In the 19th century pitchers posting a 30-win season was commonplace, with many winning 40, and a select few even won 50 games in a season. In the Deadball Era the game changed and fewer pitchers reached 30 wins, but it still happened. Since 1917 only five pitchers have won 30 games in a season, and no one has done so since 1968. It is a milestone that is likely not to be reached again.
From the game’s origins through the Deadball Era (approximately 1900-1919) it was common to play a game with a single ball. Home runs were rare, spitballs and shineballs were legal, and as the game progressed the worn, misshapen ball became easier for pitchers to control and harder for batters to hit. Pitching rotations were smaller and complete games were expected – even in losses – giving pitchers more opportunities to win 20, 30, and even 40 games in a season.
When Cleveland Indians pitcher Ray Chapman was killed after being hit with a pitch, umpires began removing balls from play after becoming worn through game use. The spitball and shineball were outlawed and, most importantly, the ball was more tightly wound causing it to jump off the bat. As a result pitchers were now placed in the position where every hit could be a home run, forcing them to bear down on each pitch. The power pitches caused fatigue, which resulted in pitchers not finishing games and needing more rest between starts.
Today’s pitchers simply do not get enough opportunities to win 30 games in a season. Tuesday marked the anniversary of Denny McLain winning his 31st game in 1968 and Lefty Grove notching his 30th back in 1931, so what better time to look back at the baseball cards of the pitchers who’ve reached the 30-win mountain top since 1917. We’ll include rookie cards and cards from the year in which they won 30.
Grover Cleveland ‘Pete’ Alexander – 30 Wins – 1917
Hall of Famer Pete Alexander was the best pitcher in the National Leagues in the 1910s. In fact, beginning in 1915, he won 30 or more games in three consecutive seasons. 1917 saw Alexander with the Philadelphia Phillies where he led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts – the pitching triple crown. He would retire with 373 wins – good for third all time. At the age of 39 in 1926 he helped the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the New York Yankees in dramatic fashion in that year’s World Series.
If you are looking for a card of Pete Alexander you cannot go wrong with his 1914 or 1915 Cracker Jack cards. The same photo was used for each. Not only do they depict the pitcher in his prime, but they are among the most popular and collected sets of the pre-War era. The 1914 card has a premium over the 1915 version and is also more difficult to acquire in higher grade. You can often find one or two on eBay.
Finding a card from his 30-win 1917 campaign will prove more difficult, but the 1917 Collins-McCarthy (E135) set does feature Alexander. PSA has graded seven 135 Alexander cards while SGC has graded ten.
Jim Bagby – 31 Wins – 1920
Even the most reverential fan of baseball history might ave difficulty identifying Jim Bagby who won 30 games for the 1920 World Series champions Cleveland Indians. However, outside of 1920 he only won 96 games in a nine year career spent almost entirely with the Indians. In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, baseball historians Bill James and Rob Neyer rate Bagby’s screwball one of the best in baseball history.
No card of Bagby was issued in 1920 during his standout season. However, an affordable card of Bagby was issued the following season in the E121 Series of 80 set. There are several examples of the E121 Bagby card listed on eBay in both high grade and collector grade, making it easier to acquire. Eclectic collectors looking for something outside the mainstream might consider the M101-6 Felix Mendelsohn card of Bagby – of which PSA and SGC have both graded only one.
Lefty Grove – 31 Wins – 1931
Between 1927 and 1932 Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics won at least 90 games a season and appeared in three consecutive World Series beginning in 1929 – winning in ’29 and ’30. Some baseball historians consider this dynasty to be the greatest team that ever played. Hall of Famer pitcher Lefty Grove was a large part of that success leading the league in wins four seasons including 31 in ’31. He would retire with 300 wins, the 1931 American League MVP award, two World Series championships, and multiple All Star Game appearances leading to him being considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
Collectors wishing to purchase a card of Grove in his 1931 season are limited to strip cards, identified in the standard card catalog with the W prefix. Of these, the W517 strip card is the most desirable. The W517 set was produced in a vertical set of three cards and featured a color tinted black and white photograph. They are not common, but very reasonably priced.
The hobby considers Grove’s 1933 Goudey card to be his rookie. Collectors looking for something easier to acquire in a more popular and attractive set can indeed focus on card # 19 in the landmark set, which is easy to locate in just about any condition you like.
Dizzy Dean – 30 – 1934
Perhaps no player was as colorful a character as Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean whose stories and anecdotes from rural Arkansas provided plenty of copy for sportswriters of the era and launched a successful career in broadcasting after he retired from the game. Dean only won 150 games in his career, but between 1934 and ’36 no pitcher was better. He won 30 games for the Cardinals in 1934 and along with it the National League MVP award while leading the Cardinals over the Tigers in the World Series. Dean followed that season with 28 wins in 1935 and second place finishes in MVP voting in ’35 and ’36. A short but dominant career draws comparisons to Sandy Koufax 30 years later.
Collectors looking for a card to commemorate Dean’s 30-win season in 1934 need look no further than card #6 in that year’s set from Goudey. A set that was produced and distributed in large numbers has resulted in numerous examples surviving to the present date and they’re readily available and affordable.
Diz’s rookie card is considered the 1933 Goudey issue. Collectors seeking something more interesting might consider the Dean card in the 1933 George C. Miller set. Complete sets were redeemed for prizes and fell victim to hole punchers to ‘cancel’ them, making uncalled versions both more rare and more desirable. He’s also in the 1933 Tattoo Orbit set.
Denny McLain – 31 Wins – 1968
Dennny McLain was born ten years after Dizzy Dean won 30 games in 1934. At the start of the 1968 season most agreed that there would never be another 30-win season posted by a pitcher. By the late 1960s pitching rotations had expanded and relievers had come into the game. Then 24-year-old Denny McLlain took the mound for the Tigers that season few thought he had a chance at 20 wins – none would have dare claimed 30. But that year McLain shocked the baseball establishment by winning 31 games in 41 starts – an astonishing .838 win percentage. For this he was deservedly both the American League MVP and Cy Young awards.
As with Bagby and Dean, McLain also led his team to a World Series championship in his 30-win season. He would win 24 the following season and a second Cy Young award, but neither McLain nor any other since would ever reach 30.
In 1968 if you wanted a baseball card you had only one option – Topps. Despite a remarkable season there is nothing remarkable about McLain’s 1968 Topps card #40 and an ungraded, presentable example can be had for under $10. Most collectors would rather have his rookie card in the form of 1965 Topps #236, but ungraded is still under $20. High grade examples of each card of course command a premium, but even in PSA 8 his rookie is still available under $100.