Though he was a fairly average big league starting pitcher, Al Benton won some key games for the Detroit Tigers that helped them win the pennant in 1940 and 1945. In ’40, Tigers skipper Del Baker used Benton as a closer – a rarity at that time – and the right-hander responded with 17 saves to lead the American League. In a sign of how little relievers were valued in that era, however, Benton was not used at all in the World Series loss to the Cincinnati Reds. In 1941 he was used as a swingman and won a career-high 15 games in 14 starts and 25 relief appearances. After spending two seasons in the U.S. Army during World War II, Benton was back with Detroit in 1945 when the club found themselves in a tight pennant race with the Washington. The bulldog pitcher started 27 games for manager Steve O’Neill, winning 13 with a glittering 2.02 ERA. He started the season 5-0, tossing three shutouts in his first five starts. On September 16 he pitched a gutsy win over the Senators at Griffith Stadium, pushing Detroit 2 1/2 games in front in the standings. On the final Sunday of the season, in the game in which Hank Greenberg slugged his pennant-clinching grand slam, Benton closed out the victory by shutting down the St. Louis Browns in the bottom of the ninth.
Unlike in 1940, Benton was relied on heavily in the 1945 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. Benton took the hill in three games in relief, tossing 4 2/3 innings while allowing just one run. Each time he was used, Detroit was behind, but he was still instrumental in giving the Detroit bullpen some rest and the club went on to capture the Series in seven games.
Benton earned a reputation as a workhorse and a versatile pitcher who would take the ball in any situation, as a result he was popular with his managers and teammates. He spent nine seasons with Detroit, winning 71 games and saving 45 more. Lou Boudreau always respected Benton and used him on his team in Cleveland in 1949-1950, and again when he managed Boston in 1952. After the Red Sox signed him out of the minor leagues in July at the age of 41, Benton fashioned a 2.39 ERA in 24 games. He continued to pitch in the Pacific Coast League in 1953 at the age of 42 before calling it quits. In 19 seasons in professional baseball, the right-hander won 186 games (98 in the majors) in more than 800 games.
Having started his career in 1934 with Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics and having thrown his final big league pitch for Boudreau with the Red Sox in 1952, Benton was the only pitcher to have faced both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. He’s also the only hurler to have squared off against Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle.
Lowest ERA in Major Leagues, 1942-1945
1. Spud Chandler … 2.16
2. Mort Cooper … 2.25
3. Hal Newhouser … 2.29
4. Max Lanier … 2.43
5. Al Benton … 2.50
6. Tex Hughson … 2.52
7. Harry Brecheen … 2.58
8. Hank Borowy … 2.66
9. Johnny Niggeling … 2.66
10. Johnny Vander Meer … 2.67