So how much was luck and how much was Bearden? Did he really fall off because other players got wise to his knuckler?
Bearden got an exceptionally late start to his Major League career. He bounced around the minors for four years before being drafted into WWII. He saw combat in the engine room of the USS Helena, when it was hit by Japanese torpedoes in the Pacific. Bearden suffered massive injuries, including a broken skull and a “crushed knee.” He received steel plates for his cranium and steel pins for his knee, and after several operations, he made it back into baseball. The Yankees, who owned his contract, were concerned about his long-term health, and dealt him to the Indians for Sherm Lollar.
Bearden had had a lot of success in the minors before he broke camp with the Indians in 1948. He tended to average under a hit per inning, and walked between 3.6 and 4.0 batters per nine innings. He struck out roughly the same amount. But his ERAs were low and he proved effective both in swing roles and as a regular contributor to the rotation. But by 1948, he was a gimpy, soft-tossing, 27 year old lefty who had given up three runs in his only appearance, which had lasted just a third of an inning.
He still came north with the Indians, and became one of their rotation stalwarts. In addition to winning 20, he led the American League with a 2.43 ERA and completed 15 of his 29 starts. He also walked 106 batters (4.2 per 9) and struck out just 80 (3.1 per 9). After he won his last six starts (with 5 complete games and two shutouts), manager Lou Boudreau made him a surprise pick to start a one-game playoff against the Red Sox on one-day rest. He pitched a complete game and picked up the win. He also excelled in the World Series, pitching a shutout and 1.2 innings of scoreless relief. After the season, he was named the most courageous athlete of 1948 by the Philadelphia Sportswriters Association for making it back from his injuries in the War.
Things were also looking strong at the start of 1949, as Bearden won his first three starts, giving up just 20 hits in 27 innings. But it didn’t last. A 1982 Baseball Digest claims, “he pulled a hamstring the next spring and tried to come back too quickly. It became a chronic problem, [Bearden] says.” Contemporary accounts confirm he was hurt. The AP noted in May that he had “been suffering from a pulled leg muscle, [and] showed last night that he was not yet himself. Plainly favoring his injured leg, the tall lefthander lasted seven innings and was clipped for 16 hits.” And Baseball Digest listed him among the “casualties” of injury in 1949 that October.
Satchel Paige (one of Bearden’s closest friends on the World Champion Tribe team), in 1954, agreed with this analysis, telling the LA Times (via Baseball Digest),
“What’s the use of havin’ a fancy pitch you can’t control? That’s what ruined Gene Bearden. He had a whopper knuckleball, but he had to throw it for the heart of the batting zone and then it would break down low. So Stengel just ordered his batters never to swing and Bearden couldn’t get anything over the plate. You gotta be able to find that plate all the time.”And in 1964, teammate Mel Harder echoed, saying "It took the league a year to learn to lay off that pitch, so that Gene would fall behind and have to throw his fast ball. Gene didn't have enough to win without that knuckler."
The switch from a lights out knuckler to a well below-average fastball would account for a lot of the problems Bearden had with balls in play. Like modern knucklers, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, and Phil Niekro, Bearden had nothing to fall back on, and his “fast”balls must have looked more like beach balls to AL hitters. Indeed, his walk rate did jump (to 5.3 BB/9 over his final 5 seasons), and so did his hits per nine innings as batters feasted off of weaker offerings. Meanwhile, his K/9 improbably fell even lower.
So, as Rob's headline asks us, what did happen to Gene Bearden? On the one hand, Rob’s probably right that luck played a large role in his success in 1948. Bearden had never had a H/9 so low in the minors, and that does scream out fluke. But the difference between that and his true ability is not enough to explain how a pitcher who had good success in the minors and in a season in the Majors fell off such a cliff.
While we can’t be certain, it’s likely that Bearden’s knuckler was a strike often enough in 1948 for batters to chase it regularly and make weak contact. If he had been able to continue pitching healthy, he could have had a Hough or Wakefield like career, servicably pitching forever as batters flailed at his floater. When he hurt his leg, surely his recovery was slowed by his War wounds, and in coming back he may have made mechanical adjustments to compensate for the extra discomfort, which ultimately threw off his control, and made him unusable as a Major League pitcher. A sad end to a war hero’s career.