You’ve made it to the majors leagues. After a couple seasons in the minors, you’re set to make your major league debut as a starting pitcher for a team in the city you grew up in. The game gets rained out, and it’s the last day of the season. The next year, you make your actual debut. You then allow the fourth most runs ever given up by someone making their debut, in a game called “a travesty on the national game” by the New York Times.
That’s what happened to Joe Lake. Somehow, he was also the winning pitcher in that game.
Lake spent his early baseball career playing for semi-pro teams, while also working on the docks in Brooklyn. He would have already been about 24 when he was signed by his first professional team in 1905. He pretty quickly progressed through the minors, and was picked up by the Jersey City Skeeters in 1907.
In Jersey City, Lake impressed, and by the end of the season the then New York Highlanders purchased his contract. That caused some controversy, as the Phillies also claimed to have the rights to Lake, but their appeal was denied.
Following the conclusion of the minor league season, Lake reported to New York, and was actually given the start in the second game of a doubleheader on the final day of the 1907 season. After Lake had thrown three scoreless innings, rain, which had already messed with the first game of the day, caused the game to be cancelled. It was the last game of the season, and neither team were playing for anything, so there was no reason to resume the game on a later day. Lake’s first major league appearance did not happen according to the record books.
The following year in 1908, Lake made the team out of spring training, and was given a second chance to make his debut on April 21st against the Washington Senators. He proceeded to allow 13 runs on 11 hits and eight walks, and hit one batter. He also threw a complete game and was the winning pitcher.
The Highlanders scored 16 runs themselves, with Lake himself helping out with an RBI. Lake’s 13 allowed runs is the most ever by a pitcher credited with a win in baseball history.
Exactly how many of those runs were earned is unclear, as no available box scores of the game list that. The teams also combined for 11 errors, six by the Highlanders, so it’s safe to say several of them were probably unearned. The aforementioned New York Times article said of the game:
“Stupid playing, poor fielding, and weak pitching were the components of the contest. … There was a continuity of misplays that would have disgraced an amateur nine.”
Lake went on to play in 38 games and make 27 starts for the Highlanders in 1908. He struggled, putting up a 78 ERA+, and leading the league in losses. As a team, New York were quite bad. Their 51-103 record is the most losses and the second worst winning percentage in team history.
In 1909, Lake put up a pretty good season, but was traded to the St. Louis Browns in December. He went on to play a combined four seasons for the Browns and Tigers. His major league career ended after 1913, but he played on a further season with the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association. Lake attempted to continue to play in the minors after that, but was passed on by several teams in 1915. He would return to Brooklyn and spend the rest of his life there.
Plenty of players over the years have done something memorable in their major league debuts. Aaron Judge hit a home run in his first at-bat for the Yankees. Arguably no one had a stranger set of circumstances around theirs as Joe Lake did.
All data courtesy of Baseball Reference