It’s a little tricky nailing down the exact date that Don Newcombe, the great pitcher who spent most of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, won the first Cy Young Award in 1956. Newcombe also won the NL MVP that year. I guess I’ll defer to MLB Network, which hailed Tuesday as the birthday of the Cy Young Award on its show “MLB Tonight.” The brainchild of former baseball commissioner Ford C. Frick, the award was first presented to only one major league pitcher each year, as voted by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Ten years later, starting in 1967 after Frick retired, the award was given out to an individual from each league.
The award, of course is named after legendary pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young, an Ohio native who, beginning in 1890 for the Cleveland Spiders, amassed astounding numbers, especially by modern standards. Young’s incredible marks include over 500 wins and over 300 losses, a career .263 ERA over 20-plus years, over 7,000 innings pitched, nearly 3,000 strikeouts, etc. The numbers are simply mind-boggling.
Mike Marshall of the L.A. Dodgers was the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award, in 1974, and to this day debate ensues over whether a reliever should be considered for such recognition. Perhaps the birthday of the Cy Young Award passes with little fanfare for the Milwaukee Brewers, because while they have had two winners, none have surfaced since the 1980s. The Dodgers franchise, meanwhile, has won the award 11 times, with the Phillies and Braves following at the top of the leader board with seven apiece. Interestingly, the only Cy Young award winner the Braves had was a Milwaukee Braves pitcher until the startling run of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in the 1990s. Somewhat strangely, neither the Reds nor Rangers have had a pitcher win the award.
Milwaukee Braves pitcher and New York native Warren Spahn was the first lefthander to win the Cy Young, and he accomplished that in Milwaukee’s World Series-winning year of 1957, just the second year of the award’s existence. Spahn never actually pitched for the Atlanta Braves, from what I can tell, though of course he was with the Boston Braves for eight seasons before the franchise was moved to Brew City. Baseball Reference records that his contract was purchased from Milwaukee by the New York Mets on November 23, 1964. His career was over a couple years later. In his Cy Young campaign, Spahn went 21-11 with 18 complete games and pitched 271 innings with a .269 ERA, all good for a 4.7 WAR. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. Spahn is a good example of why franchise relocation is a crime: the Atlanta Braves hold his records and retired his number, despite the fact that he never threw a pitch for them. I call that bullshit. I’m aware that the Braves were themselves relocated out of Boston en route to Milwaukee, but still. Granted, I’m glad Milwaukee doesn’t have a racist chant and all the rest of the hullabaloo that is associated with the Braves. But to lose the direct link to players like Spahn is a travesty.
Meanwhile, the Brewers had back-to-back Cy Young Award winners in the heyday of their time in the American League, the early 1980s. In the strike-affected 1981 season, the Brewers finished 31-25 in the “first half,” good for third place behind the Yankees and Orioles, but then finished 31-22 in the “second half,” which was good for first place. So in a shortened season, the Brewers, the second-half champs, played the Yankees, the first-half champs, in the ALDS. The Brewers lost the series, 3-2, in their first franchise playoff appearance. Nevertheless, the 1981 season saw the former Seattle Pilots franchise crown its first Cy Young Award winner, in reliever Rollie Fingers. Ohio native Fingers was the first AL reliever to win the Cy Young. Incidentally, Fingers also won the AL MVP that year, picking up the first MVP in Brewers history and what would be the first of back-to-back AL MVP awards for the team, with Robin Yount following the next season. Fingers was outstanding, pitching 78 innings with a sparkling 1.04 ERA, with 28 saves and 41 games finished, good for a 4.2 WAR. The mustachioed Fingers also posted the best WHIP of his career in 1981, at .872; if the Brewers had the Fingers of 1981 in 1982, they probably beat the Cardinals in the Suds Series. But it was not to be. Fingers pitched four years for the Crew. His #34 is retired by the Brewers (and the A’s), and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Finally, the very next year in 1982 saw righthander Pete Vuckovich win the Cy Young. The Brewers acquired Vuckovich along with Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons in a 1980 trade with the Cardinals that saw them send Sixto Lezcano, the highly-regarded-at-the-time David Green and others to St. Louis. With a mustache to rival that of Fingers, Pennsylvania native Vuckovich went 18-6 with a 3.34 ERA and nine complete games in over 220 innings pitched in 1982. Vuckovich was a beast for the 1982 Brewers, making 30 starts, which was actually second on the team behind the underrated Mike Caldwell. The colorful Vuckovich would occasionally “spit in his glove, scream at umpires while in the stretch, and sometimes step to the back of the mound and dry heave,” according to Wikipedia. I wish I would’ve been able to see him pitch on a regular basis…it sounds like it was a treat to watch. Alas, I was but a child when Vuck was slinging it for the Brewers. Vuckovich did portray the evil Yankees slugger Clu Haywood in the film Major League, which is pretty bizarre when you think about it.
Call me crazy, but I’m guessing it’ll be a while before we see another Cy Young Award winner for the Brewers. It’s kind of “funny” in retrospect that the back-to-back Cy Young winners for the Brewers in the early 1980s were acquired from the Cardinals organization, which then beat Milwaukee in the ’82 Series anyway. Fock. Oh well, we’ll get ‘em someday. Happy belated birthday to the Cy Young award. Born in 1867, Cy Young would be 147 years old on March 29.
(Image: Vuck as Haywood)