Pitcher Les Mueller of Belleville spent only two years in the major leagues, but memories never will be in short supply. Mueller, 89, played for the Detroit Tigers in 1941 and 1945, a career that was interrupted by World War II. In his two seasons, Mueller:
Helped the Tigers win a World Series.
Threw 19 2/3 innings in a game against Philadelphia.
Fired a shutout against the New York Yankees in his first start.
Allowed one-armed outfielder Pete Gray's first hit.
Hit a home run.
Mueller has no regrets.
"I was very fortunate," Mueller said in a recent telephone interview from his second home in Louisiana. "I got a World Series ring. There's a lot of fellows who play a long time and don't get a World Series."
The early years
The roots of Mueller's big-league career took hold as a senior at Belleville Township High School. A sidearmed right-hander, Mueller caught scouts' attention in 1937 when he had 30 strikeouts in 12 innings against Livingston.
"Can you imagine a high-school coach now pitching a pitcher 12 innings?" Mueller said with a chuckle.
In his next start, Mueller fanned 17 in seven innings. An aggressive yet seldom-seen scout from the Tigers won a race to secure Mueller's services over both St. Louis teams - the Cardinals and the Browns - the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.
"He had stopped by the (family-owned) furniture store (in Belleville) and had gotten my dad to sign a contract," said Mueller, adding that he met the scout just one time. "He said they would give me $5,000 if my name ever appeared on a Detroit roster. Of course, that was a lot of money in those days."
After stints in Sioux City, Iowa, Beaumont, Texas, and Alexandria, La., Mueller was summoned to the Tigers in 1941. It was a nondescript season: four relief appearances, 10 walks in 13 innings and a 4.85 ERA. But it was a start.
Or so Mueller thought. Like many young men, Mueller's career was delayed by service in World War II. Mueller spent the next three years in St. Louis.
"I was in the special service," Mueller said. "I was fortunate. I was at Jefferson Barracks and stayed there the whole duration.
"I was supposed to go overseas, but I had a trick knee at that time that would jump out of place occasionally. That kept me there. But otherwise, we had an adequate baseball team there for a while. The first year I was there, we played 70-some ballgames. We played the Cubs and Boston and a lot of other ballclubs."
War ends, career resumes
When the war ended, opportunity remained with the Tigers. Mueller's role increased in 1945. He worked in 26 games, including 18 starts, and finished 6-8 with a 3.68 ERA in 134 2/3 innings. He had six complete games and two shutouts.
On July 21, 1945, Mueller's name became famous throughout baseball when he threw a record 19 2/3 innings against the host Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park. Mueller allowed 13 hits, walked five and struck out six. The one run against him was unearned; it scored on a fourth-inning error by first baseman Rudy York.
After 4 hours and 48 minutes, and with darkness settling in after a warm, muggy afternoon, home-plate umpire Bill Summers called the game. It ended in a 1-1 tie after 24 innings, and it remains the longest game in American League history.
"We had lost a doubleheader in Washington the night before and we were going to play Philadelphia," Mueller said. "Later, I went up to Detroit a couple of times on different occasions. Hal Newhouser, who's in the Hall of Fame, spoke to me and he said, `You know, I remember talking to (manager Steve) O'Neill before we got to Philadelphia.' He said O'Neill told him, `I'm not sure who I'm going to pitch tomorrow, but whoever I start is going to have to go a ways in the game.'
"The pitching staff was a little weak at the time. I did start. I was hoping I would get a win. O'Neill kept asking me, `Are you OK, Les?' from about the 12th inning on. I said, `Yeah, I'm OK.'"
Finally, enough was enough. Dizzy Trout relieved.
"What happened in that (20th) inning is I got two men out and then I walked two batters," Mueller said. "O'Neill came out to the mound and said, `That's enough for today, Les.' To this day, I don't think it hurt my arm. I didn't have a sore arm or anything, but I didn't pitch again for a week or two, at least."
Mueller, then 26, once estimated he threw about 370 pitches in the game. Philadelphia Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell was 0-for-10.
"George Kell, I saw him at an old-timer's game in Detroit," Mueller said. "I told him, `I know one thing. I go around telling people I pitched against George Kell, who's in the Hall of Fame, and he never got a hit off me.'
"He was broadcasting some Detroit games at that time. He told me, `Yeah, I have guys that come around and gripe when they go 0-for-4.'"
Mueller, sitting in the dugout, was disappointed when the game was called.
"That 24th inning, Bill Sommers, who was the umpire, said, `I'm calling this game. I'm having trouble seeing the ball. That's enough for today,'" Mueller said.
Shades of Gray
Early in the 1945 season, on April 17, Mueller faced rookie outfielder Pete Gray of the Browns. But Gray, 30, wasn't a typical player; he had just one arm.
Gray, a left-handed hitter, lost his right arm after it was caught in the spokes of a wagon on which he was riding at the age of 6. Gray singled against Mueller - the first of 51 career hits in his one and only season. Gray died in 2002.
Mueller doesn't remember Gray's first hit, but he remembers Gray.
"I tell you, the guy was a marvelous athlete," Mueller said. "He wasn't an All-American out. He did quite well considering he had one arm. I admired the guy."
Mueller faced Gray one other time in 1945, retiring him on a long fly to right.
"I recall he hit a ball that came within a few feet of going out of the park," Mueller said. "I remember the outfielder backing up against the wall and I thought, `I'll never hear the end of that.' But the outfielder caught the ball."
Bringing home a title
Mueller pitched in Game 1 of the 1945 World Series against the favored Chicago Cubs at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers lost the game 9-0, but rallied to win the series 4-3. Like his career, Mueller's outing was brief. He worked a scoreless eighth and ninth, walked one and struck out one. He faced seven batters.
It was Mueller's final big-league game. He wasn't used the rest of the series.
Mueller didn't make the Tigers' big-league roster in 1946. He was sent to Class AAA Buffalo, where he hurt his arm. He eventually was traded to the Yankees, who optioned him to Class AAA Newark. Mueller hung around for another two years, but he never was the same. He retired after the 1948 season.
Mueller returned to Belleville to be with his late wife, Peggy, and sons Les Jr., Roger and Lynwood. Mueller became a partner with his brother, Roland, at Mueller Furniture. Roland's dad, John, had opened the store in 1927.
"My boys were getting school age and I had the opportunity to go into the family furniture business, and that's what I did at that time," said Mueller, who retired in 1984 and is remarried. Mueller and his wife, Ruth, will return to Belleville in July to visit his sons, relatives and friends. Mueller still keeps a home in Millstadt.
Mueller, whose best pitch was a fastball, never knew how hard he threw.
"I wish I knew," he said. "But in those days, you didn't hear anything about how fast a guy was. I don't think they even had things that checked the speed."
Through the years, most of Mueller's teammates from the Tigers' magical 1945 season have died, most recently first baseman John McHale (Jan. 17, 2008), second baseman Eddie Mayo (Nov. 27, 2006) and left fielder Jimmy Outlaw (April 9, 2006).
Just three players who appeared in the World Series with Mueller are still living: pitcher Virgil Trucks and second baseman Red Borom are both 91, and outfielder Ed Mierkowicz is 84. Trucks joined the Tigers out of the Navy in 1945, just in time to make two starts in the World Series.
"I talked to Virgil not long ago," Mueller said, adding that Trucks - whose complete-game performance in Game 2 helped the Tigers win 4-1 to even the series - remains in good health. "He lives in Alabama somewhere (Birmingham). He's still in his hometown where he was born and raised."
Two other members of the 1945 Tigers also are alive: Pitcher Billy Pierce is 81, and catcher Milt Welch is 83. They were the youngsters on the team, combining to play in just six games. Neither made the World Series roster.
The lone remaining Cubs players from the 1945 World Series are Phil Cavaretta, 91, Lennie Merullo, 91, and Andy Pafko, 87. Merullo, who later became a scout, insisted the Cubs sign shortstop Ernie Banks out of the Negro League. Banks smashed 512 home runs in his Hall of Fame career.
The Tigers and Cubs met one more time. Thirty-five years after the '45 World Series, in 1980, they played an Old-Timer's Game.
"We beat them again 2-0," said Mueller, 61 at the time. "We only played two innings. Billy Pierce pitched the first inning and I pitched the second inning, and we shut them out. It was nice to pitch in that Old Timer's Game."
Mueller said the years have been good to him. His trick knee still is, well, tricky.
"The only thing is I have a bad knee that I should have had replaced, but I didn't," Mueller said. "But I don't have any problems. I still drive back and forth."
Still a fan
Mueller, who soon will return to Belleville for the remainder of the summer, still loves baseball. He has had season tickets to Cardinals games for the last 40 years.
"It's a great game and always will be," Mueller said. "It's entirely different now. Now the ballplayers pretty well rule the game. Them and television. In my day, the ballclubs (ran things). They owned the ballplayers. You were just like a piece of lumber."
Mueller appreciates the skills of the modern player, although he acknowledges the changes the game has undergone.
"The big difference now is there's so many more teams (30)," he said. "In my day, there were only eight in the American League and eight in the National. There weren't that many players.
"I think the ballplayers are probably a little bit stronger and faster (today). Overall, I think the game has improved a little bit. The only thing that probably hasn't improved is there's so many players and they get there faster. As a result, a lot of the fundamental things that --- in the big leagues those days, you had to do - a lot of those things they don't do. Things like hitting the cutoff man, the hit-and-run and all that kind of stuff. Bunting is another thing.
"In our day, there was no pitching coach. There might be one coach that did some of that. They didn't have batting coaches and baserunning coaches. And bench coaches, we didn't have anything like that."