This article was written by David E. Skelton
Bob Bruce was a promising prospect with the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, but his progress was delayed because he missed most of 1957 and 1958 while serving in the Army. The 6-foot-3 righty pitched in just 50 games for the Tigers as a swingman from 1959 through 1961. He got a chance to become a regular starter, though, when expansion dawned. The Houston Colt .45s acquired Bruce in December 1961, and he started 138 games for them over the next five seasons. He had his best season in 1964: 15-9, 2.76 with four shutouts.
However, Bruce (who died in 2017) is best remembered today for the game of April 12, 1965. That night he threw the first regular-season pitch ever inside a domed stadium, Houston’s Astrodome. Though dome ball would come to feel commonplace, it was a remarkably special event for its time.
Robert James Bruce was born in Detroit. His Michigan roots date to his paternal grandfather, Robert Ernest Bruce, a native of Canada who arrived in the United States in the 1870s. According to family lore, this man became the head lumberjack in the unincorporated community of Michigamme, 160 miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1888, Robert married Ellen Finn MacDonald, a fellow Canadian who had been widowed three years earlier. The union produced six children, the youngest of whom, Betty Ann Bruce, gave birth to the future ballplayer on May 16, 1933.
Betty, who was then around 19 years old, was not married at the time. She chose to give her son into the care of Herbert J. and Lillian (Douglas) Bruce, her brother and sister-in-law. Raised as their own, Bruce did not discover the truth about his birth mother until after his adopted parents died decades later.1
Bruce’s hometown was Highland Park, a small community in the middle of Detroit. Born into the teeth of the Depression, his upbringing was hardscrabble. Herbert was ill, leaving Lillian as the primary breadwinner, and Bob sought work at a very early age. He went so far as to lie about his age to get a job at the local supermarket (the minimum age for employment at the store was 14, and Bob was then only 12 years old).
As much as he enjoyed sports, school and work left little time for extracurricular activities. Bruce did not take up baseball seriously until his senior year at Highland Park High, the same high school that produced Chicago White Sox lefty Billy Pierce six years earlier.2 As Bruce recalled it decades later, had it not been for the prompting of a high school coach that year, he might never have gotten into the game at all.
Bruce won a baseball scholarship to Alma College in Alma, Michigan, 130 miles from Highland Park. Many years after the fact, he had one particularly strong recollection of performing for the Alma Scots: a game against the University of Detroit which he claimed ultimately led to his signing as a professional. Scouts were in attendance – but not for him. Rather, they came out for a pitcher whose last name he could only recall as “Hughes.” Bruce struck out 19 that day and thereafter the scouts began following the Alma team very closely.3
It wasn’t long before the Tigers signed him as an amateur free agent. Tigers general manager Muddy Ruel listened to his scouts, former Tiger notables Schoolboy Rowe and Pete Fox. Bruce got a $20,000 bonus – healthy, though not exorbitant by the standards of the day.4
Promptly after the signing, Bruce made his professional debut with the Wausau Timberjacks, the Tigers’ Class D affiliate in the Wisconsin State League. Timberjacks player-manager Wayne Blackburn had a very successful minor-league managing career, and 1953 was no different. The team posted a .608 winning percentage, with a big boost from their new righty. Bruce led the staff with 18 wins and 25 games started (despite a remarkably high 6.2 walks per nine innings).
Bruce jumped to Class B in 1954, playing much farther from home with the Durham Bulls in the Carolina League. He continued to do well, going 13-8 (.619) for a team that finished barely above .500. That gave the Tigers a strong indication that the 21-year-old was on a fast track to the parent club. Indeed, Bruce was promoted again before season’s end, to the first-place Wilkes-Barre Barons in the Eastern League (Class A). In Pennsylvania, however, Bruce issued 19 walks in only 15 innings pitched. That led to a record of 0-2, 7.80 in five appearances – and a return to Durham for the start of the 1955 season.
Bruce spent the bulk of 1955 with Augusta in the South Atlantic League, posting marks of 9-3, 1.71. He got his first taste of Triple-A ball that year with the Charleston Senators of the American Association.
Then Uncle Sam called. Like many other athletes of his day, Bruce’s military commitment took away nearly two years of minor-league development, arresting the progress he’d shown over the preceding three seasons. Of interest, during Bruce’s engagement at Fort Lee, Virginia, he was befriended by Chicago Tribune columnist Ray Bendig. After watching the righty in service play, Bendig never seemed to tire in his quest to convince the White Sox to acquire the youngster from Detroit.5
By the time Bruce had fulfilled his military duty, the 1958 season was already well underway. He was assigned to the Class AA Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. In a league noted for offense, his 4.46 ERA generally mirrored the league average of 4.16. During the post-season he beat the Texas League’s Corpus Christi Giants in Game Three of the Dixie Series.
The Tigers organization showed its continued faith in Bruce by giving him another chance with Charleston before the season ended. He made 38 appearances for the Senators in 1959, including 32 starts and a league-leading 177 strikeouts. Then the parent team beckoned at last.
The Tigers had not finished above fourth place since the 1950 season, and 1959 would be no different. The team ERA of 4.20 was second-worst in the league, above only the woeful Kansas City Athletics. The Tigers also gave up a league-leading 177 home runs, 29 more than their closest competitors, Kansas City and Cleveland.
Well out of contention, Detroit called up two young pitching prospects – Bruce and 24-year old righty Jim Proctor – to see what contributions they could make, both in September and potentially the next season. On September 14, 1959, the two made their major-league debuts in the same game. Bruce followed Proctor to the mound to mop up in a 5-0 loss. He walked the first man he faced and, after a sacrifice bunt, issued another walk before escaping as Harmon Killebrew hit into a line-drive double play.
Both youngsters got their first starts as the season wound down. On September 26, Proctor was knocked out of the box in the first inning. The same happened to Bruce the next day, the last of Detroit’s season. He too took the loss. Yet Bruce went on to log 119 decisions more over his big-league career, while Proctor never pitched in the majors again.
Though Detroit had finished just two games under .500 in 1959, the team slipped to 71 wins in in 1960. Injuries and/or ineffectiveness led the team to use nine different starters. Bruce began the season in the bullpen and did not make a start until June 25, against his future Houston teammate Hal Woodeshick (then with the Washington Senators) Neither starter figured in the decision as the Tigers sustained an extra-inning loss, but seven-plus innings of five-hit ball earned Bruce two additional starts. Both were far less impressive and he was sent back to the bullpen.
On August 7, in search of a healthy arm to pitch the nightcap of a doubleheader, manager Joe Gordon again turned to Bruce. He responded by giving up just one run in eight innings in a 1-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox. Excluding a relief appearance on August 11, he remained in the starting rotation through the end of the season. He won four times in eight decisions, including a two-hit complete game victory against the defending American League champions, the Chicago White Sox. In the four losses, Bruce’s teammates scored less than two runs per game. He might otherwise have ended the season on a much brighter note.
Bruce had seemingly secured a spot in the Tigers starting rotation in 1961. In the seventh game of that season, he turned in a strong performance, taking a shutout into the ninth inning before settling for a 3-1 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Angels. Unfortunately, the paths of the Tigers and Bruce diverged. The Tigers cured a decade-long malaise by winning 101 games and coming in second behind the New York Yankees, but a shoulder injury limited Bruce to just 36-plus innings of work for the remainder of the season.
The Tigers sent Bruce to winter ball in Puerto Rico, and there he learned he’d been traded. On December 1, Bruce was dealt with pitching prospect Manny Montejo to the newly-formed Houston Colt .45s for aging veteran Sam Jones. (Less than two months earlier, Jones had been selected from the San Francisco Giants as the 25th pick in the expansion draft.)
As Bruce later recalled, “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I had an opportunity to truly develop under the watchful eye of coach Cot Deal, who was probably the best mentor I ever labored under. I had a lot of real good experiences there…[all while w]e learned to fend off mosquitoes and stuff like that.”6
In Houston’s first season, Bruce once again started the year out of the bullpen. Four straight shutout appearances (12⅓ innings) won him a start on May 10, and after that he settled into the starting rotation. On June 30, he won a rain-shortened complete game victory over the defending National League champion Cincinnati Reds to lift his record to 6-1, 3.33 in 83⅔ innings. The team swooned in July, though, winning just five times. Bruce’s statistics suffered similarly. He closed the season at 10-9.
Of note, Bruce contributed 135 of the Houston’s 1,047 strikeouts, making that staff only the fifth in the majors to reach the 1,000 mark. (The Los Angeles Dodgers also attained the same mark in 1962, indicating that the increase from 154 to 162 games per year was a factor.)7 This achievement has long since been obliterated in an ever more free-swinging game.
Bruce, who also hit right-handed, had his best year with the bat in 1962. He hit .200 and drove in seven runs in 68 plate appearances.
In 1963, Bruce had a rough start, including a 7-0 drubbing by the San Francisco Giants in which the winning pitcher was his fellow Highland Park High alum, Billy Pierce. After three starts, Bruce’s record stood at 0-1, 12.96. He righted himself quickly, though, with two of the finest outings of his career. He threw his first of six major-league shutouts, a brilliant one-hitter at Colt Stadium against the hard-hitting Reds. Then came a victory over the New York Mets wherein twice he “was one strike away from a two-hit, 4-0 shutout…[winding] up with an unfinished three-hitter and 11 strikeouts, a [then] career high for him.”8 Two years later, he established his all-time career high of 13 strikeouts in a complete-game victory, again over the Reds.
Over the course of the 1963 season, though, it often appeared that Bruce and his mound mates would have to pitch goose eggs in order to secure a victory. For the second of three straight seasons, Houston ranked last in runs scored in the National League, reminiscent of the latter part of the 1960 season when Bruce was with the Tigers. His 5-9 season record was deceiving because the team mustered just one run per game in the nine losses. More disturbing, Bruce’s shoulder injury resurfaced. Excluding two brief relief appearances in September, he was sidelined after he suffered an August 13 loss in St. Louis.
Bruce returned the following season in fine form. On April 19, 1964, in relief against St. Louis, he joined the list of big-league hurlers (43 total) who have struck out three batters on nine pitches in one inning. Of interest, Sandy Koufax had done the same the preceding day, marking the only time in big-league history where this feat occurred on consecutive days.
Bruce established career highs in several pitching categories, placing him among the leaders in the National League. His 15 wins for the still-anemic Houston offense accounted for nearly 23% of the team’s total, and his career-high four shutouts contributed nicely to a 2.76 ERA, the tenth best in a league full of fine pitchers. Of the nine men ranked ahead of him, five later became Hall of Famers. The last of those shutouts – he went all the way in a 1-0, 12-inning victory over Los Angeles on September 27, 1964 – also included the last pitch thrown at Houston’s Colt Stadium.
Bruce’s solid season-long performance won him the honor of the historic Opening Day start in 1965. There were many baseball “firsts” that evening in Houston: aside from Bruce’s opening pitch, there was the first base hit under a roof; the first putout; and the first home run – a third-inning two-run shot struck by Philadelphia Phillies slugger Richie Allen (although future Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle had hit one out in an exhibition game three days earlier).
Bruce and Phillies lefty Chris Short were matched in a classic pitching duel. It ended in a 2-0 victory for the visiting team in front of an announced crowd of 42,652 – 435 over the season’s stated seating capacity for the Astrodome.
Regrettably, the Opening Day start at the Astrodome was one of Bruce’s few highlights during the remainder of his stay in Houston. In 1965 his ERA was a respectable 3.72 (league average: 3.54), but that did not prevent him from a career-high 18 losses for the ninth-place Astros. The club’s offense was again all but absent – only 20 runs scored over those same 18 losses!
But Bruce fared much worse in 1966. A mysterious eye infection put him on the disabled list for seven weeks, and when he did return he could never get back to full strength. He later opined, “I got racked up, really hit hard. It was an uphill battle and I couldn’t win.”9 His ERA mushroomed to 5.34, and he closed out the season with a 3-13 mark. Manager Grady Hatton was quoted as saying “You can find a lot of reasons for Bruce’s record…but we’ll have to be realistic when we start making plans.” Columnist John Wilson interpreted this to mean that Bruce would “have to come to camp next spring and beat out some of the younger pitchers to get a job.”10
As events unfolded, Bruce did not get that opportunity to compete. On the last day of the calendar year, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in a package deal that brought future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews to Houston. The trade provided an opportunity for Bruce to resurrect his career with a possible contender. The Braves (in their first season in Atlanta after relocating from Milwaukee) were just 10 games behind the NL pennant winners, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Arguably, the pitching corps was one of the reasons the Braves fell short. Their once-promising lefty, Wade Blasingame, struggled with injuries, and the Braves wound up using 13 starters throughout the 1966 season. The team hoped that the addition of Bruce would help to solidify their corps in preparation for another pennant run in 1967.
These hopes were quickly dashed. The Braves’ team batting average dropped 23 points (from .263 to .240). After scoring a league-leading 783 runs in 1966, they put up a middling 631 in 1967. The pitching staff fared little better; another former mainstay, Tony Cloninger, followed Blasingame onto the disabled list, and the team crumbled to a seventh-place finish. Manager Billy Hitchcock used Bruce sparingly (in large part because of a cracked rib), and by late June, the righty had logged fewer than 39 innings through 12 appearances (seven starts).
It was apparent that the team was looking elsewhere for solutions. Shortly thereafter, it was reported that “the Braves have recently added a couple of pitchers, Cecil Upshaw and Ed Rakow, calling them up from the Richmond (International) club…Sent out were pitchers Bob Bruce and Clay Carroll. Both went to Richmond, and both went with some reluctance.”11
Reluctant or not, Bruce reported to a minor-league franchise for the first time in six years. He pitched with an intensity that reflected his desire to return to the parent club: a 7-2 record with a superb 1.87 ERA. Still, the Braves appeared content to move forward with a younger mound presence. By the end of the year, at age 34, Bruce removed his baseball uniform for the last time.
Nearly half a century later, Bruce was still pitching – real estate (presumably injury-free). His successful post-baseball career included managerial responsibilities with a home construction builder in Michigan. He subsequently moved to Texas and owned a real estate brokerage firm in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex that bore his name – with a website that prominently displayed a reference to a once-thriving baseball career.
Bruce also attended events that praised the achievements of the past. On April 8, 1975 – the 10th anniversary of the inaugural Astros-Yankees exhibition game at the Astrodome – he took part in pregame festivities, giving up one of three home runs that Mickey Mantle hit.12
Another such event came in Houston on April 10, 2012, when he and several of his former Colt .45s/Astros teammates were honored at Minute Maid Park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s first game ever. A few weeks after this celebration, Bruce related the joy of seeing old friends and teammates. He also mourned that so many are no longer around to enjoy such occasions, adding “they are all in a better place.”13
In 1956, Bruce married Birmingham, Michigan native Betty Lou Rytel. They had four children (one adopted) before the union dissolved in divorce in 1988. Bruce married and divorced twice thereafter.
On March 14, 2017, two months removed from his 84th birthday, Bruce died suddenly of natural causes after returning from a walk at a senior center in Plano, Texas. According to his youngest daughter, Mary Ann, “The car was still running and his foot was on the brake, so it was that quick. He went the way he wanted to go. He didn’t like to be sick or to slow down. He was working until the day he died.”14 Memorial services were conducted in both Texas and Michigan after the body was cremated. Bruce was survived by his four children and 11 grandchildren.
Throughout his nine-year major league career, Bruce compiled a record of 49-71, 3.85 in 1,122 1/3 innings. Despite this pedestrian output, he had the privilege of helping to usher in the era of indoor baseball. And as the Astros said in a statement issued after his death, “As a member of the original Colt .45s team, Bob Bruce will always have a special place in the history of our organization, playing a significant role in several milestone moments. He was a popular player both on and off the field and helped solidify the Astros as a Major League franchise in the early years.”15
The author wishes to thank SABR members Jan Finkel, Gary Gillette, Bill Nowlin, and Rory Costello for their valuable assistance. Sandra Talmadge and Josh Triana also contributed to this biography.
In addition to the sources cited below, the author consulted Ancestry.com and Baseball-Reference.com.
Ray Kerby, “An Interview with Bob Bruce,” August 29, 2001. Accessed March 27, 2017 (http://www.astrosdaily.com/players/interviews/Bruce_Bob.html ).
Bob Bruce, May 31, 2012
Michael Bruce, the ballplayer’s son, April 4, 2017.
2 “Scribe Urged Chisox to ‘Steal’ Tiger Beaut,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1960, 10.
3 Interview with Bob Bruce, May 31, 2012.
7 “Slab Corps Fanned 1,047 Batter in ’62; Only Fifth Major Staff to Top 1,000 Mark,” The Sporting News, March 3, 1963, 3.
8 “.45s Touch Off Fireworks With High-Caliber Curvers,” The Sporting News, May 25, 1963, 11.
9 “Brave Hurler Bruce Recalls ’66 Horror – Fear of Blindness,” The Sporting News, March 11, 1967, 23.
10 “Astros Bruce Shoulda Stood on Launching Pad,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1966, 9.
11 “Braves’ Foes Fume After Futile Swings At Niekro Knuckler,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1967, 13.
12 “Hey, Mick, how about a DH job,” Associated Press, April 10, 1975.
13 David Skelton, telephone interview with Bob Bruce, May 31, 2012.
14 David Barron, “Former Astros pitcher Bob Bruce lived life to the fullest,” Houston Chronicle, March 21, 2017.
15 Matt Young, “Bob Bruce, Astros’ starting pitcher in first Astrodome official game, dies,” Houston Chronicle, March 16, 2017.