SABR

Jay Ritchie

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

Right-hander Jay Ritchie was a durable, rubber-armed pitcher who toiled patiently for 7½ years in the Boston Red Sox farm system before making his big-league debut as a reliever in August 1964. After leading the Red Sox staff in ERA in 1965, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves as they prepared for their inaugural campaign following their much-anticipated move from Milwaukee. Ritchie led the Braves in appearances in 1967, and concluded his major-league career as a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 1968.

A career as a big-league pitcher was far from foretold when Jay Seay Ritchie was born on November 20, 1936, in Salisbury, located in the heart of North Carolina, less than an hour’s drive northeast of Charlotte. His parents, Gilbert and Ila (Brown) Ritchie, both native North Carolinians, were farmers and welcomed seven children to the world (five sons and two daughters). The youngest of the group, Jay was always big for his age and gravitated to sports in his small rural community. “We didn’t have any organized ball when I was growing up, no Little League or anything like that,” Ritchie told the author. “I started out playing on the local sandlots and in the backyard with my brothers. They had a lot of influence on me. It wasn’t until high school that I started playing competitive ball.”1 At 6-feet-4 and weighing 175 pounds, Ritchie cut an impressive and intimidating presence on the mound. “I always had a strong arm and good control and that’s why I started out as a pitcher and later became a relief pitcher,” he added.

A two-sport star at Granite Quarry High School, Ritchie was one of the best athletes Rowan County ever produced. As a senior he averaged 27.7 points per game on the hardwood and set a county record with 1,325 points in his career. His exploits on the diamond were even more impressive. He went 24-0 during his junior and senior seasons for coach Bob Fink’s Dragons, and pitched two consecutive no-hitters. “Word got out about me and what I was doing,” said Ritchie of his first contact with major-league scouts. “By my senior year they were coming to my games. I graduated in 1955 and was going to go to college and play baseball and basketball at East Carolina. I played semipro that summer [1955] in a local league. Scout Mace Brown of the Boston Red Sox contacted me that winter. He came to my folks’ house and I signed with him for a minimal bonus. My parents were real supportive of my signing. I talked to the Yankees a lot, too, but Mace made me feel like Boston was more interested.”

Ritchie began his 15-year professional baseball career as a 19-year-old with Boston’s affiliate in the Class D Midwest League, the Lafayette (Indiana) Red Sox, in 1956. “It was a little strange being so far away from home,” Ritchie admitted. “It didn’t take me too long to get adjusted. It was more competitive than what I was used to back home, but about what I thought it would be.” The tall and lanky teenager led the league in appearances (41, all in relief), won nine of 15 decisions, and posted a fine 3.15 earned-run average. Ritchie celebrated his first year in Organized Baseball by marrying his high-school sweetheart, Shelby Jean Burwell, in December.

Ritchie parlayed his success with Lafayette into a chance to show his mettle as a starting pitcher in 1957. Hurling for the Corning (New York) Red Sox of the Class D New York-Pennsylvania League, the sturdy right-hander was named to the all-star team, won 11 games, and finished among the league leaders in ERA (2.52), innings pitched (193), and fewest hits per nine innings (6.9). Still a raw but durable pitcher, Ritchie later revealed that he was on his own to learn the art of pitching and develop sound mechanics. “Back then we didn’t have the coaches they have today. In the lower minors you only had a manager. That’s about all.”

Ritchie slowly progressed through the Red Sox farm system over the next 5½ seasons, but suffered from the Red Sox’ indecision about grooming him as a starter or reliever. As a member of the Raleigh Capitals, he led the Class B Carolina League in relief appearances (42) in 1958 and earned a late-season promotion to the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Red Sox in the Eastern League. Returning to Allentown in 1959, he led the league in appearances (56), carved out a minuscule 1.90 ERA, logged 104 innings, and was the hardest-to-hit pitcher in the league. “I didn’t know for sure, but I had people tell me they thought I’d be called up at the end of the season,” Ritchie said matter-of-factly.

Ritchie pitched for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1960 and the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League in 1961. However, his future as a fireman, as relievers were often called at that time, was murky as hard-throwing right-hander and Rainiers teammate Dick “The Monster” Radatz emerged as Boston’s top relief prospect.

With his career in a crossroads, Ritchie was dropped down two levels and converted to a starter for the second time in his career. “There were a lot of pitchers in the organization,” he said of pitching for the York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the Eastern League in 1962. “I wasn’t getting enough work (only 35 appearances with the Rainiers). The organization thought if I was sent back two leagues, I’d have a better chance at the time to make it. I wasn’t too happy about it, but there wasn’t much I could do.” The 25-year-old Ritchie won 13 games and completed 14 of 28 starts, but was overshadowed by two younger hurlers, 20-year-old left-hander Wilbur Wood (15-11) and 23-year-old right-hander Bob Heffner (13-10).

Securing a spot on a big-league staff is as much a product of timing as ability. Ritchie was philosophical when asked about his frustrations while toiling in the minor leagues for 7½ years and discovering that his promotion as a reliever or a starter seemed to be constantly blocked. “You know, back then there were not as many clubs and competition was different. There were a lot of pitchers. Today you have one good year in the minors and you’re in the big leagues. You had to hang in there if you wanted to play.” Ritchie’s passion was baseball, but it was also a labor of love. He recalled that playing on one-year contracts was stressful and tested one’s commitment to the sport.

After spending half of the 1963 season with the Reading Red Sox in the Eastern League, Ritchie was reassigned to Seattle and converted to a reliever yet again. At 27 years of age and in his eighth season of professional baseball, Ritchie was one of the Rainiers’ most experienced pitchers in 1964. He finally had a stroke of luck, and one of the best games of his career. “I came in in relief in the first inning when the starting pitcher (Jerry Stephenson) got hurt,” he said of a game against the Oklahoma City 89ers on June 1. “As it turned out, the Red Sox’ general manager (Mike “Pinky” Higgins) was in the stands. Well, I had an exceptionally good night, and struck out 16. The manager (Edo Vanni) called me into his office the next day and told me I would be called up.” Ritchie had to wait for almost two more months, but he finally got the news in late July and joined the Red Sox during their series against the Angels in Los Angeles on July 31. Ritchie made his major-league debut on August 4 against the Minnesota Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, relieving Bill Monbouquette to start the third inning. “The first batter was Harmon Killebrew,” Ritchie later chuckled. “The Killer” smashed a single back through the mound, but Ritchie gathered his composure to limit the Twins to just one more hit over four scoreless innings. Ritchie extended his scoreless-inning streak to nine before surrendering an unearned run; his first earned run came after 13⅓ innings. On September 18 Ritchie picked up his first of eight big-league victories when he took the mound at Fenway Park with two outs and two runners on in the fifth inning with a 6-4 lead. He struck out Killebrew to end the threat and then fanned six more of the heavy-hitting Twins over four innings before tiring in the final frame, having surrendered two runs. The team’s busiest reliever not named Radatz, Ritchie appeared in 21 games, logged 46 innings, and posted a 2.74 ERA, trailing only Radatz and Arnold Earley, whose roster spot he took when the lefty came down with elbow problems.2

Longtime Red Sox beat reporter Larry Clafin considered Ritchie a “dark horse” as the slender right-hander reported for his first big-league spring training, in 1965.3 He noted that “not much was expected from [Ritchie]” after his call-up, but “he improved each week.” Ritchie was relieved that he finally made it to the big leagues, but also felt he earned his opportunity. “It was quite an experience playing with all of the big-league ballplayers in spring training after years in the minor leagues,” he said. “It felt natural, but I wasn’t in awe of them.” Ritchie’s arrival on the big stage corresponded to one the worst stretches in Red Sox history. The club, floundering and searching for a new identity since the retirement of Ted Williams after the 1960 season, was in the midst of eight consecutive losing seasons, and reached its nadir in 1965 with 100 losses. Ritchie was arguably the pitching staff’s biggest surprise in 1965. He appeared in 44 games (trailing only the righty-lefty combination of Radatz and Earley) and posted the staff’s lowest ERA (3.17).

For his success, Ritchie was rewarded with a demotion to the club’s Triple-A affiliate in the International League, the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I’d like to have a lot of hard-throwing youngsters in my bullpen for long relief,” said manager Billy Herman, feeling the pressure to field a winning team. Before Ritchie could suit up for the Maple Leafs, he was sent to the Atlanta Braves on January 11, 1966, as the player to be named later in an earlier trade involving Earley and outfielder-first baseman Lee Thomas in exchange for pitchers Dan Osinski and Bob Sadowski. “I went along with the trade the best I could,” said Ritchie, who admitted that he was not sure why he was traded. He was disappointed to leave the only organization he had ever known, but looked forward to the chance to pitch closer to home.

Ritchie was ideally suited as a relief pitcher. He was durable, could warm up quickly and often, and had excellent control. “I was mostly a sinker-baller and threw a good curveball, too,” said Ritchie. “I could throw both over the plate at any time. My out pitch was the curveball. On my curveball I stayed on top, but on the sinker I’d drop down a little. I could throw them both to right- and left-handers, but I’d just have to get in a little on the left-handers.” Ritchie had a laid-back, easygoing personality and wasn’t bothered by inherited runners on base when he entered a game. “Being a relief pitcher you didn’t have any time to get nervous because you never knew when you’d pitch,” he told the author, stressing that he was ready to pitch at any time during the game. “It seemed like we were pitching every day, on the side or warming up every day. We pitched a lot.”

After pitching for Caracas in the Venezuelan winter league in 1965-66, Ritchie reported to Braves at spring training as the club prepared for its inaugural season in Atlanta and the introduction of major-league baseball to the Southeast. While manager Bobby Bragan considered Ritchie a “borderline” player, pitching coach Whit Wyatt was more effusive in his assessment of Ritchie’s value to the staff: “Jay is the kind of pitcher who can really give us a lift.”4 Notwithstanding Whitlow’s praise, Ritchie was optioned to Atlanta’s new Triple-A affiliate, the Richmond Braves (International League), to start the 1966 season. “You are always disappointed, but you try to improve and bounce back. I didn’t pitch any differently,” said the pitcher. Ritchie turned in his best year in baseball with Richmond, appearing in 43 games and carving out a microscopic 1.73 ERA in 73 innings. “I was with Phil Niekro and Pat Jarvis. We were brought up together and Niekro went on to win over 300 games,” said Ritchie with his understated humor.

Ritchie debuted as a member of the Braves on July 28 at Atlanta Stadium. He pitched three scoreless innings and recorded four strikeouts in a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. “It was different for me playing in the South,” remembered Ritchie. “I was closer to home and my family was only four hours away. Atlanta fans were great. They enjoyed baseball and they drew well, too.” In just his third game as a Brave, Ritchie made national headlines in a game against the San Francisco Giants on July 31 with the help of a widely syndicated UPI photo.5 “My most memorable game was when I picked Willie Mays off first base,” said Ritchie with a chuckle. In the seventh inning, the slender pitcher made a quick throw to first baseman Felipe Alou and caught Mays (whom he had walked) off-guard. Embarrassed by his lapse in concentration, Mays protested to first-base umpire John Kibler to no avail. Ritchie earned saves in four consecutive appearances in early September as part of a stretch of 12⅔ consecutive scoreless innings over eight outings from August 23 to September 10; prompting The Sporting News to predict that he, Niekro, and Clay Carroll would serve as the nucleus of the Braves’ bullpen for years to come.6 Ritchie finished the season 0-1 in 35⅓ innings, but a tough outing in his last game (six runs in 1⅔ innings) bloated his otherwise impressive 2.67 ERA to a misleading 4.09 mark.

For five seasons (1965-66 through 1969-70) Ritchie pitched in Caribbean winter leagues, and had little chance to rest from the grueling demands of the major-league schedule. “I started playing for Escogidas because of Felipe Alou,” he said of his three years (1966-67 through 1968-69) in the Dominican league. “[Alou] was a good friend of mine. He had a lot to do with the club and told me I could always pitch there. He knew I could pitch a lot. The competition was something like Triple-A. There were a lot of big leaguers and native players.” Unlike his major-league experiences, Ritchie was a starting pitcher in the Dominican and Venezuelan winter leagues and was regularly among the leaders in innings pitched and wins.

With Niekro’s elevation to the starting rotation in midseason of 1967, Ritchie proved to be the Braves’ most consistent and effective reliever. He led the team in appearances (52), logged a career-high 82⅓ innings, and his 3.17 ERA was considerably better than the 3.84 league average. Over a stretch of six appearances in May, Ritchie tossed 11⅔ hitless innings, including retiring 28 consecutive batters. “I didn’t realize I had done that,” a surprised Ritchie told Braves beat reporter Wayne Minshew.7 “We just might have a top-notch relief pitcher right here on our staff and didn’t know it,” said manager Billy Hitchcock.8

“It was hot in Atlanta, but I was used to the heat,” said Ritchie, who looked back fondly at his time with the Braves and his friendships. “In the bullpen we talked about hitters and what they could and could not hit. But a lot of that stuff you had to find out on your own. Some pitchers can’t pitch the same way you could.”

Just nine days after the conclusion of the 1967 regular season, Ritchie was traded to the Cincinnati Reds along with utilityman Jim Beauchamp and slugging outfielder Mack Jones for the versatile Deron Johnson. “A trade like that to the Reds is just something I didn’t understand,” said Ritchie honestly. “I enjoyed it with the Reds. Manager Dave Bristol was a young guy, and a North Carolina boy like me. I think he had something to do with my trade, but I am not sure. They got me, Clay Carroll, and Ted Abernathy from Atlanta.” [Carroll was acquired in June 1968, and Abernathy during the 1966 Rule 5 draft prior to the 1967 season.]

Given the Reds’ deep staff, Ritchie was optioned to the Indianapolis Indians of the Pacific Coast League to start the 1968 campaign. Much to his surprise, he was cast as a starting pitcher for the first time since 1963. He posted a 3.44 ERA in 13 starts, and was recalled to the parent club in June. Back in the bullpen with Cincinnati, he made 14 effective relief appearances (2.70 ERA), and was then sent to the mound to start for the first of two times in his big-league career in the second game of a doubleheader on July 31 (a loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates). He finished the year with 28 appearances and a 4.61 ERA in his final season in the big leagues.

Ritchie spent two more years (1969-1970) with middling success playing Triple-A ball in the Reds, Braves, and Red Sox organizations. “Well, I didn’t want to bounce back and forth playing in the minor leagues. I wanted to spend more time with my family,” said Ritchie of his decision to retire after the 1970 season, though he acknowledged that he could have pitched a few more years. Though never considered a star, Ritchie had his share of success in the most unglamorous of positions, the middle reliever. He notched a 3.49 ERA over 291⅓ innings (167 appearances) and posted an 8-13 record in parts of five big-league seasons; he also pitched in 504 games in the minor leagues, logged 1,466 innings, and won 94 times.

“I scouted for three years for the Braves,” said Ritchie about his transition into his post-baseball career in 1971. “The general manager (Paul Richards) asked me if I was interested. I had North Carolina and South Carolina. I stopped when they wanted to move me around.”

A North Carolinian at heart, Ritchie has lived in or near his home town in Rowan County all his life. With his wife, he raised three children (two girls and a boy). He enjoyed a long, successful career selling cars, occasionally coached in a local Pony League, and also participated in occasional old timer’s games in Atlanta. In 2004 Ritchie was inducted into the Salisbury-Rowan Sports Hall of Fame. It is clear to anyone who has the chance to talk to Ritchie that he still retains his boyhood enthusiasm for baseball. He follows the game closely, especially the Braves. In summing up his career, Ritchie said, “I was a typical rubber-armed pitcher. I was sore because of pitching a lot, but I never had any injuries.”

Last revised: June 17, 2015

 

Sources

SalisburyPost.com

The Sporting News

Jay Ritchie, telephone interview, September 24, 2013. Ritchie subsequently read the completed biography in November 2013 to verify its accuracy.

 

Notes

1 The author expresses his sincere gratitude to Jay Ritchie for his willingness to share his memories about his baseball career in an interview on September 24, 2013. All quotations from him are from this interview unless otherwise noted.

2 The Sporting News, August 15, 1964, 15.

3 The Sporting News, February 20, 1965, 13.

4 The Sporting News, March 19, 1966, 9.

5 UPI, Bonham (Texas) Daily Favorite, August 2, 1966, 8.

6 The Sporting News, September 17, 1966, 7.

7 The Sporting News, June 3, 1967, 17.

8 Ibid.

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