SABR

Al Widmar

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

A baseball lifer, Al Widmar spent almost six decades playing, managing, coaching, and developing players in the major and minor leagues. Widmar, who was the pitching coach for the 1964 Phillies, pitched for the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox with a 13-30 career record and 5.21 ERA in parts of five seasons, but Widmar’s major-league playing career may best be remembered for his threat to sue baseball in 1950 and challenge the reserve clause. With his patience, attention to detail, and astute evaluation of talent, Widmar became a highly successful and respected pitching coach with the Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays.

Born on March 20, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, Albert Joseph Widmar was raised, along with his two older brothers, Joseph and John, by an enterprising and hard-working family. His father, Joseph, emigrated from Slovenia in 1916, worked as a mechanic, and later owned a tavern. In 1921 at the age of 24, he married 18-year-old Anna Jernejcic, whose parents had also emigrated from Southeastern Europe. After their marriage she owned a confectionery shop. At home the Widmars spoke Slovenian. Active in the local sandlot and American Legion baseball leagues, Al attended the prestigious boys’ college preparatory school Cathedral Latin High School, where he attracted the attention of scouts. At the end of his junior year, he signed a contract with the Red Sox’ affiliate in the Class C Middle Atlantic League, the Canton (Ohio) Terriers. Just 17 years old, he reported to the team in June 1942 and posted a 6-2 record and 2.87 ERA in 94 innings before returning to school for his senior year.1 An excellent basketball player, Al spurned scholarship offers to play on the hardwood so he could pursue his dream of pitching in the major leagues.

After graduating from high school in 1943, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Widmar reported to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to play in the Class A Eastern League. Managed by Nemo Leibold, who was renowned for developing young pitchers, Widmar prospered, winning 10 of 15 decisions and posting a 2.22 ERA in 142 innings. The year in Scranton, an industrial city in the northeastern part of the state, was a fortuitous one: He met Elizabeth Ann Dwyer, called Betty, and they married on November 10, 1945.

When Widmar reported to the Red Sox’ top minor-league team, the Louisville Colonels in the American Association, in 1944, he was considered a young prospect of great potential, with a powerful overhand delivery and an impressive fastball. Though he won 12 games for the Colonels, he struggled at times pitching against more mature and seasoned professionals, and his ERA more than doubled from the previous year. He also suffered his first arm miseries, strained ligaments in his elbow, which kept him out of action for several weeks. Bothered by elbow soreness during the next season in Louisville as well, Widmar compensated for his injury by altering his delivery and mechanics and began to throw side-arm to relieve the pain. He finished the 1945 campaign with a 10-8 record and an unimpressive 4.76 ERA. His mediocre showing was attributed to control problems caused by his new delivery.

Pitching for the reigning Junior World Series champions for a third consecutive season, Widmar reinvented himself as a pitcher in 1946. He threw almost exclusively side-arm and overcame some of the control issues that plagued him the previous season. With a team-high 12 victories as a starter and spot reliever, Widmar helped lead the Colonels to their third consecutive Junior World Series appearance, which they lost to the Montreal Royals in six games. The 21-year-old led the American Association with a 2.43 ERA and was added to the Red Sox big-league roster at the end of the season.

Arriving at the Red Sox spring training in 1947 with much fanfare, Widmar struggled yet made the team. On April 25 he made his major-league debut, against the Philadelphia Athletics. He pitched two-thirds of an inning, facing three batters and walking one, to finish the game in an 11-7 loss. In his hometown, Widmar was honored by friends and family and by his parish church, Immaculate Conception, in a pregame ceremony on May 3; however, Cleveland fans may have cheered for the home team when Widmar surrendered a grand slam to Indians’ second sacker Joe Gordon in the fourth inning of the Tribe’s 9-3 triumph. A week later Widmar was optioned to Louisville and did not make it back to the majors the rest of the year.

After a disappointing summer with the Colonels (8-8 with a 4.93 ERA), Widmar was traded on November 17, 1947, along with Pete Layden, Joe Ostrowski, Roy Partee, Eddie Pellagrini, Jim Wilson, and $310,000 cash to the St. Louis Browns in exchange for two All-Stars, pitcher Jack Kramer and infielder Vern Stephens. Widmar arrived at the Browns’ spring-training site in San Bernardino, California, with a chance for a new beginning, but also with the realization that the perennially cash-strapped and cellar-dwelling Browns could not afford their best players.

Used exclusively out of the bullpen, Widmar was the Browns’ most dependable and effective reliever in 1948. Though he won just two of eight decisions, Widmar’s 49 appearances were second-most the American League and his 4.46 ERA in 82⅔ innings was more than a run better than that of any other Browns reliever. Widmar was surprised and felt betrayed when team owner Bill DeWitt announced in midseason that he would sell Widmar’s services to any major-league team for $25,000. Two months after the season’s conclusion, Widmar and first baseman Bryan Stephens were sold to the Baltimore Orioles, the Browns’ International League affiliate.

Like their parent club, the Orioles were a downtrodden, second-tier team. Widmar got off to a fast start, earning ten of the team’s first 21 victories. By midseason, with Widmar on his way to a career-high 22 wins, team president and manager Jack Dunn remarked sarcastically (but somewhat truthfully), “One more Widmar, and I’d be a good manager,” while at the same time bragging that he’d sell Widmar to anyone willing to pay his asking price.2 The Browns sent scout Jack Fournier and his aide, Freddie Hofmann, to Baltimore to evaluate Widmar’s progress and they were impressed.3 Widmar led the league in wins, innings pitched (294), and complete games (26), was named an all-star, and finished second in the league’s MVP voting – all while playing for a 63-91 team. “Everyone agrees that Widmar was the hottest article in the International League this year,” said DeWitt excitedly when he purchased Widmar’s contract at the end of the season.4 However, DeWitt could not have anticipated the tumultuous offseason he would have with his new prized possession.

Not overjoyed to be back with the team that he believed betrayed him, Widmar approached DeWitt about playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. DeWitt’s response set off a chain of events that came to define Widmar’s major-league career. Widmar took DeWitt’s suggestion to play in Cuba, where games were played much less frequently than in the Dominican Republic. Unexpectedly, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler denied the request, setting off a controversy with wide-ranging implications. Dissatisfied with his new contract with the Browns and not permitted to play winter ball, Widmar threatened to quit baseball. “I can’t stay in baseball unless I get more money from a major-league club than I got in the minor leagues,” he fumed about his salary reduction.5 He asked to be released to the Orioles or to be placed on the voluntarily retired list in order to play in Cuba, but DeWitt refused. Feeling trapped and exploited, Widmar refused to report to the Browns’ spring training. “I’m definitely not going to California,” he said. “We had this same trouble after the 1948 season. Everybody seemed to think I pitched good ball, but DeWitt disagreed.” He remained at his offseason home in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Scranton, and sold cars.6 In order to stay in shape, he coached basketball at the University of Scranton under head coach Doug Holcomb and played professional basketball for the Allentown Aces of the American Basketball League.

As Widmar’s holdout progressed and his relationship with DeWitt and the Browns worsened, the pitcher stunned the baseball community when he announced plans to sue major-league baseball on the grounds that the reserve clause was illegal and prohibited him from earning a decent living. On the heels of Danny Gardella’s lawsuit against major-league baseball resulting from his five-year ban after he jumped to the Mexican League in 1946, Widmar’s charges made national headlines. “The Browns gave up on me. My own suggestion is that I be dealt to another major club. I’d rather pitch for Baltimore than for the Browns,” he said, explaining his stance.7

Concerned about the financial ramifications and potential costs of another lawsuit, Commissioner Chandler personally intervened to resolve the impasse, and called Widmar. “Chandler assured me that he felt the whole affair could be closed up if I gave up my plans of taking my case to court and deal directly with Bill DeWitt,” Widmar said.8 Allegedly, Chandler dictated to DeWitt a new contract and salary increase for Widmar. Though the terms of the contract were not revealed, they were good enough for Widmar and he reported to the Browns on Opening Day, April 18, 1950.

Without the benefit of spring training, Widmar struggled in his first four games, allowing 11 earned runs in 10⅔ innings. Around this time, Widmar was given the nickname “The Ghost” because of his pale complexion by his batterymate, Les Moss. During the course of the season, the 25-year-old Widmar revealed himself as a capable if unspectacular starter. On May 24 he notched his first victory as a starter and his first complete game by holding the Athletics to four hits and one unearned run in a 7-1 contest. Going the distance in five of his seven wins during the season, he had a moment of pitching glory on June 27 when he faced one of his childhood heroes, Bob Feller. “You’ll never be satisfied until you beat Bob Feller,” Widmar’s father once told him.9 Going for his 200th career victory, Feller pitched a complete game; Widmar matched him and gave up just five hits in a complete game 4-3 victory at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. On September 12 Widmar tossed the best game of his career and his only career shutout by holding the hapless A’s to three hits. He finished the season with a 7-15 record, a career-high 194⅔ innings, and a 4.76 ERA.

Unlike the previous season, Widmar was one of the first Browns to sign a contract for 1951. Despite a good spring training, he was hit hard when the season opened. He yielded 17 earned runs in just 11⅔ innings before tossing a complete-game victory over his former team, the Red Sox, on May 6. With an arsenal of fastballs and especially sliders and curveballs, Widmar liked to work quickly on the mound. His complete-game 8-2 win over Boston was typical: It lasted just 1 hour and 59 minutes.10 Bill Veeck purchased the Browns from the DeWitts and took control of the team on July 5. Although the losing continued, the games gained a circus-like atmosphere. Playing standup bass, Widmar joined coach Ed Redys (accordion) and teammates Satchel Paige (drums) and Johnny Berardino (maracas) to form a “team band” that occasionally played before games. Widmar alternated between the starting rotation and bullpen, and was inconsistent in his last full season in the majors, finishing with a 4-9 record and 6.52 ERA in 107⅔ innings.

Widmar’s offseason was a busy one. In light of the national headlines about his threat to sue baseball, Congress, led by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Study of Monopoly Power, initiated hearings on Major League Baseball’s antitrust immunity granted by the US Supreme Court in 1922. As reported in The Sporting News, Widmar was the first active major leaguer to testify under oath. Though he did not suggest that the reserve clause be abolished, he argued in favor of an impartial arbitrator to settle salary disputes between players and management and thought a players’ guild (conspicuously absent was the word “union”) would be beneficial for players.11 In reference to the Gardella case, Widmar criticized Major League Baseball for blacklisting players who jumped to “outlaw leagues” in order to earn higher salaries. Ultimately, the hearings were adjourned without legislation introduced to repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption.

Six weeks after testifying in Washington, Widmar was involved in another multiplayer deal when the Browns sent him, catcher Sherm Lollar, and shortstop Tom Upton to the Chicago White Sox for shortstop Joe DeMaestri, first baseman Gordon Goldsberry, pitcher Dick Littlefield, catcher Gus Niarhos, and outfielder Jim Rivera. In the third game of the 1951 season, Widmar pitched two innings of relief against the Indians, giving up one run and four hits. It turned out to be his last game in the major leagues. On April 28 the White Sox sold his contract to the Seattle Rainiers, an unaffiliated team in the Pacific Coast League. In less than a full season, Widmar, often working on short rest, won 20 games (third most in the league) and posted a 2.30 ERA (second best in the league) in 246 innings in the PCL.

The Rainers’ staff ace, Widmar won 20 games again in 1953, before slipping to 8-13 in 1954. Though he never participated in a major-league spring training after the sale of his contract to Seattle, Widmar caught the attention of recently retired Joe DiMaggio who saw him pitch in Seals Stadium in DiMaggio’s hometown of San Francisco in 1954. “Al Widmar has his slider, curve, and fastball all working today,” he said. “When he’s right, he’s tough.”12 One might question if Widmar’s threat of a lawsuit and his testimony at the congressional hearings negatively affected his return to the major leagues; however, no proof exists that he was blacklisted.

Widmar was a holdout during the offseason because of a salary dispute with Seattle, and he joined the team the day before the 1955 season began. After being used exclusively as a reliever in the first month of the season, Widmar was sold to the Tulsa Oilers, the Cleveland Indians’ affiliate in the Double-A Texas League. Described by The Sporting News as a “relief ace,” Widmar set an “unofficial” league record by recording three wins in relief in two days on June 7 and 8, and was named to the all-star team.13 With ten spot starts, four of them shutouts, he finished with an 18-8 record and a 3.14 ERA.

Widmar’s career in baseball was transformed suddenly when he was named player-manager of the Oilers at the conclusion of the 1955 season. For the next 45 years, until 2000, Widmar established his reputation as one of the most attentive and effective developers of young talent in baseball, especially pitchers. He served in the capacities of minor-league manager, major-league pitching coach, director of player development, and scout.

In 1956 the Oilers switched their working agreement to the Chicago Cubs, and Widmar was able to initiate his coaching career by working with Cubs pitchers at spring training. Back in Tulsa as player-manager, Widmar pitched six innings of relief to win on Opening Day and finished with a team-high 11 victories. Enjoying the climate and the hospitality of the city, he and Betty settled in Tulsa, where they raised their three children, Joanne, Tom, and Michael, and Al owned a men’s clothing store.

Widmar’s 13-year affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies began in 1957 after the team signed a working agreement with the Oilers and retained him as player-manager. He led the team to another playoff berth that season and was arguably their most effective pitcher (9-12 with a 3.42 ERA; the team made the playoffs despite a 75-79 record). With the team struggling the following season, Widmar was dropped as player-manager and was named pitching coach for the entire Phillies farm system. After a five-year career in the major leagues and 14 years in the minors, where he notched 169 victories and logged 2,431⅓ innings, Widmar’s active pitching days were behind him.

Widmar was a popular coach in the Phillies organization. His energy and determination to help young players was boundless and his impact on pitching, far-reaching. In addition to serving as the team’s primary minor-league roving pitching instructor and working with prospects in the Florida Instructional League and winter ball in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Widmar served two stints as the Phillies’ major-league pitching coach (1962-64 and 1968-69). He was widely credited with developing Chris Short, Ray Culp, Grant Jackson, and Rick Wise into all-star pitchers.

Widmar was with the Milwaukee Brewers organization from 1970 to 1977, and his coaching imprint was felt throughout the organization after its move from Seattle. Al seemed to be everywhere: from managing the team’s affiliate in the Arizona Instructional League and coaching prospects in winter leagues to stepping in as an interim minor-league manager in three consecutive summers (1971-73) and serving as big-league pitching coach (in 1973 and 1974). The Brewers drafted his son, Tom, in the 26th round in the 1972 amateur draft, though Tom never made it to the big leagues. As the Brewers’ director of player development, Widmar played a key role in drafting and developing the core of players (Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Jim Gantner, Moose Haas, and Lary Sorensen) who helped lead the team to its first winning season in 1978 and a World Series berth in 1982.

After two years with the Baltimore Orioles, Widmar was named pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, where he was reunited with first-year manager Bobby Mattick, who had hired Widmar in 1970 as director of player development in the Brewers organization. With his keen eye for talent, Widmar served as the Blue Jays’ pitching coach for ten seasons (1980-89) and helped transform them into one of the most consistent and best teams in baseball. “Insiders are giving some of the credit to new pitching coach Al Widmar,” reported The Sporting News about Toronto’s surprising pitching staff in 1980.14 It was an oft-repeated sentiment throughout the decade. Lauded for his development of Jim Clancy, Tom Henke, Jimmy Key, and Dave Stieb into All-Star pitchers, and for resurrecting the career of Doyle Alexander, Widmar, 64 years old, relinquished his position for health reasons after the 1989 season. From 1990 until his retirement in 2000, he was a special-assignment scout and then a special assistant to general managers Pat Gillick and Gordon Ash.

In retirement, Al lived with his wife in Tulsa, Less than a month shy of their 60th wedding anniversary, he died from colon cancer on October 15, 2005, at the age of 80. His wife died less than three months later, on January 3, 2006 . They are buried in Floral Haven Memorial Gardens in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

 


This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Notes

1 All major- and minor-league statistics have been verified on BaseballReference.com: www.baseball-reference.com

2 The Sporting News, August 24, 1949, 32

3 The Sporting News, August 3, 1949, 7.

4 The Sporting News, September 21, 1949, 12.

5 The Sporting News, February, 8, 1950, 22.

6 The Sporting News, March 22, 1950, 24.

7 Associated Press, “Browns Hurler Al Widmar Threatens to Sue Baseball,” in Portland (Maine) Press Herald, April 11, 1950, 1.

8 The Sporting News, April 26, 1950, 7.

9 The Sporting News, July 5, 1950, 30.

10 The Sporting News, May 31, 1950, 10.

11 The Sporting News, October 24, 1951, 7-8.

12 The Sporting News, April 14, 1954, 36.

13 The Sporting News, June 22, 1955, 33.

14 The Sporting News, May 31, 1980, 33.

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