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Mudville: September 22, 2021 10:24 am PDT
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Don Schwall

"I said, 'Hello.' He just said, 'Are you any good?' I said, 'Yeah, I think I am.'"

Sixty years ago, the baseball world was captivated by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they chased Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Mantle landed on 54 home runs and of course, Maris passed The Babe cracking his 61st in dramatic fashion in his second at bat in the final game of the 1961 season.

One of the reasons for the final-game drama was because the 1961 American League Rookie of the Year shut down Maris the game before.

That man was Boston Red Sox pitcher Don Schwall, and he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

Schwall’s effectiveness the game before may have kept him from serving up one of baseball’s most historic home runs, but he did play a significant role in the home run chase that defined that summer in America. A week before shutting down Maris, Schwall gave up Mantle’ 54th and final home run.

Don Schwall’s 1961 season wasn’t about to whom he did or didn’t he gave up a home run, though. He went 15-7 with a 3.22 ERA and captured the AL Rookie of the Year award, just the fourth pitcher to ever do so at the time.

He finished 14th in MVP voting, ahead of Hall of Famers like Yogi Berra, Brooks Robinson and Hoyt Wilhelm – and went toe-to-toe with Sandy Koufax in the historic 1961 All-Star Game. Schwall pitched three innings in the game, facing Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews and Orlando Cepeda twice each, plus Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. Incredibly, he gave up just one run on in infield single during the stint, striking out Musial along the way.

“[Ted Williams] kind of took a liking to me. He would take me out in the outfield and play pepper with me. He’d kid around with me and say, ‘I’d hit you so hard you wouldn’t know what would happen.’”

Schwall clearly had a knack for thwarting legends that stretched all the way back to his college days at the University of Oklahoma, and off the diamond. Schwall was also a basketball star for the Sooners and faced off head-to-head against the Kansas Jayhawks and Wilt Chamberlain three times. Schwall outscored The Stilt all three games.

As we continue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1961 season, let’s honor that year’s American League Rookie of the Year as we go Spitballin’ with right-handed pitcher Don Schwall.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Schwall. Congratulations on the 60th anniversary of your Rookie of the Year Award. Let’s start at the beginning. As a kid, how did you get involved with baseball?

My older brother had just come back from World War II in 1946 and he was an excellent athlete. Unfortunately, he was in the War for four years and it really knocked him back. He was a very good baseball player. He took me to my first Major League game in Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Of all teams, they were playing the Boston Red Sox and fell in love with Ted Williams. I saw him that day and he instantly became my idol. Then I got that burning desire to play baseball.

In addition to being a great baseball player, you were a great basketball player as well. You were a star at the University of Oklahoma, and I read you played against Wilt Chamberlain multiple times.

I played three games against him and scored 27, 27 and 30 [points]. In the final game I outscored him by about 14. He was fabulous though. At the time, the rules were against him. They had widened the free throw line and there were various things that made it more difficult for him. I was only 6’6” and I had the advantage of playing him out on the high post, away from the basket. That gave me an advantage.

Don Schwall with Mickey Mantle.

After you graduated from Oklahoma, did you consider continuing your basketball career?

I actually left for the Red Sox before I graduated, and I have a great story about that. When I signed with the Red Sox, it was the end of my junior year. I promised myself I would finish college. Every winter I went back to Norman to take classes. In ’61, I did practice teaching to get my degree and completed it. I waited about a year and never got a degree. Finally, I called the University and they said there was some problem where I didn’t have the right credits. I got mad about it and said, “I’ll call you later.”

Well, I finally called the Athletic Department 56 years later. They put me in touch with someone with the records. They asked me when I graduated and I told them, 1961. He said, “What! We wouldn’t even have records on that!” He said to give him a couple of weeks to see what they could do.

Two weeks later, he called me back. He said, “I’ve got some good news and bad news. You’re not gonna believe this, but you were right. You should have graduated! They’re mailing you your degree tomorrow and it’s gonna have 1961 on it.” I said, “Well, what’s the bad news?” He said, “We want you to come to graduation!”

Wow! That’s unbelievable! I am guessing you went?

I took my whole family down and we had a big graduation. The Dean told me that I was sitting on the stage, not with the rest of the students. He said he was gonna introduce me too. Believe it or not, the graduation was in the same field house where I played against Wilt and had all those points.

The Dean got up and told the story. He said I was the greatest basketball player they ever had then went to baseball and was Rookie of the Year for the Red Sox in 1961. They gave me a standing ovation. He said that was the first time in history that a graduate got a standing ovation. It was a ball. We had a great time! That was in 2018, 57 years later.

Graduation day for Don Schwall in 2018, 57 years late.

That is no doubt one of the best stories I’ve heard! Being such a great basketball player, how did you end up choosing baseball over basketball?

I went to University of Oklahoma to play basketball. I went out for the freshman baseball team late. The varsity coach told the players how good I was. The players said that if I was so good, he should bring me over to pitch against them. I struck out five or six straight guys and didn’t think anything of it. One man was sitting in the stands, Wog Rice. He comes over and introduces himself and said, “I’m a scout with the Boston Red Sox. If you ever decide you want to play baseball, you call me.” I told him I was more interested in basketball and totally forgot about it.

About eight months later, we’re playing a basketball game in California against UCLA. At the end of the game, about six scouts ran up to me and wanted to sign me for baseball. I had no idea what was going on. It was the day they changed the rule about the Bonus Baby signing. They were offering me money and my basketball coach got real mad and threw them all out of there.

When I got back to Norman, I don’t know what made me do it, but I thought of Wog Rice. I got him on the phone, and he says, “Don’t you talk to anyone else, get right to my house – right now.”

I assume you must have gone over to his house…

Yes. I went there and as soon as I got there, he got Tom Yawkey on the phone. He said, “I want to sign him and give him a $65,000 bonus.” He gives me the phone and says, “Mr. Yawkey wants to talk to you.” I thought, “Holy Christ!”

I said, “Hello.” He just said, “Are you any good?” I said, “Yeah, I think I am.”

I got the bonus and that’s how it happened!

Looking at your minor league career you had some really great years. How was your experience in the minors?

I played at Alpine, Texas and won 26 games. It was 23 games into the regular season and three more in the playoffs. One year in Spring Training, they told me they were gonna let me jump up from D Ball and go to the AAA Spring Training. Gene Mauch was the manager of the team in Minneapolis. I did OK, nothing fabulous but pretty good. We got down to the last day and Mauch came over to me and said, “Don, you’re not gonna make AAA. You’re not ready for it. We’re gonna send you to A Ball in Allentown. But the farm director is here, John Murphy. He wants to see you pitch. You’re gonna pitch three innings.”

I threw no-hits for three innings and came in and Mauch said he wanted to see another inning. I ended up pitching a seven-inning no-hitter. Back at the hotel, Mauch came running out of the door and said, “Damn you! You’re going to AAA!” I got a tremendous break.

This is unbelievable, but the very next day, Mauch took the job to be the manager of the Phillies. The very next day. Who do you think they made the manager of Minneapolis? The guy I had just won 26 games for and he loved me. I had a real good year and went 16-9. It was an amazing period. One thing rolled after another.

Don Schwall shows off his diploma that was a long time coming from the University of Oklahoma.

You mentioned Ted Williams as your hero when you were a kid. You were in the minors the last few years he was playing. What was your relationship like with him?

In 1961 I was invited to the Red Sox Big League Spring Training camp. I’m saying to myself, “Oh, I’m gonna finally meet Ted Williams.” I was in the locker room getting dressed and I’m looking around and there’s no Ted Williams. He retired in ’60 and this was the next Spring. All of a sudden, I get a tap on my back. I turn around and oh my God, it’s Ted Williams.

He says, “Let’s see here, Don Schwall, 16-9 in Minneapolis, ERA of 3.22.” He went through all the numbers. He kind of took a liking to me. He would take me out in the outfield and play pepper with me. He’d kid around with me and say, “I’d hit you so hard you wouldn’t know what would happen.”

Do you have any favorite Ted Williams stories?

One day he says, “Don, I’m taking you to dinner tonight with some very important people. Make sure you wear a tie.” Now, Ted Williams was famous for never wearing a tie. So, I’m thinking, “What the hell does he want me wearing a tie for?” We go up on this mountain outside of Scottsdale. I walk into the restaurant and as soon as I sit down, Ted walks over and cuts my tie in half!” He starts laughing and said, “Look around!” That’s what they did at this place, they cut people’s ties off. They had like 10,000 ties all over the place. He laughed and had a ball. I had a great time with him.

In 1961 when you got called up, you started out hot. Can you talk about how you broke into the Majors?

I won my first six games and got off to a great start. at one point, I was 13-2. This is amazing but, I pitched my first game on May 21 and 56 days later I was in the All-Star Game. It had to be a record. Shortest time anyone was ever in the Big Leagues to make an All-Star Game. The game was in Fenway too. I think that was one reason why they selected me, but I had no idea I would be pitching in the All-Star Game.

Your work in the 1961 All-Star Game was incredible, considering the guys you faced. In three innings, you gave up just one run while pitching to the best that ever played the game. What was that experience like?

That was a great thrill. The All-Star Game itself was phenomenal. In my first inning, I had first and third and I struck out John Roseboro and Stan Musial to get out of it. I have a picture of the moment I struck Musial out. Someone took it from centerfield. I gave up one run on a grounder to short to Aparicio. He waited back and I thought he could have went to get it.

The game ended in a 1-1 tie. You mentioned you interviewed Rocky Colavito? Well, he hit a home run and that was the only run we scored.

What was your perspective of Mantle and Maris that year as a player on the Red Sox? I know you’re worried about your own performance, but were you following along?

Oh sure. I can remember that our players would come out to watch them have batting practice. Nobody did that back then. The Yankees lineup was unbelievable. They had Kubek, Richardson, Mantle, Maris, Moose Skowron, Elston Howard and Yogi. Man alive, that’s some team. We would watch them take batting practice and they’d hit 100 balls over the wall.

That’s an unbelievable lineup. What was it like trying to pitch against them?

I pitched a game against them on a Sunday in Boston. It was about 105; it was so damn hot. I got into the top of the ninth and the score was 2-1, favor of Boston. I had a man on base and Elston Howard came up. I got him 2-2 and threw a real good slider and he hit one over the centerfield wall. I was heartbroken.

The manager came out to me and said, “Don, get this next guy out and we’ll win the game.” The next guy was Yogi and he hit a hard line drive right at the second baseman. I’ll be darned if we don’t get two men on and of all guys, he brought in Pumpsie Green. Pumpsie was a left-handed hitter and he hit one off the left field wall, both runs score and we won.

You played a big role in the home run chase of 1961 with both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Can you tell us about your role in history?

I gave up Mickey Mantle’s final home run of the season. It was number 54 at Fenway in the first inning. He hit a home run and then he was out for a couple of weeks with an injury. Then I go into Yankee Stadium and I pitch the game before Maris hit number 61. Tracy Stallard was going to pitch the last game. We told Maris, we’re not just gonna let you hit number 61, but nothing fancy. If you hit it, you hit it.

Stan Musial with Don Schwall at the 1961 All Star Game at Fenway Park, Boston.

You held him in check pretty well, but he got to Stallard the next day. Do you ever think about what it would have been like to give up number 61?

Well, I held him to a single and that was it. The next game, he hit his 61st home run off Stallard and that was the only run of the game. It was a 1-0 game. Tracy got to go in on some deals with him and made like $25,000! I was mad because I didn’t throw one to him!

Oh man! You were named AL Rookie of the Year over Dick Howser in a close vote. Did you think you had a chance to win the award?

No, I had no idea I was going to win that. Boston had a bad year, so I didn’t think they would consider me. Plus, back then a pitcher normally didn’t win that award. Carl Yastrzemski was a rookie that year too, and everyone thought he would be the one to win it. He didn’t have a great year though.

What was it like coming up the same year as Yaz? How was he as a teammate when you two were just young guys?

He was my roommate. We would stay together in an apartment in Boston. When I see him now, I tell him, “Look, I had you beat for one year. Then you buried me for the next 20!” He gets a big kick out of that. We were teammates in Minneapolis, and he hit .340. The year before he hit .377 in the Carolina League. Everyone knew he was gonna be a star from day one.

The Red Sox traded you to the Pirates and you spent three and a half seasons there. You got to play with some great players, especially Roberto Clemente in his prime. What was it like watching him play every day?

It was great. He’s a great player and he and I were pretty good friends. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him play. He was as great an outfielder as you’d ever see. His style of hitting was a little different. I always consider Willie Mays the best player I ever saw. Willie had the power along with everything else. But Roberto didn’t try to hit home runs, he was a line drive hitter.

He always told me, “Don, if I wanted to, I could hit a lot of home runs.” But he thought the way he was hitting, driving the ball and hitting for contact was a better way. Then I played with Henry Aaron and he told me the opposite. He said he could hit .350 or .360 if he wanted, but home runs were where the money was.

That really was some era you played in. So many legends in their prime while guys like Musial in the prior generation were just winding down.

You look at every team back then and they had superstars. Every single team. The Braves had Felipe Alou hit over 30 home runs leading off. That was before you got to Eddie Mathews, Aaron and Joe Adcock. The Cubs had Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. Every team had four or five straight guys that could really hurt you. There were less teams back then so that was part of it.

I’ve interviewed a handful of guys who played in your era and I’m always interested to ask if you got to meet any of the old-time pre-war legends of the game?

Oh yeah! I met Mickey Vernon who was a wonderful guy. Mickey Vernon played in four decades back to the 1930s. He used to tell me that he knew Walter Johnson. He would say, “Don, I never had Walter Johnson sign a ball for me. What an idiot I was!” I even met Honus Wagner when he was really old. Pie Traynor too. I used to go to a lot of banquets with the Baseball Assistance Team. There was a guy Joe Dugan who was Babe Ruth’s roommate. Oh my God the stories that guy could tell!

This has been a real treat. It’s always amazing to talk baseball with someone who played in your generation. My final question is just if you have any final thoughts about your career that you’d like to leave with our readers?

Like I said earlier, every team had four or five stars no matter how good or bad they were. That’s missing today. I go to games and it’s not like that anymore. A lot of teams have no stars. Back then, the owners realized you had to have that star player to keep fans. Typically, that guy would be there 20 years. The dad would see him play and would tell his son about him and that’s how baseball got passed down. Those days are over. I really think the players lose their fame by moving around. Even guys like Pete Rose and Barry Bonds. When they left Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, it changed the way you look at them.

It was such an honor to play when I did. If you were able to hold your own against the caliber of teams that played in that era, that was pretty darn good. In any sport, if you don’t happen to be on some of the best teams though, it can be tough. I didn’t have the good fortune of playing on a team that was like the Dodgers or Yankees in that era, but the thrill of playing with and against so many of the game’s great was really special.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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