Craig Chamberlain (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Craig Chamberlain

This article was written by Malcolm Allen

Craig Chamberlain (THE TOPPS COMPANY)As they battled for a fourth straight AL West title in 1979, the Kansas City Royals promoted a 22-year-old, first-year pro from Double-A to join their starting rotation in August. Craig Chamberlain won his first three starts and dueled future Hall of Famers in three of his first five. But he won only one more major league game despite pitching professionally until he was 38. “I started in the big leagues and worked my way down,” he quipped.1

Craig Phillip Chamberlain was born on February 2, 1957, in Hollywood, California, the first of Ray and Ann (Patterson) Chamberlain’s two sons. Younger brother David arrived the following year. Their father was a real estate consultant and insurance salesman, and their mother taught high school.

The Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars were the most accomplished local team when Craig was born, but the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles when he was one, followed by the expansion Angels in 1961. Though Anaheim Stadium, opened for the Angels in 1966, was closer to his house, he recalled that he “probably followed the Dodgers a little more closely.”2 Dodgers infielder Jim Lefebvre –a Rookie of the Year when Craig was eight — was his childhood favorite. Later, he followed strikeout king Nolan Ryan, who joined the Angels when Chamberlain was 15.

Chamberlain would eventually develop into a pitcher, but he didn’t start out that way. As a ninth-grader at Los Alamitos High School, he’d been the MVP of the Griffins’ baseball, football and basketball teams in the same year. An outstanding linebacker and quarterback on the gridiron, he starred at third base on the diamond. “Any pitcher will tell you this, but nobody could hit as good as me,” he recalled in 2020. Though he’d overcome physical setbacks throughout his youth –“I broke my arm every year from fourth to seventh grade,” — a series of high school football injuries robbed him of some of his natural athleticism. Chamberlain broke his right foot twice and his left foot once, and underwent left knee surgery to repair torn ligaments.3 The speed he had used to steal three bases for Rossmoor in a 1972 Colt League playoff game was gone for good.4

In his final year of high school, Chamberlain beat out Ron Cassidy for the Griffins’ starting quarterback job.5 He made Orange County’s AAAA division all-county team as a utility man.6 In one game, he homered twice and hurled four innings for a victory.7 Though his 6-2 record and 1.59 ERA by mid-May hinted that his strong right arm would be the key to his sporting future, he still wanted to play third base. 8

No major league team drafted Chamberlain after his 1975 graduation, so he spent the next two years at a trio of junior colleges. First, he enrolled at Fullerton College after spending his summer recuperating from foot surgery. When Fullerton decided to start future Detroit Tiger Marty Castillo at the hot corner instead, Chamberlain transferred to Cypress College. Though he batted over .300 for the Chargers in 1976, a bad back limited his power and he wasn’t satisfied with the coaching staff, so he left for Long Beach City College after one year. LBCC already had a third baseman, so “I reluctantly started working on the pitching angle.”

Reluctant or not, Chamberlain went 15-2 for the Vikings to earn All-Southern California Junior College First Team honors.9 The New York Mets selected him in the 19th round of the June 1977 amateur draft. One of his Los Alamitos teammates, Greg Harris, was already pitching in the Mets organization after being drafted out of LBCC, but Chamberlain didn’t sign. “I simply felt that I wasn’t ready, that I needed another year of schooling,” he explained.10

Chamberlain accepted coach Jerry Kindall’s scholarship offer to attend the University of Arizona, First, he went to South Dakota to play summer ball, including a 15-strikeout gem for Macy Trucking of Rapid City.11 Two years later, he admitted he was still getting used to pitching full time. “The toughest thing about the adjustment is the waiting between starts, in knowing that if I hadn’t lost the mobility, I could be out there every day,” he said.12

At Arizona, Chamberlain roomed with Brad Mills and won the 1978 season opener for a team that also featured future big leaguer Terry Francona.13 The Wildcats finished the year ranked 10th in the nation14 and Chamberlain’s 10-1 record with a 2.26 ERA was a big reason why.15 In the NCAA West Regional against Santa Clara, however, he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot while sprinting to cover first base.16 “I estimate that I’ve spent two years of my life in a cast or on crutches,” he remarked.17 Without him, Arizona lost a heartbreaker in the regional final to the University of Southern California Trojans, who went on to win the College World Series.

Two days after Chamberlain’s injury, he wasn’t among the 779 players selected in the main June amateur draft, but the Royals snagged the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder with the second overall pick of the secondary phase. “He had the injury, so a lot of teams stayed away from him,” explained Kansas City farm director John Schuerholz. “Also, he had another year to play at Arizona, and that’s a school that has a history of having players difficult to sign. He was tough to sign, but we thought it was worth the gamble.” Chamberlain signed for a $25,000 bonus. “The original diagnosis was a sprained ankle. I’m not sure what the Royals would have done if they had known it was more serious,” he said. “But I’m glad they didn’t.”18

Chamberlain’s foot prevented him from pitching in the summer of 1978. “Every week the doctor said, ‘Well, just one more week now and you’ll be ready’,” he recalled.19 He impressed in the Florida Instructional League that fall, however, and the Royals invited him to spring training in 1979 as a non-roster player.20 He was told to arrive early for the team’s new minicamp for rookies and rehabbing players. “We considered the cost of our camp as money well spent because we found Craig Chamberlain,” GM Joe Burke remarked a year later. “Our manager and coaches knew little about him.”21

“None of the hitters wanted to face [Chamberlain] in batting practice,” skipper Whitey Herzog noticed. “He wasn’t wild, just mean with his stuff.”22 Catcher Darrell Porter said, “I caught him in spring training, and I was impressed with him then as much as with anybody else I saw.” His fastball moves as good as any I’ve seen.”23Being in spring training with the three-time defending AL West champions boosted Chamberlain’s confidence. “When I got my first close look at major league players, I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe you’re closer than you think’,” he said.24 The Royals sent him to the Double-A Southern League, though, where his early-season record was 4-8 for the Jacksonville Suns. “We sent him to Jacksonville because he hadn’t pitched pro ball before,” Schuerholz explained. “He started slowly…so you can see what might have happened to his confidence if he had been as high as [Triple-A] Omaha.”25

In July, Chamberlain went 7-0, including a one-hitter against the Memphis Chicks.26 His dominant month included a string of 34 2/3 scoreless innings, which ended on July 25 one out shy of tying Jim MacDonnell’s 1971 league mark of 35.27 After hitting a batter on an 0-2 count to force a runner into scoring position, Chamberlain left a pitch up and over the plate to Charlotte’s Tommy Eaton, who stroked a two-strike RBI single. “Yeah, I’m disappointed,” he admitted. “I was probably thinking more about the record than pitching the game…I wanted it pretty bad.” He retired the next 16 batters, and 22 of the final 23 for another victory.28

After his early-season struggles, Chamberlain discovered a new pitch to complement his fastball and slider. “About 15 times a game, I’ve been taking about five miles per hour off my fastball and it really seems to catch the hitters off stride,” he explained.29 “He doesn’t throw a normal change-up,” added Dick Balderson, Kansas City’s assistant farm director. “He just takes something off his fastball, and it’s proved extremely effective. He is definitely a major league prospect.”30

Chamberlain had a 12-9 record, 2.59 ERA and 11 complete games in 22 starts when the Royals summoned him the big leagues, only 16 days after his scoreless innings streak ended. He debuted on August 12, starting against the Tigers on a Sunday afternoon in front of 32,671 at Royals Stadium. He carried a shutout into the ninth and went the distance on a six-hitter to keep third-place Kansas City within five games of the division-leading Angels. “I had some butterflies, but I began to lose them after the first pitch,” he said.31

“With his ability to take something off his fastball, it’s like having two pitches. Not too many young pitchers are able to do that,” observed Royals pitching coach Galen Cisco. “That’s one reason he gets so many pop ups and fly balls. With his delivery, he’s sneaky.”32

Chamberlain’s next outing came against the team with the majors’ best record. He three-hit the Orioles in Baltimore, defeating three-time Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer. The Baltimore Sun said Chamberlain “simply overmatched the Birds” with a “blazing fastball.”33 Back in Kansas City for his third start, he pitched nine more innings and struck out a career-high seven to beat another future Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley of the Red Sox. “I couldn’t believe it when the Royals called me up. I was awed by the events, but not by the assignments,” Chamberlain said. “I had worked extra hard to be ready. It’s also my attitude that if you prepare right between starts, there’s nothing to be nervous about. It’s still just me, the catcher and the batter.”34

“If he develops a breaking ball, he can be a real good one. He’s got guts, he doesn’t get frustrated and nothing seems to bother him,” observed his catcher, Porter.35 “The ball moves real good. It moves both ways –in to lefthanders as well as running out.”36

In Chamberlain’s fourth start, the Brewers handed him his first loss. With Kansas City only a half-game out of first, he came back to outpitch Catfish Hunter at Yankee Stadium on September 2, but the bullpen blew a ninth-inning lead. Five nights later in Seattle, he rebounded to earn what would be his final big-league victory.

Chamberlain finished the season on a three-game losing streak, including a defeat to the California Angels that ended the Royals’ run of three straight AL West titles. Rod Carew’s bad-hop, opposite-field single eluded Kansas City third baseman Todd Cruz, keying the rally that helped the Angels secured their first post-season appearance in front of 40,631 at Anaheim Stadium. “A day of infamy,” Chamberlain recalled. “Losing pitcher against Frank Tanana as Angels clinch first pennant ever, in my home county, Orange County.”

After finishing his rookie season with a 4-4 record and 3.75 ERA in 10 starts, the right-hander headed to the Venezuelan Winter League to work with Bill Fischer, Kansas City’s former minor-league pitching instructor. “I worked non-stop on the curve ball, knowing that if I could add that to the other pitches, I would be unhittable,” Chamberlain explained. By the time he completed his dozen-start stint for the Tigres de Aragua with a 6-5 record and 3.82 ERA, he had thrown nearly 330 innings in 1979.37 Nevertheless, he said, “I was as strong or stronger, velocity wise the following year.”

When he arrived at spring training, Jim Frey had succeeded the fired Herzog as the Royals manager and Billy Connors was the club’s new pitching coach. “Chamberlain has a good breaking pitch and we’re going to make it part of his repertoire,” Connors insisted.38 On Opening Day, Chamberlain was Kansas City’s final cut, as the team went with rehabilitating former All-Star Steve Busby. Busby was hurting again by the time the Royals needed a fifth starter in May, but the job went to converted reliever Renie Martin. Meanwhile, in his first taste of the Triple-A American Association, Chamberlain had a losing record by the second week of August.39 He won his last four decisions to finish 11-10 with a 4.76 ERA for the Omaha Royals, however, earning a September call-up to the majors. The Royals had a double-digit AL West lead and the majors’ best record when he arrived. In five relief outings Chamberlain worked fewer than 10 innings. He allowed a game-tying homer and was tagged with a loss in Oakland the only time he appeared with a lead.

Chamberlain was Kansas City’s final spring training cut again in 1981.40 Back at Omaha, he permitted only 110 hits in 133 innings and finished 6-7 with a 3.72 ERA, but it wasn’t enough to earn a return to the Royals at the end of the strike-shortened season. In the Dominican Republic that winter, Chamberlain was 3-3 with a 5.59 ERA in 58 innings for the Estrellas Orientales. He started twice in the Dominican playoffs but lost both times.41

Less than a week before Opening Day in 1982, Chamberlain was one of four Royals swapped to the San Francisco Giants in a six-player deal that brought former MVP Vida Blue to Kansas City. he spent the season with the Triple-A Phoenix Giants and posted an awful 2-13 record and 6.91 ERA for the worst team in the Pacific Coast League. “I changed my mechanics completely,” Chamberlain explained. “Video cameras were kind of new, and I realized that I didn’t look anything like I thought. I threw more like Jack Morris, only harder. I changed things to be more like Nolan Ryan, my idol. I could throw 94 or 95, but it was straight as a string.” The extra velocity came at the expense of what he called the true secret of his success — “the 91-mph heavy sinker”.

He began 1983 back at Phoenix but pitched poorly in seven relief outings. On May 7, Chamberlain was demoted to the Shreveport Captains of the Double-A Texas League. After pitching to a 3-8 record with a 7.15 ERA in 17 starts, he asked for his release. He tried to catch on with the Chicago Cubs organization but was released again in spring training 1984.42

Chamberlain enrolled at Arizona State University to finish his accounting degree and spent two years at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He followed up on his backup plan from high school to become a Certified Public Accountant, but he wasn’t finished with baseball. After a three-year absence, he returned to the mound in 1987 with the San Bernardino Spirit, where he was one of four 30-something ex-big leaguers to suit up for the Single-A California League club that season. One of them, his former roommate Todd Cruz, was instrumental in getting him to play. “You’ve got to prove yourself to the team because talk is cheap, and players come a dime a dozen,” remarked Chamberlain. “You got 20 guys behind you saying, ‘Let’s see what you can do’.”43 In 11 starts, he went 6-4 with a 2.43 ERA.

Seeking another shot in 1988, Chamberlain went back to San Bernardino to collect newspaper clippings to send out to major-league teams.44 He wound up back in the Southern League with the Orioles’ Double-A Charlotte Knights affiliate. In 18 games (eight starts) he finished 4-7 with a 5.43 ERA. When he returned to San Bernardino the following year, it was to participate in the Spirit’s first old-timers’ game, facing the Steele’s Silver Bullets slow-pitch softball champions.45

Chamberlain’s focus became Chamberlain Real Estate, the business he started in Orange County. The right-hander was still throwing in the high-80s, however, when the shorthanded Colorado Springs Sky Sox signed him to start a June 1991 PCL contest in Tucson.46 He showed enough in his emergency effort for the Indians’ affiliate to earn a spot with Cleveland’s Double-A Canton-Akron Aeros for the rest of the season. When Chamberlain notched his lone professional save for the Eastern League squad on June 30, one of his teammates was 20-year-old Jim Thome, who’d begin his 22-year Hall of Fame big-league career two months later.47

It was around this time that Chamberlain briefly played for the Belgian national team. “Antwerp qualified as the Belgian national team representative that year, and they had openings for two Americans/foreigners,” he explained. “I was one of the two.” He also appeared in several National Baseball Congress tournaments in Wichita with the semipro San Diego Stars. In 1994 he traveled to the Last Frontier for the Stars’ 20-game tour against clubs from the Alaska Baseball League, a summer circuit for collegiate players.48 There, Chamberlain started the Midnight Sun Game, the Alaska Goldpanners’ annual summer solstice contest in Fairbanks.

When the major-league players’ strike that led to the cancellation of that fall’s World Series stretched into early 1995, owners toyed with the possibility of beginning the season with replacement players and it briefly appeared that Chamberlain would receive one last big-league opportunity. Shortly after his 38th birthday, the Kansas City Star said he’d “reported [to Royals’ spring training] Sunday but did not answer the roll call for Monday’s first workout.”49 “I was excited to play, however, the atmosphere and the accommodations did not seem right. They were not big-league,” Chamberlain recalled. “As I was sitting there in my room upon arriving, watching the Daytona 500, it struck me that this camp was more of a negotiating tool for ownership than the real thing, and I decided that it wasn’t for me.” He went home and won three of five starts for the Long Beach Barracudas of the independent Western League. It was the final action of his professional baseball career.

Chamberlain and his wife Kim (Morgan) raised four children in Orange County: daughters KC and Taylor, and sons Mike and Craig. He is a member of both the Los Alamitos Unified School District Alumni and Long Beach City College Halls of Fame.50 As of 2021, Chamberlain Real Estate is still going strong after 33 years.

Last revised: January 21, 2021

 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Craig Chamberlain (telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, December 5, 2020, and several e-mail follow-ups).

This biography was reviewed by Gregory H. Wolf and Norman Macht and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.ancestry.com, www.baseball-reference.com and www.retrosheet.org.

 

Notes

1 Unless otherwise cited, all Craig Chamberlain quotes are from a telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, December 5, 2020.

2 Ross Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1979: D1.

3 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

4 “Heartwell Colt Victor,” Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California), July 16, 1972: 67.

5 Gary Ellis, “Sunset League Revamped,” Independent (Long Beach, California), September 18, 1974: 41.

6 “County All Star Teams Revealed,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1975: OC-A6

7 “Loara Dropped to 3rd,” Independent, May 9, 1975: 33.

8 “Unbeaten Pitchers Go for Lakewood, Jordan,” Independent, May 16, 1975: 31.

9 “Four Panther Players Tabbed,” Progress Bulletin (Pomona, California), May 26, 1977: 31.

10 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

11 “Macy Trucking Clips Canova in 13-1 Contest,” Daily Republic (Mitchell, South Dakota), June 27, 1977: 10.

12 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

13 “Fullerton Loses to Arizona, 8-3,” Los Angeles Times, February 11,1978: OC-B2.

14 “Collegiate Baseball Division I Finals Polls (1959-2009): 39, http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/baseball_RB/2010/D1.pdf (last accessed December 9, 2020).

1515] “KC Loads Up with Pitchers,” Salina (Kansas) Journal, June 7, 1978: 19.

16 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

17 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

18 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

19 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

20 Del Black, “Royals Kick Up Their Heels Over Blue-Ribbon Kid Crop,” The Sporting News, January 13, 1979: 36.

21 Sid Bordman, “Royals: ‘Get Acquainted Time’,” The Sporting News, March 1, 1980: 40.

22 Sid Bordman, “McRae Returns to Help Shoulder Royal Load,” The Sporting News, September 1, 1979: 33.

23 Del Black, “Chamberlain Rates Royal Salute in Kaycee,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1979: 36.

24 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

25 Black, “Chamberlain Rates Royal Salute in Kaycee.”

26 “Wilder Makes Good,” The Sporting News, July 28, 1979: 43.

27 In 1971, for one year only, clubs from the Southern League and Texas League merged to form the Dixie Association.

28 “Chamberlain Foiled on Zero Streak,” The Sporting News, August 18, 1979: 42.

29 “Changing for Success,” The Sporting News, August 11, 1974: 44.

30 “Chamberlain Foiled on Zero Streak.”

31 Black, “Chamberlain Rates Royal Salute in Kaycee,”

32 Black, “Chamberlain Rates Royal Salute in Kaycee,”

33 Lou Hatter, “K.C. Trips Birds, 7-1,” Baltimore Sun, August 18, 1979: B5.

34 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

35 Newhan, “Royals Counting on Chamberlain to Stop Angels.”

36 Black, “Chamberlain Rates Royal Salute in Kaycee,”

37 Venezuelan statistics from http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=chamcra001 (last accessed December 14, 2020).

38 “Bunts and Boots,” The Sporting News, April 19, 1980: 34.

39 “American Association,” The Sporting News, August 23, 1980: 37.

40 “Roster is Set for Kansas City,” Salina (Kansas) Journal, April 6, 1981: 12.

41 Dominican League statistics from https://stats.winterballdata.com/players?key=786 (last accessed December 10, 2020).

42 Joel Rippel, “Chamberlain Catches ‘The Fever’,” Orange County (California) Register, August 8, 1988: C5.

43 David T. Bristow, “Spirit Completes Sweep of San Jose, 3-0,” San Bernardino County Sun, July 24, 1987: 31.

44 “Spirit Notes,” San Bernardino County Sun, May 18, 1988: 26.

45 “Ex-Spirit Players Face Softball Stars on Sunday,” San Bernardino County Sun, April 1, 1989: 28.

46 Greg Bartolin, “Mota Gets Shot with Padres,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 25, 1991: 5C.

47 Joe Maxse, “Jefferson Moving on Up After AA Indians’ Rout,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), July 1, 1991.

48 Woody Doyle, “Bucs Wake Up in Time to Snap Losing Skid at 6,” Anchorage Daily News, June 26, 1994: B1.

49 Dick Kaegel, “‘Shag’ Flies Royals’ Spring Coop of Replacements,” Kansas City Star, February 24, 1995: D1.

50 Alumni Hall of Fame,” https://www.losal.org/our-district/alumni-hall-of-fame (last accessed December 10, 2020).

Full Name

Craig Phillip Chamberlain

Born

February 2, 1957 at Hollywood, CA (USA)

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