Double The Fun: The Day Elroy Face Finally Lost

In 1959, Elroy Face and his signature forkball dominated the National League. Face’s 18-1 record still stands as the best winning percentage (.947) in baseball history posted by anyone who had a minimum of 15 decisions. Face’s streak ended in Los Angeles on September 11 during the first game of a double dip. Beginning in 1958 and until his late season 1959 defeat, Face won 22 consecutive games.

In his interviews with Face’s teammates, Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereporter Robert Dvorchak got their perspective on the deadly forkball. According to catcher Hank Foiles:

It was very deceptive for a hitter. You couldn’t set for the forkball and you couldn’t set for the fastball. And every once in a while, Elroy would slip a curve or a slider in. Hitters knew what they were going to get because you got to go with your best pitch. But every once in a while, we’d show them something else. It wasn’t for sale but we wanted them to look at the merchandise.

Here’s how Face explained the differences between the splitter and the forkball. In both instances, the ball is held with the middle and index fingers spread far apart. A splitter is held with the fingers on the seams but Face put his fingers on the smooth part of the ball. To a batter, the pitch looked like a fastball but then dipped as if it was falling off the edge of a table. Depending on fingertip pressure, however, it could dart down left or right or even rise.

Face’s string ended during the bottom of the ninth inning while he was protecting a one-run lead in the first game of a doubleheader at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Maury Wills led off and singled. Jim Gilliam knocked him in with a game-tying triple. Then Charley Neal broke his bat on a forkball. But the ball dribbled between Don Hoak and Dick Groat and the streak was over. The Dodgers won 5-4. For the first time in 98 appearances, Face walked off the mound charged with a loss.

During his streak, Face rarely pitched only a single inning. In fact, in his 19 decisions in 1959, Face averaged 2-2/3 innings pitched. In one relief appearance against the Chicago Cubs, Face pitched five innings—nearly the equivalent of today’s “quality start.” And in eight games, Face pitched three innings or more.

Known as the “Baron of the Bullpen,” Face was the first of the full time relief specialists. Before Face, the bull pen was often staffed with marginal starters and mop up men. After Face, every manager in baseball wanted a closer. Face’s top salary was $42, 500. During his prime years, the Pirates paid $1 to park their cars at a gas station across the street from Forbes Field.

Today Face would be every bit the equivalent of the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera who earns $14.5 million.

“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader each week.

4 Replies to “Double The Fun: The Day Elroy Face Finally Lost”

  1. Elroy Face has been a curiosity to me for a while. He actually threw a splitter? I thought that pitch wasn’t invented ’til the 70’s. I gotta recheck my history on this… I’m slacking!

  2. Elroy Face threw a forkball, not the same as the splitter. The forkball is put as far back between the fingers as possible and comes out of the hand with little rotation and sometimes looks like a knuckleball. With the splitter, the fingers are spread wide and placed on top of the ball so the ball comes out between the inside tips of the index and middle fingers. I throw both pitches. The splitter is about 10mph faster. I don’t know anybody that thows the splitter with the seams. The ball needs to come out between the finger tips with little friction and can’t if you are gripping seams. The splitter has a slow, sloppy rotation and can be pronated at release while pronating a forkball is very difficult to do. What irrates me is that most of the MLB video games groups the forkball and splitter as the same pitch while they are not. Hideo Nomo threw a forkball as did a few others while most others threw the split.

    Just for fun, go to You-Tube and look up, “split-finger fastballs”. It is a collection of Japanese pitchers throwing splitters and forkballs. It’s 4:58 in length and has Motorhead music in the background. And the pitches are FILTHY.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *