When a little-known Tigers’ pitcher stopped Johnny Allen’s 15-game winning streak

Jake wade and Dixie walker check for rain before a game at Fenway Park in 1938.

Jake wade and Dixie walker check for rain before a game at Fenway Park in 1938.

Schoolboy Rowe of the Detroit Tigers is tied for the American League record for the most consecutive winning decisions, with 16, and he has some very good company. On August 25, 1934, he joined Walter Johnson, Smoky Joe Wood, and Lefty Grove as the only pitchers to do so in the junior circuit (Rube Marquard of the old New York Giants holds the major league record of 19 in a row, set in 1912). On October 3, 1937, a fourth pitcher almost joined the select group, in a game that took place at Navin Field in Detroit.

It was the final game of the season for both the Tigers and the visiting Cleveland Indians. Under ordinary circumstances, the contest would have attracted little attention. Neither team had anything to play for; the New York Yankees had run away with the pennant long ago, and Detroit and Cleveland had already clinched second and fourth place, respectively.

But these were no ordinary circumstances, at least for the starting pitcher for the Indians that afternoon, a 32-year-old North Carolinian named Johnny Allen. Allen had won 15 consecutive decisions. A win against the Tigers, and his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Johnson, Wood, Grove, and Rowe.

The lantern-jawed Allen was a former Yankee, having won 17 games and a World Series ring his rookie year in 1932. Traded to Cleveland following the 1935 season, he won 20 the next year for the Tribe.

He was known for the diamond-shaped holes he cut in the sleeves of the sweatshirt he wore under his jersey (for better ventilation, he claimed). Batters found the diamonds distracting, complained to the commissioner, and Allen was mildly fined and told to knock it off. But Allen got the last laugh, as he later sold the sweatshirt to a downtown Cleveland department store for $250. The store featured the sweatshirt in its display window.

The summer of 1936 had been a strange one for Allen, despite his 15-0 record. Back in April, he had suffered from a tender arm, and he didn’t get his first victory until May 29th. He missed all of July due to appendicitis. In the first half of the season, he managed only eight starts, winning four of them. But he was dazzling following the All-Star break, going 11-0 and only once giving up as many as four earned runs in a game.

Allen was definitely on a roll, and he had to like his prospects at tying the record, especially considering his mound opponent. Jake Wade, a nondescript sophomore lefty, was the Tiger pitcher that afternoon. Known as “Whistling Jake,” he had a history of struggling with his control. In fact, thus far in 1937 he had pitched 156 1/ 3 innings, issuing 103 walks, while fanning only 62. His record of 6-10 record with a 5.70 ERA hardly struck fear into the hearts of the Indians.

Attendance for the game was listed at 22,000, a pretty good turnout for a season finale with no meaning in the standings. Likely many of the fans came out to the ballpark to see if Allen could make history.

Detroit got on the board in the first, when Pete Fox, who had doubled, scored on a single by Hank Greenberg. But Allen found his groove, and scattered only three more hits the rest of the game. He walked four and struck out four.

But it was Wade who pitched the real gem. He had a no-hitter going with two outs in the seventh inning. Lyn Lary was on first, having walked. Hal Trosky, the star Cleveland first baseman who had 32 home runs and 128 RBIs on the year, came up to the plate. He wasted no time, lining a pitch right back to Wade that glanced off the pitcher’s glove and bounded up the middle into centerfield, for the first Tribe hit of the game.

Perhaps tiring, Wade then walked Moose Solters, another big gun in the Indians attack. It didn’t get any easier, with Bruce Campbell, a .300 hitter, up next with the bases loaded. Bearing down, Wade got Campbell to fly out to Gee Walker in right field, and the threat was snuffed out.

The Indians made their last stand in the ninth. Wade issued a free pass to leadoff man Lary, who was promptly sacrificed to second. But Earl Averill sent a soft fly to Fox for out number two, and Wade struck out Trosky to seal the deal.

It was a brilliant performance by Wade. In a complete game shutout, he allowed only the one hit to Trosky in the seventh, while striking out seven. The key to his success was his control; he walked only four. The game was the high point of his career. In eight seasons, toiling for six teams, Wade had a lifetime record of 27-40. He bounced around in the minors after his major league service was over, finally retiring in 1950 at age 38.

As for Johnny Allen, he won 14 games for the Indians in 1938, but after that he was mostly a .500 pitcher as a starter and reliever. He won 142 games in a 13-year career.

After his fine pitching performance, Wade fielded questions from reporters as he sat at a stool in front of his locker. What were his thoughts out on the mound? “That’s the way I should have been pitching in April,” Wade quipped. “I do everything backwards.”



About Scott Ferkovich

Scott Ferkovich was the editor of Tigers By the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. His next book, Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, will be published by McFarland in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.