Which pitcher earned the first win for the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969? If you said left-handed reliever Don Shaw, you would be correct. Besides the Expos, Shaw, a journeyman pitcher, applied his craft in parts of five seasons between 1967 and 1972 for the New York Mets, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Oakland A’s, making 138 appearances, and winning 13 games.
Shaw was born on February 23, 1944, in Pittsburgh, but grew into a hard-throwing left-hander and good-hitting pitcher for Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, about 25 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The balmy, temperate climate of Southern California offered the Steel City transplant an opportunity to play baseball almost year-round. Shaw a sturdy 6-footer weighing 180 pounds, tossed a no-hitter in his senior year in high school, and pitched for Chatsworth in the local American Legion league.
After high school Shaw accepted a baseball scholarship to play for longtime coach Charlie Smith at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) of the California College Athletics Association. San Diego State’s baseball team was a regional powerhouse in the 1950s and won the NAIA baseball championship in 1958. During his four years with the Aztecs, Shaw was an unheralded, raw pitcher, and led the team in walks once. The New York Mets chose him in the 35th round (the 636th player overall) of the inaugural major-league draft, in 1965. Shaw’s teammate Graig Nettles, was chosen by the Minnesota Twins in the fourth round. Shaw reported to rookie ball with the Marion (Virginia) Mets of the Appalachian League in 1965, joining among others 18-year-old Nolan Ryan. Mets farm director Eddie Stanky thought that the rubber-armed Shaw would be ideally suited as a reliever and the young prospect eagerly obliged. “If you want to get to the big leagues,” Stanky told Shaw, “you better become a short relief man.”1 Groomed to be a reliever, Shaw made 14 appearances (including one start), showing surprisingly good control and yielding about a hit per inning. At the conclusion of the short season, the Mets moved him up to the Auburn (New York) Mets in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. Shaw continued his success, surrendering just six hits in 15 innings. “I learned more about pitching and the whole game of baseball from Stanky than I did from anyone else,” Shaw said later in his career.2
With a stellar 2.49 ERA in 49 innings in his first year of professional baseball, Shaw was a nonroster invitee to the Mets’ spring-training camp in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1966. Given the opportunity to pitch on the side and become acquainted with big-league coaches, Shaw was subsequently assigned to the Greenville (South Carolina) Mets in the Class A Western Carolinas League. While teammate Ryan gathered most of the headlines with a 17-2 record, Shaw developed into the league’s best and most durable reliever. He appeared in 51 games (one behind the league leader) and carved out an impressive 2.74 ERA. Shaw was moved up to the Double-A Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Mets in the Eastern League and then to the Jacksonville Suns of the Triple-A International League at the end of the season, and made nine consecutive scoreless appearances. The Mets added him to their 40-man roster after the season.
Shaw arrived at spring training in 1967 with two other highly touted rookies, Tom Seaver (his roommate) and Jerry Koosman. Still considered a long shot to make the team, Shaw had an impressive camp with the Mets, who were in dire need of a left-hander in the bullpen. (Tug McGraw was with the team at the time but was being groomed as a starter.) “[Our young hurlers … really impressed,” wrote Mets beat reporter Jack Lang in The Sporting News. “[Shaw] throws a sinker which Yogi Berra calls a ‘worm killer,’ ”3
The Mets took 11 pitchers north, including rookies Seaver, Bill Denehy, Koosman, and Shaw; the latter two were the only lefties on the staff. Shaw had a rude welcome in his major-league debut on Opening Day, April 11, at Shea Stadium. In relief of Don Cardwell in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game with a runner on second and no outs, Shaw gave up two hits, issued a walk, and permitted an inherited runner to score (collaring Cardwell with the loss). After struggling in his first 11 appearances (with an ERA approaching 6.00), Shaw proved that he was big-league ready, posting a 2.08 ERA in his last 29 appearances (39 innings) while limiting batters to a paltry .201 batting average. He notched his third of four victories when he tossed three-hit ball over five scoreless innings of relief while striking out five against the Houston Astros on August 1. His season came to a premature close on August 13 when he was required to report to the military for a six-month tour of duty stateside as the Vietnam War wreaked havoc on baseball rosters. Not only did Shaw have an unexpectedly successful season (a 2.98 ERA in 40 appearances), he and his wife, Sandra, also welcomed the birth of their son in July.
Shaw proved to be a hot commodity in the offseason. Mets GM Bing Devine returned to the St. Louis Cardinals as GM in 1968, and tried to pry Shaw loose. Eddie Stanky, manager of the Chicago White Sox since 1966, coveted Shaw as well. But Mets GM Johnny Murphy steadfastly refused to trade his prized left-hander, not even for White Sox reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, or to include him in a package deal for Tommie Agee.4
Poised to become the left-handed reliever the Mets needed, Shaw suffered a sprained back in spring training. With little chance to prove his value to new manager Gil Hodges, Shaw was optioned to Jacksonville, but was recalled twice as a temporary replacement for pitchers who fulfilled weekend military reserve obligations, and was a September call-up when rosters expanded. He posted a fine 2.07 ERA in 61 innings (in 45 games) in Jacksonville, and made seven appearances for the Mets, concluding with ten consecutive scoreless innings, yielding just one hit in his five outings in September.
The Mets had an abundance of young, talented arms in 1968; starters Seaver, Koosman, Ryan, and Dick Selma were all under 25. Ron Taylor and Cal Koonce were proven, dependable relievers. It came as no surprise when the Mets made Shaw available in the expansion draft. On October 14, the Montreal Expos chose him with their 20th pick.
Expos manager Gene Mauch penciled in Shaw as the team’s closer to inaugurate the first season of big-league baseball in Canada. As fate would have it, the Expos opened their season on April 8 at Shea Stadium. In a wild contest, Shaw entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning with the scored tied 6-6. Montreal scored five unanswered runs, including one by Shaw (his second of three career runs). Shaw pitched three scoreless frames, then came undone in the ninth, yielding four runs to his former teammates before Carroll Sembera relieved him. Sembera saved the victory for Shaw, the first in Expos history. Shaw had difficulty replicating his success from the previous two years (2.56 ERA), struggled with his control, walking 37 in 65⅔ innings, and posted a 5.21 ERA. His season was interrupted by a two-week stint in the reserve in July and a three-week option to the Vancouver Mounties (Pacific Coast League) in August. He finished with a 2-5 record in 35 appearances.
Shaw arrived at the Expos’ spring training facility in Daytona Beach in 1970 no longer guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster. He battled journeymen pitchers Gary Waslewski, Mike Wegener, and Sembera for a roster spot, but was optioned to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. After 12 early-season appearances, Shaw’s contract was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals, whose GM, Bing Devine, considered him a reclamation project worth the risk. Shaw was assigned to the Tulsa Oilers of the American Association, where manager Warren Spahn was supposed to impart his wisdom. But Shaw broke his left hand in a game only two weeks after the trade and logged just seven innings for the Oilers, and 17 innings overall.
Shaw pitched in the Dominican Winter League in 1970-71 to prepare for his first spring training with the Cardinals. He had an excellent spring, tossing 12 scoreless innings at one point. But as fate would have it, he was one of the few pitchers with an option and was assigned to Tulsa. Though Shaw appeared in only two games for the Oilers in 1970, he credited his discussions about pitching with Spahn as one of the reasons for his unexpected comeback in 1971. “Spahnie would work with me as I warmed up,” said Shaw. “He’d keep suggesting various things I might try in the course of a game under certain situations.”5
Shaw was recalled to the Cardinals in late April to replace the recently released Fred Norman. With little fanfare and even fewer expectations, Shaw pitched ten scoreless innings spread over eight appearances to commence his career as a Redbird; he gave up his first earned run after 12⅔ innings. His confidence grew exponentially after just his second appearance when he relieved Reggie Cleveland with the bases full and one out in the seventh inning of a 2-2 game against his former team, the Expos. Shaw retired all eight batters he faced and earned the win when José Cardenal knocked in the winning runs.
“[Shaw] is among the cogs that make up the Big Bird machine,” wrote Neal Russo in The Sporting News.6 The Cardinals took over first place in the NL East during Shaw’s commanding stretch. Shaw seemed like an ideal reliever: He could warm up quickly and could handle a heavy workload (he pitched in a career-high 13 games in June). His success seemed to dispel his doubt about his ability. “Even though I missed most of last season because I was hurt,” he told The Sporting News, “I got to wondering whether I really was able to pitch. When you get into the regular season, it’s entirely different.”7 Arguably the team’s most effective reliever, Shaw finished the season as one of the hottest pitchers in all of baseball. In his last 26⅔ innings (23 appearances) he surrendered just one earned run (0.34 ERA) while winning five of seven decisions. While the Cardinals finished in second place to the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, Shaw set career-best marks in appearances (45), wins (7), and ERA (2.65). At just 27 years old, his future looked bright indeed.
With the threat of a players’ strike looming, Shaw suffered from shoulder tenderness during spring training, but was apparently in good health when the season began. However, he unexpectedly struggled, blowing saves in three of his first six appearances. The Cardinals struggled, too, and occupied last place in the NL East when Devine decided to make a change. On May 15 he shipped Shaw (who had pitched just three innings in a month) to the Oakland A’s for utility infielder Dwain Anderson.
The A’s bullpen was excellent and deep; rubber-armed Rollie Fingers, Bob Locker, and Darold Knowles made at least 54 appearances each in 1972 and none posted an ERA higher than 2.65. Shaw’s tenure with the A’s was brief. In just his third appearance he had the kind of game that can leave scars on relievers: in three innings of mop-up relief duty against the Kansas City Royals, he surrendered nine hits (two home runs), nine runs, two walks, and a wild pitch. It proved to be his last game in the big leagues. He was optioned to the Iowa Oaks in the American Association, where he once again put up numbers expected of him: a 2.31 ERA in 32 appearances. Shaw was recalled in the last week of the season to replace Knowles, who had fractured his thumb. However, Shaw did not pitch and was dropped from the postseason roster in favor of rookie pinch-hitter Gonzalo Márquez.
Shaw was traded to the Detroit Tigers for catcher Tim Hosley on April 3, 1973. He spent his final year in professional baseball with the team’s affiliate in the International League, the Toledo Mud Hens, for whom he made 38 appearances and carved out a 3.82 ERA. Now 29 years old, Shaw decided to transition into his post-playing career.
Once described by The Sporting News as easygoing, quiet, and always smiling, Shaw gradually drifted away from baseball. He became a regional manager of an employee benefits company, and was involved with insurance for more than 20 years. As of 2013, Shaw lived in St. Louis, where he ran his own health-insurance agency.
Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach California)
Van Nuys (California) News
The Sporting News