If you were to ask any baseball fan about the Yankees no-hitter on September 4th, most everyone would immediately think of Jim Abbott’s gem at Yankee Stadium in 1993. But did you know that the one-handed lefty was not the only Yankees pitcher to keep his opponent hitless on the fourth day of September? Seventy years before Abbott secured a spot for himself in baseball immortality, Sad Sam Jones put together one of the strangest no-hitters in the game’s history.
Having made his major league debut with Cleveland on June 13, 1914, one year after bouncing around the Ohio minor league circuit and a semipro basketball league, Sad Sam Jones was already an eight-year veteran. He had a World Series ring (1918, with the Boston Red Sox) and had led the American League in winning percentage (16-5 record in 1918) and shutouts (5, in 1921) when the Yankees traded for him following the 1921 season. Although he would never be as dominant as he was for the Red Sox in 1921, Jones was an important part of the New York pitching staff in 1922, winning 13 games in 28 starts and accumulating eight saves in relief as the Yankees won their second consecutive AL pennant.
Alongside longtime teammate Bullet Joe Bush (both were members of the Red Sox who were traded to the Yankees in the same deal) and a young Waite Hoyt, Jones anchored the Yankees rotation during the 1923 season, leading the team in both wins (21) and saves (four) despite a 3.63 ERA. That postseason, he would start Game 3 against the New York Giants, getting tagged with the loss despite giving up only one run (a home run to Casey Stengel), and he would be on the mound to earn the save in Game 6 as the Yankees won their first-ever World Series title.
It was in the midst of this historic season that Jones would throw the game of his life. With the Yankees holding a comfortable 13-game lead in the American League, they embarked on a road trip on September 3, heading down to the much-beloved Shibe Park for a four-game set against the Philadelphia Athletics. After winning the first two games in which their pitching staff had somehow escaped with just five runs allowed on a whopping 23 hits, the Yankees were hoping for an easy win to clinch a series victory against their seventh-place opponents.
Jones did more than deliver, allowing only two batters to reach base: shortstop Chick Galloway, who walked in the first, and right fielder Frank Welch, who reached on an error by Yankees shortstop Everett Scott (who, coincidentally, was also a teammate of Jones with the Red Sox and who came to the Bronx in that same trade) in the eighth. He kept the Athletics off the board all night, retiring 21 batters in a row between those two baserunners. And evidently he did that by inducing a lot of soft contact, because he did not strike out a single batter all game.
Yep, that’s right. Jones, who, in an era known for its low strikeout rates, was famously not a strikeout pitcher (his career K/9 of 2.8 was low even by the standards of his contemporaries), somehow managed to not allow a hit despite allowing 28 balls in play. Over the course of the game, he induced nine flyouts (Whitey Witt got a lot of work in center field, with six of them headed his way), four pop flies, and a whopping fourteen groundouts. It was a masterclass in pitching to contact, as not a single batter recorded a line drive, and yet, as no-hitters go, Jones’s performance very often gets lost in the shuffle, as he does not even get top billing on Yankees-specific This Day in History posts.
Following the success of the 1923 season, Jones would go on to pitch three more years for the Yankees, although they would not return to the World Series while he was in pinstripes. After two years of declining performance, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns after the 1926 season, then to the Washington Senators the following year, where he would see a career resurgence at the age of 35 that, like Bartolo Colón’s in pinstripes, extended his career by seven seasons.
In many respects, Sad Sam Jones received the short end of the stick in his career. He currently holds the Major League record for longest pitching career spent entirely in one league, a record he shares with Herb Pennock, Early Wynn, Red Ruffing and Steve Carlton; unlike the others, however, he is not enshrined in the Hall of Fame. His feat of spinning a no-hitter without recording a strikeout, moreover, was not replicated until 1969, when Ken Holtzman of the Chicago Cubs did so against Atlanta; however, because he was not the first to do so — that distinction belongs to Earl Hamilton, who did so as a member of the St. Louis Browns in 1912 — he does not get remembered for that, either.
Perhaps, however, that’s just how he liked it. A quiet man who was always the last to show up for spring training and the first to head home when the season ended, Jones did not flaunt his status as a professional ballplayer, and after his career, he worked as, among other things, the church custodian in his hometown of Woodsfield, Ohio. To him, baseball was just one part of life, as can be seen through this poem that he wrote, entitled “Base Ball is but a Game of Life”
First base of Egotism, Second base of overconfidence,
Third base of indifference, Home Plate of honest achievement.
A good many men lose by reason of pop-flies;
the short-stop of public opinion frequently nips short the
career of a man who fails to connect with the ball of life
with a good sound wallop.
The winner is the man who knocks the horse-hide of opportunity
loose with the bat of honest effort.
When you have batted for the last, made the rounds of the bases
and successfully negotiated home-plate,
may we hope to hear the Umpire of LIFE, which after all,
is the esteem of friends and acquaintances,
call to you that you’re safe.
Many thanks to Baseball-Reference, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and the Baseball Almanac for providing the background information for this post.