Cleveland Indians: Pete Dowling’s long-overlooked no-hitter

Jimmy Callahan (right) of the Chicago White Sox. Until recently, Callahan was credited with having thrown the American League's first no-hitter. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
Jimmy Callahan (right) of the Chicago White Sox. Until recently, Callahan was credited with having thrown the American League's first no-hitter. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

Researchers now say former Cleveland Indians pitcher Pete Dowling actually threw the first no-hitter in American League history

Thanks to the Society for American Baseball Research and Project Retrosheet, former Cleveland Indians pitcher Pete Dowling is at least slightly more immortal today.

Dowling pitched just four seasons around the turn of the 20th Century, and left big league baseball in 1901 after compiling a record of 11-25. He died just four years later at age 28 when, apparently under the influence of alcohol,  he was hit by a train. He left the game with a record of just 39-64 in 118 appearances.

So it seems odd that Dowling this summer gained no small level of record book distinction when researchers from SABR and Project Retrosheet declared that he deserved to be recognized as the author of the first no-hit game in the history of the American League.

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The decision, coming from the two most respected authorities on baseball history today, ends a debate that has gone on virtually since the AL first took the field in 1901.

How Dowling could be credited with a no-hitter 120 years after the fact – and a historic one at that – demonstrates the fluid nature of record keeping in the game’s early days. It also erases the name of Chicago White Sox pitcher Jimmy Callahan from the record book. Until the SABR-Retrosheet decision favoring Dowling, Callahan had been credited with throwing the AL’s first no-hitter when he blanked the Detroit Tigers without a hit 3-0 in the first game of a doubleheader on Sept. 20, 1902.

The story of Dowling’s no-hitter more than a year earlier begins in confusion. Following three seasons as a pitcher with the National League’s Louisville Colonels, Dowling was left without a team when Louisville ceased operations in 1900. In 1901 he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the eight teams that had formed the American League, Dowling made 10 appearances for the Brewers, but went just 1-3 with a 5.58 ERA and pitched so poorly that they let him go to the Cleveland Blues at the end of May.

On June 30, Blue manager Jimmy McAleer sent Dowling out to face his old team in Milwaukee. In a 7-0 complete game victory, he walked four and hit one batter, but the only other baserunner was Wid Conroy. In the seventh inning, Conroy sent a sharp ground ball in the direction of Cleveland third baseman Bill Bradley, who failed to make the play. That’s where the controversy began.

According to SABR researchers, the correspondent for the local paper, the Milwaukee Journal, put the play down as an error on Bradley and gave Dowling a no-hitter. But the next morning’s article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it a scratch single, and credited Dowling with a one-hitter. The Cleveland article was the one that came to the attention of that age’s baseball correspondents, who accepted Dowling’s performance as a one-hitter.

For such a seemingly straightforward issue, the question of the author of the AL’s first no-hitter has been a surprisingly fluid topic for debate over the years. For most of  AL history, it was assumed that another Cleveland pitcher, Earl Moore, had thrown the league’s first no-hitter.

On May 9 of that year, nearly a month before Dowling joined the team, Moore shut out the Chicago White Sox without a hit for nine innings. But the game was a scoreless tie, and in the 10th inning, Chicago pushed across four runs on two hits against Moore to win 4-2.

And that’s the way it remained until the early 1990s, when a committee created by commissioner Fay Vincent lay down rules for determining what actually constituted a no-hitter. Since Moore had eventually given up hits, even if in the 10th  inning, those rules erased his achievement, and by default the honor of having thrown the AL’s first no-hitter fell to Callahan’s 1902  gem, which was not in dispute.

By that time, Dowling’s game had long been widely accepted as a one-hitter.

In an article posted on SABR’s website Wednesday, Gary Belleville said the changed finding was based on more detailed research conducted by Project Retrosheet. As of earlier this month, its finding was also accepted by

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“Can we say with complete certainty that he threw a no-hitter?” Belleville wrote on behalf of SABR and Retrosheet. “No. The American League’s day-to-day source data for statistics were lost long ago. But the evidence was compelling enough that Retrosheet and Baseball Reference gave Dowling the benefit of any doubt.”