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    Mudville: November 29, 2021 4:32 pm PDT
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    Workhorse.

    It’s the one word that Mickey Lolich uses to describe the type of pitcher he was for nearly two decades, the majority of which was spent as was one of the premier southpaws in the American League.

    Lolich averaged 259 innings per season in 13 years with Detroit, topping the 300-inning mark in four consecutive seasons [1971-74]. He was a World Series hero, had 12 consecutive seasons of double-digit victories and holds Detroit franchise records for strikeouts [2,679], games started [459] and shutouts [39]. He is third in Tigers history in victories [207] and innings pitched [3,361 2/3], sixth in complete games [190] and seventh in strikeouts per nine innings [7.172].

    The Oregon native’s 308 strikeouts in 1971 is a club record and remains the only time a pitcher has cracked the 300-strikeout barrier with Detroit while the 376 innings he threw that year remain second in franchise history [George Mullin, 382 1/3 in 1904]. The innings total in 1971 is also the second-highest total by a pitcher since the end of World War II, just behind the 376 2/3 Wilbur Wood threw in 1972. No one in the American League had pitched more innings in a season since Philadelphia’s Ed Walsh [393] in 1912. Grover Cleveland was the last National League pitcher to reach those heights, tossing 388 innings in 1917.

    Lolich is also one of six pitchers to throw more than 1,000 innings in a three-year stretch during the live-ball era, according to The Elias Sports Bureau. He threw 1,012 innings from 1972-74. Wood, who did it twice, is atop that group with 1,070 innings from 1971-73 and 1,056 innings from 1972-74.  Red Faber [1,002 innings from 1920-22], Phil Niekro [1,006 from 1977-79], Gaylord Perry [1,009 from 1972-74], and Robin Roberts [1,014 from 1952-54] also accomplished the feat.

    “I had a unique way of taking care of my arm and everyone was against it but it was the greatest thing for me,” Lolich said. “When I was with the Mets [1976], as soon as I got done pitching my first game, there is the trainer waiting with ice bags, telling me we have to ice my arm. I said no, I am totally the opposite. I used the hottest water I could get on my arm. I’d stand in the shower and turn the water hotter and hotter.

    “The water was bouncing off me and burning people so no one wanted to be around me in the shower. I was a firm believer in using hot water. Why did I go to hot water? I never met the man but Satchel Paige used to do that and Satchel pitched for a long time. I tried it and it worked for me. I’d soak my arm in hot water even on days that I didn’t pitch. It helped with circulation and in return, I never had a sore arm and I went out and pitched every four days.”

    Lolich’s unique arm-care habits contributed to a long and storied career, one that many believe should have landed him in the Hall of Fame. It all added up to a remarkable run, the likes of which probably won’t ever be seen again by a modern-day starter.

    “They pay these guys so much to pitch five innings because they don’t want them to get hurt.  In my day it was a one-year contract. If something happened, here’s the lunch pail, go pump gas.”

    DOMINATING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

    Lolich, 81, said that his love affair with baseball began when he was growing up in Oregon. He was regularly ranked as one of the top pitchers in the state and had the opportunity to play nationally on both the Babe Ruth and American Legion levels.

    His team played in the 1955 Babe Ruth League World Series in Texas and Lolich was recognized nationally for what he accomplished. Lolich, while playing for Portland, went the distance in a 12-inning loss to Birmingham and was so impressive that, according to The Sporting News, he was presented with a dollar bill autographed by Babe Ruth, which had been donated by a Texan who had seen him pitch.

    Lolich was written about several times in The Sporting News in the late summer of ’57, just before his senior year of high school, while playing in the American Legion World Series in Montana.

    “I was one of the best pitchers in the whole state,” said Lolich, who only began pitching left-handed after suffering a broken right arm as a child. “They would rate all the pitchers in the state and there would be a right-handed pitcher and there was Mickey Lolich. Playing baseball was my goal.”

    He starred at Lincoln High School and there wasn’t much debate as to whether he would sign with Detroit or anyone else. It was simply a matter of when. The when came after high school and he began his professional career in 1959, splitting the season between Class-A Knoxville of the South Atlantic League and Class-B Durham of the Carolina League. He combined to go 4-8 with a 3.12 ERA in 20 games [19 starts].

    Lolich spent the majority of 1960 with Durham but pitched in four games at Knoxville and combined to go 5-11 with a 4.50 ERA. He also continued to be true to himself after making a pledge that he would plan for a post-baseball career before it became too late.

    UNDATED: Mickey Lolich #29 of the 1963 Detroit Tigers poses for a portrait. Lolich played for Detroit from 1963-1975. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)

    “I told myself that I give it a go for four years and if I was stuck in the minors and not improving I would get out of baseball and get a job,” he said. “One year I reported late to spring training and the Tigers went bananas because I stayed back home to take a civil service exam to be a postman. I passed. If I saw by the fourth year I wasn’t advancing the way I wanted I was ready to hang it up.”

    While Lolich just may have hung it up, fate, and a line drive, intervened in 1962. He began the season with Triple-A Denver of the American Association and struggled mightily, going 0-4 with a 16.50 ERA in nine games [four starts] after being named Detroit’s Outstanding Prospect during spring training. Lolich struggled early in games, particularly the first inning, after getting hit in the face with a line drive early in the season.

    His struggles led to what was supposed to be a demotion to Knoxville but Lolich refused to go and headed home to Oregon instead.

    “I got hit on the left side of the face against Louisville and the ball went into the right field corner for a standup triple,” he said. “My eye closed and I couldn’t see. I figured right then and there, my career was over. With my follow through, I had to pick up the baseball with my left eye, which was completely closed so I was pitching out of fear.

    “The general manager at Denver was not an employee of the Tigers. We just supplied the team for Denver. He wanted to send me back to Knoxville where I had a conflict with the manager the year before. When I got home to Oregon, I called [Tigers general manager] Jim Campbell and he said where are you, you are supposed to be in Knoxville. I told him I called to inform you that I quit, I am done with baseball.”

    Photo by Malcolm Emmons

    NOT DONE JUST YET

    Lolich remained at home, still a bit hesitant about pitching because of his eye. The manager of a local semipro team stopped by his house looking for some help after Lolich returned home. He told Lolich he had a left-hander who was having some issues and was wondering if he could come watch him pitch and give him some pointers. Lolich agreed.

    “He said I have to give you a uniform because I want you on the bench so you can talk to me when he was pitching,” Lolich said. “So I have a uniform, I’m on the bench and the manager comes to me and says your dad wants to see you, he is down the right field line. I’m thinking what in the hell is he there for. He said your eye is cleared up, you can see and I want you to try pitching again. He told me that he had never asked anything of me in my whole life when it came to baseball.

    “I told him I don’t have a glove and he reached into his back pocket and pulled out my glove. The whole thing was set up by him and the manager. Well I warmed up and threw about five innings of relief and struck out 16 guys. The next day I got a call from the Tigers and they said we read some headlines about you, that you had a pretty good day.”

    Campbell told Lolich that if he is ready to pitch he could go to Knoxville. When Lolich said no Campbell offered to allow him to pitch for Portland of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League even though they were an affiliate of the Kansas City A’s. He would still belong to the Tigers but he’d be making the same money he was making in Denver. Lolich agreed to play for Portland during the first week of June and it turned out to be a career defining decision.

    Lolich’s first two starts with Portland were not good. Though he admits that he was typically wild he had shown enough to catch the eye of Beavers pitching coach Gerry Staley, who asked Portland manager Les Peden if he could work with the southpaw even though he was technically a Tiger. Staley had finished up a 15-year Major League career the year prior, a stint that included appearing in four games for the White Sox in the 1959 World Series. While he was the Beavers pitching coach, he was also still on the active roster and appeared in 48 games that season.

    (Original Caption) 10/7/1968-Detroit, MI: These two jubilant Tigers are starting pitcher Mickey Lolich (L), who pitched his second winning game of the 1968 World Series against the Cards, and Al Kaline, who drove in the winning and tying runs with bases loaded on a single in the seventh inning. The Tigers won 5-3. Lolich's single started the 7th inning rally which led to victory.

    “Staley said I want to work with you for two weeks,” Lolich said. “He said you throw 100 miles an hour which is an unbelievable fastball but I want to change you to a sinkerball pitcher. I said they are shit pitchers but okay I’ll try anything. He taught me how to hold the baseball different than I ever had in my life. I pitched a couple of games and we worked in between starts. He said I might be wilder than I had ever been but I’m asking for two weeks.

    “I went along for two weeks and things weren’t going very well. Then, I’m down in the bullpen one day and all of a sudden, there it was. It clicked and I had a great sinking fastball. My velocity dropped and I won and lost games but I pitched well [10-9, 3.95 ERA]. The next year I got a call from Jim Campbell and he said come to spring training, you’re on the Major League roster. I pitched 18 scoreless innings in spring training but he [Campbell] had to get even with me so I was the last guy cut and was sent to Syracuse [of the Triple-A International League].”

    While Lolich went 0-2 in six games [three starts] with Syracuse, he pitched to a 2.45 ERA in 22 innings. So when veteran Frank Lary went down with arm issues in mid-May, Lolich was called to the big leagues, where he would stay until he retired.

    HEADING TO DETROIT

    Lolich made his Major League debut on May 12, tossing two scoreless innings of relief against Cleveland. He struck out three and walked one.

    “Being in the big leagues didn’t faze me in the least,” Lolich said. “When they called me up, they told me I wasn’t going to pitch so I was sitting in the bullpen and all of a sudden the phone rings and the pitching coach says, ‘Lolich get up’. We were getting beat 10-1 by Cleveland and he told me to get ready to go in next and face Max Alvis. I struck him out. I pitched two innings and they sort of went hmmm.”

    He followed that up with another two-inning relief stint on May 15 in Chicago before making his first career start on May 21 in Baltimore. He took the loss after scattering six hits and allowing three runs in six innings. Lolich did strike out seven, though, setting the stage for his May 28 start at Dodger Stadium against the Angels. He pitched a complete game, allowing only an unearned run in the sixth for his first big-league victory.

    “The second week I’m standing in the outfield in Baltimore and the manager comes over and asks me how do you feel?” Lolich said. “I asked what do you mean and he said ‘is your arm tired?”. I said no and he said [Phil] Regan has a bad stomach and you’re starting tonight. So I started and we got beat. We went to play the Angels and Reagan was still in bad shape. He said you’re starting tonight and I won my first game.

    “They told me when they called me up it would be for 30 days until Lary came back. I started several games and did well. I wasn’t doing very well in the minors and my control was very bad. But Staley taught me a few tricks and oh boy, it changed my life. When I came to the big leagues, my sinkerball was 96 instead of 100, I was hitting spots on the outside corner and could hit that all day long. When you do that what do they [the batters] do? They beat it into the ground and the infielders in the big leagues just gobble it up.”

    1968 World Series: Detroit Tigers Mickey Lolich (29) in action, pitching vs St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Game 2. St. Louis, MO 10/3/1968 (Photo by Herb Scharfman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images).

    He finished the season at 5-9 with a 3.55 ERA in 33 games [18 starts]. His best stretch was a three-start run from June 23-July 5 when he went 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA with two victories against Kansas City and one against the Angels. Both wins against the A’s were complete games while Lolich went eight innings against Los Angeles.

    Lolich went 18-9 with a 3.26 ERA in 44 games [33 starts] in 1964. It marked the first of a dozen consecutive double-digit victory seasons. It was also the first of nine seasons in which he would reach double digits in complete games [12]. He continued to establish himself over the next three seasons, winning 43 games and leading the league in shutouts in 1967 [six].

    One of the situations that prevented Lolich from becoming more dominant was his military commitment. He would leave the club to honor his commitment to the Michigan Air National Guard and it proved difficult to remain consistent during that time.

    “It was quite unique because I would be gone for two weeks,” he said. “They tried flying me back a few times but that really didn’t work out as a pitcher. I tried, though. The best catcher I ever threw to when I was going through that process was a priest, who used to be a pretty good catcher in semipro ball. I called him to catch me one day at a baseball field and I started throwing, getting loose.

    “I said okay Father, I’m going to throw a sinking fastball. It goes down pretty good so be prepared. The ball was a strike and he missed it and it missed his glove and hit him down by the ankle. I said I’m sorry Father, I’ll just throw fastballs. I threw him a couple of good fastballs around 96 and one rose on him. It didn’t touch anything except his facemask and knocked him flat on his ass. I ran up to him thinking Geez I hurt a priest. He said he was going to survive but that his catching duties were over.”

    The Tigers, meanwhile, improved through the middle part of the decade and by 1967 they were contending for a pennant, getting eliminated on the final weekend of the season after losing two games in back-to-back doubleheaders with the Angels. Lolich finished the season 14-13 with a 3.04 ERA in 31 games [30 starts] but went 9-1 over his last 11 starts to provide a glimpse of what was to come in ’68. He closed out the season by throwing 28 1/3 scoreless innings, which included complete-game shutouts of Washington, New York and California.

    (Original Caption) Busch Stadium, St. Mo.: A happy Mickey Lolich is interviewed in Tiger dressing room, after he pitched his team to a final victory over the St. Louis Cardinals to win there 1968 World Series.

    THE YEAR OF THE PITCHER AND A WORLD SERIES HERO

    The Tigers were considered by many, including opposing players, as the favorite to not only win the American League pennant in 1968 but to win the World Series as well.

    “We went to camp and other teams would come up to us and say you guys lost by a game last year but you’re going blow everyone away,” Lolich said. “We said thank you and felt like we were going to beat everyone.”

    That certainly proved to be the case. The Tigers were the only team to win more than 100 games [103] in either league and easily outdistanced second-place Baltimore by 12 games. Detroit spent 158 days in first place and was never more than 2.5 games out of first. While Denny McLain stole all the headlines during the regular season by winning 31 games, Lolich was just as important. He went 17-9 with a 3.19 ERA in 39 games [32 starts] despite losing his spot in the rotation for a few weeks in August.

    “I was a workhorse and believed in finishing games,” Lolich said. “McLain had one great year and more credit to him. But they were getting five and six runs for him. I asked Jim Northrup about that and he said we don’t have to get more runs for you, you’re a better pitcher than he is. Not that he [McLain] didn’t throw some shutouts but they never scored for me.”

    Lolich, as he had the year before, had another strong finish to the regular season and would carry that momentum into the World Series against defending champion St. Louis and Bob Gibson, he of the 1.12 regular season. He picked up victories in Game Two and Game 5, topping Nelson Briles in both outings. Lolich figured he would be a spectator for the deciding seventh game but Detroit manager Mayo Smith had other ideas.

    “I had already won two games and was in the dugout when the manager called me over and said I want to talk with you,” Lolich said. “Do you think you can pitch tomorrow? I said sure, if you need me to go for a couple of innings, sure I can go out there. My arm feels great and if you want me to, I think I can go five. He said no, I want you to start. I said well, okay I think I can start on two days’ rest.

    “After five innings it is 0-0 and I’m thinking well, that’s it. When I hit the dugout steps he [Smith] asks if I can go one more.  So I went back out and when I came off in the sixth he asked can you go one more. I said yeah, I feel fine and we scored a bunch of runs in the [top of the] seventh. So I went over to him and tapped him on the shoulder and said now I’ll finish it for you. He said that’s just what I wanted to here.”

    Lolich went the distance, scattering five hits to pick up his third complete-game victory of the series. He was named World Series MVP after becoming the 12th player to win three games in one Word Series. There wouldn’t be a 13th hurler to join that club until 2001 when Arizona’s Randy Johnson accomplished the feat against the Yankees.

    “In the back of my head I was thinking gee whiz he’s calling on me on two days’ rest,” Lolich said. “Even if I lose, they’ll say Lolich tried like hell to do it and couldn’t.”

    Lolich followed his impressive post-season performance with his strongest regular season to date in 1969, going 19-11 with a 3.14 ERA and 15 complete games to earn his first All-Star selection. He struck out 271 – then the third-highest total in franchise history – which included a pair of 16-strikeout efforts [May 23 in a victory against the Angels and June 9 in a loss to Seattle].

    (Original caption) Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich leaps into the grasp of Bill Freehanafter the Tigers catcher caught the final out in St. Louis, to give the Tigers the 1968 World Series title over the Cardinals. (Detroit Free Press File Photo)

    THE WORKHORSE ARRIVES

    He took a bit of a step back in 1970, though, leading the league with 19 losses [and 14 wins]. It would be the first of two seasons in which he would lead the league in losses but he would come back with a vengeance in 1971, kicking off a four-year run [four consecutive 300-plus inning seasons] the likes of which won’t be seen again.

    Lolich went 25-14 in 1971 leading the league in victories, starts [45], complete games [29], innings pitched [376], strikeouts [the franchise-record 308] and batters faced [1,538]. He was named an All-Star, finished second in the Cy Young voting to Vida Blue [who also won the MVP] and fifth in the MVP balloting. A strong case could be made for Lolich winning the Cy Young and he believes, in part, that he’d probably be in the Hall-of-Fame had he taken home the award in ’71.

    “They gave the Cy Young to Vida Blue and I beat him in every category except ERA,” Lolich said. “Look at innings pitched, complete games, strikeouts right on down the line. If I had won the Cy Young that year, maybe, just maybe, I might have found my way into the Hall-of-Fame.”

    Lolich followed up his career season with another spectacular year in 1972 as the Tigers won the American League East to return to the playoffs. He went 22-14 with a 2.50 ERA, tossing “only” 327 innings and racking up 23 more complete games. He was once again an All-Star and earned some MVP votes for a second consecutive season but missed out on the Cy Young again, finishing third behind Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry [24-16, 1.92 ERA] and Chicago’s knuckle baller Wilbur Wood [24-17, 2.51 ERA] who threw 376 2/3 innings to barely eclipse Lolich’s 1971 mark.

    “He beat me by 2/3 of an inning,” noted Lolich. “But I was a power pitcher and he threw that flutter ball. He probably could have pitched every day.”

    Lolich dipped to 16 victories in each of the next two seasons, leading the league in losses [21] in 1974. According to Elias, he is one of 156 pitchers to have won 20 at one point and to have lost 20 in a season. Some have done it in the same year, like Wood [1973] and Phil Niekro, whose 20-loss season in 1979 marked the last time a 20-game winner had also lost 20 in a season.

    The Tigers finished third, sixth and sixth following their playoff appearance in 1972 and by 1975, the 34-year-old Lolich was deemed expendable by the Tigers. He was 12-18 in ’75, pitching to a 3.78 ERA over 32 starts. Management felt like the club needed hitting and decided to send Lolich to the Mets in exchange for outfielder/first baseman Rusty Staub.

    It wouldn’t be that simple, though. Lolich didn’t want to go.

    First baseman Joe Torre #9 and pitcher Mickey Lolich #29 of the New York Mets pose on a Kawasaki motorcycle at Shea Stadium during the 1976 season in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

    “I was never happy in New York when we visited that town,” Lolich said. “The people in New York were not very friendly and I spent all my time in the hotel room except when I went to the park. It was not one of my favorite towns. In fact, it was my least favorite town. So I was in a bit of a conflict when I got the call from Jim Campbell. He said the Mets wanted me and I said I wasn’t playing in New York. I didn’t like being there.

    “He said damn, I want to make this trade. I need a hitter to play every day. But I said I am not going to New York and hung up the phone. Next I get a call from the vice president of the Mets and he said we really want to make this trade and we will give you a $25,000 raise. That was a nice offer but I said money isn’t that important and I’m not going to agree to the deal. So I hung up and the phone rang again and it was Campbell again. He said if I didn’t agree to the trade he was going to cut my salary 20 percent per MLB rules. I said Jim, maybe it’s time for me to retire and he said go ahead, it wouldn’t bother me in the least and slammed down the phone.”

    After cooling down and discussing the situation with his wife, Lolich agreed to a two-year deal and the raise. But he remained unhappy. He was living by himself in New York and couldn’t see his family. He said he only saw his kids twice during the season and that “a little depression set in”.

    “I enjoyed playing with the Met team,” said Lolich, who went 8-13 with a 3.22 ERA in 31 games [30 starts] for New York. “Tom Seaver amazed me. Not just the pitching. He had a great personality. I sort of figured he was going to be a guy who was a little uppity but he wasn’t. He was a funny man but boy, would his disposition change when he crossed that line. He was out there to win.

    “Ed Kranepool, Joe Torre, all the guys there were great. I signed a two-year deal and I’d go back the next year for the same money but my wife refused to bring the kids to New York City. I lived by myself so when the season was over it was time for me to retire. My wife said, ‘You’re going to turn down that kind of money’ and I said, ‘Joyce I’m not happy’. She said if that’s the way I felt she understood.”

    Lolich sat out 1977, content to remain retired, but after his contract with the Mets had expired, the Padres came calling. So he signed a two-year deal as a free agent. He appeared in 47 games over two seasons for the Padres, 40 of which were relief appearances. He missed much of 1978 while recovering from April knee surgery but still managed to post a 1.56 ERA in 34 2/3 innings.

    The following season was not as productive as Lolich pitched to a 4.74 ERA in 49 1/3 innings. Lolich made his last big-league appearance on Sept. 23 against the Dodgers, allowing a run in one inning of work.

    “I had been having trouble with my right knee in 1978,” Lolich said. “I hurt it while I was pitching for the Tigers. Willie Horton hit a line drive in batting practice [in 1973] and Chuck Hiller yelled, ‘Duck!’ I swerved to get out the way and stepped on a sprinkler head and tore cartilage in my knee.

    “My first game in San Diego [April 7 at San Francisco] I’m in relief and I win the game and the team doctor was there. He says you were limping a little when you walked off the field. I said my knee hurts. He took me in the training room and said you have a torn cartilage.”

    Lolich appeared in four more April games and had a 1.08 ERA through April 19. He underwent surgery and wasn’t back with the club until mid-July. He returned in mid-July and allowed only one run in 14 1/3 innings in July and August, which included a 14-inning scoreless streak. He also picked up his 10th and final career save, his first since 1969, after pitching three scoreless innings at Shea Stadium on Aug. 17.

    That winter, the Padres sent him to Florida where he worked on a knuckleball for two weeks with Hall-of-Famer Hoyt Wilhelm.

    “I used to throw a knuckleball when I was screwing around in the minors,” Lolich said. “It was a power knuckleball that I threw off my fastball. He said I can’t throw it 85 miles an hour, I have to slow it down. But I couldn’t slow it down and I had a bad knee. So it was time to retire, that’s it, I was done.”

    Lolich reached out to the Angels about a roster spot for the 1980 season but was rebuffed and called it a career. He says he still watches the Tigers and if they are doing well for five innings, he’ll stick with the game. Otherwise he’ll “flip over and watch Netflix”. He added that he isn’t happy about the changes in the game like ghost runners and shifts and players refusing to bunt.

    He also knows that the way he worked and pitched would never be allowed today.

    “I guess you’d have to break it down financially,” he said. “We didn’t make a whole lot of money back in our days whatever kind of season you had. You would get a raise if you were lucky. So you gave me the ball and my job was to finish a baseball game.

    “Today, there is so much invested in new, young pitchers, they have to get them out of the game. I averaged 135 to 145 pitches a start. I was a strikeout pitcher and there were a lot of foul balls. The pitch count went up but it didn’t faze me in the least. It’s a different game now. They pay these guys so much to pitch five innings because they don’t want them to get hurt. If they get hurt, you still have to pay. In my day it was a one-year contract. If something happened, here’s the lunch pail, go pump gas.”

    And being a workhorse, Lolich would have gone.

    Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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