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January 08, 1999|BILL SHAIKIN

What: "The Worst Baseball Pitchers of All Time: Bad Luck, Bad Arms, Bad Teams and Just Plain Bad" by Allen C. Kaufman and James S. Kaufman.

Price: $23.95. Available from McFarland and Co. Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson, N.C. 28640.

The topic is irresistible, and the authors combine extensive research with engaging commentary and tender care of the losing pitchers they profile.

The authors bestow the "Skunk Stearns Award," an anti-Cy Young Award, on the pitcher they deem worst each year. But a retroactive and often posthumous award based on arbitrary and uncommon statistics makes phrases like "winning the Skunk Stearns race" downright silly--there was no race in any given year, and there still isn't.

The book provides surprising evidence that bad pitchers are often good pitchers, supporting the clubhouse cliche that a pitcher has to be good to lose 20 games or else his team wouldn't keep pitching him. Don Larsen, who in 1956 pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, went 3-21 in 1954. Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner at 31-6 in 1968, went 10-22 in 1971.

Some pitchers, of course, were just plain bad. Hugh "Losing Pitcher" Mulcahy (45-89 in 1935-47) got his nickname from telegraph dispatches that would inevitably include the line "L.P. Mulcahy." Claude Willoughby (38-58 in 1925-31) so often lost that his coach once submitted a lineup card with this inscription in the pitcher's spot: "Willoughby--and others."

The greatest value of the book, although unintended, is in its illumination of the pitching heroics of the dead-ball era. In 1899, Frederic Schmit pitched a complete game, giving up 14 hits and 15 walks--and won. Pud Galvin (360-308 in 1875-92) lost more than 20 games in 11 consecutive seasons.

This underappreciated era provides baseball with its most unbreakable record of the 20th century: Jack Chesbro won 41 games (in 55 starts) in 1904. In this era of five-man rotations and pitch counts, no major leaguer started more than 36 games last season.

Si Johnson (101-165 in 1928-47) told the authors: "If I were pitching today, I'd win an awful lot of games. Now all they do is tell them starting pitchers, 'You go five innings and then we got help for you.' They got middle relievers and then they got finishers and what have you. In my day, they expected you to start and finish. There was no middle relief or anything like that."

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