An entry from a book I’m working on: Gene Bearden

I’m always working on sports writing, even if it’s not on a daily blog. Here’s an entry from a book that I’m working on about knuckleball pitchers throughout baseball history. This particular entry is about a gem pitched by war hero and Cleveland baseball hero Gene Bearden.

Rookie Bearden Wins Season Debut En Route to 20-Win Campaign

May 8, 1948: Cleveland Indians 6, Washington Senators 1 At Griffith Stadium

Gene Bearden:  8.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 5 SO.

Making his season debut, Cleveland Indians rookie knuckleballer—and war hero—Gene Bearden pitched 8.2 innings of three-hit ball to beat the Senators 6-1 at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.

Bearden, who’d made his major-league debut the year before with one relief appearance, was making his second big-league appearance and first major-league start in this outing against the Senators. 

The fact that Bearden was pitching on a major-league mound was remarkable. Although he was a rookie, he was also a war hero who also won a Purple Heart in World War II. A machinist’s mate, Bearden was among the survivors when three torpedoes hit the USS Helena in the South Pacific in July 1943. “Somebody pulled me out,” he later told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “They told me later it was an officer. I don’t know how he did it. The ship went down in about 17 minutes. All I know is that I came to in the water some time later.” Badly wounded, he was hospitalized for two years, and forever after carried a steel plate in his head.

On this afternoon, Washington left fielder Gil Coan had two of the hits off Bearden, who walked four and struck out five. The Cleveland knuckleballer was in control until the bottom of the ninth, when he issued all four of his walks. Following his fourth free pass of the inning—a bases-loaded walk to Tom McBride to break up the shutout—Bearden was lifted for reliever Russ Christopher, who recorded the final out without incident.

It was quite the season debut—and first big-league start—for Bearden, who through the first eight innings had a three-hit shutout while facing 26 Senators hitters, two batters over the minimum.

Bearden would win six of his first seven starts in 1948, tossing four complete games and a pair of shutouts in that stretch.

It was the way he would end the season, though, that was most impressive.

During the final month of the season, Bearden won each of his final seven starts, pitching two more shutouts and winning the one-game playoff against the Red Sox at Fenway Park to capture the AL pennant for Cleveland. By season’s end, he would have 20 wins—including six shutouts and 15 complete games—and an American League-best 2.43 ERA.

He’d then defeat the Boston Braves with a 2-0 shutout in Game Three of the World Series, before recording the final five outs in the Game Six clincher. It was Cleveland’s first title since beating Brooklyn in the 1920 Series. To date, the Indians still have never won another World Series. “He won the pennant and World Series for us,” Indians Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Feller reflected in 2004. “If it hadn’t been for Gene Bearden, Cleveland would not have a world championship since 1920.”

But it all started on this date in Washington, where the knuckleballer won his 1948 debut en route to a 20-win campaign as a rookie. “Nobody showed me,” Bearden said that season of the knuckler. “I was just fooling around to see if I could add another pitch to my fastball and slider. I found the batters didn’t like it, so I kept on using it. Now it’s my main pitch. The fastball and slider are just mixed in, now and then, for variety. I use it so much my fingertips develop calluses.”

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