Many years ago, on a summer’s day in Louisville, a baseball player fulfilled what I can only imagine was his dream: making his Major League debut. His opponents were the Baltimore Orioles, then fourth in the National League, with a 41-30 record which was rather a lot better than the hosts’ 14-57.
The Louisville Colonels were a very bad team. Very, very bad. They would finish the year with a 0.267 winning percentage, which over a modern baseball season translates to going 43-119. Their best player was Fred Clarke, who would go on to become a Hall-of-Fame left fielder but for now was a 22-year-old youngster and a merely decent bat. Their worst player ... well, they had a lot to pick from. But statistically, I think we’re going to have to give that to today’s debutant: William ‘Bill’ Childers.
Childers’ first and only MLB game came on July 25, 1895. Baseball-Reference doesn’t have box scores for the 1895 season, but we do know that he came on in relief and promptly stunk the place out, giving up two hits, five walks, three wild pitches, six earned runs, and earning zero outs, inspiring the Louisville Colonels to a 12-3 loss.
The zero outs thing is important, because it meant that Childers joined an exclusive club (you can probably guess what it is from the headline). He became just the fourth player in Major League history — and the first to play solely as a pitcher — to post a career earned run average (ERA) of infinity.
If you’re not familiar with the wonderful world of baseball statistics, ERA is meant to suggest how many runs a pitcher would be responsible for (i.e. runs that are ‘earned’ vs. ‘un-earned’, the latter group being scored via defensive error) over the course of a full nine-inning game. To calculate ERA, take earned runs, divide by innings pitched, and multiple by nine.
Obviously, dividing by zero comes with its own special challenges, but this is perhaps neither the time nor the place to get into the joys of meaningless arithmetic expressions or asymptotic functions. At any rate, in Childers’ case we don’t need to worry about it. Rather than taking the formula for ERA, we can ask ourself what is being measured: if a pitcher pitched like they did for a full game, how many earned runs would they give up? Baseball operates on an outs clock, and Childers got no outs, so the game would go on infinitely long and he would give up infinite runs.
There are now 22 members of the infinite ERA club. They are as follows:
- Dave Pierson
- Ed Coughlin
- Billy Sunday
- Bill Childers
- John Wood
- Jay Parker
- Frank Dupee
- Harry Heitmann
- Lou Bauer
- Will Koenigsmark
- Doc Hamann
- Bill Moore
- Joe Brown
- Marty Walker
- William Ford
- Jim Schelle
- Mike Palagyi
- Gordie Sundin
- Fred Bruckbauer
- Vic Davalillo
- Zack Weiss
- Gerardo Parra
Most of these were achieved very early in baseball history, with several in the 1800s and a big burst of action between the wars. Then we see a big dropoff, with only five added to the club since 1950. Initiation is getting even rarer: After a drought of almost 50 years, Zach Weiss added to the collection in 2018. His outing was shortly followed up by an unsuccessful pitching cameo from Washington Nationals outfield Geraldo Parra.
Childers, I think, is the most interesting of the bunch, mostly because he’s almost completely unknown. Baseball is notorious for being a sort of repository of history, of statistics dating back generations, records meticulously kept. But nobody knows much about Childers.
Searching the Louisville newspapers during the 1895 season turns up nothing. The invaluable Baseball-Reference unhelpfully gives his date of birth as ‘unknown,’ although they have somehow managed to place his hometown as St. Louis. We don’t know which inning he pitched. We don’t even know which hand he threw with (I like him, so I’m going to go ahead and declare him an honorary lefty).
For most of the players in the list — let’s take Weiss, who pitched for UCLA and spent six years in the minors, as an example — we have a full record of their minor league journey, their trials and travails as they slowly ascended the bitter escarpment of professional sport. These are players who, despite their failure to make an impression at the very top, have made themselves known to the sport beyond that failure.
Not so Childers. More than 125 years since he made his ill-fated MLB debut, all that is left of him is his presence in the infinite ERA club. Here is a baseball player who has contrived to make an implausible escape from the sport’s all-encompassing memory, leaving behind only a nugget of obscure trivia. The rest of the bozos in this club exist in a much more real sense, and are therefore merely applied mathematics; Childers inhabits a realm more rarified. On July 25th, 1895, he reached out and touched not just infinity, but infinity distilled into its purest form.
Georg Cantor would be proud.