Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Little Story About Hal Kelleher

I received a comment a few days ago on an old post of mine about the worst batting games of all time. It was fun to read the old post and see that I used to be a pretty darned good writer. Upon reading the post, the thought struck me about who pitched the worst relief outing in history. What relief outing was so bad that it blew the doors off the game. Once I had an idea of how to proceed, I kind of fell in like with one of our main characters. Before we get to him, let's look at some lists.

Just like the worst batting game of all time, I figured the best way to approach the worst relief appearance was the same way I approached the worst batting games. It is not enough to simply come into a game and just ralph all over the place with runs galore. The failure has to mean something too. The former would be like a position player coming in to pitch in a 15-2 game and getting hammered so it was then 21-2. The way I feel to measure the latter is by either WPA (Win Probability Added) or RE24 (Base-out Runs Saved). I quickly learned that the latter would not work here.

My criteria is a relief appearance of an inning or less and there were four relief efforts in history that scored over -10 in RE24. They were:

  1. Hal Kelleher - May 5, 1938:  -11.491 RE24
  2. Reggie Grabowski - Aug 4, 1934:  -10.404 RE24
  3. Pete Appleton - Aug 10, 1930:  -10.391 RE24
  4. Travis Harper - June 21, 2005:  -10.070 RE24

Kelleher came into his game with his team already behind, 8-2. Grabowski's team was losing, 10-4, when he came in to his massacre. None of Appleton's eleven runs were earned (how is THAT possible?). Only Harper's game mattered as his team was a run ahead when he entered the game and gave up his memorable four homers to the Yankees.

No, this stat seems to measure what a pitcher does with men on base and is not about the game situation. Again, we can call the most runs allowed in an inning the worst inning of pitched baseball. But I maintain that you have to add into that equation how important the butt-kicking was in the scheme of the game. So let's look at WPA.

There have been eight relief outings that were so bad and at such a bad time that they were worth more than a negative Win all by themselves. In other words, the Win Probability Added was worse than -1. As you can imagine, most were blown saves or wins.

  1. Paul Derringer - Sep 8, 1937:  -1.237
  2. Mark Davis - Jun 8, 1989:  -1.229
  3. Pete Ladd - Sep 18, 1983:  -1.212
  4. Jeff Brantley - Jul 16, 2000:  -1.099
  5. Alfredo Aceves - Aug 23, 2012:  -1.078
  6. Brandon Lyon - Apr 7, 2009:  -1.057
  7. Ron Davis - Apr 20, 1986:  -1.052
  8. Todd Jones - Jun 1, 2007:  -1.014

All the dates on both lists are linked so you can go look at the game's boxscore yourself if you'd like. Both lists compiled using List tool

Both Derringer and Mark Davis blew a lead in the bottom of the ninth and then blew another lead in the bottom of the tenth! Pete Ladd, pitching for the Brewers came into the eighth inning against the Orioles with a three-run lead. Ladd allowed all of his inherited runners to score and then some as Eddie Murray hit a grand slam to put the Orioles up. The Brewers rallied to tie the game in the ninth only to have Ladd give up a walk-off single to John Stefero.

In a wild interleague game between the Yankees and the Phillies, Andy Pettitte started and was bombed out. He was rescued in a good outing by Doc Gooden and the game went back and forth. The Phillies had a 6-1 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. The Phillies' Steve Schrenk and Bryan Ward quickly made a mess of that and Brantley came in with the bases loaded and needed to record one out to seal the victory. He could not do it as he gave up a single to tie the game before getting the third out. The Phillies took a two-run lead in the top of the tenth off of Mariano Rivera, but Brantley did not retire a batter in the bottom of the tenth. A walk, a HBP and three straight singles sealed Brantley's and the Phillies' fate.

Aceves gave up the most runs on this list as the Red Sox had a big lead only to have Aceves cough it all up against Angels. Lyon's game was another where he as a pitcher gave up the tying run in the eighth and then blew the lead in the ninth. Ron Davis and Todd Jones spectacularly did the same to their teams in their games.

So these eight games would fit my criteria as the worst relief inning in history. But if you want to talk about pure runs allowed in a single inning, non-dependent on circumstances, you come back to Hal Kelleher, who gave up twelve runs in his one inning of work. He was tied a decade later by Bubba Harris of the Philadelphia Athletics against the Boston Red Sox. You may prefer to call these the worst inning of relief pitching in history and I would not argue.

If you want to go by multiple innings, four pitchers allowed fourteen earned runs in multiple inning relief outings. That is only two more than Kelleher and Harris gave up in just one inning. So I am less willing to go with any of those four.

Sometimes, doing this kind of list building can draw you to one of the characters on your lists. For me, Hal Kelleher is that guy. When I went to his b-ref page, his fiasco of a game was the last game of his MLB career. He had pitched parts of four seasons and made his debut for the Philadelphia Phillies on September 17, 1935 in a start against the Cincinnati Reds. Kelleher threw a complete game shutout.

I would lay great odds that he is the only pitcher in history to have a CG shutout as his first appearance and a twelve earned run appearance as his last. Of course, his season began in 1935 as a late season call-up. He pitched three times, all as a starter. His first two games were complete games. He won his second game but it wasn't as pretty. He did not get a decision in his third despite throwing seven strong innings. He looked like a pitcher with promise. But the story did not go that way.

I wanted to know this guy. So I looked at where he came from and what his birth date was. He was born in Philadelphia on June 24, 1913. That is a year earlier than what is listed on b-ref. His father, John, was the son of Irish immigrants and was a manager at a hosiery manufacturer and a former policeman. John owned a house on 23rd Street that was worth $8,000. That was pretty good for those days. This information comes from the 1930 US census report. Harold Joseph "Hal" Kelleher was 16 at the time and lived with his father along with five of his other grown siblings (a policeman, a plumber, a stenographer and two who were chauffeurs!)

Hal Kelleher was just twenty years old when he was signed by the Phillies as a hometown kid and was assigned to Hazelton of the New York-Penn League. All the records can tell us is that he pitched ten games with them in 1934 and he finished with an 0-2 record in 28 innings.

Kelleher opened the season with Hazelton in 1935 and pitched 215 innings, by far the most work in a season he would accumulate. He finished his season in the minors with a 13-15 record and a 4.83 ERA. Regardless of these pedestrian numbers, he was a September call-up and pitched relatively well. That he was a hometown kid probably worked in his favor.

Kelleher pitched with the Phillies for part of the season in 1936 and did not perform well. He had a WHIP over 2 in 44 innings of work and had a 5.32 ERA. His win-loss record was 0-5. The pitcher split the season in the International League playing for Baltimore (the Orioles). He was even worse there in 33 innings.

Despite the struggles, he remained with the Phillies for the entire 1937 season. He pitched in 27 games and compiled 58.1 innings. He started twice and usually made mop up appearances the rest of the season. The numbers were not pretty. He finished, 2-4, with an ERA over six. Still, his walks and hits per inning were down a bit from the previous season. Kelleher had a nice stretch from mid-July to the middle of August after a rough start of the season. But his finish was awful as he gave up multiple runs and three of his losses in his last four appearances of that season.

And still, the Phillies kept him to start the fateful 1938 season. Was it that hometown thing? Did he show some sort of promise in an unseen way? Who knows. His season started okay. He had a mop up five innings of a lopsided loss where he pitched five and a third innings and gave up only two runs.

His second outing went well. The Phillies faced the Boston Bees (managed by Casey Stengel) and lost, 3-1. Kelleher pitched a clean eighth inning to give his team a chance to come back in the top of the ninth. But they did not. Still, after two outings, his ERA was 2.84. His last four outings, however, did not go well.

His third outing did not credit a run against him, but he only faced one batter and walked him. It was in the 12th inning against Brooklyn and after two outs, fellow Irishman, Bill Hallahan loaded the bases on a walk, a double and an intentional walk. In came Hal Kelleher to face Buddy Hassett and Kelleher walked him to bring in the walk off run.

A day later, the Phillies were facing the Bees again and held an 8-7 lead to start the top of the seventh. Tommy Reis walked the bases loaded and Kelleher came in with those bases loaded and no outs. He walked Dom DiMaggio to tie the score and he was pulled. DiMaggio later came in to score thus charging a run to Kelleher. The Bees scored six times that inning to blow the game up.

Four days later, the Phillies were beating the Cubs, 6-3 in the eight. After Claude Passaeu struggled including giving up the third run, Hal Kelleher was brought in and once again, and for the third straight appearance, faced one batter and walked him. Al Smith was brought in and saved the Phillies and the game.

To recap, Hal Kelleher started the season with two good outings. Then faced one batter thrice in the span of five days and walked that batter each time. That brings us to the fateful last game of his MLB career against the same Cubs the very next day. As mentioned earlier, the Phillies were already losing, 9-1 when Kelleher entered the game in the bottom of the eighth. Here is the sequence from there:

Single, walk, single (run), force-out (run), single, walk, double (2 runs), single (2 runs), single (1 run), walk, single (run), strikeout (!), single (run), triple (2 runs), single (run), popup to the catcher.

It must have been tough to walk off the mound and to the dugout after that performance. Twelve runs on ten hits and three walks. All the runs were earned and it sent his season ERA to 18.41. Nineteen days later, the Phillies sold his contract to the St. Louis Cardinals and the hometown kid was gone.

He pitched 136 combined innings for the Cardinals two Double-A affiliates the rest of that season with mixed results. However, he only pitched sixteen total innings for the Cardinals' minor league teams and was terrible in 1939 and they cut him lose. But unlike what reads in his obituary, Hal Kelleher had a comeback of sorts.

To find out what Hal Kelleher was doing in 1940, we look at two documents: The 1940 census and his WWII draft card, also from 1940. The census shows that his sister, Helen, the stenographer, was now the head of the household in the same 23rd Street house in Philly. Though there are no pitching records for Hal for 1940, he is listed as a baseball pitcher for his occupation. Helen worked 52 weeks and made $1,000. Hal worked 32 weeks and made $1,800. Their father had died in 1932 and the mother was gone as well. Listed in the household along with two other siblings were Hal's wife, Agnes, and their young daughter.

The 1940 WWII draft card gives good information too. It lists Hal as working for Pep Boys! That company began in Philadelphia in 1929 and had not yet blown out to the company it is now, and thus Hal probably knew Manny, Moe and Jack! It also showed Hal to be six feet tall and 175 pounds with blue eyes and brown hair.

The draft status probably caused Hal some consternation and later that year, he began his career with the Philadelphia police department (according to his obituary). There is no professional record of Kelleher playing in 1940, 1941, 1942 or 1943. But his page shows he came back to play in the minors in 1944 for the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league affiliate for the Interstate League.

It seems the time away did him good as he had an excellent season for the Trenton Packers. Kelleher went 12-7 in 19 games (a decision for every game!?) with a 2.53 ERA. He cut his walk rate way down and his WHIP was a terrific 1.089. The Dodgers never called him up.

He pitched again for the Packers in 1945 and then was sent to pitch in Montreal for the Royals of the International league. He did not fare as well as the season before. Combined, he went 7-10 in 155 innings. Kelleher did pitch to a 2.58 ERA for the Packers where he went 6-8. But he got lit up in Montreal, which was a higher league. And that was the end of that. His professional career was again over.

Hal Kelleher worked for the Philadelphia Police Department until 1964 and then qualified for retirement. He was stationed at the 24th and Wolf Street station. After his duties as a police officer, he worked as the District Supervisor for the Police Athletic League for six years and also worked as an athletic trainer at La Salle University. According to his obituary, he also worked for the Provident Mutual Insurance Company until he retired in 1976.

He retired to Avalon, New Jersey, a coastal community just north of Wildwood. He had twelve years of retirement and then died at Cape May Courthouse in the southernmost tip of New Jersey and was buried in Avalon. He was survived by his wife, daughter and had four grandchildren.

We tend to focus on the negative in sports and Kelleher certainly had a negative with the distinction of having the worst relief appearance in the history of baseball. But it also seems he lived a full and productive life beyond his baseball career.

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