The Giants’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Christy Mathewson (1900-16)
A titanic legend of the deadball era, the gentlemanly, Bucknell-educated Mathewson was a departure from the largely uneducated, ruffian ethic that dominated baseball at the turn of the century. But he was respected for more than just his upbringing, dominating the National League’s pitching landscape for over a decade.
Nicknamed Big Six after a local fire engine (but informally often referred to as simply Matty), Mathewson had a short, mediocre debut in 1900 barely after turning 20; after the season, he was briefly a Cincinnati Red—and then a member of the Philadelphia A’s in the newborn, rival American League (he reportedly suffered turncoat remorse after receiving an advance payment from A’s manager Connie Mack, who threatened to sue)—then returned to the Giants in a decidedly one-sided trade in which the Reds received burned-out 1890s ace Amos Rusie, a move that later made sense as Cincinnati owner John Brush had all but arranged to take over the Giants.
Relying on a fadeaway screwball, Mathewson became a fixture in the Giants rotation but was 34-34 through 1901-02, thanks in large part to lousy offensive support. That changed in 1903 when fiery manager John McGraw took total control of the Giants and gave Matty the batting backbone he needed; from there, the sky was the limit. Mathewson in 1903 won 30 games, 33 the next season, and 31 a year after that. He also paced the NL in each of those years in strikeouts and won his first of five earned run average titles in 1905 with a stellar 1.28 mark. He starred in that year’s World Series against Mack’s A’s, starting, completing—and shutting out—Philadelphia three times to give the Giants their first world title.
Through 1913, Mathewson was a perennial 20-game winner and then some—sometimes, a lot. His workhorse powers reached a peak in 1908 when he set career marks with an astonishing 37 wins (against 11 losses), 390.2 innings, 34 complete games and 11 shutouts while nailing down his second ERA title at 1.43. His workload was reduced by a third the following year, but he was even more efficient—producing a career-low 1.14 ERA on a 25-6 record. During these two seasons, Mathewson was so tough to hit against that opponents’ on-base percentages were only in the .220s.
Walks, which had been a slight problem for Mathewson early in his career, became non-existent as he pressed on into the 1910s; in 1913, he set a major league record that stood for nearly 90 years when he pitched 68 straight innings without issuing a pass. He finished that season, his 13th and last with 20 or more wins, with more victories (25) than walks (21). But even he couldn’t save the Giants in October when they lost three straight World Series from 1911-13, losing five of seven decisions despite a 1.33 ERA. (Mathewson’s career World Series numbers would include a 5-5 record—and a 0.97 ERA.)
After stumbling to an 8-14 record in 1915, Mathewson was traded to Cincinnati midway through 1916 in a deal that made him player-manager of the Reds. His final performance on the mound came against long-time nemesis Three Finger Brown of the Chicago Cubs, outlasting him 10-8 to run his career victory tally to 373—a number that currently ties him with Pete Alexander on the NL’s all-time list.
While serving the military in 1918 during World War I, Mathewson took part in a training exercise that involved the release of mustard gas; the drill went awry and numerous people, including Mathewson, became overexposed to the chemicals. In the years to follow, his health deteriorated as he developed tuberculosis—possibly an existing condition worsened by the wartime incident. He stayed involved in baseball, coaching the Giants under McGraw through 1921—but on the eve of the 1925 World Series, Mathewson died of his ills at the age of 45. The series’ combatants, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators, wore black armbands throughout the Fall Classic in memory of Matty, who a decade later would be one of the so-called “Five Immortals” enshrined as the first class of baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Carl Hubbell (1928-43)
Mathewson was second to precious few others in his ability to master the screwball; Hubbell was second to none.
The unexpressive southpaw could have been Detroit’s property back in the mid-1920s, but player-manager-star Ty Cobb disdained the screwball and let him go. Hubbell retreated to the Texas League and wasn’t rediscovered until Giants scout Dick Kinsella ran upon him while attending the National Democratic Convention in Houston. The Giants had no such reservations about the screwball and wasted little time bringing Hubbell on board.
Hubbell became a solid pitcher from the word go for the Giants, putting together a string of respectable seasons over his first five years in the face of a lively offensive assault taking place throughout the NL. Over the next five years, from 1933-37, Hubbell turned his game up a notch, if not more—compiling a 115-50 record, winning three NL ERA crowns (including a 1.66 mark in 1933 that was the lowest seen in the NL between 1917 and 1968), two MVPs (in 1933 and 1936) and leading the league in wins during each of the Giants’ three pennant-winning seasons during the decade. The sum total of these achievements justifiably earned Hubbell his nickname: The Meal Ticket.
During his peak years, Hubbell constantly found himself making headlines with various achievements that left fans amazed. In his breakout 1933 campaign, he tossed 45.1 straight innings without allowing a run and threw an 18-inning, six-hit shutout—he walked none—against the formidable Cardinals; in 1934, he famously struck out five straight American League legends—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin—in the second All-Star Game ever played; and he won his final 16 decisions in 1936—and his first eight in 1937 to set an all-time record of 24 straight wins that still stands.
In the postseason, Hubbell threw 20 scoreless innings and won his two starts during the triumphant 1933 World Series against Washington, but had less success in the Giants’ back-to-back losses in 1936-37 to the New York Yankees; his 1937 showing only extended the beginning of the end of Hubbell’s reign, as a sore elbow led to offseason surgery and a drop-off in productivity over the remaining six years of his career, barely winning 10 games a year with modest ERAs at best. He retired at age 40 with a 253-154 record and lifetime 2.97 ERA.
Juan Marichal (1960-73)
The flamboyant right-hander with an indelible pitching motion complete with a high leg kick was, after Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, the third future Hall of Famer in as many years to make a splashy debut in 1960 for the Giants when he stunned the Philadelphia Phillies with a one-hit shutout featuring 12 strikeouts.
The decade to follow would be a dominant one for the Dominican native; he was the winningest pitcher of the 1960s with 191 victories, six times winning at least 20—three times notching at least 25; he possessed excellent control in spite of his unorthodox wind-up, walking only 1.8 batters per nine innings; he became, in 1963, the first Latino to throw a no-hitter, two weeks before outdueling Milwaukee ace Warren Spahn with a memorable 16-inning shutout; he pitched in six All-Star Games, winning two with a 0.50 ERA; he twice led the NL in wins, twice in shutouts and took an ERA title with an exceptional 2.10 mark in 1969. Yet Marichal never won a Cy Young Award, mistiming his best years with a NL congested with great aces such as Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, one of whom always seemed to have a slightly better year.
Unfortunately, Marichal will be forever linked to one of baseball’s most frightening brawls, when he took a bat to the head of Los Angeles catcher Johnny Roseboro in 1965, leading to an eight-game suspension and $1,750 fine. It’s often noted that the suspension cost Marichal two starts during a season in which the Giants finished in second place behind the Dodgers—by two games. Ironically, Marichal finished his career wearing Dodger Blue for what turned out to be a very short and unsuccessful stint in 1975; by then, Roseboro—who sued Marichal over the incident and eventually reached an out-of-court settlement for $7,500—had forgiven him and even lobbied for his election into Cooperstown, which took three tries after less forgiving voters initially balked at Marichal despite a stellar 243-142 career record.
Johnny Antonelli (1954-60)
A solid left-handed fastball thrower, Antonelli welcomed an opportunity to play for the Giants after struggling for four years with the Boston-Milwaukee Braves, a difficult time spiced with more tension due to his status as a well-paid Bonus Baby that sparked jealously among veteran star teammates who made much less. Yet Antonelli next had to convince Giants fans, whose team had shipped out the popular Bobby Thomson to get him, that he was worth the trade. Twenty-one wins and a major league-leading 2.30 ERA later, he clearly made his case.
Antonelli’s breakout 1954 season in New York also included league highs with a .750 winning percentage, six shutouts, and a complete-game victory over Cleveland in Game Two of the Giants’ four-game World Series sweep of the Indians. Though he would never duplicate that high level of success, Antonelli remained an ace-like presence with one more 20-win campaign (in 1956) and an overall 108-84 record in seven years with the Giants.
Antonelli didn’t leave controversy totally behind in Milwaukee. He once got suspended by Giants manager Leo Durocher for refusing to leave a game, and gained no love from San Franciscans after the team’s move west in 1958 when he publicly dissed the city and its chilly, gusty summer weather.
Gaylord Perry (1962-71)
The admitted Hall-of-Fame spitballer had his first and longest tenure with the Giants, spending nearly half of his career as an emerging (and at times equally good) complement in the rotation to Marichal before being dealt away in one of many stupendously bad trades committed by San Francisco in the early 1970s.
It took nearly five seasons for Perry to find his groove with the Giants, making his mark along the way in 1964 when he started 19 games and relieved in 23 others for a 12-11 record and 2.75 ERA; he had used the spitter on rare occasion beforehand—stating that he had it taught to him by teammate Bob Shaw—but he put it to good use for the first time during the Giants’ 23-inning win over the Mets at New York, when he pitched 10 scoreless innings out of the bullpen.
At first, the wet stuff didn’t gather much attention from opponents, but that changed once Perry began racking up wins on a constant basis—starting with a 20-2 start in a 1966 season that he finished at 21-8, his first of two 20-win campaigns for the Giants. From that point, he began to be searched here, there and everywhere by umpires at the request of suspicious managers, especially after 1967 when pitchers were no longer allowed to put their fingers to their mouths. He was never caught red-handed in San Francisco, and he gloated over how just the threat of the spitball kept opposing hitters off balance.
Perry threw his only career no-hitter in San Francisco, silencing St. Louis in 1968—a day before the Cardinals’ Ray Washburn returned the favor and no-hit the Giants. In 1970, he peaked for San Francisco with a league-high 23 wins, but after going 16-12 in 1971 he was dealt to Cleveland straight-up for fastball pitcher Sam McDowell, a younger hurler who the Giants believed had more gas left in the tank. The opposite occurred; McDowell was a washout in San Francisco, while Perry won 180 games and two Cy Young Awards over the next 12 years.
Joe McGinnity (1902-08)
The burly right-hander, who during the 1900s teamed with Mathewson to form one of baseball’s great pitching duos, earned the name Iron Man because of his pre-baseball life as an iron plant worker—and that fact will certainly fool anyone who looks up his career stats and sees the ultimate workhorse in his numbers.
McGinnity was sinner to Mathewson’s saint, the center of many brawls not just on the field but in the stands; it’s therefore no surprise that he gave his allegiance to equally combative manager John McGraw wherever he went, from the NL’s Baltimore Orioles in 1899 as a 28-year-old rookie (winning 28 games in 366.1 innings), to the ill-fated AL version of the Orioles from 1901-02 (where he logged another 550 frames over just a year and a half before helping McGraw in his bid to scuttle the franchise) and finally to New York, where he pitched and pitched and pitched for the Giants until his arm gave out in 1908.
With McGinnity’s exhaustive work ethic, winning 20 games was a mere formality; he did it every year until his final two seasons when long-term fatigue began to set in. In his first two full seasons with the Giants, McGinnity won at least 30 games, matching Mathewson and becoming the only pair of pitchers in modern times to both win 30 for the same team in the same year. It’s not that McGinnity didn’t labor to reach the milestone. He set modern NL marks with 434 innings and 44 complete games in 1903, highlighting the season by starting—and winning—both games of three different doubleheaders in August; he followed that up in 1904 with 408 innings as he thundered out to a 14-0 start and finished a superlative 35-8 with a career-low 1.61 ERA. He joined Mathewson in the 1905 World Series in not allowing an earned run in 17 innings against the A’s (though three did cross the plate unearned).
Despite all the mileage and declining value that forced him from the majors in 1908, McGinnity’s love for the game was such that he somehow continued to pitch in the minors until the age of 54, accumulating another 3,400 innings and 200 wins over 13 years.
Freddie Fitzsimmons (1925-37)
As teammate Carl Hubbell mastered the screwball, the portly right-hander nicknamed Fat Freddie did the same with the knuckler and often put up numbers alongside King Carl that justified a higher standing than just a mere sidekick.
Opposing batters never felt comfortable at the plate against Fitzsimmons. First, there was his windup—turning his back to the plate and keeping the ball out of sight until he released it; he described his motion as a way to keep hitters “disconcerted.” But then there was the pitch itself; unlike the typical knuckleball that “floated” toward an unknown destination, Fitzsimmons’ version broke sharply almost like a curve and had enough zip to sometimes be confused for a split-finger fastball. It’s therefore not surprising that Fitzsimmons was at or near the top of the yearly leaderboard in inducing double-play grounders.
Performing in lively times, Fitzsimmons’ ERAs never wowed historians but never disappointed with the most key stat of all: Wins. His 170 victories rank fourth on the post-1900 list for franchise victories; in 13 years with the Giants, he suffered only one losing record.
Despite what appeared to be unathletic frame, Fitzsimmons was handy with the bat—he hit 12 home runs over a five-year stretch from 1930-34—and he was arguably considered the best fielding pitcher of his time.
Larry Jansen (1947-54)
The right-hander from Oregon fulfilled the expectations he commanded when he made his major league debut for the Giants on the heels of a 30-win season with the San Francisco Seals, the last such achievement to date at the Triple-A level.
Jansen originally signed with the Boston Red Sox but never played in their organization because he was literally forgotten by the team after signing a contract. A free agent again, Jansen hung around the West Coast until the Giants picked him up following his sensational 1946 effort for the Seals. As a rookie for New York, he impressed anew—going 21-5 for a major league-leading .808 win percentage and a 3.16 ERA; despite such stunning first-year numbers, Jansen placed second in the Rookie of the Year vote to Jackie Robinson.
Over the next four years, Jansen would win 75 more games, capped by a major league-best 23 in 1951—the last victory of which was secured when Bobby Thomson hit his “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in a tie-breaker playoff against Brooklyn. Back and arm problems ensued, and after three more years Jansen was back in the Pacific Coast League; he returned to the Giants in 1961, serving as the team’s pitching coach for 11 years and overseeing (without much tinkering) great arms in Marichal, Perry and Mike McCormick.
Bill Walker (1927-32)
The southpaw from Illinois was never an ace pitcher or primary focus of worried opponents, but Walker quietly held steady and snuck away with not one, but two NL ERA crowns at a time when hitters dominated the game.
Walker was just happy to be alive when he finished an eight-year tour of duty in the minors to join the Giants, suffering two heart attacks before the age of 15 (he never had any afterward, living to the age of 62). The Giants were happy that Walker was around as well; he recorded his first ERA title in 1929 with a 3.06 mark and again two years later at 2.26 with a league-leading six shutouts; in between, Walker in 1930 posted a 17-15 record with a 3.93 ERA—a quite respectable figure given that the NL as a whole hit .303 that season.
The highly perceptible Branch Rickey of the Cardinals thought enough of Walker that he traded for him after the 1932 season, but the pitcher was past his prime at that point and delivered wavering results over four years in St. Louis before being relegated back to the minors.
Hal Schumacher (1931-42, 1946)
Born just 40 miles north of Cooperstown, Schumacher was, like Freddie Fitzsimmons above, a worthy rotation mate to Hubbell, had tremendous sinker action on his pitches, and was not to be trusted as an automatic out, once belting six home runs in a season (1934). But John McGraw, in his last few years managing the Giants, saw more of a resemblance to Christy Mathewson—and for his first few full years, Schumacher put up numbers similar to Big Six.
The right-hander was at his best from 1933-35; he won a career-high 23 games in 1934, sandwiched in between two 19-win campaigns in which he missed out on multiple chances for a 20th triumph. Over the next seven years before answering to war duty, Schumacher never won more than 13—but never lost fewer than 11, lacking the workhorse ethic of his early years perhaps due to a tired arm, but stabilizing his game through experience and guile.
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The Giants’ 10 Greatest Hitters A list of the 10 greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
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