I was among the t-ball elite of Oxford, Ohio back in 1977. But once the ball started moving, I began to experience tremendous difficulty at the plate. At the time, there was still room for all-glove, no-hit infielders in the big leagues, but being an all-glove, no-hit 11 year-old was a different story. As such, I had very little in common with my big-league heroes.
But Gary Carter was different. Gary Carter collected baseball cards, just like me. His collection was the subject of a feature story in the New York Times in July of 1980, where he detailed buying packs at the concession stand at Little League games and building sets when he was a kid.
Somehow, word of Carter’s collection reached me in Ohio and I wrote him a letter about it. I spent a lot of time writing letters to baseball players in the ’70s and ’80s asking for autographs. Some wrote back, many didn’t. But Carter did.
I have no idea what I said other than bringing up the fact that we both collected cards, a fact which separated me from practically none of the other kids who wrote requesting an autograph, but he wrote back.
Once I sent a batch of letters I anxiously checked the mail each day and seeing the Montreal Expos envelope was a thrill. I got Gary Carter’s autograph!
Carter passed away far too young. Brain tumors took his life in 2012. He was only 57. But back in the early ’80s “The Kid” provided me with a thrill that lasts to this day.
The complete game is an anachronism in baseball today. But in 1980 it was an important part of the game and a source of pride for the pitchers who threw them.
As the Pittsburgh Pirates began defense of their 1979 World Series championship, manager Chuck Tanner indicated he wanted to see more complete games out of his starting pitchers. If the Pirates were to repeat, Tanner had an eye on resting Kent Tekulve and the rest of the bullpen as much as possible.
His opening day starter, Bert Blyleven, supported his plan 100%. From 1971 through ’78, Blyleven had completed nearly half of the games he started. In ’79, that number slipped to just four in 37 starts and he was not happy about it, feeling it robbed him of the chance for more wins which equated to a larger contract.
Opening Day Difficulties
Pittsburgh opened their season against St. Louis and the Cardinals held a 1-0 lead in the top of the 6th when Phil Garner’s single broke up Pete Vuckovich‘s no-hit bid and brought up Blyleven’s spot in the order. Seeing a chance to possibly tie the game, Tanner lifted Blyleven and sent Mike Easler up to hit. The move backfired as Easler hit into an inning-ending double play.
Through his first four starts of the season, Blyleven was excellent but had nothing to show for it. His record was 0-2, but he had an E.R.A. of 2.42 and was allowing fewer than one base runner per inning while posting 26 strikeouts in 26 innings. The problem was offense. The Pirate bats had produced just eight runs in his four starts.
But for Blyleven, the lack of offensse was secondary to not being permitted to finish what he started. Despite Tanner’s pre-season proclamation, Pirate pitchers completed three of fourteen starts and Blyleven had yet to go the distance.
Game number 15 of the season was on April 29th in Pittsburgh against the Montreal Expos with Blyleven on the mound. Through five innings, the Pirates led 4-2. But a sixth inning Montreal rally tied the game at four and brought Tanner out of the Pittsburgh dugout to once again remove Blyleven. The Pirates eventually won the game 5-4 in 10 innings, but Blyleven was livid. So much so that he requested a trade and left the team the following day.
A Line in the Sand
“I felt I had to speak up,” he told the media. “If I didn’t, maybe 20 years from now, I’d be wishing that I had spoken up. Maybe 20 years from now I’ll wish I hadn’t spoken up.
The move did not sit well Blyleven’s teamates and some weren’t shy in expressing their concern.
“Pitching is more of a strength on our club than most people realize,” fellow pitcher Jim Rooker told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The reason we won everything last year is that our pitching came through when other staffs were not as flexible as ours. We need Bert.”
“I can understand a lot of things about ballplayers,” said Bill Madlock. “But going home… I don’t know why he did that.”
Pirates General Manager Pete Peterson told the press he considered Blyleven semi-retired and sent a message to the other 25 teams announcing his availability via trade and requesting a pitcher in return.
Rumors flew that he was headed to the Yankees in exchange for Ed Figueroa or the Red Sox with Pittsburgh receiving Mike Torrez. One of the more interesting rumors was that the California Angels supposedly knew of Blyleven’s impending departure before the Pirates did. Blyleven lived in California and allegedly told friends he was considering leaving the team.
Blyleven returned to the Pirates a few weeks later and was inserted back into the rotation against the San Francisco Giants. He went the distance in a 5-0 loss and finished the season with a 8-13 record with five complete games. He was traded to the Indians in December.
On April 1st, 1980, members of the Major League Baseball Players Association voted to walk out of the final week of spring training. The move was a warning shot intended to get the attention of the team owners who were longing for the good old days before free-agency.
Some teams stayed at their spring training sites and hosted informal workouts. Some teams disbanded and went home for a quick break before opening day.
But the most bizarre incident took place in the Orlando airport when Houston Astros third baseman Enos Cabell decided to head home after the strike vote. Teamates Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard wanted Cabell to stay in camp and continue to work out with the team. Their desire for team unity was so great that the two of them, 5 foot 8 Morgan and 6 foot 8 Richard, were seen sprinting through the airport in full uniform trying to track down Cabell before he boarded his 12:40 p.m. flight to California.
“We didn’t know which airline,” said Morgan. So we had to run around the airport looking for a flight that left at that time for Los Angeles.”
“It tripped me out,” said Cabell. “When I saw Joe and J – man, I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone at the airport.”
“We thought he should stay along with the rest of us,” said Morgan. “I told him if I’d done all that running around the airport, making a spectacle of myself with my uniform on and found out he wouldn’t come back, there was gonna be a fight right there on the spot.”
On April 1st, 1980, players across the major leagues voted on whether or not to strike that season. Of the 968 votes cast, there was but one dissenter.
As spring training wound down, one issue loomed above all others: The threat of a players’ strike. Ever since Peter Seitz’s ruling in December of 1975 which struck down the reserve clause, MLB owners had been trying to turn back time. The collective bargaining agreement was set to expire and the owners’ proposal of Free-Agent Compensation was the major sticking point. Owners wanted a system in which a team signing a free agent would be able to protect up to 15 players and the team losing the free agent could select any unprotected player as compensation for the loss.
Player’s Association head Marvin Miller advised the players not to accept the proposal because he felt it would keep teams from aggressively bidding on free agents, which it certainly would have done. On April 1st, the players voted to walk out of the final week of spring training and to go on strike on May 22nd if an agreement was not reached. The strike would deprive the owners revenue from 92 spring training games and put the regular season in doubt. The final vote was 967-1 in favor of a strike. The single no vote came from Royals infielder Jerry Terrell who objected on religious grounds. Terrell didn’t admit to casting the lone dissenting vote, but there was no doubt as to where he stood.
Terrell was the Royals player representative and addressed his teammates before the vote. He told them he would vote against a strike and he told them why. He also offered to step aside as player rep. His teammates turned him down.
“I’m just 1-39th of a team’s opinion and the majority feels the other way,” he said. “It is not hard to cast the vote. The players know my views and there is mutual respect,”
I grew up as a Phillies Phan in Reds Country in the 1970s.
Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton were my guys, but I also had an obsession with shortstop Larry Bowa. He was small and feisty and played great defense. In T-Ball, I played shortstop and wore his uniform number proudly.
When I was eight years-old, I went to Philadelphia on vacation and acquired a replica Phillies uniform. Upon my return to southwestern Ohio, I convinced my mother to put a big number 10 on the back for Bowa. I’m guessing not a lot of kids in the Cincinnati area were rocking fake Larry Bowa uniforms in the late ’70s but I definitely was. I wore that uniform to every Reds game I went to until I grew out of it. If the Reds were playing the Padres, why not wear a full Phillies uniform?
Opportunities to see Bowa and the Phillies were rare at the time but three Phillies/Reds games stand out for me, especially as it pertains to Bowa.
May 10th, 1980
This game had it all. It was a beautiful spring day and the pitching matchup featured future Hall of Famers going head-to-head. Tom Seaver started for the Reds against Steve Carlton for the Phillies. Somehow I got down to field level before the game and got to watch Carlton warm up.
Once the game began, my buddy and I were back in the upper deck and decided to take a stroll around the concourse. The announced attendance was just under 29,000 so the wisdom of walking an empty upper deck concourse escapes me but as we were walking in the top of the 5th inning I heard Riverfront Stadium P.A. announcer Paul Sommerkamp say, “Now batting, the shortsop, Larry Bowa.”
I shot up the ramp in left center just in time to see Bowa send a line drive right at us. Left fielder Dave Collins and center fielder Sam Mejias collided going after the ball and collapsed to the turf. Right fielder Hector Cruz had to come over to field the ball but he was way too late. My man, Larry Bowa, had himself an inside-the-Park homer and the Phillies led 2-0. The Reds ended up winning the game 5-2 despite Bowa’s heroics.
August 28, 1977
My second Bowa memory isn’t quite as sweet. In fact, it still haunts me. I was nine years old and my mom took me to see my Phillies. Let’s just say it wasn’t a good day if you weren’t rooting for the home nine. Phillies starter Randy Lerch gave up six runs in just an inning and a third, and by the time Bowa came up in the top of the 8th inning the score was 9-0 Cincinnati.
Bowa hit a bouncer to second and umpire Satch Davidson called him out on a close play at first. Bowa went ballistic and got tossed. Now my team was losing and Bowa had just been run. I cried. My mom did what she did to console me, as did some guys sitting near us who tried to cheer me up by assuring me that the Phillies would end up playing the Reds in the playoffs and I’d get another chance to see Bowa at Riverfont that season. Little solace at the time. Turns out they were wrong anyway. The Phillies lost in the NLCS to the Dodgers that year.
The next day in the Cincinnati Enquirer, there was a photo of Bowa yelling at Davidson. Veins were bulging in his neck and the photo perfectly captured his ire. The caption read, “Big Temper for a Little Guy.”
June 22, 1977
But my favorite Larry Bowa vs. the Reds moment came just a few months prior to his meltdown at Riverfront. In June, the Reds were in Philadelphia and it was a rare instance where the game was televised. In the days before cable TV, there were just a handful of games on and I was front and center for this one.
In the bottom of the 7th inning, the Phillies held a slim 10-9 lead in a game that had featured six home runs to that point. Tom Hume started the inning for the Reds and loaded the bases, prompting Sparky Anderson to pull him in favor of veteran Joe Hoerner. Hoerner faced Ted Sizemore and uncorked a wild pitch, which allowed Greg Luzinski to score and move everyone up 90 feet.
With a base open, Sparky opted to walk Sizemore intentionally to face Bowa. Big mistake. Acting manager Bobby Wine told Bowa to be ready for a squeeze. But he also thought the Reds may be anticipating one so he gave Bowa the green light on the first pitch. Hoerner threw a fat one right down the middle and Bowa hammered it over the boards in left for a grand slam.
Larry Bowa hit a total of 15 homers in his career and that slam came in a May game nearly 40 years ago. I remember it like it happened last night. And by the way, I still have that uniform.
What are your favorite memories of your favorite players?
In December of 1979 the Houston Astros made Nolan Ryan the first million-dollar man history. Ryan won 324 games, threw 7 no-hitters and would lead his league in strikeouts eleven times en route to amassing more strikeouts than any other pitcher who ever player. But in 1980 he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team.
That honor belonged to James Rodney Richard. He stood 6 foot 8 inches tall and regularly hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball. If that wasn’t enough, he also possessed one of the league’s most devastating sliders. As a senior in high school, he allowed ZERO runs and was selected in the first round of the draft by the Astros in 1969. The 1971 Astros Media guide listed him as a “giant youngster who has an overpowering fast ball, but who obviously lacks control.”
J.R. Richard made his debut against Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants in September of 1971. Apparently he wasn’t intimidated as he threw a complete game shutout and struck out 15, including Mays three times.
As his career progressed, control was still an issue. He led the league in walks three times and set a major league record in 1979 by throwing six wild pitches in an April 10th game against the Dodgers. He also struck out 13 Dodgers that day, allowing just six hits in a complete game 2-1 win.
From 1976 through 1979, he was one of the top pitchers in the National League, amassing a 74-51 record with 1,044 strikeouts in 1,125 and two-thirds innings and a 2.89 ERA. Only Steve Carlton won more games during that four year period in the N.L.
In 1980, he was even better. Richard got the nod on Opening Day against the Dodgers and was perfect through six and a third innings before Rudy Law singled in the seventh. J.R. went eight and struck out 13 before giving way to Joe Sambito who earned his first save.
“It was coming out of a cannon,” said Law. “I’ve never faced anybody who can throw the ball like that, it was unbelievable. He’s one of the greatest pitchers in the major leagues. I don’t look forward to facing too many more like him.”
What made his Opening Day start different was that the 98 MPH fastball and the 13 strikeouts went with zero walks, something he was able to do just three times in 1979. To begin the season that way was a big boost for him.
“I think this was the best night I’ve had since I was in the major leagues,” said Richard. “Just getting the ball over the plate was my secret.”
On April 19th, more than 50,000 fans packed the Astrodome to watch Richard outduel Bob Welch in a 2-0 Astros win. Two starts later, Richard beat Tom Seaver 5-1 in Cincinnati to run his record to a perfect 4-0. But the undefeated record doesn’t pay justice to how dominant he was. In 37 and two-thirds innings, the big right hander surrendered just 13 hits while striking out 48 and recording a 1.67 ERA. Perhaps most impressive was the paltry .104 batting average the National League posted against him. The dominance continued through May and June and at the All-Star break his record stood at 10-4 with a 1.96 E.R.A.
1980 was shaping up to be his finest season. But Richard had also been plagued by health problems all year. He left his April 14th start against Atlanta with shoulder stiffness. The same issue kept him from finishing his April 25th start against the Mets. He left his June 17th start against Chicago due to a “dead arm.” Forearm trouble chased him early from his July 3rd start against the Braves. Obviously, something was wrong.
A Sporting News article on Richard’s situation trumpeted, “Houston has own JR Mystery,” a play on the “Who shot JR?” mystery of the popular TV show, Dallas.
In the Sporting News piece, Harry Shattuck wrote, “Pardon us Dallasites, but our JR saga may be as intriguing as yours… and Houston’s JR is real. Hard to believe, perhaps, but real”
On July 11th while the Astros were in Los Angeles, Richard was examined by renowned surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe who didn’t find anything wrong. On the morning of July 14th, Richard called Astros team doctor Harold Brelsford and told him he was ready to go that night against the Braves but on the mound he had trouble seeing the signs from the catcher. He lasted just three and a third before leaving with what the Astros called an upset stomach.
The fans and Astros General Manager Tal Smith were growing impatient and the rumors and accusations began to swirl. J.R. was accused of everything from being jealous of Ryan’s $1 million contract to just being lazy.
After the July 14th start, Richard was placed on the disabled list and underwent a series of tests at Methodist Hospital in Houston which uncovered arterial blockage in his right arm. The blockage was not considered serious however and no surgery was recommended.
Richard was released from the hospital and cleared for supervised workouts on July 26th. Four days later, during a workout at the Astrodome, he collapsed in the outfield. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital where tests revealed he had suffered a stroke. Apologies rained down from media members who had criticized Richard for asking out of games.
“Guilt has seized a lot of people in this town who believed in the weeks before his problem was diagnosed,…that Richard was playing his own kind of game.” wrote columnist Mickey Herskowitz of The Houston Post on August 3rd.
“Some wrote or said as much, and if anyone expressed any sympathy, or offered him the benefit of the doubt, no real notice was paid…. Our concern and shock were mixed with embarrassment and we ought to admit it.”
The Houston Astros had one of the best pitching staffs in the National League in 1979, finishing second in the league with a 3.20 team E.R.A. Joe Niekro won 21 games, Ken Forsch threw the major league’s only no-hitter and 6 foot 8 fireballer James Rodney Richard led league in strikeouts. But new owner John McMullen wasn’t satisfied. In November he shook up the baseball world, and angered his fellow owners, by signing Nolan Ryan for the unheard of price of $1 million per season.
Ryan had established himself as one of the top pitchers in the game in his eight seasons as a member of the California Angels. He won 138 games and recorded nearly 2,500 strikeouts, leading the American League every year but one (1975). But a rift developed between Ryan and Angels General Manager Buzzie Bavasi in 1979 and that rift grew to a chasm as the season progressed.
Ryan’s contract was up at the end of the year and after a 1978 season in which he went 10-13, Bavasi was in no hurry to sign him to a big money, long-term contract. Things got more contentious as the summer wore on. Ryan and his agent Dick Moss gave Bavasi permission to seek a trade to Texas or Houston but a proposed swap involving Al Oliver was turned down by the Rangers and Houston’s offer of Bob Watson and Joe Sambito was rejected by Bavasi.
Ryan finished 1979 at 16-14 with a league-leading 223 strikeouts and a 3.60 ERA while helping the Angels win their first ever division title. His 16 wins tied for the team lead, but Bavasi wasn’t impressed, telling the media he could simply replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers. “Buzzie did not understand,” said Don Baylor in his 1989 biography, Nothing but the Truth: A Baseball Life
“They could replace the win total, but they could not replace the pitcher, the wear and tear he saved the bullpen, the fear he put in the opposition. He was the only pitcher in the majors capable of pitching a no-hitter any time he took the mound.”
So Ryan entered the free-agent draft and had multiple suitors. George Steinbrenner and the Yankees offered $1 million per season but after beginning his career with the Mets, Ryan had little interest in returning to New York. He told Moss that if the Astros would match the Yankees’ offer he would sign.
His three-year, $3 million deal was the richest in team sports history and gave Houston both defending strikeout champions in Ryan and Richard. They became even more devastating as bookends to the knuckleballing Niekro.
“Can you imagine this?” joked Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell. “Hitting Niekro is like chasing a butterfly with the hiccups. Now they can sandwich him in there with Ryan and Richard. The commissioner should tie up the deal for the next five years. By then, I’ll be out of baseball.”
On February 17th, 1980 two separate interviews at a local television station turned into an impromptu Los Angeles Dodgers fight night.
Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, was at KNBC recording an interview when he bumped into Jim Lefebvre.
Bad blood existed between the two after Lasorda had fired Lefebvre as hitting and first base coach after the 1979 season. Lefebvre won Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1965 and parlayed his time in L.A. into some acting gigs, including playing one of The Riddler’s henchmen on the Batman TV series.
The henchman experience proved handy when the two squared off in Burbank. Both men claimed the other started the fight but there was little doubt who finished it. L.A. sportscaster Steve Sommers reported “Lasorda left with blood on his face and Lefebvre left with a smile on his.”
In July of 1980, George Brett hit an amazing .494, en route to leading the major leagues with a .390 batting average. Likewise, some players perform exceptionally well against certain teams. Over his career, Babe Ruth slugged .744 against the Detroit Tigers. Ted Williams hit .374 against Orioles and Ty Cobb hit .381 vs. Philadelphia A’s.
But the opposite is also true. Try as they might, certain players struggle against certain teams. Such was the case for Kansas City Royals catcher John Wathan against the Oakland A’s in 1980 and the month of May was especially brutal.
Oakland manager Billy Martin made a living out of exploiting weakness. After taking over the A’s before the 1980 season he decided to use the stolen base as a weapon and when he spotted a weakness he took full advantage of it.
The carnage began on May 19th, a 6-5 Royals win in Kansas City. Dwayne Murphy, Rickey Henderson and Mitchell Page each stole bases against Wathan, though Page was also gunned down trying to steal 3rd. The next night, the same Oakland trio combined for five stolen bases in five attempts. Billy was onto something. On the 21st, Henderson got two more in two attempts. In the four game set, Oakland stole 10 bases in 12 attempts.
The two teams got together again a week later in Oakland. In game one of the series, the A’s gave Wathan a break. Despite thirteen baserunners, Oakland had zero stolen base attempts. In game two, it was Rickey and Page again, who combined to steal three more. Wathan did get credit for a caught stealing when Wayne Gross was nabbed trying to steal home in the 2nd inning.
In the series finale the following afternoon, the A’s really did some damage. In the bottom of the first inning, singles by Murphy and Page put runners on the corners with one out. With Gross at the plate, Page took off for second while Murphy broke for home seconds later. Wathan’s throw went into center field, allowing Murphy to score and sending Page to 3rd. Then with Gross still at the plate, a Rich Gale pitch got past Wathan, which allowed Page to score.
Later in the inning with Gross on 3rd and Jeff Newman on first, Martin reached into his bag of tricks. Newman took a big lead off first and then “fell down” drawing a throw from Wathan. This gave Gross the opportunity to steal home, while Newman got up and ran to second for the 4th stolen base of the inning.
“It worked to perfection,” Martin said. “Gross’ timing coming home was sensational.”
Newman was especially proud of his performance, telling the media, “I get the best supporting actor award.”
Wathan exacted some revenge by gunning down Henderson trying to steal second in the next inning, but Billy and the A’s weren’t through with him yet. They would steal three more bases in the game, running their total to an amazing 20.
In fairness to Wathan, there were double steals and steals of home mixed into the total. He even stole two bases himself while hitting .345 with a home run against the A’s, but the stat line is ugly.
In one month, the Oakland A’s stole 20 bases in 24 attempts against Wathan, who also committed two throwing errors and a passed ball, which made for one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad May.
George Bamberger took over as the Brewers manager prior to the 1978 season after serving as a pitching coach under Earl Weaver in Baltimore from 1968 through 1977. A baseball lifer, “Bambi” won 213 games in the minor leagues between 1946 and 1963, which included an impressive 1958 streak of 68 and 2/3 consecutive innings without issuing a walk while a member of the Vancouver Mounties.
Perhaps his most memorable outing as a Mountie came in a 1962 game against the Tacoma Giants when his uniform was fitted with a small radio receiver. While he was on the mound, Vancouver manager Jack McKeon gave Bamberger instructions, including pitch location and when to throw to first base for pickoffs. The experiment proved unsuccessful, in part because the signal from a local radio station bled through and at times instead of hearing McKeon, Bamberger heard Connie Francis tunes. On another occasion, McKeon gave Bamberger instructions to throw to first for a pickoff. But since he hadn’t been looking at the runner, the first baseman wasn’t ready and the throw hit him in the chest.
Seemingly an act of baseball espionage, the radio incident was undertaken with the knowledge and blessing of the Pacific Coast League as part of a plan to speed up games by eliminating trips to the mound. The PCL may have known about the radio, but the Giants didn’t. Manager Red Davis didn’t find out about until he read about it in the newspaper.
“I never suspected a thing, and neither did my boys,” said Davis. “A lot of runs will always win a baseball game, but this gimmick will be nice to try.”