SABR

Mike Cuellar

This article was written by Adam Ulrey.

Mike Cuellar was a four-time 20-game winner for the Baltimore Orioles, and the winner of 185 major-league games. He could also lay claim to being the one of the most superstitious players in baseball. “He had a routine and please don’t interfere with it,” remembered a teammate, Paul Blair. “He would walk to the mound the same way, same steps. Step on the mound. Go to the front of the mound, and the rosin bag couldn’t be on there. Somebody had to come and kick the rosin to the back of the mound or he wouldn’t get on the mound. Then he’d walk off the mound the same way. He would come in the dugout the same way; make the same number of steps to the water cooler. Everything had to be the same every time he went out there.”1 Before taking the field, Cuellar sat on the “lucky end” of the training table, wearing a gold-chain medallion, while the trainer massaged his arm. He took batting practice on the day he pitched even after the designated hitter rule was in place. When the team traveled, he wore a blue suit. Whether his superstitions helped his pitching can be debated. But there is no doubt that for most of his eight years with the Orioles, Cuellar was one of the most effective pitchers in the major leagues. A nasty screwball, developed mostly in winter baseball in the Caribbean, saw to that.

Miguel Angel Cuellar Santana was born on May 8, 1937, in Santa Clara, Las Villas province, Cuba. His family, including four boys, worked in the sugar mills. Cuellar did not want to follow in his family’s footsteps and enlisted in the Cuban army for 70 pesos a month because he knew he could play baseball on Saturdays and Sundays. He pitched for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army team in the winter of 1954-55. He hurled a no-hitter that season and was heavily followed by Cuban and American scouts.

After his discharge, the thin (6 feet, 165 pounds) left-hander pitched in the summer of 1956 with a Nicaragua Independent League team, finishing 10-3 with a 2.95 earned-run average. His manager, Emilio Cabrera, immediately brought him to his Almendares team in Cuba for the 1956-57 Winter League season. He pitched in relief (1-1, 0.61 ERA). Before the 1957 season, he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds, who optioned him to their Cuban Sugar Kings (often called the Havana Sugar Kings) affiliate in the International League. He impressed Sugar Kings manager Nap Reyes, who said, “I have coached a lot of pitchers, here in Cuba and in the US, but none so quick to learn as this boy. I have put him in the toughest spots in relief to test him out. He has a good curve but he doesn’t have to vary much. He makes the left-handed batters look pretty bad when he does.”2

Cuellar made a sensational pro debut with Havana in 1957 against Montreal, striking out seven men in a row in 2⅔ innings of no-hit relief. He led the league with a 2.44 earned-run average and posted an 8-7 record in 44 games, 16 of them starts. After another winter with Almendares (4-5 with a 3.03 ERA), he returned to Havana in 1958 and pitched 220 innings, with a 13-12 record and a fine 2.77 ERA. That winter he pitched for again for Almendares, which won the Caribbean Series title. Cuellar was 5-7 with a 3.79 ERA.

In 1959 Cuellar began the season with the Reds but was ineffective in two relief appearances: four innings, seven earned runs on seven hits, for a 15.75 ERA. He was returned to Havana, and did not see the big leagues again for five years.

He found the International League much more to his liking, and he hurled 212 innings, finishing with a 10-11 record but a 2.80 ERA. The Sugar Kings wound up the regular season in third place but upset Columbus and Richmond to win the International League championship, and then captured the Junior World Series title by defeating the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in seven games. (The decisive seventh game was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning.)

The Junior World Series was notable for more than baseball. In Cuba, Batista had just been overthrown by Fidel Castro’s forces, and the games in Havana were played in a fortress-like atmosphere. Because of winter-like weather in Minneapolis, the last five games were all played at Havana’s Gran Stadium. Nearly 3,000 soldiers were at the stadium for the seventh and deciding game, many lining the field and others stationing themselves in the dugouts, their rifles and bayonets clearly evident. “Young people not more than 14 or 15 years old were in the dugout with us, waving their guns around like toys,” recalled Millers pitcher Ted Bowsfield. “Every once in a while, we could hear shots being fired outside the stadium, and we never knew what was going on.”3 Millers manager Gene Mauch reported that the soldiers were not above trying to intimidate the Minneapolis players. “Our players were truly fearful of what might happen if we won,” said Mauch. “But we still tried our hardest, figuring we’d take our chances.”4 Cuellar started Game Two and pitched 7⅓ innings, giving up four earned runs in a no-decision. He pitched in relief in the next two games, picking up a win in Game Four, before getting knocked out early in a Game Six loss. He did not pitch in the final, won 3-2 by Sugar Kings.

From 1960 through 1963, Cuellar bounced around the minor leagues and the Mexican League, playing for six different teams with not a lot of success. After Castro began tightening travel into and out of Cuba, Cuellar chose to play winter ball in Venezuela or Nicaragua rather than return to his native land. By 1964, his contract had been passed from Cincinnati to Detroit to Cleveland to St. Louis, but the 27-year-old seemed no closer to a return to the major leagues.

After five consecutive seasons with under-.500 won-lost records in the high minors, Cuellar turned things around in 1964. Ruben Gomez, a winter league teammate, persuaded him to start throwing a screwball, the pitch that changed Cuellar’s life. He practiced the pitch all winter and spring, and during the 1964 season he threw it 30 percent of the time. For Triple-A Jacksonville, Cuellar logged a 6-1 record and a 1.78 ERA into mid-June. The St. Louis Cardinals called him up to the majors on June 15, and he got into 32 games the rest of the season, starting seven. The August 26 game was special for Mike. When hitless Gene Freese popped weakly to shortstop for the last out, Cuellar finally had his revenge after 5½ seasons. “I hit a pinch-hit home run with the bases loaded off Cuellar in 1959 and that blow sent him back to the minors for five years,” Freese said. “He’s a lot faster and has come with quite a scroogie.”5 Cuellar finished 5-5, but did not see action in the 1964 World Series, in which the Cardinals defeated the New York Yankees.

Cuellar went to Puerto Rico to pitch that winter, and he finished 12-4 with a 2.06 ERA for Arecibo. At one point he had a stretch of 27 scoreless innings and threw four shutouts. He went to spring training hoping to land in the Cardinals’ rotation but instead was optioned back to Jacksonville after Opening Day. After dominating the International League for 10 weeks (9-1 with a 2.51 ERA), he was traded in an all-pitchers deal on June 15 to the Houston Astros with Ron Taylor for Hal Woodeshick and Chuck Taylor. He spent the rest of 1965 with the Astros, finishing 1-4 with a 3.54 ERA in 25 appearances.

At nearly 29 years old, Mike had finally reached the major leagues to stay. By 1966, he was using his screwball between 50 and 60 percent of the time, and had added a curveball that made his fastball appear even sharper. Astros pitching coach Gordon Jones taught Cuellar the curve. Cuellar had been releasing his curve with almost a slider motion but without the good slider break. Jones showed him how to get rotation on the ball by bending the wrist in toward himself and popping the ball loose with the overhand motion.

On June 25, 1966, Cuellar beat the Cardinals and recorded a team-record 15 strikeouts, running his record to 6-0 with a 1.73 ERA. He ended the season by throwing six complete games in a row, including his first major-league shutout, a 2-0 victory over the Pirates on August 29. He finished 12-10 with a 2.22 ERA that was second best in the National League behind Sandy Koufax.

The next season, 1967, Cuellar did it all again, this time with a bit better luck in run support. His ERA rose to 3.03 but he finished 16-11 in 246 innings, including 16 complete games. He pitched two shutout innings in the All-Star Game in Anaheim. After the season the Astros told Cuellar he couldn’t pitch winter ball, which did not sit well with the star. At the time many major-league players played in the winter, and to the Latin players in particular it was an important part of their culture. Cuellar blamed his arm trouble the following season to his not playing in the winter. In 1968 he was just 8-11 (for a last place team), though with a fine 2.74 ERA in 170 innings.

Apparently overreacting to his won-loss record, the Astros traded Cuellar and minor leaguers Elijah Johnson and Enzo Hernandez after the season to the Orioles for infielder-outfielder Curt Blefary and minor leaguer John Mason. Cuellar was having some off-field difficulties, mainly a struggling marriage and related financial problems. Baltimore General Manager Harry Dalton’s scouts told him that his off-field issues could be rectified. Scout Jim Russo raved about Cuellar and recommended his acquisition. When Cuellar came to Baltimore the Orioles helped him get rid of his debt, and Cuellar was soon divorced and remarried. He became immensely popular with his Baltimore teammates. “Cuellar was a wonderful person,” remembered manager Earl Weaver.6

With the Orioles, the combination of his great left arm and the tremendous Orioles team made Cuellar one of baseball’s biggest pitching stars. In his first year with Baltimore, 1969, he put up a 23-11 record with a 2.38 ERA, and he shared the Cy Young Award with Denny McLain of the Tigers. Cuellar set Orioles pitching records for wins and innings pitched (291) and tied the club mark with 18 complete games. He threw five shutouts. In the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins, Cuellar allowed two earned runs in eight innings in a game the Orioles won in the 12th. In the World Series, he outdueled the New York Mets’ Tom Seaver to win the first game, 4-1, but his seven-inning, one-run performance was not enough in Game Four, which the Mets won in the 10th. The Mets won the Series in five games but Cuellar had a stellar 1.13 ERA in 16 innings.

Cuellar’s Baltimore teammates called him Crazy Horse for his weird sense of humor and especially his strange superstitions. Since he had pitched well in 1969 spring training with coach Jim Frey warming him up, only Frey was permitted to catch the Cuban southpaw’s pregame tosses the rest of the year. Elrod Hendricks—nobody else—must stand at the plate for part of that period, simulating a batter. Cuellar would not finish warming up until the opposing starter had finished. He never stepped on the foul line when he took the field; he always picked the ball up from the ground near the mound himself. He would not warm up before an inning with a reserve while his catcher got his gear on—Cuellar waited for the catcher to get behind the plate. As he kept winning, the importance of ritual only grew.

Cuellar’s ERA rose to 3.48 in 1970, but his run support and his remarkable durability allowed him to finish 24-8, with 297⅔ innings pitched and 21 complete games. He typically started slowly, and posted a record of 8-5 with a 4.34 ERA through the end of June. As the weather heated up Cuellar caught fire; in the final three months he went 16-3 with a 2.78 ERA, completing 14 of his 21 starts. Cuellar was joined in a great rotation by Dave McNally (24-9) and Jim Palmer (20-10) The trio made 119 starts and pitched 899 innings. Their 68 victories is the most by three teammates since the 1944 Tigers (also 68).

Paul Blair later said, “With Cuellar, McNally, and Palmer, you could almost ring up 60 wins for us when the season started because each of them was going to win 20. And with Cuellar and McNally, you never knew they were winning 10-0 or losing 0-10. They were the same guys. They were two really great left-handers, and the reason they were so great was they didn’t have the talent Palmer had. They didn’t have the 95-mile-per-hour fastball Palmer had. They had to learn to pitch, know the hitters, hit corners, and they did it. And they never complained. Those kind of guys, you just die for. You break your neck to go out there and win for them.”7

In the first game of the 1970 ALCS against the Minnesota Twins, the Orioles gave Cuellar a 9-1 lead (in part, based on a grand slam he himself hit off Jim Perry in the fourth) but he failed to finished the fifth, though he left the game with a 9-6 lead. Reliever Dick Hall shut down the Twins the rest of the way, beginning an Orioles sweep. Cuellar next got the ball in Game Two of the World Series but could not survive the third inning in a game the Orioles pulled out with a five-run fifth inning over Cincinnati. In Game Five he allowed three hits and three runs in the first before shutting the door, going all the way in a 9-3 victory for his only World Series title, the second for Baltimore.

Cuellar again won 20 games in 1971, finishing 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA. This time he, McNally, and Palmer were joined by a fourth 20-game-winner, Pat Dobson. The Orioles thus became the second team to have four 20-game winners, joining the 1920 Chicago White Sox. Cuellar was 13-1 with a 2.88 ERA at the All-Star break, and pitched two shutout innings for the American League in the All-Star Game. It was the third of his four All-Star selections. Cuellar cooled off in the second half of the season, but the Orioles easily won their third consecutive division title. He defeated Oakland’s Catfish Hunter with a 5-1 six-hitter as the Orioles swept the ALCS. He lost his two World Series starts, against the Pirates, allowing all five runs in a 5-1 loss in Game Three and then falling short in a tough 2-1 loss to Steve Blass in Game Seven. For his career, Cuellar was 2-2 with a 2.61 ERA in five World Series starts.

In 1972, the Orioles’ run of championships ended, though it was mostly the offense that fell off. Cuellar pitched 257 innings with a 2.57 ERA, but slipped to 18-12. After a slow start, he finished 16-8 after June 1, with 15 complete games, including six straight at one point. The Orioles finished third in a tight American League East.

During a May 26 game with the Indians, Cuellar’s superstitious behavior was on full display. After Cleveland left fielder Alex Johnson caught Boog Powell’s fly ball to end the third inning, he slowly jogged the ball back to the infield. Timing his pace with Cuellar’s approach to the mound, Johnson tossed the ball to the pitcher, but Cuellar ducked just in time, and the ball rolled free. Helpfully, the batboy retrieved the ball and threw it to Cuellar. Once more he dodged the ball, which dribbled toward first baseman Boog Powell. Momentarily forgetting his teammate’s habits, Powell threw it squarely at Cuellar, who had no choice but to catch the ball in self-defense. Disgusted but undeterred, Cuellar tossed it to the umpire and asked for a new ball. The umpire obliged, and Cuellar again sidestepped the ball which trickled passed him and stopped right at the feet of his second baseman Bobby Grich. At long last Grich rolled the ball to the mound, and Cuellar picked it up, satisfied now that no evil spirits had invaded his place of business.

Cuellar started slowly again in 1973 (4-9 with a 4.00 ERA through July 7) before again turning it on in the second half of the season (14-4, 2.64 the rest of the way). He was now 36 years old and there were concerns that perhaps his days as an elite pitcher were behind him. Not yet, as manager Earl Weaver again got 267 innings out of Cuellar, including 17 complete games, en route to his 18-13 final record as the Orioles returned to the postseason. In Game Three of the ALCS against the Oakland A’s, Cuellar hooked up with Ken Holtzman in a great pitching duel. Through 10 innings, Cuellar allowed just three hits and one run, but he gave up a game-winning home run to Bert Campaneris in the bottom of the 11th inning to lose 2-1. Holtzman pitched all 11 innings for Oakland and tossed a three-hitter. The Athletics prevailed in the series, 3 games to 2, and went on to win the World Series over the Mets.

Cuellar returned to the 20-game circle in 1974, finishing 22-10 with a 3.11 ERA, 20 complete games, and five shutouts. He was now 37 but showed no signs of aging. His performance earned him the Game One assignment against the A’s in the ALCS, and he pitched eight strong innings to earn the 6-3 victory. His next start, in the fourth game, was not nearly as successful—he had to be relieved in the fifth after allowing just one hit but walking nine. After walking in a run, the first run of the game, he was relieved, and the Athletics won the game, 2-1, to capture the series. It was Cuellar’s 12th and final postseason start, finishing his log at 4-4 with a 2.85 ERA.

Cuellar finally began showing his age in 1975, dropping to 14-12 with a 3.66 ERA, his highest since 1964. He still threw 17 complete games and had five shutouts, but did not have the consistency that had been his hallmark during his Oriole years. After seven years with the Orioles he had 139 victories, just shy of a 20-win average. The following season, the 39-year-old finally imploded, finishing just 4-13 with an ERA of 4.96. Earl Weaver was used to Cuellar’s slow starts, in a season and also in a game, and he was patient with the pitcher long after others thought he needed to make a change. He finally pulled his beloved left-hander at the beginning of August and put him in the bullpen.8

Cuellar was released in December 1976 and was picked up a month later by the Angels, whose general manager was old friend Harry Dalton. But after a terrible spring training and two forgettable regular-season appearances (3⅓ innings, seven runs), he was released by the Angels. Cuellar’s major-league career had come to an end, just shy of his 40th birthday. He continued to pitch in the Mexican League and in winter ball, before finally calling it quits after the 1982-83 winter league season. He was a few months short of his 45th birthday.

Cuellar remained occasionally active in baseball, serving as a pitching coach in the independent leagues and for many years in Puerto Rico. He was an instructor with the Orioles during the last years of his life, and showed up often for team functions and reunions.

Cuellar was a healthy man for many years when he was suddenly diagnosed with stomach cancer in early 2010. He died on April 2 in Orlando, Florida, where he had lived for several years. He was survived by his wife, Myriam; his daughter, Lydia; and his son, Mike, Jr. The latter pitched for five years in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, but did not rise past Double-A ball.

“He was like an artist,” Palmer said after Cuellar died. “He could paint a different picture every time he went out there. He could finesse you. He could curveball you to death or screwball you to death. From 1969 to ’74, he was probably the best left-hander in the American League.”

 

Sources

Weaver, Earl, and Berry Stainback. It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Eisenberg, John. From 33rd Street to Camden Yards—An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2001.

Jorge Colon Delgado and Alberto “Tito” Rondon of SABR’s Latino Baseball Committee

Clippings from Mike Cuellar’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

Thornley, Stew. “Minneapolis Millers vs. Havana Sugar Kings.” The National Pastime (Society for American Baseball Research), No. 12, 1992.

 

Notes

1 Eisenberg, 33rd Street to Camden Yards.

2 The Sporting News, June 19, 1957.

3 The Sporting News, October 7, 1959; October 14, 1959.

4 The Sporting News, October 7, 1959; October 14, 1959.

5 Gene Freese, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Aug 27, 1964.

6 Eisenberg, 33rd Street to Camden Yards, 201.

7 Eisenberg, 33rd Street to Camden Yards, 204.

8 Weaver, It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts, 239.

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