Selecting the All-Time Best Pitchers from Texas
When I set out to write a book that outlined all-time teams by player’s state of birth, I encountered a number of tough challenges. For example, who was the best Texas-born second baseman, Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby? I went back and forth a hundred times on that selection and ended up picking Morgan. I’d probably go with Hornsby now.
Although it wasn’t as tough deciding on the best righty and lefty starter from Texas, I was amazed at how many great, Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers hailed from Texas. Six are already inducted in Cooperstown, but there should be one or two more, in my opinion. Ranking my final selections was complicated by the fact that 11 of the top 16 Texas hurlers were Negro League players, so I was comparing apples to oranges with my statistical analysis.
Four Texas-born righties are in the Hall now that Greg Maddux was a first-ballot inductee in 2014 and he is my pick for the all-time best right handed starter from the Lone Star State. For those wondering about Roger Clemens, he was born in Dayton, Ohio, not Texas, so he has to battle Cy Young for the top righty in Ohio history. All Maddux did was win four straight Cy Young Awards and post five other top-five finishes to go with eight All-Star selections and an unbelievable 18 Gold Gloves.
Not all the Gold Gloves were deserved—Maddux led National League pitchers in errors three times and won the Gold Glove each of those years. His success as a fielder often involved him being able to predict precisely where the batter would hit the ball based on his pitch selection.
Perhaps no pitcher ever accomplished more with less when you consider “Mad Dog” did not possess a blazing fastball or knee-buckling curve. He was a pitching genius. Maddux ranks first in putouts by a pitcher with 546, fourth in games started with 740, eighth in wins with 355 and 10th in strikeouts with 3,371. It is hard to imagine too many more pitchers reaching 300 wins let alone reaching the rarefied air of 350-plus wins. He only won 20 games twice but posted 17 consecutive seasons with at least 15 wins and 20 straight with at least 13 wins.
Maddux’s 1995 season, when he posted a 1.63 ERA and adjusted ERA of 260, was one for the ages. It represents the fourth-best pitching season (minimum 120 innings) of run prevention in baseball history. Of course he was even better the year before, with an ERA of 1.56 and adjusted ERA of 271, which represents the third-best season of run prevention.
Maddux was like a poker player on the mound, offering his own sleight of hand deception. He said his approach to pitching was to make the strikes look like balls, and the balls look like strikes.
“Greg Maddux could probably put a baseball through a lifesaver if you asked him,” noted fellow Texan Joe Morgan. In fact, on a lark Maddux once pitched to a catcher who was blindfolded and hit the mitt every time. In addition to being one of the best ever at spotting the fastball, Maddux was always two steps ahead of the batter. If the batter moved an inch closer to the plate, he noticed it and adjusted, sometimes in mid-motion. His catchers often didn’t even give him a sign because it was ridiculous to suggest they knew more about what he should do than him. For 23 years, Mad Dog was always in control. Maddux kept hitters off-balance by never throwing them the same-speed pitch in the same spot, combined with the fact that he had the unique ability to sink the ball or cut the ball off both edges of the plate.
Maddux beat out some pretty stiff competition to earn the spot as all-time righty starter from Texas. Strikeout king Nolan Ryan and Negro League stars Smokey Joe Williams, Hilton Smith and Rube Foster would be the ace of just about any other staff.
Ryan was still throwing heat when he finally hung up his cleats at the age of 46 after 27 big-league seasons—more than any other player in baseball history. His record 5,714 strikeouts are 839 more than runner-up Randy Johnson, while his seven no-hitters are three more than any other pitcher. He gave up just 6.55 hits per 9 innings, which is the best ever, and his 9.5 K/9IP ratio currently ranks sixth-best.
Conservative estimates show Nolan faced 22,575 batters and threw over 65,000 pitches in the majors. Whereas Maddux seemed to figure everything out early in his career, Ryan found the battle between pitcher and hitter to be an eternal struggle. “Pitching is a little like being married; you love it, you fear it, and are often puzzled by it,” he wrote in his book Kings of the Hill.
Ryan fanned eight father-and-son combinations and 12 sets of brothers while setting a new benchmark for intimidation on the mound. Just ask Robin Ventura, who was pummeled by Ryan when he made the mistake of charging the 46-year-old on the mound a month before he pitched his last game. Ryan had his uniform retired by three teams—Astros, Rangers and Angels—but amazingly pitched in just one World Series game for the New York Mets in 1969. His teams only made the playoffs five times, which is part of the reason he ended up with 292 losses—third-most all-time.
If Maddux was the control artist, then Ryan was the anti-control artist. He led the league in walks eight times and wild pitches six times and ranks number one in walks and number two in wild pitches. His control got better over the course of his career. There is nothing more unsettling to a batter than facing a fast pitcher who isn’t entirely sure where the ball is going.
Here is what Reggie Jackson thought about facing the Ryan Express: “Every hitter likes fastballs just like everybody likes ice cream. But you don’t like it when someone’s stuffing it into you by the gallon. That’s how you feel when Ryan’s throwing balls by you.”
Smokey Joe Williams was not only the most dominant pitcher in the Negro Leagues in the early part of the 20th century, he was voted the greatest pitcher in Negro Leagues history by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1952, narrowly topping Satchel Paige. He is generally regarded as the fastest black pitcher, although perhaps not as fast as Walter Johnson. He blended Ryan’s speed with Maddux’s control.
Williams, who was also nicknamed “Cyclone,” was like Ryan in that he was still throwing heat well into his 40s, although he used a deceptive, easy motion. In 1930, a 44-year-old Williams struck out 27 batters for the Homestead Grays while tossing a one-hitter over 12 innings. He may actually rank second to Ryan in no-hitters, as Smokey Joe claimed to have pitched five no-hitters over the course of a career that lasted from 1910 to 1932. Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett hailed Smokey Joe as the fastest pitcher he had ever seen, while Sam Streeter noted that it took two catchers to hold him.
Williams, whose mother was of Indian heritage, was a large man—6-foot-4 and 200 pounds—and his talent rivaled that of any white pitcher. In fact, he went 22-7-1 when facing teams of white big leaguers. He pitched shutouts in his first three games against white stars and later beat Pete Alexander, Chief Bender, Rube Marquard and Waite Hoyt, among others. Teaming up with Cannonball Dick Redding on the New York Lincoln Giants, the duo was nearly unbeatable, and Williams was still mowing down batters while pitching for the Homestead Grays in the late 1920s. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Hilton Smith is one of the least known great pitchers in baseball. He won 20 games in all 12 seasons he pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs (counting all manner of games), combining with Satchel Paige to lead the team to seven pennants. Paige got all the attention, but Smith was just as effective at shutting down the opposition. Smith played in six straight East-West All-Star games from 1937-42. His best season was 1941, when he went 25-1. A study sanctioned by the Hall of Fame shows his career mark as 71-31 in Negro Leagues action with a 1.68 ERA. Smith, who was also a dangerous batter, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001.
Rube Foster, who got his nickname by outpitching Rube Waddell in a 1902 exhibition, reportedly won 44 straight games pitching that year. He helped the Cuban X-Giants win black baseball’s first World Series in 1903 by winning four games against the Philadelphia Giants. The Indianapolis Freeman wrote that Foster “has all the speed of a [Amos] Rusie, the tricks of a [Old Hoss] Radbourne, and the heady coolness and deliberation of a Cy Young. What does that make of him? Why, the greatest baseball pitcher in the country,” as reported in Robert Charles Cottrell’s The Best Pitcher in Baseball: The Life of Rube Foster, Negro League Giant.
Bill “Cannonball” Jackman was a star attraction throughout New England while pitching into his 50s. The only reason he is not as widely recognized as Foster and Smith is because he preferred barnstorming around New England with lesser teams to playing in the more established Negro Leagues. Jackman pitched in more than 1,200 games—going 49-5 in 1929 against all competition—and won a high percentage of his starts, so he probably topped Cy Young’s win total. “Jackman is not often mentioned among the select few, but there are men like (Negro Leagues shortstop and Yankees scout) Bill Yawkey who consider him best of all,” writes Robert Peterson in Only the Ball Was White.
Another notable righty from the Negro Leagues was William Bell Sr., who posted a career record of 164-122 with a 3.20 ERA. Bell, who possessed excellent control, went 11-2 and 10-4 to help the Kansas City Monarchs win pennants in 1924 and 1925.
Slotting in somewhere between Hilton Smith and Rube Foster is future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, who has been doing his best Sandy Koufax impersonation since winning the first of three Cy Young Awards in 2011. Kershaw has led the NL in wins twice, in ERA four times, in strikeouts and ERA+ three times and in WHIP four times. The 2014 MVP has a career ERA of 2.43 and is widely considered the best pitcher in the game today. Through his age 27 season, Kershaw has compiled 1,746 career strikeouts, which outpaces strikeout king Nolan Ryan, who had 1,572 strikeouts through his age 27 season.
Also deserving mention as Texas-born righties are Schoolboy Rowe, Negro Leaguers Jesse Hubbard and Bill Gatewood, recently retired Josh Beckett and still active John Lackey.
Rowe won 158 games over 15 seasons, being named to three All-Star teams. His best season was 1934, when he won 16 consecutive decisions on the way to winning 24 games for the Tigers. He was the star of Game 2 of the World Series that season, retiring 22 consecutive batters, but the Tigers ended up losing to the Cardinals. Schoolboy won 19 games the next season while helping lead the Tigers to the championship over the Cubs. Rowe was an excellent batter, who ended up with a lifetime batting average of .263 with 18 home runs.
“Mountain” Hubbard pitched for six teams in the Negro Leagues between 1917 and 1934, relying on a deceptive delivery and wide arsenal of pitches to be a reliable starter as well as part-time outfielder. At 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, “Big Bill” Gatewood was an imposing presence on the mound over a 24-year career with 15 different Negro Leagues teams. He reportedly taught Satchel Paige how to throw the hesitation pitch while they were pitching teammates with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1927.
Beckett ended his career after 2014 with 138 wins and three All-Star selections. The native of Spring, Texas, was named MVP of the 2003 World Series after pitching a five-hit shutout in the decisive Game 6 to lead the Florida Marlins to an upset win over the Yankees. In 2007, Beckett won 20 games in the regular season, won the All-Star Game and finished second in Cy Young balloting, while going 4-0 in the playoffs that season to lead the Red Sox to the championship.
Lackey currently ranks as the number 12 right-handed starter from Texas, just behind his buddy and former Red Sox teammate Beckett. The Abilene native has compiled 165 wins across 13 seasons for three teams. He led the AL with a 3.01 ERA in 2007, when he was named to his only All-Star team. His 34.4 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is just off Beckett’s mark of 35.3.
The top three candidates for the left-handed starter are all from the Negro Leagues: Bill Foster, Andy Cooper and Dave Brown. The Hall of Fame previously listed Foster’s record as 143-69 with a 3.36 ERA, but now goes with 128-63 and a 2.52 ERA. The half-brother of Negro Leagues pioneer Rube Foster was widely regarded as the greatest left-handed pitcher in Negro Leagues history. I rank him the top Texas southpaw in Baseball State by State.
Also known as “Willie,” Foster was a durable flamethrower with a sweeping curve who could seemingly throw the ball wherever he wanted. “He had the best control,” noted teammate Nat Rogers, who also had to face him numerous times and considered him the greatest pitcher.
Foster was 25 years younger than Rube and he chafed under his brother’s stern directives when forced to pitch for him on the Chicago American Giants. Both were stubborn, but only one was in charge. After Rube’s erratic behavior got him committed to an insane asylum in 1926, Bill’s pitching seemed to improve greatly overnight. That year he gained notoriety for winning both games of a doubleheader on the last day of the season to clinch the pennant for the Chicago American Giants. Foster was the leading pitcher in the Negro West League in 1927 with an 18-3 record and also started and won the first East-West All-Star Game in 1933. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996.
Cooper spent nine years pitching for the Detroit Stars and 10 years with the Kansas City Monarchs, going from the former team to the latter in a five-player trade. He frequently came on in relief to close out big games. Like Foster, Cooper had a deep arsenal of pitches and pinpoint control but relied less on overpowering speed and more on changing speed to keep batters off balance.
The southpaw pitched 17 innings in a playoff game in 1937, when he was at the beginning of a successful stint as player-manager of the Monarchs. He guided the team to three Negro American League pennants in four years before dying of a heart attack at age 45 in 1941. When Cooper was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006 he was labeled the second-best Negro Leagues lefty after Foster. Hall records credit him with a career mark of 116-57 and 3.24 ERA.
Brown was just as talented a pitcher as Foster and Cooper, but trouble seemed to follow him starting with a case of highway robbery that dogged him in 1917. After flashing patches of brilliance with Rube Foster’s American Giants—helping the team win three straight Negro National League titles by going 29-8 from 1920-22—Brown again found himself running from the law after allegedly shooting a man to death in a bar fight in New York in 1925.
He reportedly continued to pitch under an assumed name, Lefty Wilson, in outlying leagues before eventually dropping out of sight. The San Marcos native had an excellent curve ball and was a big-game pitcher, and despite his short career he was named to the second team on the All-Time All-Star team generated by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1952.
Another notable southpaw is Hippo Vaughn of Weatherford, who won 20 games in five seasons and finished with 178 wins and a career WAR of 46.6. Vaughn’s best season was 1918 with the Cubs, when he won the pitcher’s Triple Crown by leading the NL with 22 wins, 1.74 ERA and 148 strikeouts. He gained notoriety in 1917 when he was the losing pitcher in the only game in baseball history in which both starters pitched no-hitters for nine innings. Reds pitcher Fred Toney managed to complete 10 no-hit innings for the win, while Vaughn lost his no-hitter and the shutout in the top of the 10th.
Let us not forget Kerry Wood, who I rank as the ninth-best relief pitcher in Texas history, since he appeared in 268 games out of the bullpen to go with 178 starts. The Irving native dazzled by striking out 20 batters against the Astros in only his fifth major league start in 1998 and reached 1,500 career strikeouts faster than any pitcher in major league history, requiring just 1,303 innings to reach the mark. On September 2, 2002, Wood became the only player to strike out four hitters in an inning while also hitting a home run in the game.
Deep in the heart of Texas, they sure know how to grow skilled hurlers who can blow a fastball by you or buckle your knees with a curveball. Somewhere on a dusty mound in the Lone Star State, the next great Texas pitcher is fine-tuning his form.
Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, N.Y., is the author of “Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites.” You can reach him on Twitter at @yankfan81.