An outstanding first big-league start, such as the one Shelby Miller delivered for the Cardinals, could be an indication of a promising career, but it isn’t a guarantee.
The story of the Cardinals’ Hank Gornicki serves as a cautionary tale.
Miller, the Cardinals’ first-round choice in the 2009 amateur draft, dazzled in his initial major-league start Oct. 3, 2012, against the Reds at St. Louis. Starting the regular-season finale after the Cardinals had clinched a wild-card playoff berth the night before, Miller shut out the Reds for six innings and limited them to one hit. Boxscore
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Miller became the first Cardinals pitcher to yield no runs and no more than one hit over six innings or more in his first major-league start since Gornicki pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout against the Phillies on May 3, 1941, at Philadelphia.
It was the only start Gornicki ever made for the Cardinals. Less than a month later, Gornicki was returned to the minor leagues. Before the season ended, he was shipped to the Cubs.
A right-hander, like Miller, Gornicki was a 30-year-old rookie with the 1941 Cardinals. He had pitched with success in the Cardinals’ minor-league system for six years, posting double-figure win totals each season, before earning a spot with the big-league club.
At the time, his claim to fame was being dubbed the “wood chopper of the Great Smokies” because he kept fit during the off-seasons by cutting down trees on his father’s property in North Carolina.
After two relief appearances with the 1941 Cardinals, manager Billy Southworth gave Gornicki the start against the Phillies because Southworth decided the rookie should be given the chance, The Sporting News reported.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon before 2,404 at Shibe Park, Gornicki held the Phillies hitless until right fielder Stan Benjamin singled with two out in the sixth.
Gornicki finished with five strikeouts and five walks in pitching St. Louis to a 6-0 victory. He also contributed a RBI-single in the seventh. Boxscore
The victory was the eighth in a row for the pitching-rich Cardinals and it improved their record to 13-3. Despite Gornicki’s successful start, Southworth returned him to the bullpen because St. Louis already had quality starters such as Lon Warneke, Ernie White, Mort Cooper, Max Lanier, Harry Gumpert and Howie Krist.
As Fred Lieb of The Sporting News wrote: Like the old lady in the shoe, Billy Southworth had so many good young pitchers he didn’t know what to do.
Gornicki didn’t appear in another game for almost two weeks. He finally pitched less than an inning in relief on May 15 against the Braves. Soon after that, he was sent to Class AA Rochester of the International League. After four big-league appearances, his tenure with the Cardinals was over.
With Rochester, Gornicki was 12-9 with a 2.83 ERA in 26 games. On Sept. 2, the Cardinals sent Gornicki to the Cubs in a cash transaction. He appeared once in relief for Chicago before baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided the deal, saying it had violated the waiver rule. The Reds had claimed Gornicki on waivers before the Cardinals had sent him to the Cubs.
Returned to the Cardinals, Gornicki was in no-man’s land, unwanted by St. Louis and unsure of where he belonged. In December, the Cardinals dealt him to the Pirates. Wrote The Sporting News: For some reason, the Cardinal bosses soured on the right-hander.
Gornicki spent three seasons (1942, ’43 and ’46) with the Pirates in a stint that was interrupted by two years of military service during World War II. He posted a big-league career record of 15-19 with a 3.38 ERA in 79 games, including 33 starts.
In the ensuing decades, his short stay with the Cardinals largely was forgotten _ until Shelby Miller created a link with the sensational St. Louis start of Hank Gornicki.