Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When Wilhelm Ruled

TRIVIA QUESTION:  Who was the other knuckle ball pitcher the White Sox employed during the 1960's who usually came in as Hoyt Wilhelm's set up man?  

In 1965 the Braves played their last season in Milwaukee.  Their last home game was September 22, an extra inning game they lost. The final out fittingly was made by the great Henry Aaron, who hit a rocket. The problem was, with one out and the Braves trailing the Dodgers by a run, Mack Jones who had singled, was running with the pitch. Aaron hit a line drive to center which Willie Davis grabbed and doubled up Jones before he could get back to first base; a double play, game over with Milwaukee in the rear view mirror.

In the era of the 1960's there probably was not a more dominant relief pitcher than Hoyt Wilhelm. Uncharacteristically he was also one of the most traveled pitchers of his era. During the 60's, he switched teams four times. During those years his ERA was under 2.00 six times and another three times it was less than 2.65.

Only in 1960 did he miss the mark with a respectable 3.31 ERA. Of course he tossed 147 innings, pitched in 41 games and started 11 of those. He was coming off a season where he led the league in ERA at 2.19 and pitched a career high 226 innings. Who could blame him for being a bit tired going into the turbulent 60's?

If you were wondering how he did it, it was the famous knuckle-ball which led his repertoire. How many knuckler's he threw during his 1103 (2254 in his career) innings during the era, no one will ever know. The key here was he averaged 110 innings per season while four times eclipsing 130. All but three games were in relief and he never started after 1960.

For the 1965 White Sox he went 144 innings, giving up only 88 hits and striking out 106 on his way to a 7-7 season with a 1.81 ERA.

In the midst of all of this was the fact Wilhelm was 37 years old when the decade of the 60's began. Maybe he would have put it in perspective in that he was still five years younger than the newly elected President John F. Kennedy. Known as "Old Sarge," To really put it in perspective and indicative of Wilhelm's career was in 1968 he pitched in four of final six games in the White Sox season. It was Chicago's worst season of the decade as they finished 36 games out of first place. What makes this short little string so amazing is; Wilhelm was 45 years old.

The only downside to his career came in 1961 and he really wasn't to blame. As Roger Maris was chasing the Babe on his way to 61 home runs, Wilhelm was brought in specifically to keep Maris from hitting the ball out.
It was game 154 for New York and Orioles manager Lum Harris brought in the knuckle-baller to pitch to Maris in the latter's final at-bat. Maris had 59 home runs. Commissioner Ford Frick had ordered that if anyone were to break Ruth's record it would need to be in the same number of games the Great Bambino had played in, 154. Not the 162 played in 1961.

In the film 61*, Harris orders Wilhelm to not throw anything but the wiggly knuckler. Hitting a knuckle-ball high and deep is tough enough but with the pressure building and the obvious move to stop Maris, all the Yankee slugger could manage was a weak ground ball. He would not "break" Ruth's record then, by Frick's rule.
During his career Wilhelm pitched for nine teams and was elected to the Hall of Fame. During the 1950's he tossed a no-hitter. Overall, he won 124 games in relief, saved 228, pitched in 1070 games, his lifetime ERA was 2.52 with a lifetime WHIP of 1.1. He led both leagues in ERA once, and the NL twice in Win-Loss percentage.

He also threw 90 Wild Pitches and due to the nearly exclusive use of the knuckle-ball the number of passed balls by catchers is far to many to count. His former catcher Gus Triandos is quoted as saying "Heaven is a place where no one throws a knuckle-ball."

When you figure he didn't enter the big leagues until he was 29 years old and retired at 50, it makes him one of the most amazing stories in baseball history. His only post season action was in 1954, pitching two scoreless innings for the Giants. In the 1960's his average salary was $28,000 a season.

Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column. It has been appreciated. 

Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Last Milwaukee (HOME) Run

TRIVIA QUESTION:  Who made the final out for the Milwaukee Braves in the teams final game in Milwaukee?  

In 1966 the Pittsburgh Pirates brought up a young left-handed pitcher who announcers said hadn't seen much of the big city being from Ewing, KY. Woody Fryman made the most of his rookie season in Pittsburgh, winning 12 and losing 9. Fryman failed to improve in Pittsburgh and was traded after the 1967 season to Philadelphia. He bounced around the majors pitching until he was 43 years old. His final record was 141-155.

 Gene Oliver pretty much spent his entire major league career in the 1960's. The journeyman catcher, outfielder and first baseman had some milestones along the way but there was one moment in time you could call "that moment." It was pretty significant at the time, but over the years it's gone the way of a newspaper in the sun - faded.

It was a fairly nice night at County Stadium in Milwaukee where 12,577 fans would watch their beloved Braves play for the very last time. Wednesday, September 22, 1965 would mark the final time the Braves would dress for a game in the place where less than a decade earlier they had gone on to play in back to back World Series.
The club had fallen hard. After the Series' there were back to back second place finishes and then they were mired around the middle of the pack. This season they would finish in fifth place, but a respectable 10 games above .500. 

Still, the likes of Henry Aaron, Joe Torre and Eddie Mathews were moving on to Atlanta for the 1966 season. There they would build the foundation which later on would set records for the most divisional titles. 

For now, however, it was playing out the string and the string included facing Sandy Koufax as the Dodgers came to town. Koufax was having an amazing season. He would win 26 games in 1965 and set a record with 382 strikeouts. His ERA was 2.04. However on this night, he was no match for the battling Braves. He would face another lefty, Wade Blasingame. Neither would be around for the final out.

Oliver was having his best season by far and would smash a career high 21 dingers, drive in 58 and hit a respectable .270. Tonight it was his night.

Koufax mowed the Braves down in order in the first and after the Dodgers scored to take a 1-0 lead, the fire balling lefty couldn't find his way to start the second. Three straight singles by Torre, Oliver and Mathews loaded the bases for light hitting Frank Bolling. Bolling who'd been the regular second sacker for the Braves for a decade was in his final season as the full-time second baseman. He was a career .254 hitter and hit just a few homers over the years. He could still reach the seats and it's exactly what he did here.
He promptly smashed a Koufax pitch out of sight for a grand slam, 4-1 Braves. Koufax retired the side after that. Meanwhile, Blasingame was nearty setting the Dodgers down. 

In the third after Mack Jones led off with a homer and Aaron singled, Koufax was gone. Howie Reed came in and forced Torre to bang into a double play. Then came Oliver. Not known for his speed he would use all of it in this at bat. 

Reed served up a pitch which Oliver hit into left on a rope. Lou Johnson wasn't known for his defense and the ball skipped away cleanly. As it did, Oliver turned on the speed and rounded the bases ahead of a throw home for an inside-the-park home run, making the score 6-1. It was the last Brave's homer in Milwaukee.

It was no. 19 on his way to 21. He would get another single and a walk before the game ended, going 3-4. Never mind Jimmy Lefebvre, the rookie second baseman for the Dodgers would hit the final homer at County Stadium against the Braves. It was a 2-run shot to left off Blasingame.  

Blasingame would start to falter in the 5th and after giving up a total of six runs gave way to Billy O'Dell. The game went into extra innings before the Dodgers won it in the 11th. The aforementioned Lou Johnson singled in Maury Wills with the winning run. After three hours and 38 minutes the final game in Milwaukee for the Braves, came to an end. 
Just imagine the conversations in the clubhouse after that. 

Oliver retired after the 1969 season. Beginning in 1966 his average dipped below .200 often and never really got un-tracked again. He went on to Philadelphia, Boston and the Cubs ending his career with 93 home runs and a .246 lifetime BA.  

It was a milestone year certainly for Oliver and the Braves. With his 21st homer the Braves set a new NL record with six player hitting 20 or more in a season. On June 8th Torre, Mathews, Aaron and Oliver hit 10th-inning home runs in a Braves victory over the Cubs, setting a major league record for most home runs in an extra-inning game.

Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column. It has been appreciated. 

Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!!

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Deacon's Amazing Comeback

TRIVIA QUESTION:  The 1966 Pittsburgh Pirates were a team of sluggers but a rookie pitcher helped drive the team to nearly capturing the NL title. Who was this 12 game winner from Ewing, KY?  

In 1963 the Boston Red Sox played 17 extra inning games. Among them they went 14 innings three times and another three times took the game to 15 innings. They won nine of the 17.

 Vern Law was one of the most respected pitchers in baseball during the 1960's. Signed in 1948 as an amateur free agent, he went on to 16 big league seasons, all with Pittsburgh.  After two years of military service he came back as a workhorse starter for the Pirates and in 1958 won 14 games over 202 innings. It looked like he was on his way and he was.

In 1959 when the Pirates looked like a team on the brink, he went 18-9 with a 2.98 ERA and 266 innings pitched. He pitched 20 complete games and probably wasn't as affected by Roy Face coming in and going 18-1 out of the bullpen as teammate Bob Friend who went 8-19. 

It was in 1960 where the man they called "the Deacon" (he was a deacon in the LDS Church) really showed his stuff. The ace of the Bucs staff went 20-9 and easily won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League. He again was a finisher, completing 18 games. 

In the infamous World Series against the Yankees he started three games and won two, ending with 18 innings and a 2-0 record. He won games one and four and lasted five innings in the wild seventh game won by the Bucs on Bill Mazeroski's walk off homer in ninth. 

It was in that 1960 season, Law's physical problems began. Rumor has it he was injured during the celebration in Game Seven. SABR's C. Paul Rogers III writes it was a different situation which actually began much earlier.

"The Pirates clinched the pennant on September 25 while losing to the Braves in Milwaukee. Afterward the Pirates celebrated with champagne in the clubhouse and on the team bus. In the midst of the hubbub aboard the bus, several of Law’s teammates restrained him while catcher Bob Oldis playfully yanked a shoe off his foot, spraining Law’s left ankle in the process. Although Law soldiered on in the World Series, starting Games One, Four, and Seven, he injured his arm while favoring his bad ankle and thereafter struggled for several years to regain his 1960 form. It turned out that he had torn muscles in the back of his shoulder during the Series while favoring his bad ankle."

It was a major blow for the Pirates who competed but broke up the 1960 club over the next two seasons. Dick Stuart was shipped off to the AL, MVP Dick Groat was traded to the Cardinals, Don Hoak, Dick Schofield, Bob Skinner and even Bob Friend were eventually moved to other clubs. Law, Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente were kept and all retired as Pirates.

Law struggled, winning 29 games over four years until the 1965 season. Whatever it was, the presence of teammate Bob Veale (17-12), a decent bullpen or maybe his arm finally responded, but 35 year-old Vern Law was back. In an amazing comeback season, Law went 17-9 and lowered his ERA to 2.15, third only behind Sandy Koufax (2.04) and Juan Marichal (2.13). 
Considering he didn't win his first game until May 21st, losing his first five decisions, to go on and win 16 more over the rest of these season was pretty amazing in itself.  After the first win he reeled off six more wins before taking a loss. It was a season of streaks for the aging right hander who was battling Father Time. 

The Bucs contended right down to the wire, finally losing out to the Dodgers and coming in third behind San Francisco.  

In 1966 Pittsburgh pitching faltered big time and the Old Deacon could not regain the form from the previous season. He still managed a respectable 12-8 season with a 4.05 ERA as Pittsburgh contended again down to the wire, losing out to the Dodgers again. Law pitched only 97 innings in 1967 going 2-6 before calling it quits with 162 wins to his credit. He was the Pirates pitching coach for a time after that, and worked his way back to Utah where he became an assistant coach at BYU under his son Vance, who himself spent 12 seasons in the big leagues. 

Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column. It has been appreciated. 

Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!!

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Bring on the Rain! Please!

TRIVIA QUESTION:  The 1963 Red Sox only played in one rain shortened game that season but they played an amazing number of extra inning games. How many times did the 1963 Red Sox take a game into at least the 10th inning?  

In 1961 the Detroit Tigers had a marvelous season but unfortunately were outpaced by the second best team in MLB history; the 1961 NY Yankees. The Tigers finished 101-61 but were eight games back of the Yanks who won 109 to go on to the World Series.

It's been said "baseball is a funny game." If you add in the weather, since the game for the most part is played outdoors, it can get even funnier. No, just funkier. 

Take the game between the Boston Red Sox and the A's in Kansas City on May 4, 1963. It should have been a normal night game but in the Midwest in May, nothing is normal when it comes to the weather. There was a forecast of thunderstorms but at game time things seemed to be pretty nice.
(The stadium above is not the actual stadium discussed in the story, but was chosen for it's "rain" perspective only. BB)

The game started easily enough before less than 14,000 fans. It was a night game and it took all of two hours and one minute. Not bad. Except they only played FIVE Innings. At least they got to an official game before the rain came pouring down; a third of an inch.

It was a contest the Red Sox would like to forget in what turned out to be a forgettable season. In the top of the first Roman Mejias scored all the way from first when Carl Yastrzemski hit a ground ball to short which Wayne Causey threw away, a long way.  Later in the inning Lou Clinton smacked a triple and Yaz scored giving the Sox a 2-0 lead.

A confident Ike Delock took the mound for the Red Sox and quickly learned not to take the A's so lightly. Delock had nothing that night. He walked three of the first four batters he faced before Ed Charles blasted a double to clear the bases and then rode home on another double by Manny Jimenez.  Jack Lamabe came in and got one out before giving up a walk, a single and a double for two more. Chet Nichols got the final out. The A's scored six in the inning and led 6-2. They were not done.
The Sox picked up a run in the second to make it 6-3 which was where the score stayed until the third when Causey, Norm Siebern and that man Charles all drove in a total of five runs making it 11-3 A's. If the rain was going to come the boys from Boston were hoping it would come in droves. It did. Rain delays permeated the game.  It wasn't enough to call it though, at least not yet.

A long rain delay in the fourth kept A's starter Dave Thies off the mound and sent him to the showers. Bill Fischer came in when play resumed. Hal Kolstad had picked up for the three Boston pitchers after the first and continued to pitch the entire game. Sox manager Johnny Pesky must have thought Kolstad needed the work, or the game was out of hand (which it was) or perhaps wanted to see what Kolstad could do. He left him in the rest of the way.

After giving up the five runs in the third, Kolstad gave up a run in the fourth and two more in the fifth before the rains came harder and umpire Larry Napp decided to call the game, mercifully with the A's leading 14-5. Umpires love to make sure the game is official before calling it and perhaps they could have called this one earlier. The Sox wish they would have.

When the dust cleared Ed Charles had driven five with Wayne Causey driving in four more. Kolstad pitched four innings and gave up 8 earned runs on 8 hits while walking three and uncorking a wild pitch. Fischer picked up the win to go 5-0, Delock took the loss and there were NO home runs in the game despite 19 runs scored in five innings. 

The game was indicative of the Red Sox season. They finished 76-85 in seventh place in the American League. The A's finished three games behind Boston in eighth place. The game pretty much marked the beginning of the end for Kolstad. He pitched in all of seven games in 1963 after 27 the previous season. In 1963 he pitched 11 innings, gave up 16 earned runs, including four home runs. He never did win a game in the big leagues, finishing 0-4 in his career.

The end was near for Delock as well. Less than a month later the Red Sox released him and he signed with Baltimore where he started five more games going 1-3 before being released for the final time about a month after being acquired. The right-hander from Highland Park, Michigan finished his career with a mark of 84-75 over 11 seasons. Charles was a key member of the 1969 Mets World Series team. Fischer went on to go 4-6 the rest of the season to finish 9-6. He was lost to the Minnesota Twins in the Rule 5 Draft at the end of the season. He had one more decision and his career ended shortly afterwards.

Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column. It has been appreciated. 

Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!!

Please pick up a copy of my book "Tales of My Baseball Youth; A Child of the 60's" at, or on Amazon.