The Top Ten Pitchers Of The "Golden Years" and The Raised Mound Era: 1946-1968
This period, post - WWII, witnessed great domination by the Yankees, and the advent of integration in baseball. The Tigers, Phillies, Giants, Dodgers, Indians, White Sox, Braves, Cardinals, Pirates and Reds all saw glimpses of success, but it was usually the Yankees that they had to beat.
Not until the Yankees collapse in 1965 were other teams free of their shadow, (at least for 12 years). The last part of this era, during the mid 60s, is when I started following box scores and standings in the newspaper and reading biographies of historical players. I have vivid memories of watching the '67 World Series with my mom, and admiring players on both sides.
The pitchers on this list fall into two categories: those who toiled and won during the "Golden Years", 1946 - 1962, and those whose careers took off when the mound was raised and the strike zone made larger, 1963 - 1968.
The first period coincides with our country's baby-boom and unmatched prosperity. The game continued on unhurried, enjoyed great popularity, and witnessed integration and the advent of baseball on TV.
The second period coincides with social and racial upheaval and the Vietnam War. The game witnessed expansion and picked up a frenetic pace as pitching dominance spread like wild fire.
The best pitchers drove pitching records and excellence to new heights. Even Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn (age 42), who were close to finishing their careers in 1963, received a boost with 24 and 23 win seasons.
To comparatively evaluate careers, I looked primarily at several categories and ratios: wins, ERA, ERA+, shutouts, IP/H, Ks and K/BB ratio, and WHIP. Secondarily, I considered longevity, peaks of dominance, post-season success and awards. My focus is on the total career.
The Best Golden Years Pitchers:
During this era the emphasis in pitching was to win, however possible. Bob Feller blazed his way to 348 strikeouts in 1946, but by 1948 he was no longer throwing 100 mph, and had to find other ways to win.
The best pitchers from this era had good pitches, and struckout their share of batters, but depended on their ability to "pitch". They protected leads, kept hitters guessing, changed speeds, and saved a little something extra for when they needed it.
One pitcher stands out from this time with a career that spans across the era.
1) Warren Spahn - (363 - 245; 3.09 ERA; ERA+ 118; 63 shutouts; 5243 IP/ 4830 H; 2583 Ks/ 1434 BB; ratio 1.80; WHIP 1.195). From 1947 - 1963 Spahn pitched for the Boston Braves, who later moved to Milwaukee
He was known for a very high leg kick, which he used to hide his pitch selection and hold runners on base. Not a strikeout pitcher, Spahn used an assortment of pitches, later developing a screwball and change-up. He sought to upset the batter's timing by out-thinking the opponent.
Spahn won 20 games 13 times! He led his team to pennants in 1948, '57 and '58. In 1957, he won the Cy Young award. By the end of his career he had edged past Bob Feller into 3rd on the all-time strikeout list (2583K). His 363 wins and 63 shutouts are the most of any pitcher in the live ball era since 1920.
2) Bob Feller - (266 - 162; 3.25 ERA; ERA+ 122; 44 SHO; 3827 IP/ 3271 H; 2581K/ 1764 BB; 1.46 ratio; WHIP 1.34) came blazing into baseball before the war, but pitched more years and helped his team to prominence post-war.
His best years were 1939-'41, 1946. His incomparable fastball was the talk of the league. His 348 Ks in 1946 fell one short of the single season mark held by Rube Waddell since 1904. Feller continued to pitch effectively for Cleveland even after his fastball lost its zip.
He helped the Indians to the AL pennant in 1954 before he retired in 1956. Bob Feller lost four years to the war, ages 23 - 27. I wonder how many pitchers would still make the HOF if they lost those four years, a pitcher's usual peak, from their career? It's mind boggling to imagine what kind of numbers those peak years might have produced for him.
Looking at his pre-war rates, one could add 80 wins and over 1000 Ks, perhaps making him the greatest pitcher of his era. As it is, he is still one of the best. Bob Feller was inducted into the HOF in 1962.
3) Whitey Ford - (236 - 106; 2.75 ERA; ERA+ 133; 45 SHO; 3170 IP/ 2766 H; 1956 Ks/1086 BB; 1.80 ratio; WHIP 1.215) joined the Yankees pitching staff in 1950 and by 1955 was the ace.
A lefty, Ford had fine control, and always kept batters guessing what was coming next. He was consistently effective year after year for the Yankees, controlling runs scored and enjoying large W - L percentages. His ERA and winning percentage lead pitchers in the live ball era since 1920.
He won the Cy Young award in 1961, and was often a post-season hero for the Yankees many world series appearances. After his retirement Ford admitted to doctoring baseballs with the help of his catcher Elston Howard. He was inducted into the HOF in 1974.
4) Robin Roberts - (286 - 245: 3.41 ERA: ERA+ 113; 45 SHO; 4688 IP/ 4582 H; 2357 K/ 902 BB; 2.61 ratio; WHIP 1.17) Pitched for the 1950 Phillies "Whiz Kids", and led the team to their first pennant in 35 years. He won 20 games six years in a row, and at one point pitched 28 consecutive complete games!
He was a workhorse on the mound, completing 305 games in his career. His K/BB ratio of 2.61 is tops for the "Golden Age" pitchers, and the best since Christy Mathewson. It shows his great command and control.
In 1952, after winning 28 games, he was named Sporting News Player of the Year. He narrowly missed winning the triple crown the following year. He was inducted in the HOF in 1976.
5) Early Wynn - (300 - 244; 3.54 ERA; ERA+ 107; 49 SHO; 4564 IP/ 4291 H; 2334 Ks/ 1775 BB; 1.31 ratio; WHIP 1.329) pitched for Washington, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox from 1939 - 1963.
Wynn possessed a blazing fastball and a tough attitude on the mound. He cultivated the image of meanness, once saying he would brush back his grandmother if need be.
He led the American League in IP in 1951, ‘54, and ‘59, had five 20 win seasons and 290 complete games. After he was traded to Cleveland in 1948, he learned to throw a curve, slider, changeup and knuckleball from his pitching coach, Mel Harder. By 1950, he led the league in ERA.
He remained a primary pitching force the rest of the decade, winning the Cy Young award with the Chicago White Sox in 1959. He totaled the most strikeouts during the decade (1544). Adept with the bat, he often pinch hit for his teams. Like Lefty Grove, his 300thwin was the last game he pitched. He was inducted into the HOF in 1972.
6) Billy Pierce - (211 - 169); 3.27 ERA; ERA+ 119; 38 SHO; 3306 IP/ 2989H; 1999 K/1178 BB; 1.70 ratio; WHIP 1.260) was a leading pitcher for the White sox 1951 - '62.
A lefty and slight of build, he used a big wind up and dipped his back shoulder during his pitching motion. Pierce became known for his match-ups against Whitey Ford, highlighting the rivalry between the White sox and Yankees. (They faced each other 14 times.)
He was AL pitcher of the year in 1956 and 1957, was a 7 time all-star, and helped lead the White sox to a pennant in ‘59. And the Giants in ‘62. His 1999 Ks were fifth most by a lefty when he retired. He was a significant pitcher in his era.
The Best of the Raised Mound Era - 1963 - 1968 -
After an offensive explosion in 1961, baseball executives determined to give some advantage back to the pitcher. They raised the mound five inches and made the strike zone larger. By 1963, the changes were in effect, and the era of the pitcher was underway! Strikeout totals soared, ERAs plummeted, and HOF careers were made.
As an example of pitchers new found dominance, from 1965 - 1970 "Sudden" Sam Mc Dowell, one of the great strikeout pitchers of the era, posted 1652 Ks, averaging 275 per season!
This was more than anyone recorded for the entire decade of the 50s. Pitching records moved ahead at a furious pace, as opposed to the more leisurely pace baseball took in the 50s. Dominance became the key word.
1) Bob Gibson - (251 - 174; 2.91 ERA; ERA+ 127; 56 SHO; 3884 IP/ 3279 H; 3117 K/ 1336 BB; 2.33 ratio; WHIP 1.18) dominated hitters both with his slider and his stare. His performance in the ‘67 world series led to the series MVP.
His performance in 1968 led to the league MVP award, and may never be duplicated. He had an ERA of 1.12, 13 shutouts and 28 complete games! The 17 Tigers he struck out in game one of the ‘68 series is still a record. Gibson continued with success after the mound was lowered in 1969, and won a second Cy Young award in 1970.
He was the second pitcher in history to reach 3000 Ks. In addition to his pitching prowess, he was an excellent hitter, and won 9 gold gloves for his fielding. A knee injury quickly caught up to him in 1974, and by 1975 he retired. He was inducted into the HOF in 1981.
2) Juan Marichal - (243 - 142; 2.89 ERA; ERA+ 123; 52 SHO; 3507IP/ 3153H; 2303 K/ 709 BB; 3.25 ratio; WHIP 1.10) was the leading pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in the 1960s.
He was known for his high leg kick, concealing the pitch selection. His debut on July 19, 1960 was a one-hit shutout of the Phillies with one BB and 12 Ks. He won 20 games 6 of seven seasons from 1963 - 1969, with his highest ERA at 2.76.
Despite winning more games than any other pitcher during the decade (191), he received not a single vote for the Cy Young award. His exceptional control led to an amazing 3.25 K/BB ratio. This is the highest ratio among any pitcher since 1901 to his retirement in 1975. (Among pitchers studied for top ten of each era).
An allergic reaction to a shot of penicillin in 1970 led to severe back pain and crippling arthritis. He managed one more good year in 1971. He was a nine time All-Star. He was inducted into the HOF in 1983.
3) Sandy Koufax - (165 - 87; 2.76 ERA; ERA+ 131; 40 SHO; 2324 IP/ 1754 H; 2396 K/ 817 BB; 2.93 ratio; WHIP 1.11) pitched from 1955 - 1966 for the Brooklyn/ Los Angeles Dodgers. After a slow start to his career and two very good years in ‘61 and ‘62, his career took off in 1963.
He won the Cy Young Award that year, and again in ‘65 and ‘66. He was the league MVP in ‘63 and won the triple crown in each of his Cy Young seasons. His 2396 Ks were second among left-handed pitchers upon his retirement.
Painful arthritis in his left elbow led to his retirement after the ‘66 season. He is one of very few pitchers to record more than one K per IP for their careers. His ‘63, ‘65 and ‘66 seasons were dominance personified. This is one of the most significant peaks any pitcher has posted in baseball history.
He captured the imagination of fans and sportswriters, gaining legendary status from his four dominant years. He was rewarded for his exploits by HOF induction in 1972.
4) Don Drysdale - (209 - 166; 2.95 ERA; ERA+ 121; 49 SHO; 3432 IP/ 3046 H; 2486 Ks/ 855 BB; 2.91 ratio; WHIP 1.15) used a sidearm fastball to intimidate hitters. His 154 hit batters are still a NL record. His 25 wins in 1962 led to a Cy Young award.
In 1968, he pitched 58 consecutive scoreless innings, the record at the time. He teamed with Sandy Koufax to form one of the most dominant pitching duos in history. His success began a couple of years before Koufax, and he finished his career in 1969. He went on to broadcast games for the Dodgers, and was inducted into the HOF in 1984.
5) Jim Bunning - (224 - 184; 3.27 ERA; ERA+ 114; 40 SHO; 3760 IP/ 3433 H; 2855 K/ 1000 BB; 2.855 ratio; WHIP 1.18) Is serving as a U.S. Senator from the state of KY since 1998. His career began in 1955 with the Tigers.
He later pitched for the Phillies, Pirates and Dodgers. He had a good curve and was said to be sneaky fast. He put up several good seasons until the rule changes in 1963 gave his career a late surge.
He won 19 games three straight years and his highest K totals came from these years with the Phillies from 1963 - 1967. His 2855 Ks were second to Walter Johnson’s 3508 when he retired in 1971. He was inducted into the HOF in 1996.
A note on ERA+. It is a good tool to show a pitcher’s effectiveness, but is best used when comparing pitchers with similar career lengths.
You can’t really take pitcher "A" who pitched 3000 innings and posted an ERA+ of 130 and say he was a greater pitcher, (because of this stat), than pitcher "B" who posted and ERA+ of 117 but pitched a much more rigorous 4600 innings. It just doesn’t wash.
Pitcher "B" accomplished over half again as much work as pitcher "A" - and it is not "compiling" or "accruing". Pitcher "B" was striving for excellence each time on the mound, and may have worked through arm problems or any number of difficulties that normally come up in those 1600 extra IP.
Chances are he found some sort of excellence on the other side of difficulties along his way. ERA+ is not an automatic ranking system. When evaluating a pitcher’s career for ranking, you still have to look at the whole body of work - career totals and quality stats.
The mighty strikeout! First, we must acknowledge that from 1901 - 1963 striking out was one of the worst things you could do as a hitter. It was against "baseball religion." Secondly, the best pitchers throughout these three eras amassed the most strikeouts. (This is kind of like the all-time shutout list.)
Entering the post-war era, the top of the all-time strikeout list looked like this:
1) Walter Johnson 3508
2) Cy Young 2803
3) Christy Mathewson 2502
4) Rube Waddell 2316
5) Lefty Grove 2266
6) Eddie Plank 2246
7) Grover Alexander 2198
8) Bobo Newsom 2082
9) Dazzy Vance 2045
10) Red Ruffing 1987
Pitchers from the live ball era had barely dented the top 5 (Lefty Grove). 2000 Ks was still a significant total for a career. Even Pierce’s 1999 and Ford’s 1956 were historically significant at the time.
Our "Golden Years" aces began to make inroads on the list, spearheaded by the feats of Bob Feller. He ended up passing Mathewson for third.
When the Golden Year’s pitchers finished their careers, the top 10 included Warren Spahn - 2583, Bob Feller - 2581, Robin Roberts - 2357, and Early Wynn - 2334. That was quickly about to change as Gibson, Bunning, Drysdale, McDowell, Koufax, and Marichal all began to make a mark.
By the time the "raised mound" pitchers finished their assault on the K records, there were five new members to a new top 10:
1) Walter Johnson 3508
2) Bob Gibson 3117
3) Jim Bunning 2855
4) Cy Young 2803
5) Warren Spahn 2583
6)Bob Feller 2581
7) Christy Mathewson 2502
8) Don Drysdale 2486
9) Sam McDowell 2453
10) Sandy Koufax 2396
Only three names remained from the list from 1945. Walter Johnson’s record still seemed to be set on Mt. Olympus. New standards and expectations were being set for top pitchers to accomplish. Now the dominance of the strikeout had become an important stat.
K/BB ratios - In the dead ball era the very best showed their stuff:
1) Mathewson 2.96
2) Waddell 2.88
3) W. Johnson 2.57
4) Alexander 2.31
5) E. Plank 2.10
The best of the live ball era showed Dazzy Vance at 2.43 and Carl Hubbell at 2.31. The ERA's leading pitcher, Lefty Grove posted a K/BB ratio of 1.91.
Bob Feller’s and Early Wynn’s high BB rates, along with their blazing fastballs, seem reminiscent of pitchers like Bobo Newsom (2082/1732), and Amos Russie (1950/1707). All of their numbers were soon to be dwarfed by Nolan Ryan.
Spahn and Ford’s 1.80 looks quite normal for very good pitchers historically. Robin Roberts 2.61 was the best since the live ball era began in 1920!
The dominance of the 1963 - 1968 period shows up remarkably in K/BB ratios. The ceiling for the live ball era was broken again and again.
Marichal - 3.25, Koufax - 2.93, Drysdale - 2.91, and Bunning - 2.855 posted ratios not seen since the dead ball era. Only Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell could manage with a dead ball what the raised mound enabled these pitchers to accomplish!
This ERA also witnessed the integration of baseball. Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal are the first men of color to jump onto any era’s top ten list. But overall, breaking into the pitching ranks was a slower process than the field positions.
Juan Marichal not receiving a single vote for the Cy Young award during the 60s is a disgrace to the game and the voters for the award during that time! But it is probably indicative of the resistance Latin Americans received during the 60s.
What? Put the lists together you say? I hear you! - lol
This presents difficulties because of the change in the nature of the game. The greatness these pitchers achieved needs to be taken in context. This period (1963 - 1968) should be viewed with respect for the accomplishments achieved, but with a similar adjusted understanding that we use to judge the records of the dead ball era.
These five pitchers excelled above the rest of their time. Both Gibson and Marichal showed they could maintain excellence after the mound was lowered - Bunning and Drysdale not so much.
Koufax left no evidence in this area other than the two years preceding the rule changes. I fully expect a discussion of Koufax ranking to ensue in the comments(!) I will say here that it is based on his total career.
Also, I am aware that varying values can be placed on different aspects of a pitcher’s career. This usually centers around the debate of longevity and total numbers vs. quality stats like ERA+ and K/BB ratio.
The combined list:
1) Warren Spahn
2) Bob Gibson
3) Juan Marichal
4) Bob Feller
5) Whitey Ford
6) Robin Roberts
7) Early Wynn
8) Sandy Koufax
9) Don Drysdale
10) Billy Pierce and Jim Bunning
In closing let me say that Billy Pierce had a truly excellent career in historical perspective up to the time of his retirement. It was probably overshadowed by the frenetic records breaking that surrounded the period when he retired.
He was one of the top pitchers of his time, (better than Bob Lemon and Hal Newhouser who are in the HOF), and deserves attention from the veteran’s committee.
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