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.