SABR

John Buzhardt

This article was written by John Gabcik.

John Buzhardt pitched in both major leagues from 1958 through 1968, primarily as a starter for the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox. He compiled a 71-96 won-lost record, and dominated the New York Yankees while with the White Sox, where he was in a rotation that ranked with the best in the American League. Buzhardt suffered more than a third of his losses during two National League seasons with a youthful, inexperienced Phillies team. With Philadelphia, he endured two long losing streaks, one affecting his own record, the other as a team member. That experience would be a test of character and patience for an athlete in his early twenties.

Throughout his career, Johnny Buzhardt was known as a thinking man’s pitcher. He was usually able to out-duel batters with excellent control and pitch placement, as he kept the ball low in the strike zone and pitched to contact.

John William Buzhardt was born in Prosperity, Newberry County, South Carolina, on August 17, 1936, the only son and youngest of three children of Leland and Eula Buzhardt. The Buzhardts, like many families in the area, were descendents of immigrant German farmers. Leland, a prison guard, was a pitcher in the local semi-pro Dutch Fork League. Eula, a homemaker, was noted as a long-time Sunday school teacher; as her children grew older, she was employed in the local mills. When Leland died of cancer in 1948, 12-year-old John was devastated and dealt in part with the loss of his father by using his athletic skills to star in three sports at tiny Prosperity High School. With only fifteen or so players, the football squad could only scrimmage in a modified fashion during the week, but Buzhardt at quarterback made the team click at game time. And his baseball skills were such that by fifteen he was following in Leland’s footsteps pitching in the Dutch Fork League.

Despite his athletic success, Buzhardt was especially troubled by the loss of his father. Fortunately, a teacher at the high school, Grady Lee Halfacre, took an interest in Buzhardt, served as a role model, and counseled him personally. High school coaches provided similar help when Buzhardt acted out against athletic officials and opponents. Charles Wise and Walter Trammell took the young man aside and suggested he display more maturity. To Buzhardt‘s credit, he listened.

Buzhardt had an older friend on his Dutch Fork team, an infielder named Kenny Cook, with a connection to Chicago Cubs scout Rube Wilson. On Cook’s suggestion Wilson followed Buzhardt through his high school career, and signed the 6’2”, 195- pound right hander for $250 on the Dutch Fork playing field in early June, 1954.

Events moved rapidly for Buzhardt that year. On February 28, 1954, three months before his signing, Buzhardt had married Jane Hawkins, his sweetheart since junior high. Now he was a husband, a professional ballplayer and a father-to-be--son Rick was born that November. Life was hectic, exciting, and good.

The Cubs assigned Buzhardt to Hickory (NC) in the Class D Tar Heel League. The newlyweds moved to Hickory, but the Tar Heel League folded after Buzhardt had pitched a mere six innings. Buzhardt went to Class D Gainesville (TX, Sooner State League); Jane took a bus back to Prosperity to be with family as her pregnancy advanced.1 Buzhardt began a four-year ascent through the levels of the Cubs’ minor league system: Gainesville to Class D Paris (IL, Mississippi-Ohio Valley League), then Class C Magic Valley (ID, Pioneer League), Class A Des Moines (Western League), and Class AA Memphis (Southern Association). As John ground his way through the minors, Jane became pregnant two more times, but lost both children at birth. Greatly distressed with these family crises, John rushed home from his team assignments to be with Jane, and considered quitting baseball until the Cubs finally began to back up his promotions with pay raises--enough salary to support a family.

Buzhardt got an invitation to spring training with the Cubs in 1958, where 20 pitchers, eight of them under age 25, were vying for roster spots. The 21-year-old Buzhardt was reassigned to the minors, this time Portland (Class AAA, Pacific Coast League) managed by former major league pitcher Larry Jansen. Jansen schooled the right hander to avoid tipping off his pitches. Although his numbers at Portland were modest (9-11, 4.53 ERA), Buzhardt had continued to make a positive impression and got a September call-up to Chicago.

Buzhardt made his first major league appearance on September 10, 1958, pitching two scoreless innings in relief as the Cubs lost to St. Louis, 3-1. Six days later he recorded his first major league win. In relief, he induced an eighth-inning-ending ground ball out in a tie game at Philadelphia. The Cubs scored two runs in the top of the ninth and Dave Hillman held the lead for the win; Buzhardt was 1-0.

The rookie got two September starts, both against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Facing Don Drysdale and then Sandy Koufax, Buzhardt recorded eye-catching wins, 3-2 and 2-1. Over 17.1 innings, Buzhardt gave up 10 hits and six walks, striking out eight. Against Koufax, Buzhardt, a right-handed batter, recorded his first major league hit, a sharp opposite-field single.

That winter, Buzhardt and several other Cubs pitchers wanted to play in Venezuela both for the experience and the pay, but the Cubs balked, citing a mistrust of available coaching there. Instead, Buzhardt pitched in the Cuban Winter League with Havana. There, during the Cuban Revolution--while soldiers and politicians crowded the streets with shows of force--Buzhardt made a daily trek to the stadium. With minimal run support, he compiled a 10-10 record and a 1.85 ERA.2 Between innings, soldiers offered “entertainment” by shooting their machine guns into the sky.

The 1959 Cubs’ pitching was again an open competition, but this time Buzhardt had a leg up based on his 1958 success. Manager Bob Scheffing told Jerome Holtzman, writing for The Sporting News, “I don’t see how [Buzhardt] can miss being a consistent winner. He’s always had good control. He has remarkable poise and assurance.” Buzhardt went north with the Cubs and got to pitch regularly. The opportunities weren’t necessarily fulfilling; he was consistently used in relief in losing causes. Finally, in June, Scheffing gave Buzhardt a chance in the rotation and made his preseason optimism prescient, for the moment. Buzhardt’s first four June starts were all wins for the Cubs. The fourth start on June 21 was the topper. Facing the Phillies, Buzhardt threw a one-hitter, yielding a fourth inning single to Carl Sawatski and only one walk. Buzhardt remembered, “Sawatski hit a good pitch, a low curve. I had him set up for the pitch; I have no regrets.” The 4-0 gem was completed in under two hours. Cubs’ pitching coach Freddie Fitzsimmons noted, “I don’t think he threw more than five pitches above the waist all day.”

But the effort seemed to take something out of Buzhardt. He was hit hard in his next start and returned to the bullpen, this time for the rest of the season. Subsequent reports were that Buzhardt had suffered from a sore elbow throughout the season. Reflecting, Buzhardt thought of his experience in winter ball, “Havana used me a lot, about 140 innings. When I came top spring training with the Cubs, I was tired out. I wound up with a sore arm.”

The Phillies had kept an eye on Buzhardt, liked what they saw, and grabbed him when he came up in trade talks. On January 11, 1960, Philadelphia sent their long-time star center fielder, Richie Ashburn, to the Cubs for Buzhardt, outfielder Jim Woods, and veteran third baseman Alvin Dark. Dark, who went on to manage thirteen seasons in the majors, was especially impressed by the young righty. He told Jerry Holtzman, “The more I see Buzhardt, the more I’m reminded of Johnny Sain. He looks like Sain and acts like him and even walks like him. He’s all business out there on the mound.”

The Phillies, like the Cubs, had been in the second division for a number of years, and they hoped to improve their rotation. Buzhardt added consistency, finishing the season second only to Philly ace Robin Roberts in number of innings pitched, showing an effective curve and fastball. His 3.86 ERA in 1960 helped reduce the staff’s average by a quarter-run from the previous year.

When Buzhardt and his new teammates opened that season at Cincinnati with a 9-4 loss, manager Eddie Sawyer, in his second stint as Phillies manager, had seen enough. Sawyer and the Phillies were coming off a last-place finish in 1959, and Sawyer envisioned more of the same. He quit after the game, realizing the team was no reincarnation of his 1950 Philly “Whiz Kids.”

Gene Mauch took over, beginning a long career managing a variety of talented but star-crossed teams. The 1960 Phillies had some promise, but the team was very much in the incubation stage. By 1964, Mauch’s Phillies, including Tony Taylor, John Callison, Art Mahaffey, and Chris Short--all from the 1960 team--had improved to the point that they lost the National League pennant only after an epic collapse.

Buzhardt pitched fairly well early in 1960, but it took six starts before the Phillies gave him enough support to win a game--on May 30. When he finished a twelve-inning complete-game win on June 26, he stood at 4-5 with a 3.73 ERA for a team with a 27-38 record. But it would take fifteen more starts before Buzhardt notched another win.

He wasn’t the pitcher of record in his first two starts of July, but when Buzhardt lost July 19, it marked the start of 11 straight losing decisions, with a smattering of no-decisions mixed in. His record fell from 4-5 to 4-16. The righty’s efforts during these games gave him a reasonable chance to win about half of them.3 But the Phillies’ offense was unable to offer support. In Buzhardt’s streak, the Philadelphia bats supplied only thirteen runs. The final loss in Buzhardt’s streak was to Warren Spahn and the Braves, a 4-0 no-hitter.4 Picking up one more win that season, he finished at 5-16.

The ’60 Phillies finished last in the National League at 59-95, but nobody was blaming Buzhardt. Gene Mauch told The Sporting News, “I don’t ever remember seeing a pitcher have such a bad run of luck as Buzz had last season. There have been pitchers who pitched just well enough to lose, but I don’t think that’s John’s case.”

The following season, 1961, made the Phillies’ previous mediocrity look mild; they were eighth with a 47-107 record, 46 games out of first place and 17 games behind the seventh-place Cubs. Despite a 6-18 record, Buzhardt was the closest pitcher Philadelphia had to a “stopper.” When Buzhardt took the mound against the San Francisco Giants on July 28, recording a 4-3 Phillies’ win, he broke a five game team losing streak; the Phillies stood at 30-64, 29 games back. His next win was on August 20, a 7-4 complete game win over the Milwaukee Braves, which broke a 23-game Philadelphia losing streak. The streak set a modern record for consecutive losses, yet unbroken. Buzhardt, despite his own 4-13 record, had recorded the team’s only two victories over 30 games. Years later, in retirement, Buzhardt reflected about the Phillies to Bob Vanderberg of the Chicago Tribune: “They were a young team, not a bad team.”

Over the 1961-62 winter the Phillies tried to regroup, sending Buzhardt and Roberts to the American League, and replacing them with minor league prospects Jack Hamilton and Dennis Bennett. Roberts ended up in Baltimore, and gave the Orioles three effective seasons. Buzhardt and infielder Charley Smith were traded to the Chicago White Sox for aging but powerful Roy Sievers, who provided the Phillies with home runs and RBIs for two seasons. Smith contributed 174 inconsequential plate appearances over three seasons with the Sox before being traded to the Mets (and like others, became “Amazin’”). Buzhardt became a regular member of the White Sox rotation, making 127 starts from 1962 through 1967, topped only by Joe Horlen (166) and Gary Peters (159) over those six seasons.

The White Sox situation was very different for Buzhardt. The Sox had the best defense in the American League. Their singles-and-doubles offense produced only league-average run support, yet it was a marked improvement over Philadelphia. Competition for starting pitcher slots was fierce. Over his White Sox tenure, Buzhardt competed with Juan Pizarro, Ray Herbert, Eddie Fisher, Tommy John, and Bruce Howard among others, and usually wound up in the rotation. White Sox manager Al Lopez viewed Buzhardt as a good addition who could be molded by pitching coach Ray Berres: “He has a good strong arm. We understand he can throw hard and has an excellent sinker. With that kind of equipment, we hope we can make him a winner.”

Buzhardt opened 1962 as Chicago‘s fourth starter. His first American League experience, though, didn‘t live up to expectations. He lasted shy of two innings against Kansas City, gave up five runs, and took a loss. But Buzhardt rebounded to win his next four games, all starts, two of the wins over the free-swinging New York Yankees.5 After shutting out New York on May 3, however, Buzhardt’s efforts became less productive. He was allowing three or four runs in many games, often too many for the White Sox’ popgun offense to overcome. Buzhardt caught a lingering virus, then cut his pitching hand while reaching into his shaving kit early in July, effectively ending his chances for a good season. Between July 1 and August 11, he had one start and was lifted after five of six batters reached base. With only two more wins, Buzardt finished 1962 at 8-12 with a 4.19 ERA, better numbers than he had achieved with Philadelphia in 1961, but not what he or the Sox expected.

In 1963, Buzhardt became, for a time, the pitcher the White Sox had envisioned. Going into June, he had a 5-2 record and a 2.50 ERA. He was taking advantage of spacious Comiskey Park dimensions to reduce home runs allowed, and his sinking fastball was staying in the strike zone, reducing his walks to around two per nine innings pitched. He was on the best roll of his career, with four complete games, all wins. He allowed only two runs over 36 innings, had a league-leading 1.98 ERA, and an 8-2 record. Buzhardt told Edgar Munzel for The Sporting News, “I’m more effective because of added experience and confidence. I’m more daring with my pitches.”

But Buzhardt began experiencing arm problems in a game against the Yankees on July 3. He missed ten days before Lopez gave him another try on July 14 against Baltimore. In the third inning, Buzhardt hit Oriole second baseman Jerry Adair in the jaw with a pitch. An inning later, he hit Brooks Robinson on the helmet. A bizarre incident followed when Oriole manager Billy Hitchcock ran toward the mound to tell Buzhardt “You’re not this wild.”6 Buzhardt was lifted after five innings, and explained to reporters that the hit batsmen were unintentional. “When you favor your arm, you release the ball too soon. The pitch naturally will be inside to a right-handed hitter.” Soon after, Chicago shut Buzhardt down for the remainder of the season, due to his sore shoulder. He finished 9-3 with a 2.42 ERA.

Over the offseason, Buzhardt’s arm recovered sufficiently for him to return to the Sox’ active roster at the start of the 1964 season. Lopez used the righty gingerly at first, spacing out Buzhardt’s starts with five or more days’ rest. And Buzhardt responded well to this pace. By late June, he was 6-1 with a 2.54 ERA. The sixth win was a 5-0 shutout of the Senators. Buzhardt departed with two out in the eighth inning and the win left the Sox only a game out of first place.

With the Sox in pennant contention, Buzhardt‘s regimen changed and his results suffered. Lopez began pitching him more often throughout July and early August. Over eight starts, Buzhardt was 1-3 and didn’t complete a game before facing the Yankees in Chicago on August 20. But that day he wrapped up a four-game White Sox sweep, shutting out Whitey Ford and his teammates 5-0, sending the Yankees to the airport with Phil Linz playing the harmonica and Yogi Berra having a meltdown.7 Buzhardt didn’t win another game that year and finished 10-8. The Sox hung in the race, but New York edged them by a game.

In 1965, the White Sox won 95 games and were once again AL runners-up, this time seven games behind the Twins. Eddie Fisher, a reliever, led the staff with 15 wins, demonstrating Lopez‘s wizardry for using pitchers. The Sox did well considering their woeful offense, but the strain of eking out victories wore on Lopez, a situation which impacted Buzhardt.

Buzhardt had again started the season well. On June 23, he won his seventh game against a single loss and had a 2.54 ERA. But, on July 18, he opened the eighth inning with a 2-1 lead over Kansas City when Sox shortstop Ron Hansen botched a groundball for an error. Buzhardt quickly got two strikes on the next batter, Mike Hershberger, when Lopez inexplicably came from the dugout to pull his starter--a decision Buzhardt did not accept quietly. As he left the field, Buzhardt slammed his cap into the dugout and threw his glove into the stands. “That’s strictly bush,” Lopez said later. “I don’t show up my players like that.” Buzhardt never regained his groove and was 6-7 over the remainder of the season. He had a career-high 13 wins in 30 starts, but only four complete games. Buzhardt believed he had earned more trust from Lopez than the July 18 incident showed, and it stung.

In November, Lopez retired as White Sox manager, opting for golf in Florida. Chicago management brought in Eddie Stanky to lead the Sox in 1966.

Stanky described the White Sox as “his kind of team.” Jerome Holtzman questioned this perception in The Sporting News, noting that if Stanky was thinking of the 1959 American League champion team that thrived on pitching, speed and defense, he was in the wrong place. The 1965 White Sox had stolen only fifty bases and had become very average in fielding. The pitching was good, but Holtzman thought Lopez’s expertise had gotten more than expected from a staff without a true ace. Buzhardt might well have contended that “expertise” probably wasn‘t the right term.

Stanky did find speed for his team, and the number of stolen bases tripled.8 And the 1966 White Sox pitching was extraordinary, leading the American League with a 2.68 ERA, almost half a run better than the next best figure. But Buzhardt had trouble maintaining the general dependability he showed in previous years. Aside from two brief flashes of brilliance--complete-game back-to-back victories at the end of May and again in late July--Buzhardt had trouble winning. By September Stanky was no longer relying on Buzhardt as a starter, opting to use a hot hand, Bruce Howard, in his place. Buzhardt finished the season with a 6-11 record; his 3.83 ERA was about a run higher than he had been averaging over the previous three seasons.9

Buzhardt’s work in1967 spring training seemingly got him back into Stanky’s graces as a starter. But he appeared only once between mid-April and mid-May, and over six subsequent starts he wasn’t effective. Buzhardt’s control faltered as he walked 18 in 33 innings. Then, on June 12, the Sox used six pitchers in a 22-inning loss at Washington. The six-hour, 38-minute grinder ended well after midnight with Buzhardt on the mound. Buzhardt had just completed a planned full workout in anticipation of his next start two days later when he was called into the game in the 14th inning. He shut out the Senators until the 22nd when, with two runners on, Paul Casanova singled to win the game for Washington. Stanky sent Buzhardt on ahead to Boston, the next opponent, but the righty’s arm felt dead. He remained on the active roster but saw only relief work until August 21, when Chicago sold his contract to the Baltimore Orioles. There he appeared in seven games for the fifth-place team before being dealt again to the Houston Astros on September 25.10

In 1968, Buzhardt’s final year in baseball, he was an all-purpose pitcher, starting four games and saving five for the last-place Astros. His most impressive appearance of the year was on July 21 at San Francisco when he started and gave up a sole run on five hits over nine innings before being removed. As Houston hosted the 39th All-Star Game on July 9, Buzhardt had the honor of being the batting practice pitcher for the National League.

Following the 1968 season, the Buzhardts reconsidered their options. The family had stayed together throughout the year with winters and summers in Chicago, spring training in Florida.11 But when Buzhardt bounced through three major league organizations in 1967, with the Buzhardt children (Rick, Allan, and Donna) experiencing four different school systems in the same year, John, now 32, and Jane had seen enough of baseball. Rick Buzhardt was entering high school and his parents wanted stability for him and his brother and sister. The Astros tendered several contracts over the 1968-69 offseason, but when Buzhardt turned down a $32,000 contract during spring training, the Astros gave up.

The Buzhardts had bought a 38-acre property in their home town of Prosperity and returned there. John applied for a job with the Eastman Company outside of Columbia, South Carolina, and got an entry-level position on the production line. Over three years, he worked his way up to a supervisory capacity. He remained with the company until age 53, then retired with a pension. Jane Buzhardt was in high demand for her organizational skills and worked for a number of different employers, most notably the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

Buzhardt served as a church elder, spent much of his post-retirement time playing golf and hunting with Jane--an avid sportswoman--joining him, and had time for ample attention to his children and their growing families. Friends and family enjoyed his humorous disposition and the wealth of baseball stories he was always happy to share. But in January 2002, he suffered a stroke as he finished a round of golf.

In recalling his former teammate, Gary Peters told Tribune writer Vanderberg: “John was a nice guy, a good ol’ country boy. Easy to know, easy to get along with.” After more than six years confined to wheelchair following the stroke, but still hospitable and always ready to talk baseball, John Buzhardt passed away at age 71 on June 15, 2008. He is buried in the St. Luke Lutheran Church Cemetery in Prosperity.

 

Sources

Jerome Holtzman and George Vass, Baseball, Chicago Style (Los Angeles: Bonus Books, 2005)

Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998).

Jane Leavy, The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and The End of America‘s Childhood (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010).

Richard C. Lindberg, Total White Sox (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2006).

Rich Marazzi and Len Fiorito, Baseball Players of the 1950s (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2004).

Bob Vanderberg, “In Memory of John Buzhardt,” Chicago Tribune, June 18, 2008.

Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1988.

The Sporting News, Numerous issues, July 7, 1954, through April 12, 1968.

Baseball-Reference.com

BillJamesonline.com

NewberryObserver.com

Philly.com

Retrosheet.org

SIvault.com

John and Jane Buzhardt family scrapbooks and memorabilia. Acknowledgment: Jane Buzhardt, Prosperity, SC.

Author’s interview with Jane Buzhardt, Rick Buzhardt (son) and Jake Buzhardt (grandson), May 31, 2013; Numerous telephone conversations with Rick and Jane Buzhardt, May and June, 2013.

 

Notes

1 Jane Buzhardt recalls that throughout fifty-plus years of marriage, she and John never tired of each others’ company, sharing family life and common interests such as golf and hunting. Separated from her husband for the first time on this occasion, Jane remembers she cried all the way back to Prosperity. The bus driver was so concerned that he insisted she sit at the front of the bus with him.

2 The Cuban Winter League was dominated by pitching that year, with batting averages rarely reaching .280

3 According to Baseball-Reference.com pitching logs, over the course of his career, Buzhardt lost 33 games in which he would have earned a “quality start”a current Sabermetric standard achieved when a starting pitcher gives up fewer than four earned runs over six or more innings pitched. Conversely, Buzhardt was the winning pitcher only six times in his career when he would not have earned a “quality start.”

4 The opposing pitchers during the losing streak included Spahn (twice), Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Curt Simmons, Harvey Haddix, and Ernie Broglio (a 21-game winner, his career high, that season).

5 Buzhardt had great success against the Yankees over his career, posting a 7-0 record with a 2.87 ERA. He told Chicago Tribune writer Bob Vanderberg “The Yankees were the type of ball club that wanted to hit the long ball, and I had a fastball that would sink. I could get the curveball over the plate, and they were probably just a little bit anxious. That’s the only thing I can think of because I wasn’t overpowering.”

6 The downside of being a control pitcher is that opponents are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when hit. Buzhardt hit 43 batters over his major league career, about one every 34 innings pitched. But he hit eight Oriole batters over just 67 innings, four times his career rate. When the Orioles acquired Buzhardt on waivers in 1967, former White Sox teammate and practical joker Eddie Fisher taped a note on Buzhardt’s new locker: “Special batting practice tomorrow for John Buzhardt. All Oriole batters pitching.” But Buzhardt had no recriminations from his new teammates.

7 Linz had just acquired a harmonica, and was trying to master “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the back of the bus. When Berra demanded that the music be stopped, Linz asked ”What did Yogi say?” to which Mickey Mantle answered “He said to play it louder.”

8 Don Buford upped his stolen base output from 17 to 51, and newcomer Tommie Agee added another 45.

9 Buzhardt’s percentage of ground-ball double plays lessened considerably in 1966, indicating a loss of mastery over his career mainstay, the sinking fastball.

10 The Orioles appeared to do Buzhardt a considered favor by shipping him into the National League before the end of the season. The White Sox had let it be known that they would cut Buzhardt in for a share of post-season money, but he would have been ineligible to receive it as a member of another American League team.

11 During Buzhardt’s years in Chicago, the family often spent winters in western suburbs of Bellwood and Westchester. Buzhardt worked in season ticket sales for the Sox. The Sox families frequently traded living quarters with Chicago Blackhawk players. Jane recalls she loved the Chicago and made lifelong friends with Sox players and their wives.

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