SABR

Kent Tekulve

This article was written by Bob Hurte.

At the Pirates’ minor league pitching camp in 1970, Harding Peterson, then the team’s minor league director, told two pitching prospects to abandon their sidearm pitching delivery. Fortunately neither listened, as each would become a Pirate World Series hero, with Bruce Kison starring in 1971 and Kent Tekulve in 1979 with the “We are Family” champs. During off-season banquets, Tekulve said, “That’s how smart you need to be as the general manager of a World Series champion.”

Kenton Charles Tekulve was born on March 5, 1947, in Cincinnati to Edna and Henry Tekulve, and his younger brother Jerry came along a few years later. Kent was named after a used car dealer his parents patronized and claims, “I might be the only major leaguer ever named after a used car dealer!”

Like many other boys across America, Tekulve’s first exposure to baseball was playing catch with his father. His dad pitched in the semi-pro leagues throughout Ohio and shared his love of baseball with his oldest son.

The Tekulves lived in Fairfield, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. Kent began playing Little League at nine years old, with Henry as his coach. The younger Tekulve started pitching at eleven; his father did not change his three-quarters sidearm motion. Kent played Little League and Babe Ruth League while growing up before heading off to Hamilton Catholic for high school.

He made the high school team as a freshman but was cut as a sophomore. Unlike other high school pitchers, he did not bat clean-up and play another position on the days he was not pitching. Kent always batted ninth and only pitched. Tekulve earned a varsity letter both his junior and senior years.

After high school, Kent attended Marietta College (1966-69). It was here that his sidearm style began developing into a roundhouse delivery. He recorded the fifth lowest ERA (0.94) in the school’s history during his senior year and was selected to the All-Ohio Athletic Conference second team. The press box at Don Schaly Stadium was renamed the Kent Tekulve Media Building in 1994.

No one drafted him after his successful college career, although he was invited to a tryout at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh during July of 1969. When he got there, he was not asked to pitch. “I just lolled around in the stands and watched.”[1]

He later learned that the snub was intentional. The coaches found his running inability to be funny. This seemed unfair since his forte was pitching. Years later, Kent explained; “Now that was ridiculous. If I could run, I’d be stealing bases.” Eventually he received a private audience to throw after everyone left. Dick Coury, a local scout, signed him on the spot. Two nights later he was pitching for the Geneva Pirates of the New York-Penn League. The next season, 1970, the Pirates switched him to relief when he reported to Salem, Virginia, of the Carolina League. Teke moved on to Sherbrooke (AA) of the Eastern League in 1972, where he experimented with his trademark submarine delivery. He patterned himself after Ted Abernathy, whom he watched while growing up around Cincinnati when Ted pitched for the Reds. Pitching exclusively in relief for Sherbrooke in 1973, his 12 wins tied for the lead in the Eastern League.

Tekulve was given an outside chance in 1974 of making the Pirates’ big club, but was sent down to the minors for additional seasoning. Teke made his major league debut on May 20, 1974, giving up a hit and no runs while pitching one inning of a 4-2 loss to the Montreal Expos. His first win came on May 27, 1974, when he gave up a tie-breaking homer to John Grubb of the Padres in the top of the ninth; fortunately for the Pirates and Tekulve, Richie Hebner hit a two-run homer in the bottom half to win the game.

Kent was available in the 1974 minor league draft after the season; however, all 23 teams passed. Kent returned to pitch successfully at AAA Charleston of the International League. After being recalled to the majors, Kent went on to appear in 34 games for the Pirates in 1975. He also got his first major league hit off Dale Murray of Montreal using a bat borrowed from Bob Robertson.

Kent got his first playoff exposure in 1975, appearing in two games of the National League Championship Series against the Reds. After the playoffs he went to Aguilas of the Dominican League, where he led the league with an ERA of 1.00.

Teke established himself as the top man in the Pirate bullpen during the 1976 season. He appeared in 64 games, going 5-3, with a 2.45 ERA and nine saves. At first, he appeared in mop up situations, but the failures of the Pirates bullpen forced manager Danny Murtaugh to call on him when it counted. Teke was especially effective in September when he posted a 1.64 ERA in 14 games. The Pirates finished in second place with a mark of 92-70, nine games behind the Phillies. Pittsburgh made several important moves during the off-season, but the most important may have been the acquisition of manager Chuck Tanner.

The new bullpen ace of the Pirates also made a personnel move after the 1976 season. Kent married the former Linda Taylor of Washington, Pennsylvania, on October 30th. They met at the Quality Court in North Versailles shortly after he joined the team in 1975.

Many of the Pirates had exceptional seasons in 1977. Right fielder Dave Parker won his first batting title, first baseman Bill Robinson had his only 100-RBI season, and speedy shortstop Frank Taveras set the club record for stolen bases with 70. Kent put together an impressive record as Goose Gossage’s setup man. He was 10-1 with a 3.06 ERA and seven saves in 72 games. Tekulve was not happy with his secondary role, but he never popped off about how he was used. It was a season of adjustment for him. “I had to adjust to middle-inning relief early, then I had to adjust to when I started getting the call late in the game. When you’re the late man, the game most often is on the line. And I like that challenge.”[2] The Pirates finished second to the Phillies, five games back.

After the season, Gossage tested the free agent waters and signed with the Yankees. Although the team tried to trade for a dominant closer, they stayed in-house with Tekulve. Chuck Tanner sang his submarine reliever’s praises. “Teke made my job easier. Anytime a manager can count on one pitcher to pitch four to five times a week, it makes his job easier.”[3] Teke regained his closer role in 1978 and never lost his late inning mentality.

For the third season in a row, the Bucs finished behind Philadelphia, this time by one and a half games. Their last four games of the season were against the Phillies, and Kent won both ends of a double header on September 29th before picking up his 31st save on October 1st. He finished second to Rollie Fingers as the Rolaids Fireman of the Year.

Teke entered 1979 as the Pirates’ closer. The Pirates entering the ninth inning with a lead came to be known as Tekulve Time.[4] The loud speakers at Three Rivers would blare: “Hey, y’all prepare yourself, for the Rubber Band Man…You’re bound to lose control, when the Rubber band man starts to jam!”[5]

Seeing Teke coming in from the bullpen was a familiar sight to Pirate fans. But seeing him go to left field was not. This happened on September 1, 1979. Pittsburgh was in San Francisco on a West Coast trip and, Chuck Tanner evoked an unusual strategy. He walked to the mound with Teke pitching and southpaw Grant “Buck” Jackson warming up in the pen. Darrell Evans, a lefty power hitter, was due up. It seemed logical for Jackson to come in. What was not logical was for Tanner to send Tekulve to let field. But that is what he did.

Tanner’s idea was to keep Teke in the game to face the next batter if Jackson did not get Evans out. Kent strolled out to left; he professionally picked up a few blades of grass and tossed them up into the air to check for velocity and direction of the wind. Evans was a notorious pull hitter, but he got around late on Jackson, resulting in a fly ball to Tekulve. The new leftfielder did not move and caught the third out.

After three consecutive second-place finishes to the Phillies, the Pirates finally won the NL’s Eastern Division, clinching on the last day of the season. The Bucs needed the Phillies to win over the Expos and their own victory over the Cubs on the final day in order to clinch. It was especially fitting that Kison got the win and Tekulve nailed down the save.

Roger Angell defined the team’s character thusly: “All year at Three Rivers Stadium the loudspeakers blasted out the Pirates’ theme song during the seventh inning stretch – a thumping, catchy, disco rock number, ‘We are Family’ by Sister Sledge!” Willie Stargell first heard the song during batting practice in St. Louis.[6]

Pittsburgh squared off with their old nemesis, the Cincinnati Reds, for the National League pennant. In a reversal of their last meeting in the playoffs, the Bucs swept the Big Red Machine. Tekulve appeared in the first two games, throwing 2 2/3 shutout innings. The Pirates earned the right to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

The 1979 World Series started at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on October 10th. The first game was won 5-4 by Baltimore after the Orioles jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first inning. The second game was a see-saw contest that the Pirates won, 3-2. Tekulve worked a scoreless ninth for his first World Series save. The Orioles won the third game 8-4 and went up two games to one.

The Orioles increased their lead to three games to one in game four thanks to a rare blown save by Tekulve. With one out and the bases loaded in the eighth, Tanner signaled for his bullpen ace and the public address system blasted “Rubber Band Man” with his entrance. This was not to be Tekulve’s night, however. He allowed three hits and a walk in the eighth, as the 6-3 Pirate lead disintegrated into a 9-6 lead for the Orioles, which held as the final score.

The Pirates hoped to stop the bleeding for game six. They relied on the successful partnership of John Candelaria and Tekulve, resulting in a 4-0 win. The “Candy Man” garnered his first World Series win as Kent earned his second save. Tekulve entered in the seventh with the Pirates leading 2-0. He shut the door on the Orioles. His pitching line: three innings, one hit, no runs and four strikeouts.

The two teams squared of for the seventh game on October 17th. Pittsburgh was up 2-1 when Tanner brought in Tekulve for the bottom of the eighth, two Orioles on and one out. Standing at the plate was the familiar face of Terry Crowley, who had smacked a two-RBI double off of Teke in game four. Willie Stargell met Teke out at the mound. “Teke, show the people why you’re the best in the National League. And if you don’t think you can do that, then play first and I’ll pitch!”[7]

Kent got Crowley to bounce out to second. Next he intentionally walked Ken Singleton to load the bases and bring up Eddie Murray, who was on a 0-20 streak. Murray hit a line drive to right field, the kind Parker normally caught easily. Dave slipped a couple of times. “I thought that, ‘I hope his legs don’t fail him now, but he’s made those plays all year and somehow I knew he would get it,” remembered Tekulve. Parker caught the ball, and the threat was over.

In the bottom of the ninth, Kent struck out Gary Roenicke and Doug DeCinces, leaving him to face pinch hitter Pat Kelly one out from a World Championship. “I threw the ball and did not see the catch. I was so wrapped up in the game that it didn’t hit me until the ball was in the air and Omar [Moreno, Pirate center fielder] caught it. I then thought. World Championship; it’s our and nobody can take it away!”[8]

While Kent was already a celebrity in the Pittsburgh area, his performances during the Series strengthened it. Shortly after the Pirates’ victory he attempted to buy diapers at a local department store for his infant son, Jonathan. Bedlam broke out. He spent over two hours signing everything from pillowcases to sales receipts. This event caused him to chuckle, “By the time I get out of here, my son will be toilet trained.” [9]

Kent finished fifth for the Cy Young award that season, just as he had in 1978, but he took more pride in pitching in nearly 100 games on the season.

Chuck Tanner chose him for the All-Star squad in 1980, the only time he made it to the Mid-Summer Classic. Kent did not pitch in the National League’s 4-2 victory. Teke had mechanical difficulties and struggled during the season. His bread and butter pitch was his sinker, but it was not sinking, and his slider was also hanging. “I wasn’t doing the basics,” Tekulve recalled. “I wasn’t following through. I wasn’t driving with my motion. All mechanical.”[10] Still, he earned his 100th career save that season.

Tekulve’s struggles continued into 1981. He ended a personal 10-game losing streak that dated back to August 29, with a win on May 26th against Chicago. The team had their first losing season since 1973. The Pirates returned to their winning ways in 1982. Kent appeared in 85 games, ending up with a slate of 12-8 and 20 saves. But he was no longer the dominant closer. For instance, he gave up 11 runs during consecutive outings on July 7th and 8th.

The 1983 season proved successful on the field (18 saves, 1.64 ERA). He decided to test free agency, seeking a four-year deal. Teke and the Pirates were far apart in negotiations, and he became a free agent. Next to Gossage he was the most coveted reliever on the market. Just before Christmas, Tekulve and the Pirates came to an agreement paying him $900,000 per season for 1984-86.

After 1984, Tekulve made it known that he did not like the way he was used, but he did not mention it until the off-season. Tanner took exception to the comments. “I don’t like to hear that Teke is saying such things. It seems that he is making excuses for himself. Sometimes I was confused with the way he pitched. We didn’t score many runs last season and we didn’t have the luxury of putting Tekulve in with a three- or four-run lead. Sometimes he didn’t get the job done but I consider him a quality pitcher and he is always ready to pitch.”[11]

Kenton Tekulve was traded to the Phillies on April 20, 1985, for Al Holland. In Teke’s first two appearances for the Phillies he allowed just an infield hit in four innings, and the Phillies returned him to the closer role. He won his first game for the Phillies on April 29th, when he pitched 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in the Phils’ 3-2 win over Montreal. Tekulve finished 1985 as the Phillies closer, marking the last time he served in that role as a major leaguer. His stats were a respectable 4-10, 2.99 with 14 saves. He pitched three more years in Philadelphia as a setup man for Steve Bedrosian. Bedrock enjoyed his best years during that time, posting 29, 40, and 28 saves, and winning the NL Cy Young award in 1987.

Teke passed Elroy Face’s record of 819 pitching appearances for one team on July 14, 1986. A modest Tekulve said, “It means a lot to me to have broken a record held by Elroy Face. Most of my career was spent in Pittsburgh where Face was a big part of the club’s history.”[12]

He continued to add to his record by leading the National League with 90 appearances in 1987, a mark that still stands as the Phillies team record for appearances in a season. At the age of 40 he became the oldest pitcher to lead the league in appearances. He also moved past Cy Young and Lindy McDaniel into second place on the all-time list in 1988. After pitching his 1,000th career game, catcher Lance Parrish asked Tekulve whether he was nervous. Responding in typical fashion, Teke said, “Heck, I’ve had 999 times to practice.”[13]

Kent ended 1988 six games short of passing Hoyt Wilhelm’s career record for pitching appearances, but the Phillies decided not to offer him a contract. Several teams expressed interest, but he decided to go to the Reds’ spring training as a non-roster player. He made the team and was signed to a one-year contract. The plan was for him to be a setup man for a young John Franco. On April 17th, he passed Wilhelm. Teke struggled and was never comfortable with his role. He retired on July 17, 1989, explaining, “After all those years of being in the middle of things, I wasn’t enjoying being on the fringe.”[14]

Later that season the Pirates honored him at Three Rivers Stadium. He received an oil painting of himself pitching, a golf cart, a crystal bowl, and a lifetime pass to Pirate games. Linda was given a gold necklace with 27 diamonds representing Teke’s uniform number when a Pirate.

Kent could not stay away from baseball. He became a member of the Phillies broadcast team in 1991, and stayed on until 1997. He returned to the Western Pennsylvania area as the general manager and pitching coach of the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League in 2003, and in 2006 became an advance scout for the Pirates. As of 2010, he works as a post-game analyst for the Pirate games, and serves as the President of the Pirates Alumni Association.

He is especially proud of his William A. “Bill” Shea Distinguished Little League Graduate Award in 2008. The award is presented each year to a former Little Leaguer who went onto Major League Baseball and exemplified the true spirit of baseball.

Kent and Linda Tekulve still live in Pittsburgh. They have four children: Chris, Jonathan, Beth and Brian, along with two grandchildren.

“Hey, y’all prepare yourself, for the rubber Band Man…”

Sources

The Sporting News, February 23, 1974 – September 18, 1989.

The Daily Courier, Connellsville, Pa., May 20, 1974.

The Sporting News, “Late Arriver Tekulve of Buc Firemen,” Charlie Feeney, August

28, 1976.

The Sporting News, “Pirates Grow hoggish in the Bullpen,” December 25, 1976.

The Sporting News, “Mr. Bones Cuts Fine Figure as Bucco End Man,” October 5, 1978.

Sports Illustrated, “A Series of Ups and Downs,” - Ron Fimrite, October 22, 1979

Sports Illustrated, “Rising from the Ashes,” - Ron Fimrite, October 29, 1979.

Sports Illustrated, “Here it Comes, Special Delivery,” May 5, 1980

Pittsburgh Press, “Whew, Its Over! Bucs are Champs!” October 18, 1979.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Size/On Air: experienced Tekulve has given FSN spot-on analysis,” May 20, 2008

Little League On-Line, “Former MLB Relief Pitcher Kent Tekulve to Receive Bill Shea Distinguished Little League Graduate Award,” – Little League Communication Division, August 15, 2008.

The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia, “The Top 100 Players,” David Finoli & Bill Ranier, Sports Publishing, 2003.

Willie Stargell: An Autobiography, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, Willie Stargell and Tom Bird, p 210, 1984.

The Pirate Reader, “Once More Around the Park,” Roger Angell, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Tales From the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates: Remembering “The Fam-A-Lee”, John McCollister, Champaign, IL, Sports Publishing LLC.

Interview with Kent Tekulve, 1-14-2010. (All quotes otherwise unsourced are taken from this interview).






[1] Sports Illustrated, 5-5-1980


[2] The Sporting News, 10-8-1977


[3] The Sporting News, 10-21-1978


[4] The Sporting News, 5-26-1979


[5] The Spinners, “The Rubber Band Man” 1976


[6] Once Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, Roger Angel, 2001


[7] The Sporting News, 11-3-1979


[8] Pittsburgh Press, 10-18-1979


[9] Sports Illustrated, 5-5-1980


[10] The Sporting News, 10-4-1980


[11] The Sporting News, 12-10-1984


[12] The Sporting News, 7-28-1986


[13] The Sporting News, 9-12-1988


[14] The Sporting News, 5-1989
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