SABR

Don Nottebart

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

The novelty had long since worn off. On Friday, May 17, 1963, a mere 8,223 fans came through the turnstiles at Colt Stadium, less than half the number that were in attendance exactly one year earlier when the sheer newness of the expansion Colt .45s was enough to attract larger crowds. Yet when Don Nottebart exited the mound two hours and 12 minutes later, many more would wish (or falsely claim) they had made the trek to Houston’s south side when the 27-year-old righty etched the franchise’s historic first no-hitter.

Earlier in his career, Nottebart had been forced to linger in the Milwaukee Braves minor leagues arguably longer than necessary. After being traded to Houston in the winter of 1962, his record-setting performance amounted to only his 19th starting effort in the big leagues. A once-heralded prospect, Nottebart would eventually close out a nine-year major league career with a less than sterling 36-51 record.

Nottebart was born January 23, 1936, in the village of West Newton, Massachusetts. Don’s paternal grandparents, Gustaaf and Susan Nottebaert, emigrated from Belgium in 1902 with their eldest son, and Gustaaf took up work in a cigar factory. They began spelling the surname without the second “e” by 1908 when their fourth child Ferdinand (“Fred”) was born. Working as a gardener and chauffer in Waltham, Massachusetts, Fred met a young woman from Nova Scotia, Otta Alice McAndrew, who eventually became his wife. Donald Edward was the second child of this union.

Don excelled in all sports, the result of an inherited athleticism from both paternal and maternal sides of his family. His father’s brother Harry was a noted runner in college, whereas his mother’s brothers excelled in various sports in Canada. He grew up idolizing Boston lefty Warren Spahn, who performed ten miles east in Braves Field. “[Don] even went so far as to convert Spahn into a right-hander by turning his back on his television set and watching the reflection in a window. He made up his mind, in effect, to become ‘a right-handed Spahn.’”i This was not wistful childhood imagining. His athletic prowess at Lexington High School attracted offers several from major league clubs, Nottebart later acknowledged, “but I always liked the Braves because of Spahn and that’s why I signed with them. I just wanted to be in the same organization with my idol.”ii

Shortly after high school graduation in 1954, Nottebart was inked by scout Jeff Jones to a contract with the Braves, since relocated to Milwaukee. (A man with an eye for talented pitching, Jones also signed prized prospects Joey Jay and Ken MacKenzie). The Braves were in the midst of a successful eight-year run that included two World Series appearances, garnered largely on the strength of a superb pitching corps. Had Nottebart signed with a team less gifted, he might have advanced to the major leagues much sooner. As it was, Don did not stay with the parent club until seven years after his signing, in part because he’d run out of minor-league options.

The 18-year-old Nottebart travelled 400 miles due west from Lexington to Wellsville, New York, to begin his professional career with the Braves’ Class-D affiliate. In four short years Don quickly advanced to Triple-A competition where, for reasons aforementioned, his rapid ascendency stalled. Along the way Nottebart garnered numerous awards and club records, securing Most Valuable Player honors in Class-B ball in 1956 and following with a team-record seven shutouts for the Atlanta Crackers the following season. Excluding an injury-marred campaign in his first year in Triple-A, Don developed a unique record of winning 18 games four times in five years, a feat noticed by the parent club. “[H]e keeps winning 18 games a year,” said coach Bob Scheffing on the eve of the 1960 season when it appeared Nottebart had earned a promotion to the show, “[and] may be ready to win 18 [in the big leagues].”iii Unfortunately, a late spring injury resulted in the start of another Triple-A campaign.

Nottebart was in the midst of a fine second straight season with the American Association’s Louisville Colonels when, in late June, the parent club beckoned. Three double-headers in six days, combined with the injury loss of lefty Juan Pizarro, prompted the need for another arm. Don was called upon to make his major-league debut in a starting role on July 1, 1960. In the first game of a double-header in St. Louis, Don yielded two runs (one unearned) in the first inning and four more in the fourth before being lifted for a pinch hitter. “I was hardly what you would call sensational,”iv he later cracked. A late rally by the Braves helped Don avoid the loss. He went on to far more success in three consecutive relief outings, yielding only one earned run in more than nine innings of work that included his first big league win. “Nottebart’s performance was particularly encouraging since it stamped him to become the bull-pen specialist the Braves need so badly,”v chirped Milwaukee sportswriter Bob Wolf, and Don appeared poised to remain with the team in this vital role. Unfortunately, he developed a sore arm in his next outing and was optioned to Louisville on July 21.

The injury sidelined Nottebart for 27 days, but upon his return to the Colonels he picked up where he’d left off. In an abbreviated campaign Don picked up 13 wins in 22 starts (including 13 complete games), and continued his dominance by securing two wins in the Junior World Series to help lead Louisville to the title. With this sustained success, the path appeared open for Nottebart to become a permanent member of the Milwaukee Braves.

A strong injury-free spring in 1961 further enhanced Don’s credentials, and in a league-wide survey of baseball scribes he was named the Braves’ “Best Young Pitcher” while sharing the “most-likely-to-succeed club”vi with lefty Ken MacKenzie. Other factors also contributed to the Braves’ decision to keep the 25-year-old. Don was out of options and the team had no intention of losing him. Additionally, in an attempt to bolster their middle infield, Milwaukee had traded pitchers Pizarro and Joey Jay over the winter. Nottebart was expected to compete for either the fourth or fifth starter slot in the rotation.

Don began his first appearance flawlessly, shutting down the Chicago Cubs in nearly four innings of work of relief. Unfortunately the ninth inning presented a different outcome when Nottebart surrendered a grand slam to 33-year-old utility outfielder Al Heist – he of the eight lifetime home runs – that gave Don the dubious distinction of yielding the first slam of the 1961 season. He went on to tie a then-National League record by giving up two additional grand slams through the course of the season (one of which was yielded to Don Drysdale, marking the first slam by a Dodgers’ pitcher in 11 years).

Don rebounded nicely in his next outing, a three-hit victory over the Cardinals in St. Louis, and with the unexpected collapse of the team’s pitching, “[t]he only sources of encouragement…were Don Nottebart and Moe Drabowsky,” said writer Wolf. “Nottebart…did well in two of his first three starts and looked better…than his 4.50 ERA would have indicated.”vii On June 7 Don turned in his first complete game in the major leagues, missing a shutout by one unearned run in a four-hit gem in Cincinnati, but he did not sustain this success. In his next four starts he posted a mark of 0-3, 7.86 that soon relegated him strictly to relief. Excluding one poor outing in Philadelphia in late August, Nottebart finished the campaign with a record of 3-1, 2.16 in 15 appearances. This success from the pen ensured that Don would not receive another starting nod until he joined the Houston squad two years later.

Nottebart started the 1962 season in fine fashion. Until a relief appearance in support of his childhood idol on April 18, he had not surrendered a hit in nearly seven innings of work. When the campaign reached the quarter turn, Don was authoring a 1.89 ERA. On May 11 in the Polo Grounds, Nottebart entered a bases-loaded, ninth-inning, two-out situation with the Braves nursing a three-run lead and promptly struck out Mets’ second baseman Charlie Neal to preserve the nail-biting win. A few difficult outings in June saw Don’s ERA mushroom into the fours, but he quickly settled down to finish the campaign with a respectable record of 2-2, 3.23, establishing himself alongside Claude Raymond as the bulwarks of the Milwaukee pen.

Nottebart’s former teammate Don McMahon was purchased by the Houston Colt .45s in May 1962, but for the short time they were together the Massachusetts native had made an extremely positive impression. As related by Houston’s general manager Paul Richards, “McMahon [stated that]…Nottebart could do a heckuva job for us. He said to be sure and get him.”viii Based on this strong recommendation Richards acted swiftly, acquiring Nottebart in a multi-player swap on November 30, 1962. When camp opened the following spring, Don was promptly inserted into the starting rotation.

The Houston Colt .45s entered the National League in 1962 as an expansion team and struggled, losing at least 90 games in each of its first seven years. A major deficit was the team’s anemic offense which, from 1962-64, scored the fewest runs in the league. It was against this backdrop that Don made his first starting assignment in more than 20 months against the eventual world champion Los Angeles Dodgers. He secured his first win with his new team by beating lefty great Sandy Koufax. Five additional starts produced an overall mark of 4-1, 3.30 when he took the Colt Stadium mound on May 17 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Prior to this match, the Phillies held the dubious distinction of having been victimized by four no-hitters in the preceding nine years (after Nottebart’s gem, they would further succumb to Koufax and George Culver in 1964 and 1968, respectively). Conversely, the Phillies had exhibited a certain mastery over the fledgling Colt .45s, winning 21 of their 23 encounters harking back to the preceding season. “It’s always a challenge to beat a team that’s been whipping your tail,”ix Nottebart later remarked.

Witness to six major league no-hitters prior to May 1963, McMahon was somewhat of an authority on the subject when he stated, “Nottebart’s was the smoothest I’ve ever seen.”x Don kept the Phillies hitters off balance throughout with an assortment of sliders, sinkers, and slip pitches that accounted for the National’s League’s second of three no-hitters (all within a five-week span) in 1963. Philadelphia managed an unearned run in the fifth inning – on an error by shortstop J.C. Hartman -- that marked only the third such instance since 1920 when the hitless team scored. With two outs in the ninth, Nottebart faced former Braves teammate Wes Covington, who entered the game as the league’s leading hitter with a .374 batting average. Don induced Covington to hit a fly ball down the left field line that outfielder Al Spangler caught, and history was made. Through 2012, the Houston franchise has totaled ten no-hitters, including one in a losing effort. Don’s 1963 gem will forever remain first on that list.

Two days later the team was overtaken by a swoon of 11-28 from which Nottebart was not immune. He suffered three straight losses before injury shelved the righty for more than two weeks. On July 15 Don was one pitch away from his first major-league shutout when he sprained his ankle on a ninth-inning, two-out delivery that forced him from the game. He finally achieved that first career shutout (after another stint on the disabled list) when he blanked the Cincinnati Reds on August 21 in a four-hit gem. He finished the campaign with a 3.17 ERA (slightly better than the 3.29 league average) and 11 wins. Unfortunately, this represented the only time in his nine-year career when Don won in double digits.

Less than three weeks removed from the one-year anniversary of his historic outing (and six days after Ken Johnson hurled the second no-hitter in Houston history), Nottebart appeared poised to duplicate the feat. With two outs in the seventh inning, the Dodgers’ Johnny Werhas (lifetime .173 batting average) stroked a single into center field to end the bid. It was one of the few outings Don could look to with pride starting the 1964 campaign. The rustiness of an abbreviated spring – he’d lost time due to a shoulder ailment – was evidenced by a 0-7, 5.50 mark at the end of May, further compounded by missing nearly the entire month of July due to knee and back problems. When he avoided the disabled list, Nottebart etched a record of 6-3, 2.84 that represented but a small portion of his contributions to the team. On seven occasions he took the mound twirling a 2.15 ERA with only a 0-3 mark to show for it. “[I]f he can stay in good health,” said pitching coach Howie Pollet the following spring, “Nottebart has the mound stuff to win 20 games in the National League.”xi

The 1965 season marked a momentous change in baseball with the advent of the Astrodome and indoor play. Fans turned out in droves, nearly tripling Houston’s attendance figure of the year before. The excitement of a domed stadium did not extend to execution on the field, as the newly dubbed Astros were spared a last-place finish solely by the existence of the hapless New York Mets. In the midst of this overall futility, Nottebart had his own challenges.

Ironically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Don reported to camp 25 pounds lighter and enthusiastic about the coming season: “My ambition is to go through a major league season as a starter without an injury,” he said that spring. “I’d like to get about 35 starts…[and] see us finish in the first division.”xii A strong exhibition season only served to bolster this enthusiasm and a ten-game win streak in late April had the team actually tied for first place on May 1. This limited success was rapidly quelled and the Astros’ eventual 97 losses would not be surpassed by the franchise until a 106-loss campaign in 2011.

Nottebart’s fate followed suit. A strong 2.66 ERA after four starts yielded no wins against one loss. In July he again flirted with a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and a month later he successfully overcame the Phillies for the first time since his May 17, 1963, masterpiece, but these combined efforts represented his few positive outings. Don did not collect his first win until one-third of the way into the season and mustered only three more thereafter. Meanwhile, the losses continued to mount and his ERA exploded. He surrendered four home runs to Milwaukee on July 8 and two months later served up Willie Mays’ historic 500th dinger. Nottebart finished the miserable campaign with a then-career high 4.67 ERA, and his 15 losses placed among the league leaders. Disappointed with the outcome of their projected 20-game winner, and needing to protect a number of budding youngsters, the Astros assigned Nottebart to their Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City after the season. He was soon acquired by the Cincinnati Reds via the rule 5 draft.

Cincinnati had expressed interest in Nottebart the preceding August, when one story had Don going to the Reds for minor-league prospect (and eventual 1966 Rookie of the Year) Tommy Helms. Cincinnati had seen Nottebart at his best – two of his meager four wins in 1965 were secured against the Reds, including a three-hit complete-game victory on July 24 – and the team was looking to bolster a pitching staff that sported the league’s second-worst ERA. Initially projected to compete for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, Don saw his role change ten days later when the Reds acquired Milt Pappas from the Baltimore Orioles. Excluding one last starting assignment on June 12, 1966, Nottebart would work in relief for the remainder of his professional career. In so doing, he recorded two of his most successful campaigns in the major leagues.

The 1966 Reds would post the franchise’s only sub-.500 record in an 11-year span (1961-71) due in large part to the woes of the starting mound corps. With a 4.18 ERA (league average: 3.61) this corps, along with the Chicago Cubs, would log the league’s fewest complete games, resulting in a heavy workload for the relievers. Nottebart established a personal high of 59 appearances (five shy of the then-modern team record established ten years earlier) while picking up five wins, one more than he did as a starter the preceding year. His 111-plus innings of work were exceeded only by the team’s five primary starters and he maintained an ERA under two for more than 63 percent of the season. Don’s efforts contributed to the team’s 18-4 surge beginning in mid-July, when he posted three wins and five saves in the nearly three-week span. In reference to the bargain find the Reds found in acquiring Nottebart through the rule 5 draft, Sporting News columnist Clifford Kachline later pointed out that “[t]hree 1965 draftees proved distinct surprises the past season with their stellar efforts. They were Moe Drabowsky, who became one of Baltimore’s World Series heroes following a 6-0 relief record; Joe Hoerner, who developed into the Cardinals’ ace fireman, and Don Nottebart, the Reds’ relief star.”xiii In echo of this assessment, Reds manager Dave Bristol said , “Nottebart has to be just about the best draft choice the Reds have made.”xiv

Nottebart may have been worked to exhaustion; he closed out the 1966 season with a 5.54 ERA in the final five weeks. The Reds secured another righty from the rule 5 draft, submariner Ted Abernathy, to assist in the relief chores. Though Nottebart pitched 32 fewer innings in 1967, he was just as effective, not yielding a single earned run in 33 of his 47 appearances while posting a 1.93 ERA. Don seemed to have found a permanent home in the Cincinnati bullpen, but that turned out to not be the case.

By spring of 1968, a protracted contract dispute turned bitter between player and management, and at some point a (likely mutual) decision was made ensuring that Nottebart would never play for the Reds again. Unsuccessful in finding a trade suitor, Cincinnati sent him to the Hawaii Islanders in the Pacific Coast League. The Reds continued shopping him, but did not find a buyer until the New York Yankees were willing to enter into a 30-day conditional purchase. After four appearances in April 1969, the Yankees returned Don to Cincinnati where, 24-hours later, he was shipped to Chicago Cubs.

Injuries marred Nottebart’s brief return to the National League. He received a mere 18 innings of work before a muscle tear ended both his season and his major-league career. Optioned to the minors the following year, Don rebounded with the Double-A San Antonio affiliate (including selection to the Texas League’s All Star squad), but at no time does it appear the Cubs were beckoning his return. At season’s end he began his life outside of baseball.

Nottebart had moved to the Houston area in 1964 with his wife and four children – three boys and one girl, each of whom inherited the athleticism passed to Don from earlier generations. As a youth Don had always been immersed in sports instead of interest in girls, but that changed dramatically when he met Joanne Wilson. They were high school sweethearts, and she taught Don to drive in the course of their three-year courtship that resulted in a 52-year marriage. They often returned to their native Massachusetts to visit family and friends. Off seasons would find Don in a variety of occupations: a greenhouse employee, auto sales, running an auto repair shop in which he had a partial ownership stake, and owning a carpet and flooring enterprise. Joanne and Don eventually returned to the Northeast and established residence in East Wakefield, New Hampshire. In 1996, Don became one of 13 alumni selected in the inaugural induction of the Lexington High Athletic Hall of Fame. He underwent heart bypass surgery followed by a stroke in 1999 and he passed at age 71 on October 4, 2007, while visiting his daughter in Cypress, Texas. He was survived by his widow, four children, 11 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

On Friday, May 17, 2013, Joanne Nottebart and her extended family gathered in Houston to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Don’s extraordinary performance. Besides the 1963 game, Don’s subsequent near no-hitters and other fine performances speak volumes to the excellence this righty hurler possessed. In a career initially slowed by the Warren Spahn-anchored staffs of the 1950s, Nottebart was also subject to the whims of injury that limited him to a mere 36 career major league victories. It remains for fans and historians alike to speculate on what a consistently healthy talent such as his might have otherwise accomplished.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Joanne Nottebart and Donna Miller, Don’s widow and daughter respectively, for helping to ensure the accuracy of the narrative. Further thanks are extended to Dr. David Vincent, J.G. Preston, and Greg Rhodes.

 

Sources

www.ancestry.com

http://www.astrosdaily.com/history/nohitters.html

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/obituaries/articles/2007/10/29/don_nottebart_had_1st_no_hitter_in_astrodome/?page=full

 

Notes

i “Admiration for Spahn Drew Nottebart Into Braves’ Chain,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1957, 20.

ii Ibid.

iii “Nottebart Hopes Third Time Is Charm in Milwaukee Camp,” The Sporting News, March 23, 1960, 11.

iv “Sweet Revenge for Nottebart – Gets Even With Cardinals,” The Sporting News, May 3, 1961, 8.

v “Galloping Braves Trample Rivals, Trim Lead of Bucs,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1960, 4.

vi “Names to Watch? Scriveners Spill Lowdown,” The Sporting News, April 19, 1961, 2.

vii “Tepee Medicine Man Hunts Cure for Curving Collapse,” The Sporting News, May 17, 1961, 18.

viii “Colts’ Phenom Staub Shifted to Picket Duty,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1962, 11.

ix “8,223 Watch Don Set Down Phillies With 4-1 Triumph,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1963, 7.

x “’Crazy’ Slider Made Hill Gem Look Easy,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1963, 7.

xi “Astros’ Notty Lops Off Suet To Save Pins,” The Sporting News, February 6, 1965, 23.

xii Ibid.

xiii “Majors Scour Lists in Search Of Draft Gems,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1966, 26.

xiv David Plays Like Moses Leading Cincy Out of Red Sea of Defeat,” The Sporting News, August, 20, 1966, 11.

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