A look back at Newhouser’s back-to-back MVP’s
He was known quite simply as “Prince Hal” by friend and foe alike. His career spanned across two decades (1940’s and 1950’s) of which he was arguably considered the most dominant starting pitcher in the game; a time where fellow pitching greats such as Bob Feller, Dutch Leonard, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, and Warren Spahn toed the rubber. His Hall of Fame credentials speak for themselves: A sparkling 3.06 career ERA, 207 wins, 33 shutouts, and 1,796 career strikeouts. But for Hal Newhouser, it wasn’t the fact that he won 20 games four different times. Nor was it that he led the league in strikeouts on two different occasions. It wasn’t even that he led the league in ERA during what became known as the live ball era, sporting combined ERA’s of less than 2.00 in two of those years. No! For Hal Newhouser, it was simply all of these mind-boggling numbers combined into two of the greatest back-to-back MVP seasons in baseball history which elevated him into the conversation of greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time, if not the greatest “wartime” pitcher ever.
Newhouser’s career however didn’t get off to the storybook start that many would expect. At the tender age of 18, Newhouser was the toast of Detroit, being that he was a schoolboy star playing for his hometown team. He was a tall and lanky left-handed pitcher, whose unorthodox overhand delivery came right out of the clouds while his fastball, estimated to be in the mid-90’s (mph), exploded on unexpected hitters like an oncoming freight train. His raw talent was undeniable, but like his fastball, his explosive temper towards his teammates and manager(s) became legendary and was his undoing early on. Whether it was his fielders letting him down in the field by booting a ball, or his hitters failing to produce adequate run support, the bold and brash Newhouser would unleash a verbal furry of “poisoned darts” at his teammates’ incompetence causing him to become one of the most disliked players in the league, not to mention very unpopular in his own locker room. His misbehavior even earned him a second nickname amongst his peers, “Hurricane Hal” some referred to him. Newhouser suffered through a 34-52 start to his young career going into the 1944 season that saw him threaten to quit baseball for good; his name constantly being mentioned amongst swirling trade rumors; and being diagnosed with a leaky heart valve while trying to enlist into World War II. But a funny thing happened on his way to that 1944 season! New Detroit manager Steve O’Neill decided to devote his entire offseason to helping Hal harness his fastball, in hopes that if the brash young Newhouser could learn how to be a “pitcher” rather than a “thrower”, trust more in his talent and instincts, he would win more games. Of course, O’Neill also knew that winning cured most everything, and might alleviate some of Newhouser’s frustrations, thereby helping him lighten up, enjoy the game, and become a better teammate. That fateful offseason proved to be the turning point in Newhouser’s career and the start of two of the most historic seasons in baseball lore.
So there was Hal Newhouser, a new pitcher sporting a new pitch (slider or “nickel” curve as they liked to say), a new outlook, and a new determination to become the best pitcher in the game. In what proved to be one of the wackiest seasons in baseball history; a season that saw Newhouser beat the mighty New York Yankees six times, the lowly St. Louis Browns win the American League pennant, and half the league enlisted in World War II, Hal Newhouser was named the American League Most Valuable Player over his teammate, Dizzy Trout by four votes. Newhouser’s eye-popping statistics that season consisted of a 29-9 record, a 2.22 ERA, while leading the league with 187 strikeouts and twirling 6 shutouts. While most pitchers would be happy with those numbers, Newhouser was determined to win MVP honors yet again the following year (1945), a year that saw Detroit’s “Prince” win the pitching Triple Crown: Topping the American League with a 25-9 record, 212 strikeouts, and a microscopic 1.81 ERA. Oh, did I mention that he also pitched 313 innings, threw 29 complete games, and threw 8 shutouts? Not bad for a pitcher with a losing career record.
Not to be outdone, 1945 was also the year Hal’s Detroit Tigers went onto win the American League pennant, and defeat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series; a series that would see Detroit’s MVP win two of the series-clinching games. Then there’s always the fact that Newhouser’s 1946 season was just as marvelous as his ’44 and ’45 seasons, but Newhouser’s attempt for a third consecutive MVP was stolen by Boston’s Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams who had returned home from the War just in time to have an MVP season of his own.
Following 1946, Newhouser’s record-setting days in the sun soon disappeared along with his hulking fastball, as he would later go onto experience terrible arm problems and eventually become a scout for four different teams after his playing days were over. But just when you thought Newhouser’s impact on the game was done and over with, think again! His first discovery was Milt Pappas, a pitcher that would eventually turn into a star for those legendary Baltimore Orioles teams. But arguably Newhouser’s greatest discovery was a talented young shortstop, who hailed from Newhouser’s home state of Michigan. According to Newhouser, “the kid was a lock” he told his employer the Houston Astros. The player in question had a one million dollar price tag thought by many, including the Astros, too hefty a price to pay. Newhouser’s response was, “no one is worth a million dollars, but if one kid is worth that, it’s this kid.” Clearly, Newhouser’s brash and bold style had carried over from his playing days, but the Houston Astros decidedly took power-hitting catcher Phil Nevin with their first selection in the 1992 Amateur Baseball Draft. As for the unnamed shortstop, Newhouser’s inclinations turned out to be right as that it was none other than future Hall of Famer, and current New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. In the end, I guess it’s true what they say: “It definitely takes one [hall of famer] to know one.”
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