(Mark) Clear as Mud

Not many guys can go from getting seriously knocked around in the Appy League to becoming a Major League All-Star in less than five years, but that’s exactly what Mark Clear did.

Clear was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 8th round in 1974 and spent his first professional summer with the Pulaski Phillies of the Appalachian League. To say it didn’t go well would be a gross understatement.

The 1974 Pulaski Phillies were, to be blunt, terrible. They finished the season with an 18-50 record, led the league in errors and passed balls and their team E.R.A. was 6.07, nearly a run-and-a-half higher than the next closest team.

The manager of this crew was a man named Frank Wren, who had recently left a very successful career as a college coach at Ohio University, where he had helped Mike Schmidt become an All-American. He had to be wondering what he had gotten himself into.

A Clear Problem

If the Pulaski had the worst pitching staff in the Appy League that season, Mark Clear was one of the reasons why. In fourteen appearances, Clear went 0-7 with an 8.65 ERA. He gave up 69 runs (49 earned) in 51 innings while allowing 71 hits, 43 walks and hitting 11 batters. He also threw six wild pitches. He was just 18 at the time, but it wasn’t a great way to begin your professional baseball career. The Phillies felt so too, and on April 2nd, 1975, less than a year after he was drafted, they released him.

Like a Phoenix

Mark ClearBut the California Angels saw something they thought they could work with, signed Clear as a free-agent in June and moved him to the bullpen. It worked. In the rookie Pioneer League, Mark Clear shaved more the six runs off his E.R.A. in 13 appearances. There were still a few rough patches on his ascent, but on April 4th, 1979, four years and two days after being released by the Phillies, Clear made his major league debut and threw two and one-third scoreless innings against the Seattle Mariners. Four days later, he got his first win. He would win eleven games in 1979, make the All-Star team, and finish third in the Rookie of the Year balloting behind John Castino and Alfredo Griffin.

Eleven Seasons

Mark Clear ended up spending eleven seasons in the major leagues with California, Boston and Milwaukee, compiling a 71-49 record and winning a career-high 14 games with the Red Sox in 1982. He’s a reminder to athletes to never give up and a reminder to teams not to give up too soon on athletes.

 

 

Jimmy Piersall Loses It… Again

The summer of 1980 was brutal.

A heatwave swept across the southeast which resulted in nearly 150 deaths across seven states. From Alabama to Texas and up to Missouri, people looked for any relief they could find. The search became more difficult when temperatures caused roads to buckle in many states. Wichita Falls reached a record 113 degrees and Little Rock, Arkansas saw temps of more than 100 degrees as well, which was cited by the Poultry Foundation as the cause of death for nearly two and a half million chickens.

Perhaps the only thing hotter than the weather was the temper of White Sox broadcaster and part-time outfield coach Jimmy Piersall. Prior to the Sox July 2nd home game against the Angels, Piersall sought out Arlington Heights Daily Herald writer Bob Gallas to “discuss” his story about Piersall’s dismissal as the a part-time unpaid outfield coach.

As a player, Jimmy Piersall had a much-publicized mental breakdown that became the basis for the 1957 film, Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins.  A two-time All-Star selection, Piersall’s mercurial behavior made him tough to deal with for both teammates and management.

Tony La Russa and the Sox felt it was a conflict of interest for Piersall to coach players and then go to the booth and criticize their play, so after polling the players he informed Piersall of the decision.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Sox Owner Bill Veeck had been trying to get rid of Piersall as a broadcaster because he felt he was too critical of the players. Piersall responded that he could say whatever he wanted, including taking shots at Veeck’s wife, Mary Frances, on a local radio show, calling her “a colossal bore” and suggesting she should stay in the kitchen.

Piersall was upset about losing his coaching position but when Gallas’ article made it public knowledge, Piersall confronted him in the clubhouse and the two exchanged words. Piersall backed away as if to leave, then spun and started choking Gallas.

“Jimmy jumped him; I saw it because it was right in front of the trainer’s room,” said Sox trainer Herm Schneider. “Gallas started turning blue in the face. Ross (Baumgarten)… and a security guard finally pulled Piersall off. Gallas certainly didn’t swing first. He was taken completely by surprise.”

Jimmy Piersall’s troubles didn’t end there. Once Veeck was informed of the incident, he sent his son, Mike to the broadcast booth to confront Piersall.

“When I walked in, I gave him a dedicated introductory statement as to my intentions,” said the younger Veeck. “I didn’t want it to look like Cowens’ sneak attack on Farmer. I said I wanted him to look at someone his own size.”

No sooner did Mike Veeck enter the booth and “announce his intentions” were he and Piersall involved in a scuffle that took Piersall’s broadcast partner Rich King and two writers to break up. In addition to potential embarrassment to his father’s baseball team, Mike Veeck’s intensity was most certainly ratcheted up by Piersall’s comments about his mother.

Piersall left the stadium and spent the night in a local hospital with what Sox officials termed, “exhaustion.”

The first half of the season was not kind to Daily Herald baseball writers. In spring training, Dave Kingman dumped a bucket of ice water on Daily Herald writer Don Friske. Kingman called the incident “a joke,” but Friske didn’t take it as such.

Ross Baumgarten

About the only person not affected by the pregame fracas was Baumgarten. After breaking up a fight in the clubhouse, he then threw a one-hit complete game shutout. The only hit Bumgarten surrendered was a seventh inning single off the bat of Rod Carew, who was given a reprieve after left fielder Wayne Nordhagen dropped his foul pop fly.

“It hit me in a bad spot,” said Nordhagen. “Right in the hand – U.S. Steel.”

The outing proved to be a highlight in an otherwise dismal season for Baumgarten, who finished the year 2-12. It wasn’t a good year for Veeck and the White Sox, but there was often a lot of excitement on the South Side.

The Courtship of Nolan Ryan

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.

Nolan Ryan with Angels
Ryan won 138 games as an Angel

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.

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan at the Astrodome

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.”