Pride and Pinstripes
This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
A baseball lifer, Mel Stottlemyre burst on the scene as a midseason call-up for the New York Yankees in 1964, helping the club win its fifth consecutive pennant and starting three games in the World Series. One of the most underrated and overlooked pitchers of his generation, Stottlemyre won 149 games and averaged 272 innings per season over a nine-year stretch (1965-1973) that corresponded with the nadir of Yankees history. Only Bob Gibson (166 victories), Gaylord Perry (161), Mickey Lolich (156), and Juan Marichal (155) won more during that period; only Perry tossed more innings, and only Gibson fired more shutouts (43) than Stottlemyre’s 38.
Stottlemyre was the “epitome of Yankee class and dignity,” wrote longtime New York sportswriter Phil Pepe. “[He was] a throwback to a winning tradition in those years of mediocrity.” After a torn rotator cuff ended his playing career at the age of 32 in 1974, Stottlemyre embarked on a storied career as a big-league pitching coach, most notably for the New York Mets (1984- 1993) and Yankees (1996-2005). Denied a championship as a player he won five as a coach (1986, 1996, 1998-2000).
Melvin Leon Stottlemyre was born on November 13, 1941, in Hazleton, Missouri, the third of five children born to Vernon and Lorene Ellen (Miles) Stottlemyre. Vernon was a pipefitter and moved the family from south-central Missouri to Oregon and South Carolina before settling in the early 1950s in Mabton, a small farming town in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where he was employed at the Hanford Atomic Energy plant. The elder Stottlemyre, a former sandlot player, introduced Mel and his younger brother, Keith, to baseball and took them to local semipro games. According to his autobiography with John Harper, Pride and Pinstripes, Mel spent countless hours as a teenager in his backyard with his brother replaying the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers games they read about. Growing up in a blue-collar family in a rural area, Mel’s experience with baseball in organized leagues was limited until high school. The tall, bashful right-hander with sandy blond hair pitched and occasionally played shortstop for Mabton High School, which had just 10 players when he graduated in 1959.
On the strength of a 13-0 record as a senior, Mel accepted a scholarship to attend Yakima Valley Junior College, but got off to a rough start both in school and on the diamond. Declared academically ineligible because of poor grades in 1960, he played in a local summer league. He returned to the junior college in 1961 and went 7-2 for legendary coach Chuck “Bobo” Brayton. Stottlemyre worked out for the Milwaukee Braves at their minor-league affiliate in Yakima, but was rejected because he didn’t throw hard enough. While toiling on a farm and resigned that his baseball days were probably over, he was surprised by a visit from Yankees scout Eddie Taylor. With no negotiations and no bonus but unequivocal support from his folks, Stottlemyre signed a minor-league contract with his favorite team. “He had the effortless way of throwing the ball,” recalled Taylor.
Just 19 years old, the unheralded Stottlemyre began his professional baseball career splitting his time with the Class-D Harlan (Kentucky) Smokies in the Appalachian League and the Auburn (New York) Yankees in the New York-Penn League in 1961. A combined 9-4 record and 3.27 ERA in 99 innings earned him a promotion to Class-B Greensboro in 1962. Described by sportswriter Moses Crutchfield as the “hottest prospect” in the Carolina League, Stottlemyre relied on a fastball, slider, and sinker to post a 17-9 record with a stellar 2.50 ERA in a leagueleading 241 innings, including a stretch of 28⅔ scoreless frames early in the season. “His biggest asset,” wrote Crutchfield, “is his ability to keep the ball low.” That quality turned out to be Stottlemyre’s calling card to the big leagues.
The Yankees brass was impressed with Stottlemyre’s unexpectedly quick progress. He was invited to participate in spring training in 1963 as a nonroster player and was subsequently assigned to the Triple-A Richmond Virginians (International League). The youngest player on the club, Stottlemyre struggled against seasoned competition, posting a 7-7 record and splitting his time between starts (16) and relief appearances (23). The Yankees, fresh off a 104-win season that ended in a drubbing by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, did not invite the 22-year-old to spring training in 1964. Stottlemyre began the season in the bullpen for Richmond, but the lanky righty scuttled those plans by tossing a shutout in a spot start on Memorial Day. He worked his way into the rotation and won 10 consecutive decisions, earning a berth on the league’s All-Star team.
While Stottlemyre was leading the IL in wins (13), ERA (1.42), and shutouts (6), the Yankees were in a tense, three-way battle with the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox for the 1964 pennant. When longtime ace Whitey Ford went down with a hip injury in late July, New York called up Stottlemyre, who arrived on August 11.
Stottlemyre’s debut on August 12 was “movie script stuff,” wrote New York sportswriter Til Ferdenzi. The rookie tossed a complete-game seven-hitter to defeat Chicago, 7-3. In what developed into a refrain heard over the next decade, hitters pummeled Stottlemyre’s sinker into the ground all afternoon. “He sure knows how to serve up those grounders,” said batterymate John Blanchard as the Yankees recorded 19 groundouts. Stottlemyre’s fairy tale continued throughout the regular season. On September 17 he recorded his seventh victory in nine starts to give the Yankees a psychological boost by pushing them into first place, tied with the Orioles and White Sox, for the first time in almost six weeks. Nine days later, he blanked the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium on two hits (his first of seven career two-hitters) and tied a big-league record for pitchers by collecting five hits (four singles and a double). The Yankees’ most effective hurler, Stottlemyre finished the campaign with a 9-3 record and a team-best 2.06 ERA in 96 innings. Most importantly, Stottlemyre stabilized a shaky staff and helped the club win 34 of its final 52 games and capture its fifth consecutive AL pennant.
After the Yankees’ loss in Game One of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Stottlemyre tossed a seven-hit complete game, defeating hard-throwing Bob Gibson, 8-3, at Busch Stadium. “The kid’s got the best sinker and curve I’ve seen,” said Cardinals third baseman and NL MVP Ken Boyer. “There isn’t a pitcher in the National League with this kind of stuff.” Facing Gibson again, in Game Five at Yankee Stadium, Stottlemyre held the Redbirds to six hits and two runs (one earned), but was lifted for a pinch-hitter with New York trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh in an eventual 5-2 defeat in 10 innings.
Then first-year skipper Yogi Berra sent the 22-yearold Stottlemyre on two days’ rest to face “Gibby” for the third time with the championship on the line. In the fourth inning, with two on and no outs, Stottlemyre induced Tim McCarver to ground into what appeared to be an easy double play. While covering first, Stottlemyre hurt his shoulder diving for a poor throw by Phil Linz, filling in for Tony Kubek at shortstop. Boyer scored on the play, and the floodgates were open. Stottlemyre surrendered two more singles and two runs (one on McCarver’s steal of home on the front end of a double steal), and was lifted for a pinch-hitter the next inning. “The fielders sabotaged [him],” wrote Yankees beat reporter Leonard Koppett of Stottlemyre’s performance in Game Five and Seven. “His hitters didn’t make a run while he was in the game. With a little support, Stottlemyre could have been the hero.”
The Yankees’ 7-5 loss in Game Seven marked the end of an era. After winning 29 AL pennants and 20 World Series from 1921 to 1964, the team embarked on what historian Robert W. Cohen called the “lean years” over the next decade. A new era had indeed dawned. The Yankees were an aging club that had failed to sign top African American prospects, unlike other teams around baseball, including their opponents in the 1964 World Series. Although New York led the AL in attendance in 1964, its average of 15,922 per game was the club’s lowest since 1945 and suggested Americans’ general lack of interest in major-league baseball. At the end of the season, CBS purchased 80 percent of the team from owners Dan Topping and Del Webb. Stottlemyre’s emergence as a bona-fide big-league ace corresponded with the Yankees’ plunge to depths not witnessed since before the acquisition of Babe Ruth for the 1920 season. For the remainder of Stottlemyre’s career, a discussion of his accomplishments was often accompanied by the nostalgic remark that he arrived on the team 10 years too late.
In 1965 the Yankees experienced their first losing season since 1925 and fell to the second division for the first time since 1917, but Stottlemyre emerged as one of baseball’s best hurlers. He set the tenor by shutting out the California Angels in his season debut. Remarkably consistent, Stottlemyre paced the AL with 18 complete games in 37 starts, led the league with 291 innings (including consecutive 10-inning affairs), won his 20th game in his final start of the season, and posted an impressive 2.63 ERA. He was named for the first of five times to the AL All-Star squad (he did not pitch) and to The Sporting News All-Star team.
Stottlemyre’s success is often attributed to his sinker, which Yankees coach Jim Hegancompared to that of his former batterymate with the Cleveland Indians, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. They both threw the sinker overhand, whereas most throw it side-arm or three-quarters because of how difficult a pitch it is to control. Said Stottlemyre, “When [the wind] blows in, I may be a bit faster, but my ball straightens out. When the ball blows out, my ball sinks.” Cerebral and reflective, Stottlemyre also succeeded because of his ability to adjust over time. Around 1962 he took pitching coach Johnny Sain’s advice and began gripping the ball with the seams instead of across them in order to get a bigger break. This change made his fastball as effective as his sinker. “I created some movement with my delivery and the way I held the ball, but mostly it was just natural.” Often touted for his good control (2.7 walks per nine innings in his career), Stottlemyre himself admitted, “I couldn’t throw the ball straight if I wanted to.”
Described as “strangely inconsistent” in 1966, Stottlemyre’s season was a study in contrasts for a team in turmoil. The Yankees’ experiment with Johnny Keane, the former Cardinals skipper hired after he beat the Bronx Bombers in the ’64 Series, ended 20 games into the season with the club in last place. He was replaced by Ralph Houk, who could do little to keep the Yankees from finishing in the cellar for the first time since 1912, when the club was known as the Highlanders. One of the team’s few early season standouts, Stottlemyre carved out a sturdy 2.71 ERA through the end of June (despite a 7-8 record) before the bottom the fell out. Excluding a two-inning outing in the All-Star Game in which he yielded one hit and one walk, Stottlemyre’s ERA almost doubled (5.02) for the remainder of the season, and he concluded a frustrating campaign by becoming the first Yankee hurler to lose 20 games (12-20) since Sad Sam Jones in 1925. “I was giving in (to the hitters),” Stottlemyre told Phil Pepe. “Instead of walking them, I came in with a fat pitch and they hit it.” His ERA jumped to 3.80 overall and he completed just nine of 35 starts. “I learned a lot through adversity. I got to the point where I almost hated to walk out to the mound,” recalled Stottlemyre later in his career.
Recognizing that he needed to make adjustments, Stottlemyre dumped his slow curve, which had affected his sinker, in 1967, and honed his rising fastball. The sailing heater “makes batters hesitate about leaning out to hit my slider,” said Stottlemyre. The changes paid immediate dividends as Stottlemyre blanked the Washington Senators on two hits on Opening Day and the Boston Red Sox on four hits in his second start. In late April he developed tendinitis in his right shoulder, which required X-ray treatment and caused him to miss two starts. For the rest of his career, Stottlemyre contended with shoulder soreness. In a workmanlike season, the right-hander re-established himself as the Yankees ace, going 15-15 and posting a 2.96 ERA in 255 innings. Even in a pitchers’ era, the Yankees were an especially atrocious offensive team, batting just .225 and scoring an AL-low 522 runs as they finished in ninth place. In 14 of Stottlemyre’s losses, New York scored two runs or fewer (16 total runs).
Stottlemyre reported to camp in 1968 in good spirits following surgery to correct lingering problems with his right foot, which had affected his stamina the previous two seasons, limiting him to just 19 complete games. His mood soon turned sour when tendinitis resurfaced in his shoulder and caused him to miss two weeks. Thus, a pattern was established. Plagued annually by bouts of shoulder tendinitis, Stottlemyre was eased into spring training for the remainder of his career.
After walking a career-high 3.1 batters per nine innings in 1967, Stottlemyre made yet another adjustment. “I’ve always thrown across my body, but I was throwing more and more across my body and it was affecting my control,” he explained. “I tried to widen my stance at the end of my follow-through and this cut down a lot on my body crossing.” Stottlemyre’s walk ratio fell to a career-low 2.1 per nine innings. He fired shutouts in three of his first seven starts, including a three-hitter against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on April 26 when Mickey Mantle blasted home run number 521 to tie Ted Williams for fourth place on the all-time list. Named to the All-Star Game for the third time, he faced only one batter, Hank Aaron, whom he struck out in the ninth. The 26-year-old set career career bests in wins (21) and ERA (2.45), finished tied for second in the league in complete games (19) and shutouts (6), and placed third in innings (278⅔) while the Yankees enjoyed their first winning season since 1964. “There is no question that Mel rates with the top five pitchers in baseball,” said skipper Houk.
People regularly praised Stottlemyre for his character, sportsmanship, and unassuming leadership. “He doesn’t moan when you don’t get him runs,” said Houk, “[or] when they kick ones behind him.” Quiet and self-effacing, Stottlemyre rarely sought the spotlight or chewed out his teammates. He was seen as “old school” before the term was common, an embodiment of Yankees style more reflective of the 1940s and 1950s than the mid- to late 1960s and early 1970s. “In the second-division days around the stadium,” wrote beat reporter Jim Ogle, “Stottlemyre is one Yankee who retains the old championship aura and class.” Stottlemyre’s outwardly quiet demeanor belied a passion and desire to succeed. Said one-time Yankees backup catcher Bob Schmidt, “He works like a machine, never showing his feelings. Inside he’s thinking and fighting and planning to win.”
Often described as a country boy, Stottlemyre shunned the media capital and returned to his beloved Washington state to spend the offseasons hunting and fishing, and above all to be with his wife, Jean (Mitchell), whom he married in November 1962. The “big city hasn’t spoiled him,” opined Ogle. A consummate teammate, Stottlemyre also had a humorous side and enjoyed joking with his teammates. “I was a quiet prankster,” he once said. “I could get away with a lot of things [because] no one ever suspected.”
An excellent and agile fielder, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Stottlemyre might have been considered the best at his position in the AL had Jim Kaat (who won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1962-1977) not been in the league. Stottlemyre led AL pitchers in fielding and assists twice and in putouts three times. Not an automatic out at the plate, Stottlemyre batted .160 (120-for-749), homered seven times, and knocked in 57 runs. Four of those came in a victory over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on July 20, 1965, when he became the first hurler since 1910 to hit an inside-thepark grand slam. SaidJim Turner, a baseball lifer and longtime Yankees pitching coach, “[He] would be an outstanding pitcher in any era. He is intelligent, a fine fielder, has three or four big-league pitches, a perfect temperament, and is a great competitor.”
In 1969 the Yankees had a losing record (80-81) for the fourth time in Stottlemyre’s five full seasons, but the righty was not to blame. In the wake of Mantle’s retirement on March 1, Stottlemyre inherited the Commerce Comet’s mantle of leadership. “There’s no more respected player with the Yankees than Stottlemyre,” wrote Ogle. He made a seamless transition to the lowered pitching mound mandated by Major League Baseball to generate more offense following the “Year of the Pitcher.” In his last start of the season, Stottlemyre won his 20th game and finished with 303 innings, the first Yankee to break the 300-inning barrier since Carl Mays in 1921. He set numerous career highs, including starts (39), innings, and complete games (24, to lead the AL). His 2.82 ERA trailed only lefty Fritz Peterson (2.55) among Yankees starters. Tabbed to start the All-Star Game, Stottlemyre was rocked for four hits and three runs (two earned) to get tagged with the loss in one of the few blemishes in an otherwise stellar campaign.
The Yankees made Stottlemyre the highest-paid pitcher in team history in 1970 when they signed the 28-year-old for $70,000. He put up typical numbers (37 starts and 271 innings), but was bothered all year by chronic shoulder pain that limited him to a 15-13 record and just 14 complete games. “I was afraid to cut loose because my arm was tight,” he said. In his final All-Star appearance, he tossed 1⅔ hitless innings of relief. Led by rookie catcher Thurman Munson and outfielder Bobby Murcer, the Yankees won 93 games but finished well behind the Baltimore Orioles, winners of 108 games.
“We couldn’t sustain our success,” said Stottlemyre in his biography. “CBS owned the ballclub … and the feeling among the players, based on what we knew, was that there was no strong baseball presence in the front office. It was a true corporate ownership.” In 1971 the club regressed to 82-80 as offense around the majors plummeted despite the lowered mound. After arguably his worst outing as a big leaguer (seven hits and six runs in one-third of an inning against the Minnesota Twins), Stottlemyre surged, completing six of his final 10 starts of the season. Included were three shutouts (two of them three-hitters), and he forged a stellar 2.05 ERA in 79 innings. “He doesn’t embarrass you,” said teammate Roy White. “He doesn’t overwhelm you. He’s an annoying kind of pitcher. He just gets you out.” Stottlemyre led the corps with 16 wins, a 2.87 ERA, 19 complete games, and seven shutouts to anchor a staff that boasted four hurlers (Stottlemyre 269⅔ innings; Peterson 15-13, 274; Stan Bahnsen 14-12, 242; and Steve Kline12-13, 222⅓) with at least 200 innings, the most since five turned the trick in 1922.
“The best word to explain the year for me is frustrating,” Stottlemyre told Jim Ogle as the 1972 season, which was marred by the first players’ strike in history, came to a conclusion. While the Yankees finished in fourth place in the AL East, Stottlemyre enjoyed stretches when he was either very good or very bad. In May he tossed three shutouts in four starts; fired two more shutouts and tossed 10 scoreless innings for another victory during a two-week period in July; and was on fire in September, posting a 1.67 ERA over 54 innings, but won just twice, both shutouts. However, he struggled in June (4.28 ERA), and in seven starts in August he yielded 33 runs in 40⅔ innings. “That stretch was the worst I ever had,” he said. He finished with 14 wins and seven shutouts, but completed only nine games while his ERA (3.22) was higher than the league average. His 18 losses tied for the AL lead in that dubious category, but the Yankees didn’t help him much, scoring two runs or fewer in 16 of those defeats.
In 1973 Stottlemyre split 32 decisions, completed half of his 38 starts and logged 273 innings for the Yankees, who finished in fourth place for the third consecutive year. Newsworthy at the time, Stottlemyre also broke Red Ruffing’s team record by starting his 243rd consecutive game without a relief appearance (and set a then big-league record by starting his 274th game without a start, in 1974) Arguably the season’s most memorable moment came when pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich announced during spring training that they were trading lives, including wives, kids, and houses. George Steinbrenner had purchased a majority stake in the Yankees prior to the 1973 season and vowed to make substantial changes to return the team to glory. After a failed and litigious attempt to sign former Oakland A’s manager Dick Williams for the 1974 season, “The Boss” signed Bill Virdon. Under Virdon, the Yankees were one of the surprise teams in baseball in 1974, winning 89 games and occupying first place as late as September 22 in their first pennant race since Stottlemyre’s rookie season, before finishing in second place.
As fate would have it, the stoic pitcher was relegated to a fan for much of the pennant race. After enduring years of regular cortisone shots in his shoulder to numb the pain and make pitching possible, Stottlemyre was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff after 15 starts in 1974, effectively ending his career at the age of 32. Years before corrective surgery was devised, Stottlemyre rested his shoulder, but continued to pitch on the side, probably damaging his shoulder even more. Not ready to give up, Stottlemyre reported to spring training in 1975, but pain limited him to pitching only batting practice. In late March the Yankees stunned baseball by releasing him. “It seems like a heartless move to cut loose so coldly such a loyal and devoted servant,” decried Phil Pepe. “I am not surprised,” said Stottlemyre, “but I am disappointed.” In nine full seasons and parts of two others, Stottlemyre compiled a 164-139 record with a 2.97 ERA in 2,661⅓ innings, 40 shutouts, and 152 complete games.
With “bitter memories” about his release, Stottlemyre returned to Washington state and his wife, Jean. They had three children—Todd, Mel, and Jason. He operated a sporting-goods store and coached his sons’ youth baseball teams, but recognized that he missed the big leagues. He inaugurated the second phase of his career in baseball when he accepted the expansion Seattle Mariners’ offer to serve as a roving pitching instructor. He resigned in 1981 when his youngest son, Jason, succumbed at the age of 11 to a five-year battle with leukemia. In an ironic twist, Todd Stottlemyre was chosen by the Yankees, with whom Stottlemyre had lost all connections, in the 1983 amateur draft. Though he never donned the pinstripes, Todd fashioned a 14-year career, winning 138 games. Mel Stottlemyre Jr. was a first-round draft pick by the Houston Astros in 1985, and enjoyed a cup of coffee in the majors with the Kansas City Royals in 1990.
After a three-year hiatus, Stottlemyre returned to the big leagues in 1984 as the pitching coach for the New York Mets. From 1984 to 1990, the Mets averaged more than 95 wins per season, but finished in first place just twice, in 1986 and 1988. These teams were led by catcher Gary Carter, third baseman Howard Johnson, and volatile slugger Darryl Strawberry; however, the face of the franchise was the pitching staff and especially Dwight “Doc” Gooden. Widely considered one of the best teams in baseball history, the 1986 squad won 108 games and defeated the Boston Red Sox in seven games in the World Series. The starting rotation was led by Gooden (17-6, 2.84 ERA), Ron Darling (15-6, 2.81), Bob Ojeda (18-5, 2.57), and Sid Fernandez (16-6, 3.52), and each logged in excess of 200 innings. Those successful years stand in stark contrast to the period from 1991-1996 when injuries, age, free agency, and rumors of widespread drug use among players led to six consecutive losing seasons that reached their nadir in 1993 (103 losses and Stottlemyre’s dismissal).
After a two-year stint as the pitching coach for the Houston Astros, Stottlemyre reconciled with Steinbrenner and accepted his offer to become the club’s pitching coach for new manager Joe Torre. For the next 10 seasons (1996-2005), Stottlemyre enjoyed the fruits of unimaginable success, including nine firstplace finishes, 10 playoff appearances, six pennants, and four World Series championships. In 1999 Stottlemyre was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells, and ultimately recovered after intensive chemotherapy. In the wake of the Yankees’ collapse in the 2001 World Series, Stottlemyre’s relationship with Steinbrenner became strained as the owner privately and publicly second-guessed his pitching coach. “Baseball was my life,” said Stottlemyre, trying to explain why he didn’t walk away. That changed in 2005, when the stress of the situation had finally begun to take a toll on Stottlemyre’s health, and he retired at the end of the season.
Retirement didn’t last long. After a one-year break, he served as a special-assignment instructor for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. The next season he was back in a big-league dugout when he joined the Seattle Mariners’ coaching staff. Approaching his 69th birthday, Stottlemyre retired after the 2008 season.
A quiet, unassuming player and a dedicated, well respected coach, Stottlemyre spent almost 50 years in Organized Baseball. He lived his final years in Washington state and died after a long battle with bone marrow cancer at the age of 77 on January 13, 2019, in Seattle.
I Was A Two Sport Star
This article was written by Bill Pruden
His induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, not to mention his inclusion in 1996 on the list of the 50 greatest players in National Basketball Association history, is clear evidence that Dave DeBusschere did not err in choosing basketball over baseball in 1964. At the same time, the 1963 decision by the White Sox to protect DeBusschere over Denny McLain early in what would prove to be DeBusschere’s short baseball career, is a topic for debates about what might have been for the hard-throwing right-hander. That is because DeBusschere’s performances in three years of professional baseball offered tantalizing glimpses of pitching talent that clearly had major-league potential. In the end, the Detroit native left baseball observers guessing as he took his blue-collar work ethic to the hardwood, where his consistent all-star-quality performances made him a central cog on two New York Knicks NBA championship teams.
Born on October 16, 1940, in Detroit, DeBusschere became a hometown schoolboy legend, leading both the basketball and baseball teams at Austin Catholic High School to championships. Only three years after the basketball team was formed, he led it to a state title. The championship game featured a legendary match-up with another future NBA all-star, Chet Walker. DeBusschere also pitched the baseball team to the city title. Beyond the school yard the tall right-hander pitched a local team to a national junior baseball crown. Highly recruited by major colleges, he opted to stay home and attend the University of Detroit. There, DeBusschere led the hoop squad to its first postseason appearances, the National Invitational Tournament in his sophomore and junior years (1960 and 1961), and a berth in the 1962 NCAA tourney in his senior year. In the process DeBusschere earned numerous accolades that included All-American recognition as a sophomore, junior, and senior. On the diamond DeBusschere earned All-American honors as a pitcher, leading the Titans baseball squad to three NCAA appearances. He was sought after by both major-league baseball and the NBA, but the hometown Tigers were unwilling to allow him to also play pro basketball (he had been drafted by the Detroit Pistons) and he signed with the Chicago White Sox, getting a $75,000 signing bonus.
DeBusschere’s professional careers got off to fast starts in 1962. Pitching for the Single-A Savannah/Lynchburg White Sox in the South Atlantic League (the team changed home cities in August because of racial unrest), the 21-year-old right-hander compiled a 10-1 record. Starting 14 games and completing seven, DeBusschere had an earned-run average of 2.49 and struck out 93 in 94 innings. That performance earned him a late-season call-up by the White Sox, and he pitched 18 innings in 12 games with no decisions and an ERA of 2.00. From there he went to the NBA, where as a forward he averaged 12.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for a Pistons team that made the NBA playoffs. There DeBusschere really shined, averaging 20.0 points and 15.8 rebounds though the Pistons were eliminated by the St. Louis Hawks in the first round. The versatile 6-foot-6 forward’s impressive play earned him a spot on the NBA all-rookie team.
Barely missing a beat, DeBusschere returned to baseball in 1963, and pitched the entire year with the White Sox, finishing 3-4 with a 3.09 ERA. DeBusschere’s second year (1963-64) with the Pistons was far less successful as injuries limited him to only 15 games. The Pistons also struggled, finishing 23-59 and missing the playoffs. In 1964 he was assigned to the White Sox’ Triple-A club in Indianapolis. where he won 15 games and lost eight, tying for third in the league in wins and posting an ERA of 3.93. The hard-throwing right-hander seemed to be coming into his own, validating the 1963 scouting report that called him “big and strong with fireball and better than average curve,” and adding, “Once he gets control he will be a real good pitcher. An all-sports star with lots of poise.” Not surprisingly, by this time both the White Sox and the Pistons were putting increasing pressure on DeBusschere to drop one sport and concentrate on the other, with each believing that his considerable potential would never be reached as long as his focus was split.
Things came to a head in November 1964. Seeking -- so some believed -- to get DeBusschere to commit fully to basketball, or maybe just seeking a spark for the Pistons, team owner Fred Zollner named him player-coach. Still, DeBusschere continued his baseball career. In the spring of 1964, baseball-healthy and ready for a promotion, he was instead sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis. DeBusschere had another strong year, again winning 15 games and though he lost 12, he lowered his ERA to 3.65.
But in view of his assumption of additional basketball responsibilities DeBusschere finally decided to leave baseball behind in September 1965. A looming NBA preseason led him to turn down another late-season call-up by the White Sox, making the 1965 season with Indianapolis his last in professional baseball.
While his accomplishments in the NBA validated his choice, DeBusschere’s brief baseball career still left open the question of what might have been if he had stayed in baseball. His major-league record of 3-4 with an ERA of 2.90 in 36 games and 102 1/3 innings pitched does not offer any definitive evidence, but his performance at all levels certainly indicated that he had promise. No less telling is that in 1963, when a ruling by Commissioner Ford Frick prevented the Sox from optioning bonus player DeBusschere to the minors, a move that would have allowed them to keep a young Denny McLain on the roster, they instead protected DeBusschere, believing that while control remained an issue, his curve and fastball made him a better, or at least more developed, prospect than McLain, who had yet to develop the curve that would later help him win 31 games in 1968 and Cy Young Awards in 1968 and 1969.
And yet it is hard to second guess DeBusschere’s decision given his subsequent basketball career. The effort to serve as player-coach proved an ill-fated experiment that was abandoned late in the 1966-67 season when he was replaced by Donnie Butcher. While DeBusschere finished with a coaching record of 79-143 and no playoff appearances, once he was able to turn his full attention back to his own play he quickly established himself as one of the NBA’s premier forwards. Still, while his own stature and reputation only increased, the remaining years in Detroit were frustrating as the team struggled, making the playoffs only in the 1967-68 season. Fortunately for DeBusschere, on December 18, 1968, he was given a new lease on life when the Pistons traded him to the New York Knicks for guard Butch Komives and center Walt Bellamy. Long coveted by Knicks management, which greatly appreciated his hard-nosed defense and heady play, DeBusschere proved to be the final piece in a puzzle that built what was arguably one of the finest pure teams in NBA history. His arrival in New York allowed Willis Reed to return to center, while DeBusschere was paired with Bill Bradley at the forwards. With the guard spots manned by Dick Barnett and Walt Frazier, the Knicks, coached by defensive guru Red Holtzman, played a game characterized by moving without the ball and hitting the open man. That offensive approach coupled with tenacious defense and tough rebounding made the Knicks a major force in the NBA that was emerging in the aftermath of Celtics great Bill Russell’s retirement.
While the Celtics were able to defeat the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals en route to their final championship of the Russell era, the 1969-70 season was a different story. With all the pieces in place from the beginning of the season, the Knicks started fast, winning 23 of their first 24 games, including what was then a league record 18 consecutive victories. With DeBusschere setting the tone on defense, while also averaging 14.6 points and 10 rebounds per game, the Knicks completed the regular season with a record of 60-22 and eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks to win the Eastern Conference championship. In a seven game playoff series that is remembered as much for the injured Willis Reed’s heroic final-game appearance as for anything else, DeBusschere’s all-around play and his inspired defensive effort on Wilt Chamberlain in the crucial fifth game were central to the New York victory. DeBusschere later offered an insightful look at that special season in his book The Open Man: A Championship Diary of the N.Y. Knicks, published in 1970.
The Knicks failed to retain their title the following season. Although they finished first in the Atlantic Conference with a 52-30 regular-season record, they lost the conference finals to the Baltimore Bullets in seven games. DeBusschere had another stellar season, being selected for the All-Star Game and the league’s all-defensive team while averaging 15.6 points per game. In 1971-72 they finished second in the Atlantic Conference and returned to the championship round, but were defeated by the Los Angeles Lakers, who won their first championship since moving to the West Coast from Minneapolis. DeBusschere again earned a spot in the NBA’s All-Star Game as well as on the league’s all-defensive team, on which he was becoming a fixture. Averaging 15.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, he continued to be a model of excellence and consistency.
Not satisfied with their close call in 1972, the Knicks opened the 1972-73 season intent on winning another world championship. With essentially the same team as the 1970 championship squad but with the additions of Earl Monroe, who replaced the retired Dick Barnett, and former Cincinnati Royals All-Star Jerry Lucas, who added depth at both center and forward, the team posted a 57-25 regular-season record before dispatching the Baltimore Bullets and the revived Boston Celtics to win the Eastern Conference crown. The finals were almost anticlimactic as the Knicks rolled over the Lakers in five games to win their second NBA title.
The 1973-74 season proved to be DeBusschere’s last; he decided to retire at the end of the campaign. Although the Knicks remained one of the league’s premier franchises, finishing second in the Atlantic Division before losing to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, a physically weary DeBusschere decided to retire while still the embodiment of tough defense and team play. After 12 years he was still one of the league’s premier defenders, being selected again for the All-Star Game and being named to the all-defensive team. However, the grind that had begun right out of college with the double duty of baseball and basketball had worn him down and he elected to leave the game behind while still playing at a level he could be proud of, and before the core of the teams that had given New York two championships dispersed. DeBusschere went out on a high note, averaging 18.1 points per game, the second highest of his career, and 10.7 rebounds per game.
For his NBA career the Detroit native averaged 16.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. He had played in eight NBA All-Star Games and was a critical cog in the Knicks’ only two NBA championship teams. Further honors came in the years after his retirement. In 1983, along with roommate and teammate Bill Bradley, he became a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1996 the NBA, celebrating its 50th anniversary, selected him as one of the league’s 50 greatest players.
At first DeBusschere was able to spend more time with his family, -- his wife, Geri, and their three children, Peter, Michelle, and Dennis – in Garden City, New York, on Long Island, where the family had lived during his years with the Knicks. But he quickly stepped back into the basketball ranks. Not surprisingly, after his earlier coaching stint with the Pistons, he expressed no interest in that role, but he ran the New York Nets of the new American Basketball Association as general manager in 1974-1975, and in May 1975 he became commissioner of the ABA. He played an important role in bringing about the league’s merger with the NBA after the 1975-76 season. Lingering resentment of DeBusschere’s involvement with the ABA was thought to have delayed the retirement of his number by the Knicks until 1981. After that DeBusschere “came home” in 1982, becoming director of basketball operations for the Knicks, a job he held until 1986. In that position, after winning the first draft lottery, he chose Georgetown star Patrick Ewing, who would anchor Knicks teams for the next decade as they sought to bring home a championship trophy to add to the ones won by the teams on which DeBusschere had played such a critical role. DeBusschere also spent time as vice president for corporate development at Williamson, Pickett and Gross, a New York real-estate firm.
The man whose dedication to team play and tenacious defense always said as much about his heart as it did about his considerable athleticism was the victim of a heart attack. He collapsed on the street in New York City and died on May 14, 2003. He was 62 years old.
This article was written by Warren Corbett
Vic Janowicz was the first winner of college football’s Heisman Trophy to play major-league baseball. He should have stuck to football. “He’s all right carrying the baseball, but he can’t throw it or hit it,” an unidentified Pittsburgh Pirates teammate said.
Janowicz gave up baseball after two futile seasons and moved on to the National Football League, where his promising career was ended by a devastating car wreck. It was not the last tragedy in his life.
For his first 22 years, he was a Golden Boy. Victor Felix Janowicz was born in Elyria, Ohio, on February 26, 1930, the eighth of nine children of Polish immigrants Veronica (Mujwit) and Felix Janowicz, a steelworker. He made all-state in football, baseball, and basketball at Elyria High and was captain of all three teams in his junior and senior years with grades that qualified him for the National Honor Society.
Several major-league baseball clubs offered contracts, and at least 60 colleges recruited him to play football. “I had been offered almost anything I wanted by certain colleges,” Janowicz said later. A wealthy Ohio State booster, real estate developer John W. Galbreath, courted Vic and his parents. Shortly before graduation, Galbreath sat down with the family, the high school coach, and the school superintendent to make his pitch.
“I told him I wanted it understood from the beginning that I wasn’t offering him money,” Galbreath said. “But I promised him that if he came to Ohio State and broke his leg and never played a day of football for Ohio State he would still graduate from college if he would just work for me.” Rumors circulated that the tycoon had given Janowicz a $300-a-month allowance and a new convertible, but Galbreath insisted he paid the boy by the hour for his part-time job and only lent him money to buy a used car so he could get to work.
In his first varsity season, as a sophomore in 1949, Janowicz played primarily on defense at safety. He intercepted a pass in the Rose Bowl to set up a touchdown as Ohio State defeated California, 17-14.
Coach Wes Fesler put the 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior at tailback in the single-wing offense in 1950. He continued to play regularly on defense and also did the punting and placekicking.
Janowicz enjoyed his signature moments on two Saturdays that live in Buckeye lore. Against Iowa on October 28 in Columbus, he boomed the opening kickoff beyond the end zone. On Iowa’s first play from scrimmage, Janowicz recovered a fumble and four plays later ran for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown. He kicked the extra point. After another kickoff through the end zone, he returned a punt 61 yards for a TD and kicked the extra point. On Iowa’s next possession, he recovered another fumble, threw a touchdown pass, and kicked the extra point. The game was 5 minutes and 10 seconds old, and Janowicz led Iowa, 21-0. He went on to score 46 points in an 83-21 rout.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving brought the annual showdown with Michigan, a game immortalized as the Snow Bowl. The two archrivals played, unwisely, in a blizzard at Columbus — 28 mph winds, 10-degree temperature, and thick, blowing, blinding, unceasing snow. “My hands were numb and blue,” Janowicz said. “I had no feeling in them and I don’t know how I hung onto the ball.” His field goal gave Ohio State its only points. Michigan players protested that the kick was no good, but the officials, peering through the swirling snow, guessed that it passed between the uprights. Two of his punts were blocked, leading to a Michigan safety and the game’s only touchdown. The teams exchanged punts throughout the second half, often on third down, as Michigan survived to win, 9-3, and punch a frozen ticket to the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State finished with a lackluster 6-3 record, costing Coach Fesler his job, but Janowicz’s all-around excellence earned him the Heisman as college football’s best player. His stats didn’t dazzle: 703 total yards in nine games, 2.8 yards per carry rushing, and 32 completions in 77 passes. That was just a small part of his game; he was a throwback to the 60-minute two-way stalwarts of yore. The Associated Press named him a first-team All-American on defense. The Columbus Dispatch said Janowicz “did everything a football player could possibly do.” The Heisman vote wasn’t close; sportswriters gave him 633 points to 280 for the runner-up, Southern Methodist halfback Kyle Rote.
Janowicz’s senior year was an anticlimax. A new coach, Woody Hayes, installed the T-formation offense with Janowicz at left halfback. Although he kicked game-winning field goals against Northwestern and Pitt, injuries limited his playing time. He scored just one rushing touchdown and passed for two. There were reports of “off-the-field antics” as well. Stanley Frank of the Saturday Evening Post alibied that the young man was “blowing off steam” after being raised by strict parents.
After Ohio State’s season ended, he was named the outstanding player in the Shrine East-West college all-star game, scoring a touchdown and kicking a field goal to lead the East to a 15-14 victory.
The Washington Redskins chose Janowicz in the NFL draft, but not until the seventh round, with the 79th pick. He fell so far because his Ohio National Guard unit had been called to active duty in the Korean War.
His patron John Galbreath, who owned the Pirates, persuaded him that baseball promised a better future than the NFL. Janowicz had played only one college baseball game because the season conflicted with spring football practice. When the Army sent him to Camp Polk, Louisiana, he joined the baseball team as a catcher. A right-handed batter, he hit .356 in 61 games. He got time off to play in the 1952 College All-Star football game in August, where he scored the collegians’ only touchdown and kicked the extra point in a 10-7 loss to the NFL Los Angeles Rams.
After the game, Janowicz confirmed that he was finished with football: “Only one thing would prompt me to go into professional football. That would be if I found out next spring that I have no future in baseball.” He said his boyhood dream had been to play football for Ohio State and to play major-league baseball.
Galbreath had his protégé work out for Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, who gave his seal of approval. Why fight it if the boss wanted to spend money? As soon as Janowicz was released from active duty in December, he signed for a $10,000 bonus. It was reported to be $25,000, but Janowicz gave the lower figure.
Rickey said he hadn’t been so excited by a young player since he signed Jackie Robinsonand Billy Loes for the Dodgers: “I am betting on his mind, body and spirit, rather than his natural abilities, to become a real star.” The old Mahatma had developed a taste for what are now called “toolsy” players like Robinson, gifted athletes who had excelled in other sports but had limited baseball backgrounds. Duke basketball star Dick Groat had just finished a successful rookie year as the Pirates shortstop (and was promptly drafted into the Army), and the club had signed Dick Hall, a football, basketball, and track standout at Swarthmore.
Soon after signing Janowicz, the Pirates landed Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, twin basketball stars from Seattle University. A new bonus rule required players who had received more than $4,000 to stay on the major-league roster for two years, so Pittsburgh would be carrying three rookies with no professional experience. They could hardly drag down a team that had lost 112 games in 1952.
The Pirates sent the bonus babies to their minor-league camp for the last two weeks of spring training to get more at-bats. When the 1953 season opened, the trio sat for the first month. Then the O’Brien twins became the club’s usual double-play combination, with Eddie at short and Johnny at second. Janowicz didn’t make his debut until the end of May, when he pinch-ran.
He got his first start on June 6 against Cincinnati and grounded out in his first at-bat. He left the game in the fifth inning after the Redlegs’ Andy Seminick plowed into him on a play at the plate, but was back in the lineup the next afternoon.
Pittsburgh had just traded regular catcher Joe Garagiola in a 10-player deal that sent the club’s biggest star, Ralph Kiner, to the Cubs, so the job was wide open. Janowicz wasn’t ready. He started 32 games, striking out in one-fourth of his plate appearances while batting .252 with a .628 OPS and just six extra-base hits. Clearly his future was not behind the plate. In 35 total games, he was charged with eight errors and seven passed balls, allowed 11 wild pitches, and threw out only 4 of 18 base stealers.
After winter ball in Mexico, Janowicz switched to third base in 1954. He couldn’t field that position, either. And his bat disappeared; batting .100 and rarely playing, he acknowledged in June that he was considering pro football: “I love baseball better than football but apparently I’m not making the grade.” The Pirates gave him a chance to play regularly for three weeks in July, with little sign of improvement.
In mid-September Janowicz was hitting .151/.235/.192 in 84 plate appearances when he left the club to join the Redskins, but he wasn’t admitting defeat. He planned to return to baseball in the spring and go to the minors when he completed two years on the roster. Rickey said, “We have definitely not given up on this boy.”
After three years away from football, Janowicz was slotted at defensive back and placekicker for a woeful Washington team. He suffered a shoulder separation in the Redskins’ fourth game — their fourth straight defeat — and was limited to kicking for much of the season. His 21-yard field goal gave the Skins their first victory on October 21, over Baltimore.
Janowicz turned his back on baseball when Washington signed him to a two-year contract in November. Redskins owner George Preston Marshall said he had doubled the player’s $6,000 salary with the Pirates. “I guess it’s no secret that I’m happier in football,” Janowicz said. “It’s been a rough season, but I’m feeling more at home with every game and I only hope I can do the team some good.”
He appeared to have made the right decision. Converted to offensive left halfback in 1955, Janowicz scored the first touchdown in the opening game as the Redskins upset the defending champion Browns in Cleveland to begin a startling turnaround. After finishing 3-9 the previous year, Washington rose to second place in the NFL East with an 8-4 record, the best in a decade. Janowicz was the team’s leading rusher with 397 yards, a 4.3-yard average, and four touchdowns. He caught 11 passes for three more TDs. Although he hit only six of 20 field goal attempts, his 88 points were second in the league. At 25, he looked like a rising star.
After the season he married Marianne August, whom he had met when the Redskins visited Chicago. Their daughter Diana was born in June 1956. Two months later doctors told Marianne that the baby had cerebral palsy. Vic was in California preparing for a preseason game, so she kept the news from him.
The night after the game in Los Angeles, Janowicz attended a party at the home of teammate Gene Brito. He was riding back to the Redskins’ training headquarters at Occidental College in a car driven by a 21-year-old nursing student when she fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a utility pole.
Janowicz suffered severe brain trauma that finished his football career. Although the Redskins paid his hospital bills, owner Marshall released him on the grounds that the injury was not football-related. “Do you realize that we’ve lost a tremendous amount of money because of this boy’s absence?” Marshall said. Janowicz’s teammates and coaches voted to contribute $10 a week each to help support him and his family.
The injury paralyzed his left side and caused memory lapses and confusion. Ohio State’s medical staff and athletic trainers took charge of his recovery as he struggled for four years to regain full mental and physical function. During that time Marianne suffered a miscarriage, and Vic was laid off from his job on a loading dock. He took several menial jobs to pay the bills, which included huge medical costs for his daughter’s treatment. Diana died when she was 8.
Vic and Marianne had a son, Victor II, and a daughter, Jacqueline. As his physical condition improved, he worked in public relations for a manufacturing company and as a broadcaster on Ohio State football games. In 1968 he was reported to be spearheading a movement to dump his former coach, Woody Hayes. “Not true,” Janowicz said, though he had used his radio show to criticize Hayes’s conservative offense, which was described as “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
Janowicz was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1992 a boosters organization, the Columbus Downtown Quarterback Club, named him Ohio State’s greatest athlete of the half-century. He battled prostate cancer for the last several years of his life and died on February 27, 1996, the day after his 66th birthday.