Strictly a Wartime Pitcher

Hal Newhouser

I began this somewhat long look at left-handed pitchers because I wanted to study the players who made an impact during World War II. That led, not unreasonably, to Hal Newhouser. He’s one of those players who had a lot of his best years during the Second World War and thus became known as “strictly a wartime pitcher”. The wartime pitcher idea goes something like this. A player is either new or has  been up a few years and never done a thing. Then the war comes along and the guy becomes a star. The war ends, the real players come back, and the guy goes back to being a  bum. OK, that’s fine, I guess. The problem is that it’s wrong about Newhouser.

Newhouser arrives in Detroit in 1939. He was 18, a year older than Bob Feller and a year younger than Sandy Koufax (two pitchers he’s very much like) when they first pitched in the Majors. He wasn’t all that good, struggling through 1943 with a record of 34-52 with a high ERA, a lot of strikeouts, and a ton of walks (leading the league in walks in 1943). Then in 1944 he goes 29-9 with a 2.22 ERA,  a strikeout title, and the American League MVP award. In 1945 he’s 25-9, leads the AL in ERA, strikeouts, shutouts (and wild pitches), and picks up his second consecutive MVP Award (the only pitcher to win two in a row). Detroit goes to the World Series and wins in seven games (by this point the Series is most famous as the last Series the Cubs played). Newhouser went 2-1, winning game seven.

And then the war was over and “strictly a wartime pitcher” is supposed to have gone back into obscurity. The problem is that Newhouser had four or five (depending how you look at 1950) more good years. He wins 20 or more games twice,  wins another ERA title, and as late as 1949 has 18 wins. He also leads in hits once and wild pitches twice (Like Feller, he never did get the wildness totally under control). In 1946 he came in second in the MVP vote (to Ted Williams), missing winning three MVPs in a row by 27 points). He hurt his shoulder in 1949, pitched through the pain in 1950, then the wheels came off as the shoulder just didn’t improve. He hung on into 1955, getting into the 1954 World Series as a Cleveland reliever (he was 7-2 with 7 saves, but awful in the Series), then retired. He made the Hall of Fame in 1992.

What people tend to concentrate on his 1944-45 years, the “war pitcher years”. The argument goes that the real players left and Newhouser feasted on fake hitting. And I suppose it’s fair to say that the number of true Major League quality players in 1944 was down considerably from a normal season. But take a look at 1945. By the end of ’45, many of the “real” players were back. Hank Greenberg, a teammate, was back in time to hit the home run that sent Detroit to the World Series and Feller pitched nine games. Newhouser didn’t lose all nine games late nor did he win all 25 early. But the real problem with evaluating Newhouser as a “wartime pitcher” is 1946 through 1949. In 1946 he won 26 games, had his ERA go up all the way to 1.94 from 1.81 and his ERA+ drop from 195 to 190, and for the only time in his career led the AL in WHIP. Not a bad year for a “wartime pitcher”, right? It was his peak and 47-49 were not as good, although not bad either. He’s 55-40 over the three years (at 17-17, 1947 is the worst year record-wise) and his ERA starts sliding back up, but it’s not like he’s awful.

So why the jump in stats in 1944? Well, a couple of reasons. First, there’s no denying the quality of play is down in 1944. But Newhouser is also now aged 23 with five years experience in the Majors. It’s time for him to begin reaching a something of a peak. And that peak lasts until he is 28 or 29 (depending on your view of 1950). Then the sore shoulder hits. He’s not much from 30 on (remember Koufax was 30 when he retired). Actually, it’s a fairly normal career progression tempered by both the war and the shoulder.

I’m not advocating Newhouser as one of the greatest of the great, I’m simply saying that in evaluating him, the war is important, but it can’t be looked at as the only factor in his becoming an ace. My son will tell you that for a long time I thought Newhouser was the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame and eligible. I was glad to see him elected because I understood he wasn’t “strictly a wartime pitcher.”


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2 Responses to “Strictly a Wartime Pitcher”

  1. Vinnie Says:

    Another war time pitcher, although not left handed, is Dizzy Trout, who joins Smokey Joe Wood, Jack Coombs, Jim Bagby, Denny McLain, Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe, Dolph Luque, Bucky Walters, Dazzy Vance, Ed Rommel, Doc White and Tom Seaton as the only pitchers who won more than 27 games in one season but less than 200 for their career.

    • verdun2 Says:

      Trout and Newhouser were teammates from 1939 into 1952. Trout’s also one of those guys who’s looked at as a “wartime pitcher” but has good years after the war. Those two, along with Virgil Trucks, make a pretty good Tigers rotation in the 1940s.

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