This is the first of three posts about left-handed pitchers of the 1940s and 1950. All three were major contributors to their teams, but were never considered top line pitchers (although one came close). I wanted to take some time and introduce you to them.
Harry “the Cat” Brecheen spent most of the 1940s pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a team dominated by hitters like Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter. But the pitching was pretty good also and Brecheen ended up the best of the lot.
Brecheen was born in October 1914 in Oklahoma. He liked baseball, was left-handed, and learned to throw a screwball as a kid. Major Leaguer Cy Blanton barnstormed in the area and Brecheen credited him with explaining the mechanics of the screwball. In 1931 he was the ace of an American Legion youth team that won the Oklahoma state championship.
By age 20 he’d been discovered. He pitched in Class C Greenville, Mississippi and A level Galveston, Texas in 1935. He went 5-7 with an ERA north of five. In 1936 he split time between Class C Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Galveston. This time he went 6-22 and his ERA dropped into the fours. But he got the attention of the Chicago Cubs. They signed him to Class B Portsmouth, Virginia where he went 21-6. Being the Cubs, they traded their 21-6 lefty to St. Louis. The Cards left him in the minors into 1942. He had a winning record every year, kept his ERA in the threes or twos and in the years where the stats are available he had a lot more strikeouts than walks (He di pitch three innings with the big league club in 1940, but that’s all).
He got to the Majors to stay in 1943. He went 9-6, starting 13 games (of 20 pitched), with four saves, and posting a 2.26 ERA. He got into three World Series games that postseason, losing one game (the fourth) in relief. He was 28 already which meant he’d gotten to the big time about the same time as a pitcher’s normal peak. For the next several years he was a mainstay of the Cardinals staff. They won a World Series in 1944 With Brecheen pitching a complete game victory in game four.
But it was 1946 that made him famous. He went 15-15 in the regular season with a 2.49 ERA (ERA+ of 139) with 117 strikeouts and a league leading five shutouts. That got him multiple starts in the World Series. He won game two against Boston 3-0, then picked up the win in game six 4-1. Both were complete games. After nine innings on 13 October, no one expected him to pitch in game seven (15 October) on one day’s rest. But with the Cardinals leading 3-1 in the top of the eighth starter Murry Dickson tired. In came Brecheen to save the day. He struck out one, got a liner for out two, then gave up a double that tied the game (there were two inherited runners from Dickson). He got the last out to leave the score tied. Slaughter’s famous “Mad Dash” put St. Louis back on top in the bottom of the eighth. Brecheen then gave up two hits before consecutive outs ended the game. Having gone from a blown save to game winner, Brecheen became the first pitcher to win three games in a World Series since 1920 (Stan Coveleski), the first left-hander ever to win three in one Series, and the first to win one of them as a reliever.
He continued pitching well through 1949 with a career year in 1948. In the latter year he went 20-7, led the National League with a 2.24 ERA (ERA+ of 182), added a league leading 149 strikeouts, and an NL leading seven shutouts to his resume. he was 33.
He began to slip in 1950, having his first losing season (8-11). his ERA jumped to 3.80 (a career high). He hung on two more years with the Cardinals, then ended his career in 1953 with the Browns. He was 38. For his career he was 133-92 (a .591 winning percentage), had an ERA of 2.92 (ERA+ of 133), struck out 901 batters over 1907.2 innings while walking 536 men and giving up 1731 hits. He had 25 shutouts and his WAR is 41.3 (Baseball Reference version of WAR).
After retiring he became pitching coach for the Browns and stayed with them when they moved to Baltimore. He remained as pitching coach through 1967, including one more World Series as his young staff stopped the Dodgers in 1966. He died in 2004 and is buried in Oklahoma.