Today in Baseball History: Mickey Lolich makes his big league debut

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There isn’t anything I could find that happened on May 12 in baseball history that excited me enough to write a lot about it today. It happens. So, let’s talk about a player who debuted on this day in 1963: Mickey Lolich.

Lolich is one of those guys who sometimes falls between the historical cracks because he was not Hall of Fame-level good and for whatever reason a lot of those guys fall out of the baseball public’s consciousness. His big highlight — winning three games and hitting a home run in the Tigers’ comeback win in the 1968 World Series — is often recalled, but the shape and quality of his career is often overlooked. Still, he was still an excellent player who deserves to be remembered, and his numbers provide a fantastic example of how radically pitcher use has changed over the years.

Lolich grew up in Portland, Oregon. He was a skinny kid — 6’1″ but only 160 pounds — with a big fastball who stood out in an area that wasn’t necessarily a hotbed of baseball talent at the time. The Tigers scouted him and signed him to a $30,000 bonus in 1958 when he was 18 years-old.

At times in the minors the Tigers would have reason to wonder about his commitment. He reported late for spring training one year because he stayed some extra time in Portland to take the civil service exam, thinking that if baseball didn’t work out he’d become a mailman.

When asked before the 1962 season to repeat A-ball after already pitching at Double-A the year before, Lolich simply went back home to Portland, pitched a bit for a semi-pro team and, after some negotiations with the Tigers, was leant by Detroit to the Kansas City A’s and was allowed to pitch for their Triple-A club, the Portland Beavers. His pitching coach in Portland was big league veteran Gerry Staley, who had actually just been released as a pitcher by the Tigers. Staley taught the lefty Lolich how to rely less on his fastball and gain more confidence in his curve. It’d be advice that would be the difference between Lolich going back home to deliver the mail and becoming a big leaguer. Lolich would finish the 1962 season back in the Detroit organization. By then the club considered him a much more polished product and planned for him to be a big leaguer in 1963.

Lolich didn’t make the Tigers out of spring training that year but he was up for his first big league start on May 12, tossing two innings of mopup work in a 9-3 loss to the Indians. After one more relief appearance he’d make his first start on May 21. He’d continue to do at least a little swingman duty in most of his first several seasons, but he’d never make fewer than 30 starts in a Tigers uniform after his rookie campaign.

As the 60s wore on Lolich would become one of the better lefties in the game. Not Koufax or Whitey Ford level, but not terribly far below the league’s best southpaws. He’d win 18 games in 1964, his first full year, 15 games in 1965 and 14 each in 1966 and 1967. He’d string together over 30 consecutive scoreless innings at one point. He’d toss six shutouts in 1964 and 1967, leading the American league in that category the latter year. His opponents praised him for how he’d work low in the zone and how free and easy his motion was. As the 60s went on that skinny kid developed a pretty famous pot belly, but his pitching stamina grew along with his waistline.

In 1967, Lolich and the Tigers were competing with Boston for the AL pennant. Down the stretch he went 9–1 in his last 11 starts, tossing 87.2 innings and allowing only 50 hits and 18 walks while striking out 81 and posting a 1.33 ERA. He tossed four straight shutouts in his final four starts. His last start before those shutouts was against the Red Sox on September 19 and all he did was fan 13 Red Sox batters.

That late surge could’ve been because his arm was a bit better rested late in the season. Lolich had flagged badly in the middle of the summer, losing ten straight decisions at one point, but as a member of the Michigan National Guard he was called up for duty for two weeks during the rioting that broke out in Detroit in late July. He was certainly more fresh in August and September, but the Tigers fell just short of the Red Sox all the same.

During the 1968 regular season all the talk surrounded Lolich’s rotation mate, Denny McLain. McLain was a former 20-game winner and was considered by most fans to be the Tiger’s ace despite the fact that, overall, Lolich was probably better to that point. In the Year of the Pitcher, though, McLain’s star shined as he mounted a 31-win campaign. Wins aside, McLain’s season was stellar while Lolich endured quite a few bumps in the road, even getting demoted the bullpen for part of the Tigers’ otherwise dominant year. Lolich would win 17, but his 3.79 ERA was not great in that extraordinarily low-offense season. By the time the World Series rolled around he was back in the rotation — he finished strong again, going 10-2 down the stretch — but everyone expected McLain to be the man who would lead the Tigers to glory.

It didn’t work out that way. In fact, it was Lolich who would be the hero, putting up a World Series performance that would ensure that he’d never have to buy dinner in Detroit again.

McLain lost Game 1 to Cardinal ace Bob Gibson. Lolich would even things up in Game 2 by tossing a complete game six-hitter and hitting a home run to lead the Tigers to an 8–1 win. The Tigers would drop games 3 and 4 behind Earl Wilson and McLain, making Game 5 a potential elimination game. Lolich got the ball and tossed another complete game, giving up three runs in all. McLain came back to win Game 6 as the Tigers offense exploded for 13 runs, setting up a deciding Game 7 in St. Louis.

Lolich would take the hill on only two days rest and would outduel Gibson, going the distance for a third time and allowing only one run on five hits, clinching the World Series and winning the Series MVP in the process. In so doing Lolich became only the 12th pitcher to win three games in a World Series and he still stands as the last pitcher to win three complete-game starts in a single Series. He’ll almost certainly be the last one to ever do it.

While McLain would remain the Tigers ace for one more year, winning a second consecutive Cy Young Award in 1969, Lolich would become the Tigers workhorse and would take over McLain’s role as the ace in the 1970s. And “workhorse” is definitely the word to use.

He’d pitch 280.2 innings in 1969 and 272.2 innings in 1970. In 1971, his finest year in the majors, Lolich started 45 games and completed 29, logging an incredible 376 innings pitched. He’d rack up 25 victories that year and finish second in the Cy Young Award voting to Vida Blue. His 308 strikeouts paced the league and set a new Tigers record. His 1972 season was almost as good: 41 starts, 371 innings pitched, 22 wins and 250 strikeouts with a 2.50 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He’d top 300 innings every year from 1971 through 1974. It was a very different time for starting pitcher usage, but Lolich’s workloads were high even for his era. Yet, due to some combination of good luck and that free and easy motion, he never suffered shoulder or elbow problems. Or at least he never seemed to. He famously never iced his arm after games. He just took the ball every fourth day and gave his Tigers managers 40 starts like clockwork.

Lolich, like his Tigers, who cratered to a 102-loss season, fell off in 1975. Lolich would “only” toss 240.2 innings, but he’d lose 18 games, primarily because of terrible run support. At one point he went 14 starts and got only 14 total runs behind him. On September 20 of that year he’d make his final start as a Tiger. He’d win it, tossing one-run ball and notching the complete game. Naturally.

Lolich was one of the last of the 1968 Tigers remaining on the roster. It was a club that needed to rebuild and everyone knew it. Everyone also knew that Lolich, still a solid pitcher even if he had begun his decline, was likely to be traded. It was surprising, though, that when he was traded it was to the Mets for Rusty Staub, who was in his 30s as well, instead of for some young up-and-comer. The trade wasn’t terribly popular in either city, though Staub did perform better for the Tigers than Lolich did for the Mets in 1976. Lolich went 8-13 with a 3.22 ERA. Staub hit .299, smacked 15 home runs, drove in 96 runs, and started the All-Star Game.

After the season Lolich, not happy with New York, retired in order to get out of the final year of his contract. After sitting out the 1977 campaign he signed with the San Diego Padres. He pitched well in his first season, going 2–1 with a 1.56 ERA in 20 games almost exclusively out of the bullpen. In his final year, 1979, he struggled to a 4.74 ERA in 27 appearances. He experimented with a knuckleball that year but it really didn’t work out for him.

Lolich retired for good at the end of the year, finishing up with a record of 217-191, a 3.44 ERA (104 ERA+) and 2,832 strikeouts in 3,638.1 innings. That strikeout total currently ranks him 20th on the all-time list. He was a three-time All-Star and has that World Series MVP Award. He managed to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 seasons, getting as much as 25.5% of the vote one year, but his candidacy faltered as the better pitchers of the 1960s and 70s began to retire and push him down voters’ ballots.

After he retired Lolich ran a couple of donut shops in the Detroit suburbs. Once, when I was a kid, my dad took my brother and me to one of them. Lolich wasn’t there — he was a hands-on shop owner, but was at home that day — but the manager on duty called him and told him there were a couple of kids there who wanted to see him. He drove in on his day off and happily signed autographs for us while regaling us with war stories from his time on the Tigers. He seemed like a hell of a nice man.

Lolich will turn 80 in September. He doesn’t own the donut shops anymore but he’s often seen at special days at Comerica Park, at Tigers spring training in Lakeland, or at fantasy camps and things. He may not have quite been a Hall of Famer, but he has lived a wonderful baseball life.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1926: Walter Johnson wins the 400th game of his career, defeating the St. Louis Browns 7-4.

1950: Ted Williams apologizes to Red Sox fans for making “insulting gestures” at them the day before. He had made two critical errors in game two of a doubleheader, one of which allowed the Tigers’ winning run to score. The fans jeered him and he bowed, sarcastically at them and then flipped them off.

1966: The Cardinals open new Busch Memorial Stadium — replacing Sportsman’s Park, which in its final years had been renamed Busch Stadium — with a 12-inning 4-3 win over the Braves. This Busch Stadium would last through the 2005 season after which it will be replaced by, yup, a third Busch Stadium.

1970: Ernie Banks becomes the eighth member of the 500 home run club,

2004: Alex Cora of the Dodgers fouls 14 consecutive pitches off of the Cubs’ Matt Clement and then hits the 18th pitch thrown to him over the right-field fence for a two-run home run.