Garden State Pride:
NJ’s Greatest Baseball Players
STARTING PITCHER EDITION
by Matthew Orso
New Jersey doesn’t have a Major League Baseball team. However the players born in the Garden State have major league talent. There are so many proven big leaguers that were born in New Jersey and have thrived in a winning environment. In this edition of Garden State Pride we take a look at New Jersey’s greatest starting pitchers.
The Ace of the staff has got to go to Don Newcombe. Newcombe, born in Madison, New Jersey on June 14th 1926, was one of the best pitchers of his era. He led the Dodgers to three World Series appearances in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A major league rookie year is a season where a player can expect the most pressure. Under this pressure, a player can either fold to the pressure or make it to superstardom. Don had a successful rookie season, earning 17 wins and pitching 244 innings. He earned the 1949 Rookie of the Year award and his career would not stop there. He helped lead the Dodgers to the 1955 pennant and eventually the World Series title against the New York Yankees. That would be Newcombe’s only World Series title yet his dream Major league season were yet to come.
1956 in New York baseball history is more known for Mickey Mantle’s Triple Crown season and Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series. However another Don was making history in New York. Don Newcombe was having a career year, earning 27 wins and pitching with a 3.06 ERA. His 268 innings pitched was one of the best in baseball in 1956. Newcombe not only earned the National League CY Young award, but was given the NL MVP award. This was definitely a career year for Don Newcombe. However after that remarkable season Don never could be the same pitcher. He finished his career with the Cleveland Indians in 1960. Don had 149 career wins and an ERA under 3.60. Just remember that in the year everyone talked about Don Larsen, Don Newcombe made New Jersey and the great game of baseball proud.
Here is a description for a perfect number two starting pitcher. A fastball with 97 mile per hour speed and the chance to see a no hitter every time he takes the mound would be that description. That was Al Leiter for you. He was born in Toms River New Jersey on October 23rd 1965. Leiter was a draft pick of the New York Yankees and made his Major league debut for them in 1987. Al was known as a flamethrower, but a series of blister and arm problems caused him to lose some velocity and work on his off speed pitches. That just made Al a better pitcher. His career started to take shape in 1996 when he went 16-12 with a 2.93 ERA and he had a career high 200 strikeouts. Leiter also had a career moment in 1996 on May 11th when he took on the Colorado Rockies. Despite walking over five batters, Al Leiter threw the first no hitter in Florida Marlins history.
Al was on four World Series teams in his career winning three of them. However the fourth World Series appearance was the one Al Leiter was known most for. In 2000, Leiter went 16-8 with a 3.20 ERA and tied his career high with 200 strikeouts for the New York Mets. In the World Series that year, the Mets were down 3 games to one in the series against the two time defending champion New York Yankees. The Yankees were the ultimate powerhouse team and the favorites to win the World Series. Al took the mound in game 5 knowing he’d have to give his team a chance to win. Al Leiter gave one of the gutsiest performances in World Series history. Yankees third basemen Luis Sojo hit a Seeing Eye single that would be the straw that broke the Mets back in the eighth inning of game 5. Al had a terrific World Series pitching with a 2.87 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning. In the history of baseball players born in New Jersey Al Leiter ranks among the top with his 162 wins. He was a 2 time All Star and won the 2000 Roberto Clemente award for his charity work. Al Leiter has proven that New Jersey can produce great players both on and off the field.
When you hear the name Al Downing, it probably brings you back to Hank Aaron going for his record breaking homerun on April 8th 1974. Al Downing was indeed the pitcher for that historic baseball milestone. However, he had a terrific career that should be noted for other reasons besides that homerun. Al Downing was born in Trenton New Jersey on June 28th 1941. Known as an overpowering pitcher, Al relied on his fastball for the early part of his career. The first team he pitched for was the New York Yankees, where he pitched in two World Series. In 1963 Downing had a career best 2.56 ERA and in 1964 he struck out a career high 217 batters.
He made his only all star appearance in 1967 with the Yankees where he went 14-10 with a 2.63 ERA and had 171 Strikeouts in 201.2 innings pitched. After a couple of below .500 seasons, Al Downing reemerged himself as a clutch pitcher in 1971. He had his first and only 20 win season and won the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. He finished 3rd in the CY Young voting that year and was 10th in the MVP voting. Downing would pitch a few more seasons in Major League Baseball, ultimately retiring after the 1977 season. He appeared in three World Series and played over 12 years in the big leagues. Though most people will remember this New Jersey native for number 715 against Hank Aaron, his career speaks for itself. Al Downing was an all-star and is a member of New Jersey history.
In the great history of Major League Baseball, only one man has thrown back to back no hitters. These historic events took place in 1938 and this pitcher is still known today among baseball fans. His name is Johnny Vander Meer and his legacy will always be known due to the no hitters he threw. On June 11th 1938 Vander Meer took the mound against the Boston Braves looking to continue a personal winning streak. Despite walking batters, he managed to keep the Braves hitless until the eighth inning. That is when fans started to notice that history might be on their doorsteps. Now keep in mind that the Boston Braves didn’t have many highlights as a team in 1938. Their most famous moment as a team came in 1935 when a nearly washed up version of Babe Ruth had a three homerun game for the Braves. In other words, back in the 1930’s the Braves were known as a loveable loser team. Vander Meer was able to get the final three outs and accomplish a no hitter.
Four days later at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Johnny took on the Brooklyn Dodgers, a much more powerful team. Pitching another no hitter was one of the farthest things from his mind when the night started, yet once the game got closer to the ninth inning; fans began to wonder if they were attending a game that was in essence history itself. Vander Meer was able to get future hall of fame manager Leo Durocher out for the final out of his 2nd straight no hitter. He would never throw another big league no-hitter (though he would throw one in the Texas baseball league for Tulsa in 1952) but Johnny Vander Meer was more than just “Mr. No-Hitter”
Johnny Vander Meer was born in Prospect Park on November 2nd 1914. He started his big league career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1937. His first great big league season took place in 1938 when he won 15 games and had an ERA under 3.30. In 1940, Johnny was a part of the Reds team that won a World Series title. This would be the only championship of his career but he won at least 15 games from 1941-1943 including 18 wins in 1942 and a 2.42 ERA. Vander Meer struck out 202 batters in 1941, which was a career high. Johnny Vander Meer finished his career with 119 wins and an ERA of 3.44 for his career. Johnny was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Hall of Fame in 1958 and he died on October 7th 1997 in his home in Florida. Everyone knows Johnny Vander Meer as the man who threw back to back no hitters, yet not many realize how great of a pitcher he really was.
The final pitcher on this five man rotation is Andy Messersmith. Andy was born on August 6th 1945 in Toms River, New Jersey. Messersmith, a right handed pitcher was always consistent with his ERA. His career ERA is 2.86 he has had some great seasons in his career. He started his career with the California Angels in 1968 at the age of 22. In 1971 at the young age of 25, Messersmith enjoyed his first 20 win season, going 20-13 with a 2.99 ERA. He also made his first all star team that season.
Andy was acquired by the LA Dodgers and actually became a teammate of Al Downing in 1974. With already one 20 win season under his belt, Andy was ready for another. Andy would go on to win 20 games for the Dodgers in 1974 and had a 2.59 ERA. He also won his first career gold glove award for the Dodger and led them to the World Series. Despite the Dodgers losing in the 1974 Fall Classic to the Oakland Athletics, Messersmith continued his success after the 1974 season. He became a workhorse in 1975 winning 19 games and pitching in over 320 innings for the Dodgers. There was one thing alluding Andy in his career and that was a World Series ring. He pitched for the Yankees in 1978, but was not on the postseason roster. Despite never winning the World Series has a player, he played a major role in the free agency era of baseball. He and Dave McNally won court cases and got major league baseball players their rights to earn the money that they earn today. Andy retired at the end of the 1979 season with 130 career wins and an ERA of 2.86. He finished his career as a four time all star and a two time gold glove award winner.
The game of Major League Baseball has seen some the greatest pitchers to ever play the game. New Jersey has produced some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Whether it was pitching two no hitters or giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th career homerun, some of the greatest moments in the history of the game have happened because of New Jersey pitchers. These five players are indeed the greatest starting pitchers in New Jersey baseball history.