Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My Interview with Bob Locker

Bob Locker pitched in the pros from 1965 to 1975 for the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics and Chicago Cubs. At age 27, Locker made his debut for the Chisox, tossing two innings and giving up three runs. He settled down and made 10 appearances that season following that initial appearance and ended his rookie year with a respectable 3.15 ERA. In 1969, Locker was traded to the expansion Seattle Pilots, posting a 2.18 ERA for a team that finished last in the division. In 1970, Locker’s contract was purchased by the Oakland A’s. In 1972, he was a key member of the World Series champs, when he posted a 6-1 record with a 2.65 ERA. Locker frequently came into in the seventh or eighth inning to setup closer Rollie Fingers. Locker appeared in the AL Championship that year, giving up two runs in three innings. On October 21, Locker made his first and only appearance in the World Series, relieving Vida Blue in the sixth game of Game Six. He gave up a single to Tony Perez but got the final out of the inning. A month later, Locker was traded to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Billy North. Locker concluded his career with the Cubs, sitting out the 1974 season to undergo surgery to remove chips from his pitching elbow. In 1975, Locker made 22 appearances and posted an ERA near 5.00, thereby ending his baseball career. Locker and his wife currently live in Lafayette, California and he spends much of his free time fishing and hunting. He’s a graduate of Iowa State University and a member of the school’s Hall of Fame.

The Seattle Pilots: “I was traded from the White Sox to the Pilots for Gary Bell in June, 1969. Seattle certainly wasn’t the end of my career, but I spent a lot of time in Chicago trying to find my out pitch and I guess they got tired of waiting. The White Sox traded me after a couple of weeks pitching poorly, which turned out to be a mistake, because 2-3 bad weeks isn’t an entire career and they should have been more patient with me, in my opinion. I was upset and didn’t want to go to Seattle, but they don’t give you much of a choice—they trade you and you go. In Seattle, I found my out pitch, my sinker, and as a result I had a 2.18 ERA and gave up only eight runs in 30 appearances for the Pilots. Seattle lacked one thing--talent. It was a group containing many different personalities, let’s put it that way. Joe Schultz was the manager for the Pilots, and he was not a baseball strategist, but he was a very good manager because he knew his job, which was to get 24 guys on the same page. And with a bunch of players picked up from here and there, we were in third place going into the final one or two months of the season. I think we looked up at one point and said what are we doing here? So, we didn’t play to our capabilities after that. We had some real offbeat folks up there in Seattle, so I fit right in. Mike Marshal was a genius, especially about pitching, but he was basically a loner. Jim Bouton was scribbling stuff down in this notebook all the time, but I never thought twice about it. (Bouton wrote Ball Four, considered to be the best baseball book ever written.) He caught a lot of heat about it when his book came out and I heard Mickey Mantle never spoke to Bouton again. People felt like Bouton gave away inside secrets, but all he really wrote about was what actually happened. There was a lot of that type of behavior--chasing skirts and drinking to excess, simple rough housing most of the time--but I stayed clear of all that mischief. I’d rather fish or hunt than sit in a bar or in a nightclub any day.”

A Young Manager in His Formative Years: “Tony LaRussa sat on the bench with the A’s in the ‘70’s when we were playing together in Oakland and he absorbed all the information about the game that he could. The best managers are either catchers or guys who really aren’t talented but can figure out how to make the best of their situation, and Tony was one of those guys. He’s the best manager in baseball right now, because he’s the guy who understands the game well enough off--handling pitchers, utilizing each player’s best abilities and manipulating the mental side of the game to his team’s advantage.”

Charlie Finley: “Finley was a real character and a lot of people, maybe most of them, didn’t care for the man. But, I respected him because he did what he believed in and stood by it while everyone else called him a crazy coot and a bunch of other things I can’t repeat. Many of his players didn’t like Charlie or trusted him, but at least they recognized that he would do whatever he could to put a winning team on the field. Those A’s teams in the early ‘70’s are some of the best ever.”

Catfish Hunter: “An all-around prince—a real classy fellow. Everything you’d want on your team. Great pitcher, fielder, pretty decent hitter for a pitcher; he never said a bad word about anyone; a consummate competitor; the great competitor, and a great fisher and hunter—so he was my favorite guy on that team. When he got sick later in life, it was just terrible.”

Vida Blue’s Rookie Season: “1971 was his phenomenal year and I remember it very vividly. It was probably the most awesome performance by any pitcher I’ve ever seen. To watch what he was throwing up there was amazing. There are certain secrets to pitching—they’re guys who throw to the corners like Catfish did; guys like Drysdale or Ryan who can ride the ball and defy the rules of gravity or throw a curveball that falls off the table. But, Vida’s fastball was so unique; with it running in all four different directions. It would go anywhere except right out over the plate. It was a pleasure to watch. Vida attracted huge crowds on the road and there was a buzz throughout the stadium every time he pitched.”

Dick Williams: “Dick was the best manager I ever had, but I don’t think he liked me. If you asked him, he would say something not too kind about me, I imagine. I was a free spirit, or whatever you’d call it and Dick just didn’t dig my vibe. But, I respected him more than any manager I ever saw. He called me an “odd ball” and stuff like that. I pitched well for him in 1972 (6-1, 2.65 ERA) and he wouldn’t pitch me in the World Series except on a limited basis, but I can understand that. He had Vida Blue in the pen that Series and he used him in almost every one of those games, and his starters played well, so it just worked out that way--that was fine. It wasn’t personal. I was basically a setup guy for Rollie Fingers, who was a pretty decent closer (laughs.)But Williams wasn’t enamored with me, I imagine, because they traded me to the Chicago Cubs for Billy North one month later.”

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Wisdom of Wally Westlake

Wally Westlake was a utility player who had a 10-year career from 1947 to 1956. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies all of the National League and the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles both of the American League. He played third base and outfield. He was elected to the National League All-Star team in 1951.
Westlake is a graduate of Christian Brothers High School (Sacramento, California.) He currently lives in Sacramento.

No Quitters Apply: “There were quite a few pitfalls in my baseball career before I made it to the major leagues. I was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 19 in 1940. They sent me to Dayton, Ohio, Mid-Atlantic League, Class D. They were paying me around $120 a month, and my first thought was, what on earth am I going to do with all that money? Well, I didn’t play well. Every curve ball fell off the table and I was a day late on every fastball, so it was not a real confidence builder, to be certain. They called me into the office one day, and gave me a pink slip and my bus ticket home. They told me I should go home, forget about baseball, because I’d never have the skills to be a professional ballplayer. So, that night I’m leaving for the bus, and on the way there, I swing by the ballpark; the lights are on and the game is on. Forgive me, but the tears and the snot was flowing and I asked myself right there--you think I am going to quit? Not yet. The worst thing that scared me was the idea of facing my dad. I couldn’t face him as a failure. Fear of failure is one of the greatest motivators in the world, believe me. So, they let me stay and pretty quick I started playing better. And before I knew it, I was moving up through the minors at a pretty good clip.”

Casey Took a Swing at Helping Wally: “I had some great teachers along the way, like Casey Stengel during my career in the minor leagues. He was a very strong force in my career starting in 1946. He saved my butt. Called for me one day early in the season and said, “You got talent and you can catch and run well enough to play centerfield, but there’s a lot more to it than just that. I am going to teach you how to play at the major league level.” And he did. For six months, he rode my biscuit, let me tell you. “Mister, you got your head where the sun don’t shine,” he told me. He was tough, but he made the game fun. He taught me how to read the pitchers, how to anticipate in the field, so that I was in position to make the tricky catches. He turned it around for me. I was 25 years old at that point and I was running out of time. Today, if you’re 25 and still in the minors, they give up on you. So, every chance I get, I’m proud to say thank you to Charles Dillon Stengel.”

His peculiar place in history: “It turns out that I’m the first white player who ever got hit by a pitch from a black player. It was a kid named Bankhead, a rookie pitching in middle relief for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making his debut and pitching in front of a packed house at Ebbets Field in late August, 1947. He was the first black pitcher to play in the majors. Everyone kind of hesitated when he hit me, there was almost like a hush. It was like what’s gonna happen next? But nothing happened and the game went on. It didn’t matter to me one way or another. I didn’t care if he was blue, green or purple out there on the mound, because he’s trying to get me out and I’m trying to whack his butt, regardless of who he is. But, my name gets mentioned quite a bit with that piece of fairly meaningless baseball history.”

Jackie Robinson: “I look back at all the crap Jackie went through that first season and I have nothing but utmost respect for the man. They did some unspeakable things to Robinson, and he should have kicked some asses, which he was more than capable of doing. A real man has to turn his other cheek, but your average individual would have blown his temper and punched a few bigots. You talk about guts, he had it. I don’t know how he did it. Jackie sat there and took it that first year and then Branch Rickey turned him loose that second year. Those bigots got some comeback that second season, that’s for sure.”

His first year in the Bigs: “We were basically terrible. That Pittsburgh team in ’47 had two stars—Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner and that was it. Greenberg was in his later years by that time (age 36) but he still hit 25 home runs that season. And Kiner hit 51 homers, and batted .313. But the rest of the team is fairly forgettable. The Pirates in ‘47made a lot of errors (149) and the team ERA was close to 5.00. The pitching staff threw 44 complete games, because the bullpen was awful. The starters had to finish games. We ended up 62-92 in last place, 32 games behind Brooklyn. It was a long season to start a career in the majors, that’s for sure, but I loved every minute of it.”