th win.
Face relieved Law in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on August 9 with the Cubs leading 2–1. He gave up one run but Bob Skinner threw out Jim Marshall with another would-be tally at the plate. The Pirates scored two in the ninth to tie the game 3–3 and then took a two-run lead in the top of the 10th inning on three hits and two walks. Face pitched to 13 batters and notched win number 15.
In the second game of an August 23 Sunday doubleheader against the Dodgers at Forbes Field, Face entered in the top of the ninth inning with the Dodgers leading 3–2. Stuart singled in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. In the top of the 10th, Face loaded the bases before getting pinch-hitter Carl Furillo to line out to left field. Face picked up win number 16 when Dick Groat singled off of Don Drysdale to drive in Virdon with the winning run.
THE OTHER FIVE WINS
Face entered the April 24 game against the Phillies in the bottom of the seventh inning with the Pirates leading 4–3 and retired one batter. The Phillies scored two in the eighth to take the lead, but the Pirates scored four in the top of the ninth to go ahead 8–5. Although Face gave up two hits in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies couldn't score and Face won his second game of the season.
On May 13, he came on against the Dodgers at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the bottom of the seventh inning with the Dodgers leading 4–3 and retired three of the four batters that he faced. In the top of the eighth, the Pirates scored three on a two-run homer by Stuart and a double by Mazeroski that scored Skinner. Face gave up two singles to begin the eighth inning before retiring the next three batters. In the bottom of the ninth, Face walked two Dodgers but finished off the next three to record his fifth win of the season.
The following evening, he entered the game in the bottom of the eighth with one out, runners on first and third, and the Pirates ahead 6–3. The Dodgers quickly tied the game. In the top of the ninth, Stuart homered, and Face retired the Dodgers in order to close out the game and notch his sixth win.
In the second game of a May 31 Sunday doubleheader at Crosley Field, Face entered the game against the Reds in the bottom of the seventh inning of a slugfest with the Pirates ahead 14–11. He earned the win as the most effective Pirates pitcher, retiring nine of the 10 batters he faced over the final three innings.
Face entered the June 11 game with the Giants in the top of the eighth inning relieving starter Bob Friend with the Pirates leading, 7-5, with no outs and runners on first and third. After retiring Leon Wagner, pinch hitter Willie Mays hit a three-run homer pushing the Giants ahead, 8-7. The Pirates scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Face won his ninth game with relief help from Vern Law who earned a save after giving up one run in the ninth inning of the Pittsburgh 12-9 victory.
One-third of Face’s 18 wins came in games started by Law, the ace of Pittsburgh’s starting staff. Ron Kline started four of the games Face eventually won. Haddix and Bob Friend each started two of the games Face ultimately won. His other four were in games started by Bennie Daniels, Dick Hall, Al Jackson, and Red Witt.
Face spread out his wins relatively evenly through the National League with one exception. He failed to record a decision against the Milwaukee Braves. Face recorded his most wins, four, over the Dodgers, the team that provided the reliever with his sole loss. He won three games each against the Cubs, Reds, Phillies, and Giants. He got only two wins against the Cardinals.
He was stronger during the first three months of the season. After struggling in his two April outings, which still produced victories, he won five games in both May and June. At the end of those three months, Face had a 1.17 ERA. He encountered some difficulty in July, when he recorded just two wins and his ERA increased to 1.61. His combined ERA for August and September was 5.13, and he completed the season at 2.60.
Nine of Face’s 18 wins ended as one-run victories as did his loss, a 5–4 defeat to the Dodgers. Four of the wins were decided by two runs, with five more being three-run victories. In only one of the games, the June 25 win over the Giants, was the Pirates' opponent held to one run.
Eight of Face’s 10 saves were bunched in May and June. Unlike his efforts in wins, which involved six games started by Law, Face saved only one of Law's starts. Haddix was the beneficiary of three of Face’s saves while Daniels, Friend, and Kline won two games apiece that Face saved.
Roy Face’s incredible 1959 season was the result of effective pitching and good luck. His 18 wins and 10 saves contributed to 36 percent of the games the Pirates won in 1959. The Pirates’ fielding was strong in supporting the relief ace–only one of Face’s 28 runs was unearned. He gave up but five home runs in 93⅓ innings. In 38 of his 57 appearances, Face did not give up a run. The Pittsburgh staff ERA was 3.90. Only Law and Face recorded an ERA below 3.00. Although the Pirates finished the season barely over .500, the 1959 season provided the foundation for the 1960 World Series champions, a 95–59 regular-season performance.
ED EDMONDS is Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Notre Dame. He is the former law library director at William & Mary, Loyola New Orleans, St. Thomas (Minnesota), and Notre Dame. He is a frequent speaker at the NINE Spring Training Conference and the Cooperstown Symposium. With Frank Houdek, he is the co-author of "Baseball Meets the Law" (McFarland, 2007). He has taught a seminar on sports law for over 35 years and written numerous law review articles on the legal aspects of labor and antitrust law and baseball. Edmonds first encountered SABR when he bought a copy of the "Baseball Research Journal" during his first trip to Cooperstown in 1975 while on his honeymoon.
Roy Face 1959 Pitching Game Log, Baseball-Reference.com,
Gary Gillette, “Roy Face,” SABR Biography Project, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/a959749b.
1 Jim O’Brien, Fantasy Camp: Living the Dream With Maz and the ’60 Bucs (Pittsburgh: James P. O’Brien, 2005), 364.