The only member of the Red Sox all-time roster to celebrate a birthday on this date is this eighth round Boston draft choice from 1982. A native of Compton, California, Jeff Sellers was a right-handed pitcher with a good fastball. who grabbed the attention of the parent club when he put together a 14-7 season for New Britain in 1985 that included 15 complete games and 5 shutouts. That performance earned him a late-season call-up to Fenway that year and when he won both his decisions during that call-up, Red Sox fans thought maybe, just maybe the then 21-year-older had a bright future in Beantown. He did not.
He started out the ’86 season back in the minors and then got called up again that June. He went 3-6 during his two months in the rotation and was sent back down. After Boston clinched the AL East that year he was given one more start against the Yankees in the regular season finale and got shelled.
Boston then kept him on the big league roster for most of the ’87 season, during which he went 7-8 in 22 starts. A sore arm and a tendency to give up too many walks prevented him from ever becoming a consistent winner. Ironically, his best performance as a Red Sox came in his final one. He went 1-7 in 1998 and that seventh loss occurred at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field. On that October day, Sellers pitched a no-hitter for seven and a third innings and then Cleveland first baseman Luis Medina broke it up with a home run. That turned out to be the only run of the game. After that season, Sellers was dealt to the Reds with Todd Benzinger in the trade that brought Nick Esasky and Rob Murphy to Boston. Sellers hurt his arm again before he ever got the opportunity to throw a regular season pitch for the Reds and never again appeared in a big league game. He has a son named Justin who played as a utility infielder for the Dodgers.
Whoever first came up with the phrase, “a change of scenery will do you some good,” may have been thinking of this guy when they did. Hall of Fame right-hander Charles Herbert “Red” Ruffing started his Major League career as a member of the the Red Sox in 1924. In the slightly more than five seasons he spent in a Boston uniform, Ruffing’s won-lost record was an atrocious 39-96. This slow start was most likely attributable to the combination of a pretty putrid era of Red Sox offense and the fact that Ruffing was originally an outfielder, who only began pitching after a mining accident cost him four toes. In any event, Boston readily accepted the New York Yankee’s offer of $50,000 and a reserve outfielder named Cedric Durst in exchange for Ruffing, during the second month of the 1930 season.
Old Red then proceeded to go 15-5 in his debut season in Pinstripes. During the next 14 years, he won 231 games, lost just 124, and enjoyed four 20-victory seasons. He also compiled a 7-2 record in seven World Series and was the ace on six world championship Yankee teams. Since he was also originally a good-hitting outfielder, Ruffing became one of the best hitting pitchers in MLB history, compiling a .269 lifetime batting average. Ruffing was inducted into Cooperstown in 1967.
So what happened to Cedric Durst? He got into 102 games for the Red Sox in 1930, batted .240 and then never played in another Major League game. Ruffing shares his May 3rd birthday with this catcher, who became his Yankee teammate in 1941 and this long-ago Yankee pitcher.
When my children were growing up in the 80’s, they attended an elementary school that was located next to a nature preserve that was called Sassafrass. A group of parents from the school got together in an effort to construct a new playground and I was asked to serve as the person responsible for getting citizen volunteers to help build the park. We decided we would name the new playground Sassafrass and I came up with the slogan, “Let’s Get Sassy!” which we plastered on billboards and lawn signs and bumper stickers all over town. Amazingly, until this week, when I started my research for today’s Beantown Baseball Birthday blog post with Bill Nowlin’s excellent book entitled “New Century, New Team; The 1901 Boston Americans, I never knew what sassafras was. The word would always have a special place in my heart because it gave me the inspiration and the opportunity to use “sassy” in that slogan, which proved so popular that we got hundreds of volunteers to build that playground. But it wasn’t until I read Nowlin’s profile of George Winter, a pitcher on the very first Boston Red Sox (then known as the Americans) team in history, that I learned what a “sassafras” actually was.
George Winter’s nickname was Sassafrass. Why? Sassafrass is a tree, whose extract is used as the flavoring for root beer. Back at the turn of the 20th century, root beer was one of America’s most popular beverages. So as Nowlin points out, the nickname “Sassafrass” describes a player from that era who added “flavor” or “life” to the game of baseball. That would be Mr. Winter.
Born in Pennsylvania, Winter played collegiate baseball at Gettysburg College, where future Hall of Fame pitcher, Eddie Planck was his teammate. Whese two guys would taking turns pitching, the school’s team gained national attention and soon enough, Connie Mack had summoned the dynamic duo to Philadelphia to try-out for his his new American League franchise. Mack signed Plank but he told the just 5’8″ – 155 pound Winter, he was too small to be a big league pitcher so he signed with the Boston Red Sox instead.
Over the next eight years, the diminutive right-hander proved Mack wrong. He actually out pitched Plank in their rookie year of 1901 by going 16-12 with a 2.80 ERA. He had winning seasons during his first four seasons for a Boston team that was loaded with great starting pitching. So loaded that when they went to their first World Series in 1903, Winter actually was assigned the task of selling tickets, while the three pitchers in front of him in that year’s rotation, Cy Young, Bill Dineen and Tom Hughes got all the starts in Boston’s seven-game victory over the Pirates.
That deep starting pitching depth and bouts with typhoid fever in 1902 and severe stomach problems in 1906 probably helped prevent Winter from putting together an even better record during his years in Boston. Another reason was the uncanny lack of run support the guy seemed to receive when he was on the mound. In 1905 he had a superb ERA of just 2.07 but finished the year just 12-15.
Even when he started out 4-14 during his final year with the Red Sox in 1908 and was put on waivers, his ERA was still just 3.05. He was then claimed by the Tigers and in six starts with his new club his ERA was a microscopic 1.60. His won-lost record, however, was 1-5.
Fortunately, Tiger manager Hughie Jennings paid more attention to the low ERA and put the pitcher on Detroit’s World Series roster that year, giving Winter his first and only opportunity to participate in postseason play. Which brings me back to his nickname. When you were as physically small as Winter was, you had to make up for it by doing all the little things well. Winter was both an outstanding fielding pitcher and he also happened to be one of the fastest runners in the league. It was that speed that got him his World Series debut in Game 1 of that 1908 Series when he was used as a pinch runner in Game 1. He also pitched a scoreless inning of relief in Game 4, which turned out to be his final appearance as a big leaguer. He later became the varsity baseball coach at the University of Vermont. He passed away in 1951 at the age of 73. And by the way, in his head-to-head big league match ups with his old Gettysburg pitching mate Eddie Plank, this “sassy” little right-hander was 6-3. Take that Connie Mack!
Born in Silver Creek, NY, a little village located on the shores of Lake Erie, Howard Ehmke was a 6’3″ right-handed pitcher who caught the attention of big league scouts with a stellar 31-7 season for the 1916 Syracuse Stars, a B-level minor league team in the old New York State League. That got him signed by the Tigers and he spent the next six seasons as a very effective starting pitcher for some Detroit ball clubs that were not that good.
Right after the 1922 season ended, the Tigers made a six player deal with the Red Sox that brought Ehmke to Boston. All he did was throw 316 innings and win 20 games for a Red Sox team that finished dead last in the 1923 AL standings. To prove that wasn’t a fluke, he went 19-17 the following year and gave Boston 315 more innings of his right arm. In 1926, the Red Sox had one of the worst seasons in franchise history, finishing the year with a 47-105 record. Though Ehmke lost 20 games that year, the rest of the league knew he would do much better on a good team. That team turned out to be Connie Mack’s A’s, who acquired Ehmke about half-way through the ’27 season.
Finally part of an elite team, Ehmke went 40-24 during his next four seasons in Philadelphia and won Game 1 of the 1929 World Series. He finished his big league career in 1930 at the age of 36. His lifetime record was 166-166 and included 20 career shutouts. The following winter he started the Ehmke Manufacturing Company, which produced the first infield tarps ever used by Major League baseball. The company is still in operation today. Ehmke died in 1959, at the age of 64.
My wife and I just returned home to upstate New York from a road trip to Pittsburgh, where we spent the Easter weekend with our youngest daughter. We have to drive I-79 to get to the Steel City and about 40 miles north of the Pirates hometown, you pass by a city called Mercer. Back in the 1950’s Mercer High School had a basketball team and one of its best players was a 6’2″ forward by the name of Gary Peters.
As good as he was on the hard court, Peters was even better on the baseball diamond. His Dad was one of the area’s best semi-pro players and he had taught his son well. The younger Peters had evolved into a hard-hitting first baseman, but because his high school did not field a baseball team, his playing time was limited to American Legion and sandlot play. Thankfully, one of his coaches had connections to the White Sox organization and Peters was given a tryout by that club. He did well enough to get signed to a contract that permitted him to attend a local college on a basketball scholarship and play baseball when the college year ended.
Since his first minor league team was pretty well-stocked with first baseman, Peters, a southpaw who had done some pitching in his American Legion days was given a shot on the mound. He had one pitch at the time, a very impressive fastball and in the lower minors he was able to get outs with it consistently. That changed as he advanced up the ladder of Chicago’s farm system forcing him to develop more pitches. His slider came easy and his two-pitch repertoire enabled him to continue to win at both the double and triple A levels but was still not enough to get anything but brief late-season, cup-of-coffee trials with the parent club. It took him six years to master his curve and it was that third pitch that finally earned him a permanent spot on the White Sox’ roster and when he did, he was more than ready.
He went 19-8 during his rookie season, led the League with a 2.33 ERA and in the process, captured the 1963 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was even better the following season, when he went 20-8 and earned the first of two All Star selections. A nagging groin injury resulted in a sub par season in 1965 but he won his second ERA title in ’66 and made his second All Star team the following season. Then he suffered what was later diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury, ruining his ’68 season. After a 10-15 season in ’69, Chicgao gave up on him and traded him to the Red Sox for next-to-nothing. It turned out to be a steal for Boston GM Dick O’Connell.
Ignoring the “southpaw’s can’t win in Fenway” suspicion, Peters went 16-11 during his first year in Beantown and 14-11 in his second. His was 12-8 during those two seasons pitching at Fenway and 20-14 during his career. He was also one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball at the time and during the 1971 season, he averaged .271 for the Red Sox, prompting Boston manager, Eddie Kasko to use Peters as one of his primary pinch-hitters off the bench.
The Boston front office had done an admirable job assembling a talented veteran rotation of double digit winners during the early seventies. In addition to Peters, it included the home-grown Jim Lonborg, along with Ray Culp and Sonny Seibert. But O’Connell decided to go with younger arms in ’72, bringing up both John Curtis and Lynn McGlothen from the minors and pushing Peters out of the mix. He retired the following year. His 15-season career record was 124-103.
I was thirteen years old at the time but remember vividly Jim Lonborg’s brilliance on the mound during Boston’s “Impossible Dream” season. The tall lean California-born right hander had graduated from Stanford with a degree in biology in 1963 and signed with the Red Sox. After just one season in the minors, Lonborg became part of the “baby Sox” youth movement that took place during the 1965 and ’66 seasons. That was when the team’s front office decided to rush their best young prospects to the big leagues and let them do their on-the-job training at Fenway.
Lonborg went a combined 19-27 during his first two big league seasons but it was evident to all who saw him that this kid had Major League stuff. He put it all together during Boston’s magical 1967 campaign. His 22-9 record that year included a victory in the pennant-clinching final regular season game against a very good Minnesota Twins team. Since he was called upon to pitch in that contest, he wasn’t rested enough to start in the World Series Opener’ against St. Louis. Instead, he put together one of the best back-to-back pitching performances in Fall Classic history with his complete game shutout victory in Game 2 followed up by a 3-hit, 1-run complete game victory in Game 5.
There was no doubt he would be called upon to start Game 7 on just two-days rest but his right arm had run out of gas. Still, when he left that game in the seventh inning, everyone including me thought he would be one of the best pitchers in baseball over the next decade. Instead, after becoming the first Boston Red Sox pitcher to win a Cy Young Award, Lonborg decided to go skiing. It turned out to be a disastrous decision on his part.
On what was to be his last downhill run of the day, he wiped out and tore two ligaments in his knee, requiring major surgery to repair. When he tried to rush back from that injury, the pain and weakness in his injured knee forced him to change his pitching motion to compensate. That change put undue stress on his pitching shoulder causing subsequent injuries. The short of it was that Lonborg was never again the pitcher he was in 1967. During the three seasons following his surgery, Lonborg’s cumulative record was 17-22 but he was learning to pitch again with a sore arm and weakened knee. By 1971, in his final season in Boston, he was able to fashion a 10-7 record and told reporters he was finally feeling good on the mound again.
That October, the Red Sox sent Lonborg and a bunch of other players to the Brewers to acquire Tommy Harper’s speed and put it at the top of their lineup. A healthier Lonborg went 14-12 during his one and only season in Milwaukee with an impressive 2.83 ERA. He then got traded to the Phillies, where he would win 67 games over the next five seasons pitching in the number two spot of a Philadelphia rotation, behind future Hall-of-Famer, Steve Carlton.
Lonborg retired after the ’79 season with 157 victories during his 15-year career and a 3.86 lifetime ERA. He then returned to Boston and became a dentist.
During Boston’s glorious 2013 regular season, Clay Buchholz almost accomplished something no other Red Sox starting pitcher had ever done, finish a season undefeated with ten or more decisions. He got to the end of September with an 11-0 record before losing to the Blue Jays in his next-to-last regular season start.
Remember Kason Gabbard? If you’re a Red Sox fan, its the sort of name you can’t easily forget. Gabbard, a big left-hander from Oxford, Ohio, who had been drafted by Boston in the 29th round of the 2000 draft, is the last starter to win all of his Red Sox decisions in a single season. In 2007, he started seven times for Terry Francona’s ball club and won all four of his decisions before getting dealt to the Rangers at the trading deadline in the deal that brought closer Eric Gagne to Boston.
Gabbard was just 25-years-old at the time and he seemed to have a very decent shot at securing a permanent spot in Francona’s rotation. One of his four victories was a complete game shutout and his ERA was an outstanding 2.97 before making his final start as a Red Sox. In that start, he got shelled by the Indians in a game Boston went on to win 14-9.
That poor outing might have been the trigger that convinced the front office folks at Fenway to deal him. He ended up winning two of his three decisions with Texas during the second half of the season, but only because he was the recipient of tremendous run support. His ERA as a Ranger that half-year was an unimpressive 5.58. Texas gave him one more shot to make their rotation the following year but he wasn’t successful. He spent the next two years in the minors and then retired.
Also born on this date was former Tiger slugging first baseman Charley Maxwell, who started his big league career as a Red Sox prospect, back in 1950.