SABR

Moe Drabowsky

This article was written by R. J. Lesch.

He terrorized teammates with snakes. He tossed firecrackers under benches and into bullpens. He was a master of the fine art of the hotfoot. Often forgotten is that Moe Drabowsky could pitch a little, too. In a 17-year major-league career with eight teams, it was his two stints with the Orioles that brought him lasting fame, including a star performance in the 1966 World Series and a return trip to Baltimore in 1970.

He was born Miroslav Drabowski in Ozanna, Poland, on July 21, 1935. His mother, Frances Galus, was an American citizen who met her future husband while visiting relatives in Ozanna. “We lived on a farm,” Moe recalled in a 1966 interview. “I remember a stream I fished in. I remember a barn, and some of the animals.”1

In 1938, when Hitler began to annex and mobilize in Eastern Europe, the Drabowski family left Poland. Moe arrived in the United States with his mother in 1938. She was 8½ months pregnant with his sister, Marian, at the time. Their father, Michael, joined the family later, before Germany invaded Poland, and the family settled in Connecticut.

“Language was a barrier when I started school,” recalled Moe, “because we didn’t speak English at home.”2 Miroslav picked up English from the radio and from school over time, to the point where he all but forgot Polish. With his new home and tongue came a new anglicized name, Myron Walter. From boyhood on, however, nobody ever called him anything but Moe. Eventually, in high school or college, his last name was misspelled “Drabowsky,” and Moe went with that spelling for the rest of his life.

Drabowsky’s pitching career began in earnest at Loomis Prep School in Windsor, Connecticut. There he was 8-0 in his senior year, including a no-hitter. He then attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “I went on a scholastic scholarship,” he said, “but lost it when I joined a fraternity and started partying.”3 He didn’t lose his fastball, which helped him to a 17-5 record, including another no-hitter, with 111 strikeouts in 70 innings. He also developed his interest in business and finance, and studied economics with, if not academic zeal, at least enough diligence to prepare him for a career as a stockbroker.

During the summer, Moe pitched for the Truro Bearcats in the Nova Scotia Amateur League in Canada. In 1955 he posted a 9-9 record, striking out 135 batters in 120 innings, and in 1956 he went 6-2 with 69 strikeouts in 60 innings. There he caught the eye of scout Lennie Merullo, who signed him for the Chicago Cubs. Sources disagree on the size of the bonus Drabowsky received for signing with the Cubs; it is given as anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000. In any case, under the rules of the day, it was large enough to obligate the Cubs to keep Moe on the major-league roster for two years. As a result, he went right from Nova Scotia to the National League.

He was calm in his first official major-league game, a one-inning scoreless relief appearance in Milwaukee on August 7, 1956. “But the next night in Cincinnati,” Drabowsky told the Chicago American at the time, “I really had the jitters. The first man I faced was Ted Kluszewski. I was so worried I threw him four straight balls.”4 Drabowsky walked two more batters, but struck out three to get through another scoreless inning.

On August 18 pitching coach Dutch Leonard asked, “How would you like to do some throwing tonight?” “I’d like it,” Drabowsky replied. “Then you’re starting against the Cardinals tonight,” Leonard told him.5 Drabowsky won his third appearance, his first start, pitching into the eighth inning in an 8-1 win over St. Louis in Busch Stadium.

“Being a bonus player,” Moe said, “naturally I take a lot of good-natured kidding. In the pepper games during batting practice anyone who makes an error has to buy the other guy a Coke. When Don Kaiser, Jerry Kindall, and I play, the veterans yell, ‘Hey, here come the bonus boys. Forget the Cokes – this one’s for Cadillacs!’”6 No doubt Moe’s infectious good nature eased some of the transition pains he might otherwise have felt. It didn’t hurt that he seemed to take to big-league mounds right away. Through September 8 Moe had posted a 1.56 ERA over 40 innings. “I was a little disappointed with my control,” he said, though he had added a change-up to his fastball and curve by the end of his Chicago stint.7 His contract allowed him to return to Trinity College at that point, though the Cubs did call on Moe for two more appearances, one in Brooklyn on the 14th and one in New York on the 19th after he’d been back in school for five days. The Dodgers touched him for five runs, four earned, in a complete-game loss, and the Giants got four runs off him in three innings in relief. The two appearances raised his ERA to 2.47 for the season, which did nothing to diminish Cubs hopes for their bonus phenom.

Moe was supposed to join the major-league club after the school year ended in May 1957, and return to school in the fall as he had in 1956. However, he spent the entire season with the Cubs, going 13-15 in 239⅔ innings and striking out 170. He continued to struggle with his control, but his 3.53 ERA was better than the National League average.

After a stint with the Army Reserve and a throat ailment, he reported late and underweight to the Cubs in 1958. He arrived in time to surrender Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit on May 13, 1958. Pinch-hitting for Sam Jones in the sixth inning, with the Cardinals down 3-1 in Chicago, Musial took two balls and fouled off two more before slapping a Drabowsky curve ball into left field for a double. The hit sparked a four-run game-winning rally for the Cards.

On June 27, 1958, Drabowsky married Elizabeth Johns, a former airline stewardess, in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh. They met on a flight when Moe traveled from Chicago to New York to visit his parents. Johns, a Pittsburgh native, was a baseball fan who confessed to a reporter that she had harbored a crush for Gil Hodges since she was 10 years old. (She might have had mixed feelings about Hodges’ .394 batting average against Drabowsky, or his four home runs in 33 at-bats.) The couple had two daughters, Myra and Laura.

On July 11, 1958, however, the newly married Drabowsky’s career changed dramatically. “I had two strikes on Bob Skinner,” he later recalled. “I reached way back for the strikeout pitch, and heard something snap in my elbow.”8 The strikeout ended the fourth inning, but the Pirates tagged Moe for five runs on two singles, three walks, and a homer the next inning. Moe skipped a turn, then tried to pitch on July 19 against Milwaukee and lasted only a third of an inning. “The arm responded to treatment at first,” said Drabowsky, “then I had trouble again. I strained my shoulder favoring the elbow. One thing led to another.”9 Drabowsky made four starts in late August, going 1-2. He was 8-7 with a 3.80 ERA at the time of the injury, but finished 9-11, 4.51.

Drabowsky’s arm never felt quite right during the next four years. By July 1960, with an ERA hovering around 10.00, he went to the minors for the first time in his career. He won all five of his starts for Triple-A Houston, with an ERA of 0.90, and pitched more effectively upon his return to the Cubs in August. But Drabowsky no longer figured in the Cubs’ plans. They traded him to the Milwaukee Braves before the 1961 season. He struggled for the first half of the season before being sent to Triple-A Louisville. The Cincinnati Reds picked up Drabowsky in the 1961 Rule 5 Draft, and used him in the bullpen in 1962 until August, when his contract was sold to the Kansas City Athletics.

There his career was resurrected under the tutelage of the Athletics’ pitching coach, former Yankees great Ed Lopat. During this period Moe also began to study films of his pitching, taken by his wife, Elizabeth, in an attempt to improve his mechanics. His fastball was no longer as overpowering, and he learned to rely on location and placement. “I really learned a lot about pitching from Eddie Lopat at Kansas City,” said Drabowsky years later. As his pitching coach in 1962, Lopat “provided me with a brand-new outlook and rekindled the confidence.” Hired as Kansas City’s manager for 1963, Lopat “gave me a chance to pitch and my arm never felt stronger or better. My confidence was restored and suddenly I realized I was far from washed up.”10

Drabowsky began 1963 in Triple-A Portland of the PCL, starting two games and relieving in 17, and going 5-1 with a 2.13 ERA. Returning to Kansas City, he started in 22 of his 26 appearances. Moe went 7-13 for the Athletics, but posted a 3.05 ERA in the process (in a league where starters averaged 3.65).

Drabowsky began to feel comfortable enough to indulge the sense of humor for which he would become notorious. There are few accounts of his pranks before 1963. The most common observation about him before this time was that he came to the majors with “a copy of The Sporting News in one hand and a copy of the Wall Street Journal in the other.”11 Although Drabowsky continued to ply his trade as a stockbroker during the off-season, that serious, studious portrait gave way to that of the madcap bullpen prankster that eventually crowded out almost every other image of the man. On August 18, 1963, for example, in a game when Lopat was ejected, umpire Ed Hurley had to order Drabowsky to stop throwing in the Kansas City bullpen when two of his pitches just happened to sail into right field. It was a sign of antics to come.

In 1964 Drabowsky got into a salary dispute with Athletics owner Charles O. Finley. Drabowsky, who did a pretty good Finley impersonation, amused himself during this period by calling the other holdouts using his Finley voice. “But Mr. Finley,” his teammates would say, “$16,000 isn’t enough money.” According to Drabowsky, “I found out what all the other holdouts were making.”12 The knowledge apparently didn’t help Moe much, as he reported late and unhappy, and got off to a terrible start. In July 1964, after Mel McGaha replaced Lopat as manager, Drabowsky was moved back to the bullpen, where he was marginally more effective. He spent most of 1965 in Vancouver (Pacific Coast League), mostly starting, and still showing he could be effective (at least at the Triple-A level) as a starter. On August 21, 1965, for Vancouver, Drabowsky fanned 21 batters in a seven-inning game. He allowed three hits, and stranded all three runners. However, he was promoted to the Kansas City bullpen in late August and essentially remained in the bullpen for the rest of his career.

During the off-season, once again in the Rule 5 Draft, Drabowsky waited to see where he would end up. The Cardinals expressed interest in him, but didn’t have the chance to select him. When Cleveland took Baltimore’s first choice, pitcher Bob Heffner, Orioles General Manager Harry Dalton heard from Charlie Lau, a former Drabowsky roommate. “If you can, get Drabowsky from Kansas City,” said Lau, “and we’ll win the pennant.”13 Dalton made the pick, then offered Moe $10,000; Drabowsky held out for $15,000, but signed for $12,500.

Up until 1966, Drabowsky is a footnote in baseball history despite occasional flashes of brilliance. In addition to the Musial milestone, as he put it, “I’m in the records for some real beauties.”14 On June 2, 1957, he hit four batters with pitches in 3⅔ innings, tying a major-league record. He plunked future teammate Frank Robinson twice in that outing. He was the losing pitcher on July 13, 1963, when Early Wynn finally captured his 300th win. He narrowly missed another chance at trivia-quiz immortality on April 30, 1961, when Willie Mays hit four home runs against the Braves. During the game, Mays also flied out to center against Drabowsky in the fifth inning. Drabowsky recalled years later that Mays hit the ball to the warning track. “Right now I’m sorry that I didn’t give up that home run because it would have been a great feat,” Moe said.15

In 1966 Drabowsky joined a relief corps that included Stu Miller, Dick Hall, and (by June) Eddie Fisher. Not pitching well in the first two months of 1966, he asked pitching coach Harry Brecheen if he could throw every other night in the bullpen. The routine helped Drabowsky, as did the talent around him. “Maybe Moe got back his confidence when he joined us,” said Sherm Lollar, the bullpen coach for the Orioles. “We were a contender and could support his pitching.”16 Drabowsky became part of a lights-out relief corps.

As the weather warmed up, so did Drabowsky’s sense of humor. He wore a four-foot gopher snake around his neck one day as he strolled into work one day in Anaheim, scaring Paul Blair out of the clubhouse. A small garter snake placed in Camilo Carreon’s pocket sent Cam through the roof. Drabowsky liked snakes so much that he cultivated relationships with pet-shop owners, who would let him borrow the snakes. Luis Aparicio was a frequent target, but was forgiving enough to team up with Moe on other pranks. On one occasion Drabowsky and Aparicio swiped a huge papier-mâché Buddha from a Chinese art show in their hotel and placed it outside Charlie Lau’s door.

During this season, Moe pulled off one of his best-known pranks. On May 27, in the second inning of a game against his former teammates in Kansas City, Drabowsky called the Athletics bullpen, imitated KC manager Alvin Dark, and ordered that Lew Krausse begin warming up. A few minutes later, Drabowsky called again and ordered Krausse to sit down again. Finally, on the third call, Drabowsky’s voice was recognized.

The story has grown in the years since, placing the prank at a critical point in an important game. Several versions of the story name the starting pitcher as Jim Nash, insisting that Nash was pitching a shutout in the sixth inning, and that Drabowsky’s prank so unnerved Nash that the Orioles were able to mount a rally and win the game. This version resembles a September 21 game, which Nash left for a pinch hitter after six innings with a 6-1 lead, only to see his bullpen cough up nine runs to lose the game to the Orioles. This is well after the original story was in the paper. The original story needs no such dramatic flourish to entertain fans, now or at the time. As a boy in South Dakota put it in a letter to Drabowsky written sometime after the June reports of the incident, “Baseball needs more nuts like you.”17

The Orioles entered the 1966 World Series as underdogs against the Los Angeles Dodgers. During Game One, Dave McNally had trouble pitching from Dodger Stadium’s high mound: “I couldn’t find my rhythm,” said McNally. “Ordinarily I like steep mounds, but I couldn’t adjust to this.” In the third inning, McNally walked the bases loaded with one out. “They quit swinging on me. They didn’t have to swing,” he said.18 Frank and Brooks Robinson had given Baltimore a 3-0 lead with first-inning back-to-back homers, but with the lead now in jeopardy, manager Hank Bauer summoned Drabowsky. “He had just so-so stuff when he was warming up,” said Charlie Lau, who wasn’t on the World Series roster but worked in the bullpen.19 Moe struck out Wes Parker, walked Jim Gilliam to force in a run, and got Johnny Roseboro on a foul pop to end the inning.

From then on Drabowsky was unhittable. He fanned the next six batters he faced, to tie a World Series record for consecutive strikeouts. In the seventh inning he gave up a walk and a single, but neither runner scored. He closed out the game with perfect eighth and ninth innings as the Orioles won, 5-2. In all, Drabowsky struck out 11 Dodgers in 6⅔ innings, and gave up two walks and just one hit. He hit the corners unerringly and, as Shirley Povich noted, got all 11 strikeout victims swinging.

“Just what is a guy like me doing in fast company like this?” marveled Drabowsky after the game, his arms around Frank and Brooks Robinson. “I couldn’t wish for a situation to arise that would call for me to be a hero. I did hope, though, that I’d be able to see a little action in the Series.”20 Asked about his six straight strikeouts, he chuckled, “It’s about time I got in the books for something except the wrong end of the record.” Wes Parker’s two-strike lineout to left field had broken the string. “If I had known about the record,” said Drabowsky, “I might have pitched to him differently. I gave him a slow curve because I was ahead of him, but I might have given him my best pitch, a fastball.”21  The Orioles finished the sweep with three straight shutouts of the Dodgers.

The Orioles did not fare as well in 1967. “When we slipped to fifth place, Hank Bauer stopped us from charcoaling sausages in the bullpen,” Drabowsky noted. “That shows what you can get away with when you’re winning.”22 The Orioles rebounded in 1968, and Drabowsky continued to pitch effectively throughout his stay in Baltimore.

Drafted by the expansion Kansas City Royals after the 1968 season, Drabowsky added another trivia question answer to his résumé: He was credited with the win in the first Royals regular-season game, on April 8, 1969. Drabowsky was a bullpen fixture for the Royals the next season and a half. Moe kept his Orioles teammates in his sights, however. During the first game of the 1969 World Series, Moe hired a plane to fly over Memorial Stadium in Baltimore before the game, trailing a banner reading “Beware of Moe.” (One source has it “Good Luck Birds. Beware of Moe.”) The next day, a package delivered to the Baltimore clubhouse contained, according to The Sporting News, “one large and thoroughly irritated blacksnake.”23

By 1970, Drabowsky was enough of a bullpen maestro to offer up his five C’s to relief pitching: comfortable grip, confidence, challenging the hitter, control, and concentration. He shared his insights on his role with a reporter that spring: “If it looks like I might get in, I try to visualize a particular hitter, his strike zone and the areas to avoid. I’ll do this with several key hitters that I don’t want to beat me. But you can’t keep going over this through the entire game or pretty soon you’ll psych yourself and start giving the hitter too much credit. Then it will be even harder to get him out. I just like to try to get it planted in my mind and then forget about it.”24

And: “It is difficult for the hitter to protect both the inside and the outside part of the plate. He has to give somewhere. You try to find out where. If I show him I can nip the outside corner twice, then he has to adjust to protect the outside corner. When he does that, the pitch in on him will be effective. One pitch complements another. If I can’t hit that outside corner, then the pitch inside is not effective.”25

And, on Eddie Lopat: “Until he came along I could never see throwing a ball on purpose. To show you what I mean, let’s say I’m coming in to pitch the ninth and I don’t know what the hitter will be looking for. If I’ve had luck getting him out with a slow curve, he may be looking for it. In that case, the best thing for me to do is bust a fast ball low and away, but not for a strike. Then I’ve got to watch the hitter’s reaction. If the ball is by him before he’s ready then I know he was looking for the curve.”26

Moe was hospitalized early in the season “after developing a reaction to the medication he was taking.”27 He returned to action soon after. “I was watching the scoreboard in Kansas City one night in 1970 [June 15] and noticed that the Orioles were ahead 6-2 in the fifth inning or so. Next time I looked up they were losing 8-6 in the eighth, so I got a premonition that they might be in the market for some relief pitching.”28 (In fact, Baltimore went up 4-2 after the first inning that night, was up 6-3 after the sixth, then gave up six runs to the Brewers in the eighth.) Sure enough, Moe was dealt back to Baltimore.

The Orioles’ 1970 bullpen, already excellent, featured Dick Hall, Pete Richert, and Eddie Watt. Drabowsky contributed a save and four relief wins to the Orioles’ stretch drive. Drabowsky did not pitch in the 1970 League Championship Series against Minnesota. In the World Series he yielded one run in 2⅓ innings of work in Game Two, the run coming on a Johnny Bench solo home run, and pitched a scoreless inning to finish Baltimore’s only loss of the Series in Game Four.

Asked whether he had cooked up any pranks for his Cincinnati opponents, Moe professed caution, noting that such things could backfire during a World Series. He couldn’t resist taking aim at another target, however: Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was reportedly the victim of one of Drabowsky’s most elaborate hotfoot attempts. Drabowsky ran a trail of lighter fluid all the way from the trainer’s room to a match slipped into the sole of Kuhn’s shoe as he sat in the clubhouse before one of the games. “You never saw a shoe come off so fast in your life,” Drabowsky said.29

Moe spent 1971 with the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he finished 6-1 with eight saves in 51 games. Off the mound, his return to the National League gave him a new set of victims. He threw cherry bombs in Chief Noc-A-Homa’s teepee in Atlanta, and twice gave sportswriter Hal Bock a hotfoot on a road trip to New York (the last act drawing a censure from National League President Chub Feeney). After starting the next year with the Cardinals, he ended up back in the American League with the Chicago White Sox. He was pitching to Tommy Harper one day in August. “I threw a fastball,” he told a reporter, “and I watched that ball go to the plate, and I said, ‘When in the world is that ball going to get to the plate?’ I said, ‘Hey, my career is over.’”30

Drabowsky joined Garden City Envelope Company in Chicago, where he worked through 1982. He moved on to a Canadian-owned communications firm, then returned to baseball in 1986 as a coach with the Chicago White Sox. There had been no money in coaching when he left baseball in 1972, but now he found he could afford to return to the game he loved. Attitudes had also changed, though. “Players seem to be more serious now,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I would tend to believe they don't have as much fun. You don't find the same kind of characters in the game today. Egos are a big factor. And the guys are making so much money.”31

Drabowsky was no less dedicated where the craft of pitching was concerned, and he coached in the minors with Vancouver, and with the Chicago Cubs in 1994, before settling into a position with the Orioles at their spring training and rehabilitation camp in Sarasota. He continued to make use of film study, as he had with his own pitching motion in the 1960s before it became ubiquitous. His infectious enthusiasm and passion for the craft of pitching rubbed off on the pitchers he worked with. “The kids adored him,” said his wife, Rita, who married Drabowsky in 1990.32

Rita warned him that she was off-limits where snakes and other pranks were concerned, but Moe kept in form against other targets. At Oriole Fantasy Camp, where Moe was a fixture, firecrackers slid under the stall doors in the restroom. After games, players who performed well received the White Rope Award, a white rope draped over the shoulders, or a Brown Rope Award for an error or misplay. Naturally, with Moe around, sometimes the brown ropes would have a wriggle of their own. He could take as well as he gave, though, as he proved when friends on the local police force once arrested him, right off the ballfield, for cruelty to animals. When the police car reached the station and his friends began to process Moe for the “crime,” Moe began to wonder whether he had indeed gone too far! His friends waited for him to crack before admitting to the gag.

Diagnosed in 2000 with multiple myeloma, a type of bone-marrow cancer, Drabowsky was given six months to live. He stretched that into six years through grit, determination, and medical therapies that included stem-cell transplants. Drabowsky also found coaching therapeutic, and continued working with Oriole pitchers up until a few months before his death.

The end came for Moe Drabowsky on June 10, 2006, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Drabowsky could look back on a Hall of Fame career; not the Hall in Cooperstown, but the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1999. The most fitting tribute to Drabowsky, however, came at a Fantasy Camp banquet after his passing. Seated at the head table, Rita Drabowsky snuck a dollop of shaving cream onto the button of a guest speaker’s Orioles cap. The shaving cream remained on top of the cap all through the dinner, unbeknownst to the speaker, and through the start of his speech, to the delight of the crowd. Moe would have loved it.

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Steve Freeman of the Baltimore Orioles and Rita Drabowsky for sharing their memories of Moe Drabowsky. Thanks also to the Hall of Fame Library and Retrosheet.

 

Notes

1 David Condon, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, October 6, 1966.

2 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

3 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

4 Chicago American, September 2, 1956.

5 Unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, August 29, 1956.

6 Chicago American, September 2, 1956

7 Unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, September 17, 1956.

8 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

9 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

10 James Enright, “Lopat Saved My Career: Drabowsky,” Chicago American, October 6, 1966.

11 The Sporting News, February 26, 1966.

12 Unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, 1965.

13 Doug Brown, clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, March 12, 1966.

14 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

15 Unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, 1972.

16 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

17 The Sporting News, July 2, 1966

18 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

19 Doug Brown, The Sporting News, October 22, 1966.

20 Condon, “In the Wake of the News.”

21 Stan Innes, unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, October 6, 1966.

22 Larry Merchant unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, July 29, 1971.

23 Joe McGuff, “Five Cs Put Moe in Big Money as Royal Reliever,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1970

24 McGuff, “’Five Cs.”

25 McGuff, “’Five Cs.”

26 McGuff, “’Five Cs.”

27 Unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, 1970.

28 Willimantic (CT) Chronicle, August 22, 1983.

29 Bill Ordine, “O's Series hero was prankster, too.” Baltimore Sun, June 11, 2006. http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/bal-sp.drabowsky11jun11,0,6656011.story.

30 Unattributed clipping from Drabowsky’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, 1972.

31 Associated Press obituary, 2006. http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2480037

32 Rita Drabowsky, interview with author, March 2010.

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