SABR

Eddie Watt

This article was written by Malcolm Allen.

When the Baltimore Orioles won four American League pennants in six seasons (1966-1971), no Baltimore pitcher earned more saves or appeared in more games than right-hander Eddie Watt. A short, chunky Midwesterner, usually with a pronounced wad of Red Man chewing tobacco bulging in his left cheek, Watt held right-handed hitters to a .200 batting average during his decade-long big-league career and earned two World Series rings.

Eddie Dean Watt was born on April 4, 1941, in Lamoni, Iowa, not far from the Missouri border. He was the youngest of four children born to Lawrence Watt and the former Bonnie Leigh, who married after their high school graduations in the midst of the Great Depression. The family wasn’t well off by any measure, and the children all worked paper routes to help make ends meet. The Watts enjoyed playing cards together, always had food on the table, and had plenty to read thanks to their mother.

The family moved to West Branch, Iowa, by the end of 1940s, then to Iowa City when Watt was a teen. That was where he played his first organized baseball game, in the Babe Ruth League. The self-described “short, pudgy 13-year-old kid”1 played a variety of positions, and his strong throwing arm earned him a spot on the pitching staff. His father was working three jobs at the time, and Watt helped him pick up Des Moines Register newspapers. wrap them, and distribute them to street-corner paperboys. A University of Iowa pitcher named Ron Schaeffer worked the other side of the Iowa River. Watt’s father figured that if his son was going to pitch, he’d better learn how, so he arranged to pay Schaeffer $2 a lesson to become Eddie’s personal pitching instructor.

“Five or six or eight lessons, or whatever it was,” Watt recalled. “That was when I was 14 years old, and I actually learned how to throw a curve ball, and learned control, and learned how to conduct yourself as a pitcher.”2

Watt played American Legion ball, and later a serious brand of semipro against older men when he was 17 and 18. “I mean 25-, 30-, 35-year-old guys that had played a lot of professional baseball and lived in Cedar Rapids; which seemed to be home to a lot of ex-Double-A and Triple-A players.” he recalled. (Interview 12/7/2008 He played third base and some outfield, and hit well enough to hire himself out for various Fourth of July and semipro tournaments. “But pitching was where I knew I was going to end up,” Watt said.3

He became the first member of his family to attend college when he enrolled at Iowa State Teachers College (later the University of Northern Iowa) in the fall of 1959. The baseball coach had a good friend named Phil Gallivan who scouted for the Orioles. That relationship led to perhaps the first scouting report on Watt. Then, when Watts’ team played in the NCAA regional finals in Oklahoma during his sophomore season, another Orioles scout, Byron Humphrey, saw him pitch. That summer Watt went to South Dakota to play in the Basin League, and other scouts got a look at him, including Baltimore superscout Jim Russo.

Watt let it be known that he was ready to play for pay. The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox offered him deals that would pay him $350 a month to turn pro, but the Orioles offered $400. “So I signed with Baltimore, and it turned out to be one of the best moves I ever made,” he said.4

Watt needed his parents’ permission to sign the contract, and his mother was disappointed that he’d be leaving college when he was on course to graduate in eight semesters. He’d pay to attend class during the off-season instead, since turning pro meant he’d have to forfeit his basketball scholarship. After getting his feet wet in the Instructional League, in the spring of 1962, Watt reported to the Class D Appleton (Wisconsin) Foxes of the Midwest League. He struck out more than a batter per inning, and his 2.19 earned-run average was among the circuit’s best, but he finished with a pedestrian 11-11 record. Seven of the wins came in July, when he won a Topps pitcher-of-the-month award. After the season the Orioles added him to their 40-man roster. Though Baltimore lost a whopping 28 players in the minor-league draft that winter, Farm Director Harry Dalton expressed confidence that he’d been able to protect his most prized five, and named Watt among them. Watt also married his college sweetheart, Iva, so 1962 was a pretty good year.

In 1963 he took a line drive off his leg on the last pitch he threw in spring training, and lost his first six decisions for the Class C Aberdeen (South Dakota) Pheasants of the Northern League, where he played for manager Cal Ripken, Sr. and threw mostly to Andy Etchebarren. But Watt came on strong to finish 10-12 with a 3.14 ERA. The Orioles sent him back to Aberdeen again in 1964.5 That’s when I realized that being pretty good wasn’t good enough,” he recalled. On a loaded Aberdeen pitching staff featuring future big leaguers Jim Palmer, Tom Fisher, and Dave Leonard, Watt corralled another Topps pitcher-of-the-month award and finished 14-1 with a 1.77 ERA. He added three wins in four decisions after joining Earl Weaver’s Double-A Elmira Pioneers (Eastern League) late in the season to finish the year 17-2. “After that, I had the feeling something good may happen,” he said. “Before, I guess I wished.”6 Also that year, his daughter, Gina, was born.

After a tremendous spring training in 1965 in which everything seemed to go right, Watt pitched a no-hitter against Williamsport on opening day at Dunn Field in Elmira, striking out 10. He got a no-decision after hurling 10 scoreless innings in his second outing, then became the first Eastern League pitcher to hurl a pair of nine-inning no-hitters in the same season when lightning struck again in start number three. Watt’s wife was enduring a difficult pregnancy, so the Orioles kept him in Elmira to be near the doctor who was monitoring her. After she gave birth to a son, named Edward, Watt moved up to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. (His success in Elmira in 1964 and ’65 earned him a selection to the franchise’s 50th-anniversary all star squad in 1972.) Watt continued to pitch effectively with Rochester, and could boast of a dazzling 30-8 mark with a 2.34 ERA for Aberdeen, Elmira, and Rochester in in 1964-65.

Even so, Watt knew he remained a long shot to crack the Orioles pitching staff in 1966. But Baltimore manager Hank Bauer gave the 5-foot-10, 183-pound right-hander a bona fide chance to earn a spot, and the Iowan responded. Watt saw his first major-league game on Opening Day at Fenway Park, wore a number 39 Baltimore jersey and saved a marathon come-from-behind victory for the Orioles. “Jim Lonborg balked in the winning run in the top of the 13th inning,” he remembered of his major-league baptism in Boston.7

Watt struck out slugger George “Boomer” Scott, who was also making his major-league debut, and got a couple of groundouts to finish the Orioles victory. “That was the highlight of my career,” he said 42 years later. “That was the culmination of all my childhood dreams and wildest expectations, and they all came true on that one particular day.”8

The Orioles seized control of the American League pennant race in July. When All-Star left-hander Steve Barber was hit by elbow tendinitis that limited him to just five innings pitched for more than two months, Watt replaced him in the starting rotation and did a solid job early on, sporting a 9-3 record and 3.26 ERA by mid-August when Baltimore’s lead grew to 13 games. Watt began to experience swelling in his left knee however, and he didn’t retire a batter in his next start and lost his final four decisions. He finished the season back in the bullpen. Nevertheless, players polled selected Watt the second-best rookie hurler in the league in 1966, trailing only Kansas City’s Jim Nash, who went 12-1 in half a season. The 97-win Orioles were headed to the first World Series in the team’s history, and Watt and his fellow relievers were a big reason why. “(Manager Hank Sauer) was very, very pleased with his bullpen. We had an excellent bullpen,” Watt said. “We had Stu Miller, Eddie Fisher – both of whom were vastly experienced – Moe Drabowsky.”9

Baltimore shocked much of the baseball world by sweeping the favored Dodgers to win the World Series. Orioles starting pitchers hurled three consecutive shutouts. Watt did not get into a game, but he and Miller warmed up a dozen times apiece during the Series. Watt’s winner’s share was $11,683.04. He returned home to Iowa and capped the year by finishing up his degree in education. He also earned teaching certificates for math and physical education, and helped prospective Baltimore police recruits for civil service exams they’d need to pass to enter the police academy.

Watt knew he would be a full-time reliever in 1967; Hank Bauer had made that perfectly clear when asked about it at an Orioles winter caravan. “As long as he had anything to do with the Baltimore Orioles, I would never start another game,” Watt recalled. “That would have made some people unhappy, but it made me very, very happy.” name="sdendnote10anc" href="#sdendnote10sym">10 Bauer was fired midway through the 1968 season, but Watt never started another game in the majors.

In the first week of spring training in 1967, Watt suffered an eye hemorrhage and several broken facial bones when a ball struck him as he slid into third during a base-running drill. The prognosis was a six- to eight-week recovery when he finally went home after eight days in the hospital, unsure whether he’d be plagued by double vision or blurred version. Though sunlight continued to bother the eye, and exertion would occasionally lead to a nosebleed, Watt raced back and made his 1967 debut in the second week of the season. He insisted that his vision was okay, and if anybody doubted him, his 0.57 ERA in his first 14 appearances was reassuring. The Orioles slipped to a sixth-place finish after a series of injuries to their starting staff, but Watt held hitters to a .183 batting average in nearly 104 innings and led Baltimore pitchers in appearances (49) despite his late beginning.

Orioles shortstop Luis Aparicio managed the La Guaira Sharks in the Venezuelan League inn the winter of 1967-68, and he invited Watt to make some money by pitching for him. With two young children, a mortgage on a Baltimore-area house that had belonged to former teammate Jerry Adair and no World Series share that year, Watt agreed to go. Aparicio got a bargain. The pitcher who was content to work out of the Baltimore bullpen worked nearly 180 innings as a starting pitcher in Venezuela, going 12-1 with a 1.62 ERA to match Kansas City Athletics right-hander Diego Segui for the best mark in the league. Watt lost a playoff duel to Segui when outfielder Angel Bravo misjudged a line drive.

Back in the US, Watt made a career-high 59 appearances in 1968, earning 11 saves with his 2.27 ERA, and allowing just one home run. Baltimore won 91 games, but never made a serious charge and after Bauer was fired, Earl Weaver took over the managerial reins at the All-Star break. Watt stayed in the Baltimore area that winter, making 16 speaking engagements per month on the Orioles’ behalf, and working out twice a week at a local YMCA with coach Billy Hunter and some other players. Early in 1969, his third child, Tammy, was born.

Weaver admitted some concern when Watt reported to 1969 spring training late and battled control problems but, Watt soon assumed an important role on one of the strongest major-league teams ever. In the first season of divisional play, the Orioles went 109-53 and ran away with the first American League East crown, as Watt chipped in with a 1.65 ERA, 16 saves, and a 5-2 won-lost mark. Right-handed hitters batted a near helpless .140 against him in the regular season, but in the fifth and final game of the World Series a pair of them, Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda, doubled off him to produce the go-ahead run for the New York Mets. Swoboda scored another run when Baltimore first-baseman Boog Powell fumbled a smash and Watt dropped his throw while covering first base. The Mets upset the Orioles’ juggernaut in one of the most celebrated surprises in sports history.

The Orioles redeemed themselves, and earned their second World Series title in five years, by beating the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 after another dominant regular season. Watt led the pitching staff in appearances for the fourth straight year, and had a chance to close out another Orioles World Series sweep when Weaver called on him to protect a 5-3 eighth-inning lead in Game Four. Jim Palmer had put the tying runners aboard and catcher Elrod Hendricks called for a Watt sinker in hopes of inducing a double play. Instead Watt, who hadn’t pitched in two weeks, got the ball up. Lee May hit a three-run home run to give the Reds their only victory in the Series. Though the Orioles won the Series the next day, some Baltimore fans never forgave Watt for squandering Baltimore’s chance to sweep the Big Red Machine. He heard boos while participating in a halftime contest at a Baltimore Bullets game shortly afterward, and some people never let up on him for the rest of his time in Baltimore.

Watt went to Vietnam in November 1970 for a USO tour with fellow major leaguers Willie Stargell and Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Pirates announcer Bob Prince. In 1971, he missed a month in midsummer after breaking his hand tagging Mickey Rivers at home plate, but helped the Orioles win their third consecutive pennant by pacing Baltimore relievers in saves (11) and chalking up a 1.82 ERA. He saved Game One of the American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics and appeared twice in a seven-game World Series loss to the Pirates, getting tagged with the Game Four defeat in Pittsburgh. During the off-season, he hurt his hand during an Orioles’ goodwill exhibition tour of Japan.

By 1972 Watt was the elder statesman of the Baltimore relief corps, and he pitched in with a 2.17 ERA for a team undermined by a lack of offense after dealing away Frank Robinson. In July he married for the second time, to Betty Widhelm of Omaha, Nebraska. After the season he returned to Venezuela to serve as a pitching coach for the Aragua Tigers. Orioles coach Jim Frey managed the team, and he ended up using Watt on the mound often.

The next year began with a jolt when Watt’s mother died of a heart attack during spring training. Though Watt pitched effectively and the Orioles made it back to the playoffs, he battled an infection near his thumbnail, and lost his status as Earl Weaver’s most trusted right-handed reliever to Bob Reynolds. Boos rained down when Watt struggled, sometimes with his wife and children in attendance, as some fans reminded him that one of his pitches had cost the Birds a chance to sweep the 1970 World Series. “May’s homer ruined that,” Watt acknowledged, “But it beats me why it continued. Maybe people thought booing me the thing to do.”11

After the season he had surgery to remove cartilage and spurs from his troublesome left knee. On December 7, 1973, the Orioles sold Watt to the Phillies for a reported $70,000. Despite leading Philadelphia relievers with six saves in 1974, he struggled to get left-handers out and uncharacteristically had trouble throwing strikes. He pitched well in spring training the next season, but was unconditionally released the day before Opening Day, too late to catch on with another Major League club.

By now 34 years old, Watt was well aware that the end of his playing career was near. He called numerous teams and expressed his desire to remain in the game in some capacity even if he could no longer pitch. The Chicago Cubs found him a job on the mound with the Triple-A Wichita Aeros of the American Association. “There are 24 teams I’d rather be playing for,” Watt said at the time. “And they all happen to be in the major leagues.”12

He was the Aeros’ top right-handed reliever in the first couple of months of 1975, and after a good start was back in the big leagues in early June. But Watt was scored on in five of six appearances for the Cubs, in what proved to be the half-dozen final appearances of his major-league career. He was soon returned to Wichita.

He pitched again in Venezuela the next two winters, and spent the next two summers in the bullpen for the Hawaii Islanders, going 10-7 in 68 games for the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Watt kept going for two reasons: “One, I really enjoyed playing. Two, I thought that was the best way that I could stay in the game of baseball.”13 The Islanders finished first both years, but seemed to be falling out of the race late in 1977 until the day Watt threw the rosin bag to the plate instead of the baseball in the midst of a lengthy losing stretch. His teammates, all of them younger, spontaneously laughed at Watt’s absurd delivery, and heated up to defend their division crown as well.

In 1978 the Padres made Watt manager of their Single-A Reno Silver Sox club in the California League, and save for a pair of appearances in blowouts that season, he became a full-time skipper for the next four seasons. After finishing 23 games off the pace as a rookie manager, Watt led the Silver Sox to a first-place finish in 1979. He went away to winter ball then finished first again in 1980 when the Padres moved him up to manage the Amarillo Gold Sox, their Double-A Texas League entry. Watt missed a third straight division title when Amarillo finished a half-game back the following year.

He got out of managing and spent the rest of the 1980s working for the Phillies and the Houston Astros, before concluding his career with 13 seasons in the Atlanta Braves organization during their lengthy run of playoff appearances. In all, Watt spent 41 years in professional baseball, and estimated that he dressed for as many as 280 games a year in some of the years in which he also went to winter ball.

“I truly enjoyed playing baseball. I truly enjoyed coaching baseball,” he said. “I truly enjoyed being around it, and being around the young people that I was coaching and tried to develop. But the day I retired, which was January of 2003, I had no problem retiring, and have been very, very content.”14

Watt and his wife Betty settled in North Bend, Nebraska, along the Platte River about 50 miles from either Lincoln or Omaha.

 

Notes

1
Eddie Watt, interview with author, December 7, 2008.

2 Watt, interview.

3 Watt, interview.

4 Watt, interview.

5 Watt, interview.

6 Watt, interview.

7 Watt, interview.

8 Watt, interview.

9 Watt, interview.

10 Watt, interview.

11 Doug Brown,“Watt’s One-for-the-Road Drink Full of Bird Bitters”, The Sporting News, December 29, 1973, 34.

12 Russ Corbitt, “Watt Hopes Wichita Pen Leads To Major Dividend,” The Sporting News, May 24, 1975, 38.

13 Watt, interview.

14 Watt, interview.

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