January 27, 2023

Win, Lose…or Draw? Romancing the No-Decision

April 22, 2022 by · 1 Comment 

Hall of Fame worthiness is a subjective if not downright arbitrary judgment. Why is this so-and-so in the Hall when that so-and-so isn’t? You probably have your favorite oversight, I have mine: namely, Tommy John.

Leon Cadore

Brooklyn’s Leon Cadore battled Boston’s Joe Oeschger to a 26-inning 1-1 tie in 1920 before it was called due to darkness

Now you might think I’m referring to his 288 victories or his eponymous status regarding Tommy John surgery (for the record, 164 of his victories came after he missed the 1975 season due to the surgery). That should be enough, but there is more: Tommy John is the all-time leader in no-decisions with 188.

Today, with a standard five-man rotation and a 162-game schedule, a healthy pitcher will start 32 or 33 games a year. So John pitched roughly 5½ seasons of his 26-year career with goose eggs in his win and loss columns.

Bert Blyleven, a Hall-of-Fame pitcher with career stats similar to John’s, holds the single-season record for no-decisions with 20 (out of 37 starts). Blyleven set the record in 1979 while with the Pirates.

So a no-decision is hardly a disgrace, though it is not among the sexiest baseball statistics. Football’s Vince Lombardi once observed that “Winning isn’t everything, winning is the only thing”– a philosophy equally applicable to baseball and subsequently adopted by many hypertensive Little League coaches.

In truth, the feats of winning teams and players have been exhaustively chronicled and lauded. Baseball history is not written by the winners, but it is largely written about the winners. Had Homer been a Trojan rather than a Greek, he wouldn’t have bothered with the Iliad.

Unlike tellers of tales, statisticians must deal with losses as well as wins, paying homage to failure as well as success. The no-decision lies outside this zero-sum/win-lose duopoly. No one goes home happy after a stalemate. As Bing Crosby was wont to sing, “Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”

Notably, even in non-sports contexts, we refer to people as winners and losers. It is possible, however, to lose without being a loser A valiant effort that ends in defeat does not go unnoticed (e.g., the Alamo, Thermopylae).
Remember “My head is bloody but unbowed”? This line comes to us from the poem “Invictus” by Victorian poet William Ernest Henley. It sounds noble and inspiring, but any ballplayer could say the same after bumping his head on a low-slung dugout roof.

Then there’s the “man in the arena” routine, courtesy of Teddy Roosevelt. When he uttered those words at a speech in Paris in 1910, TR never guessed that his spiel would be quoted so often it would become a cliché in motivational speaking circles. The part about a face “marred by dust and sweat and blood,” of course, could be yet another instance of a ballplayer bumping his head…probably during a Cactus League contest since it involves dust and sweat as well as blood.

Perhaps the bloodiest but least bowed of ‘em all was Harvey Haddix, who pitched 12 perfect innings on May 26, 1959, only to lose to the Milwaukee Braves in the bottom of the 13th. In fact, I remember my father bringing the sports pages to my attention the next day (I was nine years old at the time) and telling me that what Harvey Haddix did was a really big deal. He was right.

Time has not dimmed Haddix’s achievement, though Major League Baseball tried to do so via some ex post facto finagling that redefined a no-hitter as a complete game – of any duration – in which no hits were struck. Hence Haddix’s singular achievement was no longer recognized as a no-hitter. Though Haddix was nicknamed the Kitten, the SPCA declined to become involved.

This was a rare instance of the loser garnering the headlines while the winner was buried in the box score, which makes for a great trivia question: Who got the win for the Braves that night? He pitched a 13-inning complete game, but who remembers that? I could reveal his identity now, but I’ll let you ponder it till the end of the article. No fair peeking…not that I can stop you. Hint: it was not Warren Spahn.

Speaking of Warren Spahn, he was involved in a marathon against the Giants’ Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963. The 1-0 game ended on a walk-off home run by Willie Mays in the bottom of the 16th inning. Both pitchers went the distance. Marichal, in his prime (27years old), got the victory, but Spahn going the distance may have been the greater achievement, as he was 42 years old!

Then there was Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley, who pitched a complete-game one-hitter at Dodger Stadium on September 9, 1965. He walked but one and surrendered just one unearned run. Unfortunately, his opponent, Sandy Koufax, hurled a perfect game – an official perfect game, mind you. Hendley’s consolation prize was a mention in the record book since that 9/9/65 game set a record for fewest combined baserunners and hits in a game. Hendley could justifiably say that Koufax needed his help in order to set that record.

This is not to say that going the distance in a losing extra-inning effort is always heroic. Consider the case of Tommy Byrne. On August 22, 1951, Byrne and the St. Louis Browns took on the Red Sox at Sportsman’s Park. Byrne threw 248 pitches in 12.2 IP only to lose the game 3-1. It’s true that Byrne suffered from a lack of run support, but to a large degree, he was his own worst enemy. By the time Bob Mahoney replaced him in the 13th inning, Byrne had walked 16 batters – a record for an extra-inning game. (Interesting to note that Red Sox rookie Leo Kiely also pitched 12.1 innings and got the victory).

The real story is that Byrne, who was plagued by wildness throughout his career, was still around in the 13th inning. Like Gary Cooper in Beau Geste, he defied the odds by holding down the fort as long as he did. Another movie star, Audie Murphy, once downplayed his status as a war hero by describing himself as a fugitive from the law of averages. So was Byrne – at least until the decisive 13th inning. Unlike Haddix, he had been tempting fate all through the game. He kept asking for it…and eventually, he got it.

So it takes more than poor run support, high pitch count, and extra innings for a losing pitcher to don the mantle of a tragic hero. A similar effort that results in a no-decision is not the stuff of tragedy. Remember the old Wide World of Sports motto: “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” The ennui of a no-decision is omitted.

A no-decision is neither here nor there, right? Wrong! Sometimes there is a there there! It is indeed possible for a pitcher to hurl a memorable no-decision. As Exhibit A, I offer Nolan Ryan’s outing on June 14, 1974. Then with the Angels, he was facing the Red Sox in Anaheim.

Ryan was in the midst of his third straight outstanding season with the California (once and future Los Angeles) Angels after being traded away by the Mets (along with Leroy Stanton, Frank Estrada, and Don Rose) for Jim Fregosi, who bombed with the Mets and was traded away during the 1973 season, making Mets’ GM Bob Scheffing look like a first-class chump.

In his first two seasons with the Angels, Ryan won 40 games, struck out 712, and hurled two no-hitters. So by 1974, it was pretty well established that any time Ryan took the mound, he might do something extraordinary. In the early months of 1974, however, he had been less than legendary. He was only 7-6 when he took the mound that evening. When he left the game after 12 innings, the score was tied at 3. A no-decision was his takeaway.

In 2022, a starting pitcher going 12 innings, no matter what the result, would really turn heads. Pitching coaches kept pitch counts in 1974, but it wasn’t the stuff of OCD. Stamina was expected of a starter. As long as he got batters out, he stayed in the game. With the adoption of the DH rule in the AL in 1973, an effective starting pitcher was in no danger of being removed for a pinch-hitter.

When Ryan was removed from the game, pitching coach Tom Morgan’s clicker registered 235. A lot of those pitches were wide of the plate, as Ryan walked 10. A telling inning was the fourth when he struck out the side while walking the bases loaded and then forcing in a run. Like Byrne, Ryan was not making it easy on himself. What distinguishes Ryan’s effort was strikeouts: 19 in 12 innings (first baseman Cecil Cooper struck out six times–1.5 golden sombreros!). It was the first of three times Ryan reached the 19 SO mark that season. His no-decision augmented his burgeoning legend.

By the way, Ryan’s opponent, Luis Taint, is yet another example of valor in the face of defeat. Tiant went all the way (14.1 innings) and threw an estimated 200 pitches in a losing effort. Final score: 4-3.

Joe Oeschger

Joe Oeschger

Ryan’s pitch count was impressive but it was not a record for a no-decision game. The record was probably set on May 1, 1920, in Boston when Brooklyn’s Leon Cadore faced off against Joe Oeschger and the Braves. The conflict dragged on…the two teams soldiered on…no one won, no one lost…sort of like the Korean War. After 26 innings the game was called due to darkness. Cadore and Oeschger both went all the way. Interestingly, the two had locked horns ten days earlier when Cadore emerged victorious in an 11-inning contest by a 1-0 score.

There were no formal pitch counts in those days, but Cadore and Oeschger estimated they threw 300 and 250 pitches, respectively (they helped themselves by walking just 5 and 4, respectively). Curiously, Oeschger, though he gave up just one earned run in 26 innings that day, led the league in earned runs that year with 115.

That game still remains the longest (in terms of innings, not elapsed time) in major league history. It broke the record of 24 innings set on September 1, 1906, when Jack Coombs of the A’s bested Joe Harris of the Boston Americans. Both men went the distance, but at least that contest was played to a conclusion (4-1 in favor of the A’s).

Joe Harris, however, might have welcomed a no-decision. Considering his record (he began the game with a 2-17 record and finished the season at 2-21), he might have welcomed lots of no-decisions. Believe it or not, he wasn’t really that bad. Today a 3.52 ERA in 235 IP at age 24 would entitle Harris to a Daddy Warbucks contract. This was, however, the Deadball Era. Even Harris’s lowly Boston Americans (49-105 for the season) had a team ERA of 3.41. All Harris got was another loss, albeit a complete game. No quality starts in 1906. No participation trophies either.

One wonders what Cadore and Oeschger were thinking when their record-breaking game was called after that 26th inning. It was indeed a Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but not a tragedy worthy of Eugene O’Neill. On the other hand, it was hardly a comedy. Or was it? Remember the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (spoiler alert – sound the klaxon!) when the wind spirits away all the gold dust that Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt have been accumulating for months?

How do Huston and Holt, the two survivors, respond? They laugh about it! All that work for nothing! The joke’s on us! Fate is just a giant cosmic whoopee cushion! Did Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger respond in a like manner when they got bupkis for their herculean labors?

Oeschger might have been doubly amused. It had been a year and a day (April 30, 1919, to be specific) since he had received a no-decision after going the distance (as did his opposite number, Burleigh Grimes) for the Phillies in a 20-inning, 9-9 tie with the Dodgers at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. It will come as no surprise that Oeschger is the only man in baseball history to pitch 20 or more innings in two games. Consequently, he is also the only starter who hurled two no-decision games of 20 or more innings.

An interesting footnote to the 26-inning marathon: Though Leon Cadore did not pitch again till May 13, the Dodgers were back in action the next day. They traveled to Philadelphia, played a 13-inning contest on May 2nd, then took the train back to Boston for a 19-inning affair against the Braves the following day. Remarkably, neither team called upon a relief pitcher in either game.

Of course, every time a starting pitcher takes the mound, he knows that a no-decision is a possible outcome. In a close contest, he might leave in the knowledge that his team still has a chance to win. Suspended games aside, he will know by the end of the game.

In some cases, the payoff comes later. When Blyleven set his no-decision record in 1979, he started 37 games yet finished the season at 12-5. Without going back and researching his season, I think it’s safe to say that some if not most of his no-decisions eventually resulted in victories, as the Pirates finished first in the National League East on their way to victory over the Orioles in the World Series.

So the no-decision is something of an object lesson for sports fans. “Just another day at the office” characterizes most workdays in Quiet Desperationville. We show up on time, but we don’t win, we don’t lose; we just do our job. As was the case with Blyleven, the results of our efforts will have a ripple effect down the line. Unlike Blyleven, we may not be there to witness said results. Such is the lot of Joe Sixpack.

On the other hand, there are sometimes immediate collateral benefits to the no-decision. While the iron-man pitchers are the stars of the aforementioned games, sometimes a member of the supporting cast is entitled to take a bow. One such player was Barry Raziano, who took over for Nolan Ryan in the 14th inning of the 6/14/74 game. The Angels’ bullpen was no great shakes that season (the leader in saves was 40-year-old Orlando Pena with 3), but Raziano rose to the occasion. He retired all six batters he faced and was awarded the victory.

You say you never heard of Barry Raziano? Well, that’s probably because he only pitched two seasons for the Angels and his win in the Ryan-Tiant duel was his only major league victory. I can’t help but be reminded of those nature films where two alpha males battle to see who’s number one while a beta male sneaks in and mates with the female.

Raziano did not have long to savor his first big league victory; two days later the Red Sox hammered him for 4 runs in 1/3 of an inning and he got his first big league loss. Four days after that (June 20) he pitched one inning and gave up three earned runs in a loss to the Rangers in Arlington. He played his last game on July 5 in Anaheim. Once again, he came into the game in relief of Ryan. This time the results were not so good. He pitched to three Cleveland batters in the top of the 9th and retired none (one hit, two walks). And that was the end of Barry Raziano’s big league career (1-2, 6.23 in 21.2 IP).

Thanks to Ryan’s no-decision on June 14, 1974, Raziano had the opportunity to be the winning pitcher in a big-league game. In that respect, he eclipsed his peers (he was a 47th-round draft pick in 1965).
So the no-decision creates opportunities for the likes of Barry Raziano. If it results in victory, the no-decision is not a wasted effort. And if it results in a loss? Well, Nolan Ryan, among others, could justifiably say he kept his team in the game.

As we go through our humdrum no-decision days, perhaps we can console ourselves with the thought that one day the cosmos will recognize our efforts. If you’re fortunate enough to see your efforts bear fruit, great! But it doesn’t guarantee you a raise at your next review.

Who knows? One day the no-decision may get some stat cred. With starters pitching fewer and fewer innings, bullpen pitchers by default get more wins and losses. So no-decisions are becoming more and more common. Yes, one season someone may break Bert Blyleven’s record. And one fine day, a starter with a lengthy career may surpass Tommy John’s career record. A moral victory for the no-decision!

And the answer to the trivia question about who defeated Harvey Haddix: Lew Burdette. He tied for the league lead in victories with a 21-15 record. He also led the league in games started with 39. So he spent very little time in the limbo world of the no-decision in 1959.

The Men of Autumn, by Dom Forker, Signet (New York, 1990)
Nolan Ryan, the Road to Cooperstown, by Nolan Ryan with T.R. Sullivan and Mickey Herskovitz, Addax Publishing Group, Inc. (Lenexa, KS, 1999)
“The game Nolan Ryan threw 235 pitches,” by Jim Henry, Joplin Globe, June 13, 2020.
“Joe Harris,” by Bill Nowlin, SABR Bio Project
“Leon Cadore,” by Warren Corbett, SABR Bio Project
“Tommy John,” by Michael Fallon, SABR Bio Project
“Joe Oeschger,” by John F. Green, SABR Bio Project


One Response to “Win, Lose…or Draw? Romancing the No-Decision”
  1. Chris Smith says:

    Phenomenal article; exceptional writing. Thanks so much for this!

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