Reliever John Wyatt may have been considered a journeyman reliever in his day, but his journeys led him to two fortuitous stops. One was in Boston, where he anchored the bullpen of the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox, which came within one game of winning their first World Series in nearly a half-century. The next year, Wyatt found himself in Detroit as a bullpen contributor in the Tigers’ drive to the AL pennant. Though Detroit won the World Series that was denied Boston, Wyatt was not on the 25-man roster for the fall classic
Johnathon Thomas Wyatt Jr. was born April 19, 1935, in Chicago. He graduated from Hutchinson High School in Buffalo, New York, in 1953, though it certainly wasn’t an easy life. When he was 16, he worked racking balls in a billiards parlor and became a pretty good player (on a four-hour layover in Atlanta on the way to his first spring training, he won $300). Soon after, he took on a much more demanding job, Wyatt told Will McDonough: “I worked in a steel mill from 11 at night until 7 in the morning. I’d go right from work to school. After school I practiced football and wouldn’t get home until 6:30. Then I’d sleep four hours and my mother would wake me up to go to work in the steel mill again.” He added, “I did most of my sleeping in school.”
His professional baseball career began in the Negro Leagues, starting with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League from 1953 to 1955. The 1954 Clowns, managed by Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston in the final year of his career, won the Negro American League title. In 1954, Wyatt was signed as an amateur free agent by the St. Louis Cardinals, the franchise he would later face in the 1967 World Series. Offered a $1,000 bonus, he leapt to sign. “I never had seen that kind of money in one lump sum and I wasn’t going to let it get away,” he reminisced. In 1954, he compiled a 12–11 record with a 5.08 ERA in 156 innings for Hannibal of the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. In 1955, though, he spent the whole year playing again for the Clowns, having been released by the Cardinals.
In April 1956, Wyatt was sent by the Indianapolis Clowns to the Milwaukee Braves, where he appeared in a pair of games for Jacksonville of the Class A South Atlantic (Sally) League. He was returned to Indianapolis in May and then compiled a 4–3 record and 4.14 ERA in 17 games for the unaffiliated El Paso club of the Class B Southwestern League. In July, he was sold by El Paso to the Kansas City Athletics organization and was 2–8, 8.84 for the A’s Pocatello club of the Class C Pioneer League. Wyatt served in the military during the 1957 and 1958 seasons. In 1959, he was 1-6, 5.55 in 19 games for Albany in the Single A Eastern League and 4–4, 3.41 in 74 innings for Sioux City of the Class B Three I League over 26 games.
The 1960 season was Wyatt’s last full season in the minor leagues. He was 1–2, 5.21 in 38 innings for Dallas-Fort Worth of the Triple A American Association, 4–6, 4.55 in 79 innings for Monterrey of the Mexican League, and 2–2, 3.66 in four games for Sioux City. He described his Mexican League experience in Bill Reynolds’ Lost Summer: “It was bad down there. Bad baseball. Bad lights. Bad everything. It was as bad as when I was playing in the Negro Leagues, playing as much as three games a day. The ball had raised seams, and one day my finger blistered and began to bleed. When I told the manager I couldn’t continue, he took a poke at me. Just as I pulled my fist back to let him have it, nine Mexican guys stood up. ‘Cool it, man’ they said. I cooled it.”
In 1961, Wyatt earned his ticket to the show with Portsmouth of the Sally League. In 52 games, he struck out 91 and gave up only 87 hits in 101 innings, posting a 9–3 record and a 3.13 ERA. On Friday night, September 8, 1961, he made his major league debut for the Kansas City Athletics against the Minnesota Twins at K.C.’s Municipal Stadium. He entered the game in the eighth inning to face Bob Allison and retired him on a foul pop to the catcher. After walking Joe Altobelli, he recorded his first strikeout, fanning Earl Battey. In the ninth, Zoilo Versalles earned the first hit allowed by Wyatt in his major league career. Wyatt wound up finishing the game, and earned what is now called a save, shutting out the Twins over two innings in a 6–4 win. Wyatt appeared in 7.1 innings over five September games for Kansas City. Over the next six seasons, he averaged more than 64 appearances a season. Wyatt established himself as the workhorse of the A’s bullpen. In 1962, he made the only nine starts of his major league career, establishing his career high in strikeouts with 106 in 125 innings. In 59 games, Wyatt was 10–7, with a 4.46 ERA and 11 saves. Ten victories were his one-season high, a number he matched in 1967. In 1963, he was 6–4 with a 3.13 ERA and a career-high 21 saves.
In 1964, Wyatt appeared in 81 games, a major league record at the time. Wyatt recorded a 9–8 record with a 3.59 ERA and 20 saves. He gave up only 111 hits in a career-high 128 innings. He pitched three innings or more in relief 10 times during that season. He was named for the only time in his career to the American League All-Star team. In a 7–4 loss to the National League, Wyatt came on in the fourth inning in relief of Dean Chance and had a less than stellar outing: Billy Williams and Ken Boyer homered, accounting for the two runs Wyatt allowed in his single inning.
In 1965, Wyatt was 2–6 with a 3.25 ERA and 18 saves in 88.2 innings over 65 games. In 1966, Wyatt pitched poorly and lost the primary reliever role to Jack Aker (8–4, 1.99 ERA, 32 saves). Wyatt was 0-3 with a 5.32 ERA in 19 games. Meanwhile, in Boston, ace reliever Dick Radatz had been equally disappointing, carrying an 0–2 mark with a 4.74 ERA in 16 games. On June 2, 1966, Radatz was traded by the Red Sox to the Cleveland Indians for Don McMahon and Lee Stange. The Sox followed up on June 13 with the acquisition of Wyatt, Rollie Sheldon, and José Tartabull from the A’s for Jim Gosger, Ken Sanders, and Guido Grilli, securing additional help for the bullpen. McMahon and Wyatt split the important relief duties during the balance of the 1966 season with McMahon going 8–7 with a 2.65 ERA and nine saves in 49 games and Wyatt posting numbers of 3–4, 3.14, and eight saves in 42 games.
The 1967 Red Sox were much more potent at the plate than on the mound, though much of this can be explained by the hitter-friendly ballpark they called home. The Sox offense led the league in average (.255), slugging (.395), runs (722), hits (1,394), and home runs (158). The pitching staff finished eighth in the 10-team American League with a 3.36 ERA. The league ERA that year was 3.23, with the White Sox the front-runners, thanks to their impressive staff ERA of 2.45. Crucial to keeping the pitching afloat and the team in pennant contention were the starting of Jim Lonborg and the finishing of John Wyatt. Wyatt, acting as Boston’s ace reliever in ’67, appeared in 60 games during the pennant drive, finishing 43, saving 20, and finishing fourth on the staff with 10 wins.
It wasn’t a smooth start for Wyatt in 1967 as he failed to endear himself to rookie skipper Dick Williams by hitting the hot-swinging Tony Conigliaro on the left arm with a fastball in batting practice during spring training. But as Wyatt heated up, it gave the team the luxury of trading McMahon on June 2 to the White Sox along with minor leaguer Bob Snow in exchange for infielder Jerry Adair, who would become a clutch performer for the ’67 AL champs. Wyatt helped stabilize the pitching staff in a year in which Jim Lonborg threw 273.1 innings in 39 starts, winning 22. After Lonborg, there was a huge dropoff in starts, innings pitched, and wins. Lee Stange and Gary Bell were the only other starters with more than 20 starts (each had 24), though Bell had only been acquired on June 4. Stange was second on the staff in innings with 181.2. After Lonborg, only three other Red Sox pitchers recorded 10 or more wins: Bell (12), José Santiago (12), and Wyatt (10). In contrast, the 1967 Cardinals had much more balance and stability in their starting rotation. Five Cards pitchers recorded 23 or more starts. Six pitched 152 or more innings. Five won 10 or more games. Wyatt’s worth to the Sox was great in terms of filling a gap in the starting rotation.
The right-handed Wyatt, weighing in at 200 pounds and measuring a half-inch shy of 6 feet, appeared in 60 games in 1967, including 17 in August and 10 in September, compiling a record of 10–7 with a 2.60 ERA (1.45 on the road) in 93.1 innings with 20 saves (10 at home, 10 on the road). He allowed only 71 hits and six home runs, striking out 68 and walking 39. He held opposing hitters to a .217 average (right-handed batters hit only .205). He pitched more than one inning in 33 of his appearances. Four times, he pitched three or more innings in relief, including 5.2 innings against the A’s on April 29 and four innings against the Yankees on August 30.
On April 29 at Fenway Park, he threw 5.2 scoreless innings in a 15-inning, 11–10 win over the A’s, won on a José Tartabull single that scored Tony Conigliaro and George Scott. Wyatt’s outing, according to Ken Coleman in The Impossible Dream Remembered, led Kansas City manager Alvin Dark to complain about Wyatt’s alleged Vaseline ball. Wyatt’s out pitch was alleged to have been a Vaseline-assisted forkball. According to Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson in Red Sox Century, Wyatt had “think” written on four of the fingers of his glove. On the fifth finger was written “When in doubt—Use Forkball.”
Bill Reynolds wrote in Lost Summer: The ’67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream that the Vaseline charges originated, according to Wyatt, from ex-White Sox manager Al Lopez. Wyatt is reported to have said: “In a doubleheader they beat me in the first game and I saved the second. That’s when Al Lopez claimed I was doctoring the ball. ‘How come you didn’t say that in the first game?’ I asked him. It’s only when I win that anyone accuses me of anything illegal. The only time I ever threw a spitter was against Yaz. He hit it off the scoreboard. I never threw another spitter.” Later in the season, the Yankees’ Joe Pepitone groused, in the words of Reynolds, that “Wyatt has so much Vaseline on him that if he slid into second base he would keep right on going until he hit the outfield fence.” Jim Prime and Bill Nowlin lend some credence to the Vaseline allegations in More Tales from the Red Sox Dugout: “Caught in a rundown between third and home, pitcher John Wyatt dropped several items from his Sox pitching jacket. The excess baggage included a tube of Vaseline, a pack of cigarettes, and his car keys. We’re not sure what Sherlock Holmes would deduce from those clues, but possibly, Wyatt was up to no good.”
Wyatt had two appearances in the 1967 World Series against the Cardinals. In the Series opener on October 4 at Fenway Park, Wyatt relieved starter José Santiago, who had held St. Louis to single runs in the third and seventh and supplied the only Red Sox score with a third-inning homer off Bob Gibson. Wyatt set the Cards down in order in the eighth, striking out Julian Javier. In the ninth, he surrendered two walks and committed a balk but completed his second inning of scoreless, hitless relief in the 2–1 Red Sox loss.
Wyatt’s second appearance in the Series, in Game 6 on October 11 in Boston, was not as impressive as his first but was far more meaningful in the end result. Starter Gary Waslewski had held the Cards to a pair of third-inning runs in 5.1 innings on the hill. Rico Petrocelli homered in the second off Cardinals starter Dick Hughes. In the fourth, Yastrzemski led off with a homer. After Harrelson and Scott were retired, Smith and Petrocelli sent Hughes to the showers with solo homers for a 4–2 Red Sox lead (the three homers hit by the Red Sox in the inning set a World Series record that still stands). Wyatt entered the game with runners on first and second with one out in the sixth. He got Mike Shannon to pop to the shortstop and Javier to ground out to third to end the Cardinals’ threat. However, in the seventh, Wyatt walked Bobby Tolan and surrendered a one-out game-tying homer to Lou Brock. He retired Curt Flood and Roger Maris to avoid any further damage. In the Red Sox’ seventh, reliever Jack Lamabe retired Howard on a grounder to third. Jones, batting for Wyatt, singled to right. Foy doubled Jones home, going to third on the throw to the plate. Joe Hoerner succeeded Lamabe on the hill. Mike Andrews singled to left, scoring Foy. Yastrzemski singled Andrews to third. Larry Jaster entered the game in relief and pinch-hitter Adair got Andrews home with a fly to center. Scott singled to left and Smith singled Yastrzemski home to give the Red Sox an 8–4 lead, which would hold up as Gary Bell earned the save with two innings of scoreless relief. Wyatt picked up the win, the fourth African American pitcher in history to record a World Series win.
In the off-season before the 1968 season, Bosox skipper Dick Williams is reported by Peter Golenbock in Red Sox Nation to have made critical comments about Wyatt. Wyatt attempted to refute the comments in a letter to the Boston Record American. Wyatt got off to a slow start in 1968, losing his ace reliever role to Lee Stange and Sparky Lyle. Wyatt appeared in eight games from April 11 through May 16, giving up earned runs in his first four appearances. In posting a 1–2 record with a 4.22 ERA, he allowed nine hits and five earned runs in 10.2 innings. On May 17, 1968, Wyatt was sold to the Yankees. After the trade, Golenbock wrote, Wyatt said, “I been sold not because of my ability, but because of a personal thing. If that man [Williams] is your enemy, forget it.” In seven games for New York, Wyatt was 0–2 with a 2.16 ERA. On June 15, he was again sold, this time to the Tigers. In 22 games for pennant-winning Detroit from June 19 through August 24, Wyatt was 1–0 with a 2.37 ERA and two saves in 30.1 innings. He was left off the Bengals’ World Series roster in favor of third baseman (and future Hall of Famer) Eddie Mathews, whose back injuries had sidelined him for much of the season.
On April 3, 1969, Wyatt was released by the Tigers and signed April 7 by the Oakland A’s. He was 0–1 with a 5.40 ERA in four games for the A’s, allowing five earned runs in 8.1 innings. He pitched his final game in the major leagues on May 1, 1969, in a 3–2 loss to the Angels in Anaheim. He threw a scoreless inning in relief of Jim Hunter, retiring Aurelio Rodriguez on a comebacker to conclude his career. He was released on May 27, 1969.
Wyatt finished his big league career with a 42–44 record, 103 saves, and a 3.47 ERA. During his playing career, he had begun work as a real estate developer in Kansas City, Missouri, in the off-season. Wyatt’s mother had owned some property in Buffalo and made a living off the rent, so John resolved to do the same. He saved $7,000 over his first seven years in pro ball and built a 12-unit apartment building on East 29th Street in Kansas City. “No one had ever built a new housing facility in Kansas City for Negroes,” he told Will McDonough. “It was a long shot, but I’m a long shot player…you can’t win if you never take the chance.…The proudest day of my life came with the construction of that building. In one day, I sold three apartments and got a citation from the president [Lyndon B. Johnson].”
He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1987. On April 6, 1998, a couple of weeks shy of his 63rd birthday, Wyatt died after a heart attack at his Omaha home. His survivors included his wife, Barbara, four children, three stepchildren, a brother, a sister, and 11 grandchildren.
Clark, Dick, and Larry Lester. The Negro Leagues Book. Cleveland: The Society for American Baseball Research. 1994.
Prime, Jim, and Bill Nowlin. More Tales from the Red Sox Dugout. Champaign Ill.: Sports Publishing LLC. 2002.
McDonough, Will. “Sox’ John Wyatt Gambled Savings On Dream And Won.” American League News, July 1967.
www.NLBPA.com, the Negro Leagues Baseball Players Association site
An earlier version of this biography appeared in The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: Pandemonium on the Field, published by Rounder Books.
This article originally appeared in the book Sock It To 'Em Tigers--The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, published by Maple Street Press in 2008.
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