An Ode To The Complete Game

As complete games become more rare, where does evolution take pitchers next?Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

By Bill Pruden

Once upon a time, immediately after seeing how their favorite team had done the day or night before, many a baseball fan, whether young or old, would turn to the day's schedule, checking out the pitching matchups and anticipating the latest in the every four-day cycle, especially the one on one battles that characterized baseball in the 1960s when I first fell in love with the game. Eagerly anticipated were the starts of Koufax and Gibson, Ford and Bunning, Drysdale and Marichal, Palmer and McLain, and the list goes on.

In a golden era for pitching one of the things that distinguished these hurlers, many of whom crafted Hall of Fame careers, was the way they finished what they started. In a way that a modern fan cannot understand, in addition to wins, losses, and ERA, one of the measures of a pitcher’s greatness, of their impact on the game--and their team--was the number of complete games they threw. It was no less a testament to their durability, their competitiveness, and their commitment to doing what the team needed than any of those other numbers and it was certainly a source of pride. 

Somewhere along the way things changed. Maybe it was the invention of the "save," a concept that suddenly put an alternative value--at least for someone else--on not completing a game. Or maybe it was the invention of the “quality start,” a concept that is arguably baseball's version of dumbing down the pitcher's performance, but which certainly altered the way the effort was viewed. And then of course there is the pitch count. Whatever the reason, beginning in the mid-1970s the value of a complete game began to diminish--fast.  

The numbers say it all. Consider this: the last time the major league leader in complete games had a double-figure total was James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays with 11 in 2011. In fact, Shields is the only pitcher with a single-season complete game total in double figures in the 21st century. Fernando Valenzuela’s 20 in 1986 marks the last time that benchmark was reached while Catfish Hunter’s 30 in 1975 was the most recent time that total was achieved.

One can get a stark picture of the way things have changed if one looks at the difference between last year, 2021, and 50 years before. Last season saw the three National League co-leaders each chalking up three complete games, while the pair in the American League threw two. In contrast, half a century before, Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins led the NL with 30, while Detroit Tigers stalwart Mickey Lolich led the junior circuit with 29. As an aside, it is worth noting that over the course of his career Jenkins tossed 267 complete games, and had 8 seasons of 20 or more while Lolich had 195 to his credit.  

But things change and what matters to fans and observers can too. Consider the debates going on now in Los Angeles as Clayton Kershaw's certain to be Hall of Fame career winds done and the comparisons with Dodger icon Sandy Koufax ramp up. While most focus on the differences in their post-season record in comparing the Dodger southpaws, little real attention is given to the fact that Koufax threw 137 complete games in his comparatively short career including 27 in each of his last two seasons, while Kershaw, entering the 2022 season had a career total of 25. 

As we think of complete games it is interesting to recall one aspect of pop culture that in its own way points to the significance of the complete game. That is the little ditty from the Boston Braves 1948 National League pennant-winning season, the one that spoke of the team's recipe for success being loosely remembered as “Spahn, Sain, and two days of rain.” And while obviously long since forgotten others had to fill in the gaps, with Spahn turning in 16 complete games in his 15-win season and Sain's 24-win effort featuring 28 complete games the marquee pair certainly held up their end of the bargain. Indeed, Sain who was a well-respected and much sought-after pitching coach in the 1960s and 1970s prided himself on his durability, a pride buttressed by the fact that not only did he pitch nine complete games in 29 days at one point in 1948, but his first 64 big league wins were complete games.

But in the end, complete games are not just about numbers. Rather they are an ethos and represent an approach to the game that has faded from view. And to those for whom the history of the game has a special appeal they are meaningful accomplishments, one revealing numerous things but above all one’s determination to complete what one had started. In doing, so each complete game added to the legacy and reinforced the greatness of scowling Bob Gibson peering down from atop the mound or graceful Sandy Koufax, his arm throbbing, as he willed himself to protect another slim lead for the offensively challenged Dodgers. Pitching a complete game was what every starting pitcher set out to do from the moment they toed the rubber in the first inning. That was the first step on the way to achieving a quality start.  

For all the intangibles that are central to the meaning of the complete game’s admittedly fading mystique, there is one game that embodies what it is all about, a pitching duel for the ages between a young, hard-throwing Juan Marichal for the San Francisco Giants and the older, crafty veteran Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves. On July 2, 1963, the two future Hall of Famers teamed up to offer a clinic on hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners, and don’t dare try to take the ball out of my hand, pitching.  

By the time the game ended in the bottom of the 16th on the Willie Mays homer that gave the Giants a 1-0 win, Spahn and Marichal had expanded the definition of a complete game while also adding a whole new dimension to the idea of finishing what one has started. In the course of his 16-inning shutout, Marichal threw 227 pitches. The 42-year-old Spahn threw 201 in 15 1/3 innings.

As the drama grew the majesty of what was happening was clear to all.  As Braves second baseman Frank Bolling said, “I’ll tell you one thing: You would never get them out of the game, I don’t care how long it went. If you came to take Warren Spahn out of a game, he’d tried to shoot you.”

Meanwhile, Marichal was no less determined. Indeed, when manager Alvin Dark tried to take his ace out in the ninth, Marichal pointed to Spahn in the Braves dugout and told Dark, “I am not going to come out of that game as long as that old man is still pitching.” He was no less receptive to Dark's entreaty in the 12th and before the 15th, when Marichal thought he saw a reliever coming in from the bullpen, he quickly grabbed his cap and glove and laid claim to the mound. He later acknowledged that “I don’t think I did it the right way, but I wanted to stay in the game so bad.” He later said he thought he only avoided trouble with Dark because the Giants won the game. 

And of course, to no one’s surprise, Spahn and Marichal took their regular turn on July 7, with the Braves southpaw throwing a five-hit, complete-game shutout against the Houston Colt 45s, while the Giants right-hander gave up two runs in seven innings in a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.  Just a pair of days at the office by two of the greatest pitchers the game has ever known.    

And yet their shared approach reflected one that is simply not a part of the modern game. Such an observation is not intended as a criticism of modern pitchers. The decision is not theirs. But it is an approach that detracts from the modern game. It has replaced heart, guts, and intangibles with analytics. And in doing so has made the real game far too much like the Strat-o-Matic version that so many of us grew up with, which was always a diversion from the real thing. And it was always devoid of the human dimension that was so central a part of what drew us to the game.  

I know the world is changing and those changes apply to baseball as well. But the memories I have of Koufax pitching complete games on two days' rest in the World Series, or Marichal and Spahn going toe to toe, or seeing Gibson glower in the late innings in a way that left Johnny Keane or Red Schoendienst sitting in the dugout knowing that a complete game from Gibson was better than any else they could put together are special. And to that end, they are the type of humanity-laden memories that modern pitch count hindered fans are denied. And I think that is really too bad.

Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR-sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade.  His email address is

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