We may think that manager Steve O’Neill was crazy for using a pitcher for the first time in the last game of the season with his team needing a victory to win the pennant, but that’s what he did.
Of course, the circumstances were extraordinary, and it wasn’t just any pitcher.
Virgil Trucks had already established himself as an excellent big league hurler when he was drafted into the U.S. Army after the ’43 season. Like many ballplayers he missed quite a bit of playing time while serving in World War II. After the Japanese surrendered in early September of ’45, like many GI’s, Trucks was discharged shortly after. He had been with the Tigers for just one day when O’Neill gave him the ball to start the first game of a season-ending doubleheader in rainy St. Louis that would decide the American League pennant.
The Tigers had a one-game lead over the Washington Senators, who were idle after finishing their season early (owner Clark Griffith had rented out his ballpark to the football Redskins to make extra cash, and as a result he had squished his schedule down by a week with many September doubleheaders). O’Neill’s team needed to win one of the final two games to clinch the flag.
Incredibly, Trucks didn’t look like a pitcher who hadn’t thrown a major league pitch in almost 24 months. He fought his way through five innings clinging to a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the sixth however, he started to tire, and after Trucks allowed a walk and a single, O’Neill waved in Hal Newhouser from his bullpen. It was a desperation move. Newhouser had started just three days earlier and was scheduled to start Game Two of the doubleheader if needed. But O’Neill was going for it, and after “Prince Hal” wiggled out of the sixth inning jam, it looked like a wise move.
But in the 7th and 8th frames, the pesky Browns scratched across single runs to take the lead, 3-2. It stayed that way until the 9th when St. Louis starter Nels Potter took the mound to try to hammer down the win for the home team. Potter was known for throwing practically every kind of pitch, so much so that in 1944 he had been suspended for throwing a spitball. But he was a good pitcher and he’d kept the Tigers pretty much at bay all day to that point. Things were different in the final inning. He surrendered a single to pinch-hitter Hub Walker, walked Skeeter Webb, and the after a sacrifice bunt by Eddie Mayo moved the runners to second and third, he faced Doc Cramer. Potter motioned to his catcher, Frank Mancuso, that he wanted to walk Cramer. He wished to load the bases to set up a double play opportunity. However, the man looming on deck cast a long shadow. Hank Greenberg was back from the War too, and Potter’s decision to face him would prove to be legendary, but not in the good way for the Browns. Still sharp at the plate, “Hammerin’ Hank” blasted a Potter screwball deep to left field that landed in the rain-soaked bleachers. It proved to be a pennant-clinching grand slam when a few minutes later the Browns went down in their half of the inning to lose, 6-3. The Tiger victory meant that the second game of the doubleheader was unnecessary, and it wasn’t played.
Trucks didn’t get the victory, that went to Newhouser, but his gutsy start was instrumental in securing the first Tigers pennant in five years. He wasn’t finished, either. Four days later in the second game of the World Series at Briggs Stadium, Trucks went the distance to defeat the Chicago Cubs, 4-1. In his two starts in the series he allowed just five runs and Detroit won Game Seven, 9-3 at Wrigley Field to earn their second World Series title.