SABR

Jim Willoughby

This article was written by Jon Daly.

James Arthur Willoughby was a right-handed pitcher perhaps best known for his contributions to the 1975 Boston Red Sox (including being pinch-hit for in Game Seven of the World Series). Willoughby also pitched for the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago White Sox.

“Willow,” as he was often called, was born in Salinas, California, on January 31, 1949 (the same date as Fred Kendall, briefly his Red Sox teammate in 1978), the son of James Roger Willoughby, a noted scuba diver, and Marlene Dickison Willoughby. He had two younger sisters, Marcy and Beverly. Willoughby had three-eighths Pottawatomi blood in addition to British ancestry. His great-aunt Mamie Echo Hawk was the tribe’s chief lobbyist in Washington for years. (A later Red Sox hurler, John Henry Johnson, also had some Pottawatomi blood.)1

Willoughby was raised in the San Joaquin Valley town of Gustine, California, and grew up a Yankees fan because his mother came from Mickey Mantle’s home state of Oklahoma. He also also particularly admired Jim Thorpe and Satchel Paige.

Jim played both Little League and Colt baseball. While attending high school in Gustine, he played four years of varsity baseball and American Legion ball and also played basketball and football (split end), and participated in one year of track. The University of California at Berkeley recruited Willoughby for football, but the San Francisco Giants drafted Jim out of Gustine High in the 11th round of the June 1967 draft.

Willoughby faced a tough decision. Under NCAA rules at the time, he would forfeit his eligibility to play football for the Golden Bears if he played baseball professionally. His family was of modest means and he wanted to attend college; a football scholarship would have afforded him the opportunity to do so. When Giants scout Dick Wilson offered him participation in the Professional Baseball Scholarship Plan as part of his signing package, Willoughby signed with San Francisco.

Willoughby pitched for Salt Lake, Fresno, Medford, and Phoenix in the Giants’ system, all the while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. As part of his scholarship plan, he spent the 1967-1968 offseason at Cal-Berkeley; he also took classes at Fresno State, Phoenix College, and the College of San Mateo.

It was an interesting time to go to college in the Bay Area. Willoughby would sometimes drive his convertible with a roommate to Golden Gate Park and see bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Country Joe and the Fish. He never finished his degree work, remaining a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree.

Willoughby was also a chess player – at one point, a rated member at the Burlingame Chess Club in California. During his baseball career, his opponents included fellow pitcher Steve Stone and sportscaster Dick Stockton. Asked to compare Willoughby’s chess-playing style to that of Boston Celtics guard Paul Westphal, Stockton replied, “Willoughby is a gambler. Westphal is very conservative.”2

For 1967 Willoughby was assigned to the Salt Lake City Giants in the Pioneer League, where he appeared in 17 games. He was still in school at the start of the 1968 season. After he finished his finals on a Friday, he was married to high-school sweetheart Mary Ann Ryan on Saturday, started his honeymoon on Sunday, and got into a car accident on Monday. “I smacked my face on the windshield (I reported with two shiners!), but strained my pitching arm (both arms) by absorbing the impact with the steering wheel,” Willoughby said. He was assigned to Fresno for 1968, but was ineffective, so the Giants demoted him to Medford for most of the season.

In June 1969, again pitching for Fresno, Willoughby was named the California League player of the month, and was named to the circuit’s year-end all-star squad. He injured his right elbow with several weeks left in the season and had to see Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles. When the Giants knew he was healthy, they added him to their 40-man roster. But he wound up pitching for Phoenix in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1970. Willoughby had always been fascinated by spaceships – both the real and science-fiction varieties – and got into model rocketry during his Phoenix years. After the season, Willoughby pitched in the autumn Arizona Instructional League. He returned to Phoenix in 1971, and made the Pacific Coast League all-star squad that year with a 14-9 record. Best of all, he was called up to the Giants on August 30.

It’s a treat for any player when he first makes the majors. In Doug Hornig’s The Boys of October, Willoughby recalled arriving in the dugout for his first major-league game. There were two coolers. One had water, but the other one had “red juice,” a liquid amphetamine concoction. He tried to take a drink from the wrong cooler and was quickly chastised. “Red juice” was for veterans, not rookies. He pitched in two September games for San Francisco; the first was a start against Houston on September 5, which he lost, giving up three runs in three innings.

The next season, 1972, saw Willoughby’s third tour of duty with Phoenix, but he was called up again to San Francisco on August 3 when a sore shoulder placed Sam McDowell on the 21-day disabled list. Three days after his arrival, Willoughby extracted revenge on the Astros for that debut-start loss the year before by recording his first major-league victory against them, a 6-2 Giants win. Willoughby started 10 more games for San Francisco and finished the season with a 6-4 record and a 2.36 ERA. The Giants finished the season in fifth place in the National League West Division, 17 games below .500.

Willoughby was a groundball pitcher who relied on a sinker and a slider and was more effective when he threw from a three-quarters arm slot or side-arm instead of overhand. He used a slow curve 10 percent of the time as well. He had what was described as a “herky jerky” motion. He had small hands for a pitcher, despite a 6-foot-2, 185- to 205-pound frame.

During the offseason the Giants harbored high hopes for Willoughby and penciled him into a five-man rotation in 1973 along with Juan Marichal, McDowell, Tom Bradley, and Ron Bryant. Obeying the new rule of Giants manager Charlie Fox, Willoughby shaved off the mustache he wore in 1972. Wearing number 42, Willoughby indeed began the season in the starting rotation, but in mid-May the Giants moved him to the bullpen. Fox and pitching coach Don McMahon were trying to get him to throw harder; this caused him to throw more over the top. While Willoughby got more velocity, he lost movement on his pitches, making them flatter – and more hittable. Willoughby worked most of the rest of 1973 out of the bullpen, compiling a 4-5 record and a 4.68 ERA. Toward the end of the year, he studied film of his delivery and corrected it by dropping down more. “There’s so much Cinderella in this game,” he said. “When I was going bad with the Giants and had changed my whole way of throwing, I had to get work. But when you’re in the bullpen, you often aren’t in the best throwing shape and the whole thing snowballs. One bad outing and you don’t work for a couple of weeks, and when you get back, you’re completely out of whack.”

After the season Willoughby pitched winter ball in Venezuela with the Maracay club, managed by Giants scout Ozzie Virgil. He had wanted to go to Venezuela the previous winter, but he’d worked a combined 250-plus innings between Phoenix and San Francisco. In 1973 he had pitched only 123 innings, and felt he needed more work. After finishing in Venezuela with an 8-7 record and an ERA under 3.00, Willoughby wanted another shot at the San Francisco starting rotation in 1974. According to the March 3, 1974, New York Times, Willoughby said, “They can have all that long relief stuff they want. After I fell out of the rotation last year, they tried me ‘long’ and during one spell I went 18 days without getting close to the mound.”3

But Willoughby got only four starts and 40 innings of work in San Francisco in 1974 (1-4, 4.65 ERA) before being sent outright to Phoenix once more. After the season, the Giants traded him to St. Louis in a minor-league deal for infielder Tom Heintzelman. He expected to be invited to spring training with the Cardinals, but wound up starting the season with the Tulsa Oilers in the American Association under manager Ken Boyer. This proved beneficial because minor-league pitching instructor Bob Milliken helped straighten out his delivery.

Willoughby was thrilled to meet one of his idols in Tulsa. Satchel Paige served as both a part-time pitching coach and a greeter at Oiler Field. Willoughby pitched well in Tulsa; well enough for Boston Red Sox general manager Dick O’Connell to select him on July 4 as the “player to named later” to complete a springtime deal in which the Cardinals had received shortstop Mario Guerrero. Boston was on the way to its first pennant since the 1967 Impossible Dream season, but the team needed bullpen help. Dick Drago was having shoulder problems from overwork and Dick Pole had recently been hit in the face by a line drive. Oilers manager Boyer recommended Willoughby and when Red Sox executive scout Eddie Kasko visited Tulsa in 1975, he was impressed with the right-hander.

Willoughby had never been a short man out of the bullpen before, but he took to it like a duck to water. In 24 appearances with 48⅓ innings pitched. Willoughby compiled five wins, two losses, eight saves, and a 3.54 ERA. His first outing with the Red Sox was rocky, though. In the July 6 nightcap against Cleveland, he gave up a three-run homer to Oscar Gamble. Jim was fortunate in that Boston’s bullpen was depleted at the time. They needed live arms and didn’t have the option of burying him.

Willoughby did not pitch in the American League Championship Series against Oakland, but he appeared in Games Three, Five, and Seven of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Willoughby was on the mound in the 10th inning of Game Three when Ed Armbrister bunted and may have interfered with Carlton Fisk’s throw. In a controversial decision, the umpiring crew did not call Armbrister out for interference. This allowed Cesar Geronimo, who was on first, to advance to third and Armbrister to advance to second. Roger Moret replaced Willoughby and intentionally walked Pete Rose to load the bases. After Merv Rettenmund struck out, Joe Morgan hit a single over center fielder Fred Lynn’s head to win the game for the Reds and tag Willoughby with the loss. After a mopup assignment in Game Five, Willoughby was called on to put out a fire in the Game Seven. The score was tied, 3-3, in the top of the seventh inning. The bases were loaded and there were two outs with Johnny Bench at the plate. Willoughby retired Bench on a foul pop to catcher Fisk. Willoughby then pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning. In the bottom of the inning, though, with none on, two out and the score still tied, manager Darrell Johnson pulled Willoughby for a pinch-hitter, the rusty Cecil Cooper. Cooper popped out to Pete Rose in foul territory.

Jim Burton, the rookie hurler who succeeded Willoughby, wound up giving up a run in the ninth and losing both the game and the Series. A story that has grown into a piece of urban folklore among Red Sox fans tells of a sportswriter going into a Boston area watering hole sometime after the World Series and encountering a solitary drinker mumbling to himself about Darrell Johnson, “He never should have hit for Willoughby.” Peter Gammons also has spun that tale.

Johnson would not have had to pinch-hit for Willoughby had there been a designated hitter during the ’75 Series. In fact, l’affaire Willoughby-Cooper-Burton may have led Major League Baseball toward adopting the designated hitter in the World Series in alternating years. This rule was in place until 1985, when it was modified so that the DH was used in American League parks but not in National League parks.

In 1976, after the Red Sox sent Dick Drago to California, Willoughby was the main short man out of the Boston bullpen for the whole season. While his record was an unfortunate 3-12, Willoughby pitched well. He recorded 10 saves and his ERA dropped to 2.82. The Red Sox failed to defend their American League East pennant and Darrell Johnson was replaced in midseason by third-base coach Don Zimmer. As Willoughby’s teammate Bill Lee recounted, most notably in his book The Wrong Stuff, there was a culture clash between baseball lifer Zimmer and some of his players – a group of unconventional types known as the Buffalo Heads, whose number included Lee, Willoughby, Ferguson Jenkins, Rick Wise, and Bernie Carbo. These young players came of age in the turbulent and countercultural 1960s and held a distinctly different worldview than that of Zimmer, a product of the Depression era. Zimmer rarely, if ever, drank and liked to spend his free time at the racetrack. The Buffalo Heads were more educated, were fans of rock music (which hadn’t then achieved mainstream acceptance), drank, and experimented with drugs. Willoughby himself smoked pot and drank heavily, although he never took the mound drunk or stoned.

Willoughby was upset at the end of the 1976 season when assistant general manager John Claiborne acknowledged that the Red Sox had private detectives tailing their players that season. But what really upset him was learning from a coach about the existence of written reports that anyone with access to the locker room could have stumbled upon. Claiborne left after the 1977 season. The bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence was in 1976; the year also marked the independence of baseball players from the reserve clause. It was the dawning of the age of free agency. In the offseason, the Red Sox signed Bill Campbell to be their bullpen ace. Campbell had been with the Minnesota Twins and made it from Vietnam to a factory league to the majors. With Campbell on board in ’77, Willoughby’s role with the team was reduced. He also spent time on the disabled list for the first time in the majors. On May 22 he slipped on the outfield grass during pregame drills and broke his right ankle. He returned in August, but was not as effective, posting a 4.94 ERA, his highest ever in the majors (not counting those four innings in 1971). Although the Red Sox finished only 2½ games back of the Yankees in an exciting pennant race, they decided to clean house over the winter.

Before the first pitch was thrown in 1978, the Red Sox had traded Fergie Jenkins to the Texas Rangers for pitcher John Poloni and cash, Rick Wise was traded with prospects to the Cleveland Indians in a deal that netted Dennis Eckersley, and Willoughby was sold at the end of spring training to the Chicago White Sox for a figure barely over the waiver price. (Bernie Carbo was sold to Cleveland in midseason and Bill Lee, who staged a walkout after the Carbo sale, was traded to Montreal for infielder Stan Papi, prompting a graffiti artist in Boston area to paint, “Who the hell is Stan Papi?” on the Lansdowne Street side of the Green Monster.) According to Willoughby, he was never officially informed by the Red Sox of his sale to Chicago. Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe was the one who broke the news to him.

The popular perception is that Don Zimmer broke up the Buffalo Heads because he didn’t like those players. Zimmer was also perceived as not liking pitchers as a class due to the several beanings he suffered during his playing days. While there may have been some truth to this, there may have been other reasons that the Red Sox shook things up.

Longtime Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey died during the 1976 season. After his estate was settled, the team was purchased by a partnership consisting of his widow, Jean R. Yawkey, former trainer Buddy LeRoux, and scouting director Haywood Sullivan. One result of this was the October 4, 1977, firing of general manager Dick O’Connell, whom Mrs. Yawkey disliked. Another was an attempt to maximize short-term profits at the expense of long-term success. LeRoux, for example, borrowed money to buy his stake in the team and needed profits from the Red Sox to cover his debt service. Also, the ownership group received tax-depreciation advantages for a limited number of years and looked to hold down expenses during that time frame. The front-office staff was slashed. Veteran players were let go in favor of players who were not eligible for salary arbitration and could approximate their production at a lower cost. While some were traded for other players, others were merely sold for cash to better the bottom line. In Willoughby’s case, he was a Buffalo Head pitcher, relatively expensive for a middle reliever, and a Dick O’Connell acquisition, so he had three strikes against him.

In any case, Willoughby joined Bill Veeck and Roland Hemond’s 1978 White Sox squad. After winning 90 games in 1977, the White Sox proved disappointing, losing 90 in 1978. Willoughby started the season as the ace out of the bullpen, but as the year went on he appeared less frequently as Lerrin LaGrow took over that role. Frustrated with his lack of playing time, Willoughby asked the White Sox to play him or trade him. They obliged, sending him to the Cardinals organization once again for outfielder John Scott on October 23.

The Cardinals released Willoughby during spring training and he signed on with Wichita in the Cubs system. His contract allowed Jim to request his release if he wasn’t called up to Chicago by the trade deadline. After the Cubs traded for Dick Tidrow, Willoughby asked for and was granted his release. He searched for another pitching job and found one in Portland, Oregon, with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate. Willoughby eventually wound up getting summoned to the parent club as bullpen insurance, but never got into a game. He did, however, receive a $250 World Series share from the “We Are Family” Bucs. Willoughby pitched the entire 1979 season with undiagnosed Type I diabetes, the type that usually strikes people much earlier than in their late 20s. He was unaware of it until he went to Venezuela to play winter ball and wound up in a diabetic coma. It was neither lengthy nor deep, but he was briefly in the hospital. At this point, Willoughby retired from playing. He said he could have continued, but he was tired of the journeyman ballplayer’s life.

After his baseball career, Willoughby did a stint in sports radio. He hosted a talk show in Waltham, Massachusetts, but he didn’t care to invest the amount of time required to properly prepare for the broadcasts. In December 1980 he was named baseball coach at Suffolk University, but didn’t last a whole season. He resigned in April after he was suspended for a bat-throwing incident during practice. He also said he found the politics at Suffolk worse than in any major-league clubhouse he experienced.

Willoughby moved back to his native California, where he worked in construction until he got his contractor’s license. He embarked on a career building houses on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas.

Willoughby did get the opportunity to return to the pitcher’s mound. In 1989 and 1990, he participated in the Senior Professional Baseball Association. First, he had a chance to reunite with some of the other Buffalo Heads with the Winter Haven Super Sox. Bill Lee was the player-manager, Fergie Jenkins was the pitching coach, and Bernie Carbo was a teammate. In 1990 Willoughby pitched for the San Bernardino Pride. It was the first time in his professional career that he pitched sober; by his own admission Willoughby was a recovering alcoholic and stopped drinking in 1983. Because of this, he felt an affinity with one of his boyhood idols, Jim Thorpe, who, in addition to being a fellow Native American, also had a drinking problem.

Willoughby and Mary Ann were divorced in the late 1970s. She was the mother of his two sons Trevor and Ryan. It was what Willoughby called “a classic case of baseball divorce.” He was married for six years to Boston area attorney Cathy Cullen, but his alcoholism ended that marriage. In 1984 he married Sandra Aubert.

Son Trevor played baseball at California State-Fullerton. Ryan played basketball in high school but suffered from bad knee injuries.

In describing himself at his website (jimwilloughby.com), this is what Willoughby had to say: “I played professional baseball for 15 years spanning 4 decades. I drank enough, smoked enough, snorted enough stuff to kill me. I lost several dear friends like that. Yet, like one of my idols, Ozzy (Osbourne, not Nelson), I survived. Here I am today: 20 years of total sobriety thanks to my friends in AA. I am building houses, riding motorcycles, shooting guns, voting Republican. I’m happy, some say crazy. My buddy Bill Lee, The Spaceman, used to say it’s better to be crazy than insane. I agree.”4

 

Last revised: July 16, 2014.

 

Sources

Hornig, Doug, The Boys of October (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003).

Lee, Bill, with Dick Lally, The Wrong Stuff (New York: Penguin, 1988).

Stout, Glenn, with Richard Johnson, Red Sox Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000).

Willoughby, James Arthur, personal Interview, July 11, 2004.

baseball-reference.com

retrosheet.org

jimwilloughby.com

 

Notes

1 Unless otherwise notes, family information and all quotations attributed to Willoughby come from the author’s July 11, 2004 interview.

2 Peter Gammons, Boston Globe, August 26, 1975.

3 It was actually 15 days, from May 18 to June 3.

4 Willoughby's website, active at the time it was accessed in 2005, was no longer active when sought in 2014.

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