Face Time ’59: An Unusual Pitcher, an Unusual Year

Branch Rickey, right, acquired Elroy Face when he moved from the Dodgers to the Pirates. (via Rawland Rickey)

Branch Rickey, right, acquired Elroy Face while he was with the Pirates. (via Rawland Rickey)

I never took ball games home with me. If my wife didn’t know what the score was, she couldn’t tell by my demeanor if we’d won or lost.

— Elroy Face

When you check major league pitchers who lead their league in winning percentage, you can pretty well rest assured that they will be starting pitchers. Relievers just don’t get many decisions, and while a loss is certainly undesirable, a win is not as coveted as a save or a hold. In fact, a closer racking up a win is sometimes a negative, as it could be the consequence of his having blown a save.

In 1959, however, Elroy Face of the Pirates led National League pitchers in winning percentage. In fact, he flirted with a 1.000 percentage. If his wife was checking the box scores every day, she would have had to wait until mid-September to see an “L” linked to her husband’s name.

His league leadership wasn’t a fluke, say, just barely crossing the threshold for the minimum number of decisions to qualify. Face had 19 decisions, 18 of them victories. Curiously, he was not eligible for the league ERA title, which required one inning pitched for every game played (154 innings in those days). In fact, he wasn’t even close to that minimum, as he racked up those 18 victories in just 93.1 innings.

The one loss he absorbed snapped a 17-game winning streak, as well as a 22-game winning streak going back to early in the 1958 season. He actually made 99 appearances between losses.

For a relief pitcher to rack up a record of 18-1 is beyond remarkable. One could say the same of the right hander’s vitals: 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds. Today, even a left hander of such size would be suspect; a right hander might be advised to start working out as a middle infielder…or a jockey. Right-handed pitchers of such stature are about as rare as NBA players cut from that cloth.

Face’s save total (10) in 1959 was no great shakes, but his .945 winning percentage is the best in major league history. That’s almost one victory for every five innings pitched. I don’t know if they keep stats pertaining to the ratio of victories earned per innings pitched, but for sure Face would be right up there for his 1959 season.

The Pirates were just one year away from a title, but you couldn’t predict that by their 1959 performance, a fourth place finish at 78-76, nine games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. The Pirates did not lead the league in any major category, but the pitching staff did lead the league in fewest walks allowed.

At first glance, the Pirates’ starting rotation might have appeared formidable. All four starters had long major league careers. Vern Law led the group with a record of 18-9 and 2.98 in 266 innings, but after that the results were disappointing.

Harvey Haddix, made headline news with his 12 perfect innings (and imperfect 13th inning) in a May 26 loss in Milwaukee, but the rest of his season was humdrum. He finished with a 12-12 record and a 3.13 ERA in 224.1 innings.

The biggest disappointment was Bob Friend, who had won 22 games in 1958, but dropped off to 8-19 with a 4.03 ERA in 234.2 innings in 1959.

Ron Kline finished at 11-13 and 4.26 in 186 innings, which would qualify him as a workhorse today and guarantee him a lucrative multi-year contract. In 1959, all it got him was traded to St. Louis (for Tom Cheney and Gino Cimoli), so he was not around for the big celebration after the Bill Mazeroski home run in 1960.

Beyond that, Bennie Daniels started 12 games and Red Witt started seven with little positive results. So there were plenty of opportunities for Face. But Face was not born to be a reliever.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Originally signed by the Phillies, Face began his professional career in 1949 with a 14-2 record as a member of the Bradford (Pa.) Blue Wings of the PONY League (that’s the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League, not the Protect Our Nation’s Youth amateur league).

Remarkably, he was not promoted but returned to Bradford in 1950 and went 18-5. For whatever reason, the Phillies remained unimpressed. Branch Rickey felt otherwise and acquired him for the Dodgers, who assigned him to Single-A Pueblo of the Western League, where he went 23-9 in 1951. He was promoted to Double-A Fort Worth of the Texas League, where he was 14-11 in 1952.

Meanwhile, Branch Rickey had moved on to the Pirates, who were less than swashbuckling in those days and desperately in need of young talent. So Rickey acquired Face for the Bucs. As a 25-year-old rookie in 1953, Face started 13 games and came out of the bullpen 28 times for the Pirates. The results were not great (6-8, 6.58 in 119 innings), but Face had plenty of company, as the Pirates finished in last place with a 50-104 record, 55 games out of first place. Their team ERA was 5.22, and Face was well beyond that, so it was decided to send him back to the minors for more seasoning.

Face spent 1954 at Double-A New Orleans of the Southern Association. The results there were only so-so (12-11, 4.45 in 192 innings), but it was here that Face developed his money pitch, the forkball, an ancestor of the split-finger fastball. Face already had a 90 mph fastball and a curve, and a few years later he developed a slider.

The New Orleans manager, Danny Murtaugh, realized Face’s future value as a reliever. Murtaugh moved up to the Pirates as a coach in 1956, and took over from Bobby Bragan (who had managed Face at Fort Worth in 1952) as manager in the waning days of the 1957 season. He would manage Face through 1964, as well as half a season in 1967.

Face returned to the Pirates to stay in 1955, when he started 10 games and came out of the bullpen 32 times. His record was only 5-7, but Face shaved a full three earned runs off his 6.58 ERA of two years before.

From there on, starts were few. Face started just three games in 1956, and one – the last start of his career – in 1957. For the remaining 12 years of his career, he was strictly a reliever. Out of his 848 career appearances on the mound, only 27 came as a starter. Face had more than one good year (he was named to the NL All-Star squad in 1960 and 1961, as well as in 1959), but the 1959 season remains his signature season.

Face’s first 1959 victory came on April 22 against the Reds. After the Pirates had scored seven in he seventh to tie the game, Face came on in the eighth and gave up one run. He was on the hook for the loss, but the Pirates scored two in the bottom of the ninth to make him a winner.

In a sense, this was a typical outing for Face. It wasn’t a dominating performance, but his teammates rose to the occasion and got him the win. As Face noted, “The team had five or six come-from-behind wins that gave me victories instead of losses. I could easily have gone something like 12-7.” His ERA for the season was a respectable 2.70, but one would not expect an 18-1 season to result from that figure.

Face’s last victory, on Sept. 19, was also over Cincinnati at Forbes Field. Again, he came into a tie game (2-2). Taking the mound in the top of the ninth inning, he pitched four innings, giving up a run in the 12th. Again, he was on the hook for a loss, but thanks to a Mazeroski triple that plated two runs in the bottom of the inning, Face came out a winner.

Face’s one loss, by the way, had occurred eight days before in the first game of a Friday twi-night doubleheader at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Face simply didn’t have it that night. The Pirates were leading 4-3 when Face came on in relief of Bob Friend with one out in the eighth.

Maury Wills led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Ron Fairly sacrificed him to second. Jim Gilliam followed with a triple, scoring Wills and tying the game. Charley Neal singled to left and Gilliam trotted home with the walk-off victory. And that was the one time in 1959 that Face had egg on his face. His mates could not rescue him, as they had no more at-bats.

As impressive as Face’s 1959 season was, it was not a fluke. To be sure, it was a career year, but it must be noted that Face’s entire career was remarkable. He was a fixture in the Pirates’ bullpen until 1968, when the Detroit Tigers acquired him for their stretch drive. The Tigers released him just before Opening Day in 1969, and he signed with the Montreal Expos on April 27, 1969, just after they had begun their inaugural season. On Aug. 15 of that year he was released at age 41. Ironically, 1969 was the first year the save became an official statistic.

Aside from eight appearances with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders the following season, that was the end of his playing career. His major league totals for 16 seasons were 104-95 with a 3.48 ERA, 193 saves, and 574 games finished.

That 1959 season was easily his best regarding wins, but there were other outstanding seasons along the way. He led the league in appearances with 68 in 1956 and 1960. It’s interesting to note that he did not lead the league in games finished in 1959 – but he did in 1958 (40), 1960 (61), 1961 (47), and 1962 (57). Though he didn’t know it at the time, he led the league in saves in 1958 (20), 1961 (17), and 1962 (28).

Face thought his best season was not 1959 but 1960. He finished 61 games (his personal best), going 10-8 with a 2.90 ERA and 24 saves in 114.2 innings. For good measure, he hit .412 (7 for 17). Understandably, he might have been partial to that season since his efforts helped the Pirates win a pennant.

Face was at the midpoint of the evolution of the reliever as a key member of the pitching staff. In the 19th century, no substitutions were allowed and a pitcher who just didn’t have it would switch positions with someone else on the field. After substitutions were allowed, most relievers were just getting in a little bit of work between starts. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the bullpen was largely the province of the mop-up man. Then along came Firpo Marberry, who debuted with the Senators in 1923, and is often regarded as the first prominent reliever.

Over time, prominent relievers (e.g., Jim Konstanty, Clem Labine, Johnny Murphy, Hoyt Wilhelm) made it obvious that a quality pitcher in the bullpen was a key member of a winning team. Face’s career offered further evidence of that, but this was long before the current era of specialization (middle relievers, set-up men, long men, closers, situational left-handers). By today’s standards, he wasn’t technically a closer, but once he established himself in the bullpen, he never came in before the late innings.

Today a pitcher of Face’s quality and tenure would never need to hold an offseason job. That was not true in Face’s day, so he joined the carpenter’s union and practiced his trade, oftentimes working on remodeling projects for his teammates.

But don’t think the Pirates didn’t reward Face financially for his 1959 season. In fact, they gave him a $10,000 raise for the 1960 season – and he was content with that.

Looking back over the last six decades or so, this financial anecdote tells you far more about how times have changed than a scholarly analysis of the role of the relief pitcher ever could.

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Eric the Clown
7 years ago

I’m still upset that Roy was never even mentioned in the “Face of MLB” contest. Well, I voted for him.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Good article. It’s not clear to me how Face was used that year. How many of his wins involved pitching multiple innings? Was he used in high-leverage situations? He obviously got some wins that could have been losses but did he “vulture” wins by blowing saves and then getting the win? He didn’t pitch that many innings for the time, but was he being forced into games early because of problems with the starters? (The article suggests that.)

I’ve always found Face’s year fascinating. But, then, I’ve always been fascinated by late fifties/early sixties baseball.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

My baseball sense is tingling.

The glory of baseball-reference.com can answer these questions! Well, that and the Google News Archive to fill in a couple of blanks. I’ll answer each question in a separate post.

How many of his wins involved pitching multiple innings?

Of his 57 games he pitched more than one inning 30 times. Of the games where he pitched one inning or less it appears he only pitched in multiple innings once and that was the game he lost (he got 2 outs in the 8th, 1 out in the 9th). If you add that in then 31. His most common outing was one inning but he pitched two innings or more 24 times including 7 three inning outings, a four inning outing, and a five inning outing. (In the five inning game, he came in with the score tied in the 9th and pitched until the Pirates won in the 13th. The four inning game was similar, coming in with a tied score in the 9th and pitching until he won in the 12th.)

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Was he used in high-leverage situations?

Here was the score situation when Face entered the game:

Down 4: 3
Down 3: 4
Down 2: 4
Down 1: 12
Tied: 11
Ahead 1: 11
Ahead 2: 8
Ahead 3: 3
Ahead 8(!): 1

For the record, he pitched badly in that last one, giving up 3 runs in 1 1/3. It was actually worse than that as he was inserted with the bases loaded and nobody out and promptly surrendered all three runners to the first batter he faced on a single and E9. Turned an 10-2 game into an 10-8 game, but that was the final score.

I’d say he was leveraged fairly well given that 34 of his games were one run leads or tied. Given that starters were not normally pulled if they were pitching well, there is the question of how many opportunities he could have. The team had 48 complete games for what it is worth.

I suspect it would be better to check his team’s win likelihood when he entered the game, but that would take more work than I am willing to do at the moment, plus there are some games not available.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

? He obviously got some wins that could have been losses but did he “vulture” wins by blowing saves and then getting the win?

Of his 18 wins:

Entered ahead, blew lead: 5
Entered ahead, awarded win: 1
Enter down: 3
Tied, opponent never led: 6
Tied, opponent led: 3

The awarded win was because the illustrious Al Jackson was knocked out early and Face pitched the best of the relievers.

When he entered down he only gave up 1 run total in those 3 games.

In the three games where he came in a tied game and let the opponent take the lead, two of those games involved giving up a home run to the very first batter he faced (Gus Bell and Ed Bouchee respectively, the latter in the 10th inning). In the other one he pitched 3 scoreless innings until surrendering a run in the 12th, then was saved by a Bill Mazerowski triple.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

He didn’t pitch that many innings for the time, but was he being forced into games early because of problems with the starters?

Define “early.” He never entered a game before the 7th. By 1959 baseball standards that may have been considered “early” but by today’s standards that’s a fairly normal time to take out the starter. Here’s the insertion by inning breakdown:

7th: 12
8th: 20
9th: 22
10th: 3

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.


Thanks for the research. It was interesting. By “early,” I meant did he come into games in the 4th or 5th inning and pitch all or most of the rest of the game. It sounds, as you say, that his usage was in line with what we would see today, except that he usually pitched more than one inning.

I had always assumed that Face got a lot of wins by blowing leads, which is what we would probably expect today if a reliever had a lot of wins. But, as you noted below, high win totals would not be unusual if relief pitchers were used differently than they are today.

Thanks again.

Dennis Bedard
7 years ago

Off the top of my head, I recall Dodger reliever Phil Regan having a similar type year in the mid 60’s. He was a reliever who won around 15 games and I think lost 1 or 2.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard


I may be wrong but, IIFC, Regan got the nickname “Vulture” because he got a lot of those wins by blowing other guys’ leads.

Paul G.
7 years ago

Bill James in the Abstract suggests that if relief aces were used for multiple innings and brought in regularly in high-leverage tied games we would see relief pitchers with high win totals with the occasional reliever winning 20. This would depress the save total significantly but according to his study would be a better use of relief aces assuming they produced the same numbers in this usage as a modern closer. It certainly makes more sense to use a relief ace in a tied game than in a 3-run lead situation, even if it was for just one inning. Face’s usage is closer to James’s idea, though not quite the same thing.

Aurelio Lopez actually has a similar though better season in the Mexican League in 1977: 19-3, 30 saves, 2.01 ERA, 165 Ks in 157 IP. I believe he also led the league in wild pitches.

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

Face is my precise height and weight, so I feel obligated to adopt him as a personal hero after reading this. Thank you!

7 years ago

This is weird.

In Game 1 of the 1960 World Series, Face is credited with a save (on bb-ref), even though he came into the game with a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning and gave up two runs in the ninth of a 6-4 Pirates win. He gets a save for holding a four-run lead?

The Pirates got creamed in the next two games.

In Game 4, he saved a 3-2 win for Law by pitching 2 2/3 scoreless (and hitless) innings.

In Game 5, he produced an identical performance (2 2/3, 0 hits, 0 runs) to save a 5-2 win.

Game 6 was another Yankees rout.

In Game 7, Face came on in the SIXTH inning, and promptly helped Law blow a 4-1 lead by giving up two runs (apparently, the Pirates would have been willing to let him finish the game). Face gave up two more runs in the eighth and stood to be the goat of the game (WPA -.493) until a pebble on the infield and Hal Smith bailed him out. He had a 5.23 ERA for the series.

Friend started the ninth and gave up two hits, and Haddix relieved and gave up a run-scoring single and a run-scoring ground out to tie the game at 9.

When Maz hit the walkoff, Haddix earned both a blown save (though he didn’t give up any runs in his 1 inning) and the win.

That game — one of the greatest games in baseball history — featured 19 runs and 24 hits, five walks, five homers and nine pitchers.

It lasted 2 hours, 36 minutes.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

In Game 1 in 1960 Face entered the game with two runners on base and a four run lead. That put the tying run on deck which is one of the qualifications for a Save. It was not a high leverage situation – the Pirates had a 90% chance of winning – but it was the World Series and the Yankees so I suspect it was a more difficult chance than normal.

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Ah, thanks. Missed the fact he didn’t start the inning.

7 years ago

As a 9 year old kid, Dodger fan but also Face fan, I attended the loss in ’59. Remember the inning perfectly. Thanks for the nice analysis and jogging the memories. The forkball was fairly unique IIRC, and the split finger waspopularized by Roger Craig, a Dodger pitcher of the era.

7 years ago

face was brought into a game, as a reliever, in the first inning, blass going to lf .
that was done so he could set the nl record for games pitched; he was already a tiger property.
there were less than 5000 bodies in forbes field that sunny day.

7 years ago

they wouldn’t tell face to work out in the middle infield today. they’d ignore him, unless he was a tremendously talented middle infielder already…