They Couldn’t Lose

One-hundred years ago, Johnson, Marquard and Wood strung together a combined 51 victories

October 31, 2012
Hall of Famer Walter Johnson was hailed as the best pitcher in baseball by fellow Hall of Fame Rube Marquard and pitcher "Smoky" Joe Wood. (NBHOF Library)

The San Francisco Giants rode outstanding pitching to the 2012 World Series title.

But 100 years ago, outstanding pitchers seemed to be in every big league dugout. And for three of those pitchers, the 1912 season remains a season of near perfection.

In 1912 – for the only time in the game’s long history – a trio of hurlers put together in-season winning streaks of at least 16 games.

The 1912 campaign was highlighted by the remarkable feat of New York Giants southpaw Richard “Rube” Marquard, who set a modern big league record with 19 consecutive victories, while righties Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators and Smoky Joe Wood of the Boston Red Sox set new marks in the American League with 16 straight triumphs.

For Marquard, a fastball/curveball pitcher with control, the route to big league success, and ultimately election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, was a bit bumpy at the start. Purchased by the Giants from Indianapolis of the American Association for $11,000, an unheard of sum at the time, on July 1, 1908, the young lefty struggled to a 9-18 record his first few years.  

At first hailed by Giants fans as the “$11,000 beauty,” Marquard soon became known as the “$11,000 lemon.” Then suddenly his talent emerged, and Marquard with a 24-7 record in 1911. But the ultimate transformation from disgrace to sensation would be just around the corner.

“For two years or more I was called the great $11,000 ‘lemon,’” Marquard said after the 1911 campaign. “The spectators used to shout it at me from the bleachers; the press used to print it in big headlines; I saw or heard it everywhere. The lot of the average bench warmer is a hard one, but the lot of the young player who has brought a big price and who is naturally expected to deliver gilt-edged ball is particularly unpleasant.

“But no experience they say is lost, and I suppose the experience I have had, though it has been unpleasant enough, will be of some use to me now that I seem to have made a fair start.”

The first and last wins in Marquard’s impressive 1912 streak came against the Brooklyn Dodgers – beginning on April 11, the Giants’ opening day, with an 18-3 victory – and ending with a 2-1 triumph on July 3.

The 25-year-old Marquard’s first defeat of the season came at the Chicago Cubs against unheralded rookie Jimmy Lavender on July 8, the lefty giving up six runs in six innings in a 7-2 loss. It was reported at the time that when Josh Devore pinch-hit for Marquard in the top of the seventh inning that “the crowd yelled in glee at the announcement, for it meant that the Cubs had driven the southpaw from the slab.”

Prior to 1912, the “modern” record belonged to Jack Chesbro, a future Hall of Famer, of the 1904 New York Americans and Ed Reulbach, a member of the Cubs in 1909, when each captured 14 consecutive games. When the pitching distance was 50 feet, Hall of Famer Tim Keefe won 19 straight for the 1888 Giants.

In an August 1912 article for Baseball Magazine, Marquard, after his 17th consecutive win, wrote, “I believe I have pretty thoroughly settled the arguments of those newspaper critics who once said I would not make good in the big leagues. I am equally certain that those papers which, while admitting I did do pretty good work last year, said it was only a flash in the pan and that I could not live up to such a record again, are beginning to see matters in a slightly different form.

“This year started out determined, if possible, to settle for all time the arguments of those critics who had assailed me so severely in former years, and who were not even quieted by my work of last season. I worked rather hard to prove to the baseball world that the Giants did not get stuck when they brought me from Indianapolis and I believe I have done so. I have certainly been fortunate enough to make a good start and that is at least half the battle.”

After Marquard, who would later perform in a vaudeville skit entitled “Winning Nineteen Straight,” won his first 19 decisions in 1912, he had a 7-11 won-lost record the rest of the season. Though the Giants would go on to capture the pennant before falling to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, in The New York Times on Sept. 9 it was written, “In fact, the erratic pitching of “the 19-straight hero” began just as soon as Jimmy Lavender put a crimp in his record in Chicago. Marquard’s failure to come up to his best form since that time shows the futility of pitchers going out after records. It was a big strain on Marquard, from which he has not yet fully recovered.”

Marquard followed up his 26 wins in 1912 with 23 the next year, finishing his 18-year big league career with a 201-177.

For Johnson, the fireballing sidearmer nicknamed “The Big Train," his streak of 16 straight wins, which began on July 3, came to an end on Aug. 28 against the St. Louis Browns, 3-2, despite giving up only four hits and striking out 12. Chesbro’s 14 consecutive wins in 1904 was the previous American League record.

Walter Johnson is the greatest pitcher in the whole world,” said outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, the infamous member of the Chicago “Black Sox” and a lifetime .356 batter. “Last year I used to swear by Ed Walsh, sometimes at him, but this year it is all Johnson. He has the greatest speed of any man I ever saw and is by all odds the hardest pitcher in the world for me to face.

“He has everything a pitcher could want, and when he is going full speed and starts burning them over the plate a batter might as well strike out and be done with it. The one best bet in the American League is Walter Johnson, and I don’t believe he has any equal in the National.”

Johnson, among the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of five electees in 1936, finished his 21-year big league pitching career spent entirely with the Senators with 417 victories.

Fellow American Leaguer Wood started his run of 16 straight victories on July 8, eventually losing to Detroit on Sept. 20. Arguably Smoky Joe’s most memorable triumph during the streak came on Sept. 6, a 1-0 shutout of Johnson at Boston’s recently christened Fenway Park. Afterwards, Washington manager Clark Griffith said, “I’d have given $1,000 of the receipts to have the result reversed. Wood is no such pitcher as Johnson, and it hurts to have him beat him.”

While Wood would finish the 1912 campaign with a 34-5 record, even he would admit to the greatness of his fellow flamethrower.

“Walter Johnson is the greatest pitcher in the game. I am perfectly willing to admit it,” Wood said. “I do not know that he has much more speed that I have, for people who are unprejudiced have told me that there is not much difference between us. Speed is my main strong point just as speed is his.

“I do not know that I pitched much better this year than I did last, but, of course, I have had a far better club behind me, and that accounts for the difference.”

Led by Wood’s three victories, the Red Sox would defeat Marquard’s Giants in the 1912 Fall Classic. Although he would finish with a 117-57 career won-loss record, injuries would ultimately derail Wood’s mound career. After spending his last years as an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, he would embark on a two-decade-long stint at head baseball coach at Yale University.

Today, the AL in-season winning streak record by pitchers is shared by not only Wood and Johnson, but also by the Philadelphia Athletics’ Lefty Grove (1931), the Detroit Tigers’ Schoolboy Rowe (1934) and the New York Yankees’ Roger Clemens (2001). Marquard and Keefe still hold the NL mark. 

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum