May 1, 1920: Both Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves and Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Robins (now the Dodgers) pitch all 26 innings in the longest game in Major League Baseball history to this day. And it was called because of darkness with the score knotted at 1-all. The two pitchers each consequently set a major league record for longest appearance in a single game. Amazingly, the 26-inning marathon lasted just under four hours, and reportedly only four baseballs were used for the entire contest. In researching this feat, I can’t find any reference to each of the pitchers getting credit for a complete game. I sure hope they did. (The game was replayed later in the season, with the Braves winning.)
Speaking of long appearances, Cadore had outlasted Oeschger 10 days earlier, beating him 1-0 in an 11-inning contest. That was definitely a complete game—which gives us an excuse to talk about complete games. They were the rule rather than the exception the first half of the 20th century. Cy Young, after whom MLB’s annual pitching awards are named, threw a staggering 749 complete games from 1890-1911. It was extremely rare that Young didn’t finish a start. In that 1920 season, Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Chicago Cubs led the majors with 33 complete games, and Jim Bagby of the Cleveland Indians topped the American League with 30.
But because of pitch counts, quick hooks, situational pitchers (the middle reliever, long reliever, short reliever, setup man and closer), complete games have almost gone the way of the dinosaur. The last hurler to throw 30 complete games in a season was Catfish Hunter of the New York Yankees in 1975. The last to toss 20 was Fernando Valenzuela of the L.A. Dodgers in 1986. By 2000, the major league leader in complete games dipped to single digits, as David Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays threw only nine.
Which brings us to today. The big league leader in complete games last year was Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins with only six. The AL leader was Framber Valdez of the Houston Astros with three. There were just 36 complete games pitched in the majors in 2022, down from 50 in 2021. That latter number could be seen as an aberration, though, as there were 29 in the COVID-shortened season of 2020 and 36 in 2019. Oh by the way, in 1920 there were 1,396 complete games thrown.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)