The mark of excellence for a starting pitcher has stood at 300 wins for more than a century. However, while an assortment of stars has reached the plateau over the past decade, many sports columnists have opined that the increase in the use of the bullpen will relegate the 300 win pitcher to the history books.
In the 19th century it was not unheard of for a pitcher to start more than 50 games in a season, and they often could win more than 30 each campaign. Several players reached the mark in those early years including Mickey Welch (307), 'Old' Hoss Radbourn (309), John Clarkson (328), Tim Keefe (324), and Pud Galvin (365). It took this group no more than 15 seasons to reach the mark, almost five years less than the length it took several to accomplish the feat in the 20th century and beyond.
Those players all appear in the landmark N172 Old Judge set, along with cabinet versions in the accompanying N173 set. Keefe also appears in N28 Allen & Ginter, a set that has seen increased popularity since being resurrected by Topps for retro products. A parody Twitter account spoofing the nineteenth century through the eyes of 'Old' Hoss Radbourn has increased his popularity with younger collectors, making him - for the most unlikely of reasons - the most well-known amongst casual collectors and observers.
As two centuries collided two of the pitchers who most consider to be among the best who ever played the game reached the 300 win mark: Kid Nichols (361) and Cy Young (511). Cy Young, of course, is the winningest pitcher of all time for whom baseball's annual award for pitching excellence is named. Nichols, despite leading dominate Boston teams of the 1890s, has been overshadowed as a man without a century.
In terms of cards, Cy Young's career lasted long enough for his image to be captured on some of the hobby's most memorable issues including T206, T205, T3 Turkey Red, and countless M, E, and T issues of the era. Nichols, who appears in N172, has an 1895 Mayo's Cut Plug N300 that has become popular with collectors (see their cards on eBay here).
The first two decades of the twentieth century saw the game's most iconic and enduring - and two of its most tragic - achieve 300 wins. Eddie Plank (326) was the ace of Connie Mack's great Athletics teams, pitching in four World Series and spanning two A's dynasties. Christy Mathewson (373) - the most beloved player of his age - set the national league afire during the first decade of the 20th century, and nowhere did his brilliance shine more than in the 1905 World Series when he pitches three complete game shutout victories in the span of five days.
When Pete Alexander retired from baseball with 373 wins, he thought he had eclipsed Mathewson's national league record, but later historians would discover the two were tied. Alexander, a WW1 veteran suffering from what is now PTSD, rose to the occasion to close the final game of the 1926 World Series - despite suffering from a terrible hangover.
And then perhaps there was the greatest of them all: Walter Johnson (417). It cannot be said Johnson was the fastest of all time, but clearly Johnson was faster than his contemporaries with a differential not seen since.
This quadruple grouping of pitchers spanned a magnificent age of card production with countless examples of each appearing in T206, T205, Cracker Jack, T3 Turkey Red, and numerous others. Plank is well-known for his T206 issue, which is second only two Wagner in popularity. Many collectors believe the scarcity was caused by a broken printing plate early in production. Mathewson's 1914 Cracker Jack is his most expensive issue among sets easily obtained by collectors, while Walter Johnson's 1909 Ramly T204 has become the gold standard for early 'WaJo' tobacco issues.
Over the next several decades 300 win pitchers began to increase in rarity like some of the aforementioned cards. Before WW2 only Philadelphia A's ace hurler Lefty Grove (300) reached the mark. Early Wynn (300), Tom Seaver (311), Gaylord Perry (314), Phil Niekro (318), Don Sutton (324), Nolan Ryan 324), Steve Carlton (329), and Warren Spahn (363) reaching 300 during the expansion era.
Lefty Grove appears in 1930s Goudey sets, as well as 1940s Play Ball issues; however, his most enduring card is his 1934-36 Diamond Stars card, which due to being #1 in the set is perceived as being condition scarce. While Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Warren Spahn are among the greatest pitchers of all time, players like Perry, Niekro, and Sutton are remembered for hanging on long beyond their prime simply to achieve the mark.
While Ryan's 1968 rookie card was once an iconic card in the hobby during the crazy eighties, it is now readily available in the internet age. Outside of high-grade examples chased by registry collectors, each of these 300 game winners rookie cards seem downright reasonable when compared to those who came before them.
More recently players like Randy Johnson (303), Tom Glavine (305), Roger Clemens (354), and Greg Maddux (355) have all entered the club. Clemens' alleged steroid use has killed what was once a great standing in the hobby, and the value to most of his cards has eroded. Maddux, Glavine, and Johnson all have rookie cards in the mass-produced era that could be had for less than the cost of a pack of 2014 cards. However, countless certified autograph and memorabilia cards with low print runs can run for quite a bit of money.
While we may have seen the last of the 300 game winners, we have not seen the last of the cards who have already achieved the milestone.