Señor Curveball

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Camilo Pascual

If, as most observers at the time believed, the best curveball in the 1960s belonged to Sandy Koufax, the second best – and a close second at that – was delivered by a right-handed, Cuban-born pitcher named Camilo Pascual.

In both 1962 and 1963, Pascual was the only American League pitcher to reach the 200-mark in strikeouts.

In both 1962 and 1963, Pascual was the only American League pitcher to reach the 200-mark in strikeouts.

He had a curveball that dropped as if it were falling off the edge of an invisible table. And he used it to win more games than he should have for teams that supported him less than they could have.

Pascual was signed by the Washington Senators as an amateur free agent in 1952. His rookie year in the big leagues was 1954, when he went 4-7 as a reliever for the Senators.  Only four of his 48 appearances that year were starts. (Those were the days when most young pitchers had to earn their way into the starting rotation … via the bullpen.)

From 1955 to 1958, Pascual started in the Senators regular rotation. Pitching for one of the worst teams in the American League, Pascual’s combined record for those four seasons was 24-59. But as his strikeout-to-walk ratio gradually improved, his extraordinary stuff took over and his record improved to 17-10 in 1959 with a 2.64 ERA. He led the majors in both complete games and shutouts that season, and followed with a 12-8 record in 1960, the team’s last year in Washington.

For the next four years, pitching for the same franchise in a new location, Pascual was clearly the ace of the Minnesota Twins’ staff. He won 15 games in 1961, leading the American League in strikeouts with 221 and leading the major leagues with eight shutouts. He would repeat as the American League strikeout leader again in each of the next two years, winning 20 games in 1962 and 21 in 1963. His 18 complete games in both of those seasons were tops in the league. In both 1962 and 1963, Pascual was the only American League pitcher to reach the 200-mark in strikeouts.

Pascual went 15-12 for the Twins in 1965, with career highs in both starts (36) and innings pitched (267). At 31, Pascual was already on the down slope of his career, winning only 44 games over the next five years. He retired in 1971 with an 18-year record of 174-170 and a 3.63 ERA. For the four years when Pascual was one of the American League’s best right-handers, his combined record was 71-48 with 842 strikeouts and a 3.18 ERA.

 

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Relief for Nearly Everybody

 

Oh, What a Relief: Al Worthington

Right-hander Al Worthington was a reliable reliever with five different teams over a 14-year major league career.

Al Worthington's best all-around season came in 1965, when he was the bullpen ace of the American League champion Minnesota Twins. Worthington was 10-7 with a 2.13 ERA and 21 saves.

Al Worthington’s best all-around season came in 1965, when he was the bullpen ace of the American League champion Minnesota Twins. Worthington was 10-7 with a 2.13 ERA and 21 saves.

He posted a career record of 75-82 with a 3.39 ERA and 110 saves. He was 11-7 for the San Francisco Giants in 1958, but his best all-around season came in 1965, when he was the bullpen ace of the American League champion Minnesota Twins.

Worthington was 10-7 with a 2.13 ERA and 21 saves in 1965. He led the American League with 18 saves in 1968 when he posted a 2.21 earned run average. In his final six seasons, all with the Twins, Worthington put up a combined record of 37-31 with 88 saves and an earned run average of 2.62.

 

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How to Win with Red Legs

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bob Purkey

While the best knuckleball pitchers of the 1960s, namely Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher, were used almost exclusively in relief, Bob Purkey was primarily a knuckleball starter. His success with that hard-to-tame pitch paved the way for knuckleball starters such as Wilbur Wood in the 1970s and the Niekro brothers in the 1980s.

Bob Purkey’s best season was 1962, when he posted a 23-5 record with a 2.81 ERA in 288.1 innings pitched.

Bob Purkey’s best season was 1962, when he posted a 23-5 record with a 2.81 ERA in 288.1 innings pitched.

A Pittsburgh native, Purkey was signed by his hometown Pirates in 1948 and appeared in his first big league game in 1954. In four seasons with lackluster Pirate teams, Purkey himself struggled to a combined record of 16-29, used mostly as a reliever. He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds after going 11-14 in 1957.

With the Reds, Purkey was used primarily as a starting pitcher, and had his most successful seasons in that role. In 1958, he was 17-11 with a 3.60 ERA, completing half of his 34 starts. He slipped to 13-18 in 1959, and bounced back in 1960 with another 17-11 campaign, and another 3.60 ERA.

In 1961 the Red won their first National League pennant in two decades, and Purkey was an integral part of that team’s success. He went 16-12 that season, completing 13 games with a 3.73 ERA.

His best season was 1962, when he posted a 23-5 record for a major league-leading .821 winning percentage. Again he finished almost half his starts (18 out of 37), and recorded a 2.81 ERA in 288.1 innings pitched. He was named to the All-Star team for the third time in his career that season.

Purkey struggled over the next two seasons, going 17-19 for the Reds with a combined ERA of 3.25. In both seasons, his number of innings pitched dropped below 200 for the first time since 1957. After the 1964 season, the Reds traded Purkey to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Roger Craig and outfielder Charley James.

With the Cardinals, Purkey found himself being used more and more as a reliever, and finished the season 10-9 with a 5.79 ERA. In 1966, he closed out his career where it began, in Pittsburgh. In his final major league stop, Purkey was 0-1 with a 1.37 ERA, making only 10 appearances before he was released by the Pirates.

Over a career that spanned 13 seasons, Purkey posted a 129-115 record with 793 strikeouts and a 3.79 ERA in 386 appearances, including 276 starts, 92 complete games, 13 shutouts, and nine saves.

 

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How Jim Bunning Came to Philadelphia

 

Swap Shop: Jim Bunning for Don Demeter

Jim Bunning was the reigning ace of the Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff at the opening of the 1960s. Signed by the Tigers off the campus of Xavier University in 1950, Bunning spent six seasons in the Tigers’ minor league system, enjoying his best minor league season in 1954 with Little Rock in the AA Southern Association, where he went 13-11.

Jim Bunning won 57 games in his first 3 season with the Phillies after being traded by Detroit.

Jim Bunning won 57 games in his first three season with the Phillies after being traded by Detroit.

Bunning made his major league debut with the Tigers in 1955, going 3-5 in 15 appearances, including eight starts. He opened the 1956 season with Charleston in the American Association, and after a 9-11 start was called up to Detroit, where he finished the season 5-1 for the Tigers, used mostly in relief. He made the Tigers’ roster in 1957, and had an outstanding season, going 20-8 with a 2.69 ERA. He also led the American League with 267.1 innings pitched.

He won 14 games in 1958 and 17 games in 1959. His won-lost record slipped to 11-14 in 1960, though he posted a 2.79 earned run average. He led the American League in strikeouts with 201 in both 1959 and 1960. In 1961, while Frank Lary led the Tigers’ staff with a 23-7 season, Bunning registered another strong season at 17-11 with a 3.19 ERA. He was 19-10 in 1962, but in 1963 his record slipped to 12-13. At age 31, he was considered expendable.

The Philadelphia Phillies were interested in Bunning, and offered the Tigers Don Demeter in exchange. In the previous two seasons, Demeter had batted a combined .284 with 51 home runs and 190 RBIs. The Tigers slotted Demeter in left field, replacing the departed Rocky Colavito.

The Bunning-Demeter deal also included catcher Gus Triandos going to the Phillies and the Tigers getting relief pitcher Jack Hamilton.

The right-handed hitting Don Demeter was the key acquisition for the Tigers in the deal that sent future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning to Philadelphia.

The right-handed hitting Don Demeter was the key acquisition for the Tigers in the deal that sent future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning to Philadelphia.

Of course, the deal turned out to be lop-sided in favor of the Phillies. Demeter batted .290 for the Tigers in 1964 with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs. His power numbers slipped to 16 home runs and 58 RBIs in 1965, and he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox in 1966.

Bunning became the ace of the Phillies’ staff and teamed with left-hander Chris Short to give the Phillies a powerful 1-2 rotation punch. He won 19 games each season from 1964 through 1966, and won 17 games in 1967. In his four seasons with the Phillies, Bunning averaged 40 starts and 298 innings per season. His combined ERA over those four seasons was 2.48. He pitched a perfect game for the Phillies in 1964. It was the second no-hitter of his career, and made him the first pitcher to toss a no-hitter in both major leagues.

Bunning lasted 17 seasons in the major leagues, and pitched a full eight seasons after being traded from Detroit. He retired with a career record of 224-184 with a 3.27 ERA. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

 

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21 and Done

 

Lights Out: Tom Cheney Whiffs 21 O’s

When: September 12, 1962

Where:  Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland

Game Time:  3:59

Attendance: 4,098

Tom Cheney won only 19 games in eight big league seasons. But for one night he became the most celebrated pitcher in baseball, and the most proficient strikeout artist of all time.

Tom Cheney holds the major league record with 21 strikeouts in a single game. Cheney went the distance, beating the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 in 16 innings. He had 13 strikeouts after 9 innings.

Tom Cheney holds the major league record with 21 strikeouts in a single game. Cheney went the distance, beating the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 in 16 innings. He had 13 strikeouts after 9 innings.

Cheney rode his fastball to the major leagues after signing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1952. He twice won as many as 14 games pitching in the Cardinals’ minor league system. Like so many over-powering pitchers, he had strikeout stuff but control was a problem. He spent time in the big leagues with the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded to the Washington Senators in 1961.

By June of the 1962 season, Cheney had worked his way into the Senators’ starting rotation. By the end of August, pitching for the league’s worst team, Cheney had posted a decent 3.34 ERA but had only a 5-8 record.

His first start in September came against the Los Angeles Angels. Cheney didn’t figure in the decision, though he went 10 innings and struck out 10 batters while allowing only two runs. The Senators won the game 3-2 in the eleventh inning.

Over the next week, he made one start and two relief appearances, with no decisions. Then, on three days’ rest, he started against the Baltimore Orioles.

Bud Zipfel's solo home run in the 16th inning gave the Senators – and Tom Cheney – the victory.

Bud Zipfel’s solo home run in the 16th inning gave the Senators – and Tom Cheney – the victory.

The Senators scored one run in the top of the first inning, and Cheney retired the Orioles in the bottom of the inning without allowing a run, or recording a strikeout. His first strikeout of the game came in the second inning, then three in the third, one in the fourth, and three more in the fifth inning. The Orioles tied the game on a Charlie Lau RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Cheney had 13 strikeouts through nine innings with the score tied 1-1. He struck out two in the tenth and two more in the eleventh. But the Senators failed to score in both innings. Cheney wasn’t about to come out. Was he thinking about the game against the Angels 11 days earlier when he came out an inning too soon?

Cheney recorded no strikeouts in the twelfth and thirteenth innings, and then got two more in the fourteenth. After 14 innings and 19 strikeouts, he was still trying to win a 1-1 game.

Dick Williams was Tom Cheney’s 21st strikeout victim.

Dick Williams was Tom Cheney’s 21st strikeout victim.

After getting his twentieth strikeout in the fifteenth inning, Cheney watched Senators first baseman Bud Zipfel hit a solo home run off Dick Hall to give the Senators a 2-1 lead. Cheney went out for the bottom of the sixteenth inning. He got Boog Powell to ground out for the first out, then gave up a single to Dave Nicholson. Jackie Brandt flied out to center field for the second out. And on pitch number 228, Cheney struck out Dick Williams on a called strike. He had 21 strikeouts and a 16-inning complete game victory.

Cheney allowed 10 hits and faced 62 batters. He finished the 1962 season at 7-9 with a 3.17 ERA.

In 1963, Cheney was on his way to the best season of his career when an elbow injury ended his season … and his career not long after. After 21 starts, Cheney was 8-9 with seven complete games, four shutouts and a 2.71 ERA. He would make only seven more starts in his career.

His record of 21 strikeouts in a single game has never been matched.

 

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Power Pulse

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Gene Oliver

Gene Oliver was a decent catcher with better-than-average power and speed. He had a strong arm and a strong presence behind the plate, and was particularly effective at blocking home plate from oncoming runners.

Gene Oliver's best season came with the Braves in 1965 when he batted .270 with 20 doubles and 21 home runs (both career highs).

Gene Oliver’s best season came with the Braves in 1965 when he batted .270 with 20 doubles and 21 home runs (both career highs).

In his prime, he had the tools to be an everyday catcher for many teams, but had the misfortune of playing behind All-Star catchers such as Tim McCarver and Joe Torre, limiting him to a backup role where his contributions were valuable but limited.

Oliver was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1956. He hit 18 home runs for the Cardinals’ AAA team in 1958 and had 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 46 games at Rochester in 1959 when he was called up to St. Louis. He batted .244 over the rest of the 1959 season, with six home runs and 28 RBIs in only 172 at-bats. Oliver found himself back in AAA ball in 1960. In 1961, playing for Portland in the Pacific Coast League, Oliver batted .302 with 36 home runs and 100 RBIs. It was his ticket to a more permanent residence on the Cardinals’ roster.

In 1963, Oliver started games as the Cardinals’ catcher (as well as occasionally playing in the outfield and at first base), batting .258 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs. In 1963, the Cardinals traded him with Bob Sadowski to the Milwaukee Braves for Lew Burdette. In five seasons with the Braves, Oliver hit for a combined .251 batting average. His best season with the Braves came in 1965 when he batted .270 with 20 doubles and 21 home runs (both career highs).

In 1967, the Braves traded Oliver to the Philadelphia Phillies for Bob Uecker. As the backup to Clay Dalrymple, Oliver hit .224 for the Phillies with seven home runs and 34 RBIs. In the off-season, he was traded with Dick Ellsworth to the Boston Red Sox for Mike Ryan and cash. He appeared in only 16 games for the Red Sox, and then was purchased by the Chicago Cubs. He retired after the 1969 season after appearing in only 31 games for the Cubs over two seasons.

During his 10-year major league career, Oliver had 546 hits, including 111 doubles and 93 home runs, and compiled a career batting average of .246.

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Rockin’ Rookie

 

Career Year: Curt Blefary – 1965

Outfielder Curt Blefary was signed by the New York Yankees in 1962. After batting .240 in his first minor league season, he was selected off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles. As loaded as the Yankees were with power-hitting outfielders in 1962, they no doubt had to wonder later about the wisdom of letting him go when he tore up American League pitching during his rookie season in 1965.

Blefary’s development in the Orioles’ minor league system was quick. In 1963, he banged out a combined 29 home runs at the A and AA levels. In 1964, playing AAA ball at Rochester, Blefary batted .287 with 31 home runs and 80 RBIs. He also led the International League with 102 walks. His bat was ready for Baltimore.

In his 1965 rookie season, Curt Blefary batted .260 with 70 RBIs and an Orioles team high 22 home runs.

In his 1965 rookie season, Curt Blefary batted .260 with 70 RBIs and an Orioles team high 22 home runs.

Boog Powell had been the Orioles’ regular left fielder in 1964, but was moved to first base, where he was clearly more comfortable. That made the left field position available to Blefary (though he also was platooned in left with Powell and Norm Siebern, and occasionally in right field with Sam Bowens). Blefary responded with an outstanding rookie season, batting .260 with 70 RBIs and a team high 22 home runs. He finished third in the league in on-base percentage (.381) and ninth in slugging percentage (.470). He also batted .367 against the Yankees, and hit six of his home runs against the eventual American League pennant winners. His performance earned him Rookie of the Year honors for 1965.

But Blefary’s promising career never quite took off. He had two more fine seasons with the Orioles in 1966 and 1967, hitting 23 home runs with 64 RBIs in 1966. He then hit 22 home runs with career-high 81 RBIs in 1967. But his performance at the plate declined dramatically after that. He would never hit as many as 20 home runs in a single season again.

Blefary was traded to the Houston Astros in 1969, and played for the Yankees, the Oakland Athletics and the San Diego Padres over the next three seasons. He was released by the Padres in December of 1972 and signed with the Atlanta Braves a month later, but was released during spring training and was out of baseball at age 29.

Blefary finished his eight-season major league career with 112 home runs, 67 of those coming during his first three seasons. He was a key contributor to the Orioles’ World Series Championship season in 1966, but never was able to perform up to the promise of his hard-hitting rookie season.

A 6-RBI Game from Ernie Banks Goes for Naught

 

Lights Out: Ernie Banks

When: April 29, 1960

Where:  Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri

Game Time: 3:22

Attendance: 6,859

 

It was a game that defined what Ernie Banks meant to his beloved Chicago Cubs.

Everything, … and, too often in the win column, nothing.

On one of the best days of Banks’ Hall of Fame career, an outstanding individual performance went for nothing in a lopsided Cubs loss. That kind of frustration would be typical of what Banks and the Cubs would experience together throughout the 1960s. But it didn’t diminish the accomplishments of “Mr. Cub,” for that day or for his career.

Ernie Banks went 3-5 with a pair of 3-run homers, but the Cubs lost to the Cardinals anyway, 16-6.

Ernie Banks went 3-5 with a pair of three-run homers, but the Cubs lost to the Cardinals anyway, 16-6.

As the 1960 season opened, Ernie Banks was at the height of his career. The game had never seen a shortstop who could match his offensive firepower. (Though it is easy to wonder what kind of numbers Honus Wagner would have put up had the ball of his era been livelier.) And his 1959 Gold Glove – the only one of his career – made for a compelling case that Banks could have been the best all-around shortstop ever.

The Cubs came into the game in last place in the National League. Only nine games into the season, Chicago was already 6.5 games behind the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates. And this game didn’t seem to start out any better for the Cubs, as they spotted the St. Louis Cardinals a six-run lead through the third inning (including a three-run homer by Darryl Spencer).

St. Louis starting pitcher Bob Miller shut out the Cubs through six innings, scattering four hits and two walks. Then the Cubs broke through in the seventh inning. Irv Noren, pinch hitting for Art Ceccarelli, opened the inning with a walk. Cubs manager Charlie Grimm sent in Sammy Drake to run for Noren. Drake advanced to second on Tony Taylor’s single to left field. Miller retired Richie Ashburn and George Altman. Then Banks came to bat and sent a Bob Miller fast ball deep into the stands in left. One swing cut the Cardinals’ lead in half and put the Cubs back into the game.

But it wasn’t to last. In the bottom of the eighth, the Cardinals scored 10 runs on eight hits, with two hits from Cardinals first baseman Bill White (single and a home run) that drove in three of the St. Louis runs. The Cubs came to bat in the top of the ninth down 16-3.

Game over? Apparently not for Mr. Banks. Against St. Louis reliever Frank Barnes, Taylor led off the inning by singling to center field and Ashburn was safe on a Ken Boyer error. With runners at first and second, Barnes struck out Altman, and then tried to sneak a fastball past Banks. The result was the same Bob Miller had experienced in the seventh inning as Banks launched his second three-run home run to the left field seats.

The game ended in a Cardinals win, 16-6. That day, Ernie Banks went 3-5 with a pair of three-run homers. But for that day, and for most of career, all of Banks’ personal heroics could not make the Cubs winners, or even keep them close.

Great Hands, Amazing Feet

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Luis Aparicio

In the six years before Maury Wills “resurrected” the stolen base as an offensive weapon, another shortstop was using the stolen base – and two of the surest hands in baseball – in launching a career that led straight to Cooperstown.

Luis Aparicio won 9 Gold Gloves at shortstop, 7 with the Chicago White Sox and 2 with the Baltimore Orioles.

Speed and defense made Luis Aparicio the American League’s premier shortstop from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. His impact on the league was almost immediate. A native of Venezuela, Aparicio was signed by the Chicago White Sox as an amateur free agent in 1954 and was Chicago’s starting shortstop in his rookie season two years later.  The 1956 season marked the first of nine consecutive years when Aparicio led the American League in steals (with a career high of 57 in 1964). He was selected as Rookie of the Year for the 1956 season.

As the team’s lead-off hitter, Aparicio was the spark plug for the White Sox offense until he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles prior to the 1963 season (in a deal that included Ron Hansen and future Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm). He played for the Orioles for five years, leading the league twice in stolen bases and winning two of his nine Gold Gloves during his tenure in Baltimore. Aparicio was traded back to the White Sox before the 1968 season, closing out the 1960s with the Pale Hose. Aparicio retired after the 1973 season, his third with the Boston Red Sox.

An 11-time All-Star, Aparicio collected 2,677 hits on a career batting average of .262, with a total of 506 stolen bases. The 342 bases Luis Aparicio stole during the 1960s rank him first among American League base stealers during that decade.

Aparicio played more games at shortstop than any other player in major league history (2,581) and retired with more assists (8,016) than any other shortstop in history. (Today he still ranks second in this category behind Ozzie Smith.) He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, the first native of Venezuela to be so honored.

Tiger Power

 

Homer Happy: Willie Horton

There was plenty of power to be found in the Detroit Tigers lineup during the 1960s. Pitchers facing the Tigers were taking on the bats of Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Jim Northrup and Dick McAuliffe. At the opening of the 1960s, the Tigers had added the reigning American League home run champion in the person of Rocky Colavito, who averaged 35 home runs for the Tigers over the next 4 seasons.

 In 15 seasons with the Tigers, Horton batted .276 with 262 home runs and 886 RBIs.

In 15 seasons with the Tigers, Horton batted .276 with 262 home runs and 886 RBIs.

When Colavito was dealt to the Kansas City Athletics after the 1963 season, he was replaced in left field for 1964 by Don Demeter, acquired over the winter from the Philadelphia Phillies. However, in September of 1964, the Tigers brought up an outfielder who had hit 28 home runs and batted in 99 runs at Syracuse in the International League. That outfielder was Willie Horton. In 25 games with the Tigers at the end of the 1964 season, Horton hit only one home run with 10 RBIs, but he earned a shot at the starting job in left field, and the next spring he won that job.

Horton was a stand-out in his first full season with the Tigers, batting .273 with 29 home runs and 104 runs batted in. He would be a fixture in the heart of Detroit’s lineup for the next decade. From 1965 through 1969, he averaged 28 home runs and 89 RBIs per season.

In 1968, Horton’s bat was pivotal to the Tigers’ successful pennant run. He had a career-best 36 home runs and batted in 85 runs, fourth highest in the American League. During the 1968 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Horton batted .304 with one home run and three RBIs.

Horton’s power numbers declined gradually through the 1970s, with the single exception being 1975 when he hit 25 homers with 92 RBIs. In 15 seasons with the Tigers, Horton batted .276 with 262 home runs and 886 RBIs. In 1977 the Tigers traded Horton to the Texan Rangers, and he played for five teams over the next four seasons. He had one more stand-out season, in 1979, batting .279 for the Seattle Mariners with 29 home runs and 106 RBIs. He retired after the 1980 season with 325 career home runs in 18 major league seasons.

Horton was a four-time All-Star.

 

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