by Steve McCarthy
Matthew Sullivan came along at what seems like the perfect time for his style of pitching. His debut season of 1903 was also the year the Deadball Era began as baseball instituted a rule change that foul balls would count as strikes one and two. It tilted the balance back to pitchers and no one took more advantage of it then Sullivan. He would lead the National Baseball League in strikeouts for the first 8 seasons of his career, win 4 pitching triple crowns and when he was elected in the Hall of Fame as part of the original class in 1946 Sullivan owned the lowest career FIP and second lowest career ERA in baseball history.
Known as the Hoosier Hurricane, Sullivan joined the Chicago Traders as a 25 year old in 1903. His rookie season was the stuff of legends as he won the pitching triple crown with a 2.08 ERA, while winning 28 games, and fanning 314 batters. Sullivan would win 28 games again in 1904 and once more led the league in strikeouts with 302. More importantly he helped the Traders, who had not reached the playoffs in over a decade to within a game of Western Division champion Pittsburgh. Although Chicago fell just short of a division title it was clear that World Series appearances were just around the corner for a team that featured another future Hall of Fame pitcher from Indiana along with Sullivan— a fellow by the name of Jacob Norwood.
1905 was a setback for the Traders as they dipped to a last place tie with Norwood shelved much of the season due to arm troubles. Sullivan's record slumped to 19-25 but he did win his third straight strikeout crown. The following season everything came together as Sullivan went 29-16 with a 1.57 era and led the league in strikeouts for the fourth consecutive season with 289. Norwood would chip in with 26 victories and together they celebrated a division title. Sullivan would get two more wins in the World Series as the Traders swept the New York Knickerbockers 4 straight to win their first title in 15 years. It was also the first time in history the World Series ended in a sweep.
Chicago would be forced to settle for a second place finish behind Cincinnati in both 1907 and 1908 but Sullivan was outstanding both years. He would claim the pitching triple crown again in both seasons - setting a new ERA record in 1908 of 1.16. The following season Sullivan shattered that record with a 0.98 era. It was a mark that stood 37 years before being broken by Paul Burke in 1946. Sullivan would post a career best 41-8 record that season, a win total that remains the highest ever recorded in the 20th century. He, of course, led the league in strikeouts once again to claim his third straight pitching Triple Crown. Sullivan's 4 career triple crowns would be double the number won by any man before him and only surpassed later by the incredible Brock Rutherford's eight.
1909 also marked the second trip to the World Series for Sullivan and the Chicago Traders. The club won a record 123 games that season and then added four more victories in October as they topped the Brooklyn Bluebirds in 6 games for a second World Series title in 4 years. Just as he did the first time he pitched in the Series, Sullivan won both of his starts including a masterful 10-inning 2-1 complete game victory in Game Two. He would also go the distance in Game Five, allowing just 7 hits in a 4-1 victory.
He didn't know it at the time but 1910, at the age of 32, would be the last great season in Matthew Sullivan's career. He went 34-10 with 287 strikeouts and a 1.59 era, denied a fourth consecutive triple crown only by teammate Jacob Norwood's 1.40 era. Chicago 'dipped' to 108 wins this time around but it was still good for a 17 and a half game margin atop their division. The Brooklyn Bluebirds would again be their World Series opponent and once more the Traders would prevail, this time in 7 games. Sullivan again won both of his starts including a complete game 4-hit shutout in a 6-0 win in Game Three. It was later learned he was pitching despite a case of tendonitis in his golden left arm that perhaps was foreshadowing the events to come.
1911 started well enough as Sullivan notched his 250th career NBL win and was 12-6 by mid-June but then disaster struck. He suffered a torn UCL in his next start and was done for the season and,as it turned out, would never be the same afterwards.
He struggled early in 1912, going 10-13 with a 3.36 era before a second serious injury to his elbow, and once more it ended his season prematurely. He came back for the 1913 campaign but was just a shadow of his former self, going 11-17 with a career worst 3.52 era and that would be the end of his major league career. He hung around in the minors for a couple of years and even tried to catch on with the Baltimore Lords after Chicago released him in 1915 but it was clear he could no longer pitch at the big league level. He retired after the 1915 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the original class. His long-time teammate Jacob Norwood would fall one vote short of induction that season but would join Sullivan in the Hall a year later.
The final line on Sullivan is especially impressive when you consider he only pitched for 11 seasons and missed a substantial chunk of two of them. Lifetime record of 279-162 with a career era of 1.86 and 2,519 strikeouts. He led the league in strikeouts 8 seasons in a row, only having injury end that streak, while also leading in wins 5 times and winning 4 pitching triple crowns. His World Series line is nothing short of astounding: 6-0 with a 1.02 era, 35 K's and 5 walks to go with an ERA+ of 294 and a WHIP of 0.79.
Sullivan was also the first pitcher to fan at least 15 batters in a single game, setting a record that still stands in 1954 with 18 strikeouts in a 1906 contest against St Louis. About the only thing he never accomplished was throw a no-hitter, but he did toss seven 2-hit shutouts in his career. His 16 shutouts thrown in 1909 remain a league record and he also holds the single season mark for lowest WHIP and opponents on-base percentage from that same 1909 season. Finally, as of this writing in 1954 Sullivan owns 6 of the 10 best single season Pitcher WAR totals in baseball history. In 1946 Sullivan was named on 5 of the 6 ballots cast for the Hall of Fame and gained induction along with Royal Ricketts, Edmund Godfrey, Jason Wall, Tom Guthrie and Fennimore McCaffree in what would form the original class.