Although he only appeared in 26 major league games, right-handed pitcher Les Mueller made quite an impression. Big things were predicted ever since he was a lanky high school sensation from Illinois. As a senior in 1937, he averaged 18 strikeouts per game, which were 7 innings each. Many teams were interested in him, but he chose to sign with the Detroit Tigers because they offered a $5,000 bonus.
Like any good prospect, Mueller steadily progressed through the minors, peaking with an 18-11 record and 2.81 ERA in 1940 for the Beaumont Exporters in the Texas League. He was one of the rare players who wore glasses while playing; something he felt improved his ability to control his pitches. It also likely served as a form of intimidation for batters who always hate stepping in against pitchers who may not be able to see where they are throwing very well.
Mueller went to Beaumont the following year, slipping to 6-16, but his 2.36 ERA indicated he pitched much better than his record. His steadiness earned him a late season call-up to Detroit, where he debuted on August 15, 1941. He got into four games before the end of the season; all mop-up jobs, and pitched well enough to indicate he had a future with the Tigers.
Mueller began 1942 with Beaumont, and was pitching very well again, when he decided to enlist in the army like many players of the time because of WWII. He spent the rest of 1942 and all of 1943 and 1944 in the service. He continued to play ball while enlisted, which undoubtedly helped keep him in shape. However, when he was given a physical to be shipped overseas, a hernia was discovered and he was medically discharged in late 1944.
The Tigers thought enough of Mueller’s abilities that they made him part of the major league roster for the 1945 season. He worked in the back of their rotation, helping occasionally out of the bullpen, and was generally effective in both roles. His first major league win was a doozy; a 2-hit shutout of the New York Yankees.
Mueller’s best work came in a historic tie against the Philadelphia Athletics. On July 21st, he went the first 19.2 innings of a 24 inning tie. When he came out with two down in the 20th inning, he had only relinquished 1 unearned run and 13 hits, while facing a staggering 74 batters. He later estimated that he threw 370 pitches in the herculean effort. When Tigers manager Steve O’Neill came out to pull him for a reliever, Mueller reportedly said, “Gee, Steve, the game isn’t over, is it?” No major league pitcher has ever thrown as many innings in one game since.
The game was called for darkness, even though the stadium had lights. League rules at the time prohibited the use of lights during day games. Since the contest had started so much earlier in the afternoon, it was still bound by day game rules.
Mueller ended 1945 by going 6-8 with a 3.68 ERA in 26 games. His versatility was integral to the success of the team, which went 88-65 and beat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Mueller pitched the final two innings of a Game 1 loss, and other than allowing a walk, was perfect in his outing. It turned out to be his last major league game.
Mueller made the 1946 Tigers out of spring training, but moments before the first game of the season, he was summoned from the dugout to the GM’s office. To Mueller’s shock, he was informed of his immediate demotion to the minors. He pitched in the minors for the Tigers and Yankees through 1948, but because of injury he never regained the success he had enjoyed previously. He won 77 career games in the minors. In the majors he was 6-8 with a 3.78 ERA in 30 games. More information about his career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/muellle01.shtml.
Many years after he retired from baseball, Mueller is still remembered for his contributions to the game. He is a classic example of a player who had the talent, but was unable to find a niche to allow him to enjoy prolonged success. Such is the game of baseball.
Les Mueller Questionnaire:
What types of pitches did you throw?: Fastball, curveball, changeup. Both side-arm and overhand.
What was your favorite city to play in?: St. Louis was. My home in Belleville, IL was only 10 miles away.
What was your favorite moment as a ball player?: The 1945 win over the Cubs; a World Series win and ring.
What did you think of Pete Gray?: He was very good for his handicap. *Editor’s note- Mueller gave up Gray’s first major league hit.
Who did you hit your only Major League home run off?: Haynes (Joe Haynes) of the White Sox.
Do you still follow professional baseball? If so, what do you think of the game today?: Yes, will always be a great game.
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