SABR

Bob Duliba

This article was written by Paul-Michael Russo and Bill Nowlin.

As has always been the case, mining can be a dangerous occupation. Bob Duliba lost his father when he was just 9 years old. “He worked in the mines like everybody else in them days. He died when he was 50 – he had already worked 40 years in the mines. He was a slate picker when he was a kid at 9 years old. That’s what they did; that’s where they killed them with all that dust and everything.”i Bob’s uncle Andrew then looked after Michael’s family, though he himself lost a leg in the mines, and later died from black lung disease.

Robert John “Ach” Duliba was born to Michael and Marie Duliba in Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania, on January 9, 1935. “My father was Russian, my mother was Polish.” Michael Duliba had been born in White Russia, what is now Belarus. The family lived in Newport, Pennsylvania, in an area that was heavily Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian. Bob even took Polish in high school. He went to Pulaski Junior High and then on to Newport Township High School. He still remains the only player to ever reach the majors from that high school. Duliba pitched in 176 major-league games.

Duliba was a great athlete through his life, earning seven letters in high school, and played basketball and football along with baseball. He was named to the All-Wyoming prep football team. (Wyoming was an area in the northeastern part of Luzerne County.) Football was his main sport. “I was a football player; everybody played football around here in northeastern Pennsylvania. I didn’t go out for baseball until I was a senior. I was fast. Every summer long I’d be throwing and throwing and no one could hit me, but I just didn’t have any time. I was always working trying to make 50 cents in them days taking ashes out from all the houses and stuff like that.”

Family economics had a lot to do with the opportunity Duliba had to get a professional contract. He was spotted while pitching against Nanticoke, Newport’s big rival. (Nanticoke was the hometown of major leaguer Steve Bilko.) “We didn’t have a lot of money and it was the senior-class trip and our seniors always went to Gettysburg. I don’t know what the cost of the thing was, the school bus and all, but I didn’t go. Since I didn't go, I was the only pitcher left. Because everybody else went. It was one of those very cold 35-, 40-degree days with snow flurries – and me throwing 90 miles per hour and didn't know where it was going. I struck out 18 of 21. Pop Kelchner and Stan Brackenridge were two of the old-time Cardinals scouts and they were both there. They weren't there to watch me; they were there to watch our center fielder, Ken Welgoss. He was a pretty good ballplayer who eventually signed with the Phillies. After the game they came and start talking, and lo and behold. It was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.” Brackenridge signed Duliba to a Cardinals contract.

He says he didn’t get much guidance as a player in high school. His coach was a good baseball man and urged him to follow his own instincts. “In them days, they used to sign you and send you to somewhere and they sent me to Ozark, Alabama. That was the start.” Duliba’s professional career began in 1952 as a member of the Class D Ozark Eagles, for whom he pitched in 106 innings while winning six games and recording a 3.65 earned-run average. The team won the Alabama-Florida League pennant. “We had two guys, a guy by the name of [Bob] Harris and a guy by the name of Hillory Stanton.” Harris was 27-3 and Stanton was 23-5. “And I won six. Chase Riddle was our manager, and he was an old Cardinal guy.”

The next season, 1953, Duliba moved up to Class C. He pitched in 128 innings for the Western Association St. Joseph Cardinals, mostly in relief, but again coming in third in wins for the team, going 12-3 with a 3.23 ERA. For the second year in a row, his team won the pennant.

In 1954 Duliba advanced to B-level ball and experienced his first struggles in professional baseball. He went 9-10 with a 5.01 ERA for the Peoria Chiefs. Manager Whitey Kurowski gave him the nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. “He started calling me ‘Ach.’ I don’t know why, but it was big, and just went perfect with my name, Duliba.” (“Ach du Lieber,” a popular German saying, is a shortened version of “Ach du Lieber Gott,” or “Oh, my God.”)

Another year of struggle came in 1955. Duliba was just 20 years old. He played for both Peoria and Allentown with a combined 6-5 record and a 5.49 ERA (5.34 in B and 7.00 in A). That November 30 he began a three-year tour with the Marine Corps.

“I was getting my ass kicked. I wasn’t doing very well and I came home and I looked at my mother and I said I think I’m going to go in the service and I joined the Marine Corps. Best thing I ever did.” There was baseball in the service, too. “Three years. Parris Island and a year in Hawaii. At Parris Island we played in 140, 150 games. We played anybody, everybody. We’d go anywhere, we had them come to our place. Earlier in the year when colleges were in their spring training we had everybody; we had Michigan, Michigan State, Duke, Ohio State. … We had everybody come and play at Parris Island.” Duliba put up some impressive stats, said to have been as good as a 51-7 record as a Leatherneck.ii

Duliba’s major-league debut was postponed by military service, but he came back with renewed self-confidence. He returned to the Cardinals’ high minor-league system, pitching for Triple-A Omaha. He almost started at a lower level, for Daytona. “Joe Schultz was the manager [at Omaha]. In them days, they used to take guys from the minor leagues and bring them just to throw batting practice for the major leaguers. Well, one day Joe comes and he was all pissed off because I pitching very well and they wanted me to [pitch to the major leaguers]. But I was a very, very, very poor batting practice pitcher. My ball moved so much that I didn’t have any idea. ... The first guy I faced was Kenny Boyer, and he kept telling me to throw the ball straight. And I said, ‘What you see is what you get’ and they sent me right back to Daytona, but that stayed in the back of their minds, though.” He got assigned to Omaha, and Bob Gibson was there, too. “We were both 8-5 and we were both starting. Then Joe called me in the office and he said they want you to pitch in the bullpen, and I said no. And we haggled around a bit. And he said this could be a big opportunity. And I’ll be damned, a month later I was in the big leagues.”

An older and wiser Duliba dominated his Triple-A competition in 37 games, nine of which were starts. He had a 3.07 ERA with an 8-5 record. This success prompted the Cardinals to promote him to the majors. His debut came on August 11, 1959, when he threw two innings of scoreless relief against the visiting San Francisco Giants. He gave up only one run in his first seven appearances, and he was impressive in 22⅔ innings pitched in 11 games. He recorded a 2.78 ERA. His only decision was a loss, to the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 2. He had one save.

It was also the year he married for the first time, a marriage that lasted 25 years. “We didn’t have any children. And then we parted and I got married again and now I got two boys. One will be 25 in January [2013] and the other is 23. Robert Junior and Andrew.”

In 1960 Duliba opened the season as a part of the Cardinals bullpen. The first win of his career came in a five-inning relief stint against the Dodgers on April 23. In 27 relief appearances, he compiled a 4.20 ERA with a 4-4 record. But he pitched only half the season, his last game on July 10. He was involved in a major accident that killed three people, friends of former Omaha teammate Ray Sadecki whom he was bringing to Kansas City. “I was going to Ray Sadecki’s wedding, and right outside of Columbia, Missouri, it started raining really heavy and we slid and went into the other lane. And we got hit by another car. I got all banged up. I had broken ribs all up and down my right side.” It was immediately known Duliba would be out for the remainder of the season, but the Cardinals’ team physician correctly predicted a full recovery.iii

In 1961 Duliba found himself back in the minor leagues recovering from his injury. “Oh jeez, I was all over the place. I started out in San Juan then came back to Charleston, West Virginia.” He pitched 101 innings of relief compiling a 3.48 ERA with a 7-7 record. He followed up 1961 with a strong start in the minors in 1962 and earned his way back to the majors on July 3. He’d been only 3-4 for the Atlanta Crackers, but once back in the big leagues, he was 2-0 that year, which, with his 2.08 ERA, turned out to be the statistically strongest year of his career. While with the Crackers, he achieved something unusual: He won a game but didn’t get credit for the victory. On June 21 he hit a home run in the seventh inning for the winning run in a 6-5 game against Syracuse, but starter Johnny Kucks got credit for the win because Atlanta had been ahead 5-3 when Duliba had come in to relieve.iv

In April 1963, before the season began, Duliba was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. He spent most of the year pitching in the Pacific Coast League for the Hawaii Islanders before being called up in September. He pitched 7⅔ innings in six games and yielded only one run.

In 1964, Duliba had his busiest season, working in 58 games as a reliever, and going 6-4 with a 3.59 ERA. He added nine saves and 33 strikeouts.

After what might have seemed like a bit of a breakthrough season, in April 1965 the Angels traded Duliba to the Boston Red Sox for Hal Kolstad. His season with the ’65 Red Sox was his third and final season in the major leagues with a winning record. In 39 games Duliba went 4-2 with a 3.78 ERA and one save; this was also the only season in his entire seven-year big-league career in which he committed an error on defense. He was charged with two, leaving him with a lifetime .969 fielding percentage.

Duliba wasn’t that much of a hitter, with a career batting average of .038. He had one major-league base hit, a sixth-inning single off Larry Sherry of the Dodgers on April 23, 1960, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

For a stretch in 1965, Duliba was credited as the best pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen, most likely due to his development of an effective knuckleball. “Yeah, they sent me down to the rookie league down in winter ball to work on my knuckleball. I always threw it, nothing basically, but then one day they saw me warm up on the side and I threw some knuckleballs and all of a sudden that was the big thing. And they had Hoyt Wilhelm talk to me and show me and explain what to do. And I guess they thought that was the big thing. I didn’t have a big enough hand, I don’t think, to really be good at knuckleballing.”

The high point of the 1965 season was probably picking up four straight wins to secure the best winning percentage on the staff.

“I was all right,” Duliba allowed. “I’m only 5-feet-10. I’m not the most imposing person. I think sometimes they wondered, you know, could we find someone else bigger and stronger. I always took pride in the way I threw the ball, I was always pretty good.”

Duliba’s 1966 season was spent in the minors pitching for the Toronto Maple Leafs, then the Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox, until he was traded on May 22 to the Kansas Athletics in a five-player deal. With the Athletics’ Triple-A team at Vancouver, Duliba excelled in 1966, pitching 66 innings in 44 games with a 1.91 ERA and a 7-1 record. The following season he was back on a major-league roster on Opening Day, with the Athletics for their last season in Kansas City. But Duliba struggled in the early going, with a 6.52 ERA in 9⅔ innings, and was sent back down to the minors to finish his career.

In 1966 and 1967 Duliba won an assortment of minor awards and accolades. In 1966 he won Vancouver’s Most Valuable Player award. In ’67, he was named the most inspirational player, and finally in a poll of managers in ’67 he was named the Pacific Coast League’s top relief pitcher. He’d also made a friend in Charlie Finley while he was with the A’s.

Why was Duliba named the most inspirational player? “Well, I had a hell of a year that year, I know that. I’ll tell you what. I always did my work. Never said anything, ran more than anybody, did everything more than, if they told you to run 20, I’d run 40 and that’s why I made it wherever I went. So it was hard work and I was inspirational, I guess.”

Duliba spent the next four years in the minors before calling it a career. In 1968 as a member of the Pacific Coast League affiliate for the now Oakland Athletics; he pitched 69 innings, winning three games and recording a 2.74 ERA. He spent 1969 as a member of Oakland’s American Association affiliate, the (Des Moines) Iowa Oaks, going 6-4 with a 3.68 ERA.

At the end of 1969, Duliba moved on to Richmond, the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, for the last two seasons of his career. The first season was very successful; he pitched 78 innings in relief and yielded only a 2.54 ERA. But in 1971, the year Duliba turned 36, he didn’t do quite as well: In 53 innings he had a 4.42 ERA and lost nine games with six victories.

In 1972 Duliba was expected to play for a team in Hawaii, but at the same time he was considering retirement because of back problems. Duliba hoped to “shake it off and get some playing time,” but it didn’t turn out that way for him, and the 1971 season was his last in Organized Baseball.v

But Charlie Finley did Duliba a big favor before Bob called it off completely. He’d thought he’d left the game for good, and one day was in his truck ready to go fishing. “My mother-in-law came out and said Charlie Finley is on the phone. He said, ‘Bob, you need 29 days.’ Charlie brought me up to give me another 29 days so I could be eligible for the pension. He said, ‘We’ve got you a reservation. You’ve got to be on the bench tonight for you to be eligible. We can’t just put you on the roster; you’ve got to be there.’ All I did was throw batting practice. He was a good man.” It’s a favor that’s still paying off for him 40 years later.

In his post-baseball life, Duliba was the assistant coach at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for a couple of years. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill and went to college himself. After finishing college, he became a high-school history teacher at Wyoming Area High School and coached there. Later, he became the head coach of Division III Wilkes University from 1982 to 1987 and again from 1992 to 1995. In his second tenure, he coached the school’s only player to reach the majors, Kevin Gryboski. He retired from coaching, but was still keeping active in 2012 stocking shelves at a local marker three days a week.

Duliba was invited to attend the 100th anniversary celebration at Fenway Park in April 2012. “It was awesome. I had my younger boy with me, and he was beside himself. We walked around the field and he put dirt in his pocket. Luis Tiant came up to me and just said, ‘Ach Duliba.’ I introduced my boy and after he left, he said, ‘Dad, he’s smaller than you.’

“I’ll tell you what; they treated us royally. They treated us like I guess big leaguers get treated today. We didn’t get treated like that when I was in the big leagues. When I came up in 1959, I got $8,500. Today if you come up, now you get $400,000, over $400,000. That’s the minimum. We got eight dollars a day meal money.”

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the authors also accessed Duliba’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i Bob Duliba interview conducted by Bill Nowlin on November 30, 2012. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations attributed to Duliba come from this interview.

ii Omaha World Herald, April 21, 1959.

iii San Diego Union, July 15, 1960.

iv The Marietta Journal of June 22, 1962, was one of many newspapers that ran a UPI article about the game.

v From an unattributed June 17, 1972, newspaper clipping in Duliba’s player file at the Hall of Fame.

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