SABR

Jon Warden

This article was written by Dan Holmes.

Less than two weeks into the 1968 season, Jon Warden had three victories to lead the American League in that category. That fact was quite unexpected considering the rookie left-hander was pitching out of the bullpen. National Guard service interrupted his 1968 season, but the tall hurler still performed well, especially on the road, and helped contribute to the pennant with four wins and three saves in 28 games in relief.

Jon Edgar Warden was born October 1, 1946, in Columbus, Ohio. He starred in baseball, basketball, and football at Pleasant View High School in Grove City, just outside Columbus. Though the Cubs and Giants sent scouts to look at him, he was undrafted out of high school, and Warden accepted a baseball-basketball scholarship to the University of Georgia. There, he pitched well against inferior competition, tossing a no-hitter and several other shutouts. He caught the attention of a Tiger scout who recommended him. Detroit selected Warden in the fourth round of the amateur draft in January 1966. A 6-foot, 205-pound hurler, Warden had an excellent fastball and good command.

Warden reported to Lakeland for spring training and was assigned to Daytona Beach of the Florida State League for his first professional season. A farm boy, Warden took advantage of the many attractions in Daytona Beach. At midseason, his manager asked him to try to “get a few hours of sleep” each night, recognizing that the rookie was having a good time in his first stretch away from home. In the second half, the lefty pitched much better. For the year, he went 9–12 with a 3.24 ERA in 30 games, 29 of them starts.

The 20-year-old spent 1967 at Rocky Mount in the Carolina League, considered the top Class A circuit in baseball. As a member of the starting rotation, he posted a 15–11 record with a 2.88 ERA in 219 innings, and made the all-star team. At Rocky Mount, his manager, Al Federoff, was one of his biggest supporters.

The Tigers sent Warden to Dunedin in the Florida Instructional League that winter. In Dunedin, he pitched on the same staff as fellow lefty John Hiller. The team won 15 of their last 16 to take the league title. Warden started and earned the win in the final game. Also on that team with Warden were future major leaguers Dave Campbell and Tom Matchick.

Fresh off his success in the instructional league, Warden was given a chance to make the big-league club in spring 1968. It was there that he earned the nickname “Warbler,” though only one person ever really called him that. The Tigers’ base-running instructor, Bernie DiViveiros, was notorious at butchering the names of players, and he called Warden “Warbler.” When the folks from Major League Baseball came around and asked if he had a nickname, teammates shouted “Warbler” and the nickname was entered into the official record.

Warden’s effectiveness in the spring, and that of fellow rookie hurlers Les Cain and Daryl Patterson, prompted the trade of veteran reliever Hank Aguirre at the tail end of camp. The deal cleared the way for Warden, who emerged with Hiller as two of Mayo Smith’s primary southpaws out of the pen.

“Warden’s lack of wildness is what impressed me in spring training,” said Tigers catcher Bill Freehan. Praise from veterans like Freehan helped Smith show confidence in his young rookie hurlers. “You never can be sure how it will turn out,” Smith said. “They might not be ready, or they might show all the poise in the world.”

After dropping their season opener to the Red Sox, the Tigers used a solid performance from Warden to capture their first victory of the 1968 season. “I didn’t think I could stand up I was so nervous. I think my knees were knocking just getting loose in the bullpen,” Warden said of his major league debut, which came in relief of Denny McLain in a 3–3 tie. “Then I was on the mound in the eighth inning. The first thing I knew, the bases were loaded. I got out of the inning without a run and the score stayed tied. In the ninth I remember striking out Carl Yastrzemski. That was my first major league strikeout. I’ll remember that all my life. I won the game when Gates Brown homered in the ninth.”

Six days later, Warden won in relief once again, and three nights later he became the first pitcher in the AL to win three games. In a trip to Baltimore in May, Warden earned his first save and gained another save the next night.

The young Detroit bullpen, which also included sophomore hurlers Hiller and Pat Dobson, played a key role in the Tigers’ season. At 21, Warden was the junior member of the roster. His poise and command was appreciated by pitching coach Johnny Sain, who called Warden “a power pitcher who can get away with a few mistakes.”

Warden served in the Army Reserve during the 1968 season, fulfilling his duties on the weekends. He played the clarinet in his unit’s band. On one Sunday in May, Warden took a plane to Ohio to play with the band but rain canceled the performance. He hopped back on a plane and was back in Detroit in time for the game that day. In July, Warden was replaced on the roster when he had to serve in the reserve for a two-week stint of clarinet playing.

After returning, Warden lowered his ERA from 4.96 to a final figure of 3.62. His longest appearance of the season came on July 17 in Oakland, when he pitched five innings of one-hit relief in a Tiger loss. He also tossed three shutout innings at Yankee Stadium on August 25. After that outing, Warden was used just once more that season. The fact that Detroit starters tossed 12 complete games in a row was one factor. Tigers General Manager Jim Campbell, faced with the off-season expansion draft, chose to keep Warden on the shelf so other teams would think he was hurt.

When the Tigers squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fall classic, Warden was the only player on either roster who did not get into the World Series, though he warmed up a few times in the bullpen. Still, he earned a World Series share of $10,936.66 and a ring in his first season in the big leagues. In the off-season, he reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for 18 weeks of reserve duty.

But the euphoria of the world championship was interrupted on October 15, when Warden was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 12th pick in the expansion draft. The Royals and Seattle Pilots were joining the circuit for the 1969 season. Each big-league team could protect 30 players on their 40-man rosters. After an unforgettable season in Detroit, Warden was on his way to a new team. “I hated to see Warden go because we had him with us all year,” Sain said. “He had the potential.”

Unfortunately, a shoulder injury in spring training in 1969 shelved Warden. In a game against the Twins, Kansas City pitching coach Mel Harder asked Warden to pump up the velocity on his fastball. When he did, something popped and the lefty was taken from the game. He was diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear, but the Royals, as was common practice at that time, treated it with cortisone shots and drugs that simply masked the pain. In less than two weeks they had Warden back on the mound. When he returned, the Royals assigned him to High-Point-Thomasville, hoping the warmer climate would help heal his shoulder. Later he reported to Omaha in the American Association where he played under manager Jack McKeon and pitched in the starting rotation with Paul Splittorff, helping the team to the AA title. For the season, Warden was 6-6 in 21 games (121 IP) with a 5.28 ERA and 80 Ks. At one point, free from pain, Warden was 4–1, and thought he may be promoted to the big-league club, but he was passed over for Kansas City hometown product Don O’Riley and veteran Galen Cisco. The Royals did call him up when rosters expanded on September 1, but when he underwent a routine examination by the team doctor, the team shut him down, citing a tired arm. Warden remained on the roster but did not pitch.

With Omaha in 1969, Warden began to hone his skills as an entertainer and baseball personality. Blessed with a great sense of humor, Warden was popular with his teammates and fans. “It makes me feel good to see people laugh and have a good time,” Warden said. “I’m hardly ever in a bad mood and when I am, the guys get on me and soon everything’s okay.” With Omaha, manager Steve Boros helped Warden pull off a stunt at Oklahoma City in which Warden shot a blank pistol after an opposing batter hit a homer, mocking the Oklahoma City practice of shooting off a cannon after their homers. The fans were delighted.

Entering spring training in 1970, Warden was anxious to return to the big leagues. “I’ll be the left-handed relief pitcher, all I need is a chance,” Warden predicted in January. The Royals were not so sure. “Let’s see if he can be the guy he was supposed to be when we drafted him from Detroit. We need a lefty in the bullpen. He and [Steve] Jones have the inside track,” Royals vice-president Cedric Tallis said.

Manager Charlie Metro, a staunch disciplinarian—one Royal called Metro’s spring training “Stalag 17”—had Warden on a conditioning program in the spring of 1970. At one point, Metro gave Warden three days to drop his weight from 216 to 207. The southpaw came in at 205 before the three days were over, but still failed to make the big-league club. He was assigned to San Jose, where he spent the balance of the 1970 season. Shoulder problems hampered him again in 1970 and into the off-season. “I would be strong in the spring and then pitch well in the first few months of the season, but by mid-July I would be [less effective] and as the season wore on, my arm was dead,” Warden said.

In 1971 he was on injured reserve with Elmira of the Eastern League when the Royals activated him to have him pitch against the big-league club on June 2. The intention was for team brass to have a good look at the former major leaguer. Warden defeated the Royals, 3–0, allowing just two hits in seven innings. In spite of his performance, Warden was not called up to Kansas City, and while he was with Evansville, for whom he had no record, he was released in August. Shortly thereafter he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and was assigned to Arkansas of the Dixie League.

But Warden never again reached the majors, and the following summer, after being released by the St. Louis organization, he was driving from his home in Columbus to Cleveland to serve as batting practice pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.

In 1974 the Chicago White Sox invited Warden to spring training on the recommendation of Johnny Sain. Warden threw the ball well, but when the team broke camp, the White Sox asked if he would be willing to pitch in Mexico. Still “bitten by the bug,” Warden agreed. But after several weeks traveling by bus on long road trips and living in dreadful conditions, he phoned home and told his wife he was through and was coming back to Ohio.

After his playing career, Warden worked in sporting goods briefly, finished his college degree, and got a job teaching and coaching at the high school level, something he did for several years. He became a regular at the Tigers’ fantasy camp, where he donned the robe and performed duties as judge in kangaroo court. In that role, his one season in the majors was of little importance to fantasy campers, who quickly grew to love Warden’s humor and affable manner. Many campers cited Warden as the reason they returned to camp year after year. In 2005, Warden reprised his role as kangaroo court judge for the Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp in Cooperstown, reaching the heights of fantasy camp status. Warden also stayed busy with speaking engagements through the Major League Baseball Alumni Association. He felt blessed to have had his one season in the big leagues.

“Those guys on that team share a common bond,” Warden said of his 1968 teammates. “We made it to the top of our profession together, and we see each other a few times each year and are very close.”

Sources

For this biography, the author consulted a number of contemporary sources, including The Sporting News and clippings from the player's Hall of Fame file. The author also is grateful for an interview the subject gave him in 2007.

Note

This article originally appeared in the book Sock It To 'Em Tigers--The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, published by Maple Street Press in 2008. 

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