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). He has two younger sisters, Marcy and Beverly. Son of James Roger Willoughby, a noted scuba diver, and Marlene Dickison, and he takes pride in having three-eighths Pottawatomi blood in addition to British ancestry. His great-aunt Mamie Echo Hawk served as the tribe's chief lobbyist for years in Washington. (A later Red Sox hurler, John Henry Johnson, also had some Pottawatomi blood.)
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. As a youth, Willow 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, two years of basketball, and one year of track. Football was Jim's second-best sport. He played split end for two years. The University of California at Berkeley recruited him for football, but Jim was drafted out of Gustine High by the San Francisco Giants in the 11th round of the June 1967 draft right after "the Mad Hungarian," Al Hrabosky.
Jim faced a tough decision. Under NCAA rules at the time, he would forfeit his eligibility to play football for the Cal 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 Program as part of his signing package, Jim signed with the San Francisco organization.
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 off-season 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. Jim 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. Jim never finished his degree work; he remains a few credits shy of a bachelor's degree.
Willow 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 moundsman Steve Stone and sportscaster Dick Stockton. According to Peter Gammons, when Stockton was 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."
For 1967, Jim was assigned to the Salt Lake City Giants in the Pioneer League, where he appeared in 17 games. Willoughby was still in school at the start of the 1968 season. After he finished his finals on a Friday, he got married to high school sweetheart Mary Ann Ryan on Saturday, started his honeymoon on Sunday, and got into a car accident on Monday. According to Jim in an e-mail to this author, "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." He was assigned to Fresno for 1968, but he was ineffective, so he was demoted to Medford for most of the season.
In June 1969, again pitching for Fresno, Willoughby was named the player of the month for the California League. He was also named to the circuit's year-end all-star squad. Unfortunately, he injured his right elbow that year with several weeks left in the season and had to pay a visit to Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles. When the Giants knew he was healthy, they added him to the 40-man roster. But he wound up pitching for Phoenix in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1970 and led PCL pitchers in assists with 36. 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, Jim pitched in the autumn Arizona Instructional League. He returned to Phoenix in the Pacific Coast League 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 parent San Francisco 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. Willow tried to take a drink from the wrong cooler and was quickly chastised. "Red juice" was for veterans; not rookies. He appeared in two September games for San Francisco; the first was a three-inning start against Houston, which he lost.
1972 saw Willow's third tour of duty with Phoenix, but he was called up again to San Francisco August 3 when a sore shoulder placed "Sudden Sam" McDowell on the 21-day disabled list. Three days after his arrival, Jim 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 in the nightcap of a doubleheader. Willoughby started 10 more games for San Francisco and finished the season with a 6-4 record and a very good 2.36 ERA. The Giants themselves finished the season in fifth place in the National League West Division, 17 games below .500.
Willow 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 sidearm instead of throwing overhand. Willoughby used a slow curve roughly 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, 205 pound frame.
During the off-season the Giants harbored high hopes for Willoughby in 1973 and penciled him into a five-man rotation 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 by mid-May the Giants moved him to the bullpen. One of the problems Jim experienced with the Giants was that manager Fox and pitching coach Don McMahon tried 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." Willoughby once 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."
Willoughby pitched winter ball in Venezuela during the off-season with the Marcay club, managed by Giants scout Ozzie Virgil. Willow 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." [Editor's note: from 5/18 to 6/3, he went 15 days without playing.]
But Willoughby got only four starts and 40 innings of work in San Francisco in 1974 (1-4, 4.61 ERA) before being outrighted to Phoenix once more. After the end of the season he was traded to St. Louis in a minor-league deal for infielder Tom Heintzelman. He expected to be invited to spring training with the Cardinals, but Jim wound up starting the season with the Tulsa Oilers in the American Association under manager Ken Boyer. This proved beneficial as 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 both as a part-time pitching coach and a greeter at Oiler Field. Willow pitched well in Tulsa; well enough for Boston Red Sox general manager Dick O'Connell to select him July 4 as the "player to named later" to complete a springtime deal in which the Cardinals had received shortstop Mario Guerrerro. Boston was on the way to its first pennant since the 1967 Impossible Dream season, but the Sox needed bullpen help. Dick Drago was having shoulder problems due to overwork and Dick Pole had recently been hit in the face by a Tony Muser line drive. Oilers manager Boyer recommended Jim Willoughby and, when executive scout Eddie Kasko visited Tulsa in 1975, he was impressed with the right-hander.
Jim 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 48-1/3 innings pitched. Willoughby compiled 5 wins, 2 losses, 8 saves, and a 3.56 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. He 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 Big Red Machine of Cincinnati. Willoughby was on the mound in the 10th inning of Game Three when Ed Armbrister bunted and may have interfered with Carlton Fisk. 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, who intentionally walked Pete Rose to load the bases, replaced Willoughby. After Merv Rettenmund struck out, Joe Morgan hit a single over Fred Lynn's head to win the game for the Reds. After a mop-up assignment in Game 5, 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 was able to induce Bench to pop up in foul territory to catcher Carlton 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 up 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 is one who has spun that tale.
Johnson would not have had to pinch-hit for Willoughby had the designated hitter rule been in effect 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, with Dick Drago being sent packing 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, Willow 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 has 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 achieved the mainstream acceptance that it has today), and both drank and experimented with other 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 outgoing assistant general manager John Claiborne admitted the Red Sox had private detectives tailing their players that season. But what really upset Willow was learning from a coach about the existence of written reports and learning that anyone with access to the locker room could have stumbled upon the reports.
1976 was the bicentennial of the United States' Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, but it also marked the independence of baseball players from the reserve clause. It was the dawning of the age of free agency. In the off-season, 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, 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 pre-game drills and broke his right ankle. He returned in August, but was not as effective, posting a 4.91 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 that saw the Orioles tying the Sox for second place, they decided to clean house over the winter.
Before the first pitch was thrown in 1978, the Red Sox traded Fergie Jenkins to the Texas Rangers for John Poloni and cash, Rick Wise was traded with prospects to the Cleveland Indians in a deal that netted Dennis Eckersley, and Jim Willoughby was sold at the end of spring training to the Chicago White Sox for a figure barely over the waiver wire price. (Bernie Carbo was sold to Cleveland in mid-season and Bill Lee, who staged a walkout after the Carbo sale, was traded to Montreal for Stan Papi, prompting graffiti artists in the Boston area to ask, "Who is Stan Papi?") According to Jim, 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 received during his playing days. While there may have been some truth to this, there may have been other reasons that the Red Sox cleaned house.
Longtime Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey passed away 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 timeframe. 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 Jim 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, the curly-haired Willow joined Bill Veeck and Roland Hemond's 1978 White Sox squad. After winning 90 games in 1977, the Chisox 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, Jim asked the Chisox to play him or trade him. They obliged, sending him to the Cardinals organization once again for speedy outfielder John Scott on October 23.
The Cardinals released him March 30, 1979, and Willoughby signed on with Wichita in the Cubs system. His contract with Wichita allowed Jim to request his release if he wasn't called up to Chicago by the trading 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, the Pittsburgh Pirates Triple-A affiliate. Jim eventually wound up getting summoned to the parent club as bullpen insurance, but never saw any action in a game. He did, however, receive a $250 World Series share from the "We Are Family" Bucs. Jim pitched the entire 1979 season with undiagnosed Type I diabetes; the type that usually strikes people much earlier than 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, he retired from pitching. He said that 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 did 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 that he experienced.
Willoughby moved back to his native California, where he worked construction until he got his contractor's license. Since then, he's been building houses on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas.
Jim 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 Jim pitched sober; Willoughby, by his own admission, is a recovering alcoholic and stopped drinking in 1983. Because of this, Jim 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 doesn't play chess much anymore, but he does spend time with one of his other hobbies: motorcycles. He acquired a fondness for motorcycles from his father; riding on the gas tank of his father's bike when he was a child. Jim and his third wife, Sandy, go on at least one long ride each summer.
Jim divorced Mary Ann Ryan 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. He has been married to Sandra Aubert since 1984.
Son Trevor played baseball for four years at California State-Fullerton. Ryan played basketball in high school but suffered from bad knee injuries.
In describing himself at his website (http://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, Ozzie (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."
A version of this biography was originally published in '75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball, edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan, and published by Rounder Books in 2005.
Hornig, Doug. The Boys of October. McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003.
Lee, Bill (with Dick Lally). The Wrong Stuff. Penguin, 1988.
Stout, Glenn (with Richard Johnson). Red Sox Century. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Willoughby, James Arthur. Personal Interview, July 11th, 2004.