This Week in Baseball History: September 14-20

The 2017 Astros and 1900 Phillies have more in common than you think...

This week, we revisit some of the rarest pitching accomplishments ever, an all too familiar sign-stealing scandal, and the legacies of two legendary hitters.


Sept. 14, 1968 – Denny McLain Wins Game No. 30


1968—Year of the Pitcher. For those of you unfamiliar with this season, it featured numerous iconic pitching moments. Bob Gibson posted the lowest single-season ERA (1.12) in the live-ball era. The American League batting average title belonged to Carl Yastrzemski with a .301 average, the only AL hitter to hit .300+ that year. ’68 featured the lowest league-wide BA (.237), OBP (.299) and SLG (.340) of the past century.

The main reason pitching dominated much of the ’60s is that the MLB expanded the strike zone to the top of a batter’s shoulders before the ’63 season. But some players, such as Denny McLain, the AL Cy Young winner in ’68, attribute their success to a “lightning in a bottle” scenario where an enlarged zone and pitching perfection seamlessly played off one another.

The 24-year-old McLain entered ’68 in his sixth season as a Detroit Tiger, looking to firmly establish himself within the upper tier of starters. His career 3.57 ERA/97 ERA+ up to that point was buoyed by his 2.61 ERA/134 ERA+ in ’65. In his other four seasons, he was, at best, barely a league-average pitcher. A performance jump from McLain would greatly benefit the Tigers, who finished the ’67 season with a 91-71 record, just one game back from first place.

McLain began ’68 with the best pitching of his career, and he never really let up. In the first half, McLain earned 16 wins with a 2.09 ERA and 142 K:23 BB over 172 IP. As the season went on, it looked like McLain would make history.

You see, there have only been 147 seasons with a pitcher winning 30+ games. The last time that happened before ’68 was when Dizzy Dean won 30 in ’34.

Nothing could stop McLain from winning. This is due to two reasons: 1) McLain was a workhorse, leading the AL with 28 complete games. And 2) the Tigers were the best hitting team that year with a wRC+ of 108.

This storyline climaxed on Sept. 14. The first-place Tigers faced the sixth-place Oakland Athletics. McLain entered the game with a 29-5 record on the year, winning his previous four starts behind complete-game efforts. This Athletics lineup, headlined by the 22-year-old duo of Rick Monday and Reggie Jackson, stood as the underdogs.

But the Athletics knocked McLain around for four runs, scoring first with Jackson’s homer in the top of the fourth. But the Tigers powered back with three runs in the next half-inning. The A’s later tacked on a couple more runs, giving them a 4-3 lead by the top of the ninth.

McLain wanted to keep the deficit to one as the Tigers had their best hitters coming up for last licks. And that’s exactly what he did, recording an easy groundout and two strikeouts to retire the side. The Tigers rewarded McLain’s effort with a much-needed rally, tying the score on an errant throw during a fielder’s choice and leaving a runner in scoring position. Then, Willie Horton, who finished the year with a 167 wRC+, the fourth highest of any hitter (min. 500 PA), laced a walk-off single into the outfield, handing McLain his 30th win of the year in dramatic fashion.



Since ’68, no pitcher has won 30 games in a season. The highest single-season totals belong to Steve Carlton and Bob Welch, who won 27 games in ’72 and ’90, respectively.


Sept. 16, 1972 – Mike Schmidt’s First Home Run


Who comes to mind when you think of the best third baseman ever? Do you choose the contact specialist Wade Boggs? Or the offensive juggernaut George Brett? What about the hot corner wizard Brooks Robinson?

Personally, my choice is a five-tool legend in Mike Schmidt. He leads all third basemen in JAWS (82.8), is second in Gold Gloves with 10, and is the only full-time third baseman with 500+ home runs and 100+ fWAR. His three MVPs are tied with numerous legends like Stan MusialJoe DiMaggio, and Mike Trout for the second-most ever.

All of this began in 1972 with the 22-year-old Schmidt’s MLB debut. He had carved out a quick journey through the minors after being picked in the second round of the ’71 draft. Though he only posted a .652 OPS in 268 PA games during his stint in AA in ’71, he shredded through AAA in ’72, hitting .291/.409/.550 with 26 home runs over 531 PA. This earned Schmidt a mid-September call-up to the Phillies, who were likely finishing dead last in the division.

Seeing as this major league roster was going nowhere quick, this promotion was meant to give the exciting Schmidt some big-league experience in a low-pressure environment. Although Schmidt went 1-for-7 with two walks and four strikeouts in his first two games, it didn’t take long for his power to be heard.

This moment happened in front of the 6,471 fans attending the Expos vs. Phillies game on Sept. 16.

The Expos barely outplayed the Phillies in the beginning of the game. Over the first six innings, the Phillies carved out a measly two hits and one walk against Expos starter Balor Moore. The Expos didn’t fare much better at the plate over the first six-and-a-half innings, with three hits and one walk, but at least they managed to score one run.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Phillies led off with two straight singles, but they lost the runner on first after a line out double play. Moore intentionally walked the next batter, leaving runners on first and third with two outs as the rookie Schmidt stepped up to the plate. Moore had pitched 25.1 straight scoreless innings up to that point, and he suddenly found this streak at an end as Schmidt crushed a three-run homer to put the Phillies ahead.

The Phillies held on to this lead and won 3-1. Schmidt would hit a lot more homers—548 in total to be exact—until his final bomb 17 years later.


Sept. 17, 1900 – Phillies Busted Using Buzzer in Sign-Stealing Scandal


Doggy doggy what now?! What is this, a crossover episode? How dare baseball reuse the same storyline!

Back in the early days of the sport, the unwritten and written rules were still being crafted. In 1900, there wasn’t such a thing as a World Series or a foul strike. During these formative years, teams were trying to gain whatever edge they could find on the baseball diamond.

For a while, opposing teams didn’t understand what made the Phillies so successful. They had the best home record in 1900 at 45-23 in the Baker Bowl, but this contrasted with their 30-40 performance on the road. Nobody could have expected that the key to their success was Pearce Chiles aka “What’s The Use” (seriously, that’s his nickname).

The 33-year-old Chiles was in his second season on the Phillies and he had hit .320/.352/.462 with a 125 OPS+ in 1899. In 1900, Chiles was much worse, hitting just .216/.256/.333 with a 62 OPS+. When he wasn’t in the lineup, Chiles would step in as a third base coach. Opponents noticed that Chiles would stand in the same spot in the coaches’ box, and he had a persistent, unusual leg twitch.

On Sept. 17Tommy Corcoran of the Cincinnati Reds decided to find out what was going on during the first game of a doubleheader between the two teams. In the third inning, Corcoran ventured over to Chiles’ box and started scratching at the ground with his cleats. He soon uncovered a wooden box that contained protruding wires.

It turns out that the Phillies back-up catcher, Morgan Murphy, positioned himself in the outfield and used some sort of telescope to steal the catcher’s signs. He then relayed the pitch through wires that went under the outfield grass to Chiles who communicated this information to the batter.

When the Reds raised this issue with home plate umpire Tommy Hurst, he dismissed their concerns, telling the men to get “back to the mines” and resume the game.

The Phillies issued a range of denials about this incident, portraying it as a joke and saying that everyone in baseball steals signs. The team avoided discipline.

It is really shocking how much this whole scandal sounds like the Astros’ codebreaker in 2017. Well, minus the whole coach purposely electrocuting himself part. Nonetheless, it seems like the Astros aren’t the only team to be let off easy after being caught in the midst of a baffling buzzer-based, sign-stealing scandal.


Sept. 18, 1996 – Roger Clemens Strikes Out 20Again!


On the exalted mountain of the best pitching accomplishments ever, a 20-strikeout game arguably stands at the top. There have been 23 perfect games and 305 no-hitters, but only five games where a pitcher got 20 Ks in nine innings.

Roger Clemens owns two of them.

The first of these happened on April 29, 1986 when Clemens dominated the Mariners in a 3-1 rout, becoming the first pitcher ever to reach the 20 K plateau.


He would go on to win his first MVP and Cy Young that season.

10 years and five months later, Clemens did the impossible again.

At 33 years old and in his last season as a Red Sox, Clemens had already carved out an impressive HOF resume. Entering the Sept. 18 game against the Tigers, Clemens boasted: 3 Cy Youngs, 1 MVP, 191 W-110 L, 2,552 Ks, and a 3.07 ERA over 2,752.1 IP.

Clemens had gotten roughed up in September so far, letting up 4-5 runs in each of his previous three starts. Although Clemens didn’t miss every Tigers bat (they ended up with five hits), he made it clear that nobody would be crossing second base.


Hitter after hitter, Clemens put them down with his combination of overpowering fastballs and devastating breaking balls. He recorded six strikeouts his first time through the order, seven more the second time. Clemens finished the eighth inning with 19 strikeouts, seemingly on pace to shatter the record that he set a decade before.

But Clemens slightly lost his stuff towards the end of the game, letting up three hits in the last two innings. He recorded the first two outs of the ninth on two pop outs, leaving him with 19 Ks as he faced the last batter, Travis Fryman. Clemens threw the second pitch of the at-bat wild, which is understandable considering Clemens was over 140 pitches on the day. But he came back strong, retiring Fryman with a disgusting splitter to record strikeout No. 20.


Sept. 20, 1968 – Mickey Mantle Hits His Final Home Run


I like to imagine that Mike Trout’s career is what Mickey Mantle could have been. And I think that’s an enormous compliment to both individuals.

Mantle’s career did not reach its full potential. At just 19 years old in the ’51 World Series, Mantle injured his knee after tripping over an exposed drain pipe in the outfield. Sports medicine at the time could not sufficiently address this damage, which may have been as severe as a torn MCL, ACL and meniscus. This injury, combined with his persistent alcoholism that followed his father’s death in ’52, meant that Mantle never played completely healthy.

Despite this, Mantle managed to become an inner-circle Hall of Famer. He has two of the top eight seasons by fWAR of any hitter not named Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. Mantle’s best year was 1956, where he hit .353/.464/.705 with 52 HR, 130 RBI, 132 R, 10 SB:1 CS, and 11.5 fWAR. He was excellent in the World Series, with the most homers (18), RBIs (40) and fourth-best WPA (1.5) of any hitter. When Mantle retired in ’68, he did so with the third-most home runs (536). No. 535, which broke Mantle’s tie with Jimmie Foxx, couldn’t have happened without the help of Denny McLain.


While McLain’s gift represented Mantle’s penultimate home run, the last one occurred just one day later on Sept. 20 against the Boston Red Sox.

Both the Yankees and Red Sox were well out of the pennant race. Although no one knew this would be Mantle’s last season, he appeared in both obvious decline and pain from his nagging injuries. Mantle entered the game hitting .242/.392/.402 with 17 HR. Remember: this is in ’68, Year of the Pitcher. So a sub .800 OPS is still somehow good for a 145 wRC+. But this wasn’t good enough for Mantle, who regularly threatened a 180 wRC+ in his prime.

In this matchup, the 36-year-old Mantle still batted third, facing off against Sox starter Jim Lonborg. Mantle won their battle in the first inning, smacking a double to right field. They met again in with two outs in the bottom of third, the Yankees trailing 1-0.

Mantle, like he had done hundreds of times before, used his generational power to tie the game and drive No. 536 over the right-field wall.

His herculean effort to carry the Yankees did not propel them to victory as they ended up losing 4-3. The 15,737 fans in attendance were not aware that this game would be the last powerful display of Mantle’s skill as The Mick would record only one hit over his final 21 PAs.


Although Trout provides a glimpse into the “what if” scenario of a healthy Mantle in his prime, it still falls short in perfectly encapsulating Mantle’s complete greatness.


Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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