SABR

Wade Blasingame

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

A two-out, seventh inning single by New York Mets’ right fielder Ron Swoboda was the margin between a 21-year-old left-hander and a no-hitter – a feat that would otherwise have capped the youngster’s fine, 16-win, 1965 season. Possessing one of the greatest curveballs of his time, his immediate splash in the major leagues had the Milwaukee Braves believing they’d found the successor to Warren Spahn. Unfortunately, injuries would thwart these expectations, and Wade Allen Blasingame would exit the big leagues a mere seven years later. Yet no less an authority on pitchers than Willie McCovey included this lefty among the most feared and respected hurlers he facedi – an indication of his enormous talent.

Wade was born on November 22, 1943, to Dale Robert Blasingame and his wife Evelyn (nee Nobile), in the southwestern New Mexico city of Deming. He was the eldest of two children. Working in agriculture as a fruit broker, Wade’s father was obsessed with baseball and pushed it upon his son at an early age; “I was raised to be a ball player,”ii Wade admitted years later. The family eventually moved to Fresno, California, where he was exposed to one of the greatest baseball-development programs in the nation. It was there that Wade fell under the tutelage of famed coach Ollie Bidwell and his one-time pupil, Jake Abbott.

Bidwell developed a successful American Legion post that, in 1958, produced four of the highest paid bonus pitchers for the major leagues (two of whom would later figure prominently in Blasingame’s career: Dick Ellsworth absorbed the loss in Wade’s first major league victory; Wade took the loss in Jim Maloney’s second no-hitter in 1969). Two years later, Blasingame was another success story, leading the Fresno squad in a one-hit gem over Phoenix in the American Legion Junior regional. In 1961, he outdueled North Bakersfield High School’s (and future Houston Astros teammate) George Culver in a 14-inning complete game victory. It was his season’s 11th win against no losses and delivered the championship flag to Abbott’s Roosevelt High School squad. Blasingame finished his three-year prep career with a 26-0 record and was “rated the best southpaw in the Golden State by more than 30 scouts.”iii However, there were only four acknowledged major league suitors for the 17- year old lefty: the Milwaukee Braves, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and the expansion Houston Colt .45s. All other teams were deterred by the anticipated six-figure tab.

There was an estimated $10 million in bonus payments spread among a large number of phenoms in 1961, which was dubbed the “Silly Season” by The Sporting Newsiv. The Braves ultimately prevailed in the Blasingame bidding and signed him to a $125,000 bonus. It was the second of Milwaukee’s three $100,000 outlays for pitchers in two years, signifying the team’s concern about the mound corps. The Braves were on a very successful run—including two World Series appearances—since their move from Boston to Milwaukee eight years earlier. Much of this success came from the superb pitching, the staffs anchored by Warren Spahn, who had turned 40 two months before the Blasingame signing. Because of his advanced age, the Braves were stocking up as many prized young hurlers as possible.

The 17-year old had no sooner trekked the 700 miles northeast to Boise, Idaho, reporting to the franchise’s Class C affiliate in the Pioneer League, when he had to immediately reverse course due to the passing of his grandmother. When he rejoined the Boise team, his six wins contributed to the Braves’ first place standing. Wade was subsequently assigned to the Florida Instructional League, where he raced to a 3-0 start in the short winter campaign. Milwaukee manager Birdie Tebbetts made an inspection tour and had particular praise for Blasingame and another budding prospect, Dennis Ribant, as two “possible ‘sleepers’ for next season…I want to give them a good look in spring training. They may make the club right away.”v

That spring, the Braves reported to Bradenton, Florida, with the youngest squad the club had yet assembled. Blasingame was the youngest of the entire congregation, and though he did not make the club, as Tebbetts had speculated, Wade made enough of an impression to jump to the Class AA Austin Senators in the Texas League. Blasingame posted a deceiving 10-14 record, with a 4.27 ERA for the Senators. In a strong hitter’s league, Wade’s ERA was far lower than the circuit average of 4.96. Furthermore, the Senators were a sub-.500 team, and 10 wins actually placed Blasingame among the league leaders. Amid his many strong performances was a 12-strikeout gem against the Albuquerque Dukes in August and a four-hit shutout in the league finals in September. Combined with another successful campaign in the winter league that earned him an All Star selection, he drew favorable headlines, such as: “Wade Blasingame Tabbed as ‘Baby’ Spahn of Braves.”vi Perhaps the only downside was the youngster’s propensity for wildness—he’d walked 100 in 156 innings—but this did not deter the management from promoting Wade yet again.

When viewing the vast array of bonus babies assigned to the AAA Denver Bears in 1963, Bears’ general manager Eddie Glennon remarked that it “looks like Fort Knox on wheels.”vii Blasingame joined a stable of five other prized prospects that had converged on the Braves’ Mile High City affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Unfortunately, the control issues he exhibited in the lower levels of play were now exploited by more experienced talent, and Wade’s ERA exploded to an unsightly 9.90 in eight appearances. Blasingame was demoted to Austin, where he picked up three quick wins. The control problems continued to haunt him, as evidenced in a 9-2 victory over Albuquerque, in which Wade struggled to a 3-2 count on an astounding 17 hitters. But he closed his Senators’ campaign with a respectable 7-2 record, with a 3.21 ERA. The success in parts of his three minor league seasons resulted in Blasingame making his major league debut that fall.

A strong August could not overcome a dismal first half for the 1963 Braves, and they plummeted to a sixth place finish in the National League standings, the lowest in their 13 years in Milwaukee. As the campaign drew to a close, new manager Bobby Bragan began working a number of young prospects into the lineup for evaluation. Inserted into a mop-up situation in a home game against the San Francisco Giants on September 17, Blasingame struck out four of the six batters he retired. Unfortunately, those outs were sandwiched around six base hits that lead to three earned runs. A second appearance five days later yielded an immediate walk, followed by a wild pitch—evidence of ongoing control problems—but the two outings provided the 19-year old with his invaluable first taste of big league play.

Blasingame began the 1964 season exactly where he’d started the preceding year: Denver. Although the walks continued—he issued 10 in less than eight innings against the Hawaii Islanders in April—Wade displayed his maturity by recording an ERA (3.26) well under the league average (3.81). Lack of offensive support contributed to a 0-4 start, but Blasingame secured four wins in his next five decisions before the parent team again beckoned.

The preceding December, the Braves traded two of their pitchers—Bob Hendley and Bob Shaw —in a move to bolster a sagging offense. The void created was expected to be filled by the emergence of righty prospects Hank Fischer and Bob Sadowski, but their mixed success, combined with the collapse of longtime stalwart Spahn, caused Braves’ general manager John McHale to search into the wee hours of the June 15 trade deadline for another pitcher. When this proved unsuccessful, management turned to Blasingame.

Wade received his first starting assignment after holding the Mets scoreless in seven innings of relief following a dreadful start by Spahn (it was in this same relief outing that Blasingame stroked his first hit, a home run, in only his third major league plate appearance). He garnered his first win on July 5, in a complete game effort against the Chicago Cubs (and fellow Fresno resident, Dick Ellsworth). He logged his first shutout two months later versus the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals. Two heartbreaking losses to future Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Bob Gibson were all that kept Blasingame’s from finishing the season with eight straight victories, and he concluded his partial campaign with a record of 9-5, 4.24. With the imminent departure of Spahn—he was sold to the New York Mets in November—and Wade’s brilliance in the closing weeks, the Milwaukee press was ecstatic about the emergence of the young pitching staff. “With Denny Lemaster [25]…to go with [Tony] Cloninger [23] and Blasingame [20], the Braves have the youngest starting corps in the National League and also one of the most promising.”viii Regrettably, injuries would eventually derail each of their careers.

Blasingame was the first of this trio to be struck by ailments, but not before he posted one of the most successful seasons for a major league pitcher in Milwaukee. The win totals of Blasingame and righty Cloninger together accounted for more than 46 percent of the Braves’ victories in 1965; Wade’s 16 wins had been exceeded by only 13 other major league hurlers donning a Milwaukee uniform through the 2012 campaign.

Even more remarkable is the margin by which Blasingame missed a 20-win season. He took the mound on eight separate occasions, twirling a combined ERA of 2.75 (the league average was 3.54), but, lacking run support, had only a 0-4 record to show for it.

Ironically, the no-hitter that he flirted with in May was against his former teammate, Spahn, and it wasn’t long before Wade was receiving accolades as the “New Spahn.”ix Liberal use of his curveball lead to success in Blasingame’s first full season, and manager Bobby Bragan happily announced “[t]he kid right now has the best curve in the National League.”x As the curtain closed on the 1965 campaign, Wade took the mound as the last starting pitcher in County Stadium in a Milwaukee Braves uniform.

The Braves (newly-relocated to Atlanta) had great expectations for Blasingame, just 22 years old and with a superb full season under his belt. But Wade sustained a freak injury the next spring when a car door was slammed on a finger of his pitching hand, causing him to miss more than three weeks of training. Still rusty after an abbreviated spring campaign, Wade’s ERA hovered close to 8.00 in the first few weeks of the 1966 season. When it appeared he was about to turn his miserable start around, Blasingame later admitted to a “little sting in my shoulder.”xi It was tendonitis. A 12-day rest between starts did not prevent another flare up, and after a brief return in June he was shelved again. The injury not only limited Wade to a mere three appearances after June 24, but would stay with him throughout the remainder of his playing career: “[G]ulping pain killers and getting stuck with needles filled with cortisone…[he would have] enough medication to disqualify him from the Kentucky Derby.”xii

The Braves entered the 1967 season with great hopes for a pennant run. Buoyantly anticipating a successful return by both Blasingame and Cloninger (who’d suffered his own series of injuries the preceding year), the team hedged its bet by acquiring Bob Bruce from the Houston Astros should either youngster falter. Atlanta instead posted its lowest win total since 1952, when the franchise was still in Boston. The Braves turned to 13 different starters through the sub-.500 campaign. That spring, Blasingame claimed, “I think I’m a sound pitcher again,”xiii but the numbers told a different story. The earlier control problems resurfaced (21 walks and four wild pitches in slightly over 25 innings of work) resulting in an ERA above 7.00 in late May. Wade was relegated to the bullpen, where he posted four respectable appearances consecutively when he was abruptly traded.

On June 13, 1967, future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro made his second major league career start (and first in nearly two years); his two-hit shutout convinced the Braves to move him into the starting rotation. Two days later (the date of the trading deadline), while the team was playing in Houston, they saw an opportunity to fill the bullpen vacancy created by Niekro by acquiring Astros’ relief specialist Claude Raymond – a one-time Braves’ prospect. The price paid was Wade Blasingame.

The Astros were enduring a run of six straight 90-loss seasons that had begun with the team’s inaugural 1962 campaign. In Blasingame, the team sought to fill the soon-to-be vacated starting role of Larry Dierker, who was destined for a six-month army hitch.

The move stunned Wade. He learned about the trade at 11:45 p.m., and walked the streets of Houston into the early hours, trying to absorb the news. Fifteen months earlier, Blasingame had been quoted as saying, “Houston’s field is the worst in baseball.”xiv Now that very same Astrodome was his home territory.

Regardless of the upset, the move actually benefited Blasingame. Excluding one relief appearance two days after the trade (a one-pitch victory in the second game of a day-night double header against the Braves; oddly, Raymond, the player he was traded for, had won game one) Wade was inserted into the starting rotation and remained there through the course of the season. Management attempted to change Blasingame’s delivery to more of a three-quarters motion (the team was simultaneously trying to resurrect the career of another once-promising lefty, Bo Belinsky). Although he cut down on bases on balls, Blasingame yielded 91 hits in only 77 innings and posted a team-worst 5.96 ERA. His complete record for 1967 was a dismal 5-7, 5.63, but two encouraging starts at season’s end, following a month-long injury shelving, left the management hoping for a more positive future performance.

In spring camp, Wade competed for a starting position amidst a small army of hurlers that included his former Braves’ teammate and personal outdoors companion, Denny Lemaster (acquired by trade in the off season). Blasingame not only failed to win a place in the rotation, but would pitch the fewest innings (36) since his brief September call up in 1963. The recurring shoulder problems and Wade’s general ineffectiveness resulted in spotty work, but most of the time missed was the result of being struck in the groin by a line drive on July 13. The injury required surgery and Wade was not released from St. John’s Mercy Hospital in St. Louis for nearly two weeks. He returned home to Fresno to recuperate, finally returning to the mound in September for three brief appearances. Ironically, the single win garnered in his abbreviated season was of the distinguished sort: Wade was the winning pitcher in the 24-inning, 1-0 marathon against the Mets on April 15, which lasted six hours and six minutes. Through 2012, this test of endurance remains notable as the only game in major league history to stand scoreless after 20 innings of play, while only three other games have surpassed the total innings logged (one of which was a 1-1 deadlock, in 1920).

Blasingame secured a starting role to open the 1969 season (in part due to the trade of lefty Mike Cuellar in December), yet in so doing he tied a rather dubious major league mark. Both he and New York Yankees righty Stan Bahnsen concluded the month of April with a loss in each of five starts (a threshold not surpassed until Dave Stewart lost six in 1984). Yet the similarities between the two hurlers stopped there. Bahnsen would go on to an additional 28 starts for the season, whereas Blasingame would be relegated to the bullpen thereafter, his fifth and last start being a loss in Jim Maloney’s second no-hitter. In these five starts Wade logged slightly less than 26 innings pitched, while in his remaining 21 appearances from the pen he pitched nearly the same: 26 1/3 innings. Once again, injuries and ineffectiveness made Blasingame a forgotten man at the back of the Astros bullpen.

He was conspicuously absent from Houston’s 40-man roster the next spring. “We want Wade to start at Oklahoma City this year and see if he can find himself,”xv explained general manager Spec Richardson before the 1970 season began. Understandably bitter, Blasingame determined to fight his way back to the parent club. One promising development was his ability to throw the curve again —his bread-and-butter pitch—something he was unable to do for two years due to the wrenching pain in his shoulder. The resulting success—eight wins and a 3.12 ERA— eventually produced the desired outcome, and in August the Astros optioned Jim Bouton to make room for Blasingame.

Once a prized righty with the New York Yankees, Bouton is best remembered for his authorship of Ball Four, an expose of ballplayers’ habits and hijinks that also detailed Blasingame’s outlandish style of dress (remarkable even by the extravagant sartorial standards of the ‘60s and ‘70s). Variously described as a youngster with a playboy reputation and bit of a tippler, Wade was living a fast lifestyle in his privileged days as a professional ballplayer— a choice that finally proved costly. Two months before his promotion to Houston, Wade was charged in a $1 million damage suit stemming from a June 9 bar incident. Assault and battery charges were filed against Blasingame by the manager of an Evansville, Indiana nightclub, who claimed that the ballplayer struck him during a dispute over a sizable bar tab. Wade broke his pitching hand and was placed on the disabled list. He was eventually fined $200 in an Evansville city court, while the suit was presumably settled. Perhaps it was with the thought of curbing this youthful recklessness that Wade became a married man over the next winter.

On August 19, 1970, Blasingame secured his first major league victory in over two years. Nine days later he pitched his first complete game in five seasons. “I hadn’t gone nine innings since it snowed in Miami,”xvi Blasingame quipped afterwards. He garnered 13 starting assignments that year, and kept his ERA under 3.00 until a dreadful, penultimate performance in Atlanta. Still just 27 that November, the lefty had an equally solid winter campaign in the Dominican Republic that indicated he might be recouping his early potential.

Although the 1971 Astros were no longer a 90-loss club, the team still could not mount a competitive run. Offensive ineptitude was a major factor; the team did not hit a home run until the seventh game of the season—with Wade Blasingame at bat. Of course, Wade’s primary responsibilities were still on the mound, and for the first time since his 16-win season in 1965, Blasingame secured 28 starting assignments. He won the fifth starting spot after a strong spring, and his 9-11 record certainly was in part attributable to weak run support. In an echo of 1965, Wade took the mound on eight separate occasions, logged a 3.21 ERA (league average: 3.47), but went just 0-4. Still, his nine victories equaled his total from the past four seasons combined. One of the 11 losses ended a remarkable streak of invincibility against the Mets; he’d beaten them nine consecutive times over the preceding eight years.

The Astros’ acquisition of two lefties prior to the start of the 1972 season left Blasingame the odd man out, and he was again relegated to the bullpen. A miserable start resulted in little use— slightly more than eight innings at the one-quarter mark of the season—and he was eventually shipped to the New York Yankees. A brief and unproductive June 27 starting assignment, the last in his major league career, in Detroit pushed him back to the bullpen, and he concluded the campaign with less than 26 innings of work.

Wade reported to the Yankees camp the following spring as a non-roster invitee, but was acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals before the start of the 1973 season. Demoted to the Class AAA Tulsa Oilers, he quickly caught the attention of the Cardinals’ brass by sporting a 0.98 ERA in his first seven appearances. But St. Louis chose to take a gamble on reliever Dick Selma that May, and Blasingame was traded to the Chicago Cubs organization. Released by that club’s Wichita affiliate two months later, Wade was signed by the San Diego Padres and assigned to the Hawaii Islanders in the Pacific Coast League, where he was teamed briefly with a fellow Fresno star, Pat Corrales. The following spring, after a few brief appearances with the Islanders, Wade concluded his professional playing career.

A teammate’s brother who had connections with the oil and gas industry helped Wade find work on the Trans-Alaska pipeline; his long second career culminated in an executive position with AES-Houston Contracting Company, Inc. Baseball was never too far from his mind, and he later became a member of the American Legion Baseball Board of Directors.

Wade winters in the Atlanta region with wife, Deane, while residing in Anchorage, Alaska during the summers.

He never became the “New Spahn,” but to have been labeled such at 21 years old speaks volumes about the excitement he once generated. Injuries hampered his career, but for a brief time in the mid-‘60s, Blasingame was considered one of the finest prospects in the major leagues. The 16-win campaign in 1965 gave baseball fans a glimpse of what could have been.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank J.G. Preston, Tom Hufford, Bill Mortell, Richard Cuicchi and BioProject editor Matthew Perry for their assistance herein.

 

Sources

www.ancestry.com

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/75723b1f

http://www.asrcenergy.com/about/blasingame.html?KeepThis=true

 

Notes

i “Stretch Proved His Point – Whacked Lefties,” The Sporting News, November 19, 1966, 33.

ii “Blasingame on the Comeback Route,” The Sporting News, May 9, 1970, 35.

iii “Big Bonus Bids Strip Fresno of 2 Hill Phenoms,” The Sporting News, July 19, 1961, 22.

iv “’Silly Season’ in Big Time – Bonus Boys Rake in Chips,” The Sporting News, June 21, 1961, 25.

v “Home-Town Boy Bob Uecker Gets Shot at Tepee Job,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1961, 22.

vi “Wade Blasingame Tabbed as ‘Baby’ Spahn of Braves,” The Sporting News, October 27, 1962, 37.

vii Gold in Them Thar B’ars,” The Sporting News, April 20, 1963, 33.

viii “Tepee Tapping Tom Toms for Tony,” The Sporting News, September 19, 1964, 7.

ix “Braves Feel Blazer Ready To Blossom as ‘New Spahn,’” The Sporting News, June 5, 1965, 24.

x “Blasingame’s Bender Best In Circuit, Beams Bragan,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1965, 7.

xi “Blasingame on the Comeback Route,” The Sporting News, May 9, 1970, 35.

xii Ibid.

xiii “Braves Whoop As Blasingame Arm Recovers,” The Sporting News, February 11, 1967, 26.

xiv “No Dome, Wade Hopes,” The Sporting News, March 12, 1966, 28.

xv “Astros Planning Early Start,” The Sporting News, January 24, 1970, 37.

xvi “.200 Hitter, But Big John Is Astro Gem,” The Sporting News, September 19, 1970, 36.

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