Milt Pappas, RIP: Infamy, tragedy, and beyond

Pappas during the perfect game that wouldn't be. It's said that when he didn't get the call his rage at ump Froemming included half his tirade (curses included) being in Greek.

Pappas during the perfect game that wouldn’t be. It’s said that when he didn’t get the call his rage at ump Froemming included half his tirade (curses included) being in Greek.

When Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga* lost his perfect game to Jim Joyce’s blown call at first base in 2010, he had a sympathiser from baseball’s not too distant past. Milt Pappas’s cell phone blew up, Pappas having lost a perfect game in the ninth on a ball call.

“I would tell him, ‘I feel for you’,” Pappas—who died Tuesday morning at home at 76—said he’d have told the then-Tigers pitcher. “There have been only 20 perfect games in the history of baseball. The umpire situation was the same one I had — they blew it.

“‘At least I had the satisfaction of getting the no-hitter’,” continued Pappas in telling what he’d have said to Gallaraga. “‘You don’t. I feel for you. You pitched a tremendous game. At least you have the satisfaction of of the umpire saying he was sorry. But that doesn’t help your situation as far as a perfect game’.”

The problem was that Pappas’s loss—pitching for the Cubs, 2 September 1972, against the Padres—wasn’t a blown call. He spent decades to follow arguing otherwise, but the 3-2 pitch to pinch hitter Larry Stahl with two out in the top of the ninth was clearly outside enough that plate umpire Bruce Froemming made the right call. Pappas’s saving grace was that he got the next batter out on a popup behind second base to save at least a no-hitter.

Pappas to the end thought Froemming should have given him the strike considering what history was at stake. “Bruce was a young umpire,” said Pappas’s Cub teammate, Hall of Famer Billy Williams. “If we had had a veteran umpire that day, sometimes they get a little lenient with a guy pitching a perfect game.”

There were other days of infamy in the pitching career of Miltiades Stergios Papastergios. One was the day he was traded from the Orioles for Frank Robinson, and the other was a clubhouse explosion in Wrigley Field in which he had role enough after manager Leo Durocher—fuming over a freak check-swing double off Pappas for a tough loss—demanded a team meeting and turned it into a war.

Two days before the Robinson trade, in late 1965, Pappas was assured by the Orioles that he wouldn’t be traded. So, on a rainy day, he decided to take his wife to the movies. The film? The Cincinnati Kid. That’d teach him. The couple returned home to learn Pappas was traded with outfielder Dick Simpson and veteran relief pitcher Jack Baldschun. The “not a young thirty” Robinson was so not young he won the 1966 American League Triple Crown and help the Orioles to their first World Series rings, as a franchise and in Baltimore.

A portrait of the artist as a Baby Bird . . .

A portrait of the artist as a Baby Bird . . .

Pappas was one of the heralded-enough Baby Birds rotation of 1960-61–with Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada, and Jack Fisher**. He’d been a two-time All-Star in Baltimore. As he related decades later, he also told then-commissioner Ford Frick he fed Roger Maris nothing but hittable fastballs for Maris to hit his 59th homer in 1961, because he didn’t like Frick’s declaring the single-season home run record could only be broken in 154 games. The arbitrary deadline day was the day Maris teed off for 59.

Why would the Orioles want to give up the only Baby Bird who hadn’t been bedeviled by elbow issues (possibly connected to the tricky slip pitch once masted by Yankee legend Eddie Lopat but taught them by manager/ex-catcher Paul Richards) that sank the others into journeyman status?

For one thing, the Orioles coveted Robinson and the Reds at the time needed more solid pitching to bolster their then-top two starters, Jim Maloney and Sammy Ellis. Pappas—whose stock in trade was control and deceptiveness, and who’d pitch serviceably enough for the Reds—seemed like an ideal fit.

But Durocher claimed (in Nice Guys Finish Last) that the Orioles really let Pappas go because of his reputation as a clubhouse lawyer. ”It was, from everything I heard,” he wrote, “why Cincinnati let him go; and it was probably why he no longer felt he had a glowing future in Atlanta.”

The Lip wasn’t quite the most reliable witness, of course. But he wasn’t the only Cub who had that view, apparently. “Milt was always known as a clubhouse lawyer with any team he was with,” said Glenn Beckert, the second baseman on Durocher’s Cubs, to Peter Golenbock (for Wrigleyville). “He was a hell of a pitcher . . . but he was always getting into the politics of the business.”

Pappas’s Baltimore teammate Boog Powell told another story. “Actually, I kind of had mixed emotions about [the trade] it because Milt was a good friend and a heck of a pitcher,” he once told the Baltimore Sun. “We had seen Frank from the other side. We knew he was an MVP and had some really good years. We certainly respected him as a hitter. Also at the same time, why mess with something that was working pretty good?”

When the Orioles acquired Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio from the White Sox two years earlier, he, too, had a rep as a clubhouse lawyer. Apparently, the Orioles weren’t always allergic to the type. And Little Looie put up some good seasons for the Orioles including their ’66 Series winner.

Pappas did cook himself with the Reds over the politics of politics, sort of. When presidential aspirant Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, several teams elected not to play on the day of his funeral as a show of respect. (Six games were postponed.) The Reds’ players voted to play. Pappas, the team’s player representative (as he’d also been in Baltimore and would be again with the Braves and the Cubs), was outraged by the vote, especially when he suspected the team’s upper management pressured the vote.

Traded for Frank Robinson; cashiered when he objected to playing on the day RFK was buried.

Traded for Frank Robinson; cashiered over RFK’s funeral day.

Three days after he made his objection to playing on Kennedy’s funeral day and the vote in favour known, he was dealt to the Braves. (He’d pitch adequately for the most part but surrendered three runs in two and a third innings of Game Two work in the middle of the Miracle Mets’ 1969 National League Championship Series sweep.)

When he got to the Cubs, he pitched well but seethed with many teammates under Durocher’s whiplash managing style. Overusing regulars, underusing his bench, mismanaging his badly built as it was bullpen (riding favourites into the ground; just ask Phil [The Vulture] Regan, who declined swiftly after he’d been a big part of their 1969 run for the roses), and thus overworking especially his younger starters, didn’t sit well with many of those Cubs.

Never mind that Durocher didn’t like what he considered Pappas’s too-evident eagerness not to pitch into the seventh inning if he could help it. When Durocher called a team meeting in August 1971 that went down in Cub history as one of the worst and most public, Pappas proved one of the unwitting causes, after an away pitch to Houston’s Doug Rader turned into a freak check swing double and a tough Cub loss.

The Lip bawled his players up one side and down the other, then urged them to speak their minds freely, as if he was another player. That’d teach them. Pappas couldn’t resist, according to David Claerbaut’s Durocher’s Cubs, accusing Durocher of being unable to handle the team, of going too far with the team meetings, and of failing to use his bench more judiciously.

Oops. Durocher ripped Pappas and his defender Joe Pepitone, the haunted former Yankee, a few new ones. Then, he shockingly (and falsely) accused Ron Santo of lobbying for a Ron Santo Day, causing the eventual Hall of Fame third baseman—formerly one of Durocher’s stauncher defenders—to go nuclear. Durocher’s hold on the Cub clubhouse was never that stable, but he probably lost it for keeps right there.

If there were times when Pappas was on the side of the angels, there were other times when he was thought a devil’s handmaiden. Aside from fuming for years over the perfect game loss, Pappas also fumed in later years over the decline in pitching conditioning and endurance.

That sounded strange coming from a pitcher who averaged six innings a start over a seventeen season career. Leo Durocher may have been guilty as charged about mismanaging the Cubs when they were clear contenders in 1969-72, but under Durocher’s management Pappas led the National League in shutouts in 1971.

No baseball loss, however, equaled that of Pappas’s first wife. Described as a recovering alcoholic, Carole Pappas, his childhood sweetheart, went out one day in 1981 and never returned. She was found dead five years later, when pond workers discovered her in her car and in the pond, the victim of an accidental drowning.

Carole and Milt Pappas, and their two children, before the tragedy, as shown on Pappas's memoir.

Carole and Milt Pappas, and their two children, before the tragedy, as shown on Pappas’s memoir.

The jacket of his eventual memoir, Out at Home, showed Milt and Carole Pappas and their two young children at an Orioles field ceremony. One can only imagine the depth of his heartbreak. “That’s a question that may never be answered,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Why she went that way; why nobody saw a car fly through the air into the pond.”

In time, Pappas remarried happily and became the father of a third child; his widow, Judi, has been a special needs teacher. Once the owner of a Baltimore steakhouse which burned to the ground a year after he opened it, Pappas after baseball settled in Illinois and worked for a liquor distributor and also as a building supplies salesman.

He looked more cheerful than his periodic curmudgeonly remarks portray him to have been. He never stopped keeping an eye on his former Orioles and Cubs; he attended Cub Opening Days regularly; he’d enjoyed interacting with fans no matter what his clubhouse relationships were or weren’t.

When Carlos Zambrano pitched his no-hitter for the Cubs, Pappas was publicly congratulatory. He had reason to be. Zambrano’s was the first Cub no-hitter since Pappas’s broken perfecto. Against the Astros, whose outfielder’s freak check double once launched one of Pappas’s more unpleasant hours. In Houston.

“I’m still the last guy to pitch a no-hitter for the Cubs in Wrigley Field,” Pappas told the Chicago Tribune. (Jake Arrieta’s no-no against the Dodgers was in Dodger Stadium last August.) “That says something itself.”

So does something else. In 2001, Pappas received a note from a fan named Juan Rosales, asking whence his nickname, “Gimpy.” The durable old righthander sent him a reply: When I was 17, I had my knee operated on. I was nicknamed Gimpy and it stayed awhile. Thxs for the nice letter. If you want me to personalise your book by me, I would be happy to do it. Thxs, Milt.

A fan-friendly clubhouse lawyer, or a clubhouse mensch who treats fans like interlopers. Which one would you prefer?

—————————————————————————-

* — Armando Gallaraga was destined for a sadder fate, alas, than losing his perfect game. Stricken not long after by elbow miseries, Gallaraga bounced from there between the majors and the minors and even overseas before calling it a career this past December. But he may yet have a second baseball act, happily: the Yankees hired him as a minor league pitching instructor in February.

** — For the curious, here’s what eventually became of the other Baby Birds:

Steve Barber.

Steve Barber.

Steve Barber—He would be moved to the Yankees before becoming an original expansion-draft Seattle Pilot, after the Orioles decided his elbow issues just weren’t going to be resolved enough to make him useful, with another crop of young pitchers—including Jim Palmer and Dave McNally—either coming up or in the works. 

Barber would go from Seattle to bounce around four other teams as a spare relief pitcher unable to solve his elbow issues, before he retired to the Las Vegas area. He ran a car conditioning business for a number of years (“I got a chuckle out of Steve Barber’s new job—he’s got a bunch of cars lined up getting diathermy and heat treatments”—Jim Bouton, in Ball Four Plus Ball Five) before becoming a bus drive in Nevada’s Clark County School District, responsible for transporting disabled children. He died in 2007 of complications from pneumonia.

Barber’s prime moment in the sun, other than winning 20 games for the 1963 Orioles: combining with Stu Miller (for whom Jack Fisher would be traded in 1963) on a losing no-hitter against the Tigers; 2-1 the final.

Chuck Estrada.

Chuck Estrada.

Chuck Estrada—Like Barber, Estrada would go from promising to elbow-troubled too swiftly, even if Barber managed to hang in much longer. Estrada would become a journeyman before retiring in 1967. He became a pitching coach for the Rangers, the Padres, the Indians, and several minor league teams before retiring in 1995. His prime moment in the sun, other than tying with Jim Perry of the Twins for the American League lead in 1960 wins—picking up the win in relief as a Met in Hall of Famer Tom Seaver’s first major league start.

“The thing that bothered me most about my short career,” Estrada would say to author William J. Ryczek (for The Amazing Mets 1962-69), “is that fact that I was just learning how to pitch when my arm blew out. I used to challenge everybody.”

Jack Fisher.

Jack Fisher.

Jack Fisher—He would bounce from the Giants to the hapless 1964-67 Mets, where he pitched well enough but was done in by lack of run support as often as not. (“Done in” was a polite way to put it in 1965, when he lost 24 games.) After two terms with the White Sox and the Reds of little note, Fisher retired and returned to the Baltimore area, where he opened a successful sports bar named for the nickname Hoyt Wilhelm hung on the husky righthander: Fat Jack’s.

Alas, Fisher is remembered best for surrendering two historic home runs—the one Ted Williams hit in what proved his final major league at-bat, in 1960; and, the one Roger Maris hit to tie Babe Ruth at 60 in 1961. Not that he’s complaining.

“People are going to remember you however they want to remember you,” Fisher told the Baltimore Sun in 2010. “I can live with that.”

One thought on “Milt Pappas, RIP: Infamy, tragedy, and beyond

  1. Thank you for the column! A fine read, though I should note that Zambrano’s no-hitter against the Astros was held in Milwaukee, thanks to brutal weather in Texas. Though it counted as a home game for the Astros, the crowd was mostly Cubs fans. The other game of that series had Ted Lilly no-hitting the Astros through six. Houston managed one lone hit in the two-game series.

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