Baseball historians acknowledge 1901 as the beginning of modern baseball. Most recognize that as the start date for comparing stats—pitching and hitting.
As a baseball fan pouring over the all-time wins or shutouts lists, I realized that I could identify most names that I didn't know much about as coming from the "early" years of baseball, but didn't know if they were pre-modern baseball, or form the modern 'dead ball" era—1901-1923.
I knew some names like Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, who were mainstays at the top of most historian's all-time greatest pitcher lists, but knew I didn't know enough about Grover Alexander (90 shutouts), or Eddie Plank (69). I was determined to study the exploits of the best pitchers of the modern dead ball era (1901-1923), and extract a comparative list of the best that generation had to offer.
The first step was to eliminate the pitchers who's main career impact came before 1900. Going down the all-time wins list I found out that the majority of the players I did not know came from the pre-1900 period: Pud Galvin, Kid Nichols, Keefe, Clarkson, Radbourn, and Welch all won 300+ games.
Continuing on down the win list, the pre-1900 generation included Mathews (297) and five more who could be found at 250 wins or above.
That brought me quickly as to how to deal with Cy Young, who's career overlapped the pre and modern eras. His career started in 1890, but some of his best years came after the modern era began. Some of his ERAs, 3.78 and 3.94, seemed very high for the period, and several years he pitched over 350 innings and gave up many more hits than innings pitched.
His legendary win totals, innings totals, the less than well-known teams he played for all seem to point to a player whose roots were in the pre-modern era. This caused me to limit his ranking only to his influence and numbers post-1901.
I had been under the impression that the modern dead ball era had been full of 300 game winners, who pitched a ton of innings every year and had microscopic ERAs because of the lack of the power game.
Outside of Young, discussed above, this generation produced only four 300 game winners. Walter Johnson (417 wins), Christy Mathewson, Grover Alexander (373 wins), and Eddie Plank (326) are the greats of this generation. Along with Young, they also top the all-time shutouts list!
So these paragons of the game top the list of the greatest pitchers from their generation:
1) Walter Johnson—generally considered the No. 1 pitcher of all-time for his 110 shutouts, 417 wins, 3500+ Ks—not passed until the 1980s. He was the leading figure for the Washington Senators.
2) Christy Mathewson—(373 wins, 2.16 ERA, and 79 shutouts) Known for his control, "fade-away" pitch, and great performances leading the Giants to World Series titles.
3) Grover Alexander—(373 wins, 2.56 ERA, 90 shutouts) did his best pitching for the Phillies of 1911 - 1917. His 1915 season (31-10, 1.22 ERA was one of the greatest all-time) was a rebel, and later developed problems with alcohol, although maintaining an effective career til the end with the Cardinals 1927-1930.
4) Eddie Plank (best lefthander of the generation) (326 wins, 2.36 ERA, and 69 shutouts) he pitched for the Athletics and was a consistently effective pitcher thoughout his career. Although he was traded to the Yankees in 1918, decided to retire rather than report.
5) Cy Young—discussed above. 225 wins came after 1901 for five different teams.
These five are the only pitchers to break 300 wins. Between 250-300 wins, only Eppa Rixey (266) is from this generation, although much of his work came after 1923. The rest of the pitchers all had shorter careers—usually about 12-13 years of length. The next five on my list pitched with outstanding quality, if not longevity:
6) Mordecai "Three-finger" Brown—(239-130, 2.06 ERA, 55 shutouts) Known for his duels with Christy Mathewson—a mainstay for the Cubs—truly one of the greats of the game.
7) Ed Walsh—all-time leader with career ERA - 1.82, 57 shutouts, 195 wins. Was instrumental in helping design Comiskey Park's "pitching-friendly" dimensions.
8) Rube Waddell—his 307 Ks in 1904 were ahead of his time. 2316 Ks vs. only 803 BB demonstrated his terrific command. The leading power pitcher of his generation until "The Train." 2.16 ERA, 50 shutouts, and 193 wins to go along with his career.
9) Vic Willis—perhaps because he pitched for the Boston Beaneaters and the Pittsburgh Pirates, his 249 wins and 50 career shutouts were not recognized for the HOF until 1995.
10) Chief Bender—(212-127, 2.46 ERA, 40 shutouts) He was a mainstay on the Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack. He pitched alongside Eddie Plank. He was an interracial pioneer.
Honorable mention to Addie Joss, who maintained an amazing 1.89 career ERA for the White Sox in a too brief career. Also to Joe McGinnity, who amassed 246 wins between 1899 and 1908 for Joe McGraw's Giants.
Although it took too much time in many cases, the Hall of Fame has looked kindly on all of these pitchers, long careers and short. Perhaps this sets some historical precedent on how we might deal with the Hall of Fame worthiness of Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, and Mike Mussina.