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BLI'S 100Years....100 Duels: Numbers 69 to 50




Number 61- Ron Darling (NYM) vs. John Tudor (STL) October 1, 1985

 

It’s October 1, 1985 and you are managing the New York Mets. You are in St. Louis ready to take on the first-place Cardinals. You are three games behind the Cardinals with just six games to play. The Cardinals are opening the series with 20-game winner, John Tudor, who has hurled 10 complete-game shutouts in his last 23 games started, including two against your Mets. Since June 8, the day Tudor fired his first shutout of the year, he is 18-1 with a 1.40 ERA and needless to say, one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Overall he is ranked as baseball’s number three pitcher.

 

However, you have a starting pitcher of your own that is 15-1 with an identical 1.40 ERA during that span. Your pitcher is the number one ranked pitcher in baseball. Three weeks earlier your pitcher battled Tudor for nine innings and gave up zero runs. Your pitcher’s name: Dwight Gooden. Do you go ahead and start Gooden in an almost must win against a virtually unbeatable John Tudor and take your chances with a combination of Ron Darling and Rick Aguilera against the rest of the Cardinals’ rotation or do you stick with your rotation and start the 16-5 Ron Darling versus Tudor? That was the dilemma facing Mets manager Davey Johnson on that first day in October in 1985.

 

Johnson’s counterpart, St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog, certainly believed Johnson’s best option was to start Gooden versus Tudor. “If I was Davey Johnson and I needed a sweep, I’d almost have to do that (throw Gooden against Tudor) (75),” Herzog told the press prior to the beginning of the series.

 

However, Johnson knowing that even if his team swept the Cardinals and drew even, the Mets still had one series left to play. Johnson speaking on the Mets’ telecast just prior to the opening pitch versus the Cardinals: 

 

“I’m going to have to stay with Darling and Doc (for games 1 and 2)…if I need to bring them back I’d bring them back each on three days’ rest to pitch the next to last game and the last game (of the season). This way they each have five days’ rest between starts and otherwise Darling would have had about six days.”

 

Unlike Johnson, Herzog had juggled his rotation. Eighteen game-winner, Danny Cox, had been scheduled to start the first game of the series with Tudor scheduled for the second game. However, having Tudor start in game two would have meant “A tangle with Dwight Gooden- a matchup the Mets like and the Cardinals dislike (76).”  Herzog agreed. “Avoid your best pitcher pitching against Gooden (77),” the Cards’ manager said. “Especially when you have a three-game lead going in; I’d hate to send Tudor against Gooden and lose 1-0. I might lose, 1-0 with him in the opener, but that’s the chance I have to take (78).”

 

Herzog added to the intrigue by half-jokingly stating that he would warm-up both Tudor and 21 game-winner, Joaquin Andujar, just before the game. The idea being was that if Johnson did decide to go with Gooden in the first game, Herzog would counter with Andujar and save Tudor for the next game.

 

Obviously Herzog had more room for error; after all his team had the three-game lead. Davey Johnson’s Mets on the other hand had to practically run the table. Prior to the series the press had made the same point. “What mattered most in the chess game between the two managers was that Herzog needed one game, Johnson needed all three (79).” In other words, even if Gooden shut down the Cardinals in the first game of the series, the Mets still had to win, most likely, at least four of their next five.

 

Passing up on Darling in the first game and then asking him to pitch in at least one if not two must-win games after the fact made little sense to Johnson. “I set my pitchers up for optimum use over the final six games (80),” Johnson explained. He then elaborated by stating that if he passed up on Darling in game one it would be “saying to Darling, ‘I don’t want you starting the first game’….Psychologically, I need Ronnie to pitch a couple of great games for me. I don’t need to make a move that would show him I don’t have confidence in him (81)”

 

Johnson ended the interview by reaffirming his belief in Darling. “I have every bit of confidence in Darling. Without him we wouldn’t be here anyway….I don’t care what anybody says. If we wind up taking three games and go on to win, Whitey will be second-guessed. If we don’t win it, I’ll be second-guessed. That’s the nature of the animal (82).” Indeed and Darling would go on to make sure Johnson would not be second guessed.

 

Ron Darling was drafted ninth overall in the 1981 June MLB Amateur Draft by the Texas Rangers. Some had projected Darling to be selected first overall. According to scouts Darling possessed “an above average curve and an above average slider (83),” and had been “clocked up to 94, 95 mph (on his fastball) (84).” However, Darling slipped all the way down to ninth due to questions regarding his “signability.”

 



Ron Darling Pitching For Yale

Reports were that the Yale All-American, Darling, was seeking a $150,000 signing bonus. Interestingly, the Cardinals who had the eighth overall pick had an interest in Darling. Longtime Cardinals scout, Rollie Johnson, who later joined the Mets after the ’82 season, labelled Darling “an excellent prospect” and “one of the better players in the country (85).” “We draft eighth” Johnson said prior to the draft. “I doubt if he’ll get to us (86).” Darling though did drop to the Cardinals; however, the Cards passed up on Darling and selected shortstop Bobby Meachem instead.

 

Just ten months later the Rangers traded Darling along with pitcher Walt Terrell to the Mets for outfielder Lee Mazilli. At the time Mets vice-president, Lou Gorman, said “Ron Darling has the potential to become a front-line major-league starting pitcher in the very near future. He is an extremely poised and talented young man (87).”

 

Darling was called up by the Mets in September of ’83 and pitched well. He was just 1-3 in his five starts but he posted a tidy 2.80 ERA. In ’84 Darling spent the entire season in the Mets rotation. He started the year strongly by winning ten of his first 13 decisions before the All-Star Break. However, after the All-Star Break Darling was just 2-6 with a 4.32 ERA. Walks and a lack of consistency had dogged Darling. Darling’s 4.55 walks per nine innings ratio was the fifth highest in the majors among starters.

 

In the spring of ’85 Darling was named the Mets’ number two starter behind Dwight Gooden. Darling’s season began with a start against St. Louis. His mound opponent that day was none other than John Tudor. Darling went seven innings, giving up just one run on four hits but didn’t figure in the decision. The Mets won the game 2-1 in 11-innings. In the first half of the ’85 season Darling posted a 9-2 record with a 2.52 ERA as the 24 year-old was able to cut his walks/9 innings down to 3.62. Darling’s strong first-half of the season earned him the only All-Star selection of his career.

 

Darling’s second-half though wasn’t quite as good as his first-half. After the All-Star break and up until his October 1 start versus the Cards, Darling was 7-3 with a very respectable 3.24 ERA. However, his walk rate had spiked to 5.08, highest among MLB starters. If Darling was going to beat the Cardinals, he’d have to keep them off the base-paths and limit the number of walks.

 

The ’85 Cardinals were 32-14 in games in which they drew at least five walks which was the average number of batters Darling was walking in his starts in the second-half of the season. The Cards had led the NL in walks with 586. Of course the 1985 Cardinals were also known for their terrific speed. Speed was the main reason the Cardinals had led the NL in runs scored despite being next to last in the league in homeruns hit. The ’85 Cardinals stole an incredible 314 bases, the fourth highest total of the 20th century. Moreover, heading into their series with the Mets, the Cardinals had successfully stolen 33 consecutive bases.

 

At game time the temperature in St. Louis was just 36 degrees as Darling warmed up in the bullpen. He had been clocked at about 95 MPH during his warm-ups as his adrenaline was kicking in. However, that adrenaline (or nervousness) may have led to the ominous beginning to Darling’s night. Darling opened the game by issuing a five-pitch walk to the Cardinals’ rookie left fielder and speed-burner, Vince Coleman. Coleman was the NL’s Rookie of the Year in ’85 and had set a record for most stolen bases by a rookie with 110 thefts. Moreover, eleven times that season Coleman had stolen both second and third base in the same inning. Knowing he’d have to keep Coleman in check to give his catcher, Gary Carter, any chance of throwing out Coleman attempting to steal, Darling threw to first four times to hold Coleman, nearly picking him off in the process.

 

Coleman finally broke for second on a 0-1 pitch to the Cards’ number-two hitter, Willie McGee. McGee though swung at the pitch and grounded to first on a play in which Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez, had to dive to first to tag the base to get the speedy McGee. Coleman advanced to second on the play. However, Darling was able to strand Coleman at second after retiring the Cards’ second baseman, Tommy Herr, and catcher, Darrell Porter, to end the inning. Coleman had attempted to steal third during the Herr at-bat but Herr had been swinging on the pitches and fouling them off.

 

Possessed with an excellent pick-off move to first, Darling had been able to hold the Cardinals’ tremendous speed in check all game. He allowed just one stolen base all night, that to Willie McGee in the third whom he was able to strand. In the second inning, thanks to a terrific throw by Gary Carter, Cards’ third baseman, Terry Pendleton, was thrown out attempting to steal second, ending the Cardinals’ consecutive successful stolen base streak.

 

Unlike Darling, John Tudor wasn’t concerned with his opposition’s speed. In terms of Speed Score the Mets ranked eighth in the NL. However, the Mets did possess power. They were third in the NL in homeruns and slugging.

 

The homerun ball had hurt Tudor early in his career. Tudor, who oddly enough was originally drafted by the Mets in ’75, broke into the majors with the Red Sox in 1979. The Red Sox had selected Tudor in the third round of the 1976 MLB January Secondary Phase Draft after Tudor had passed up signing with the Mets just months prior. Tudor would spend almost four full seasons in the minors before his call-up in August of 1979.

 



John Tudor Pitching for Boston Circa '82

In the following year in 1980, the then 26 year-old Tudor began the season at Triple-A Pawtucket but was called up by the Red Sox that June. On July 5, in his first major league start of the season, Tudor shut-out the Baltimore Orioles for six innings in a 1-0 Boston win. Tudor then proceeded to win five of his next six decisions as the surprising Red Sox catapulted to third place in the AL East by the end of August. The Red Sox though faded in September as did Tudor. Still though, he finished the season with an 8-5 record and an impressive 3.02 ERA.

 

Tudor regressed in the strike-shortened ’81 season by going 4-3 with a 4.53 ERA. He gave up 11 homeruns in just under 79 innings pitched. In ’82 Tudor rebounded with a 13-10 record and shaved nearly one whole run off his ERA. However, in ’83 Tudor’s ERA was once again over 4.00 due in large part to the 32 homeruns Tudor had surrendered, fourth highest in the majors. Twenty of those homeruns were hit at Fenway Park, a place notorious for punishing left-handed pitcher’s mistakes.

 

It was Tudor’s experience at Fenway that had led to Herzog acquiring the left-hander. Tudor, who had spent one season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’84 after being traded by Boston during the prior offseason, had been dealt to the Cardinals in December of that year. During spring training Herzog had commented, “I like left-handed pitchers who learn to pitch in Fenway Park. It’s going to take time to get there, but if they learn to pitch there, they have to be tough and they have to have learned how to pitch (88).”

 

If Tudor was going to have a successful major league career he definitely had to learn how to pitch because in terms of “stuff” the lefty was limited. He possessed a mediocre fastball, clocked in the 87 mph range and a change-up. His slider, according to Tudor himself, was “terrible.”  Yet in his first year in St. Louis he gave up just 14 homeruns all year, thanks in large part to the spacious Busch Stadium outfield. The distance to the foul poles at Busch was 330 feet with the power alley’s distances being 383 feet and the distance to center field being 411 feet. “My job is to move strikes around…here (in Busch Stadium) I can just turn the ball loose (89),” Tudor explained. Tudor knew that when pitching in St. Louis, had he made a mistake, more times than not, it would be contained by the stadium which is exactly what happened in the top of the fourth inning in his start against the Mets.

 

Leading off that inning for the Mets was Keith Hernandez. After Tudor threw two pitches inside for balls, he came back with a slider on the outside part of the plate. The left-handed hitting Hernandez, who may have been sitting on the pitch, drove the ball into the deep left field gap, just short of the wall for an out. Hernandez’s drive would have surely been a homerun at Fenway or Shea Stadium. At Busch though, it was just a long out.  

 

Not only did Tudor have his home park working in his favor in ’85, he also had a tremendous defense. Up the middle the Cardinals had perennial Gold Glove winner Ozzie Smith at short and MVP/Gold Glove winner, Willie McGee, in center. The Cards also had future Gold Glove winners Terry Pendleton and Andy Van Slyke at third and right respectively. On this night though, it was Tudor and second baseman Tommy Herr who made the defensive plays of the game for the Cardinals.

 

In the top of the second, Darryl Strawberry, hit a high chopper over the mound destined to be a hit save for a brilliant leaping stab by Tudor thus robbing Strawberry of a lead-off single. In the top of the sixth after Keith Hernandez had lined a one-out hard hit single to left, Herr made a nifty play to coral a Gary Carter grounder, then spun around to make the throw to first to retire the Mets catcher.

 



New York Met Great Keith Hernandez

The Mets though had made a few great defensive plays of their own including the aforementioned Keith Hernandez diving play in the first to retire Willie McGee and the Gary Carter perfect throw to second in the second inning to catch Pendleton stealing. In the same inning with a Cards runner on first, Mets second baseman, Wally Backman, made a sparkling diving stop of an Ozzie Smith grounder. Backman then got up to throw to first to retire the Cardinals’ shortstop to end the inning.

 

Make no mistake though; the game remained scoreless for nine innings because of the brilliant pitching of both Darling and Tudor. Darling had simply been overpowering. According to long-time baseball scribe, Peter Gammons, Darling’s “fastball was so dominant that even (Tommy) Herr could do nothing but meekly sweep his bat at inside pitches (90).” Besides a dominant fastball, Darling also had a wicked 12-to-6 curveball working for him which had kept the Cardinals completely off-balance the entire game. In fact, only twice did the Cardinals have two runners on base while Darling was on the mound. Moreover, Darling hadn’t allowed a Cardinals runner to reach third base during his nine innings of work.

 

Tudor had practically matched Darling inning for inning. The Cardinals’ left-hander had stymied the Mets’ batters by “making the ball duck under their bats, dart in to their fists or out to the end of the bat (91).” Over the first six innings Tudor too hadn’t allowed a runner to get to third base. He’d allowed just three scratch singles and walked two. In the top of the seventh though, the Mets threatened to break the scoreless tie.

 

After striking out Met left fielder, George Foster, with a beautiful off-speed pitch to open the inning, Tudor surrendered a two-strike single on a pitch that Mets third baseman, Ray Knight, was able to fight off and dump into right field. The bad luck continued for Tudor as Mets’ shortstop, Rafael Santana, hit a ball right back at Tudor which ricocheted off the pitcher’s heel all the way down the right-field line. Santana was credited with a double and had advanced Knight to third on the play. The Mets now had runners on second and third with one out and Ron Darling due up.

 

Rather than pinch-hit for Darling, Johnson left his pitcher in to bat. The non-move made sense. After all, Darling had already thrown six innings of shutout ball and had allowed just three hits. He had also retired nine of the last ten batters he had faced. Moreover, Darling, a former outfielder in college who had hit well during his collegiate career, had singled off of Tudor in his previous at-bat. In fact, Darling was 2-for-4 against Tudor during the season.

 



St. Louis Cardinal John Tudor

In this at-bat though, Davey Johnson rolled the dice by calling for the suicide squeeze. After taking Tudor’s first pitch for a ball, Darling squared up to bunt while Howard Johnson, who had just replaced Ray Knight as a pinch-runner, broke for home. However, Darling had the bat out in front and failed to connect on the pitch. As a result Johnson was caught in no-man’s land between third and home. Johnson futilely attempted to run back to third but was tagged out by Terry Pendleton after Cards’ catcher, Darrell Porter, tossed him the ball. Ron Darling on the play: “I was looking for a fastball but it was a change-up and I was way out in front. He’s (Tudor) a tough pitcher to hit, period. But it was even tougher to bunt against him (92).”

 

Rafael Santana was able to advance to third on the play. Darling then worked the count full on Tudor. However, in the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Tudor finally retired Darling by way of an infield fly popped up to third to end the inning. The 51,000+ crowd erupted and came to its feet as Tudor walked back to the Cards’ dugout.

 

In the bottom of the seventh the Cardinals would finally come close to scoring but Darling was able to wriggle out of the jam. For just the second time in the game, the Cardinals had two runners on base after Terry Pendleton ripped a one-out double down the right field line. Cardinals’ first baseman, Mike Jorgensen, then walked. The Jorgensen walk was just Darling’s third walk of the game, two of which were issued to Jorgensen.

 

With Ozzie Smith now due-up the entire Mets infield, led by Keith Hernandez, conferred on the mound. After the brief discussion Darling was set to pitch to Smith. In the meantime Mets reliever, Roger McDowell, began to warm-up in the bullpen. McDowell though would not be called upon. After he had gotten Smith into a 1-and-2 hole, Darling made perhaps his best pitch of the game. He fired another fastball which Smith hit right back to the mound. Darling, who was in a perfect position to field the ball did so and then spun around and threw to second to force Jorgensen. Rafael Santana then gunned a throw to first to get Smith by a half-step to complete the 1-6-3 inning ending double play.

 

In the eighth inning both Darling and Tudor exchanged 1-2-3 innings. In the top of the ninth the Mets once again threatened. Gary Carter led off the inning with a bloop double down the right field line just inches fair, after being jammed on a Tudor inside fastball. Darryl Strawberry followed. With the count 2-and-2 Tudor had Strawberry way out in front on a change that Strawberry lifted into foul territory on the third base side. Terry Pendleton charged in from third base and called for the ball. Cards’ catcher, Darryl Porter though, apparently did not hear Pendleton and attempted to make an over-the-head catch. As a result, the two players brushed up against one another and the ball fell in between them giving Strawberry new life. However, Tudor quickly recovered. He struck out Strawberry on a nasty sweeping side-arm breaking ball that Strawberry took for a called strike for the first out of the inning.

 

With first base open Herzog decided to have the Mets’ next hitter, George Foster, intentionally walked. After issuing the free pass to Foster, Tudor made quick work of Howard Johnson by striking him out on three pitches. He then induced a ground ball off the bat of Rafael Santana that was gobbled up by Ozzie Smith at short for a 6-4 force out of Foster at second to end the inning.

 

And with that, John Tudor had just shutout the Mets for nine innings for the second consecutive time. If the Cardinals could score in the bottom-half of the ninth, he’d equal Sandy Koufax’s record for shutouts by a left-handed pitcher in a season with 11. Surprisingly, with the heart of the Cardinals’ order due up in the ninth, Johnson had Darling return to the mound.

 



NY Met Lefty Reliever Jesse Orosco

With left-handed reliever, Jesse Orosco, warming up in the bullpen, Darling opened the inning by having Herr pop-up in foul territory. He then retired Porter on a 4-3 groundout for the second out of the inning. The frame ended by way of another defensive gem by Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez, who had to range to his right to field an Andy Van Slyke grounder. The left-handed throwing Hernandez then spun around to throw to Darling who ran to first to cover the base for the final out of the inning. After nine complete innings the game was still knotted at zero and headed for extra innings.

 

In the top of the tenth, with his spot due up in the batting order to lead-off the inning, Darling’s night came to an end as he was lifted for a pinch-hitter. The Mets’ right-hander had tossed nine innings of four-hit ball, walked just three and struck out five without allowing a run, giving his team a chance to win an almost must-win game and vindicating his manager in the process. “After Ronnie threw seven innings of shutout ball, I knew I wouldn’t be second-guessed (93),” Davey Johnson said after the game. “Ronnie had outstanding stuff and very good command of his curveball (94).”

 

Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez, concurred. “Darling pitched the game of his lifetime….we had to have somebody match Tudor and he did it (95).” After the game Darling provided insight on how he approached his start including trying to match one of the year’s best pitchers:

 

“I just wanted to trade zeroes with Tudor. If I gave up a run, we lose. The way we were struggling against him it would have been pretty demoralizing if I gave up a run or two…I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a major mistake…Now it looks like fun (pitching). It wasn’t fun out there. It was nerve-wracking. I was watching a pitcher and saw all our players ahead of his change. I didn’t see how we could get a run off him (96).”

 

And Darling was right. The Mets wouldn’t score a run off of Tudor. Tudor returned to pitch the tenth inning and made quick work of the Mets with another 1-2-3 inning. Tudor’s night finally came to an end when he was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the tenth. He had pitched ten scoreless innings, scattering seven hits and walking just three, one intentionally and striking out seven. “You can’t expect any more than that of him (97),” Herzog plainly stated after the game. Indeed. And the Cards inability to score in the bottom-half of the tenth denied Tudor a share of the shutout record with the great Sandy Koufax.

 

The game would ultimately be decided in the eleventh inning when Darryl Strawberry hit a towering homerun off Cardinals’ reliever Ken Dayley to put the Mets up 1-0. After working a stress-filled tenth inning in which he stranded two base runners, Mets’ left-handed reliever, Jesse Orosco, worked around a Mookie Wilson two-base error in the eleventh to shut down the Cardinals and win the game.

 

NY Met Ron Darling

However, despite the heroics of Strawberry and Orosco, “the hero of the game,” according to the Mets’ leader, Hernandez, was Ron Darling. Indeed. Thanks to Darling the Mets were still alive; however, that would be short-lived. After the Mets and Dwight Gooden beat the Cardinals 5-2 the next night the Cardinals were able to salvage a victory in the series finale. The Mets were finally eliminated from post season play two days later thanks to an 8-3 defeat at the hands of the Montreal Expos. Ron Darling gave up four runs in six innings and was tagged with the loss.

 

 


Number 52- Billy Pierce (CHW) vs. Ted Gray (DET) August 7, 1951

 


The 52nd ranked greatest pitcher’s duel features a battle between ex-teammates and fellow Michiganders Billy Pierce and Ted Gray. Besides both being born in Michigan and originally signed by the Detroit Tigers, Pierce and Gray shared numerous traits and were on parallel career paths until the Tigers traded Pierce to the Chicago White Sox after the 1948 season. After that the two pitcher’s careers began to diverge.

 

Pierce went on to win 186 games for the White Sox and over 200 games in his career. He was a six-time American League All-Star and a two-time 20-game winner. Ted Gray on the other hand managed only 59 wins in his big league career and was out of the majors by the age of 30. However, on August 7, 1951 Ted Gray was able to match his one-time teammate, Billy Pierce, for 12 innings in a fantastic pitcher’s duel. Throughout his career, Gray’s name was synonymous with: 1) a sore arm and 2) bad luck. In his duel versus Pierce, somehow the former didn’t come into play; however, the latter did.

 

From 1913 and up until his death in April of 1951, Aloysius Jerome Egan aka “Wish” Egan scouted for the Detroit Tigers. Egan had briefly pitched in the majors for both the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals in the years 02’ thru ‘06. Once his playing days were over Egan became a Tigers scout. He eventually rose to the position of Chief Scout to lead a staff of 14.

 

Tigers Legendary Scout "Wish" Egan

During the 1940’s the Tigers were stocked with young talent thanks in large part to Egan. In 1944, after the Tigers had come within one game of winning the American League Pennant, Egan was named The Sporting News’ “Scout of the Year.” In ’45, thanks to a rotation led by pitching sensation, Hal Newhouser, the Tigers won both the American League Pennant and the World Series. Newhouser, also a native Michigander, was signed by Egan in 1939 at 17 years of age. At that time Egan had his sights set on cornering the local Michigan baseball talent market.

 

By ‘43, along with Newhouser, the Tigers had the likes of Michiganders Dick Wakefield, Johnny McHale, Frank “Stubby” Overmire and Ted Gray vying for spots on its roster. All had been signed by Egan. In ’44 the Tigers would add Billy Pierce, yet another local prospect to its list.  Pierce too had been signed by Egan.

 

Besides both being signed by Egan, Gray and Pierce had several other things in common. Both had been invited to work out with the Tigers as early teens. Besides being local products both attended the same high school, Highland Park, and both were left-handers similar in stature. “Tiny” Ted Gray stood 5 foot, 11 inches tall and weighed at most, 155 lbs. The “gaunt,” Billy Pierce, stood 5’ 10” and reportedly weighed only 140 lbs.

 

Egan signed Gray in 1942. In ’41 Gray had pitched his Highland Park high school team to the Metropolitan League championship. That year the junior posted a 7-2 won/lost record. He struck out 91 batters in 60 innings pitched while yielding just 26 hits and 14 walks. Gray was selected to the All-City Squad – an all-star team that featured the best high school players in the Detroit area.

 

The younger Pierce was signed in 1944. Pierce too had a decorated high school career that culminated in outstanding fashion. Indeed. In his final high year at Highland Park Pierce fired seven shutouts including a no-hitter to earn the nickname “Mr. Zero.” In his 72 total innings pitched Pierce had allowed just four runs, two of which were unearned, leading Highland Park to yet another championship. 

 

In June of that season Pierce was selected to represent the state of Michigan in the first annual All-American Boys baseball game to be played in New York. Pierce had beaten out his soon-to-be Tigers’ teammate, Art Houtteman, and future Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, Bob Miller, for the honor.

 

Pierce, pitching for the East Team which was managed by none other than Connie Mack, hurled six innings of shutout ball, allowing three hits and walking just one. He struck out six in a 6-0 victory. Pierce “had showed good speed and a sharp curve, but his poise and the way he worked the corners were the most impressive characteristics of his work (98),” wrote the Detroit Free Press.  For his effort Pierce was named the game’s outstanding player and was awarded with a four-year college scholarship by Esquire Magazine; who had sponsored the affair. After the game both Pierce and his parents were “besieged by major league scouts who were anxious to immediately get Pierce under contract (99).” Ultimately Pierce ended up signing with Wish and his hometown Tigers just weeks later.

 

In the meantime, Ted Gray was off serving his country. Gray had enlisted in the United States Navy in the middle of 1943. While stationed in the South Pacific Gray continued to pitch. In 1944 Gray won 12 of his 13 starts for his Navy squad and struck out an average of 17 batters per game. In one game Gray managed to strike out 21.

 

Granted, Gray’s Navy opposition was well below the major league level and for that matter, the minor league level. Nevertheless, Gray’s pitching exploits were making headlines. In an uncredited column that appeared in the Detroit Free Press in March of ’45, the writer described the then 20 year-old Gray as having “a world of stuff and great control on top of it...something that most of the star left-handers did not achieve (100),” (re: the aforementioned Lefty Grove and Herb Pennock for example), “until after they had been in the big leagues for five or six years (101).”  A teammate of Gray’s added that Gray “has the left arm of Hal Newhouser, the speed of Dizzy Trout and the control of Stubby Overmire. He is the composite of the best three pitchers on the Detroit staff (102).”

 

A Young Billy Pierce With the Detroit Tigers

With Gray still serving in the Navy in the spring of ’45, it was the younger Pierce who was the first of the two to make his Detroit Tigers debut. Pierce made the club out of spring training but had to wait until June 1 to debut. On that day Pierce made an impressive relief appearance versus the Boston Red Sox. In his 3.1 innings pitched the then 18-year old Pierce surrendered just one hit while striking out four. Four days later Pierce made another relief appearance, this time against the Cleveland Indians, where again he had surrendered just one hit in 2.2 innings pitched.

 

Three weeks later though, Pierce was optioned to Double-A Buffalo of the International League to get more work. “We figure that Bill will get more of a chance to pitch up there (Buffalo),” Detroit General Manager, Jack Zeller, had commented after the roster move had been announced.  “He’ll pick up good experience and if we need him this year we can always bring him back (103).”

 

After posting a 5-7 record at Buffalo, Pierce found himself back in Detroit late in the season. He made two more relief appearances in September and was named to the 1945 Tigers’ World Series winning roster. Pierce though did not make a post season appearance. He returned to Buffalo for the 1946 season.

 

Having been discharged by the Navy in March of ’46, Gray would join Pierce at Buffalo that spring where both pitchers would struggle.  Gray posted a 7-11 record with an inflated 6.22 ERA. Pierce was marginally better. He was 3-4 with a 4.50 ERA. The Tigers shut Pierce down that July due to a back injury which may explain why Gray, despite his poor record, was recalled by the Tigers that September rather than Pierce. Gray made a two-inning scoreless relief appearance on September 20 versus the Cleveland Indians in a lop-sided 15-1 Tiger victory. One week later though, in his major league starting debut, Gray was shellacked by the same Indians. He allowed eight runs (seven earned) in eight innings of work.

 

Neither Gray nor Pierce pitched for the Tigers in 1947. Instead both pitchers spent the entire season at Buffalo where they put up strikingly similar numbers. According to the Sporting News Gray had logged 150 innings of work at Buffalo in ‘47, Pierce, 151. Gray had given up 128 hits; Pierce had given up 127 hits. Gray struck out 138 of the 588 batters he had faced. Pierce struck out 125 of 557 batters. Gray’s ERA was 3.42 including four shutouts. Pierce’s ERA was 3.87. He too had hurled four shutouts. Gray was 11-7 on the season versus Pierce’s 14-8 record. One other similarity between the two left-handers was that of inconsistency. Gray had walked 85 batters in his 150 innings pitched. The younger Pierce’s walk rate was even higher. Pierce had issued 125 free passes in his 151 innings of work.

 

Heading into ’48 both Gray and Pierce had their eyes set on cracking the Tigers’ starting rotation. However, given that the Tigers had veterans Hal Newhouser, Fred Hutchinson, Dizzy Trout and Virgil Trucks starting that season, Gray and Pierce would spend most of ‘48 in the bullpen which suited Detroit manager, Steve O’Neill, just fine. O’Neill wanted both pitchers to improve their control coming out of the ‘pen before he’d give them regular starting assignments.

 

That plan though went awry during the first half of the season as O’Neill had difficulty finding work for his young lefties. By the end of June Gray had thrown less than 10 innings. During that time Pierce had also been used infrequently. He’d made only seven appearances and had logged just over 12 innings. In his limited duty Gray had walked 15 batters while Pierce had issued 13 free passes.  Pierce though did post a 1.46 ERA as opposed to Grays’ 6.75 ERA.

 

The infrequent use of both pitchers by O’Neill prompted influential Detroit Free Press columnist, Lyall Smith, to wonder aloud why the Detroit manager wasn’t providing perhaps the Tigers’ two best pitching prospects more of an opportunity to improve:

  

 

“Two of the future pitching hopefuls are named Billy Pierce and Ted Gray. They constitute the backbone of a staff when the names Virgil Trucks, Hal White, Al Benton and other ‘old-timers’ will be off the roster. Yet Pierce has pitched 12 and one-third innings to date and Gray has been given a chance in nine and one-third….Why not use them more?...If the team loses with them in action it will be nothing that it hasn’t been doing more anyway (104).”

 

Detroit Tiger Lefty Ted Gray

Despite the Smith column, it would be another month until O’Neil would finally give one of his rookie pitchers a starting assignment.  With his other highly touted young pitching prospect, Art Houtteman, struggling mightily, O’Neill named Gray his August 6th starting pitcher versus the Washington Senators. Gray responded with a brilliant showing. He twirled a 10-inning complete game 1-0 shutout, limiting Washington to just six hits while striking out seven. Moreover, he had found his command. He walked only three batters. Gray followed up his Washington start with a victory against Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians. He then won his third straight start, this time against the Chicago White Sox.

 

Two days after Gray’s start against Washington, O’Neill started Pierce in the second game of a doubleheader in the series finale versus the Sens. Pierce went 7  2/3 innings before being lifted for a reliever. Pierce had allowed five runs (four earned) on ten hits and three walks. The Tigers were able to hang on for a 6-5 victory, earning Pierce the win. After getting rocked in his next start at the hands of the St. Louis Browns, Pierce beat Washington for a second time.

 

In September Ted Gray would go on to throw two more complete game victories. He finished the year with a 6-2 record and a 4.22 ERA although he did manage to walk more batters (72) than he had struck out (60) over his 85.1 innings of work. Pierce though faded that month. He posted a 9.18 ERA in just over 17 innings pitched.

 

The Tigers finished the 1948 season with a record of 78-76, a distant 18.5 games behind the World Series champions, Cleveland Indians. Seeking to add more power to a very ordinary lineup while at the same time attempting to significantly upgrade at the catcher position, the Tigers dealt Pierce to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Aaron Robinson that November.

 

At the time the Tigers had reason to believe that the left-handed hitting Robinson would flourish in Detroit by taking advantage of the short distance to Tiger Stadium’s right field fence. After all up until that point Robinson had punished Tigers’ pitching in Detroit. Indeed. Prior to the trade Robinson had hit .443 and had slugged .869 with eight homeruns in just 61 at-bats at Tiger Stadium.

 

According to then-Tigers’ GM Billy Evans, the rebuilding White Sox were more interested in acquiring Gray than they were in landing Pierce. “The funny thing about that one (trade) is that the Sox really didn’t want Pierce at all when we first began to dicker for Robinson (105),” Evans had stated a couple of years after the trade was made. “They wanted Ted Gray….We didn’t want to give up on Gray. We knew that Pierce was an excellent pitching prospect but he had shown a tendency not to have very much endurance. So we kept Ted and traded Pierce. It was a gamble (106).”

 

White Sox GM Frank Lane corroborated Evans’ version of the events. “I tried to get Ted Gray in that one (trade). We figured he was stronger than Pierce and he was the guy we made our original pitch to get. But the Tigers wouldn’t give him up and we finally agreed to take Pierce…plus $10,000 to sort of patch up our wounds for not getting Gray, the fellow we really wanted (106a).”

 

It’s not known whether or not Evans had consulted with former Tigers’ catcher and at-the-time Buffalo Bisons manager, Paul Richards, prior to dealing Pierce. If he had Richards most likely would have suggested the Tigers deal Gray rather than Pierce. While managing both pitchers at Buffalo, Richards acknowledged that Gray threw harder than Pierce but Pierce possessed a “live fastball.” “Everything Billy throws does something (107),” Richards opined. “The moment he gets control he’s a big league pitcher (108).”

 

As fate would have it, Richards would be reunited with Pierce in Chicago in 1951 after being hired by general manager, Frank Lane, to manage the White Sox. At the time the Sox were coming off an abysmal 60-94 record and its seventh straight losing season. By then Pierce had started 55 games for the Sox and had logged 391 innings. Pierce’s 3.94 ERA over his first two years in Chicago was slightly better than league average; however, his control was still lacking. Pierce had walked more batters (249) than he had struck out (213).

 

Former Buffalo Bisons Mgr & Catcher Paul Richards

In ’51 though, under Richards’ tutelage, Pierce cut his walk rate nearly in half. By the time he was to make his start versus the Tigers and Ted Gray that August, he had walked 56 in his 152.1 innings pitched and had struck out 78. Pierce was 10-9 with a 3.54 ERA and had climbed to 23rd from 33rd in terms of starting pitcher ranks. According to Richards the difference in Pierce in ’51 was improved mechanics and the addition of a third pitch- the slider, a pitch that Pierce could control much better. “I worked with him (Pierce) on his windup to help his delivery and convinced him that he had to throw a slider and occasional change of pace, and that was all he needed, (109),” Richards later claimed.

 

In an interview years later, Pierce concurred. “I learned to control my fastball better and at Richards’ request, learned a third pitch to go with my fastball and curve- a slider. Developing the slider helped me tremendously because it gave me a third out pitch. I threw it almost as hard as my fastball, but I could throw it for strikes better than the fastball or good curve (110).”

 

With Pierce dealt to the White Sox after the 1948 season, Ted Gray had one less pitcher to compete with for a spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation in ’49. Red Rolfe, who had replaced Steve O’Neil as the Tigers’ manager that season announced early in spring training that Gray would indeed start for the Tigers in the upcoming season.

 

Gray went on to start 27 games for the Tigers in ’49. Overall he was 10-10 but had pitched much better than the hard-luck pitcher’s record indicated. Gray’s 3.51 ERA was 20 points better than 15-game winner Art Houtteman. Like Pierce in Chicago though, Gray had walked more batters (103) than he had struck out (96).

 

During spring training in 1950 Gray struggled. Still though, he opened the year in the Tigers’ rotation. Gray responded with a terrific first-half of the season. At the All-Star Break Gray was 10-3 with a 3.75 ERA. Moreover, he had cut his walk rate down to 4.32/9 IP from 4.8 the previous year and had increased his strikeout rate to 6.04/9 IP from 4.40. For his effort Gray was rewarded by being named to the 1950 AL All-Star team.

 

The reason for Gray’s improvement in 1950 according to his manager, Red Rolfe, was a matter of approach. “It’s simply that he is pitching smarter ball from start to finish of every game (111),” Rolfe opined after Gray had fired a June 17th complete game victory over the hard-hitting Red Sox. “Ted still has streaks of wildness but he’s learned the hard way to walk the homerun smashers and not the pitchers and weaker hitters like he did last year (112).”

 

In the second-half of the season though Gray would be limited to just seven starts due to a sore arm and struggled as his 6.00 ERA in 39 innings pitched would attest. However, despite the injury and the disappointing end to the 1950 season, manager Rolfe was counting on Gray to return to form in 1951. “I’m counting on Ted for 15 victories (113),” Rolfe declared prior to the opening of the ’51 season. Gray’s poor spring showing though may have given Rolfe reason for pause. It had been reported that Gray was still experiencing arm soreness.

 

Nevertheless Gray opened the season in the Tigers’ rotation. His first start came against the White Sox. Gray lasted just five innings and gave up four runs, only one of which was earned. He walked only one batter but had been wild in spots. Detroit lost 5-0 with Gray being charged the loss.  Gray would get a second shot at the White Sox eight days later. His mound opponent on that day would be Billy Pierce. 

 

In this second start versus Chicago Gray was unable to get of the fifth inning. He was pulled after the White Sox took a 3-2 lead. However, Pierce wasn’t able to hold on to the lead. He gave up six runs in a losing cause. Detroit won the game 7-4. Gray and Pierce would not be matched up against one another until their August duel.

 

Ted Gray Posing

At that time Gray was still struggling with a sore arm and hadn’t started a game since July 18. On that day he was unable to register an out against the Philadelphia Athletics and was pulled after surrendering a lead-off home run followed by two consecutive singles. He made two subsequent relief appearances to end the month of July. On August 4th Gray was summoned from the bullpen in a save situation to preserve a 2-1 win versus the Red Sox. The sore-armed Gray responded by striking out the side for the save prompting Rolfe to go ahead and start the 3-10 Gray three days later versus Billy Pierce and the White Sox. Still suffering from a sore arm, Gray responded by pitching the game of his career. However, in what had become a recurring theme for Gray, the now 25 year-old southpaw would be tagged with yet another hard-luck loss.

 

Going back to 1949 Gray had made 76 starts. In 25 of those 76 starts Gray received two runs or less in run-support from the Tigers’ offense. Gray’s record in those starts was 2-21 with a 3.32 ERA. His duel with Billy Pierce in August of ’51 would be no different for the snake-bitten Gray. A second inning homerun off of the bat of White Sox first baseman, Eddie Robinson, would be the only hard-hit ball Chicago would muster all day against Gray. Indeed, Gray deserved a better fate.

 

After surrendering the Robinson solo shot Gray shut the Sox out over his next ten innings of work. What’s more was that the sore-armed Gray got stronger as the game wore on. In fact, the last 17 batters Gray had faced failed to register a hit. Conversely over his 13 innings of work Billy Pierce had faced the minimum three batters in an inning just three times. He held the Tigers scoreless through his first six innings.

 

However, the Tigers were finally able to breakthrough in the bottom of the seventh when left fielder, Bud Souchock, ripped a double off of Pierce and later scored after Detroit first baseman, Don Kolloway, singled to left to tie the game.

 

The Tigers missed two golden opportunities to win the game in the ninth and thirteenth innings. After Gray had stranded a two-out walk to Pierce in the ninth Tigers’ right fielder, Vic Wertz, opened the bottom of the inning with a walk. He advanced to second via a Souchock bunt. Pierce then walked Detroit center fielder, Hoot Evers. The Tigers’ next batter was Don Kolloway, who had tied the score back in the seventh. This time though Pierce was able to induce a groundball which led to an inning ending 6-4-3 double play thanks to some brilliant fielding by White Sox shortstop Chico Carrasquel.

 

In the thirteenth Pierce made quick work of the Tigers’ first two hitters Johnny Lipon and Jerry Priddy. Lipon flied out to center. Priddy was retired by way of a groundout. However, the American League leader in hits in 1950 and ’51 and the AL’s 1949 batting champion, George Kell, kept the inning alive by hitting a grounder that “hit the bag at third and bounded toward the boxes. A spectator reached over the rail and touched the ball, so Kell’s effort was an adjudged a ground rule double (114).” With first base open, Pierce then walked Pat Mullin who had entered the game in the 10th inning to play right field, replacing Wertz. However, Pierce would strand his ninth and tenth runners of the game when Souchock grounded to short forcing Mullin at second.

 

Gray’s ability to navigate his way out of trouble occurred earlier in the game. In the third inning Gray was able to strand two White Sox runners after giving up a pair of two-out singles to Bob Dillinger and Nellie Fox by striking out Minnie Minoso who at the time was leading the AL in hitting with a .345 batting average. Gray opened the fourth inning by walking Robinson and then surrendering a hit to Sox right fielder, Bert Haas. Gray though retired the next two hitters by way of a foul pop-up and a strikeout to prevent Robinson and Haas from advancing a base. Gray ended the inning by retiring Carrasquel by way of a fly-ball to center.

 

After dusting off  the last seven batters he had faced in succession, Gray’s day came to an end in the Tigers’ half of the twelfth inning when with a runner on second and in scoring position, Rolfe lifted Gray for a pinch-hitter, that being the right-handed Neil Berry. Pierce though was able to retire Berry on a 6-3 groundout to end the inning.

 

After the game Gray was asked if he had requested to be removed from the game because he was tiring. “No, my arm was all right (115),” Gray answered. Indeed. Gray ended the game having thrown 12 innings, the longest outing of his career. He allowed eight hits and walked just two, although he did hit two batters but struck out six. Gray’s 86 Game Score versus Pierce and the White Sox on this day would be the highest of his career.

 

Former Teammates Gray & Pierce

Although Pierce threw one more inning than Gray, his Game Score was two points less than Gray’s 86. In his 13 innings pitched, Pierce had allowed nine hits and walked four while striking out three. Pierce though got the win as the White Sox were able to score off of Tigers’ swingman, Bob “Sugar” Cain in the top of the thirteenth to win the game 2-1. “I still like the Tigers (116),” Pierce once said after his childhood favorite team traded him in ’49. Pierce added though, “I like to beat them (117).”

 

However, despite the added incentive to beat his former team, over his career Pierce had a losing record versus the Tigers. In his career Pierce was 17-21 against Detroit with a 3.91 ERA. In fact the Tigers are only one of two teams in which Pierce had a losing record against with a minimum of five games started, the other being the mighty New York Yankees. Pierce made a total of 433 starts in his career and logged just over 3,300 innings pitched with a career won/lost record of 211-169. At the time of this writing Pierce appeared to be on the cusp of being posthumously named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

After his duel versus Pierce, Gray accumulated a 19-41 record in Detroit. During the 1954 season Gray had privately requested a trade from the Detroit Tigers. “I’m convinced I can’t win here in Detroit (118),” Gray had confided in Detroit Free Press scribe Lyall Smith. In December of ’54 his request was finally granted. Gray was traded to the White Sox to rejoin Pierce. However the reuniting of Gray and Pierce would last just weeks. After two poor relief appearances in ’55, Gray was released that May. He later caught on with Cleveland, New York and Baltimore that year but was subsequently released by all three teams. 1955 was Gray’s last year in the majors.


Pitcher Duels Numbers 69 to 50:



 

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