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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 5, 2022 10:47 am PDT
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Bob Locker wasn’t looking to spend the length of his decade-long Major League career in the bullpen, it simply worked out the way. The big righthander from Iowa was part of a dominating White Sox bullpen from the mid-to-late 1960s before moving on to Oakland, where he picked up a pair of World Series rings as part of the Athletics’ dynastic run in the early to mid-1970s.

However, Locker who arrived in the Majors Leagues after starting throughout his collegiate career at Iowa State and then in 63 of 78 minor league appearances, never started any of his 576 big-league games. What he did do, however, was carve out a niche as one of the game’s most effective yet underrated relievers, finishing with a 2.75 ERA in 879 career innings.

“Well, I think what happened was that I did fairly well as a reliever and they just never changed it,” Locker said. “I would have preferred to have started. Who knows if I would have been as successful at it in the majors as I was in the minors? I didn’t really have a choice, though. Either they called your number or they didn’t. As long as I did fairly well, the called me in in relief and didn’t choose to change anything. That continued throughout my whole career.”

He was part of a bullpen that featured a trio of knuckleballers – Hall-of-Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood and Eddie Fisher. Locker led the American League in appearances with a career-best 77 in 1967 and was part of a White Sox ‘pen that saw one of its pitchers lead the league in appearances every season between 1965-1970 [Fisher 1965-66 and Wood 1968-70].

The Chicago pen of that era often goes unrecognized simply because the team never won a pennant. The Sox averaged 92 wins between 1963 and 1967, finishing second three consecutive seasons [1963-65] while averaging 96 wins. The club took a backseat to the likes of the Yankees, Twins, Orioles and Tigers largely because it had such a stagnant offense.

“Well, we didn’t have enough offense to make a lot of waves,” said Locker, 84, who now lives in Montana. “But we did have a lot of pitching and pretty good defense. It was the first team I played with so I didn’t know what to expect. It was only after I moved around a little bit that I knew the offense could have been better.

“But that bullpen was pretty amazing. Wilhelm, Wood and don’t forget Eddie Fisher. With those guys, it made me look like I was bringing it up there pretty good, I’m sure. Wilhelm was a great guy as well as an excellent pitcher. It’s amazing the stats that go behind his name. He was a good teammate and we helped keep the team in the race as best as the bullpen could.”

Locker, who had 95 career saves, certainly helped keep his team in the race more often than not, whether it was the White Sox, the A’s or with the Chicago Cubs, with whom he closed out his career in 1975. He had a remarkable, though subtle, career and it all began in America’s heartland.

“I read Ball Four. He pretty much told things the way they were for the first time. I had no problem with it but not a lot of players liked it.”

IOWA STATE AND TURNING PRO

Locker was a Cleveland Indians fan growing up though he admits he wasn’t such a big fan of baseball. He said he gravitated toward the Indians because they just happened to “be a team I could listen on the radio” in his little town in Iowa. He attended Grove High School and didn’t stray far when it came to college, attending Iowa State.

He had a stellar career at ISU, earning All-Big Eight honors in 1960 after going 3-2 with a 3.50 ERA and team-leading 41 strikeouts. Locker entered college primarily as a fastball pitcher but left with a Major League sinker that he says came courtesy of ISU’s legendary and long-time manager Leroy “Cap” Timm, who piloted the club for more than three decades.

“College baseball was not the equivalent of the Major Leagues, that’s for sure,” said Locker, who graduated in 1960. “I had a great manager, though, and he deserves an awful lot of credit that I even made it to the Majors. I was a typical kid and just threw the ball as hard as I could but I just couldn’t get the ball down in the strike zone. That all changed with the manager.

“He said we’re never going to know if you’re going to be successful if you don’t get the ball in the strike zone. He said just hang onto it a little longer, that was the main thing. Lo and behold, I had a sinker when I held onto the ball longer. It was my money pitch the rest of my career.”

The Yankees and the Orioles were also interested in signing Locker but he ultimately went with Chicago after some careful analysis.

“At that point they [the White Sox] had a bunch of older pitchers,” Locker said. “So, I figured I’d be by a year or two in the minors, there might be an opening and there would be a better chance for me to make the Majors. I did have better offers from the Yankees and Orioles so I don’t know why I did what I did. But I am happy with it.”

The White Sox wasted little time in getting Locker on the mound. He split the summer of 1960 between Idaho Falls of the then Class-C Pioneer League and Lincoln of the Class-B Three I League [Illinois-Indiana-Iowa], where he combined to 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in 10 games [one start]. Locker spent the entire 1961 season with Lincoln, going 15-12 with a 2.57 ERA in 33 games [30 starts]. He tossed 228 innings and had 16 complete games [both of which led the league] and was awarded the Robert H. Coleman Cup, emblematic as the Three-I League’s Rookie of the Year. Topeka’s Tommy Harper won the MVP.

Locker’s saw his career put on pause in 1962 and 1963 as he fulfilled his ROTC commitment for the Army. He was actually under the control of the Air Force for much of his hitch and spent two years in Pittsburgh working on missile defense systems. He played some basketball during that time but says he didn’t throw for two years, returning to the White Sox in 1964 after pitching in the Florida Instructional League in the fall of 1963. Chicago sent him to Indianapolis of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he went 16-9 with a 2.59 ERA in 35 games, 32 of which were starts.

He tied for the league lead in victories, one ahead of teammate and future NBA Hall-of-Famer Dave DeBusschere, who went 15-8 in what was his penultimate season in professional baseball. The Sept. 26 edition of The Sporting News detailed how the Sox planned to keep Locker on the Indy roster that winter because he was not yet draft eligible and that he would have to fight for a spot on the Major League roster the following spring. It proved to be a fight that Locker would win easily.

“I think I made all the adjustments during my minor league career, which was pretty successful,” Locker said. “My statistics were pretty much the same as they would be in the Major Leagues in terms of ERA and all that.”

THE WINDY CITY

The White Sox were rich in starting pitching as the 1965 season began and Locker, who made the team out of the spring training, was relegated to the bullpen, mostly as a long man. He had made his last career start at Indianapolis and was having some trouble adapting to his new role, telling The Des Moines Register on May 10, 1965, that “I’m having a little trouble adjusting. I’ve always been a starter. I’m sure I can help if they stick with me. It [the bullpen] is a bad spot to be in. You don’t get many chances. If the starters carry to six innings, they’ve got the two knuckleballers, Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher.”

It turns out that Locker had little about which to worry despite getting off to a rough start. He made his big-league debut on April 14 at Baltimore and gave up three runs in two innings. Locker gave up seven runs in his first five appearances and had a 6.30 ERA on May 7. He settled down, though, and didn’t allow a run in 11 of his next 12 appearances. Ultimately, Locker appeared in 51 games, going 5-2 with a 3.15 ERA as Chicago won 95 games to finish in second place, seven games back of Minnesota.

White Sox manager Al Lopez, for whom Locker enjoyed pitching, called it quits after the season and was replaced by Eddie Stanky. Locker favored Lopez.

“Eddie Stanky wasn’t my favorite manager,” Locker said. “He was the manager and he did a reasonably good job but he wasn’t my favorite manager. Lopez was pretty amazing. He had great judgement about pitching and when to make a change. He wasn’t close with the team but he really managed it. I respected him as a manager and certainly his talent handling the starting pitching and the bullpen.”

The Sox, despite their wealth of pitching, dropped to fourth in each of the next two seasons. Locker, however, continued to shine. He was 9-8 with a 2.46 ERA and 12 saves in 1966 [56 games] then went 7-5 with a 2.09 ERA and 20 saves in 1967, the year he led the league with 77 appearances. Stanky was gone midway through the 1968 season and though Lopez returned briefly, the Sox couldn’t come close to replicating their success during his first stint at the helm.

Locker, though, was 5-4 with a 2.29 ERA in 1968, appearing in 70 games. He struggled through 17 games for Chicago in 1969 before he was traded to the expansion Seattle Pilots for Gary Bell on June 8. Locker had been 2-3 with a 6.55 ERA but went 3-3 with a 2.18 ERA in 51 games after the trade.

Seattle was a moribund team playing in a bad park but they were an entertaining group that featured Jim Bouton, the pitcher who authored Ball Four, the book that turned baseball upside down.

“The trade to Seattle was a shock,” Locker said. “I had a little bit of a downturn [before the trade] but I made some adjustments and by the time I go traded, I had my sinker back. I was surprised they traded me but that’s baseball. You have a little bit of a hiccup and a trade happens.

“Seattle was interesting, though. It was a fun roster of players and the manager [Joe Schultz] just let you do what you had to do. I enjoyed my year there. Bouton was a very interesting guy. I remained friends with him. We were both particularly interested in Marvin Miller and what he did for baseball and for all sports for that matter. I read Ball Four. He pretty much told things the way they were for the first time. I had no problem with it but not a lot of players liked it.”

The Pilots moved to Milwaukee before the 1970 and Locker went with them but he didn’t stay there long. He had a 3.41 ERA in 28 games for the Brewers before he was purchased by Oakland on June 15. He went 3-3 with a 2.88 ERA in 38 games for the A’s and served as an integral part of their playoff and World Series seasons in 1971 and ’72.

Locker began 1971 as one of Oakland’s options at closer but lost that job to future Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers. Still, he proved to be a rock over the long haul, going 7-2 with a 2.86 ERA and six saves in 47 games. The A’s won the West Division but were bounced by the defending World Champion Orioles. Locker’s contribution in the playoff proved inconsequential. He walked two in 2/3 of an inning. However, he came back and had another strong season in 1972. He went 6-1 with 10 saves and a 2.65 ERA in 56 games as the A’s once again won the West. He struggled in the post-season, though, particularly in the ALCS against Detroit, and was traded to the Cubs for outfielder Billy North shortly after the World Series despite his wanting to stay in Oakland.

“Going to Oakland was certainly wonderful and you owe that to Charlie Finley, who assembled a winning team,” Locker said. “And it wasn’t that good offensively but we had good defense for the most part and everything worked out. The main that Charlie did hadn’t happened before; he accumulated a lot of previously good relievers so we had a very good pen. We had guys who were experienced closing games and it went right through to the ninth inning.”

Locker had his last typical Locker season in 1973 as the Cubs battled down to the wire in what was an historically mediocre NL East. The Cubs finished in fourth place, seven games under .500 but were only five games back of the first-place Mets, who went 82-79 to win the division. Locker was 10-6 with 18 saves and a 2.54 ERA in 63 games. He threw 106 1/3 innings, the second-most in his career behind the 1967 season.

The workload in ’73 took a toll and he was forced to miss all of the ’74 season because of elbow surgery. He had been traded back to Oakland in November of 1973 [for Horatio Pina] and earned his second World Series ring despite sitting out the year.

Locker continued his musical chair routine between Oakland and Chicago when he got traded back to the Cubs, along with Darold Knowles and Manny Trillo, for Billy Williams in October of 1974. He appeared in 22 games and was pitching to a 4.96 ERA before the Cubs released him on June 25, 1975, ending his run as a professional ballplayer.

He said he would like to be remembered as someone who was consistent and his numbers certainly backed him up. Locker was one of the game’s most dependable relievers for a decade though he toiled, outside of baseball circles, in relative anonymity.

“I had very few bumps,” Locker said. “It’s unfortunate the Sox took the first one I had and traded me. But I consistently kept the ball down and did well because of that. A lot of pitchers that had a lot more notoriety than I did didn’t have the same ERA I had for 10 or more years.

“I was a scared kid from Iowa pretty much all the way through. That probably helped me do a better job because I was never too relaxed or experimental. I just did the best I could with what I had.”

Locker added that he had a bit more troubles with lefties during his career – they hit .246 against him while righties hit .232 – and that Minnesota’s Tony Oliva and Rod Carew, who hit a combined .458 [22-for-48] against him gave him the most trouble.

“The Twins had a couple of guys that were pretty darn good and Oliva and Carew stick out,” Locker said. “Other than that, put them on the right side of the plate and I could handle most of them. A couple of guys hit me pretty well for a while and I had to make adjustments, which I did. But certainly, the two best were Carew and Oliva.”

A career in real estate followed Locker’s playing days before he retired to Montana and became an author, writing a pair of books – Cows Vote Too and Esteem Yourself.

“These were pretty simplistic books,” Locker said. “I like writing and I had some other book ideas. These were pretty small, though, and I only got two of them published. The books had to do with how to succeed. Cows Vote Too is a political and an interesting short read and Esteem Yourself had more to do with baseball and how to succeed.”

It’s certainly not surprising that Locker wound up writing books on how to succeed. He was able to succeed in the Major Leagues for a decade without much fanfare to become one of the best relievers about whom little is mentioned.

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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