Last week, a conversation with a friend spurred an investigation into the Most Unlikely Three-Homer Game Ever. A conversation about that piece with a different friend got me wondering which pitcher had thrown the most unlikely no-hitter in history. So I dug in.
In the course of my research, I discovered that this question has already been answered, by no less an authority than Bill James himself in a letter to his colleague Rob Neyer. It was part of a bigger discussion that stemmed from the question of which pitcher who hadn’t thrown a no-hitter was most surprising. (James’s guess was Roger Clemens, but by his calculations the answer was actually Don Sutton.)
So anyway, we’re not breaking any new ground here, as the approach I was taking before discovering the James research was basically the same as his. There is one difference, though. James calculated the likelihood of a pitcher pitching a no-hitter in any given start, then he multiplied that by the number of games that pitcher started in his career to find the likelihood of him pitching a no-hitter. For example, let’s look at Tom Seaver. Seaver’s likelihood of pitching a no-hitter in any given start (based on his H/9 — his exact formulas are in the link) was roughly 0.17430118 percent. Multiply that number by the 647 games that Seaver started in his career, and you get an expected number of no-hitters thrown of about 1.127. I picked Seaver because his expected number of no-hitters (just over one) actually lines up pretty well with his actual number of no-hitters (one). If you are into the math of baseball, I highly recommend that you read and re-read the linked discussion — Bill James is one smart guy.
So anyway, James calculated the likelihood of a given pitcher throwing a no-hitter in his career. The slight difference in my approach was that I was interested in how likely it was for that pitcher to throw a no-hitter at the time. For example, if Seaver’s no-hitter had come in his first career start, it would have been extremely unlikely, even though the rest of his career numbers would have eventually justified it and made it seem, in retrospect, somewhat likely.
What I’m really interested in is a good story. I love baseball history, and part of that love is the famous numbers: 56, .406, 714/755/762, etc. But the numbers only interest me in that they represent real players and real accomplishments. I don’t care how many consecutive games Cal Ripken played in, but I sure do care about the struggles and successes and bumps and bruises along the way. The number 2,632 represents those things for me.
So what I’m getting at is that I don’t really care who threw the most unlikely no-hitter in history, at least not for the sake of knowing. I am interested in the stories of some of the guys who threw those unlikely no-hitters. So with that introduction, let’s talk about a few of them. I’ll start with the one that Bill James identified as the most unlikely no-hitter in history:
If ever someone deserved a conversation, it is Bumpus Jones. Charles Leander “Bumpus” Jones was a 22-year-old rookie when he took the mound for his major league debut on October 15, 1892. It was the 155th and final game of the season for his Cincinnati Reds and the 14th against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Jones had been outstanding in his two minor league seasons, including going 27-7 with a 0.75 ERA in 302 innings in 1892.
Bumpus was not perfect that day. He walked four batters, and he allowed an unearned run on an error and a series of sacrifices. Frank Shugarts hit a hard line drive down the line, but third baseman Arlie Latham saved Jones with a nice play. When all was said and done, Bumpus had thrown a no-hitter in his Major League debut. His pitching line for the season: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.0 H/9, 0.444 WHIP. Definitely a solid way to start a promising career.
But Bumpus would hit some bumps. He pitched only one more season, throwing 32.2 innings in seven games and allowing 42 hits, 33 walks, 37 earned runs, for an ERA of 10.19 and a WHIP of 2.296. And then his Major League career was over. He bounced around the minors until 1900, but he never made it back to the big leagues.
Was Bumpus Jones’s no-hitter just a fluke? Maybe. But maybe there’s a reason he was so good in 1892 and so bad in 1893. You see, Bumpus’s no-hitter is historic not just because he is the only pitcher ever to throw one in his very first big league game — he was also the last pitcher to throw a no-hitter from a mound that was 50 feet from the plate. In 1893, the mound was moved to its current distance of sixty feet, six inches. Perhaps the unhittable Bumpus became very hittable when he had to throw 20 percent farther.
Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman was a 30-year-old rookie when he made his major league debut on April 1, 1953. He had been in the minors since 1946, starting his pro career as a 23-year-old after serving in World War II. After seven years in the minors, the St. Louis Browns signed him and put him on their roster to start the 1953 season.
In his first two weeks in the big leagues, Holloman pitched four games in relief, allowing five earned runs in 5.1 innings for a less-than-stellar 8.44 ERA. But on May 6, Browns’ manager Marty Marion tabbed Bobo to start against the Philadelphia Athletics. Holloman walked five and only struck out three, but he pitched a complete game and did not allow a hit in the Browns’ 10-0 victory. (Browns owner Bill Veeck later described Holloman’s no-hitter as consisting of “hard-hit ground balls, screaming line drives, and deep fly balls.”)
Holloman started nine more games for the Browns that year, but he lasted into the seventh inning in only two of them. He was released by the Browns after allowing six runs in 1.2 innings to the Washington Senators on July 19. He pitched the rest of that season and the next in the minors, and then he was done. The 1953 season ended up being his only season in the big leagues, and other than pitching a no-hitter in his first career start (one of only three pitchers to do that), it was pretty forgettable.
We’ve talked about Bumpus and Bobo; now let’s discuss the only other pitcher to pitch a no-hitter in his first career start. Ted Breitenstein pitched in six games for the 1891 St. Louis Browns as a 22-year-old rookie, the first five in relief. On October 4, the last day of the season, player-manager Charlie Comiskey tabbed the lefty Breitenstein to start the first game of a doubleheader against the Louisville Colonels.
Of the three men who threw no-hitters in their first starts, Breitenstein’s was the most impressive. Bumpus and Bobo combined for nine walks, but Breitenstein walked only one and faced the minimum 27 batters. (How that lone walk was erased on the basepaths appears lost to history.) Breitenstein came remarkably close to throwing only the third perfect game in baseball history.
Breitenstein did a few other notable things in his career. His 447.1 innings in 1894 and 30 losses in 1895 both jump out at the modern reader, but while both numbers led the league those seasons, neither is particularly close to the single-season records. More notable is that Breitenstein threw another no-hitter later in his career, this one coming on April 22, 1898. That’s more than 250 starts and 2200 innings between his two no-hitters, which is pretty remarkable. (Interestingly, Jay Hughes of the Baltimore Orioles threw a no-hitter against the Boston Beaneaters on April 22, 1898, the first time there were two no-hitters thrown on the same day.)
Breitenstein’s big league career ended after three games in 1901, as he finished with a record of 160-170 and a 4.03 ERA. But Ted wasn’t done. He went back to the minor leagues, where he played for another decade, going 165-92 with a 2.02 ERA from 1901 through 1911 for the Memphis Egyptians and New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association.
One last interesting note about Breitenstein before we move on. In Harold Seymour’s book, Baseball: The People’s Game, we find this:
American leaders drafted sport, and of course baseball, to perform a particular function in World War I: they used it especially to distract the men from prostitutes and prevent venereal disease. … Believing that interest in sex could be reduced by channeling it into sport, the War Department concluded that organized athletics would offer a “wholesome” recreational alternative to off-duty soldiers both at home and overseas.
By February of 1918, thirty-two Army and National Guard camps had athletic programs in action, each under an athletic director. There were never enough trained athletic directors for the camps, however, and some had few qualifications and required training on the spot. Others were former professional baseball players like Kid Elberfeld and Ted Breitenstein.
From a no-hitter in his first start to saving soldiers from VD, Ted Breitenstein packed a lot of life into his 65 years.
Warren Spahn was an amazing pitcher. On September 16, 1960, Spahn had already won 286 career games and thrown 4,051.1 innings. He was 39 years old and seemed to be on the tail end of a career as one of the best lefties in baseball history. On this particular day, Spahn was trying to win his 20th game of the season, which he had done ten times before. One thing he had never done, though, was throw a no-hitter. He had two one-hitters (one in 1951 and one in 1953), but those hits had come in the sixth and fourth innings, respectively, so he had never been extremely close to a no-hitter. And at this late stage of his career, it was not extremely likely that he would ever get one.
But he did. Spahn walked two batters — one in the fourth inning, one in the fifth — and struck out 15 Phillies en route to his first career no-hitter. It was an outstanding way to top off a remarkable career.
But Spahn wasn’t done. Five starts later, on April 28, 1961, he threw his second career no-hitter five days after his 40th birthday. He would win 21 games in 1961, just as he had the year before. He followed that up with 18 and 23 wins the following two seasons before finally slowing down when he was 43. There was nothing extremely unlikely about Spahn throwing a no-hitter by the Bill James calculations — James put Spahn’s “expected” number of no-hitters at 0.631 — but throwing two in a span of six starts at ages 39 and 40? Pretty unlikely.
Cy Young didn’t throw his first no-hitter until he was 30. On September 18, 1897, he had nearly 3,000 innings under his belt when he threw his first career no-no. He didn’t walk any batters, but his team committed four errors behind him. One error on the third baseman was actually originally called a hit, but Young’s teammate sent a note to the official scorer telling him that he had, in fact, made an error on the play, so the scoring was changed. So while it was officially a no-hitter, Young always considered it a one-hitter.
Young then threw another 2,000-plus innings without another no-hitter, until May 5, 1904. Philadelphia Athletics’ pitcher Rube Waddell had thrown a one-hitter against Young’s Boston Americans three days earlier, and he challenged Young to face him so Waddell could do it again. Instead, going head-to-head against Waddell, Young threw a perfect game at age 37.
And then, about one thousand innings later, came perhaps Cy Young’s most unlikely no-hitter. Three months after his 41st birthday, on June 30, 1908, Young threw a no-hitter against the New York Highlanders, allowing only one walk and facing the minimum when that runner was caught stealing. Young was the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter, a record that would stand for 82 years until Nolan Ryan threw his seventh and final no-hitter at age 43. Young’s entire 1908 season was remarkably unlikely — at age 41, he went 21-11 with a 1.26 ERA (193 ERA+) in 299 innings. He spread his three no-hitters throughout his career, saving the most unlikely for last.
Until 1991, if a pitcher pitching on the road threw an eight-inning no-hitter in a losing effort, it counted as an official no-hitter. This had happened twice in history — Silver King in 1890 and Andy Hawkins in 1990 — before the rule was changed in 1991 to state that a game of less than nine innings did not count as an official no-hitter.
Because of that rule change, there is only one game left in the record books wherein a pitcher threw an official no-hitter and lost the game. That game came on April 23, 1964. Thirty-year-old Ken Johnson went for the Houston Colt .45’s against 35-year-old Joe Nuxhall and his Cincinnati Reds. Each pitcher threw a nine-inning complete game, and each faced 31 batters. Nuxhall allowed five hits and one walk and was aided by three double plays and a caught stealing on defense. Johnson walked two and allowed no hits. Going into the ninth inning, the game was tied, 0-0. In the top of the ninth, Nuxhall batted for himself and grounded out to third base. Then Pete Rose hit a comebacker to Johnson, who made a wild throw that allowed Rose to reach second base. After Chico Ruiz grounded out for the second out, moving Rose to third base, Vada Pinson grounded to second, but Nellie Fox booted it, allowing Rose to score. Nuxhall shut down the Colts in the bottom of the ninth, the Reds had their win, and Johnson had his no-hitter.
Johnson pitched six more seasons in the majors, but he never came close again to pitching a no-hitter. Someday someone may join him in the record book as a losing pitcher throwing a no-hitter, but for now, that spot is his and his alone.
The Guys Who Just Weren’t Very Good
Then you have a group of pitchers who threw no-hitters despite being, well, pretty lousy. Let’s talk a little bit about a few of them:
Jesse Haines is one of the worst pitchers in the Hall of Fame, putting up a 109 ERA+ over 19 seasons. He was elected by the Veteran’s Committee in 1970 after topping out at 8.3 percent in the regular voting. Former Cardinals teammate Frankie Frisch was on the committee at the time, and Haines was the first of seven former Frisch teammates elected by that body between 1970 and 1976.
Haines had one of his worst seasons in 1924, going 8-19 with a 4.41 ERA (86 ERA+). He allowed 275 hits in 222.2 innings — a staggering H/9 of 11.12 that is the worst of any pitcher in the season he threw a no-hitter. That no-hitter came on July 17, 1924, when he shut down the Boston Braves. That no-hitter started a string of six consecutive complete games for Haines, in which he averaged allowing 9.5 hits per game — including the no-hitter! (The average is 11.4 without it.)
Scott Erickson pitched 15 years in the big leagues, and for the first couple seasons he looked like he might be very good. He finished second in the American League Cy Young voting in 1991, his first full season, when he went 20-8 with a 3.18 ERA (135 ERA+). Two years later, he led the league in losses, going 8-19 with a 5.19 ERA.
The next year, 1994, was just as bad. Erickson went 8-11 with a 5.44 ERA, allowing 173 hits in 144 innings. But on April 27, in his fifth start of the 1994 season, Erickson threw a four-walk, one-hit-by-pitch no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers. His 88 game score was the only time he topped 70 that season.
Bill Dietrich was not a good pitcher. He pitched for three teams over 16 seasons, going 108-128 with a 4.48 ERA (92 ERA+).
Dietrich’s 1937 season for the White Sox was not particularly good or bad by his standards — just your average 8-10, 4.90 ERA, 95 ERA+ season. On June 1, he made his third start of the season; the first two had gone badly — 4 ER in 5 IP, followed by 10 ER in 3.1 IP.
But on June 1, he was outstanding, allowing just two walks in a no-hit, 8-0 victory over the St. Louis Browns.
Charlie Robertson is the only pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter and have a career H/9 over 10, and at 10.3 he clears the bar by plenty. But on April 30, 1922, in just his fourth career start for the White Sox, Robertson threw the fifth perfect game in baseball history, beating the Detroit Tigers, 2-0. The Detroit lineup included Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann, both of whom claimed that Robertson was doctoring the ball. The Tigers even went so far as to send several game balls to American League president Ban Johnson to investigate, but nothing came of it.
Robertson lasted six more seasons, finishing his eight-year career in 1928 with a 49-80 record, 4.44 ERA, and 90 ERA+. No one threw another perfect game in the big leagues until October 6, 1956, when Don Larsen threw one for the Yankees in the World Series against the Dodgers. Just eight days after Larsen’s perfecto, Robertson was a contestant on What’s My Line, a game show where celebrities would question contestants and try to guess their occupations. Robertson’s occupation was not “former baseball player,” or even “the last pitcher to throw a perfect game in the regular season” — it was “buyer and seller of pecans.”
Jose Jimenez pitched two good games as a rookie for the Cardinals in 1999. They came ten days apart, both against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and both with Hall of Famer Randy Johnson as the opposing pitcher.
On July 5, he pitched a two-hit shutout, beating Johnson and the D-Backs, 1-0. Ten days earlier, Jimenez had also outdueled Johnson in a 1-0 victory, but that game was a no-hitter.
In between the two? Jimenez allowed seven runs in 4.1 innings in an 11-3 loss to the Astros. Jimenez finished his rookie season 5-14 with a 5.85 ERA (79 ERA+), and he didn’t start another game for four years. He finished his seven-year career in 2004 with a 24-44 record and 4.92 ERA.
Before Jimenez, the Cardinals hadn’t had a no-hitter thrown by a rookie since Paul Dean in 1934. They would not have to wait another 65 years — just over two years later, Bud Smith repeated the feat on September 3, 2001. Smith was actually not bad that rookie year, going 6-3 with a 3.83 ERA (113 ERA+) and finishing tied for fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting (albeit a distant and undeserved fourth).
Smith’s no-hitter was nothing remarkable. It came against a pretty lousy Padres team with Tony Gwynn taking the day off. The leadoff hitter was 42-year-old Rickey Henderson, who walked twice and stole a base. Gwynn came off the bench to pinch hit in the eighth inning and grounded out to short. Smith’s pitch count was so high — he threw 134 pitches in the game — that pitching coach Dave Duncan was actually hoping someone would break up the no-hitter so he could take Smith out of the game. But no one broke it up, and Smith had his no-hitter to top off a promising rookie season.
In 2002, things did not go nearly so well. Smith pitched in 11 games and went 1-5 with a 6.94 ERA (58 ERA+) and was traded at the trade deadline to the Phillies in the trade that brought Scott Rolen to St. Louis. The Phillies sent him to the minors, and he never played in the big leagues again. He pitched in the minors through 2005 and in the independent Golden Baseball League in 2007, finally retiring at age 27.
Last on our list, Philip Humber was a highly touted prospect out of Rice University, taken by the Mets with the third-overall pick in the 2004 draft. He had a couple cups of coffee with the Mets before going to the Twins in the Johan Santana trade (which might have ended up being known as the Carlos Gomez trade if the Twins had held onto Gomez). He bounced from the Twins to the Royals to the White Sox, who decided to give the 28-year-old a shot in the starting rotation. He rewarded them in 2011, going 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA (116 ERA+). Humber started 2012 pretty well, throwing 5.1 innings of one-run ball in his first start. Then, in his second start, he caught lightning in a bottle, throwing a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners on April 21. No baserunners, nine strikeouts, and just 96 pitches to get 27 batters out.
And then the wheels came off. Humber allowed nine runs in five innings in his next start, and he never got back on track, losing his spot in the rotation in early August. He finished the season with a 6.44 ERA (66 ERA+), and the White Sox waived him after the season. The Astros claimed him and gave him a shot, but he went 0-8 with a 9.59 ERA before they sent him back to the minors. He finished the season in Houston as a long reliever and lowered his season ERA to 7.90 (51 ERA+), and the Astros released him after the season. He spent last year in the A’s minor league system and is now with the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization.
In Humber’s eight-year career, he is 16-23 with a 5.31 ERA (81 ERA+) and one complete game — but that one was perfect.
Obviously, some no-hitters are the result of great pitchers pitching great. But when you consider some of the unlikely no-hitters on this list, and then realize that Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, and Tom Glavine combined to throw exactly zero no-hitters, the only possible conclusion is that sometimes crazy things happen in baseball. And that’s why we love it.