Chuck Dobson

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

Chuck Dobson might be best remembered as the first white player to room with an African-American on road trips, and as the first active player to admit using “greenies” (amphetamines) while playing. But that would be a disservice to the hard-throwing right-hander who seemed destined for a long career in the big leagues when he broke into the Kansas City Athletics’ rotation as a 22-year-old rookie in 1966. He won 15 or more games for three consecutive seasons (1969-1971) and helped guide the A’s to their first AL West crown in 1971. But as the A’s were on the verge of three consecutive World Series championships, Dobson’s career was derailed by chronic elbow miseries requiring surgery. He made only one brief appearance for the A’s in the next two years (1972-73) and was out of the major leagues two years later.

Charles Thomas Dobson was born on January 10, 1944, in Kansas City, Missouri, the youngest of three children born to William James and Elizabeth Mary (Stahl) Dobson. “My mother came from good German stock,” Dobson told the author, “but my father had the ‘curse of the Irish.’ He worked on an assembly line in a General Motors plant and gave the foreman hell for 42 years.”1 Dobson started playing baseball at the age of 12 when he picked up a ball and threw it through a wall. All of a sudden he realized he had a strong arm. “I grew up near the Municipal Stadium, where the A’s played,” he said. “It was at 22nd, I lived at 42nd and went to school at 39th Street. We played baseball every day.” Dobson pitched in youth-league baseball with the 3-2 club in Kansas City and progressed to the Ban Johnson League, and also played American Legion ball.

A three-sport star at De La Salle High School, Dobson pitched on the baseball team and excelled on the hardwood. But his best sport may have been football. At 6-feet-4 and weighing about 200 pounds, he was a highly recruited tight end and was offered a full scholarship to play football by such powerhouse programs as Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Missouri, and even Dartmouth. He chose the nearby University of Kansas in Lawrence, just about 40 miles from home. “I hurt my back during my senior year of baseball in high school in 1962,” he said. “I asked Kansas if I could just play baseball and they agreed.” Dobson never played football for Kansas; however, he played on the freshman basketball team and pitched for two seasons (1963-1964) for legendary Kansas coach Floyd Temple. In his sophomore season, he won six of eight decisions, led the Big Eight with 90 strikeouts, and was named all-conference. His teammate, pitcher Steve Renko, garnered most of the headlines.

After his freshman and sophomore seasons, Dobson pitched for the Valentine Hearts in the Basin League, a semipro league based primarily in South Dakota where many collegiate stars and highly touted prospects played a short summer season of about 50 games. “It was a great break for me to go out to the Basin League,” said Dobson. “You needed a scout’s recommendation to play there. Floyd Temple managed [the Rapid City Chiefs] and he helped me out. It was a great league with great competition — Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and Jim Lonborg pitched there.” The league was heavily scouted by the major leagues. Dobson drew attention from several big-league clubs, especially the New York Yankees and Kansas City A’s, as a hard-throwing strikeout artist and a unanimous selection to the league’s all-star game in 1964.

Dobson signed his first big-league contract in late summer 1964 while pitching at the National Baseball Conference semipro tournament in Wichita. “Don’t tell anyone that I signed then,” Dobson joked with the author. “I was going to the Olympics late that fall and was still supposed be an amateur.” During the Basin League season, Dobson had accepted an invitation from Rod Dedeaux, coach of the US national baseball team, to play in the Summer Games that October in Japan, where baseball was a demonstration sport. Dobson thought that in spite of his success in the Basin League, his value had gone down because of his back injury in high school. “But the A’s Whitey Herzog [a scout at the time] didn’t think so,” he said. “He was after me in the Basin League and signed me before the Olympics, but we didn’t announce it until afterward.” In hindsight, Dobson admitted that he chose the A’s for the wrong reasons. “I signed with the A’s because they gave me more money, a $25,000 bonus. It was a big mistake,” he said matter-of-factly. “I should have signed with the Yankees, but they offered $20,000. I got into a nickel-dime organization. I think my career would have been different with the Yankees.”

Dobson counted his experiences with the Olympic team among the best in his baseball career. The Americans competed against college all-star and amateur teams during a monthlong tour in Japan and a few days in Korea. “I was probably a last-minute addition to the Olympic team,” said Dobson, noting that a few of the scheduled players had turned pro. “But Dedeaux made me the number one pitcher on the team and I won four games.”

From the spring of 1964 through the following summer, Dobson traveled the world and pitched for about 18 months without a chance to rest his arm. “I went from Lawrence to the Basin League, on to Wichita, to Japan and Korea, to the Florida Instructional League in the fall of 1964, to my first spring training with the A’s in 1965, then on to the minor-league camp. Then I played in Lewiston, Idaho, and Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “I was never the same person after that.”

The Kansas City A’s were excited to have a hometown prospect in their organization. “He’s not far away from being a major-league pitcher,” said Herzog of Dobson during the Florida Instructional League. “He has an outstanding fastball and good rotation in his curve.”2 Dobson was a nonroster invitee at the A’s spring training in 1965. “I knew I didn’t have a chance to make it. My number was 98,” said Dobson with a laugh.” I worked out for three weeks but didn’t pitch in any games. It was good experience and good to be around the major leaguers.” The 21-year-old righthander commenced his professional baseball career with the Double-A Birmingham Barons in the Southern League. He struggled, lost all six of his starts, and was subsequently transferred to the Lewiston Broncs of the Class A Northwest League. Displaying his potential, Dobson won ten of 17 decisions, averaged almost eight innings per start and carved out an impressive 2.90 earned-run average. The A’s added him to their 40-man roster in the offseason.

It appeared as though Dobson was a year or two away from being big-league ready when he reported for his second spring training with the A’s, in 1966. “I didn’t think that I’d make the team,” he said of those tensionfilled days. “I went to the 12th hour before they let me know. (General manager) Eddie Lopat didn’t want me to go, but (manager Al) Dark did. Dark and Lopat hated one another, by the way. I had a good spring but was told that I was going to Double-A. Then I was given another chance to pitch so Lopat could see me again and I pitched real well against the Washington Senators. Still no word. I think the team was going to break camp on Thursday morning and I was told on Tuesday night that I was going north with them.”

Dobson joined a perpetually floundering team in Kansas City which had not enjoyed a winning season since its move from Philadelphia to start the 1955 season. And though the team racked up its 12th consecutive finish in the AL’s second division in 1966, the A’s had quietly assembled a cast of players who led them to respectability a few years later and to the height of the baseball world in the early 1970s. The core of their pitching staff in 1966 was a quintet, each 23 years old or younger: Catfish Hunter, Lew Krausse, Jim Nash, Blue Moon Odom, and Dobson. In the field, second baseman Dick Green and shortstop Bert Campanaris held down the middle infield; Sal Bando was drafted in 1965 and Reggie Jackson in 1966, while outfielder Joe Rudi had signed in 1964.

Dobson earned a victory in his major-league debut on April 19, 1966, against the reigning AL pennantwinning Minnesota Twins, 3-2, at Municipal Stadium. In a start that epitomized most of his career, Dobson displayed his heat, striking out five, but also his wildness, walking six in 5⅔ innings. Three starts later he hurled his first and only complete game of the season, overpowering the Washington Senators on just four hits in a 2-1 victory. Asked what he remembered about his rookie season, Dobson quickly answered, “My sore arm.” By June, Dobson’s shoulder was aching (it was eventually diagnosed as a serious strain of the Teres minor and major muscles) and he lost five consecutive decisions before winning his last two starts in June. “My arm gave out at the end of the season,” said Dobson. “The team had me pitching too much between starts. I’d pitch a game and would then throw for a half-hour the next day. Lopat did that.” Dobson, who won four of ten decisions and logged 83⅔ innings, was shelved at the end of June for the rest of the season.

Dobson’s shoulder pain marked the first time in his life that he had experienced any kind of arm troubles, and he was understandably concerned. After pitching in the Florida Instructional League following his rookie season, Dobson entered camp in 1967 as a question mark. “I still don’t think I can throw as hard as I could before” he told The Sporting News, “but I know my arm is sound.”3 Dobson got off to a slow start (1-2 with a 4.57 ERA through May), but pitched better as the season progressed. On June 9 he hurled the first of his 11 career shutouts by blanking the Cleveland Indians on nine hits. But in an era when staff aces were expected to complete 40 to 50 percent of their starts, Dobson had a tendency to tire early or lose his rhythm late in games, and completed just four of 29 starts en route to a 10-10 record and a 3.69 ERA.

Dobson struggled at home despite playing in a pitcherfriendly park. In 1967 he won just three of nine decisions and posted a 4.06 ERA in Municipal Stadium; on the road he won seven of 11 decisions and carved out a good ERA (3.29). “After a while I didn’t like playing in Kansas City,” Dobson said as he attempted to explain the unexpected discrepancy in his pitching splits. “I couldn’t handle the pressure. People always asked me for tickets. I was kind of relieved when we moved to Oakland.” During the season he married Kay Marie Willard of St. Louis, whom he had met while a student at Kansas. They had one daughter, Andrea.

After years of poor attendance in Kansas City (they averaged less than 9,000 spectators per game in 1967), A’s owner Charley Finley moved the club to Oakland for the 1968 campaign. On April 13 Dobson pitched a wobbly six innings against the Senators in Washington yielding eight hits and five runs (four earned), but picked up the first win, 9-6, for the new Oakland A’s.

Free from pain in his shoulder and the pressure of pitching in front of friends, Dobson seemed to overcome his problems with concentration and began pitching deep into ballgames. In May he pitched three of the most dominant yet frustrating games of his career. On May 10 he pitched a complete game against the Chicago White Sox, striking out 11, then had his two longest career outings within a ten-day period to end the month. He tossed an 11-inning complete game against the Cleveland Indians and a 12-inning complete game with a career-high 13 strikeouts against the California Angels. But he lost each game as the weak-hitting A’s scored just one run total while the big right-hander surrendered two, one, and three runs respectively in those games.

In the 1968 “Year of the Pitcher” when the AL posted a collective 2.98 ERA and teams scored just 3.41 runs a game, Dobson lost an inordinate number of close games. The A’s scored three runs or less and a total of just 18 runs in 12 of his 14 losses. Nonetheless, the team’s big-five pitching rotation (Dobson, Hunter, Nash, Krausse, and Odom) combined to start 157 games and logged more than 1,100 innings to lead the A’s to their first winning season since 1952 .“We all had friendly competition, and weren’t envious and back-stabbing,” recalled Dobson. “We ran around together after games, too. Hunter and I lived with our wives in the same apartment house.” In his last start of the season, Dobson broke his ankle when he collided with first baseman Rich Reese of the Minnesota Twins while trying to beat out a bunt. He concluded the season with 12 wins and a career-best 3.00 ERA.

In 1968 Dobson broke a longstanding tradition by becoming the first white player in major-league history to room with an African American on the road. According to Dobson, it happened as a result of a different roommate and a bad outing. “Reggie [Jackson] would always come to me in spring training and ask if I wanted to be his roommate, but I was rooming with [Jim] Gosger at the time,” said Dobson, explaining that Jackson was the 25th man on the team and had a single room. “After a late, knuckleball flight to Baltimore, we didn’t get to the hotel until about 3 or 4 a.m. And I am supposed to pitch the first game of a doubleheader later that day (August 26) at 1. Well, I was woken up at 7:30 by my roommate who had a woman in his bed. I couldn’t sleep after that, got dressed, and went to the park. I got shelled that day, gave up seven runs in the first inning. I went to Reggie and asked if he was ready to room together and he said ‘sure.’ I didn’t say anything. I just got my suitcase and moved.”

Dobson was a fiercely independent player, kept his own counsel, and never connected baseball talent to race and politics. Nor was he afraid of any backlash from teammates for a decision that was bound to have repercussions around the league. “The coaching staff didn’t say much about us rooming together,” said Dobson, but he added without mentioning names, “A few players asked ‘Why do you want to room with that nigger?’ That surprised me, but Reggie was becoming a star so there wasn’t much anyone could say or do about the situation.” They roomed for more than two years and developed a mutual respect.

In what seemed like an annual tradition, Dobson reported to spring training with questions about his health. Not only did he wear a brace on his right ankle that limited his flexibility, he had to get used to the new, lowered mound that Major League Baseball hoped would generate more offense. Dobson relied on his fastball (thrown from a three-quarters delivery), and a big overhand curve for his success. His concern about the effects of the mound seemed confirmed by his poor start (1-3 with a 6.41 ERA) to the season.

“I go out there and I’m King Kong mentally,” he told The Sporting News. “I grimace so hard you can see my veins sticking out of my neck.4 Throughout his playing career, his managers implored him to relax on the mound and throw the ball instead of trying to pinpoint it, which led to occasional bouts of wildness and a tendency to give up the gopher ball. But Dobson adjusted to the new mound and reeled off the most commanding stretch of his career thus far. In a span of 11 starts in May and June, he won eight of ten decisions, averaged a shade over eight innings per start and sported a 2.21 ERA while the A’s battled the Minnesota Twins for first place in the AL West. Though Oakland fell off the pace in the second half of the season to finish in second place, Dobson enjoyed a breakout season and his first winning campaign. He tied for the team-high in wins (15) and starts (35), and paced the team with 11 complete games.

Dobson loved baseball, taking the mound, the competition with the batters, the suspense, and daily battles. And he had a reputation as a hard-working, committed, hustling player. But he revealed to the author another, more vulnerable side. “My problem in baseball was the lifestyle,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for it. I drank too much and became an alcoholic.” Dobson suggested that baseball was a haven for alcoholics and drinking was tolerated if not encouraged. Players drank in the clubhouse, on the road, in the hotel, with teammates, and the list goes on. Alcohol abuse was an open secret that teams ignored as long as players performed. “A member of the coaching staff once told me to stop drinking so much,” said Dobson. “But he was always drunk so it was hard to take the advice of someone like that.” With brutal honesty, Dobson admitted that drinking affected his career, “It wasn’t the alcohol; it was the alcoholism that kicked my ass.”

Since the team’s move to Oakland, Dobson had been bothered by pain in his right elbow. “My elbow hurt the entire year in 1970,” he said. “The problem was that my elbow kept growing out of my arm. The bone was getting bigger and bigger and more extended from calcium deposits. That started to put more pressure on my forearm. But the trainers got me ready for every game and during heat of summer I could still loosen up quickly.” Inconsistent through the first half of the season, he won seven games (all complete games), but lost ten with an ERA about 4.50. After the All-Star break, he commenced the most dominant streak in his career. In a span of 29 days (from July 16 to August 14), he won a career-high eight consecutive starts, tossed three, four-hit shutouts, and posted a minuscule 1.10 ERA. Batters hit just .162. Suffering from excruciating pain every time he threw the ball, Dobson pitched on three and four days’ rest throughout the season, but managed only one more win after his streak. In spite of his elbow, he tied for the AL lead in games started (40) and shutouts (5), and established career highs in wins (16), complete games (13), and innings (267).

In his first six seasons with the A’s (1966-1971), Dobson played for five different Opening Day managers (Al Dark, Bob Kennedy, Hank Bauer, John McNamara, and Dick Williams) and experienced two midseason managerial exchanges. He became accustomed to Charley Finley’s notoriously dictatorial ways, perpetual undermining, and cost-cutting approach. “Finley was the owner and general manager (after 1968),” said Dobson who compared him to the Dallas Cowboys’ egomaniacal owner-general manager Jerry Jones. “We knew the managers didn’t have much control. It was all Finley and he ruined things — until Dick Williams got there in 1971. We respected Williams because he gave the impression that he had some control.” In interviews with A’s beat reporter Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune, Dobson regularly voiced his frustrations with Finley’s meddling, claiming the players had to get numb to Finley in order to concentrate on baseball.5

Articulate, opinionated, and brutally honest, yet never one to seek the limelight, Dobson made national news during spring training in 1971 when he became the first active big leaguer to admit to occasionally using greenies (amphetamines) on game days. In light of Jim Bouton’s revealing and controversial book Ball Four detailing the everyday lives of baseball players (including the use of greenies) and the increased focus on illicit drug use in America at the time, Dobson’s remarks were shocking. Like alcohol, amphetamines were tolerated in baseball and their widespread use ignored. “The whole league was taking amphetamines,” Dobson told the author unequivocally. “Starting pitchers, at least. Not every game but at some time or another. They were common.”

Dobson’s admission to taking greenies spread like wildfire after the Oakland Tribune ran the headline “Dobson Defends Pills.”6 “I remember a game in California (May 28, 1970) when I was sicker than a dog,” he remembered. “I had a 102-degree fever and broke out in cold sweats. I took an amphetamine and pitched a shutout. I told the writers about that game and they flew with it. It caused all kinds of flak.” In attempt to preserve the last vestiges of a clean, all-American sport free from the evils of society, baseball executives acted quickly and forcefully. “Finley, (AL President) Joe Cronin, and (Commissioner Bowie) Kuhn called me up and told me that I gotta retract,” Dobson said. “They put the fear of God in me. And I did. I lied my ass off. I said to the press that that was the only time I did it. The whole situation quieted down after that.” More than anything, Dobson recognized the precarious relationship between illegal drugs, on-field performance, and the rising salaries of the early 1970s; and his comments foreshadowed the discussion about steroids and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) 40 years later. “I don’t see how [Kuhn] can stop [amphetamines] with the money involved,” Dobson said in 1971.”One victory can mean thousands of dollars on your contract.”7

Lost in the brouhaha about greenies was Dobson’s aching elbow. After he missed most of spring training and all of April on the disabled list, Dobson’s season was in doubt. But pitching on sheer determination and guts, and given some extra time between starts, he unexpectedly began the season by winning a careerhigh nine consecutive decisions. Though not quite as overpowering as in years past, Dobson was given better run support, helping him shed a reputation as a hardluck loser. He had also added a “slurve,” a slow breaking curveball, to his pitching repertoire. (He said he copied it from Catfish Hunter.) With the A’s cruising to the first of five consecutive AL West crowns, Dobson improved his record to 15-3 by blanking the Angels on seven hits on September 1. Unbeknownst at the time, Dobson would not win another big-league game for three years and only two more in his career. “My arm crapped out on me and I really couldn’t pitch the last month of the season,” he said. He finished with a 15-5 record and a 3.81 ERA. He did not pitch in the A’s three-game sweep by the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Championship Series.

During the offseason Dobson underwent elbow surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. A quarterinch piece of bone was removed from his elbow, which required additional muscle repair. The operation was not career-threatening, but ample recovery time was generally prescribed. “Finley’s doctor in Oakland — not my surgeon — told me that I could come back and pitch in seven weeks,” Dobson said with an air of disgust and disbelief more than 40 years later. “That was the beginning of the end for me. I ruined my arm. And Finley blamed me!” In constant pain during spring training, Dobson cleared waivers in April and was sent to the A’s Birmingham farm club. After pitching just 19 innings, he left without permission and returned home. “I roomed with Denny McLain, the world’s craziest person,” said Dobson, whose alcoholism, and excessive drinking with the former 30-game winner, took a toll on his physical recovery.

The A’s, still sure that Dobson’s elbow only needed time to regain its strength, sent him to Tucson in the Pacific Coast League in 1973. Notwithstanding his 5.23E RA in 203 innings with theT oros, he was recalled in September but was shelled in his only start. Following a stint with Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League, Dobson was released near the end of spring training in 1974.

“I was depressed when I got released,” recalled Dobson. “I said screw baseball. But my arm was good enough and I could have stuck around playing somewhere. I figured I’d go into business.” He was unable to resist an offer of $3,000 per month, however, and signed a contract with the Mexico City Lions. “I hadn’t pitched in about a month and was out on the field and noticed there’s no pain.” Dobson said. “And then I thought, isn’t this a hell of a situation. I’m down in Mexico and owned by them. All of a sudden I had my fastball back.” Dobson won ten of 12 decisions and had a simple explanation for his unexpected success. “I was pretty dry, didn’t drink too much, and didn’t take amphetamines.”

Dobson got a second chance when the California Angels signed him. He was assigned to the Salt Lake City Angels, and was a September call-up. In his first start he tossed a complete game against the Texas Rangers and got his first win in the big leagues in three years. After three rough outings, he enjoyed sweet revenge: He limited his former Oakland teammates to five hits and struck out nine in a 3-2 completegame win. “I just went into the dugout after the game and cried.” But he also noticed an undeniable change: “When I crossed the border to the US after I was signed by the Angels I lost my fastball again. I had my scotch again and access to amphetamines. My body just didn’t respond.” He pitched briefly for Salt Lake City in 1976.

“I didn’t retire, I just quit,” said Dobson about the end of his playing career in 1976. In his nine-year big-league career he won 74 games, lost 69, logged 1,258⅓ innings , and posted a 3.78 ERA. He won 38 times in the minor leagues.

In 1977 and 1978 Dobson coached in the Arizona Instructional League and was the pitching coach for Salt Lake City in 1977. “I worked harder than I ever did as a player and had more fun.” he said. “I got my arm strong from pitching batting practice but I didn’t have the heart to play. I loved the coaching.” At the same time, his life was careening out of control and his marriage ended in divorce. He moved to St. Louis and became involved in television (he was a pitchman in local and national commercials) and radio, and was the sports director for KMOX-FM. “That was a great opportunity,” he said, “but I blew it because of my drinking.”

Dobson’s story, however, is one of survival and triumph. “I’ve been sober since 1985,” he proudly said of going into rehabilitation and turning his life around.” He went back to college, finished his degree, and worked as an addiction counselor for more than a decade. At the same time, he became a house painter and traveled the world between jobs. He eventually relocated to Kansas City, and as of 2013 was retired and resided in the house he grew up in. In 2009 he suffered a stroke (“self-induced,” he said matter-of-factly, “from strain, stress, and too much smoking”). He was partially paralyzed, but recovered and can walk and use his hands. “I never had ambition to be a big-league baseball player. It just happened,” said Dobson.

 

Sources

Oakland Tribune

The Sporting News

Interview with Chuck Dobson on July 31, 2013.

  • 1. The author expresses his sincere gratitude to Chuck Dobson, who was interviewed on July 31 ,2013. All quotations from him are from this interview unless otherwise noted.
  • 2. The Sporting News, December 5, 1964, 34.
  • 3. The Sporting News, August 26, 1967, 16.
  • 4. The Sporting News, May 24, 1969, 23.
  • 5. Ron Bergman, “McNamara’s Fate Vague,” Oakland Tribune, September 16, 1970, F4.
  • 6. Ron Bergman, “Dobson Defends Pills,” Oakland Tribune, February 23, 1971, 29.
  • 7. “Dobson Defends Pills.”