Sixteen In Sixteen : The Renowned Quaker Sets the Bar

Opening day: April 12, 1916. It was a cold, blustery day in Philadelphia, but the baseball cranks in this gritty manufacturing city didn’t mind at all. They came from up and down Broad Street, from the Main Line, from across the Delaware River in Camden, and from all around the Delaware Valley to see the defending National League champion Phillies open the defense of their title against what looked like a giant mismatch against John McGraw’s New York Giants, dead last in 1915, 21 games behind the champs.

They came to see the great Alexander, Phillies ace pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, spin his magic one more time. In five seasons with the Phillies, “Old Pete” racked up 190 decisions in 188 starts, winning 127 and losing 63. In the 1915 championship season Alexander led the league in almost every pitching category: Wins: 31; Winning percentage: .756; Complete games: 36; Shutouts: 12; Innings pitched: 376; Fewest hits per game: 6.05; Strikeouts: 241; Earned Run Average: 1.22; Opponent’s batting average: .191. In short, when it came to pitching, nobody was even close to the man the New York Times beat writer called“The renowned Quaker.” In 1916, the 29-year-old righthander would set the bar even higher.

The streets around Baker Bowl on Huntington Avenue in north Philadelphia were jammed with far more than the 21,000 lucky bucks who eventually squeezed their way in before the gates were slammed shut. Many of the overflow took up roosts on rooftops affording a far-off view of the action on the field. But first there were the opening ceremonies. The club owners took the opportunity to present the champion Phillies with handsome monogrammed gold watches in appreciation for last year’s good work.

Let the season begin. The 6’1” 185 pound Alexander toed the rubber, eyed Giant’s leadoff man Georgie Burns standing in on the right side, and went into his short economical windup. Alexander was an odd sight on the mound, somehow his uniform was all wrong; it hung in odd folds from his long, sloping shoulders, and his cap seemed too small for his head. But there was nothing wrong with his delivery. His right arm came across his body turned sideways to the plate, and the ball seemed to come out of his shirt front. You had to be quick. Burns saw it only as a blur sinking low and away over the outside corner. It was vintage Alexander, some called him “Old low and away.” On this day, after a two-inning tune up two days earlier in an exhibition game at Washington, Alexander was in mid season form. Only two putouts were recorded by outfielders, 14 by first baseman Fred Luderus. Alexander himself recorded seven assists on weak taps from frustrated Giants’ batsmen. Typically Alex fanned five and walked one. But the Giants made a game of it thanks to a wild throw in the first inning by normally steady Phillies’ shortstop Dave “Beauty” Bancroft which allowed two runs to score. In the fifth inning Giants’ first baseman Fred “Bonehead” Merkle caught a rare Alexander hanging curve and lofted it over the 272 foot right field wall. But never mind, these were the woeful Giants. The Phillies won it in the ninth when, with two out, Stock, the diminutive third sacker grabbed a free pass, stole second, and scored after a passed ball and a wild pitch for a 5-4 win. Old Pete chalked up win number one and the Phillies were on their way.

Six days later on April 18th at Baker Bowl, Alex blanked the Boston Braves on five hits for his first shutout of the year. There would be 15 to follow. Sixteen shutouts in 1916, a major league record never challenged.

On April 23rd, a much anticipated Polo Grounds matchup of Alexander with Jeff “The Ozark Bear Hunter” Tesreau was postponed because of the threatening aspect of low-hanging clouds. Polo Grounds impresario Harry Stearns took the opportunity to put his foot down—from now on the peanut vendors and beer hawkers were ordered to speak at all times in low voices to protect the sensitive ears of Polo Grounds fans. The sellers had been shouting as if they were calling to someone a mile away and it would no longer be tolerated.

April ended with the Phillies at six wins, two losses, and locked in a season-long battle for first place with the Brooklyn Robins and the Boston Braves. Alexander was 3-1 with one shutout. Alex opened May with a 3-0 win over the Braves, blanked Pittsburgh 3-0 on the 17th, and Brooklyn 1-0 on the 26th. Four of the 16 shutouts would be by 1-0 scores. Alex lost 3-0 to Brooklyn on May 8th and on May 30th was hammered by the Giants—five earned runs in seven innings. He never pitched well in New York. On the season, four of his 12 losses would be by shutout.

Table 1. Alexander’s 1916 Season by Month

Month    Starts    CG    IP    W    L    ShO
April    4    4    36    3    1    1
May    6    5    53    5    2    3
June    7    6    60    5    2    1
July    8    7    69    6    2    4
August    8    8    75    6    2    4
September    10    8    86    7    3    2
October    1    1    9    1    0    1
Totals    45    39    388    33    12    16

Table 2. Alexander’s 1916 Season by Team

    Team        Alexander
    W    L        W    L    ShO
Brooklyn    94    60        5    3    2
Philadelphia    91    63        -    -    -
Boston    89    63        5    2    3
New York    86    66        2    3    1
Chicago    67    86        5    2    1
Pittsburgh    65    89        4    1    2
St. Louis    60    93        5    1    2
Cincinnati    60    93        7    0    5

On August first it was time for the team to turn it up a notch. They were five games behind the first place Brooklyn club and one game behind second place Boston. Alex did his part with four consecutive shutouts. He got help with solid pitching from Erskine Mayer, Al Demaree, and Eppa Rixey. From August first through the 19th the Phillies won 13 of 15, but then stumbled in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, losing six of eight; for the month they were 17-10 and opened September only three games behind Brooklyn and Boston who were in a virtual dead heat for first.

And then the fun began. The Phillies were home for eight straight games against Brooklyn and Boston and won them all to storm into a two-game lead in the pennant race. It began with Alexander recording his record-breaking 14th shutout beating Brooklyn’s Jack Coombs who set the record in 1910. But then a funny thing happened. The Giants became unbeatable. They pounded Alexander for 13 hits in seven innings and swept a four game series on their way to a 26-game winning streak. The Phillies made 12 errors in the four games.   

After the giant debacle Alexander took a step back to look at the situation. He took a deep breath and loaded the team on his back for the stretch run. Beginning on September 12th with a win over St. Louis, he would go the rest of the way pitching every third day. On the 16th he beat Chicago, on the 19th he lost 2-0 to the Cubs. On the 23rd he pitched a doubleheader, beating Cincinnati 7-3 and 4-0, his 15th shutout.

It was down to the wire. Three games in Brooklyn and a season-ending five games at home against Boston. On Thursday, the 28th , at the three-year-old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, a record crowd for a week-day game, 20,000 wild and unruly fans did their best to unravel the great Alexander as he carried the banner of Philadelphia to the mound looking for his 32nd win of the season. When the game began the teams were tied at 57 losses each but the Dodgers/Robins had 90 wins to only 87 for the Phillies. At the end of the day Alexander stood triumphant and the Phillies trailed by only a half game, but led in the loss column.

On Friday it rained; a morning-afternoon showdown was scheduled for Saturday. The Phillies took the morning game behind Eppa Rixey to move into first place and handed the ball to Old Pete who knew what was at stake when the teams squared off in the afternoon. Pitching with one day’s rest, Alexander needed all the help he could get, but when shortstop Beauty Bancroft broke an ankle in the first inning, the defense collapsed. Alex battled five innings to a 1-1 tie until Casey Stengel, the half-nuts Brooklyn rightfielder, kited one onto Bedford Avenue to put Brooklyn ahead to stay.

Two days later back in Philadelphia Old Pete found a way to blank the Braves on three hits for his 16th shutout, once again putting the Phillies back into first place. But before Alex could get back on the mound the Phillies lost three straight to the Braves while Brooklyn cooled off the sizzling Giants to win the pennant.

Incredibly, Alex was called on for a save the next day. Boy, did that guy love to pitch.

By max blue
Al Demaree, Baker Bowl, Dave Bancroft, Ebbets Field, Eppa Rixey, Erskine Mayer, Fred Luderus, Pete Alexander, Philadelphia Phillies, Polo Grounds


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