The Heusser Club (“Who?”)

Out of all the retired pitchers in MLB history, there are 2,191 who logged at least 400 innings through age 34.

Of that group, 317 fared so poorly that they had a career WAR value of less than 1.0 WAR through age 34.

With such a poor performance in a reasonably long trial, it’s no surprise that just 21 of them pitched in the majors from age 35 onward. Most of them were finished before they turned 30.

And of those 21 who did pitch at age 35 or older, only one ever had a season worth at least 3.0 WAR.


His name was Ed Heusser, nicknamed The Wild Elk of the Wasatch, and his big year was 1944. His MLB career had foundered ever since a promising start with the ’35 Cardinals. But the deprivations of wartime gave him one last shot in the majors, and he seized it: At the age of 35, Heusser led the NL with a 2.38 ERA and 147 ERA+ in his very first qualifying season, good for 3.8 WAR.

Heusser followed up with solid seasons in 1945-46, averaging 195 IP and a 103 ERA+, but the poor caliber of his Reds left him with just an 18-30 record for those years. He lost his last eight decisions in ’46, and that December he was traded to Brooklyn for Augie Galan, the aging on-base machine.

Heusser would never pitch for Brooklyn. He spent 1947 with their top farm club in Montreal, going 19-3 with a 2.73 ERA, ranking 2nd in wins and 5th in ERA as the 3rd-oldest pitcher in the International League. But he didn’t make the big club the next spring and was exposed to waivers. Claimed by the sad-sack Phillies, he wound up his pro career with 74 unimpressive innings of long relief.

But thanks to those three good years with Cincinnati, finished with 7.7 career WAR, giving him the top spot in this group in both career and single-season WAR, each by a hefty margin. By this particular measure, Ed Heusser was the greatest “never-was” pitcher to suddenly find big-league success at an age that made him eligible for the presidency.

And then, along came R.A. Dickey.

Through age 34, Dickey’s career and stats had quite a bit in common with Heusser’s. Each had debuted at 26 and pitched between 430 and 443 innings in the majors, with three different teams. Each had 22 wins, one shutout, a losing record, and a subpar ERA in just over 140 games. Each had ridden a lot of bush-league buses. And neither one figured to be in a big-league rotation as his age-35 season opened.

In ’43, Cincinnati had boasted the most stable rotation in baseball: Four made at least 33 starts and three won at least 15 games; no other team had more than two in either category. But the next year, injury and military service claimed three of the four. Given a spot start in the second week, Heusser blanked the Pirates, and soon joined the rotation. His ERA was under 2 until late July, and he finished at 2.38 to edge teammate Bucky Walters for the NL crown.

Dickey signed with the Mets in 2009, after they’d gone 70-92, with no starter topping 184 IP and just one besting a 92 ERA+. He began the year in AAA, but after 8 starts (2.23 ERA, 8 walks in 61 IP), Dickey made his Mets debut on May 19, 2010, and held Washington to 2 runs over 6 innings in a no-decision. He won his next six starts, becoming the first Met SP in 20 years to win his first six decisions. And the beat went on. On August 13, he tossed a CG one-hitter to best Cole Hamels, 1-0, with his mound rival busting up the no-hitter in the 6th. Dickey finished that year 7th in the NL with a 2.84 ERA in 174 IP, and his 3.4 WAR let him into the exclusive club founded by Ed Heusser in 1944.

In the next two years, Dickey rated 3.1 and 5.6 WAR. The latter mark set the season record for the Heusser Club, and gave Dickey 12.3 career pitching WAR to pass Heusser (8.4) for that leadership.

Whether Dickey was the pitcher most deserving of the NL Cy Young Award that he won in a landslide is arguable, and I won’t take up that argument here. But as great a story as Dickey was, you couldn’t say the voters were blinded by either sentiment or wins. He led the league outright in innings, strikeouts, batters faced, complete games, shutouts, quality starts and QS%. He ranked 2nd in ERA, and 3rd in ERA+, WHIP, SO/BB and WAR (B-R version). Awards aside, it was just a brilliant year — and utterly unprecedented from the standpoint of all previous pitchers who were in Dickey’s boat through age 34.

Meanwhile, the Heusser Club gained another member in 2012: Fernando Rodney, whose previous nine seasons had netted just 0.7 WAR, topped all relievers with 3.7 WAR at age 35, and placed 5th in the AL CYA voting.

Still, I wouldn’t bet on that club growing any bigger in my lifetime. Besides Heusser, only one other pitcher out of the original 317 reached even 2.0 WAR in a season from age 35 onward (the immortal Boom-Boom Beck, another wartime retread who notched 2.1 WAR in 1945), and just two others had any seasons worth at least 1.0 WAR (Russ Springer in 2007-08 and Mark Leiter in ’98).

So, for the sake of Mets fans and everyone who appreciates a tale of baseball redemption, here’s hoping that the saga of Robert Allen Dickey has enough legs to climb a few more mountains. We may not see his like again.


Here’s a two-part link to the pitchers with 400+ IP through age 34 and less than 1.0 WAR. There are 339 pitchers in this list because I didn’t filter out the retired players initially.

25 thoughts on “The Heusser Club (“Who?”)

  1. 1
    Doug says:

    Great post, John.

    For us folks who aren’t close followers of the Mets, it really was a story of “Where did this guy come from?” (although I see he had 14 starts for the 2008 Mariners, who I do follow, but somehow I just don’t have any memories of that).

    I see that Dickey also had a career 99 ERA+ before this season. Wonder if that’s a record for the lowest mark for any first time CYA winner (Vida Blue had a 79 career ERA+ before his CYA season, but that was in fewer than 100 IP).

    Boom-Boom’s 1945 season, BTW, was his last, and at age 40. Don’t know how that could be checked, but it would have to be pretty unusual, if not unique, for a guy to have his last season be his best, especially in his forties (Beck’s second best season was a 1.2 WAR in 1933 when he went 12-20 in 257 IP, his only time over 200 IP).

    • 4
      e pluribus munu says:

      Doug, I checked some obvious potential comps for Boom-Boom’s farewell season, but they didn’t work out, for various reasons: Larry French’s super 180 ERA+ farewell – more or less the mirror image of Boom-Boom’s War record – didn’t translate into as much WAR as some of his less spectacular seasons; Ted Lyons’ (I’d forgotten his rather successful 5-game post-War addendum at age 45) initial farewell at age 41 was his highest WAR other than age 26 – and by far his best ERA+; Koufax’s ’66 WAR of 10 fell just short of ’63’s 10.3.

      Great post, John.

    • 7
      John Autin says:

      Win Mercer — one of the best long-career pitchers to have a winning percentage under .450 — had his best WAR (5.7) in his final season, 1902, though naturally his record was just 15-18. He died that winter, an apparent suicide, just 28 years old.

      Mercer had a 107 ERA+ in just under 2,500 IP over 9 seasons, but his record was 132-164. All 9 teams he pitched for — Washington 1894-99 (NL) and 1901 (AL), Giants 1900, Tigers 1902 — was at least 11 games under .500 and had a combined W% of .380, equivalent to 100 losses in a modern schedule. I’d hate to think that was the root of his unhappiness.

    • 8
      John Autin says:

      Koufax and Mercer are the only ones with 5+ WAR in their final season.

      There are just 5 finales in the range of 4.0-4.9 WAR, led by Mike Mussina’s 4.8. (I’m not counting Scott Baker as retired.) None was the player’s highest WAR season except for Dutch Ulrich’s 4.3 WAR in just his 3rd season. Like Mercer, he was a good pitcher for horrible teams (1925-27 Phillies), and he died young.

    • 10
      Doug says:

      I checked CYA winners for lowest career ERA+ prior to first CYA season. Just checked most likely guys. but it’s probably these:

      1. Vida Blue, 79, < 100 IP 2. Mark Davis, 90, 750+ 3. Jim Lonborg, 91, 350+ 4. Denny McLain, 97, 800+ 5. Mike McCormick, 98, 1600+ 6. John Denny/R.A. Dickey, 99 (Denny's 99 includes previously leading the league in ERA+)

      • 13
        Ed says:

        Steve Stone was at ERA+ of 95, 1400+ IP.

      • 16
        Doug says:

        Thanks Ed,

        I missed Stone and passed by Glavine thinking there was no need to check him. But, he really hadn’t been very good at all until he “found it” in his 4th full season.

        • 19
          Ed says:

          One more for you Doug and perhaps the best/worst of them all.

          Mike Scott, ERA+ of 84, 800+ IP

          Also Vern Law was at an ERA+ of exactly 100 with 1,400+ IP.

          • 21
            Doug says:

            Scott was another one I skipped past, thinking it wouldn’t be necessary to check. Looks like Scott’s the winner, save for Blue.

            One I did check was Eric Gagne – just 101.

          • 23
            Ed says:

            Yeah Scott was really bad for quite some time. He famously turned his career around by learning a split-finger fastball.

            BTW, another interesting exercise is who had the worst season the year before they won the Cy Young?

          • 24
            bstar says:

            Cy Young winners with lowest career ERA+:

            Mark Davis – 89
            Jim Lonborg – 95
            Mike McCormick – 96
            Rick Sutcliffe – 97
            Steve Stone – 98
            Lamarr Hoyt – 99

          • 25
            Doug says:

            Worst year before winning CYA.

            My pick is John Denny, 1982, 6-13, 84 ERA+, 1.41 WHIP, 4.6 BB/9 1.36 SO/BB.

            At that point (end of 1982), Denny had a 4-year run with similar aggregate numbers, 3 straight non-qualifying seasons (< 162 IP), and had just cleared waivers on a September trade to the Phillies.

            Starting the 1983 season, anyone who bet on Denny winning the CYA must have become very rich.

  2. 2
    Doug says:

    I guess this means we can expect a big year from Chad Durbin next season. He’s the one active Heusser club member who will be in his age 35 season in 2013. Actually, he wasn’t too shabby this year – 130 ERA+ with 7.7 H/9, both marks the second best of his career.

    • 3
      bstar says:

      Durbin was indeed very effective for the Braves this year.

      The dramatic turn in this post when it’s revealed who the article is really going to be about was very nicely done.

      • 9
        John Autin says:

        I’m glad you liked the twist, bstar. I know the headline and the structure I chose will probably keep some readers away, but it’s the way I wanted to do it.

  3. 5
    Hartvig says:

    Heusser ended his baseball career on a high note as well, going 19 and 3 with a 2.73 ERA in 1947 at age 38. That Montreal club finished 1/2 a game behind New Jersey in the International League by going 93 and 60 (NJ was 94 and 60 bringing up the question as to why Montreal didn’t make up their final game- maybe there was still gas rationing after WW2?) He was tied for second in the league in wins even though he pitched about 30 fewer innings than anyone else in the top 9 and second in shutouts as well. His battery-mate that season was Roy Campanella.

    • 6
      Hartvig says:

      Opps, should have looked closer at his Major league page. He did spend the following season in the bullpen for the Phillies, pitching mostly with indifferent success.

      Kind of a letdown.

    • 12
      Doug says:

      Also on the 1947 Royals was Roy Campanella.

      Those Royals were a real powerhouse – won the IL with ease in 1945, 1946 (with Jackie Robinson), and 1948 (with Don Newcombe, Duke Snider and … Chuck Connors). So, they were a half-game away from a four-peat.

  4. 18

    Well done, John. I voted for Kershaw for the BBA’s Walter Johnson Award, because I believe the best pitcher should win the award every year. That said, Dickey’s is a marvelous story and he’s likely to never be this good again, while Kershaw has a trophy (that arguably should belong to Roy Halladay) and may win more. If there’s ever an excuse to vote for the second-best guy, it’s in this case, where Dickey was reasonably close to as good as Kershaw and practically everyone who doesn’t bleed Dodger blue is at least a little excited to see him get the award.

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