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Thursday, November 20, 2008
Mussina linked to Koufax … and Henry Schmidt?


As you've no doubt heard (or read, or intuited), Mike Mussina is expected to announce that he's finished, and thus will end his career with a 20-win season. How rare is this? According to ESPN Research, the list of pitchers who won 20 games in their last season is exceptionally short:

Sandy Koufax 1966 27-6
Lefty Williams 1920 22-14
Eddie Cicotte 1920 21-10
Henry Schmidt 1903 22-13

It's no coincidence that both Williams and Cicotte last pitched in 1920. Each was implicated (with good reason) in the Black Sox scandal and permanently suspended after the 1920 season.

I'm sure you know about Sandy Koufax. He won the Cy Young Award (unanimously) in 1966, his greatest season. But as the season wore on -- and wearing it was, as he started 41 games and pitched 323 innings -- the pain in Koufax's left elbow got worse and worse. Down the stretch, with Koufax's Dodgers locked in a tight pennant race, Koufax was routinely getting cortisone injected directly into his elbow joint.

Thanks largely to Koufax, the Dodgers won the pennant. He started the second game of the World Series, but in six innings gave up four runs and struck out only two Orioles (granted, three of the four runs were unearned because of center fielder Willie Davis' three errors in one inning).

What almost nobody knew was that Koufax had long planned on retiring after the 1966 season. In August of '65, Koufax told sportswriter Phil Collier, "Next year is going to be my last." Collier wrote the story, then locked it in his desk. When Koufax finally made the announcement five weeks after the '66 World Series, he made sure Collier got the scoop.

At Koufax's press conference, a reporter simply asked, "Why, Sandy?" His response:

I don't know if cortisone is good for you or not. But to take a shot every other ballgame is more than I wanted to do and to walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ballgame because you're taking painkillers, I don't want to have to do that.

Hard to blame the guy. He threw his last pitch when he was 30, and has been a legend ever since.

Which leaves only Henry Schmidt, and his case might be the strangest of all. Because Schmidt's 22-13 season was not only his last season; it was also his first.

Schmidt's story? The early 20th century was a rollicking time for baseball, with outlaw leagues and upstart leagues, and the American League having recently doubled the number of major league teams. Schmidt, who had been pitching on the West Coast, put together a huge 1902 season and was acquired by the Brooklyn Superbas (i.e. Dodgers) as the centerpiece of an effort to compete with their crosstown rivals, John McGraw's New York Giants.

Schmidt, however, was far from a great pitcher. He fared well against the league's weaker teams but was crushed by the stronger ones. Among the five Brooklyn pitchers who started at least a dozen games, Schmidt's ERA (3.83) was the highest. He'd been lucky enough to win 22 games, though, and the Superbas wanted him back in 1904. But Schmidt returned his 1904 contract unsigned, along with a note: "I do not like living in the East and will not report."

In 1902, Schmidt had gone 34-21 with the California League's Oakland Dudes; in 1904 he returned to Oakland and went 26-28 for that city's entry in the second-year Pacific Coast League. The money might have been better in the PCL, or maybe Schmidt really did miss living in the West. That's one thing we'll probably never know. Like Sandy Koufax, Henry Schmidt threw his last pitch in the major leagues when he was just 30. The only thing he forgot was to become a legend.

I'm grateful for Jane Leavy's book, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" (HarperCollins, 2003) and for Joseph Cardello's article, "The Truth About Henry Schmidt," published in The Baseball Research Journal, Number 22 (Society for American Baseball Research, 1993).