This year marks the 75th anniversary of a milestone we are unlikely to witness again in our lifetimes: the last 30-win season in the National League, authored by Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals. Living in an era when the 20-win season is becoming rare, we can learn a lot from a closer look at how Dean achieved his feat.
Here’s one important reason why winning 30 games is almost impossible today: only six pitchers in the past 15 seasons have started as many as 36 games in one season. Even if a pitcher completed all 36 starts, he would be hard-pressed to win 30, and with managers routinely removing starters after six or seven innings, their bullpens are going to blow at least a few potential wins every year. Winning 20 is an uphill climb today, much less 30.
How many games did Dizzy Dean start in 1934, when he went 30-7 for the pennant-winning Cardinals? Would you believe only 33? He was pretty much unbeatable as a starter, with a 26-5 record and 24 complete games. The big difference was that he pitched 17 times in relief, winning four times and losing twice. If the “save” had existed in 1934 (it didn’t until 1969), he would have been credited with seven.
You could argue that if he hadn’t been used so often in relief, he could have started more games and still won 30. That’s possible, but the way he was utilized was typical of his time. Take the pitcher from each National League team who started the most games in 1934, and those eight pitchers averaged more than 10 relief appearances apiece. The philosophy was simple: managers wanted their best pitcher on the mound with a close game on the line. If that meant pushing his next start back a day or two, fine.
Don’t think that these pitchers were ridiculously overworked. The overall pattern of games started wasn’t far from what we see today. Only five National Leaguers started as many as 35 games, and three of those were on the New York Giants. Only nine pitchers logged more than 260 innings, just over one per team, with three topping 300 innings pitched (including Dean’s 311 2/3). The majority of teams had what amounted to a five-man rotation. Managers simply recognized that since pitchers regularly throw between starts to keep sharp, they might as well do that throwing in games when they were needed. The same pattern existed in the American League, where the league leader in starts had 35 (the same as both league leaders in 2008).
Dean began 1934 with a ragged April, winning only one of his first four starts. In May he won all five of his starts and ended the month by saving a 9-6 victory for his brother Paul (known as “Daffy” though he wasn’t nearly as daffy as Dizzy). The Cardinals surrendered their grip on first place with a lackluster June, and between June 17 and July 1 Dizzy recorded five of their seven wins, including two in relief. The July 1 game was his greatest Herculean effort as he pitched 17 innings in Cincinnati, allowing 18 hits, 7 walks, and 6 runs before winning 8-6 with relief help in the 18th inning.
That stretch also included Dean’s most controversial victory of the season. He faced the Giants in St. Louis on June 27 and battled through eight innings of a 7-7 tie. Manager Frankie Frisch removed him with two outs in the top of the ninth, and reliever Jim Mooney recorded the final out. Thus Mooney was what we call today the “pitcher of record” when Bill DeLancey homered in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. According to Dean’s biographer, Robert Gregory, “official scorer Martin Haley of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat awarded the game to Diz and had no second thoughts about it, although the Giants, who had thus far been unable to beat either of the Deans, were said to be particularly indignant.” Official scorers did have more latitude then than they do now, and were prone to award the win to a starter who toiled nobly for most of the game. However, Dean’s pitching that day was on the ugly side, and without Haley’s ruling he would be known today merely as the National League’s last 29-game winner.
In July Dean stretched his winning streak to ten games before losing 5-4 at Pittsburgh in his last start of the month. At this point the Cardinals were stuck in third place, 5½ games behind the Giants. Though Dean notched his twentieth win of the season with a shutout at Cincinnati on August 7, things went downhill soon after. Both Deans lost in an August 12 doubleheader, and they didn’t take it well. They were no-shows for an exhibition game the next day, dared Frisch to try to collect the fines he imposed on them, and when Frisch suspended them, Dizzy ripped up his uniform and they went on strike. Two days later they gave in to management, but Dizzy served a ten-game suspension (making his remarkable road to 30 wins even rockier). The team treaded water all month, and on August 25 Dean lost in relief to the Giants, his only loss to them in 1934 against six victories. The Cards remained in third place, trailing the Giants by seven games.
Finally the Cardinals got hot, led by the stellar pitching of Dizzy and Daffy Dean. Beginning on August 28, the team went 24-7 on their pennant drive, with 14 wins by the brothers. Dizzy was particularly brilliant, a thoroughbred streaking down the home stretch. In seven September starts, he pitched six complete-game wins, including three shutouts.
He buttressed his starts with four relief outings in the final three weeks, twice preserving leads. But it was the final week that sealed the deal on his greatness. The Cardinals still trailed the Giants by two games when he took the mound against the Pirates on September 25. He had shut out the Dodgers four days earlier, and relieved in both games of a doubleheader two days earlier, but he was strong enough to take a shutout to the ninth inning and hold on to beat the Bucs 3-2.
The Cardinals pulled within a half-game of the Giants on September 27, and that night, all business, Dizzy turned down an offer to rope a calf at a local rodeo (he was prone to such sideshow antics throughout his career). The next day, working on two days’ rest, he shut out the Reds 4-0, and the Cardinals had finally caught up with the Giants. On September 29, Daffy picked up win #19 while the Giants lost, putting St. Louis into the lead with only one game left on the schedule.
There was no question who would pitch that game for the Cardinals. Despite only one day of rest, Dizzy was the man again, and he came through with another shutout, a 9-0 trouncing of the Reds to clinch the pennant. Win #30 was his league-leading seventh shutout, but the brothers weren’t done. Each won two World Series games against the Detroit Tigers, with Dizzy again pitching a shutout on one day of rest, winning the decisive seventh game 11-0.
“It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it” is the popular quote attributed to Dizzy Dean. No National League pitcher since 1934 could brag about doing what he did that year.