In almost any other season, a pitcher who wins 27 games and leads the majors in practically every major pitching category while taking his team to the cusp of a pennant would be considered a shoo-in to win the Most Valuable Player Award. But 1944 was no ordinary season for the Detroit Tigers, who had not one but two starting pitchers deserving of MVP honors. The man who did win the award, Hal Newhouser, rang up a 29-9 record, topping the majors in wins and strikeouts and placing second in ERA.
The man who finished just four votes behind Newhouser in MVP balloting, Paul “Dizzy” Trout, was just as dominating.The 29-year-old righty had a career year. He finished 27-14 and led all big-league pitchers in innings (352), ERA (2.12), starts (40), complete games (33), and shutouts (7). He also pitched relief and occasionally pinch-hit. (One of the game’s best-hitting pitchers, Trout batted .271 with five home runs and 24 RBIs that season.) There was no Cy Young Award given out in those days. But if there had, it would have been a coin flip between the two Tigers as to who would have won it.
Trout’s monster season was not wholly surprising. After all, the previous summer he and the Yankees’ Spud Chandler had led the circuit with 20 victories each. But Trout started slowly in ’44, dropping three of his first four decisions, and by the end of June had a mediocre 8-8 record. However, he heated up as the weather warmed, becoming almost unstoppable as he went 14-1 in the months of July and August. Newhouser was equally impressive. A temperamental southpaw who had never won more than nine games in a season as a Tiger, he had finally learned to control his emotions and his fastball. The result was a breakout year for “Prince Hal” that gave Detroit the best 1-2 pitching punch in the majors.
The pitching twins were workhorses as Detroit battled the Yankees and the St. Louis Browns for the pennant, but Trout was called on by manager Steve O’Neill to pull the wagon a bit more often than Newhouser. During the season Dizzy pitched 28 times with two or less days of rest, the loquacious hurler never complaining about overwork, especially down the stretch. In a six-day span in late September, he pitched three complete-game victories, beating the Yankees, Red Sox, and Athletics. His shutout of Philadelphia on September 26 was his 27th victory and kept the Tigers tied for first with the surprising Browns, who were chasing their first A.L. flag.
The strain on Trout’s mighty right arm finally began to show, however. Going into the final weekend, Detroit held a one-game edge on the Browns. While the Tigers were finishing at home against last-place Washington, the Browns were hosting the third-place Yankees, who still had an outside shot at the pennant. It would take a minor miracle for St. Louis to sneak in – which is exactly what happened. The Browns unexpectedly swept the Yankees four straight while the Tigers split their four games with Washington, Trout starting – and losing – twice.
On September 29, Trout gave up six runs in just four innings as Washington won the second game of a twin bill. Two days later, on the final afternoon of the season, Trout again came up short.
Detroit and St. Louis were tied going into that final Sunday, but the odds still favored the Tigers, who had beaten Washington starter Emil “Dutch” Leonard seven straight times. However, the Senators’ knuckleballer had added incentive to win. Before the game, he had received a phone call from a stranger offering him $1,500 to “go easy” on the Tigers. Although the caller later admitted it was a prank, the suggestion incensed Leonard, who pitched the game of his life. He outdueled Trout, 4-1, and 45,565 disappointed fans hung around Briggs Stadium for a couple of hours to follow the St. Louis-New York game on the scoreboard. A St. Louis loss would force a one-game playoff in Detroit the following day. But the Browns rallied to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Nobody felt worse than Trout, who saw his sorrow compounded by the accidental death of his father just a few days later.
The following summer, Trout and the Tigers captured the championship that had slipped through their paws in ’44. Detroit edged out Washington for the flag on the last day of the season, thanks to a grand-slam home run by Hank Greenberg. Then Trout (who won 18 games) and Newhouser (who won 25 and picked up his second straight MVP award) pitched the Tigers past the Cubs in seven games in the World Series.
Afterwards, Trout talked about his “atom ball,” an allusion to the atomic bombs that closed out World War II and baseball’s last wartime season.
“You just throw it at ‘em,” he said, “and they can’t do a thing with it.”