Jim McKay famously uttered this catchphrase at the opening of the weekly TV sports anthology program, Wide World of Sports. In the opening film sequence, the “agony of defeat” was portrayed as a ski jumper losing his balance and falling off the ski jumping tower (ouch). But, what does agony of defeat look like in baseball?
In fact, there have been players to play their entire careers without ever appearing in a game for the winning side. Not surprisingly, all of those players are relief pitchers. None had a long career, of course, but probably longer than what you might guess.
After the jump, more on these most unlucky of ballplayers.
Let’s start with those pitchers who had the longest streaks of appearing in a team loss, to start a career.
Walter Cress, the top name on the list, had 6 seasons in the minors plus 3 years (most likely) in the military, before finally getting his chance at age 31. Cress would finish his career after 33 games, the last breaking his streak of 32 appearances in team losses. The longest winless streak (as opposed to a streak of team losses) is held by Jack Warner, #14 on this list. Warner’s 22 game streak of appearing in team losses was broken with his appearance in a 10-10 tie for the Cubs at Wrigley, on opening day 1965 (Cubs shortstop Roberto Pena had an interesting career debut in that game with a HR, double, and, er, 3 errors resulting in 3 unearned runs). Warner went the rest of that season (and the rest of his career) without appearing in a win, a total of 33 straight games.
Like Warner, the next two names didn’t have even one moment of exultation to look back on. You are looking at their career lines – every appearance came in a team loss. Bicknell and Ruffcorn have more than their 8-letter, dual syllable names in common. Both would finish their careers with ERA+ scores below 60, Ruffcorn ranking 14th since 1901 in worst career ERA+ (min. 50 IP) and Bicknell 51st. Ruffcorn’s 2.2 career WHIP places him 2nd worst since 1901, while Bicknell’s 0.26 SO/BB ratio is 3rd worst. Other players on the list for whom this streak represents an entire career are Larry Burchart (#4), Wayne Schurr (#8), Bill Kerksieck (#11) and Morrie Steevens (#13).
So Ruffcorn and Bicknell just weren’t in the right job? You might say the same about #5 on the list, Dave Debusschere (yes, that Dave Debusschere), and with his success in basketball it would be hard to argue the point. Except that, despite his difficulty getting on the field during wins, Debusschere posted a career 124 ERA+ in 102 IP, despite a 1962 mark of 23 walks in only 18 IP. It is suggested that the Sox preferred Debusschere to 19 year-old Denny McLain, whom they left unprotected prior to the 1963 season facilitating his waiver claim by Detroit, and the Year of the Tiger five seasons later.
How do these streaks starting a career fare among the longest streaks of appearances in team losses? Here are those pitchers.
At the top of the list is Boom-Boom Beck, who broke out of his almost 3-year drought with a 3.1 inning save on July 1, 1944, retiring 10 of 11 batters and also chipping in with two hits and two RBI. Opposing Beck and also getting two hits that day was Al Simmons, appearing in his final career game. Simmons had also faced Beck (and also collected two hits) in Boom-Boom’s career debut, 20 years earlier.
Dick Welteroth (#5 on the list) made the jump, as a 20 year-old, from B-level minors straight to the majors. This despite a career 6.46 BB/9 in B-league play. That wildness was evident during the 39-game streak that closed out his career, witness the 8.55 ERA with 71 BB in only 66.1 IP. Also closing out a career with an appearance here are Gary Kroll (#10), Ben Flowers (#12) and Roger Bowman (#16). Kroll played for 4 teams in his career, but appeared in a team win only for the Mets. Flowers’ streak represented his entire time with the Phillies, after being traded from the Cardinals early in his final season.
Noteworthy for something other than obscurity are, of course, Wilbur Wood (#3), and also Jack Russell (#11) and Jeff Shaw (#9).
- Russell appeared 26 times in relief in his final 1940 season to pass Firpo Marberry as the career leader in relief games with 375, a mark Russell would hold until 1944 when Joe Heving passed him with 62 relief outings (and a 169 ERA+) as a 43 year-old, then the season record for appearances by pitchers aged 40 or older (only Hoyt Wilhelm and Kent Tekulve have held that record since Heving).
- Shaw finished his career with 150 ERA+, 3.1 SO/BB, and 198 saves over his final 6 seasons, placing 5th over that period of a career in saves and in the top 20 among retired relievers for the other two marks.
- Curt Fullerton (#6) ranks 7th since 1901 in lowest career W-L% (min. 100 games), going 10-37 for the 1920s Red Sox.
- Standing 9th on that worst career W-L% list is Bill Laxton (#4), one of two pitchers here from the offensively-challenged Padre teams of the early 1970s (Gary Ross at #7 is the other).
- Steve Sparks’ (#14) streak occurred in his next-to-last season, his only year used exclusively as a reliever. Sparks’ 79 ERA+ over his final 3 seasons puts him in the top 20 for worst ERA+ for that period of a career (min. 400 IP)
- One of the games in Bob Miller’s (#20) streak was as an 18 year-old in 1953, facing 47 year-old Satchel Paige in the latter’s final game. Final, that is, until Satch made his 1965 cameo as a 59 year-old against 29 year-old Bill Monbouquette. Those games featured the two greatest age differences between opposing starters (Madison Bumgarner was the youngest starter to oppose Jamie Moyer in 2012, an age difference of less than 27 years).