This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Over the final six weeks of the 1982 season, right-hander Brian Denman started nine games for the Boston Red Sox. The last of the nine was a six-hit shutout of the New York Yankees. They were the only nine times he appeared in the majors. He’d worked four-plus seasons in the minor leagues before getting his shot in the big leagues, then put in four more seasons in the minors..
Born in Minneapolis on February 12, 1956, Brian John Denman grew up in the nearby suburb of Richfield. “I lived there all my life until I started playing ball. I was a Richfield boy. My father’s name was John. And my mother’s name was Betty. I don’t know if I ever heard anybody ever call her Elizabeth. My father was an over-the-road truck driver for Land O’Lakes Creamery. They had a big plant in Minneapolis. He was there ever since I was born and ended up retiring from there. I think he started out as a milkman when he got back from World War II.
“They raised a family of five boys. I was fourth in line. The oldest, Mike, has passed away. ”1 Brian’s other brothers were Tim, Kevin, and Sean.
His college coach, former major leaguer George Thomas, said Denman had had to be tough. “He doesn’t come from the best of backgrounds.”2 But he’d helped win state championships both in American Legion and high school baseball, and his high school basketball team had gone all the way to the finals but lost.
Brian himself had missed the actual tournament due to an injury. “At Richfield High School, in baseball we won in my sophomore year. I used to be a catcher before I started throwing a whole lot. But a guy took a late swing and broke the back of my left hand and so I didn’t get a chance to play in that state tournament. We always had big strong programs in Richfield. It was a very sports-oriented high school. I was very fortunate. We had good coaching staffs. We always did well.”3
What had Coach Thomas meant about his background being difficult? In the 2020 interview, Denman didn’t shy away from the question. “I know exactly what he meant by that,” he said. “My father drove a semi. He was gone Monday through Friday doing his runs. My mother was home just basically to take care of the family. Honestly, my parents were weekend alcoholics. He’d come home on a Friday and they’d be at the VFW and then he’d dry out on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong. He was a great provider.” But the family lacked something in the way of structure.
The seven Denmans lived in a two-bedroom house. Looking back on it, Brian realizes that it was a difficult path for him and his brothers growing up. His oldest brother Mike got childhood diabetes at the age of 10. “I could see that it crushed my father real bad. My second-oldest brother, Tim, was actually a better athlete than I was. He was a stud, but he just couldn’t handle the home life. Two weeks before he was supposed to graduate from high school, he enlisted in the Marines.
“My wife and I now, we put a lot of faith in God. I look back on it and I always had an outlet. I dove into sports and that was my lifeline. I could kind of escape in a way, I guess you could say. I had a drive. If someone told me I couldn’t do something, I would prove them wrong. It was a God-given ability that I had. There’s no doubt that the Lord had a hand in my life before I even knew He existed.”
Denman was recruited as a hitter and first baseman, received a baseball scholarship, and was part of the University of Minnesota Gophers baseball team that made it to the College World Series. “At Minnesota my freshman year, I just pitched. My sophomore, I just pitched very sparingly. I played first base. When I was a junior, I was pitcher/first base. When we had doubleheaders on Saturdays and Sundays at the Big Ten schools, I’d always throw one of the games.”
He was a first-round draft pick of the Red Sox (the 13th overall selection) in the January 1978 secondary draft.4 He’d previously been selected out of the University of Minnesota by the California Angels in the June 1977 amateur draft, a 14th-round pick — as a first baseman — but did not sign.5 He says, forthrightly, “I had some legal problems at the time, and once I got drafted, they never really pursued me too hard.” Once the case cleared up and he was absolved of any guilt, he’d really found his true calling, on the pitcher’s mound. “I got a chance to go out to the Cape Cod League the summer of ‘77 — just as a pitcher, so I just concentrated on pitching for the first time. I had a really enjoyable time and realized that if I was going to take it farther — I always wanted to play professional baseball — it would be as a pitcher. I played for the Cotuit Kettleers. That was the first time I ever saw Fenway Park. We had the chance to go up there and play a team of All-Stars. It was quite an experience. A lot of fun.”
The August 1 game at Fenway Park pitted the Atlantic Coast League All-Stars against the Cape Cod League All-Stars. Brian was the winning pitcher, providing convenient additional exposure to the Red Sox
He was signed by the Red Sox after completing his third year at the university. “Chuck Koney flew into Minneapolis. We had lunch at the airport. He brought the contract and I signed, and I was on my way.” He never completed his college education. “Honestly, I just went to Minnesota to play baseball. My dream was always to go professional. I was young and stupid at the time. I was not real disciplined. I just wanted to play baseball. Big mistake on my part because I got a free education but I didn’t take advantage of it.” He was the first in his family to graduate from high school.
The 22-year-old enjoyed an excellent first year with the Winter Haven Red Sox (Class-A Florida State League), with a 16-5 record in 27 starts and a 2.05 earned run average. Rac Slider’s Winter Haven team swept Fort Lauderdale in the league playoffs.
In 1979, Denman (who was listed at 6-feet-4 and 205 pounds) was promoted to the Double-A Eastern League and pitched in Connecticut for the Bristol Red Sox. He was 14-10 with a 3.69 ERA.
It was on a road trip in 1979 that a major event in Brian Denman’s life occurred. “I met my wife Linda here when we came into Buffalo to play the Bisons. She grew up in one of the suburbs here, right next to where we’re living now. We met in 1979 and we got married in 1983. We’ve been married 37 years.”
Another year followed at Bristol, though Denman only appeared in 10 games in 1980 due to a right wrist operation in February for bone chips and to fix a ligament which had pulled away from the bone. He spent the first three months of the season on the disabled list, not returning until July 14. Once back, he made good use of his opportunities, though, with a 6-0 record and an ERA of 3.10.
He was back with a full season in 1981, and put together a 15-3 (2.44) record. He also got his feet wet with two innings at Triple-A Pawtucket, striking out three but tagged for a solo home run. The rest of the season he was back in Bristol. “I was a little bothered by [the demotion],” he acknowledged. “It’s my third time around here and they make more money up there. But they’ve got a lot of pitchers in Pawtucket…I’ll just bide my time here. I can pitch, it will come through and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s here or there.” He added, “It takes guts to play this game, and to make it all the way, you just have to find a little extra within yourself.”6
His standout game was the July 6 no-hitter he threw in West Haven, Connecticut, against the West Haven A’s. The score was 4-1, the one run coming in the seventh inning when Denman hit a batter, saw him steal second, take third base on an error, and then score when Denman throw a wild pitch. It was, nonetheless, a no-hitter.7 Despite getting congratulated on the field, he said the fact he’d thrown a no-hitter only sank in some time later.
In fact, most of the people at the game didn’t realize he had thrown a no-hitter until after the final out. In the sixth inning, there had been a hard-hit ball to shortstop Juan Bustabad, a ball that ended up heading into left field and the batter was safe on first. It was ruled an error when it happened. However, only “those privy to press-box chatter” knew, because “the official scorer and public address announcer failed to inform the crowd, or the teams, of the ruling on the play, nor was it flashed on the scoreboard.”8
Denman was a sinker-slider pitcher whose fastball fell away. He said, “I’m a pitcher who has to keep everything down. If I don’t? Trouble.”9
He led the league in both wins and earned run average and was named an All-Star. Bristol made the Eastern League playoffs in 1981 and Denman shut out the Reading Phillies in the first game. He pitched a complete-game win against Glens Falls in the second round, and Bristol won the playoffs. The Red Sox added him to their 40-man roster in October.
But would he have a shot to make the majors? He’d only pitched two innings above Double A and he’d turned 26 in February. George Thomas said, “I’ve never met anyone who was ever impressed with him,” adding, “ball he’s ever done all his life is win.” Red Sox GM Haywood Sullivan echoed Thomas: “If you can’t find anyone that’ll swear by Brian Denman, write down two names — [Red Sox farm director] Ed Kenney and Haywood Sullivan. I’m tired of hearing what players can do. All this guy ever does is win.”10
Spring training in 1982 was the first time he’d faced major league batters. He showed well, and pitching coach Lee Stange said, “He’s done something here: Namely, show everyone, including himself, that he’s a major league pitcher. He’s put it into our minds that if something happens, we have no hesitancy to go right to him.”11
Denman pitched for three different teams in 1982. He was 3-0 for Bristol but struggled at Pawtucket, going 7-4 (5.05). He’d been back and forth — first Pawtucket, then he volunteered to go to Bristol to get more work, and then back to Pawtucket. He hadn’t pitched particularly well, but came on strong, with three of his last five starts being shutouts. As the minor-league season began to wind down, he got the call to Boston on August 20 due to an injury; Sox pitcher Bobby Ojeda had fallen in the shower and had to be placed on the DL and go back to Boston for evaluation.
Denman joined the Boston team in time for a Sunday afternoon start at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on August 22. Ralph Houk’s Red Sox had been tied for first place as recently as August 2, but had gone 6-12 and had lost three games in a row. While still in second place, they had fallen to six games back.
Denman retired the first seven batters he faced, then allowed a harmless bunt single. Boston scored four runs in the top of the fifth. Through five full, he held a 4-0 lead. Come the Oakland sixth, each of the first three A’s batters singled and one run scored. Houk brought in Tom Burgmeier to relieve Denman, and an inherited runner scored on a sacrifice fly. Burgmeier closed out the game with four full innings of one-hit relief. He got the save, and Denman got the win. “Thank you,” Rick Miller told Denman. “I think you know how much we needed that.” Manager Houk said, a bit oddly, “He may not look pretty, but there are a lot of pretty guys who don’t win. This guy’s won everywhere he’s been.”12
Five days later, he took on the visiting Angels at Fenway Park. Again he worked five innings but this time he gave up six runs and lost the game, 7-6.
On September 1, Oakland was in Boston and Denman beat them again, pitching six innings and allowing four hits and two runs, a two-run homer in the top of the sixth. He got his second win when the Red Sox poured three runs across in the bottom of the sixth to take a 5-2 lead. They won, 7-4.
Next up were two non-decisions, but he hadn’t pitched that well, giving up eight runs in 9 1/3 innings. He lost the September 17 game, 5-1. Unfortunately, when he did pitch well, allowing just three runs in seven innings at Milwaukee on the 22nd, his teammates only scored once. One of the runs he’d allowed was unearned, but it was still a run, and he lost, 3-1.
On September 27 in Boston, he faced the Yankees and didn’t get out of the first inning. Everything he threw was right down the middle of the plate. He was touched for six runs (two of them earned), knocked out by a grand slam hit by Rick Cerone. The loss saw his record drop to 2-4, but he got his revenge against the Yankees at the Stadium on Saturday afternoon October 2.
Denman gave up a double to Barry Evans in the bottom of the first inning and another double to Evans in the bottom of the fourth. He scattered four other singles in the remaining five innings; the Yankees’ best opportunity to score was after back-to-back singles and a wild pitch in the fifth, but he settled down after that and wound up with a shutout in a game that had been 1-0 through six, but then saw the Sox score four more runs, two in the seventh and two in the eighth.
He’d thrown a shutout in his last game in the major leagues. “And I never saw the big leagues again.”
Denman finished his first year in the majors — with no way of knowing it would prove to be his only year in the majors — with a record of 3-4 (4.78). He had a 1.306 WHIP and a 1.000 fielding percentage in 11 chances.
He was off to winter ball in the Dominican Republic, with Ralph Houk’s final comments in a clipping he might have kept: “There’s something to be said for guys who know how to win, and with his makeup and his control, if he develops his changeup and his slider a little more, he could be really rough.”13 Houk told the Springfield Republican, “He’s got a lot of bulldog in him. I’d have to say he’s in our plans for next year.”14
He apparently struggled in winter ball, and for the first few weeks of spring training. “In ’82 I went to the big leagues so in ’83 I went to the big leagues figuring I had a real good chance of making the team. I don’t think I was just going through the motions but I probably didn’t handle it very well. I got sent down from the big-league camp. I felt like I didn’t get a real good chance in spring training.”
He had a rough year in Pawtucket in 1983, on the disabled list for a stretch after being spiked on a play at first base and needing 20 stitches. The cut had been so deep that one could see the muscles. Fortunately, there was no damage to his heel or tendons. But he didn’t get the call back to the big leagues. “They called up Al Nipper at the time. Al came up and threw real well. It was kind of like anything else. Somebody else had an opportunity and took advantage of it. You just kind of get pushed down a notch. It was kind of like when I got called to the bigs. I got called because Bobby Ojeda fell in the shower in Oakland.”
He had an ERA of 5.02 in 1983 (8-11).
Unlike many pitchers, there was never an attempt to convert him from starter to reliever at any time during his nine seasons in the minor leagues. He says the subject never came up for discussion.
Over the winter of 1983/84, he dropped 20 pounds and was briefly given the nickname “Gandhi” by Peter Gammons. He showed some stuff in spring training, but was part of the first group cut. There just didn’t seem to be any room for him on the big-league pitching staff. His 1984 season was another split one — with dramatically different results. With Pawtucket his ERA was 8.32 (3-5); after being sent down to Double-A New Britain in mid-June, he was 4-1 (2.51). He had been discouraged, of course, at the demotion but, according to the Hartford Courant, “his wife Linda, and a newly found commitment to Christianity combined to make Denman give it one more try.”15
In mid-September 1984, he was left off the 40-man roster and in October he became a free agent. On December 4, he signed with the Detroit Tigers organization.
His final two years in professional baseball were at Triple A in the Tigers system, both 1985 and 1986 with the Nashville Sounds (American Association). He won 10 games each year, 10-8 in 1985 (4.06) and 10-10 in 1986 (4.80).
“In ’86 the Tigers put me back on the 40-man roster for them. I threw well in spring training. I thought I had a chance of making the team. I remember the day I got sent down — one of the last cuts — Sparky Anderson called me in his office. He’s got his back to me sitting there and putting on his pants and he says, ‘Yeah, Brian, we’re going to send you down.’ I was wondering, should I just turn around and walk out? I said, ‘Sparky, if you don’t mind my asking, why?’ He said, ‘No special reason, Brian. You threw as well as anybody else. It’s just the direction we’re going to go.’ What can you say to that? I thought I’d give it one more shot so we went down to Nashville. I played the whole year waiting for a call to maybe come back up. It never came. That’s when I knew it was time to get out of the game.
“I was 31. My oldest, Ami, was born in Nashville in ’85. She was a year old and it was time to move on.”
As of July 2020, the Denmans still lived near Buffalo. They have three children. “Ami, who is 35. Elizabeth, who is 32. And Travis, he’s 30 now. My son enjoys all sports — basketball, baseball. He was fortunate enough to go to West Liberty on a baseball scholarship. He got an education. He’s actually an elementary school phys ed teacher now in the district he grew up in. All my kids are doing great. My two daughters live in the Boston area. Elizabeth lives in Saugus. Ami lived in Waltham for a while; she just got a new place in Quincy. My oldest is a physician’s assistant. She went to school in the area for medical training and stayed there ever since. She worked at Mass General for a while. She works at Charlton Hospital now, in Fall River. Elizabeth is a high school guidance counselor. She loves it.”
Both Brian and Linda Denman continue to work. “Linda worked as a server with a Denny’s out here. She’s out now [due to the COVID-19 virus in the spring of 2020]. Twenty-something years now, she’s been there. My first steady job when I got back, I was fortunate to get into Fed Ex. I was driving and delivering for Fed Ex. I worked there for 17 years.”
A man with whom he had become friends during Travis’s Little League years owned a family-run trucking company. Brian worked there for 10 years, at a desk job until the company downsized.
“I work for an electrical company right now. I deliver electrical parts and stuff. I’ve been there about six years now. I enjoy it. I enjoy the physical part of it.
“I’m 64 now. I hope to be able to work as long as I possibly can. I really enjoy it.”
Looking back on his life, Denman said, “We’ve always been comfortable. The Good Lord has seen to our needs. We had the chance to put our kids through school. Thank God I met a good woman way back when; she taught me a lot of fiscal responsibility and things like that. My first year I made $500 a month. But that was the most money I ever had at the time. I would just have enough money to survive in the offseason until spring training.
“Baseball allowed me to see a lot of places I never would have seen in my life. I chased a dream for nine years. You can’t beat that.
“I’ve been very blessed. No doubt about it.”
Last revised: August 25, 2020
This biography was reviewed by Donna L. Halper and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. Thanks to the Boston Red Sox.
1 Author interview with Brian Denman on May 23, 2020. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations come from this interview. Asked if he had any sisters, he replied, “No sisters at all. My mother always wanted a little girl. A funny story — one day I pulled out some old articles from back home and when I was 2 years old — in 1958 — they used to have a big Fourth of July parade in our neighborhood. My mother dressed us all up as little girls and put us on this float. It made the papers and there’s a picture of all of us. My oldest brother was 12 at the time. My next oldest was 10. Kevin was 3, and I was 2.”
2 Peter Gammons, “Denman Doesn’t Have Much — He Just Wins,” Boston Globe, January 9, 1982: 32.
3 “In high school, I was basically a first baseman/pitcher. Being one of the bigger kids, once I became like 15 or so, I enjoyed pitching. I really enjoyed catching, too. There was a catcher that my high school coach wanted to get in the lineup so I moved to first base.”
4 The secondary phase was for players who had previously been drafted but had not signed.
5 Two of his teammates at the university were Paul Molitor and fellow pitcher Steve Comer. For his selection by the Angels as a first baseman, see Jack Lang, “14 Free Agents Reflect Baseball Bloodlines,” The Sporting News, June 25,1977: 9. He was still listed as a first baseman when the Red Sox draft choice was published, though they clearly had drafted him as a pitcher. See The Sporting News, January 28, 1978: 50.
6 Owen Canfield, “Denman Knew Early That Making the Bigs Is Tough,” Hartford Courant, July 12, 1981: D5.
7 Associated Press, “Bristol’s Denman No-Hits A’s, 4-1,” Hartford Courant, July 7, 1981: C1.
8 John Altavilla, “Bristol’s Denman Notches No-Hitter,” The Sporting News, July 25, 1981: 39.
9 Owen Canfield, “Denman Knew Early That Making the Bigs Is Tough.”
10 Peter Gammons, “Denman Doesn’t Have Much — He Just Wins.”
11 Peter Gammons, “Denman and Boggs Take Major Steps,” Boston Globe, March 21, 1982: 65.
12 Peter Gammons, “Denman Gives Sox A Shot in the Arm,” Boston Globe, August 23, 1982: 1.
13 Peter Gammons, “Denman Stymies NY, 5-0,” Boston Globe, October 3, 1982: 74.
14 Tom Shea, “Denman Gets Even with Yanks,” Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), October 3, 1982: 10.
15 Terese Karmel, “Despite Demotions, Denman Has His Sights Set High,” Hartford Courant, July 1, 1984: E10.