In the current era of baseball in 2023, if a pitcher throws a complete game, it probably means that they put in a dominant outing. It’s no shock that Sandy Alcantara won the NL Cy Young Award after six such performances accompanied his sterling remaining slate. A team is only going to let a pitcher go that far if they’ve been not only good but efficient in terms of pitches thrown. Otherwise — for better or worse — teams just aren’t going let a pitcher go potentially 100 or more pitches just for the hell of it.
That was not always the case in, say, 1920. Back then, teams would regularly let a pitcher go all nine innings, even if said pitcher wasn’t putting in the best of efforts. Occasionally, that results in a very weird final line for a complete game.
On June 13, 1920, the Yankees were in Cleveland for a matchup of the early-season AL leaders. Cleveland went into the game with a one-game lead, but the Yankees sent ace Bob Shawkey to the bump that day.
Before Shawkey even stepped on the mound, he got a bunch of support from his offense. The Bombers batted around in the top of the first, scoring six quick runs, and knocking opposing starter George Uhle after just 0.1 innings.
When Shawkey did take the mound, he quickly got into some trouble, loading the bases on a trio of singles. However, he got a Bill Wambsganss groundout to get out of the inning and keep Cleveland off the board. In the second, he allowed another two hits and had to get a strikeout to strand a pair of runners in scoring position. The third inning saw player-manager Tris Speaker lead off with a single, only to then get thrown out trying to stretch in into a double.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ offense kept motoring along. They scored one run in the third, fifth, and sixth innings each. The tally in the sixth came via a Babe Ruth homer, which was his 17th of what would be a then-staggering record 54. As that happened, Shawkey settled down some, but still allowed a couple more baserunners, only to continue to work around them.
Another two Yankees runs in the eighth put the game out of reach for all intents and purposes. However, that didn’t prevent Cleveland from trying something. In the bottom of the eighth, they recorded another two hits. However once again, Shawkey induced an inning-ending groundout.
The top of the ninth inning saw another three Yankee runs, bringing their game total to a football score of 14. Up that big lead and in the year 1920, Miller Huggins decided to let Shawkey finish off his game. He got two quick outs, but naturally couldn’t get out of the inning completely cleanly. Speaker kept the game alive for Cleveland with a two-out single. However naturally, he was then thrown out trying to advance to second during the next at-bat. That ended the game and gave the Yankees a 14-0 win.
Shawkey is credited with not only a complete game, but a shutout. Here’s the thing: His final line for it is pretty wild. In his nine scoreless innings, Shawkey allowed 12 hits and two walks. Of the games where pitchers managed to allowed more baserunners than that in complete-game shutouts, the vast majority came in games that went extra innings. Even more crazy, of the 14 runners to reach base, nine made it into scoring position. Shawkey had very little room for error so often, but every time managed to wriggle out of it.
It’s hard to imagine any team letting a pitcher go long enough in a game to allow 12 hits. The fact that not only did it once happen, but it ended in a complete-game shoutout is wild.
New York Times, June 14, 1920