One of the most dependable relief pitchers for the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros during a 13-year major-league career that spanned 1961-1973, Fred Gladding was a 6-foot 1-inch, 220-pound, glasses-wearing right-hander. Given a variety of nicknames by teammates that characterized his demeanor on the field and physical appearance, Gladding was a strong-willed competitor with a gruff façade. Off the field, however, “He was as down to earth a person you could find, who took whatever life brought to him in stride.”1
Fred Earl Gladding was born on June 28, 1936, in Flat Rock, Michigan. He was the youngest of three children born to Friedrich August and Elizabeth (Konaraska) Gladding. He had an older brother, Arthur, and an older sister, Lillian. Both were considerably older than Fred. Arthur was born in 1920 and Lillian was born in 1923. At that time, Flat Rock was a small rural community on the southern border of Wayne County, about 30 minutes south of Detroit. Fred’s father was a second-generation Michigan farmer and diehard Detroit Tigers fan.
Born with a lazy eye – he was legally blind in his left eye – Fred realized early on that he could never make it as a hitter, so he turned to pitching. As a child, Fred was often found throwing a baseball against the side of the barn or a tennis ball against a boulder for hours on end. Ultimately, it was the same persistence that helped him overcome his disability that proved to be an asset as he navigated a circuitous route through the Tigers’ minor-league system.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Gladding grew up as a Tigers fan and like many boys growing up in southeastern Michigan, he dreamed of playing baseball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, at what was then called Briggs Stadium.2 Later in life, when asked if he dreamed of one day playing for the Tigers, he smiled and with a gentle chuckle replied, “That’s all I thought about.”3
Growing up, Gladding’s favorite player was another bespectacled pitcher, Dizzy Trout. The right-handed Trout carried a signature red bandanna that he used to wipe his glasses on the mound. Gladding later emulated his hero by carrying a red bandanna to the mound while he was in the minors.4
Gladding graduated from Flat Rock High School in 1955. In 1956 he achieved the first step of his dream when the Tigers signed him to his first pro contract.5 He received a $4,000 signing bonus and was assigned to the Valdosta Tigers of the Class-D Georgia-Florida League.6 In 35 games, 21 as a starter, Gladding went 11-9 with a 2.76 ERA as Valdosta ran away with the league title with a record of 94-45, 14½ games ahead of the second-place Waycross Braves.
The 20-year-old Gladding returned to Valdosta in 1957. He started 24 games and appeared in 37 in all, on his way to a 16-8 record with a 2.12 earned-run average. That year the Tigers finished in second place with a record of 77-62, seven games behind the Albany Cardinals.
Leaving spring training in 1958, Gladding made what appeared to be an improbable jump from Class-D Valdosta to Triple-A Charleston. After going 0-2 in three outings, he was demoted to the Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern Association. After three outings in Birmingham, he was sent down to the Augusta (Georgia) Tigers of the Class-A South Atlantic League. On May 25 he made his Sally League debut and pitched a seven-inning no-hitter in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Macon Dodgers.7 Gladding faced 23 Macon hitters as two drew walks and two reached on Tigers errors.8 He was 12-7 with a 3.04 ERA for Augusta.
Gladding returned to the Sally League to start 1959. This time he was with the Johnny Pesky-led Knoxville Smokies, the Tigers’ new Class-A affiliate. In 20 appearances with the Smokies (11 as a starter and nine in relief), Gladding went 6-2 with a 3.56 ERA. He finished the season by making seven starts for the Southern Association champion Birmingham Barons and went 2-3 with a 5.54 ERA.
It was during this second stint with the Barons that the Gladding was given one of his nicknames, The Bear. A journeyman minor-league catcher and batterymate, Ron “Gabby” Witucki, hung the moniker on Gladding, not because of his physical characteristics but more for his behavior on the mound. Gladding explained the origin of the name to The Sporting News. “I used to get mad on the mound and I’d stomp around like a bear in a berry patch,” he confessed.9 “He started calling me Bear.”10
The 1959 season had another profound impact on the Gladding’s future. While on the disabled list with the Smokies, Gladding was driving on Kingston Pike, a highway in Knoxville, and spotted a young University of Tennessee student who caught his eye. Her name was Margie Clotfelter. After following her, Gladding pulled up beside her, introduced himself, and asked her out.11 The two hit if off immediately and on September 19, 1960, they were married. The marriage lasted nearly 55 years and was ended only by Gladding’s death.12
Following a similar pattern established during the prior two seasons, Gladding started the 1960 back in Knoxville. In 23 games with the Smokies, 13 as a starter, he went 9-5 with a 2.43 ERA and three shutouts. He made a single appearance with Birmingham, the third consecutive year he played for the Barons, before being promoted to the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate Denver Bears. He appeared in 14 games with the Bears, nine as a starter, and had a record of 3-2 with a 2.35 ERA.
Gladding started the 1961 season with Denver, just one step away from his goal of playing for the Tigers. He was 7-3 with a 2.20 ERA when, after toiling for in the minors for six seasons, he was finally called up by Detroit.
On July 1, 1961, Gladding made his major-league debut at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium when he came on in relief of right-hander Bob Bruce to start the bottom of the fifth. Orioles first basemen Jim Gentile, who had already hit a home run in the first inning, welcomed Gladding to the majors with a home run to deep center field to increase the Orioles’ lead to 5-3. Gladding then settled down to pitch 2⅓ innings without yielding another run. He left the game with the Tigers leading 6-5 and was within one out of earning his first major-league victory when the Orioles scored two runs off Hank Aguirre to send the game into extra innings. The Tigers eventually won the game in 11 innings.
Gladding earned his first major-league victory a week later against the California Angels at Tiger Stadium. With the score tied 2-2, he came on and pitched a scoreless eighth inning. In the bottom of the inning, Tigers third baseman Steve Boros singled home Billy Bruton to put the rookie in line for his first career win. After Gladding allowed the first two Angels to reach in the top of the ninth, Terry Fox and Aguirre came in to nail down his first career victory.
Gladding appeared in eight games for the Tigers that summer and finished with a record of 1-0 and a 3.31 ERA. Despite his success, albeit limited, he spent the next two summers shuttling back and forth between the Tigers and their Triple-A affiliates.
Gladding started the 1962 season with the Tigers and was used sparingly in April and May. He was 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA over five innings in six appearances before being optioned back to Denver, where he endured a nine-game losing streak. The losing streak prompted thoughts of quitting baseball altogether.13 He finished the year with a record of 6-12 and 3.82 ERA.
The Bear was optioned to the International League’s Syracuse Chiefs to start 1963. Used almost exclusively as a reliever, he was 4-2 with a 3.93 ERA when he was brought up to fill the roster spot that was vacated when the team sold veteran right-hander Tom Sturdivant to the Kansas City Athletics.14 Gladding pitched well for the Tigers. He appeared in 22 games and finished with a record of 1-1 and a 1.98 ERA.
There was something else for the Gladdings to celebrate in 1963. Fred and Margie became new parents when they welcomed a daughter, Brenda, into the world. Brenda was the only child the Gladdings had.
Despite giving up some costly home runs during spring training in 1964, Gladding joined right-hander Alan Koch and left-handers Fritz Fisher and Dick Egan to form a balanced, if inexperienced, bullpen. Collectively the four had appeared in 63 games for a combined 79⅔ innings. Gladding, who had apprenticed in the Tigers system for eight years, was the most experienced of the quartet, having pitched 48⅔ innings in 36 games. However, he was hit hard in his first four appearances and when he was optioned back to Syracuse on May 10 he had an inflated ERA of 9.00.
Gladding quickly found his form at Syracuse. In seven games he was 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA and by the end of May he was back with the Tigers. He was effective for the remainder the season and solidified his spot in the Tigers bullpen. He was so successful that catcher Bill Freehan began to refer to him as “Little Monster,” drawing a comparison to Red Sox relief ace Dick Radatz, who was known as The Monster.15 From May 31 on, he made 38 appearances and went 7-4 with a 2.39 ERA and seven saves.
In an interview during his retirement, Gladding described his pitching repertoire as follows: “I was a sinkerball pitcher, threw hard and I sunk the ball all the time and ran the ball in on right-handed hitters and threw in a slider. Once in a great while I’d throw a slider.”16 Tiger backup catcher Jim Price described his work this way: “He threw hard, and had a very heavy sink. He’d break your bat in a hurry.”17
By the mid-’60s Gladding had established himself as an integral and dependable member of the Tigers bullpen. In 1965 he appeared in 46 games and had a record of 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA and five saves. On June 15 he combined with two other Tiger hurlers to set a franchise record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game. Dave Wickersham was the Tigers starter that afternoon against the Boston Red Sox. The right-handed Wickersham failed to get out of the first inning, surrendering three runs on four hits, before being replaced by Denny McLain, who struck out the first two batters he faced to end the inning. McLain struck out 12 more Red Sox batters to finish with 14 over 6⅔ innings. With the Tigers trailing 5-2, Gladding came in to relieve McLain in the top of the eighth. He retired the side in order, striking out two, and then watched as his teammates rally for four runs in the bottom of the inning to take a 6-5 lead. Gladding then retired the Red Sox in order in the ninth, again striking out two, to earn the victory. The game total of 18 strikeouts is the Tigers record for a nine-inning game as of 2020, and has subsequently been tied three times.18
Gladding had another good season in 1966 when he went 5-0 with a 3.28 ERA and two saves. In 1967 he moved into the closer role for the Tigers and was one of the most dependable relievers in the American League. He appeared in 42 games and had a record of 6-4 with a team-leading 12 saves and a 1.99 ERA.
That season the Tigers were locked in a five-team pennant race when manager Mayo Smith, in an effort to give Denny McLain an additional day of rest, started Gladding in the second game of August 2 doubleheader in Baltimore. It was the only start of Gladding’s major-league career and his first since 1963 with Syracuse. Gladding scattered five hits over five innings and was in line for the win when he was relieved in the sixth inning by Pat Dobson, who tossed three scoreless innings before giving up a two-run walk-off home run to Brooks Robinson.
A couple of weeks later, an injury to third baseman Don Wert necessitated that the Tigers make a trade. On August 17 the Tigers acquired veteran Eddie Mathews from Houston. In return the Tigers agreed to send the Astros a pair of players to be named later. The Tigers remained in contention until the very end and finished in a second-place tie with the Minnesota Twins, a single game behind the American League champion Boston Red Sox. This was the closest Gladding came to experiencing postseason baseball, as it turned out that Gladding would be one of the two players traded to Houston.
Despite going 26-11 with a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves in 217 games over seven seasons with the Tigers, Gladding was one of the five players they allowed the Astros to pick from. The Astros selected Gladding and his career with his hometown team was over.19 At the time the Tigers had four young relievers, John Hiller, Mike Marshall, Fred Lasher, and Dobson. The Tigers thought Gladding, who was 31 years old at the time, was the most expendable. Only Hiller would go on to enjoy long-term success with the Tigers and Gladding’s .703 winning percentage (26-11) is second highest among Tigers pitchers with at least 200 games pitched.20
In 1978, when Mathews was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Gladding quipped, “This is probably as close as I’ll ever come to getting into the Hall of Fame – having a guy I was traded for make it. It’s the highlight of the twilight of my career.”21 However, this was not the twilight of his career. Gladding had lots of good baseball left in him.
His first season in Houston was not what he, or the Astros, expected. Unable to throw his fastball, Gladding was limited to seven games before floating bone chips in his right elbow forced the Astros to shut him down for the year.22 While he recorded two saves, his ERA was a gaudy 14.54. Meanwhile the Tigers were on their way to winning the team’s first World Series title since 1945.
Years later, Margie Gladding shared how surprised and devastated her husband was by the news of the trade. “It hurt him when he was traded to Houston,” she said.23
With his arm trouble behind him, Gladding bounced back nicely in 1969. He appeared in 57 games and finished with a 4-8 record and a 4.21 ERA to go along with a National League-leading and career-high 29 saves.24 This was also the season when Gladding recorded the only base hit of his major-league career.
Two years earlier Gladding told a sportswriter, “If I ever get a hit up here, I’m going to ask the umpire to stop the game and get me the ball.”25
On July 30, in the first game of a doubleheader against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, Gladding enjoyed success both on the mound and (for the first time) at the plate. In addition to throwing 2⅔ innings of perfect baseball to earn his 20th save, the left-handed-hitting pitcher, who was literally 0-for-the-decade, blooped a bases-loaded single off Mets right-handed reliever Ron Taylor in the ninth inning of a 16-3 Astros victory. Gladding’s RBI single was part of an 11-run ninth inning highlighted by grand slams by Denis Menke and Jimmy Wynn.26 The hit was his first in 48 major-league at-bats. Gladding failed to hit safely in his subsequent 15 at-bats and finished with a career batting average of .016, the lowest of any player in the major leagues with a career batting average above zero (.000).
Though never confused with a pitcher who handled the bat well, Gladding’s record-low batting average may not have necessarily been predicted. In 10 minor-league seasons, he compiled a .127 batting average (49-for-386).27
Gladding was again the Astros’ primary closer in 1970. Appearing in a career-high 63 games, he was 7-4 with a 4.06 ERA and a team-leading 18 saves, the seventh highest total in the National League.
By 1971 Gladding had lost some of the zip on his fastball and reinvented himself as a finesse pitcher. While his strikeouts per inning were nearly cut in half (in 51⅓ innings he struck out 17 batters), he was no less effective. He finished with a record of 4-5 with a 2.10 ERA and a team-leading 12 saves.
Gladding enjoyed another solid year for the Astros in 1972. He appeared in 42 games and finished 5-6 with a 2.77 ERA and 14 saves. On June 9 he recorded his 100th major-league save when he pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings in the Astros’ 4-2 victory over the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
During his time in Houston, Gladding’s playing weight increased to 240 pounds and some of his teammates took to calling the chunky hurler “Fred Flintstone,” in reference to the character from the popular TV cartoon of the 1960s, or “Fat Freddy.” Fellow Astros right-hander Jack Billingham, in reference to Gladding’s rotund physique, once told a reporter, “Fred seems to hold his beer more than the rest of us.”28 The good-natured and ever-humble Gladding took the ribbing in stride and never seemed to mind the kidding.
Gladding was the Opening Day winner in 1973 when he came on in relief to get the last out in the bottom of the 12th inning before the Astros scored the winning run in the top of the 13th to beat the Atlanta Braves, 2-1. However, it was soon apparent that the 36-year-old Gladding’s arm had begun to show the signs of 18 years of professional baseball. Although he was 2-0 with a 4.50 ERA, he was inconsistent in his 16 early-season appearances. In June he reluctantly accepted an assignment to the Triple-A Denver Bears. Gladding was hit hard at Denver, giving up 28 hits in his 19 innings pitched. He finished with a record of 0-2 and a 4.74 ERA. Following the season, he was released by the Astros.
In six seasons with the Astros, four of them as the team’s closer, Gladding was 22-23 with a 3.68 ERA and 76 saves. His final major-league record was 48-34 with a 3.13 ERA and 109 saves.
Following his career, Gladding returned to the Tigers organization. He began his coaching career as a minor-league instructor for the Tigers in 1974 and 1975. From 1976 to 1978 he was the Tigers pitching coach under manager Ralph Houk. The first year of his stint was highlighted by the emergence of Mark Fidrych and “Bird Mania” that swept the nation.29 He also tutored right-handers Jack Morris, Milt Wilcox, and Dave Rozema, all of whom were part of the 1984 World Series champion pitching staff.
After he was hired as the Tigers pitching coach, Gladding summarized his approach to his new role. “I know myself, when I pitched, I like a little pat on the back,” he said. “But I also know, once in a while, every pitcher can use a good, swift boot in the hind end to wake him up. That was the approach, I took when I started out coaching in Triple A. And it worked there. Those kids really appreciate it. When you have people come up to you later and thank you for getting them straightened out, you can’t help but feel you’ve done something right.”30
Gladding, who was born into a Lutheran tradition, was baptized at Faith Presbyterian church in 1981. He and his daughter, Brenda, were baptized together.31 According to Margie, Fred was extremely close to his daughter and three granddaughters.32
After Fred retired from coaching, the Gladdings settled in Knoxville. They were comfortable there and the area offered Fred plenty of hunting and fishing opportunities. In later years his health began to fail. He had open-heart surgery and he also suffered from kidney disease. Eventually he and Margie moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to be closer to their daughter. On May 21, 2015, he died at the age of 75. His life was celebrated at Faith Presbyterian Church in Knoxville and he was buried at Woodhaven Memorial Gardens in Powell, Tennessee.
Because he missed out on the 1968 Tigers World Series championship, Gladding has been forgotten by many. However, for those who follow the game closely, he is remembered as one of the most consistent relievers during his 13-year major-league career. In fact, he went well beyond having a solid baseball career. He was able to “live his boyhood dream” of playing for the Detroit Tigers.33
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Thomas Sweet, personal correspondence, May 22, 2020. Pastor Thomas Sweet is Senior Pastor at Beaver Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Pastor Sweet baptized Fred Gladding and presided at his funeral.
2 The ballpark was renamed Tiger Stadium in 1961.
3 Billy Staples, “Before the Glory” – Fred Gladding – Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, youtube.com/watch?v=IuvMYIAxJb4.
5 The Tigers also signed his high-school baseball coach, Marvin Mittlestat, as a scout. In 32 years at Flat Rock High School, Coach Mittlestat led the Rams to 20 league championships.
6 John Wilson, “Gladding, of Old School, Makes Astros Foes Sit Up,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1971: 24.
7 Gladding’s no-hitter was one of three pitched by Tigers farmhands that weekend. On May 24 John Aehl, a 22-year-old left-hander, tossed a no-hitter in the Durham Bulls’ 2-0 victory over the Greensboro Yankees. On May 25 Joe Laughlin, pitching in his first professional game, pitched a no-hitter in the Montgomery Rebels 5-0 victory over the Pensacola Dons. Neither Aehl nor Laughlin made it to the majors.
8 “Gladding Hurls No-Hitter in Sally League,” Tampa Times, May 26, 1958: 10.
9 Watson Spoelstra, “Bengals Beam, Rivals Frown Over Gladding’s UFO Pitches,” The Sporting News, May 27, 1967: 9.
10 “The Bear Stomps on Tigers’ Foes With Nifty Relief Jobs,” The Sporting News, April 29, 1967: 22.
11 Thomas Sweet, personal correspondence, May 10, 2019.
12 Margie Gladding, personal correspondence, May 9, 2019.
13 Bruce Markusen, “Flat Rock Native Fred Gladding Spent Seven Seasons with the Tigers in the 1960s.” Retrieved from vintagedetroit.com/blog/2015/01/09/flat-rock-native-fred-gladding-spent-seven-seasons-tigers-1960s/.
14 Tigers Drop Sturdivant, Detroit Free Press, July 24, 1963: 25.
15 Bruce Markusen.
16 Billy Staples.
17 Tony Paul, “Ex-Tigers Pitcher Fred Gladding, Flat Rock Native, Dies at 78,” Detroit News, May 26, 2015. Retrieved from detroitnews.com.
18 Steve Kuehl, “June 15, 1965: Denny McLain Sets Tigers Record with 14 Strikeouts in Relief,” SABR Games Project, sabr.org/gamesproj/game/june-15-1965-denny-mclain-sets-tigers-record-with-14-strikeouts-in-relief/.
20 Tony Paul.
21 Jim Hawkins, “Even as Sub, Mathews Led Tigers in ’68,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1978: 12.
22 Bruce Markusen.
23 Margie Gladding.
24 Minnesota Twins Ron Perranoski led the majors with 31 saves.
25 Watson Spoelstra.
26 “Pitcher-Batter Briefs,” Great Hitting Pitchers (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2012), 80.
27 Gladding hit .158 (23-for-146) in Class D, .157 (19-for-121) in Class A, .000 (0-for-15) in Double A, and .067 (7-for-104) in Triple A.
28 Bruce Markusen.
 Tony Paul.
 Jim Hawkins, “Gladding to Use Firm Hand in Tutoring Tigers’ Pitchers,” The Sporting News, May 8, 1976: 10.
 Thomas Sweet, personal correspondence, May 22, 2020.
 Margie Gladding.
 Margie Gladding.