The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

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.

Rk Strk Start End Games W L GS CG GF IP BB SO HR ERA Tm
1 Walker Cress 1948-04-27 1949-04-27 32 0 1 2 1 15 61.1 45 32 2 4.40 CIN
2 Scott Ruffcorn 1993-06-19 1997-08-17 30 0 8 9 0 5 70.1 70 46 8 8.57 CHW-PHI
3 Charlie Bicknell 1948-04-22 1949-09-18 30 0 1 1 0 19 54.0 34 9 8 6.83 PHI
4 Larry Burchart 1969-04-10 1969-09-30 29 0 2 0 0 10 42.1 24 26 2 4.25 CLE
5 Dave DeBusschere 1962-04-22 1963-07-14 27 0 2 3 0 12 56.1 39 33 5 3.67 CHW
6 Bob Ayrault 1992-06-07 1992-09-16 26 0 2 0 0 6 35.1 15 21 0 3.57 PHI
7 Greg Booker 1983-09-11 1984-08-24 26 0 1 1 0 7 46.1 23 19 3 3.88 SDP
8 Wayne Schurr 1964-04-15 1964-07-11 26 0 0 0 0 6 48.1 11 29 3 3.72 CHC
9 Lou Koupal 1925-04-17 1928-09-10 25 0 2 2 1 12 50.2 28 13 1 4.26 PIT-BRO
10 Dale Matthewson 1943-07-03 1944-07-21 24 0 3 1 0 13 46.2 21 18 1 3.47 PHI
11 Bill Kerksieck 1939-06-21 1939-09-30 23 0 2 2 1 16 62.2 32 13 13 7.18 PHI
12 Jim Otten 1974-07-31 1980-07-19 22 0 5 5 0 6 54.0 36 38 2 6.67 CHW-STL
13 Morrie Steevens 1962-04-13 1965-09-18 22 0 2 1 0 5 20.1 16 11 1 4.43 CHC-PHI
14 Jack Warner 1962-04-10 1964-10-02 22 0 1 0 0 9 39.0 12 16 4 3.69 CHC
15 Pete Charton 1964-04-19 1964-09-12 22 0 0 2 0 14 46.1 19 29 8 5.44 BOS
16 Phil Ortega 1960-09-10 1962-08-01 22 0 4 5 1 6 52.2 29 41 13 7.69 LAD
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/11/2012.

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.

Rk Strk Start End Games W L GS CG GF IP BB SO HR ERA Tm
1 Boom-Boom Beck 1941-08-18 1944-06-23 46 0 4 3 0 23 116.2 43 37 9 4.78 PHI-DET
2 Thornton Kipper 1953-07-28 1955-07-04 43 0 1 0 0 21 67.0 35 25 7 5.91 PHI
3 Wilbur Wood 1963-06-17 1965-06-03 42 0 6 6 1 16 96.2 35 45 10 4.10 BOS-PIT
4 Bill Laxton 1971-05-05 1974-09-19 39 0 2 1 0 11 58.2 57 49 8 5.68 SDP
5 Dick Welteroth 1949-06-12 1950-06-15 39 0 3 2 0 20 66.1 71 27 3 8.55 WSH
6 Curt Fullerton 1922-06-06 1923-07-21 38 0 8 6 2 19 81.2 54 23 5 6.17 BOS
7 Gary Ross 1973-04-14 1973-07-31 34 0 4 0 0 18 38.1 17 14 4 7.28 SDP
8 Cla Meredith 2009-05-26 2009-08-24 33 0 2 0 0 16 38.1 16 20 1 4.93 SDP-BAL
9 Jeff Shaw 1991-06-28 1993-05-01 33 0 5 1 0 10 78.2 26 39 8 3.32 CLE-MON
10 Gary Kroll 1965-08-03 1969-07-12 33 0 0 1 0 10 52.0 38 54 7 4.50 NYM-HOU-CLE
11 Jack Russell 1926-07-03 1927-06-12 33 0 7 5 1 19 104.1 29 17 4 3.97 BOS
12 Ben Flowers 1956-05-13 1956-09-21 32 0 2 0 0 17 41.0 10 23 9 5.71 PHI
13 Walker Cress 1948-04-27 1949-04-27 32 0 1 2 1 15 61.1 45 32 2 4.40 CIN
14 Steve Sparks 2003-05-25 2003-09-07 31 0 6 0 0 15 68.2 26 35 12 5.37 DET-OAK
15 Bobby Locke 1962-05-06 1965-09-29 31 0 1 0 0 8 53.2 21 29 7 5.20 PHI-CIN
16 Roger Bowman 1953-06-05 1955-05-22 31 0 7 4 0 14 71.1 33 39 10 5.80 PIT
17 Matt Reynolds 2012-06-02 2012-08-05 30 0 1 0 0 9 27.0 5 21 6 4.67 COL
18 Scott Ruffcorn 1993-06-19 1997-08-17 30 0 8 9 0 5 70.1 70 46 8 8.57 CHW-PHI
19 Greg Booker 1987-09-08 1988-06-08 30 0 2 0 0 12 42.1 11 27 2 2.98 SDP
20 Bob Miller 1953-07-30 1954-08-12 30 0 2 1 0 21 70.1 30 25 2 3.97 DET
21 Charlie Bicknell 1948-04-22 1949-09-18 30 0 1 1 0 19 54.0 34 9 8 6.83 PHI
22 Ed Walsh 1930-06-13 1932-09-11 30 0 4 3 0 20 83.0 22 31 5 4.66 CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/11/2012.

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.

Other curiosities:

  • 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).

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55 Comments on "The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat"

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John Autin
Editor

OK, I confess: This is my favorite kind of post!

(And yes, that’s Big Ed Walsh’s boy at the bottom of the second list.)

David
Guest

“After the jump”, eh? I was looking for mention of Eddie the Eagle. A bbref search on “The Eagle” returns one Bill Eagle of little consequence having appeared in only four games for the 1898 NL Senators.

Jim Bouldin
Guest

What a great show that was, classic in fact. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of athletic competition”–haven’t seen the show in almost 40 years and I still remember that phrase and the theme music. Cliff divers at Acapulco, pygymies jumping off towers with vines tied to their ankles, surfing at the Bonzai Pipeline, sumo wrestling–you name it they covered it.

nightfly
Guest

I’m that guy, so I have to point out that you have smushed together two phrases: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports!” and “The human drama of athletic competition!” In between those was where you got “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Incidentally, I’ve heard that the guy who wiped out on the ski run was amazingly not badly injured. Long live the Agony of Defeat.

(OK, that didn’t sound so great…)

Jim Bouldin
Guest

I knew I had a mind like a steel trap!

A rusted and non functional trap, but a trap nonetheless…

nightfly
Guest

No worries, my brain skips a groove often enough!

John Z
Guest
Just want to shout out about a career that does not make your list, but was the first veteran I thought of when I read “The agony of defeat”. This man is best remembered for his futility. From May 92′ thru July 93′ this pitcher lost 27 games straight, 14 as a starting pitcher and 13 in relief. Ironically the Mets record in games this veteran appeared in during the same time frame was 4 – 23. As you might have guessed by now I am referring to none other then Anthony Young. Ironically, according to wikipedia Young is a… Read more »
birtelcom
Editor

My favorite streak record in this genre is still one that is held by Whitey Ford. Over the first 23 starts of Whitey’s career (22 regular season and one post-season), the Yankees won every single game. He did appear in some losses over that period, but only in relief, not as a starter.

John Autin
Editor

Re: Dale Matthewson (#10 on the first list) — Out of 140 modern pitchers who appeared in 10+ games at both age 21 and 22, Matthewson (1943-44) is one of four who never again pitched in the big leagues. The others are Edwin Correa (1985-87), Joe Gilbert (1972-73) and Lefty Willis (1926-27).

I’m surprised there are no others from WWII.

Evil Squirrel
Guest

Now this brings back memories!!!

My very first comment back on the old B-R blog a couple years ago was when I dropped the Ruffcorn tidbit (his team lost all 30 games he ever played in) in a somewhat similar post (can’t remember the topic exactly), and I think it was Andy who was inspired to write a follow-up post on most team losses and wins to start a career…

Richard Chester
Guest

I remember posting somewhere on the old BR blog that Walker Cress had the most games with losses to start a career. It may have been in that follow-up post by Andy that you cited. It was sometime after January 2011.

no statistician but
Guest

Didn’t Cress have a younger brother, Watt R.? Played in the old Salad League, but only for a couple of springs? Devoured by the opposing batters, I seem to remember.

Doug
Guest

Thanks Ed, Figured ther had to be a reason to start a meaningless game on 2 days rest.

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