Days after Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young’s death in 1955, acclaimed New York sports columnist Red Smith predicted the righthander’s Major League Baseball record of 511 career wins would never be broken. “It is demonstrably unthinkable,” wrote Smith, “an impossibility provable as such on the unimpeachable authority of mathematics.”
More than a half-century after Smith’s prediction, Young’s victory total—one of many MLB records the pitcher holds—remains untouchable.
“Awe-inspiring,” longtime MLB baseball historian John Thorn calls Young’s record for career wins.
For a MLB pitcher to win 500 games—11 short of Young’s astounding total—he must win 25 games a year for 20 seasons, an unfathomable achievement. Few players in the modern era play more than 20 years in the big leagues. The last MLB player to win 25 games in a season was Bob Welch of the Oakland A’s in 1990. The last National League pitcher to win 25 or more games was the Philadelphia Phillies’ Steve Carlton, who won 27 in 1972.
Other records set by Young, whose career spanned from 1890 to 1911, are equally unassailable. He pitched more innings (7,356), started more games as a pitcher (815) and completed more (749) than anyone else in big-league history. Young, who played for the Cleveland Spiders, St. Louis Perfectos, Boston Americans/Red Sox, Cleveland Naps and Boston Rustlers, also lost more games (315) than anyone else.
But “all records are a product of context,” Thorn says.
In Young’s era, it was not uncommon for a pitcher to complete 40 games in a season. No pitcher has done that since 1908. “It was a different game,” says Thorn about Young’s time. “You were expected to complete a game you started.”
Cy Young’s Early Career
Born in Gilmore, Ohio, on March 29, 1867—less than two years after the end of the Civil War—Denton True “Cy” Young grew up on a farm. His father, who served in the 78th Ohio Infantry during the war, gave his son the middle name True, in honor of another soldier he served with.
After his fastball tore boards from a grandstand at a tryout, Young earned the nickname “Cyclone.” That soon was shortened to “Cy,” which stuck for the rest of his life and delighted newspaper headline writers.
When Chicago White Sox manager Cap Anson, a future Hall of Famer, scouted Young in Ohio in 1890, he was unimpressed. “No good—just another big farmer,” he reportedly said of Young. On August 6, 1890, Young joined his first MLB team, the Cleveland Spiders, whom he said years later gave his Ohio manager a new suit and paid $300 to acquire him. Young won his first game, quickly proving Anson wrong.
Baseball was a much different game in Young’s time. In the Dead Ball Era from 1900-1919, games were low scoring and home runs were rare. Rosters were much smaller than in today’s game, and starting pitchers frequently completed games. Pitchers also were allowed to doctor a baseball with saliva, dirt and other substances to make it more difficult to hit. That practice of doctoring the ball was outlawed for the 1920 season. In the Dead Ball Era, the same ball often remained in play for the entire game.
Young—whose top yearly salary in the big leagues was $4,500—dominated most of his career with an overpowering fastball and remarkable control, Thorn says. Young threw so hard that Charles “Chief” Zimmer, who caught more of his big-league games than anyone else, plopped a beefsteak into his mitt to protect his hand.
“Never had a sore arm that I know of. Never missed a start,” Thorn says of Young.
In 1903, Young—then a 36-year-old star for the Boston Americans—pitched in the first World Series, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Boston won the eight-game series, 5 games to 3, with Young winning two games.
On May 5, 1904, Young—who threw three no-hitters in the big leagues—pitched the first perfect game of the 20th century. Decades later, he called it the greatest game of his 22-year career.
“Cy Young was a big league pitcher before many of the men in the big leagues were good enough to play ‘sides’ with the ‘fellers’ in a vacant lot after school,” a St. Louis newspaper reported after that game, “and at his present speed it looks us if he might still be the greatest pitcher in the business when those same men have retired.”
By 1911, Young, then with the Boston in the National League, was too old and heavy to field his position. The 44-year-old earned his final win, a 1-0 shutout of the Pirates in Pittsburgh, on September 22. “It Is Old Cy Young’s Day,” a headline read the next day in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Cy Young Enters Hall of Fame in 1937
In the last decades of his life, Young was a familiar figure at old-timers’ events and the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. He also was critical of “modern” pitchers, whom he believed should work more.
“In my day it was like taking a physical beating when a pitcher was taken out of the game,” Young told friends, according to an Ohio newspaper in 1955.
“I’d like modern baseball a lot more,” he said with a grin, “if there were no relief pitchers.”
In 1937, Young was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. After his death at age 88, MLB established the Cy Young Award to honor the best pitcher in baseball. The first honoree was Don Newcombe, who finished with a 27-7 won-loss record for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. Starting in 1967, the award was given to the best pitchers in the National and American leagues.
Long after his career was over, Young predicted “someday they will wipe all of [my records] right off the books.” But even Young’s record-setting career wins total remains 94 ahead of the next-closest player, fellow Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, who last played in 1927. And no one is close to his marks for innings pitched, games started as a pitcher, games completed and losses.
“The old boy may rest easy,” Smith wrote after Young’s death. “He won’t though. He always did insist that he really won 512. Wherever he’s gone, he’ll be looking for the official scorer who gypped [sic] him out of that one.”