Don Elston (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Don Elston

This article was written by Dirk Lammers

“It’s the starting pitcher’s job to win the game. My job is to save it. Sure the starters make more money. They don’t have as much fun.” — Don “Every Day” Elston1

 

Don Elston (THE TOPPS COMPANY)If a Chicago Cubs skipper picked up the bullpen phone during the late ’50s or early ‘60s, chances are he was calling on Don “Every Day” Elston. The righthanded workhorse led the majors with 69 appearances in 1958 and 65 more in 1959, for sub-.500 clubs. Over parts of nine seasons from 1953 to 1964, Elston pitched all but one inning of his major-league career for the Cubs. As of 2021, his 658 1/3 relief innings remain a Chicago franchise record.

Donald Ray Elston was born on April 6, 1929, in Campbellstown, Ohio, to Ethel Mae (Felty) and Robert Newton Elston, an outstanding semi-pro shortstop.2 Don lettered in basketball and baseball at Camden High School, one of the top baseball schools in the Dayton-Cincinnati area.3 He played second base until his senior year, when he pitched Camden to Ohio’s district finals.4

In June 1947, Elston attended a Mansfield, Ohio, tryout put on by the Chicago Cubs, and the club signed him as an amateur free agent on December 6.5 The lanky, 6-foot, 145-pound6 youngster debuted in the Class D Appalachian League with the Elizabethton (TN) Betsy Cubs in 1948. Despite a lofty 5.38 ERA, Elston’s 7-4 record earned him a promotion to Janesville of the Class D Wisconsin State League, where he achieved similar results.

Janesville was also where Elston met his future wife, Martha Louise Burns, a Chicago native who had recently relocated to Wisconsin with her family. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Jerome Holtzman, Martha’s mother, Marie Burns, was a diehard Cubs fan who rented rooms to players. “Martha and a girlfriend agreed to a swap: Martha would introduce her to five players staying in her home in exchange for introductions to the two players in her house,” Holtzman wrote. “One of those two was Don Elston.”7

As the couple’s courtship began, Elston returned to Janesville for the ’49 season and improved to 16-11, completing 17 of his 31 starts. His 3.07 ERA ranked fourth best in the circuit.8 His 202 innings of work inflicted some arm soreness, but the side-armer used the opportunity to develop a change-up to accompany his sinking fastball and tricky curve. “[Elston] found that ‘without throwing hard enough to break an egg,’ he had the batters lunging at the ball, and he’s concentrated on that talent since,” wrote the Springfield Leader and Press.9

Don and Martha married on March 11, 1950, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Janesville, celebrating their nuptials with friends and family at a reception for 60 hosted by Martha’s parents.10 After honeymooning for a couple of weeks in Chicago, Elston left for Moultrie, Georgia, to train with the Cubs’ Class-A Grand Rapids Jets affiliate. The Jets optioned Elston to the Springfield (MO) Cubs of the Class C Western Association, where he logged another 218 innings while winning 14, losing 12 and allowing 3.30 earned runs per nine innings. Springfield’s third-place finish earned the club a trip to the Western Association Shaughnessy playoffs against the Joplin Miners. Elston denied a future Hall of Famer his 200th hit of the season. On September 9, 1950, Elston yielded a fourth-inning single to 18-year-old shortstop Mickey Mantle — hit No. 199 — but held the Mick hitless after that with relief help as the Cubs prevailed, 10-9, in 10 innings.11

Elston seemed destined for a promotion when unexpected major health problems put his future in jeopardy. In November 1950, his appendix burst during a severe storm, and a “hastily summoned semi-truck” rushed him to the hospital for emergency surgery.12 “The rough ride didn’t help his condition any, but he pulled through after some precarious days,” the Argus Leader reported.13

Elston appeared to have put the ailment behind him when he arrived in Jacksonville Beach to train with Grand Rapids ahead of the 1951 season, but he soon wound up in a Haines City, Florida, hospital suffering from peritonitis, a life-threatening infection resulting from the appendectomy.14 Doctors stabilized Elston so that he could return home to recover with his in-laws. He began working out with Janesville with plans to rejoin Grand Rapids. In June, the Cubs placed Elston with their Class C Northern League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Canaries. There, he rehabilitated by working 130 innings.

In 1952, Elston returned to Sioux Falls and kicked off the season by winning his first seven decisions, earning a spot on the Northern League All-Star squad. He enjoyed the success but surmised that he would probably give up pro ball soon if he wasn’t offered a Triple-A contract. “If I play on an ‘A’ club with the Triple-A salary I will feel satisfied,” Elston said.15

He finished the season with a league-best 18-6 record and 1.85 ERA, notching a seven-inning no-hit no-run game along the way. Pitching on the road in the nightcap of an August 13 doubleheader, Elston struck out 16 Grand Forks Chiefs en route to a 5-0 victory.16 His success earned him his long-desired promotion.

Elston joined the Triple-A International League’s Springfield (MA) Cubs in 1953. In 224 innings, he gave up 224 hits and walked 99 for a last-place club that disbanded at the end of the season. But Chicago saw value in his 20 complete games and bought Elston’s contract, adding him to the major-league roster during the club’s penultimate homestand.

Three Chicago Cubs made their major-league debuts on September 17, 1953 — reliever Bill Moisan, future Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks and Elston. Moisan gave up three runs in two innings, while Banks went 0-for-3 with a walk, a run scored and an error. Elston, the starting pitcher against the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field that day, was perfect through two innings but allowed four runs on five hits in the third. He was sent to the lockers after surrendering consecutive singles to start the fourth. Elston said he threw the ball where catcher Clyde McCullough wanted, but batters just started hitting him. “I didn’t walk anyone, did I?” he asked after the game.17 Three days later, Elston took the ball in relief during a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. In two innings of work, he yielded a two-run Red Schoendienst homer.

Anticipating a future with the Cubs, Don and Martha moved to the Windy City area that offseason. Elston began working for the Danly Die Set Machine Company, a Chicago-based tool and die manufacturer.18 The Cubs signed him for 1954 and sent him to the Class A Western League to play for the Des Moines Bruins. Bruins catcher Elvin Tappe said both Elston and teammate Hy Cohen had major-league stuff. “They’ll have to pinpoint their pitches in the majors, however. And they might just be able to do that,” Tappe told the Des Moines Tribune. “In the majors, the batters, as a rule, don’t go for bad pitches.”19 Des Moines captured the Governors’ Cup, defeating the first-place Denver Bears.

In 1955, the Cubs shipped Elston to the Los Angeles Angels. The righty tossed 223 2/3 innings in the Pacific Coast League, posting a 17-6 record and 3.06 ERA. But the Cubs wanted to bring righty Russ Meyer back to Chicago, so on December 9, 1955, they traded Elston and Randy Jackson to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Meyer, Don Hoak and Walt Moryn.

After some winter-league work in Panama, Elston arrived at the Dodgers’ 1956 training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, and “virtually knocked the bats out of batters hands” in early drills. Reporters thought his sinking fastball could earn him a position in the starting rotation, but Elston failed to impress his coaches in exhibition games. He was optioned to the St. Paul Saints of the Triple-A American Association.20

Elston started in the rotation but accepted a demotion to the bullpen after losing his first six decisions while battling arm soreness. He scrapped his side-arm delivery in favor of a three-quarter motion, and found he enjoyed the relief role. Elston rebounded to finish 7-8 with a 3.75 ERA, earning a call-up to Brooklyn on September 7. The National League pennant winners let him throw some batting practice against the team’s stars but never inserted him into a game.

In 1957, Elston re-signed with Brooklyn, returned to Vero Beach for training camp and finally made the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster. After weeks without pitching, manager Walter Alston summoned him to pitch the top of the ninth against the Milwaukee Braves on May 5. Elston shook off his nerves after Bill Bruton’s leadoff double and escaped unscathed by striking out Del Crandall, snagging a failed Ernie Johnson bunt on the fly and enticing a lineout from Danny O’Connell. That was the extent of Elston’s action in a Dodgers uniform, as the club decided it could no longer carry 13 pitchers. Brooklyn protected rookies Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and sent Elston back to the Cubs on May 23 for pitchers Vito Valentinetti and Jackie Collum.

“I really was happy to return to the Cubs where I knew I could work regularly,” Elston said. “There were just too many good young pitchers with the Dodgers. I don’t hold anything against Alston.”21

Cubs skipper Bob Scheffing, who managed Elston in Los Angeles, was happy to reunite with him and vowed to work the pitcher into a full-time bullpen role. That was welcome news for Elston. “Actually, I preferred relief pitching because it fit my stature. I was never really big,” Elston said.22

Elston earned his first major-league victory on May 30, 1957 at County Stadium, throwing four innings of shutout ball in relief of Tom Poholsky during the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Braves. On September 13, he started a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates before settling into the bullpen for the rest of his career. “I’d rather pitch relief than start,” Elston said. “I honestly like to go in with the bases loaded and nobody out.”23

On Opening Day 1958, Elston thrived in just that situation, stranding three St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh inning to protect the Cubs’ 3-0 lead by catching Del Ennis looking at a third strike, retiring Ken Boyer on a fly to right and inducing a ground out to first from Wally Moon. Elston then threw two more innings, giving up only one hit and one walk to complete a three-inning save.

Such performances prompted Scheffing’s further reliance on the righthander, and Elston’s 69 appearances — most in the National League that season — soon earned him the nickname “Every Day.” From September 1-9, he retired 27 consecutive batters over six relief appearances for a “perfect game” streak that ended when the Cardinals’ Gene Green tagged him for a double to right. In Brooklyn on the last day of the season, the Cubs rallied for four ninth-inning runs to hand Elston a victory and help him finish with a 9-8 record. In 15 plate appearances in ’58, the career .153 hitter also produced a .357 batting average.

The slim six-footer added nine pounds over the winter and vowed to hold on to at least five of them throughout the 1959 season.24 He logged 43⅓ innings by the first of two All-Star breaks, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.27 ERA while recording 11 saves.

Those statistics should have made him a lock to represent the National League, but it took “Vinegar Bend” Mizell dropping out (due to back trouble) for Elston to get an invitation to Pittsburgh for the July 7 Midsummer Classic at Forbes Field. Protecting a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth, Elston retired Frank Malzone on a pop out to shortstop and struck out Minnie Miñoso before Nellie Fox singled to left. After a wild pitch allowed Fox to take second base, Elston enticed a foul pop-out near third base from Harvey Kuenn to record the save in what would be his only All-Star Game appearance.

A few weeks later, on July 31, some 400 devotees from Elston’s birthplace made the 63-mile trek to Cincinnati to honor their hometown hero before a game at Crosley Field. After taking the ball in the bottom of the seventh with Chicago down 4-2, Elston retired six straight Reds, allowing teammate George Altman to tie the game with a two-run, ninth-inning homer. With two outs in the bottom of the frame, however, Cincinnati pinch hitter Johnny Powers launched Elston’s low fastball into the right-field bleachers for a walk-off home run, usurping the “Don Elston Night” celebration.25

Elston finished the season 10-8 with a 3.32 ERA and saves in 14 of the 48 games that he finished. He topped the NL leaderboard again with 65 appearances, though he noted that he actually pitched or warmed up about 110 times. “That throwing in the bull pen is something that the average fan overlooks,” Elston said. “In fact, managers, coaches and front-office people overlook it, too.”26

In 1960, Elston appeared in 60 games to rank third in the league, and his 10 saves were seventh-best. Under new managers Charlie Grimm and Lou Boudreau, longer outings resulted in 127 innings of work.

Initially, the 1961 Cubs intended to use eight coaches instead of a single manager, but the plan was mostly scrapped by mid-June, with Tappe leading most of the remaining games. P.K. Wrigley’s “College of Coaches” concept had about as much success as the Cubs’ ’61 bullpen. Elston started the season in amazing fashion, going 4-0 with three saves in April without allowing a single earned run. He continued to pitch well into early June, when he suffered a bruised foot and fell into an extended slump. His struggles lasted the entire season, with the low point coming in the opener of a July 17 doubleheader in St. Louis. Chicago’s Don Cardwell shut out the Cardinals through six innings at Busch Stadium, but Barney Schultz replaced him when the home team closed within 6-4. After the first two Cardinals reached in the eighth, Tappe summoned Elston, who gave up four hits and a walk to blow the save in a 10-6 defeat. The poor game bloated his ERA to 6.17, a mark he only managed to shave by a half run before season’s end.

The 1962 season began with a rude awakening. Asked to protect a 4-3 lead with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the ninth on Opening Day, Elston issued a game-tying walk to St. Louis’ Carl Sawatski and the Cubs lost in 15 innings. Elston found his groove, however, and held his ERA below 2.00 through late June. In 66 1/3 innings over 57 games, he finished with a 4-8 record, 2.44 ERA and eight saves. It was the fifth straight year in which Elston ranked among the NL’s top eight in both saves and appearances.

Under new manager Bob Kennedy, the Cubs finally broke the .500 barrier with an 82-80 record in 1963, the club’s first winning season since Elston was in high school. Elston was 4-1 with a 2.83 ERA and four saves, tossing 70 innings across 51 appearances. “He had a rubber arm,” Kennedy recalled. “You could bring him in in the worse possible jam and he’d get them out. But don’t let him start the next inning. He didn’t have the same concentration if he wasn’t in a jam.”27 Kennedy used Elston more sparingly in 1964 (48 games, 54⅓ innings). The pitcher’s ERA rose to 5.30, and he notched only one save as the Cubs returned to their losing ways.

Elston showed up for spring training in Mesa, Arizona in 1965, but the Cubs placed him on waivers before releasing him outright a week before Opening Day.28

He immediately took a job as a player/coach with the Salt Lake City Bees, the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate managed by Stan Hack. The team disbanded after finishing 10th in the Pacific Coast League with a 56-91 record. Elston closed his professional playing career by going 4-8 in his final season. “Elston didn’t make the big money,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Holtzman. “His top salary probably was $30,000, if that. But he never expressed regrets. He even enjoyed his long minor league apprenticeship.”29

Elston took a managerial job in 1966 with the Lodi Crushers, a new Cubs affiliate in the Single-A California League. After the Crushers got off to a 25-42 start, 15 games behind in the first half, ownership grew impatient and replaced Elston mid-season.30

The Cubs offered him a Florida-based scouting position, but Danly Die Set, Elston’s offseason employer, offered him a higher salary to stay in Chicago.31 Elston worked his way up to regional sales manager and enjoyed a long career. He settled into the suburb of Northbrook, where he served as co-chairman of Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities. Co-chair Billy Pierce said Elston was a good man with a lot of friends who showed great enthusiasm for charitable causes.32

Elston’s history of heart trouble eventually caught up with him. After suffering a heart attack, he was rushed to Evanston Hospital and died there on January 2, 1995. He was 65. Elston was survived by his wife, Martha (d. 2008), and three children, Lee Anne, Donald Jr. and Dean.33 His remains were cremated.

As of 2021, Elston’s 658 1/3 relief innings for the Cubs remain a franchise record, 2 2/3 more than Charlie Root. Hall of Famer Lee Smith was 14 innings shy of the mark when Chicago traded him to the Red Sox prior to the 1988 season. In Cubs history, only Root, Carlos Mármol and Smith pitched in more games than Elston’s 449.

Holtzman, the late columnist and Major League Baseball historian and creator of the save statistic, credited Elston and his lefthanded teammate Bill Henry for inspiring it. They were “were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it.”34

“Elston and Henry were terrific,” Holtzman told the website SportsNutz in 2005. “I thought it was not fair and that there should be some kind of index for the effectiveness of a relief pitcher. You couldn’t judge him by his victories. You couldn’t judge him by his earned run average because it should be lower than everybody else’s. A lot of the runs he gives up are charged to the preceding pitcher.”35

Elston, whose 64 Cubs saves rank seventh in franchise history as of 2021, smiled when Holtzman told him the stat was created with him in mind. “I’m glad to hear that,” Elston replied. “It’s helped relief pitchers make a lot of money.”36

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Malcolm Allen and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Paul Proia.

 

Sources

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

 

Notes

1 J David Condon, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1960: 71.

2 Jan Clark, “Cubs’ Season Special to Former Area Man,” Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), October 9, 1984: 8.

3 Clark, “Cubs’ Season Special,” 8.

4 Bill Barton, “Local Scene,” Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, June 8, 1947: 21.

5 “People in Sports,” Dayton (Ohio) Herald, June 11, 1947: 15.

6 Jim Thompson, “First-Division Finish Is Possible For Cubs, Camden’s Don Elston Says During Visit,” Palladium-Item, December 8, 1957: 23.

7 Jerome Holtzman, “Don Elston Won’t Be Forgotten as Long as Pitchers Get Saves,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1995: 47.

8 “Sports Hash,” Janesville (Wisconsin) Daily Gazette, January 26, 1950: 6.

9 “Meet the Cubs,” Springfield (Missouri) Leader and Press, May 17, 1950: 17.

10 “Martha Burns is Bride of Don Elston, Baseball Star,” Janesville Daily Gazette, March 13, 1950: 5.

11 “Springfield Edges Miners in 10 innings, 10-9” Joplin (Missouri) Globe, September 5, 1950: 26.

12 “Assorted Ills Slow Elston’s Career,” Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), July 22, 1951: 31.

13 “Assorted Ills Slow,” 31.

14 “Janesville Cubs Score 4 to 3 Win Over Topeka,” Janesville Daily Gazette, April 17, 1951: 10.

15 “Canary Profiles: Elston 7-0; Was 7-8 in ’51,” Argus Leader, June 15, 1952: 30.

16 “Elston Hurls No-Hit Victory,” Argus Leader, August 15, 1952: 13.

17 “Don Didn’t Exactly Flunk Big Time Test; Got First Seven Men in Order,” Argus Leader, September 22, 1953: 11.

18 Rich Marazzi and Len Fiorito, Baseball Players of the 1950s: A Biographical Dictionary of All 1,560 Major Leaguers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2004): 104.

19 Tony Cordaro, “Bruin Tappe Ill But Hits First Homer in 400 Tilts,” Des Moines (Iowa) Tribune, July 22, 1951: 28.

20 Associated Press, “Don Elston Stars at Bums’ Camp,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 28, 1956: 19.

21 Thompson, “First-Division Finish Is Possible,” 23.

22 Clark, “Cubs’ Season Special,” 8.

23 United Press International, “Don Elston Is New Cub Hero in Relief Role,” Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota), June 11, 1958: 18.

24 “Worn-Down Don Elston Glad to Put on Weight,” Dayton Daily News, February 3, 1959: 9.

25 Jim Ferguson, “Reds Forgotten on ‘Elston Night’ Until Powers’ ‘Gift’,” Dayton Daily News, August 1, 1959: 6.

26 “Expect Elston To Shatter All Relief Pitching Records in NL,” Palladium-Item, May 17, 1960: 9.

27 Holtzman, “Don Elston won’t be forgotten,” 47.

28 Associated Press, “Pitcher on Waivers: Don Elston Will Coach in Cubs Farm System,” Journal Herald (Dayton, Ohio), April 5, 1955: 15.

29 Holtzman, “Don Elston Won’t Be Forgotten,” 47.

30 “Decision Change,” Johnson City (Tennessee) Press, June 30, 1966: 25.

31 Clark, “Cubs’ Season Special,” 8.

32 Holtzman, “Don Elston Won’t Be Forgotten,” 47.

33 Kenan Helse, “Don Elston, Relief Pitcher for the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1995: Sect. 2, 9.

34 Tyler Kepner, “Holtzman, Creator of the Save Rule, Dies at 82,” New York Times, July 21, 2008, https://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/holtzman-creator-of-the-save-rule-dies-at-82/ (last accessed March 11, 2021).

35 Kepner, “Holtzman, Creator of the Save.”

36 Holtzman, “Don Elston Won’t Be Forgotten,” 47.

Full Name

Donald Ray Elston

Born

April 6, 1929 at Campbellstown, OH (USA)

Died

January 2, 1995 at Evanston, IL (USA)

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