This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
“I was mean on the mound,” said Bob Buhl, a tough competitor for the Milwaukee Braves during their heyday in the 1950s. Forming part of the Big Three with Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, Buhl notched 109 of his 166 career wins for the Braves. Self-confident, brash, and sometimes wild on the mound, Buhl was known for his penchant to challenge and brush back hitters.
The only child of Raymond and Irene Buhl, Robert Ray Buhl was born on August 12, 1928, in the east-central Michigan city of Saginaw. Raised in a hard-working family of modest means during the Depression and war years, Bob was an athletic youngster and started playing sandlot baseball in junior high school. A three-sport star (baseball, basketball, and football) at Saginaw High School, he pitched, but doubted that a scout ever attended any of his games. “My father died when I was a senior in high school,” Buhl said of an event that had far-reaching consequences for his baseball career. “I had to get a job from 2:30 to 10:00 each day. I had to drop part of my schoolwork and go back the following semester [in the fall of 1946].” In the summer of 1946 he participated in a Chicago White Sox tryout camp in Saginaw and pitched just one inning. Impressed, the team decided to sign him, but according to major-league rules at the time, they had to wait until he graduated from high school. After completing his classes in the fall, Buhl excitedly signed a minor-league contract with the White Sox in early 1947.
Assigned to the Madisonville (Kentucky) Miners in the Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee (Kitty) League for the 1947 season, the 18-year-old Buhl set the league on fire, finishing second in wins (19) and earned-run average (3.00), while tossing 216 innings in 40 games. “I was cocky,” said Buhl, who walked 126 batters. “I wasn’t being groomed for the majors.” Despite the paltry $100-a-month salary, Buhl was happy to play baseball; however, at the end of the season, he became upset and insulted when the White Sox offered him a contract paying $200 a month and a promotion to Class C. Having learned about players being declared free agents because they signed contracts while still in high school, he wrote Commissioner Happy Chandler and requested him to investigate, noting that he did not officially graduate until June 1947, well after he signed a contract with Chicago. Chandler declared Buhl a free agent, which permitted Buhl to sign with any team other than the White Sox.
Scouts from 14 teams (all but the Dodgers and White Sox) flocked to Saginaw to try to sign the hard-throwing right-hander. With scout Earle Halstead, Buhl signed an $800-a-month Triple-A contract with the Milwaukee Brewers, a Boston Braves Triple-A affiliate, and received a new car as a bonus. He was assigned to the independent Saginaw Bears in the inaugural season of the Class A Central League. At first he was excited about pitching in his hometown, but later said, “Pitching in my hometown turned about to be a big mistake on my part. Fans expected too much.” Struggling most of the season (an 11-12 record was accompanied by a 5.22 ERA and 145 bases on balls), Buhl said years later, “I used to strike out as many as I walked. I just threw fastballs and tried to throw a curve.” He was assigned to the Hartford Chiefs in the Class A Eastern League in 1949, and his approach to baseball began to change: “Hartford was like a baseball school and I started to learn about fundamentals.”
After an 8-8 season in Hartford, Buhl went to spring training with the Brewers in Austin, Texas, in 1950 and made the team. “When the season started,” he recalled, “I wasn’t used. I got disgusted and told the manager, Bob Coleman, to send me someplace where I’d pitch.” He was sent conditionally to the Dallas Eagles, an unaffiliated team in the Double-A Texas League managed by former Chicago Cubs skipper Charlie Grimm. Though just 8-14 for the season and discouraged that he was no longer officially with the Braves, Buhl was relieved when they purchased his contract after of the season.
Buhl’s professional baseball career was interrupted for two years while he served as an Army paratrooper stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 1951 and 1952. While in the service he married Joyce Miles of Saginaw in October 1951. To keep in shape, he pitched for his base team and for local semipro teams under the alias “Lieutenant Brown” and claimed that he earned more money playing weekend baseball than he did in the Army.
Highly touted by manager Grimm, who took over the helm of the Boston Braves in mid-1952, Buhl arrived at the Braves’ spring training in 1953 fully expecting to make the team. “The guy had everything but control,” said Grimm. “He throws as hard as any pitcher I ever saw.” Landing a spot on the team, which announced its relocation to Milwaukee in March, Buhl followed an inauspicious major-league debut on April 17 (a loss to Cincinnati in 2? innings of relief) with a two-hitter against the New York Giants in his next appearance. But he also exhibited the wildness that marked most of his career with the Braves by walking six and hitting a batter.
Appearing in 30 games, Buhl was much more effective in his 18 starts than he was as a reliever (a 2.78 ERA as a starter, 3.98 out of the bullpen). In addition to three shutouts, including a two-hitter against the Pirates, Buhl hurled a career-best 14-inning victory over the Cubs on August 22, winning 2-1 and facing 53 batters. As the Braves’ 92-62 record and second-place finish did, the 24-year-old rookie surprised fans and sportswriters with an unexpected 13-8 and the third best ERA in the National League, 2.97.
Along with future Braves teammates Hank Aaron, Felix Mantilla, and Ray Crone, Buhl played winter baseball in Puerto Rico after the season and won 12 games while helping lead Caguas to the league title. He was described as a “cinch” to earn a spot as a starter in 1954, but struggled all season, losing his first seven decisions and his spot in the rotation. “Sometimes I was so tired,” Buhl said, “that I didn’t feel like going to the park. My fastball didn’t move.”
Following his 2-7 record and 4.00 ERA in 1954, Buhl’s future as a major-league starter was in question when he began the 1955 season by losing three of his first four decisions and being taken out of the rotation in May. Given another start against Brooklyn on June 2, Buhl took the loss, but his nine strikeouts and five-hit, three-run ball over seven innings were good enough to earn him the right for another crack in the rotation. Buhl responded by pitching four complete-game victories in five outings. After two losses (one as a reliever) in early July, he reeled off eight wins in his next nine decisions, including a five-hit victory over the Phillies in which he struck out a career-high 12 batters on July 14. His 13-11 finish with an ERA of 3.21, third best in the NL, were a welcome relief to the Braves.
Buhl established his reputation as an intimidating, hard-nosed, no-nonsense pitcher who was not afraid to pitch inside or knock down opponents who crowded the plate. With his bushy black eyebrows and crewcut, he stared down batters, daring them to get a hit. With his control problems, batters were wary of him. “I had a herky-jerky motion,” said Buhl, who liked to work quickly on the mound. “I was a short-armed pitcher and instead of moving way back and way forward, I’d let loose tighter to my body.” Always blessed with a strong fastball, which The Sporting News called the best on the Braves, Buhl attributed his success to pitching coach Bucky Walters, who helped him develop a slider. “It looked like a fastball,” Buhl said, “but would break real quick down and away from a right-handed hitter.”
After two second-place and one third-place finish in their first three years in Milwaukee, 1956 foreshadowed the future for the Braves as they almost won the pennant and the Big Three of Spahn, Burdette, and Buhl began their five-year run as one of the best starting trios in the majors, if not the best. The Braves’ 5½-game league lead on July 26 was fueled by the pitching of Buhl, who had beaten the Brooklyn Dodgers in five consecutive starts and earned the moniker Dodger Killer. “I showed them I was the boss,” he said of his contests with the Dodgers. “They knew I’d brush them back. I’d pitch Hodges wide and throw him a lot of curves. I’d throw Campanella nothing but inside fastballs. I’d pitch Duke Snider high and tight.”
After his sixth straight victory over the Dodgers on July 30, to raise his record to 14-4, Buhl was the hottest pitcher in the league. In his next start, on August 4 he broke the tip of the index finger on his pitching hand when the Pirates’ Lee Walls smashed a line drive back to the mound. Buhl pitched through the pain and beat the Dodgers again on August 26 in the midst of a stretch of three straight complete games, giving the Braves a three-game lead over Brooklyn.
Like the Braves, Buhl had his worst month in September, going just 2-3 and with a 6.39 ERA. The Braves were worn down, especially the Big Three, who pitched 15 of the team’s last 17 games and all of the last ten. Despite their swoon, the team entered the final series of the season with a shot at the pennant, but lost two of three to St. Louis while the Dodgers swept Pittsburgh. Buhl finished with a career-high 18 wins and8 losses and a 3.32 ERA.
“We were better than the Dodgers in 1956,” Buhl said, “but we didn’t win the pennant.” That changed in 1957, when the Braves won their only championship in Milwaukee. When Buhl defeated the Dodgers for a team-leading 14th win on August 4, the Braves were a game behind the Cardinals in a three-team pennant race. The Braves caught fire, going 34-17 the rest of the season, and ran away with the pennant. Leading the National League with 16 wins on August 14, Buhl was sidelined with shoulder problems and missed three weeks. Returning in September, he had his best season in the majors with 18 wins, led the league in winning percentage (.720), ranked fourth in ERA (2.74) and completed a career-high 14 of 31 starts.
With star players Aaron, Mathews, and Spahn having exceptional years, the Braves were also resilient and overcame center fielder Bill Bruton’s season-ending knee injury in June and the broken leg that limited slugging first baseman Joe Adock’s to 65 games. Manager Fred Haney relied on his pitching, especially his starters, and was known for juggling the rotation to secure the best matchup for his team. The staff posted a 3.47 ERA, second only to the Dodgers, tossed a league-high 60 complete games, and the Big Three won 56 games.
Competitive with one another on and off the field during their nine years together (1953-1961), Spahn, Burdette, and Buhl were close teammates, enjoyed a few beers together, and played practical jokes on each other and teammates, but were also consummate professionals. “We’d talk about hitters,” Buhl recalled. “Once you’ve seen the hitter, you have a pretty good idea how to get them out.”
Behind clutch hitting and pitching, the underdog Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games in the 1957 World Series. With the Series tied, Buhl started Game Three, but was rattled after surrendering a home run to Tony Kubek, the second batter of the game, and didn’t make it through the first inning, giving up three runs (two earned), and was the losing pitcher.
With a chance to win the deciding game, Buhl started Game Six in New York but was plagued by wildness, walking four, throwing a wild pitch, and giving up a two-run homer to Yogi Berra before being lifted in the third inning to set the stage for a climactic Game Seven. Spahn was due to start but got sick, and manager Haney elected to start Burdette on two days’ rest. Buhl and Burdette were roomies for the Series. The night before the game, Buhl said, “We didn’t talk about the upcoming game. We just watched television and had room service. Lou could make coffee nervous. … Lou was invincible. That’s why we won the World Series.” (Burdette shut out the Yankees, 5-0.)
Buhl began the 1958 season by winning four of his first five starts prompting new pitching coach Whit Wyatt, to comment, “I never noticed how well [Buhl] spotted his pitches. He hits the outside corner like he owns it.” However, Buhl’s shoulder had been bothering him since the previous year and the pain began to worsen. “It wasn’t fun throwing the ball,” he said. “I couldn’t even lift my arm to put on a jacket.” On May 13, after several poor outings, manager Haney shut him down and he was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment, but to no avail. By sheer luck, his neighbor, a dentist, suggested that he stop by his office and discovered serious nerve problems in two teeth and removed them. “Two weeks later,” Buhl said, “I was pitching with no pain. I was very fortunate. A dentist saved my career.”
Tensions arose when Buhl insisted he was ready to resume pitching in mid-August, but Haney refused to clear a roster spot, citing the excellent pitching from the Braves’ “Kiddie Korps” of Joey Jay, Juan Pizzaro, and Carl Willey. Added to the roster on September 1, Buhl pitched a complete-game victory over the Cubs and revealed a new delivery to Del Rice, who served as his personal catcher in the mid- to late 1950s. “He throws more overhanded now,” Rice said. “His curve is a lot sharper. His delivery is smoother, too.” The new delivery put less strain on Buhl’s arm and shoulder und undoubtedly helped prolong his career.
Despite Buhl’s promising return from arm miseries, he struggled in September and lost his spot in the rotation during the Braves’ dominant drive to their second consecutive pennant in 1958, prompting Dick Young in The Sporting News to suggest that Buhl would be traded in the offseason. When 32-year-old Bob Rush (winner of 10 games in 1958) started Game Three of the World Series against the Yankees with the Braves up two games to none, Buhl was livid. Spahn pitched his second straight complete game to win Game Four, putting the Braves in command, three games to one, but Haney’s decision to pitch Burdette and Spahn on short rest in the final three games backfired. The Braves lost all three and the World Series. Reports of an acrimonious relationship between Haney and Buhl immediately surfaced, and rumors of Buhl’s imminent trade persisted throughout the offseason.
The Braves were favored to win their third consecutive pennant when they opened spring training in 1959. Arriving in camp pain-free, Buhl announced that he had worked on his delivery in the offseason, saying, “I used to be straight up and deliver the ball with a snap. Now I bend over more and get my body as well as my arm into the pitch. It gives me more on my breaking stuff.” However, when he failed to make it out of the second inning of his first start of the new campaign, he found himself the “forgotten man” in the Braves’ bullpen and was dogged by trade rumors.
Given a start on May 11, his first in more than three weeks, Buhl responded by pitching seven innings of five-hit ball to beat the Cubs, and won his way back into the rotation. With the Braves tied with the Dodgers entering the last day of the season, Buhl pitched seven innings of one-run ball to beat the Phillies in one of the most important games of his career. “Other than my first win in the majors,” said Buhl, whose victory set up a best-of-three playoff with their archnemesis Dodgers, in their second year in Los Angeles, “that was the most exciting moment of my career.”
The Braves lost the playoff series with two straight defeats. The 1959 season proved to be the last year that the Milwaukee Braves competed for the pennant and concluded a four-year run during which they lost two pennants in the last series of the year and won two in convincing fashion. “We figured we’d come back and win [in 1959],” said Buhl years later. “But we didn’t. That was a disappointing defeat, but we should have won the pennant prior to a playoff because we had a better team.” With 21 wins apiece for Spahn and Burdette and 15 for Buhl, the Big Three won 57 games in ’59. The 30-year-old Buhl led the team with a 2.86 ERA (fourth in the league) and led the NL with four shutouts while completing 12 of his 25 starts.
Feisty on and off the field, Buhl and Eddie Mathews, his roommate for almost a decade, enjoyed imbibing with Spahn and Burdette (who were also roommates). “We didn’t make a big deal of going out and drinking so much that we wouldn’t know what was going on,” Buhl recollected. He and Mathews didn’t take kindly to hecklers and loudmouths in local taverns either. “Eddie was a tough guy,” he said, and the two got into some confrontations. “We weren’t looking for trouble and fought only if someone harassed us,” Buhl said.
A subtle shift for the Braves in 1960 became more pronounced in subsequent years. Average attendance dropped to less than 20,000 per game for the first time and never reached that height again. Replacing Haney as manager, Charlie Dressen led the aging Braves, with the oldest team and pitching staff in the National League, to another (and last) second-place finish in 1960; but the team never mounted a serious challenge to the Pirates for the pennant. Earning his only All-Star berth (he went 1? innings and gave up a two-run home run to Al Kaline in the eighth inning of the first of two All-Star games in 1960) and finishing with a 16-9 record and a career-high 238? innings pitched, Buhl concluded the season with exactly 100 major-league wins.
In 1961 the Braves struggled to stay above .500 for the first 100 games, but were just 6½ games out of first place at the end of August. Birdie Tebbetts replaced Dressen as manager for the last 25 games and vowed to make wholesale changes. He buried the inconsistent and slumping Buhl (9-10 with an ERA over 4.00 at the time) deep in the bullpen, where he saw action in only three games the rest of the season.
Insulted by Tebbetts’s treatment and perceived lack of respect and by general manager John McHale’s proposed pay cut, Buhl knew his days in Milwaukee were numbered. Actively shopped in the offseason, he surprisingly began the 1962 season on the Braves roster. Starting the third game of the season and seeing action for the last time as a Brave, Buhl was pummeled for five runs in two innings during a loss to the Giants. Two weeks later, on April 30, he was traded unceremoniously to the Cubs for 24-year-old pitcher Jack Curtis.
“I had stopped having fun,” Buhl said of his last few months with Milwaukee. “Birdie told me I’d be a spot starter and would work in the bullpen. I didn’t want that.” In Chicago Buhl was reunited with Charlie Grimm, vice president of the club. “[Buhl] has a pitching style suited to Wrigley Field.” Grimm said. “Bob is a low-ball pitcher who makes you hit it in the dirt.”
Buhl arrived on a youthful Cubs team coming off a 90-loss season in 1961 and in the middle of a bizarre two-year experiment with a revolving set of head coaches instead of a manager. In 1962 the Cubs lost 103 games, their worst season ever (and still the worst as of the 2012 season). “Everyone was unhappy,” Buhl said about the losing and the coaching carousel, “but no one complained.” In his Cubs debut on May 2 he pitched two-hit ball over six innings to beat the Dodgers 3-1. At 33 Buhl was the oldest starter on the staff by seven years and noted, “There wasn’t nearly as much drinking on this club as there had been in Milwaukee.” The staff ace, Buhl finished with a team-high 12 wins (and 13 losses) in 212 innings.
Never known for his hitting, attested by his .089 career batting average in 857 at-bats (without a home run), Buhl set a record for batting futility in 1962 when he went 0-for-70 during the season as part of a hard-to-fathom 0-for-87 streak over the course of three seasons. “When I was going through my hitless streak,” he said, “I didn’t feel any pressure. Everybody knew I couldn’t hit. The infielder was backing up, caught his spikes and fell down and the ball fell. They called time to give me the damn ball. I was embarrassed.” Throughout his career Buhl tried everything to improve his hitting, from taking extra batting practice to attempting to bat left-handed. “I don’t remember any big hits,” he said. “The ones I had were accidental.”
From 1963 through 1965 Buhl was a steady pitcher for the Cubs winning 11, 15, and 13 games, but he was no longer the ace of the team with the emergence Dick Ellsworth and the acquisition of workhorse Larry Jackson from the Cardinals after the 1962 season. With a career-high 4.39 ERA and averaging just six innings per start in 1965, the 36-year-old was showing signs of age. Clashing with manager Lou Klein that season, Buhl started just twice after August 27 and was knocked out early in each game.
One week into the 1966 season, Buhl was sent along with his road roommate Larry Jackson to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for pitcher Fergie Jenkins, utilityman John Herrnstein, and center fielder Adolfo Phillips. He was reunited with former Braves general manager John Quinn, who had guided the Phillies to four consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1898-1901. Used as a spot starter and reliever behind Jim Bunning, Chris Short, and Jackson, Buhl lost four of his first five decisions before beating the Braves, then in their first season in Atlanta, on June 13. An aged Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron were the only players still on the team from its glory days in the 1950s.
Coming off a 6-8 season in 1966, the 38-year-old Buhl appeared in three games before being released on May 16, 1967, as Philadelphia trimmed its roster to the 25-man limit. With no clubs showing interest in acquiring him, he retired with a 166-132 record and a 3.55 ERA in 2,587 innings. He won 46 games in the minor leagues. He saved his best for the Dodgers (30 wins with a 3.00 ERA) and was especially tough on Roy Campanella (.156 batting average in 64 at-bats, Willie Davis (.162 in 74 AB), and Duke Snider (.238 in 130 AB).
Settling in the northern Michigan community of Mio with his wife, Joyce, and their four children after his playing days, Buhl was involved in youth baseball and also coached the baseball team at Hillman High School in the 1970s. Throughout his retirement he participated in Milwaukee Braves reunions and special events, including the emotional closing of Milwaukee’s County Stadium on September 28, 2000. Suffering from emphysema, Buhl died on February 16, 2001, in Titusville, Florida, to which he had retired, and his body was cremated. Two days later his longtime roommate Eddie Mathews passed away.
This biography is included in the book “Thar’s Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves” (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
The Sporting News
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