By DAVID MILLER News Sports Writer
Quite a few years ago when I lived in Northeast Kansas, I had a church friend who knew I liked sports. She lived in a nursing home, but was in church every Sunday that her health would permit.
“Hey, there Mr. Sports,” she would usually say when she first saw me. There were a couple of high school athletes who attended the same church, but they weren’t there as often as she was. She always wanted to know how they were doing on the gridiron, the basketball court or on the baseball diamond.
I was pleased when I could report significant accomplishments by the young men and women on the local teams. I didn’t always report to her the significant defeats, although in that community those didn’t come so often.
One day, probably during the summer when high school sports were somewhat dormant, her face lit up and she reported with pride “I had an uncle who played in the Big Leagues.”
She went on to say that he held some kind of record, but she wasn’t sure of what it involved.
I asked her to tell me her uncle’s name, and her simple response always was “Uncle George.”
She told me about her Uncle George a dozen or so times, and I asked other people in the church about who her Uncle George might have been. All I got was blank looks and shrugs. My friend had grown up in another small town and no one in our town knew her family. Eventually I moved away from that community and didn’t have any contact with her again. I did read of her passing a few years later but I had forgotten about “Uncle George” until I read last week about something in The Associated Press’s This Date in Baseball feature for June 17.
Seems that a Zip Zabel set a major league record by coming in to pitch in relief in the firstinning and pitched the rest of the game which just happened to be decided in the 19th inning. His record (which is still on the books) was for the most innings pitched in relief in the same game.
Zabel’s feat interested me, so I checked him out and in the process learned that he had come from the same small town in Northeast Kansas as my friend and had the same last name. And believe it or not Zip Zabel’s given name is George Washington Zabel. I have no proof, but I would guess that Zip Zabel was “Uncle George.”
Zabel’s career was brief, only three years, all spent with the Chicago Cubs. He broke in during the 1913 season and his last game was Sept. 29, 1915.
His gargantuan relief appearance happened on June 17, 1915 in a game against the Brooklyn Robins (later known as the Dodgers). The amazing thing about that game was that the Robins’ pitcher, Jeff Pfeffer, pitched the entire game. The Cubs and Zabel won, by the way.
Looking up Zabel on the Baseball Reference web site, I learned that his Major League career consisted of one game in 1913, 29 games in 1914 and 36 games in 1915. He had a 1-0 win-loss record in 1913, 4-4 in 1914 and 7-10 in 1915. His ERAs for those three years were 0.00, 2.18 and 3.20, all pretty decent. He split time between being a starting pitcher and a reliever.
After the 1915 season he was sent down to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and then he played in Toronto in the International League in 1917. He had pretty good years with both of those teams, but for a reason I haven’t been able to determine, 1917 was his last season of professional baseball. He retired at the ripe old age of 26.
Every reference I found was consistent with the information that he was born Feb. 18, 1891 in Wetmore, Kan., and that hedied May 31, 1970 in Beloit, Wis. And they all credited him with having pitched 18 and one-third innings in relief during a game on June 17, 1915.
Thinking about my good friend’s Uncle George got me to reflecting about relief pitching in general. Things are much different now than when I was much younger. As long as I can remember there have been pitchers whose specialty was to pitch in relief. I remember that each team had five or six pitchers who were available to pitch should the starters falter.
But in those days managers were more inclined to keep the starters in the game much longer than is true today. In the current set up, managers pay attention to pitch count and whenever the starter has reached the magic number, the manager will probably make a change.
Now there are relief specialists known as the set-up guy who will pitch the sixth, seventh or eighth innings and then one known as the closer to pitch in the ninth inning.
Consequently it is unlikely that Zip Zabel’s record will ever be broken.
But as my mind often works, I began wondering about other records held by relief pitchers.
Looking it up, I found that Mariano Rivera holds the American League record with 1,105 games pitched in relief all for the New York Yankees. In second place is Mike Timlin with 891 games. Timlin pitched for Toronto, Seattle, Baltimore and Boston.
John Franco is the National League record holder with 1,119 games pitched, split between the Reds, the Mets and the Astros.
Jesse Orosco holds the Major League record, with 1,248 games pitched in relief. Orosco pitched for nine different teams, some in the American League some in the National. Therefore his totals in each league are short of that league’s record.
There is a similar situation in the area of most innings pitched in relief. Hoyt Wilhelm has the MLB record with 1,871 innings. But Wilhelm pitched for nine different teams,some in each league. Sparky Lyle holds the record for innings pitched in relief in the American League (1,265) and Kent Tekulve has the mark for most innings pitched in the National League (1,436.1).
Mike Marshall shares the American League record for most games in relief during one season (89) with Mark Eichorn of the Toronto Blue Jays. Marshall also holds the National League record having pitched in 106 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974. His American League record was set with the Minnesota Twins in 1979. The most strikeouts in one season by a reliever is held by Dick Radatz of the 1964 Boston Red Sox (181). Brad Lidge of Houston has the National League mark of 157 set in 2004.
The most strikeouts in one game by a reliever is held by two guys named Johnson. Walter Johnson of the 1913 Washington Senators struck out 15 batters in a relief appearance and Randy Johnson struck out 16 for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. Neither Walter nor Randy did much relief pitching.
Seeing Wilhelm’s name among the record holders was a delight. He was one of my many favorites. Wilhelm’s career lasted 20 years, long for a pitcher. Many have speculated that he owed his longevity to his skill of throwing a knuckleball, which doesn’t put much stress on the arm.
The knuckleball, if thrown right is a difficult pitch to hit. There is no spin on the ball and the wind will make the ball float every which way. The pitcher doesn’t always know how the ball is going to react when it is released.
Wilhelm broke in in 1952 with the New York Giants, the year after they had won the pennant. Manager Leo Durocher had lots of capable starting pitchers, so he relegated Wilhelm to the bull pen, thinking that opposing batters would be likely to get the timing down on a knuckleball after several innings.
I remember listening to a “Game of the Day”broadcast when Wilhelm was brought in to pitch in the late innings. The way Al Helfer described Wilhelm’s pitch and how it baffled the hitters made me want to throw a knuckleball. I practiced throwing a rubber ball up against the garage and thought I had it mastered. I eventually convinced the coach of our Cookie baseball team that I had a good one and he let me try it in a game. I learned quickly that my knuckleball didn’t fool anyone. It was fortunate that our team was far, far behind when the coach let me pitch.
A fun fact you can pass along—Wilhelm hit a home run in his first time at bat in the Majors. The homer came off a rookie pitcher, Dave Hoover, of the Boston Braves and it barely cleared the short porch in left field of New York’s Polo Grounds. But it was a home run. In his 20-year career he went to bat 432 times, but didn’t hit another home run.
Wilhelm didn’t get called on to start a game on the mound often, but in 1958 as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he did start a game against the New York Yankees and pitched a no hitter. He walked two batters. Yankee Hank Bauer almost broke up the no-hitter when he put a perfect bunt down the third base line, but Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson let the ball roll and eventually it veered foul.
The knuckler was difficult for catchers to corral, and the Orioles had 48 passed balls in 1958. Oriole catcher Gus Triandos was a large man without much quickness and he particularly suffered.
“Heaven,” he once said, “must be a place where no one throws a knuckle ball.”
Someone developed an oversized catcher’s mitt which made the job of catching a knuckle ball pitcher somewhat easier.
Wilhelm eventually was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, a fitting honor for a pitcher who mostly threw a junk pitch that baffled hitters for 20 years.