Sports

Seventy years ago Tuesday, Belleville’s Les Mueller pitched a masterpiece

Les Mueller, of Belleville, pitched in 30 games in his career. None was more memorable than the game 70 years ago when he threw 19 2/3 innings.
Les Mueller, of Belleville, pitched in 30 games in his career. None was more memorable than the game 70 years ago when he threw 19 2/3 innings. Provided photo

It was on a steamy evening in Philadelphia’s venerable Shibe Park 70 years ago this Tuesday.

In the shadows of twilight, Detroit Tigers manager Steve O’Neill stepped out of the visiting team’s dugout and toward a figure on the mound, sweaty and slouching with an exhaustion he would never confess.

O’Neill’s Tigers were tied, 1-1, with Connie Mack’s Athletics and his pitcher, Les Mueller, had just successfully retired 59 batters over 19 2/3 innings.

“Gee Steve,” Mueller said to O’Neil once he arrived to the pitcher’s mound, “the game isn’t over is it?”

Maybe Mueller was delirious with heat stroke and really didn’t know — the high temperature that day was 89 degrees with game-time humidity that ranged from 49 percent at first pitch to 70 percent by the time it ended.

More likely, there was well-placed sarcasm in the way the bespectacled and Belleville-bred 26-year-old greeted his skipper. He’d already lasted this long, why not let him go a little further?

Mueller allowed 13 scattered hits, walked five, struck out six and allowed just the one, unearned run. And he really wanted the win.

“O’Neill kept asking me, ‘Are you OK, Les?’ from about the 12th inning on,” Mueller said in a 2008 interview with the News-Democrat. “I kept saying ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’”

Quite ‘a ways’

The Tigers had already played 18 innings on July 20, 1945, losing both ends of a doubleheader to the Senators in Washington. Mueller, who was used in spot starts 18 times that season, didn’t know for sure that he’d be pitching the following day until he arrived at the ballpark.

He recalled in his conversation with the BND a prophetic comment made by teammate Hal Newhouser, as the team made its way from Washington to Philadelphia for that historic first of four games with the Athletics.

“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,’” Mueller said.

What an understatement. Mueller went quite “a ways” alright.

Consider this: the Washington National’s Max Scherzer led the National League in 2014 with three complete games pitched. As of today, four entire pitching staffs share the NL lead with three complete games. Shoot, it took eight St. Louis Cardinals pitchers to get through 18 innings with the New York Mets on Sunday.

But in that single game against the A’s, on that balmy July day in 1945, Mueller threw the equivalent of two complete games plus a pair of bonus innings all by himself.

And while there were no recorded pitch counts during his era, Mueller estimated that he threw about 370. These days, pitchers typically get the hook at around 100 pitches.

Play-by-play

Philadelphia had captured the lead with an unearned run off Mueller in the bottom of the fourth. But Detroit tied the game in the top of the seventh when Roy Cullenbine walked, advanced to third on a single by Rudy York, and scored on a ground out by Doc Cramer, one of Mueller’s best friends on the team.

Mueller had no trouble through the regulation nine, but got into it deep in the 10th.

Philadelphia’s Hal Peck reached on a fielder’s choice and, with two out, stood on second as the game’s winning run. Buddy Rosar laced a single, but Detroit’s left fielder, the aptly-named Jimmy Outlaw, gunned down Peck at home to end the inning and save the game.

As if allowing a single, unearned run through 10 innings pitched wasn’t dominating enough, it was at that point, some say, that Mueller settled into his rhythm.

Newhouser, one of four Hall of Famers involved in the game, recounted the so-called “long game” to baseball historian Jim Sargent for a biographical archive maintained by the Society of American Baseball Researchers.

“I remember that game against the Athletics,” said Newhouser. “He was throwing as hard at the end as he was when he started.”

Without radar guns, that would be hard to know, but the box score does little to dispute Newhouser’s account.

Over the next eight innings, from the 11th through the 18th, Mueller faced only the minimum 24 batters. He allowed singles in the 15th and 16th, but escaped any real trouble by coaxing inning-ending double plays.

Mueller hit some turbulence again in the 19th by giving up a one-out single to catcher Bobby Estalella and a two-out walk to Bill “Fibber” McGhee, who had made his major league debut just three weeks earlier at age 35.

Mueller escaped the inning, though, by getting George Kell on a pop fly. It was the eighth consecutive time Mueller had retired the eventual Hall of Famer, a particular point of pride for the Belleville right-hander.

“George Kell, I saw him at an old-timer’s game in Detroit,” Mueller told the BND. “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.’”

Mueller was back to work in the 20th inning. He walked pitcher Joe Berry with one out, but then struck out second baseman Irv Hall.

The A’s stranded 18 runners on base in the game and went just 1-for-10 against Mueller with runners in scoring position. But it was a walk to Peck, his second of the inning, that lured O’Neill out of the dugout for that final visit to the mound.

Despite his determination to finish with the win and the fibbed assurances he gave his manager, Mueller got the hook.

Reliever Dizzy Trout carried Detroit to the end of the 24-inning marathon that ended in a 1-1 tie when umpire Bill Summers called it due to darkness. It was 7:58 p.m. and lights had been installed at Shibe Park six years earlier, but American League rules at the time prohibited turning lights on for a scheduled day game.

No-less historic

Mueller didn’t get another start until the second game of a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 5. He was leading 2-0 going into the ninth inning, but ended up on the losing side of a 3-2 final. The winning run scored on an error.

So between the two starts, Mueller allowed just two earned runs in 27 2/3 inning and had only a 0-1 record to show for it.

He worked in 26 games that season for the Tigers and finished 6-8 with a 3.68 ERA in 134 2/3 innings. He had six complete games, two shutouts, and threw two hitless innings in game one of the World Series, which Detroit won in seven games over the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a pennant since.

Somehow, Mueller never pitched in the big leagues again. He kicked around the minors for a few years before arm trouble got him in 1948 and forced his return to the family furniture store in Belleville.

Remarkably, Mueller’s 19 2/3 innings isn’t even the single-game record. That distinction is shared by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Leon Cadore and the Boston Braves’ Joe Oeschger, who tangled for 26 innings on May 1, 1920, only to see the game end in a tie. That game also stands as the longest in major league history.

But Mueller’s effort on that July evening was truly heroic, and no-less historic.

No pitcher has thrown more innings in a major league game since and, in this modern era of 12-man pitching staffs and specialist bullpens, no pitcher ever will.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman can be reached at teschman@bnd.com or 239-2540. Follow him on Twitter: @tceschman.

BASEBALL BIOGRAPHY

Leslie Clyde “Les” Mueller

Born: March 4, 1919 in Belleville

Died: Oct. 25, 2012 in Belleville

Spring 1937: As a senior at Belleville Township High School, averaged 18 strikeouts per seven innings pitched. He struck out 30 in a 12-inning game against Livingston and, three days later, struck out 16 in a one-hit win over Murphysboro.

Summer 1937: Signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers and was assigned to Alexandria of the Class-D Evangeline League. While other players received a $1,000 signing bonus, Mueller was offered $5,000, but only if and when he made the big league roster.

Summer 1940: Had best season in the minors for Class A Beaumont of the Texas League, winning 18 games with a 2.18 ERA. He struck out 170 hitters in 263 innings.

August 1941: Collected signing bonus when he was promoted to Detroit. He allowed seven earned runs in 13 innings pitched for a 4.85 ERA.

Summer 1942: Enlisted in the U.S. Army after starting the season 5-2 in 12 games pitching for Beaumont. Spent the next two summers pitching at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.

Summer 1944: Received a medical discharge from the Army after doctors discovered a hernia as he received a physical for overseas deployment.

May 31, 1945: Having rejoined the Tigers, shut out the New York Yankees, 2-0, for his first major league win.

April 17, 1945: Gave up the first major league hit to Pete Gray, the St. Louis Browns’ one-armed outfielder.

July 21, 1945: Lasted 19 2/3 innings against Philadelphia Athletics. He allowed one unearned run on 13 scattered hits. The game ended in a 1-1 tie after 24 innings due to darkness.

Sept. 19, 1945: Allowed two runs on three hits in a 2-0 loss to eventual Hall of Famer Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians. It was Mueller’s last start in the majors.

Oct. 3, 1945: Pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth innings in game one of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs. His two-inning performance was perfect, but for a ninth inning walk to Phil Cavarretta. The Tigers lost the game 9-0, but won the series in seven games. Mueller earned a ring, but never pitched in the big leagues again.

Autumn 1948: Completed his last professional season with Triple-A Newark of the International League. He was 6-5 with a 4.16 ERA in 80 innings.

1974: Retired from the family business, Mueller Furniture, in Belleville.

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