Hod Lisenbee’s Longest Day

Hod Lisenbee had one of the worst games a pitcher has ever had back in 1936. (via Public Domain)

In our automated age, we don’t hear the term “hod carrier” any more. In fact, the word hod itself may meet with a quizzical response. In the case of pitcher Horace Milton Lisenbee, his nickname of Hod was particularly apt on September 11, 1936.

A hod is a receptacle carried on the shoulder. Typically, construction workers used them to transport building materials. You’ve heard of bricklayers? Well, who do you think brought those bricks to them?

You might be reminded of Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. Well, according to Ayn Rand, Atlas shrugged. But not Hod Lisenbee.

Admittedly, Lisenbee’s stats are not the stuff of legends. When he retired, his lifetime MLB record was 37-58 with a 4.81 ERA. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story.

When Lisenbee took the mound on the afternoon of Friday, September 11, 1936, at Comiskey Park, there was little at stake. The Yankees, with a little help from rookie Joe DiMaggio, were crusing to the pennant and would end up finishing 19.5 games ahead of runner-up Detroit. The White Sox, however, had some motivation to finish strong, as a first-division finish would earn them a modest share of the postseason proceeds. As it turned out, they would finish in a tie with the Senators for third place, 2.5 games ahead of fifth-place Cleveland.

As for the A’s, they were fighting their traditional September duel with the Browns to see who would be the cellar dweller. The A’s started the day at 49-89 (they had one tie, the game played the day before against the Browns). By the end of the season, the A’s would be in last place with a record of 53-100. Quaker City bragging rights belonged to the Phillies, who also finished last and lost 100 games but played a full schedule of 154 games and hence won one more game than the A’s.

The only starter of note in the A’s four-man rotation was Harry Kelley, who somehow finished the 1936 season with a 15-12 record and a 3.86 ERA. Nobody else finished in double figures in wins; no one else had an ERA under 5.39. When Kelley wasn’t on the mound, the A’s were behind the 8-ball. Yet it wasn’t all their fault.  As it does with almost everything, economics played a part.

Connie Mack had been dismantling the A’s since the end of the 1932 season. By 1936, he had sold off all the stars that had helped him win more than 100 games each season from 1929 through 1931. That was one way of cutting costs.  Another was to limit the number of pitchers he took on road trips. After all, those train fares and hotel bills do add up.

So when the A’s hit the road from September 4 through 16 (traveling to Washington, New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit), the savings were considerable, at least by Great Depression standards. At journey’s end, the road trip was a train wreck, metaphorically speaking, as the A’s went 2-11–but at least it was accomplished with minimal expenditure.

When Lisenbee took the mound on 9/11, he expected to pitch deep into the game, and knew he would more than likely finish what he started. If the game turned into a laugher, he would be his own janitor (my term for a mop-up man).

Lisenbee gave up four runs in the bottom of the first inning (including a two-run homer by second baseman Minter “Jackie” Hayes) but then settled down. The White Sox did not score over the next three innings. In the fifth inning, they notched four more runs. 

In most games, the starter would be out of there at that point. Given the A’s shortage of pitchers and a game that now appeared to be out of hand, however, Mack left Lisenbee on the mound. In truth, there was no need to bring in a fresh arm in a game that was all but lost in a season that was all but over. Of course, there is also the possibility Mack (age 73 at the time) was asleep on the bench and no one wanted to wake him up.

At any rate, Lisenbee gave up three more runs in the sixth inning, four more in the seventh, and two more in the eighth. The final score was 17-2. Lisenbee had pitched a complete game and given up 14 earned runs. Leading the way for the White Sox were Zeke Bonura, Mike Kreevich, and Luke Appling, with five hits apiece.  Rip Radcliff (gotta love that name) got four hits, Jackie Hayes had three, Larry Rosenthal had two, and Tony Piet had one. Notably, Lisenbee’s opposing starter, rookie Monty Stratton, hit a solo homer. Add them up and the hit parade totals 26.

Stratton, by the way, went the distance and came up with his fourth victory of the season. Stratton’s rookie year was only so-so, but the following year he would post a 15-5 record and an ERA of 2.40, good enough to get him named to the AL All-Star squad. (He led the league in WHIP at 1.087, but I don’t think that stat was compiled in those days.) The hunting accident that resulted in the amputation of his right leg occurred after the 1938 season, when he again won 15 games.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Despite the parade of White Sox baserunners, the game was all over in one hour and 57 minutes. Like a visit to the dentist, it probably seemed longer to Lisenbee. That one outing bumped his ERA from 4.91 to 6.03.

It might have been small solace to Lisenbee, but the total of 26 hits did not constitute a record; it only tied a record. But the original record deserved an asterisk with a red ribbon tied around it and a cherry on top.

The first pitcher to give up 26 hits in one game was one Aloyisius (Allan) Travers. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s not surprising, but you might remember the game. This was the notorious contest of May 18, 1912, when the Detroit Tigers, playing in Philadelphia, went on strike in sympathy with Ty Cobb, who had been indefinitely suspended for beating up a fan at Hilltop Park in New York. 

The Tigers hastily rounded up a defanged, declawed group of players to take on the A’s. A loss was guaranteed (the A’s had won 101 games plus the World Series the previous year), but that was of little consequence. Warm bodies were a priority, as the Tigers would be fined $5,000 (a tidy sum in 1912) per game if they failed to field a team. So middle-aged coaches and local amateurs were shanghaied into service to avert a forfeit.

Predictably, the game (a 24-2 victory for the A’s) was a diaster–but it was not a financial disaster for the Tigers. Not for the A’s either, as 20,000 people (only 3,000 short of a sell-out) were at Shibe Park that day. Having to refund the fans for a forfeit might have been as expensive for Mack as for the Tigers.

This unique game and the incident causing Cobb’s suspension have been well chronicled by baseball historians, so I’m not going to recount them here, as we are only concerned only with Allan Travers, who was a student at nearby St. Joseph’s College. He was the assistant manager of their baseball team, not a player. In fact, he had never pitched before anywhere.

By the time the slaughter was over, Travers was credited with a complete game and a 15.75 ERA. Obviously, there was no divine intervention on his behalf that day, but his faith was unshaken and he went on to became a priest–the only one ever to play major league baseball. His record for most runs allowed in one game is still the MLB record. The 26 hits he surrendered were also his and his alone…until Hod Lisenbee came along.

So let’s get back to old Hod, whose achievement has not been so well chronicled as Travers’. As improbable as Lisenbee’s record-tying day was, it was in a sense fitting, as his whole career was highly improbable.

Born September 23, 1898 in Clarksville (about 40 miles northwest of Nashville), Montgomery County, Tennessee, Lisenbee did not pick up a baseball until he went to high school. Since his labor was required on the family farm, his high school years were delayed, so he was 21 when that gripping baseball (or baseball gripping) experience occurred. In fact, by saving years of wear and tear on his arm during adolescence, he might have done himself a favor.

When he was 25 in 1924, he started pitching in the low minors (the Class D Truckers from Brookhaven, Mississippi). Just by playing pro ball he had already defied the odds for someone so inexperienced. That he would make it to the majors (the Senators in 1927) at age 28 was notable. In his first start on April 23, 1927, he shut out the Red Sox. He defeated the mighty ’27 Yankees five times in six decisions. In one game, he came out of the bullpen to face Babe Ruth with a 3-0 count and struck him out. For good measure, he struck him out two more times that day. Was it just beginner’s luck, or was a legend being born?

At any rate, when Lisenbee’s 1927 rookie year was in the books, it betokened a bright future. He had a record of 18-9, a 3.57 ERA, and a league-leading four shutouts. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that.

His sophomore season was disappointing (2-6, 6.08), so the Senators traded him to the Red Sox. In 1930, he finished 10-17 with a 4.40 ERA for the BoSox, but at least he was durable (237.1 IP). Perhaps he was fated to be a journeyman?

Unfortunately, the next two years didn’t even rise to that level. After going 0-4 with a 5.65 ERA in 73.1 IP in 1932, the Red Sox understandably let him go. At age 33, it appeared the bloom was off his late-blooming career.

Nevertheless, over the next few seasons he persevered in the minors with the Buffalo Bisons, the Birmingham Barons, the Jersey City Skeeters, the St. Paul Saints, and the Nashville Vols but without distinction. So it appeared he would finish his pro career not as a major league journeyman but as a minor league journeyman. Yet Mack signed him to a contract, and on July 30, 1936, at age 37, he returned to big league ball, this time wearing a Philadelphia A’s uniform.

His redemption was not in the cards. His 9/11 debacle was the low point of his two-month stint with the 1936 A’s. He finished 1-7 with a 6.20 ERA. As atrocious as that ERA is, Lisenbee had a lot of company, as the A’s staff finished the season with a 6.08 ERA.

Refusing to throw in the towel, Lisenbee went back to the minors in 1937…and 1938…and 1939…and 1940. He stuck to farming during the war years of 1942 and 1943 (according to Napoleon–or maybe it was Frederick the Great–an army marches on its stomach), but the WWII ballplayer shortage was so severe, in 1944 he was invited to spring training with the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League. Even given the paucity of players, it is remarkable Lisehbee made the team.

Just as remarkable was Lisenbee’s August 8 no-hitter against Montreal, even if it was only seven innings (it was the first game of a doubleheader). Even more remarkable, he led the league in innings pitched with 248. Perhaps more than his 15-15 record and no-hitter, those 248 frames likely attracted the attention of the Cincinnati Reds, who signed Lisenbee for 1945. At age 46, he was the last player born in the 19th century to pitch in the 20th century.

Lisenbee’s season was in keeping with the Reds’. He went 1-7 with a 5.49 ERA in 80.1 innings, while the Reds finished in seventh> place with a 59-85 record. His lone victory (and the last of his major league career) was the result of an Opening Day relief stint against the Pirates at Crosley Field. Entering the game when it was knotted at 6-6 after seven innings, Lisenbee pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings, and the Reds sent 30,069 home happy by scoring a run in the bottom of the ninth for the 7-6 walk-off victory.

To no one’s surprise, Lisenbee was not asked back when the players came marching home from WWII. This is not to say Lisenbee’s playing career was over, as he played for the Clarksville Colts of the Kitty Hawk League until he was 51. Of course, as manager and owner of his hometown team, he could pretty much write his own ticket. He finally figured out there was more money in agriculture (by that point, his farm had grown to 800 acres) than minor league baseball.

Despite Lisenbee’s forgettable MLB statistics, his overall career was as notable as it was improbable. Baseball mavens of the Volunteer State agreed, and Lisenbee was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame (in downtown Nashville) in 1971. His official bio at that institution does not mention his 9/11/36 ordeal.

When the talk turns to records that will never be broken (and no one wants to break), Lisenbee’s 26-hit pummeling is about as safe as such a record can be. With modern-day 12-man (or even 13-man!) man pitching staffs, no starter would be left out there twisting in the wind for a complete game, no matter how low the stakes. Given the hefty contracts of today, no manager would take a chance on ruining the arm of any pitcher, young or old. In short, no pitcher will again have the opportunity to yield 26 hits in one game. Heck, a starter today can get credit for a quality start without even facing 26 batters.

Lisenbee died at age 88 on November 14, 1987, in his hometown of Clarksville. It was altogether fitting. Not only did he finish what he started on 9/11/36, on 11/14/87 he finished where he started. He didn’t need to take the last train to Clarksville. His professional peregrinations aside, he never really left.

References and Resources

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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4 years ago

A fantastic, fantastic article!

4 years ago

Though this article proved to be most interesting, it does seem to contain one factual error that requires clarification, at least. To wit, while Lisenbee’s 26 hits allowed might indeed be a (shared) MLB record for hits allowed in a single game by a starting pitcher, or for hits allowed in no more than nine innings, it is not, and never has been, the record for hits allowed by a pitcher in a single outing. That record belongs, I think, to Eddie Rommel, who allowed 29 hits in 17 innings of relief on July 10, 1932 for the Philadelphia A’s against the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland. The A’s won the game 18-17 in 18 innings, and Rommel, despite allowing 14 runs (13 earned), was accordingly credited with the win. I believe that Connie Mack’s habit of restricting the players he took on road trips was essentially responsible for this outing, as it was for Lisenbee’s.

In light of Rommel’s outing, it would be good, I think, to clarify which hits-allowed records Lisenbee does and does not hold.

Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago

Last 19th century guy standing is a damn cool fact. I wonder who will be the last 20th century kid. It’s likely someone active today, though not necessarily in pro ball.