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Mudville: December 4, 2022 3:46 pm PDT
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Singer: The Save & The Surgery

Bill Singer made history on a pair of occasions while pitching for the Dodgers in the mid-to-late 1960s. While neither event in which he was involved gains much attention, the hard-throwing right-hander, whose career was curtailed by a series of injuries, remains an integral figure in the game for a history-making surgery and an often-overlooked event.

Singer, 77, was the first person to undergo thoracic outlet surgery in the fall of 1966. It was, at the time, a riskier procedure – it had never been done before – than it is today but the California native recovered and three years later became the first pitcher to record a save when it officially became a statistic.

While Singer, who would record only one other career save [it actually has a connection to his first save] and make just 14 appearances as a reliever in 322 games, now acknowledges the importance of both events, he once viewed them through a bit of a different prism at the time each took place. The surgery simply meant that he would be able to continue pitching while the first official save may have gone into the record books but it didn’t register with Singer at all.

“It [the save] was not a big deal,” Singer said. “No one cared. Maybe 20 years later some people cared about it but I didn’t even know about it [then].”

Singer won 20 games for the first time that season but it was his one relief appearance that earned him a place in baseball’s record book.

It proved to be an interesting footnote for a kid from Southern California who got to pitch in his own backyard for 12 of his 14 Major League seasons.

THE WEST IS THE BEST

Singer’s earliest baseball experiences were with the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in the years just before the Dodgers and Giants took up residence in California. While he became a Dodger fan when they arrived from Brooklyn, he had been schooled while watching the Los Angeles Angels, who were a Brooklyn affiliate, and the Hollywood Stars as well the Major League Game of the Week.

“I’d watch the Angels and the Stars on television and listen on radio,” Singer said. “Steve Bilko was obviously the big star for years but there were a lot of good players that went through that league. They absolutely considered it a third professional league. They played six days a week and had Mondays off so they could take the train to the next place. They had doubleheaders on Sunday so it was seven games a week and some years they played pretty close to 200 games a season to my recollection.”

However, Singer’s favorite wasn’t even a baseball player. It was tennis player Ricardo “Pancho” Gonzalez, who was a 13-time Grand Slam winner and at the top of the men’s tennis world for much of the 1950s. Singer played tennis in high school and while he admits he was just okay he was fascinated by what Gonzalez could do with a serve.

“I liked the velocity of his serve,” Singer said. “I wanted to be a hard thrower so that was just a different approach to it.”

Singer certainly threw hard, standing out in three varsity seasons at Pomona High School and his local American Legion team. Between high school and legion ball his senior season, he went 20-4 with 276 strikeouts, according to the published reports at the time. He also split time that summer between the Pomona Legion team and the Dodgers Rookies, an unpaid squad sponsored by the Dodgers that allowed the club to get a sense of the local talent.

“They cut out my first right rib, cut an artery and that opened space for better circulation. I was the first one to have thoracic outlet surgery. It was the version of Tommy John for the shoulder.”

His efforts did not go unnoticed as he was courted not only by the Dodgers but also by the Cardinals, the Mets and Colt 45s, with the latter two set to begin play as expansion clubs the following spring. There were also a few wrinkles when it came to Singer signing. He had a scholarship offer to play baseball at The University of Arizona and basketball at Pomona College.

Singer said it was not a foregone conclusion that he would end up with the Dodgers. He told all of the interested clubs about his baseball scholarship and said that if they didn’t meet what he was asking for, he’d be headed to Arizona. He said the Dodgers “came up with what he wanted” and on Sept. 11, 1961, he signed with Los Angeles for what The Sporting News Reported as a $50,000 bonus. The story also said that the Dodgers outbid 14 other teams.

“My family wasn’t exactly wealthy so I did whatever I could do to get to a game,” Singer said. “Or I’d listen to the radio and Vin Scully. I didn’t have a favorite on the team but you had to look up to [Don] Drysdale and [Sandy] Koufax.

“My first spring training [1962] I was at big-league camp and it was what I expected. I wasn’t nervous. I had already played in the Arizona Instructional League [in 1961] and the teams there in those days had top players. I had already run into the Tom Hallers and the Jim Ray Harts; those type of guys had been playing in the Instructional League. I went home for Thanksgiving and then went to Spring Training. I was still 17.”

Singer had a sore arm early in 1962 but he overcame it and once he got into the rotation for Reno of the Class-C California League, he took off. He improved to 5-2 with a June 9 shutout of Visalia in which he fanned 14. The Sporting News identified him as southpaw Billy Singer on Aug. 11 after he topped San Jose but it mattered little. Singer would go on to finish the season at 9-3 with a 4.32 ERA in 19 starts. He was added to L.A.’s 40-man roster that fall and made a return appearance in the Arizona Instructional League.

“Reno was a tough park to pitch in,” Singer said. “I hurt my elbow and it kind of curtailed my season. It took me a while to mature and get the strength to continue to develop where I could handle the load better. In those days, starting pitchers went nine innings and if you didn’t go nine, you didn’t do your job.”

MOVIN’ ON UP

Singer’s strong season drew attention from the Dodgers and the local Southern California media. L.A. offered him a Major League contract for the 1963 and assigned him to Albuquerque of the Double-A Texas League. A column in the Jan. 23 edition of The Oxnard Press Courier labeled the then youngster as “refreshing” for his attitude and approach to the game.

“A good attitude is important but this young right-hander has a great deal more,” said Dodger scout Lefty Phillips, who was quoted in the article. “One thing I can tell you is that he has as good a fastball as anyone in the Major Leagues. The kid has a future.”

The accolades and attention couldn’t do much for Singer, though, when he developed a sore arm for a second consecutive season. He was limited to 24 games [17 starts] and only 95 innings while going 6-7 with a 5.78 ERA.

“That year my arm continued to be bad,” Singer said. “I guess it was a carryover from the year before. It limited the number of innings I could pitch.”

When Singer was healthy, he was marvelous. But nagging issues were seeming to crop up each season. Expectations placed on Singer were high, though, as Spring Training unfolded in 1964 for the defending World Series champs. Drysdale told reporters as camp broke that Singer, who was headed to Spokane of the PCL, was the best young pitcher in camp.

Singer didn’t disappoint, tossing a seven-inning no-hitter in the first game of a doubleheader against Dallas on April 23, the day before his 20th birthday. He would go on to have an up and down season, finishing at 11-10 with a 4.16 ERA in 32 games [29 starts]. Considering his age, however, he did well enough for the Dodgers to call him up in September following a season-ending, 1-0 loss to Seattle’s Wilbur Wood.

September also saw Singer marry Virginia Goodsen on the 11th, an event big enough to earn a mention in The Sporting News’ Sept. 26th PCL notebook. Singer and his new bride then headed to Chicago, where Singer would make his Major League debut at Wrigley Field on Sept. 24. He went 6 1/3 innings, walked five, struck out one and allowed one run. He didn’t factor in the decision.

Baseball: Los Angeles Dodgers Bill Singer (40) in action, pitching vs San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. San Francisco, CA 9/20/1969 CREDIT: George Long (Photo by George Long/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

“There were 6,000 or 7,000 people there for the whole series,” Singer said. “We had bigger crowds in Triple-A. The Dodgers had a bad season and they wanted to see what they had coming along. The sad thing was that there were 2,000 people at the game. In September in those days, the Cubs were long out of it and never drew that much. It’s a fun park to pitch in, though.”

Singer faced the Cubs again on Sept. 29 in his Dodger Stadium debut. He took the loss after allowing four runs in 7 2/3 innings. This time he walked seven and struck out two.

“I don’t remember anything about it; nothing stands out,” Singer said. “I liked the Dodger Stadium mound, though. It had that great slope. I don’t know how it is now but it was that way my whole career. I never thought much about it [his Dodger Stadium debut] to tell the truth. I just wanted to be in the big leagues, which was my goal for my entire life and it was nice to have it happen that way.”

Singer won 27 games over the next two seasons in Spokane while appearing in five games for the Dodgers. He understood the situation, though, in which he found himself. The Dodgers had a rotation that featured Koufax, Drysdale, Claude Osteen and veteran Johnny Podres so there was no place for him in the Major Leagues. So, he bided his time as the Dodgers won the World Series in 1965 and returned to the World Series in 1966 only to lose to Baltimore.

“I was still just a whopping 23 years old so I was just waiting for my time,” Singer said. “In the meantime, I honed my trade.”

Koufax retired following the 1966 season, though, and Singer would get his chance the following spring. But not before he made a bit of medical history.

Manager Walter Alston #24 of the Los Angeles Dodgers sits during a press conference announcing he will be the manager for the 1971 season as Bill Singer #40 and Wes Parker #28 are there for the announcment before an MLB game on September 23, 1970 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

SURGERY, THE BIG LEAGUES AND THE SAVE

While Koufax’s post-World Series retirement caught many off guard it also created an opportunity for Singer, who would have the opportunity to fill the void in L.A.’s rotation. There was just one problem. Singer was having health issues again following the season in what was becoming a familiar pattern.

“My problem was trying to stay healthy,” Singer said. “Arm, back, hepatitis and one year I went home from Triple-A and I lost most of the circulation in my right arm. The doctors told me they could cut out my collar bone or cut the muscle but that I would never be able to pitch again. Or they could try experimental surgery.

“So, they went in and did the experimental surgery. They cut out my first right rib, cut an artery and that opened space for better circulation. I was the first one to have thoracic outlet surgery. It was the version of Tommy John for the shoulder.”

While Singer didn’t have the surgery named after him as John did, it did allow him to continue his career after healing and rehabbing all winter. He was traditionally a slow starter in the spring and recuperating from surgery didn’t help. Still, he was able to make the Major League roster, though he was used sparingly for the first five weeks of the season. He made only three relief appearances and didn’t fare well, giving up four runs on eight walks and eight hits in 5 2/3 innings.

Singer made his first start of the season on May 14, throwing five innings against the Cubs in the second game of a doubleheader. He took the loss in his next start in New York but came back a week later in Dodger Stadium, throwing seven strong innings against the Mets for his first big-league victory.

He began pitching well and was eating up innings as the summer unfolded but was just 2-4 with a 3.94 ERA heading into his July 14 start against the Cubs. Singer won that game and started a stretch of seven consecutive victories in a span of nine starts that included five complete games, the highlight of which was a four-hit shutout of the Braves on Aug. 21. He struck out 12 that day after having fanned 14 Braves when he faced them on June 20.

Singer would go on to finish the season at 12-8 with a 2.64 ERA in 204 1/3 innings following surgery. It wasn’t Koufaxian, but then again, who could be? He also led the league in fewest home runs allowed [0.2 per nine innings] after surrendering just five all year. It was, however, a promising season for the man known as “The Singer Throwing Machine”.

Bill Singer in a 1970 game. (AP)

He went 13-17 with a 2.88 ERA in 256 1/3 innings in 1968, a year that saw the Dodgers finish seventh in the National League, 10 games under .500.

“We didn’t have a great team [in ‘68],” Singer said. “It was just kind of a grind it out season. I was pitching in my hometown and in the starting rotation in the big leagues but the downside was that you go to spring training knowing you don’t have a chance.”

The Dodgers improved to eight games over .500 the following season but still finished fourth in the newly formed National League West. The season started off well enough for Singer and L.A. though. The Dodgers were in Cincinnati – it was a time when the Reds traditionally opened the baseball season – to kick off the first season of Divisional play. Prior to the season it was determined that one way the save – now an official statistic – was earned was by having a relief pitcher throw three innings to close out a game.

“Drysdale was scheduled to start and Alston asked me if Drsydale started, could I finish the game,” Singer said. “I said sure. So, he pitched six and I pitched three [shutout innings]. With Walt, he always had a good reason for what he did.”

It would be the only relief appearance he made in 41 outings that season. He wouldn’t pick up his next and only other save until April 30, 1975, while pitching for the Angels. He closed out a game in Kansas City and that effort tied into that first save in ’69.

“The last save I had was with the Angels and Drysdale was the Angels announcer so he was there for that one,” Singer said. “He didn’t even realize it. It was pretty ironic having Drsydale there to announce the second one.”

Singer, however, hit his stride in ’69, going 20-12 with a 2.34 ERA while pitching a career best 315 2/3 innings. He also made his first All-Star team and then there was that April 7 Opening Day save. He also picked up his 20th win on the last day of the season, pitching a complete game against the Astros despite allowing 12 hits.

“In ‘69, everything was clicking,” Singer said. “It was my first All-Star game and the NL had at least 12 Hall-of-Famers on the team, probably more so that was pretty awesome. I felt pressure [for his 20th win] but Claude Osteen was in the same boat [he had won his 20th the day before] so we were cheering each other on.”

Singer got no consideration for the Cy Young Award, though. That went to Tom Seaver, who garnered 23 of the 24 first-place votes. Atlanta’s Phil Niekro got the other vote.

WASHINGTON - 1969: Bill Singer #40 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the All Star Game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Bill Singer pitched 2 hitless innings. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

MORE INJURIES AND GOOD-BYE TO DODGER STADIUM

Singer’s 1970 was a blend of good and bad that saw him make only 16 starts after contracting hepatitis early in the season. He was out for nearly two months, missing all of May and half of April and June, respectively. The highlight of his season – during which he went 8-5 with a 3.13 ERA – was a July 20th no-hitter against the Phillies in which he fanned 10 and didn’t walk a batter.

He was responsible though for both Philly runners who reached base, hitting the second batter of the game [Oscar Gamble] and committing a throwing error on a Don Money grounder in the seventh. Otherwise, he would have been perfect.

Injuries and an anemic L.A. offense cost Singer over the next two seasons as he went 16-33, which contributed to the November 1972 trade that sent him to the California Angels, along with Frank Robinson and Bobby Valentine as well as two others for Ken McMullen and Andy Messersmith.

“The first time you get traded is a shock after that it’s just business,” Singer said.

Singer took well to the new ballpark and the new league, winning 20 games for the second time in 1973. This time he picked up his 20th win on the next to last day of the season and finished at 20-14 with a 3.22 ERA in what was then a franchise record 40 starts. Nolan Ryan would start 41 games the next season and that remains the standard for the Angels. Singer also equaled his career best with 315 2/3 innings, made possible largely by his career-high 19 complete games.

The injury bug struck again, though, midway through the 1974 season. Singer was 7-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 14 starts through the first week of June when Singer was sidelined with a ruptured lumbar disc that required season-ending surgery.

Shoulder and elbow problems plagued Singer in 1975 and, other than his second career save, it was a largely non-descript season that ended with him going 7-15 with a 4.98 ERA in 29 games [27 starts]. He underwent elbow surgery in the fall and was dealt to the Texas Rangers for Jim Spencer in December.

The move, much like the move to the Angels several years earlier, seemed to agree with Singer. He got off to an unusually quick start – for him – and was 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA through nine starts. That included a pair of completes games – a six-hitter against Boston on May 1 and a 1-0 shutout of the Angels in Anaheim on May 12. The latter effort came on three days rest.

Singer made his next start on June 1 but at some point during that game he was traded to the Twins in a deal that was announced after he was out of the game. He credited Texas pitching coach Sid Hudson with teaching him a sinking fastball which helped him “become a totally different pitcher”. He took that sinking fastball to Minnesota and went 9-9 with a 3.77 ERA in 26 starts. Singer proved that season, when healthy, he could still be a workhorse, going a combined 13-10 with a 3.69 ERA over 236 2/3 innings.

His efforts, however, were not enough for the Twins to protect him in that fall’s expansion draft. Singer was taken with the 28th pick by Toronto.

WOE CANADA

The 33-year-old Singer was coming off a solid season and the Jays thought enough of him to make him the Opening Day starter. He said he enjoyed his time in Toronto as it proved to be a different experience.

“The weather wasn’t good but there was a lot of energy in the city; I enjoyed it,” Singer said. “Toronto had been a cowboy town; they rode cattle up there and had them slaughtered so it was that type of mentality early. When Montreal said it was going to secede from Quebec businesses were moving to Toronto. It was kind of interesting to be there when all that was happening.”

The injuries, however, were once again an issue as his shoulder and back continued to cause him problems. Singer was limited to 13 games [12 starts] during which he went 2-8 with a 6.79 ERA. His last Major League game was on July 16 against the Tigers, a 2 1/3-inning outing that saw him allow four runs on four hits and a pair of walks.

Singer had back surgery not long after that game and was on the disabled list for the rest of the season and all of 1978 before calling it a career.

“I still wanted to play but I had that second back surgery,” Singer said. “I had my back fused. It was either that or drag my right foot behind me. What was I going to do? It wasn’t easy walking away but at that time I had to do it.”

Singer went into real estate following his retirement working for Coldwell Banker. He got involved with the construction of industrial buildings and warehouses. He also started the Newport Beach Little League for his children and spent eight years developing local leagues, such as the Connie Mack League, as his children got older. Ultimately, nearly three dozen of his former players signed professional contracts, including Aaron Boone and Shawn Green.

“It was awesome,” Singer said. “The little league went from zero kids to 1,100 kids.”

Singer also eventually got back into professional baseball working as a scout and National Crosschecker for several teams, including the Marlins, Pirates and Nationals. He retired nearly five years ago and doesn’t watch baseball anymore.

“I guess I got burned out,” he said. “I had enough. I am just enjoying life and traveling and seeing the world whenever I can though we had our wings clipped the last couple of years with CoVid.”

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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