It was one of the most phenomenal pitching performances ever.
But in the end, it was all for nothing.
It was July 21, 1945, a hot and humid Saturday afternoon at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. Manager Steve O’Neill’s American League-leading Detroit Tigers were in town to take on Connie Mack’s last-place Athletics. The Bengal pitchers were weary after two doubleheaders in a three-day stopover in Washington. Friday night had been particularly tough, as they dropped a twi-nighter to the Senators. They stayed overnight in D.C., getting back to their hotel around 2:00 am. They slept until 7:00, then took a train into the City of Brotherly Love, and headed straight to the ballpark, arriving at noon.
O’Neill called upon an obscure pitcher, Les Mueller, to start the game, hoping to give his staff a rest.
It had been a long road back to the majors for Mueller. An 18-game winner for the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League in 1940, he pitched in four games for the Tigers in 1941, without a decision. He was fortunate enough to see action in the 1945 World Series. He did mop-up duty in Game One, in which the Tigers lost 9-0 at Tiger Stadium. Detroit eventually prevailed in seven games, however, and Mueller was awarded with a World Series ring.
He then missed three seasons while on wartime duty in the Army. Discharged before the 1945 season, Mueller was just another name in spring training. But O’Neill, who had managed him in the minors, valued the pitcher’s versatility, and gave him a spot on his club.
Mueller had been used as a spot starter in 1945, with a record of 3-4 in 13 games pitched. The highlight of his season up to that point was a complete-game, two-hit shutout in Yankee Stadium back in May. But the 26-year-old had a high ERA at 4.75, and had surrendered ten earned runs in his last two starts, spanning 11 innings.
But this day in Philadelphia, Mueller was brilliant. The Athletics plated an unearned run in the fourth inning, but could not score again against the Tiger pitcher. The problem was his mound opponent was equally dominant. Russ Christopher, winner of 27 games the previous two seasons, tossed 13 innings of five-hit, one-run ball, before 41-year-old Joe Berry took over to start the 14th.
The game remained tied at 1. Finally, exhausted and unable to carry on in the brutal heat and humidity, Mueller was removed from the game with two out in the bottom of the 20th inning, after two runners had reached on walks. O’Neill brought in Dizzy Trout, a rare relief appearance for the star hurler. Trout retired Dick Siebert on a groundout to end the threat and keep the marathon alive.
Following the conclusion of the 24th inning, with Trout and Berry still in the game, and dusk descending, umpire Bill Summers had seen enough. He called the contest, tied at 1, which is how it went down in the record books. His reasoning was simple: “After 4 hours and forty-eight minutes behind the plate, I couldn’t see the ball any longer.” The final out had been recorded at 7:48 pm. The very fact that a 24-inning game could be played in under five hours must be mind-boggling to today’s baseball fan.
Of course, Shibe Park had lights, but there was a standing American League rule that no lights could be turned on after the start of a scheduled day game.
Mueller had pitched the game of his life. His line score: an astonishing 19 and 2/3 innings pitched, 13 hits, no earned runs! Berry, who had relieved for Philadelphia, went 11 innings, giving up only six hits and no runs.
The hitting star of the day was the Athletics’ Bobby Estallela, who went 5 for 10 with a double and four singles, but no RBIs or runs scored. The Tigers’ Eddie Mayo and Bob Swift both went 0-9. Nobody, however, had a worse day at the dish than Philadelphia’s 22-year-old third baseman George Kell, who came up ten times, and made 10 outs, dropping his batting average to .234.
1945 was Mueller’s final season in the majors. He finished his two-year career with a record of 6 wins and eight losses. He bounced around in the minors for a couple more seasons before retiring. Mueller died in 2012 in Illinois, at age 93.
His fantastic game was the longest, by number of innings, in Tigers’ history.