The save first became an official statistic in Major League Baseball in 1969, and the first pitcher to record a save was Dodgers right-hander Bill Singer, who would throw 315⅔ innings that season.
Singer’s save came on opening day on April 7, a Dodgers’ win over the Reds at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. But before we get into the details of that game, let’s find out how the save came to be.
Jerome Holtzman was a longtime sportswriter, and when he was covering the Cubs in 1959 he came up with the save, an idea to give some credit to relief pitchers who held leads. The idea was first introduced in The Sporting News.
It took nearly a full decade to become an official Major League Baseball stat, but that’s just what happened during the winter meetings in 1968. It was the first new official statistic in the majors since the RBI came aboard in 1920.
The save rule as first constructed was a bit different than the one we know today, mostly in that the relative score of the game didn’t matter.
Rule 10.20 (at the time; in the current rule book the save rule is 10.19):
“Credit a save to a relief pitcher who enters a game with his team in the lead if he holds the lead the remainder of the game, provided he is not credited with a victory.” (1)
But there was one caveat that made the save potentially even weirder (emphasis mine):
“A relief pitcher cannot be credited with a save if he does not finish the game, unless he is removed for a pinch-hitter or runner. When more than one relief pitcher qualifies for a save under the provisions of this rule, credit the save to the relief pitcher judged by the scorer to have been the most effective. Only one save can be credited in any game.”
The modern rule states that a pitcher must finish the game to record a save, but that wasn’t necessarily the case 51 years ago with the pinch loophole. I thought this might have produced several odd saves in the first year of existence, but in fact 744 of the 745 saves in 1969 were recorded by pitchers who finished the game.
The lone, exception was Lee Stange, who pitched two scoreless innings for the Red Sox, protecting a 9-3 lead on July 11 in Baltimore, but he was pinch hit for in the top of the ninth inning. Boston tabbed Jim Lonborg to pitch the bottom of the frame, and he pitched a scoreless inning, but Stange was awarded the save by official scorer’s discretion. Stange, indeed.
Reaction to the rule
Joe Hoerner was a journeyman who spent years in the minors and didn’t have a regular role in the majors until age 29, but the left-hander was an excellent relief pitcher for the Cardinals. From 1966-68, Hoerner never started a game but put up a 1.88 ERA (177 ERA+) and 2.61 FIP in 191 innings. He was happy to see a new rule for pitchers like him.
“If a relief pitcher goes on to hold a lead, he deserves some kind of recognition, no matter what the score is,” Horner said in late 1968. “After all, he’s done the very job he was asked to do. What more can he do?” (2)
Baseball-Reference has since retroactively added saves for years prior to 1968, and Horner did quite well, saving 44 games for St. Louis in those three years, ranking seventh, fifth, and second, respectively, in the National League. In the first official year of the statistic, Hoerner notched 15 saves, good for sixth in the circuit.
There was also the matter of how pitchers would get paid, and saves provided a way to recognize effective pitchers who don’t rack up the innings nor wins than starters. Keep in mind that we were still a few years from free agency, and under the reserve clause players were still bound to their teams in perpetuity. Players had little leverage if they didn’t like the contract their team offered them.
Starting pitchers were still the stars of the day, but with relievers gaining prominence in the game, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis shifted away from an innings-based pay structure for 1969.
“Starting this season, you get paid for wins and losses. Not on the number of innings pitched, as in the past,” Campanis said. “Our format calls for Dodger pitchers to allow fewer hits than innings pitched, and have their walks show a much smaller ratio to innings pitched than their strikeouts.” (3)
For decades the Cincinnati Reds had the earliest start time on opening day, an homage to their status as the oldest team in the major leagues. They always got to open at home, too, and have started their season on the road just twice (1966, 1990) in modern baseball history.
So the Reds were the hosts on April 7, 1969, welcoming the Dodgers to Crosley Field for a day game in Cincinnati. Don Drysdale was on the mound for the Dodgers, setting a team record with his seventh opening day start. That brings to mind another rule change in 1969, even larger than the save.
The season before, 1968, was dubbed the Year of the Pitcher, and with good reason. The pendulum in the batter-pitcher matchup so central to baseball had swung too far in favor of pitchers, who feasted on overmatched batters. MLB as a whole hit just .237/.299/.340, and the 3.42 runs-per-game average is lower than every season in baseball history — even dead ball years — except for one (1908).
Major League Baseball in response lowered the height of the mound from 15 to 10 inches for 1969. They also shrunk the strike zone, but for this opening day game in Cincinnati the focus was on the mound height.
Drysdale the year before set the major league record with 58⅔ consecutive scoreless innings (it would later be lopped to 58 innings, officially) and had a 2.15 ERA. For an idea of how absurd pitching was in 1968, Drysdale only ranked sixth in the NL in ERA. But to start his 1969 campaign, things went south in a hurry.
Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan each hit home runs, giving the Reds a 2-0 lead just two batters into the game. Drysdale allowed two home runs in a start just once in 31 tries the year before.
“I felt like a Thomas Edison out there. It was strange. It was not like the exhibitions — in Vero Beach or anywhere,” Drysdale told reporters of adjusting to the lower mound. “I felt like I was some kind of stranger at the beginning.” (4)
Drysdale was able to adjust pretty well, allowing only two singles and two walks for the rest of his day, and left after six innings, leading 3-2.
“I could have gone on, but my arm was getting a little stiff and Singer was ready,” Drysdale said after the game. “So why take chances?” (5)
Singer led the Dodgers in innings (256⅓) and starts (36) in 1968, and was just 25 starting his third full season in the Dodgers rotation. Only he didn’t start, on this day at least. Singer followed Drysdale by mowing through the Reds lineup, allowing only a walk to Rose in the eighth inning.
With three scoreless, hitless innings to finish the game, Singer recorded the first official save in major league history.
Singer would make only four more relief appearances the rest of his career, and record just one more save. None of those relief games came in 1968 after opening day. Singer started 40 games for the Dodgers in 1969, went 20-13 with a 2.34 ERA (142 ERA+) and made his first All-Star team. He would pitch a no-hitter for the Dodgers in 1970.
But on April 7, 1969, Singer made history in relief.
- “Firemen Will Get Credit For Saves In The Boxscore,” by Harry Jupiter, ‘The Sporting News,’ December 21, 1968.
- “Joe Hoerner Hails Recognition For Saves,” by Neal Russo, ‘The Sporting News,’ December 28, 1968.
- “Dodger Hurlers Face Tougher Wage Gage,” by Bob Hunter, ‘The Sporting News,’ April 12, 1969.
- “Don Stranger on Low Mound,” ‘The Sporting News,’ April 26, 1969.
- “Reds’ Smashing Start Goes Blah Before Big D,” by Earl Lawson, ‘The Sporting News,’ April 19, 1969.