The Unusual 1952 Season of Detroit Tiger Virgil Trucks

A lot of pitchers have won only five games in a season, a select few have tossed two no-hitters in a season. Detroit Tigers right-hander Virgil Trucks accomplished both in a season where forty percent of his wins were no-hitters. As Tiger ace Justin Verlander etched his name in history with his second career no-hitter recently against the Blue Jays, he joined Trucks as the only pitchers in franchise history with more than one no-no.

Trucks recently celebrated his 94th birthday not far from his birthplace in central Alabama, making him the oldest man living who has thrown a major league no-hitter. The circumstances of his no-hitters are quite amazing, and worth revisiting in the wake of Verlander’s masterpiece.

Trucks possessed a wicked fastball that he kept low in the strike zone, also employing a change of pace pitch, as he called it, and a curveball. He made his way through the minor leagues overpowering opposition batters – in 1938 he fanned 418 batters in the Alabama-Florida League, a professional baseball record that still stands. Unfortunately for Trucks, he also struggled with his control. By 1941, just months prior to the start of World War II, he made his big league debut for the Tigers.

Trucks was a thick, muscular specimen, with strong legs, broad hips, and a barrel chest. His pitching motion was somewhat violent, sort of in the vain of Rich Gossage several decades later. Trucks almost seemed to hurl his whole body at the batter. Because of this physical strain, Trucks frequently suffered injuries. His high strikeout rate and trouble finding the strike zone meant that he often threw 130 or more pitches per game.

By 1952, Trucks had done and seen a lot. Except for two seasons missed to duty in World War II, “Fire” Trucks had been in the Tiger rotation for a decade. He came back in time to toss one game in 1945 after being discharged from the Army, but Tiger skipper Steve O’Neill had enough confidence in him that he started Trucks twice in the World Series. He followed Hal Newhouser and pitched Game Two, twirling a complete game victory over the Cubs at Briggs Stadium. He started Game Six but did not factor in the decision.

The 1952 Tigers were historically bad – they became the first team in franchise history to lose as many as 100 games. The roster was filled with players past their prime. At 35, Trucks was a senior member of the club. In his first three starts he pitched like it – going two innings, four innings, and 1 1/3. His ERA was 13.50, but two starts later he threw his first no-hitter. At Briggs Stadium, Trucks struck out seven and walked just one as he stymied the Senators for a 1-0 masterpiece. Having recorded four no-hitters as a minor leaguer, Trucks had finally done the trick at the big league level. Even so, there was little reason to believe the grizzled pitcher would add to the magic.

Trucks won his next start, but then he went a stretch of eight straight starts without a victory. His record was 2-8 and the team fired their manager. Little had changed by July 22 when Trucks’ mark stood at 3-11. Again it was the Senators in Briggs Stadium. Washington leadoff man Eddie Yost singled to left field to start the game, but Trucks had a great curveball that day and he mowed down the Washington lineup without surrendering another hit. He finished with another 1-0 victory, this time with a one-hitter.

On August 25 in New York, Trucks did the unthinkable: he no-hit the Yankees for a 1-0 victory. It improved his record to 5-15. In the process he became the third pitcher to throw two no-hitters in a season. Trucks lost his last four decisions of the season to finish 5-19 for the miserable Tigers. He may have had a bad record for the season, but in 1952 Detroit’s Virgil Trucks was masterful twice.

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