Joe Moeller

This article was written by David E. Skelton

In 1971 The Sporting News reported “Joe Moeller, the sometime starter, sometime relief pitcher of the [Los Angeles] Dodgers [was] a ‘situation’ pitcher.’ ‘The problem,’ Moeller [joked] ‘is that they haven’t found the right situation.’”1 Dubbed the hardest thrower in the Dodger stable of flamethrowers in 1962—a remarkable claim considering the presence of future Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax—longtime skipper Walter Alston felt he would “develop faster than [Koufax].”2 Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ scouting director, called Moeller “the best prospect I’ve ever seen . . . [he has] an uncanny mastery of the ball, with skills that some might not attain in years.”3 The youngest starting pitcher in Dodgers’ history (through 2015), “the stamp of stardom”4 got waylaid by a continuous series of injuries. He underwent an estimated 60 cortisone shots over an eight-year major league career, which doubtless contributed to a pedestrian 26-36, 4.01 record in less than 600 innings for his career.

Joseph Douglas Moeller, Jr. was born on February 15, 1943, the second of three children of Joseph Moeller, Sr. and Lois (Reymeyer) Moeller, in Blue Island, Illinois, immediately south of Chicago. He was the great-grandson of German immigrants Frank and Amelia (Kreiter) Moeller who arrived in the Windy City in the second half of the 19th century. Frank’s son Joseph was a fulltime machinist and believed to be a semi-pro boxer who, according to family lore, lost his young wife in a house fire in Chicago in 1928. Twelve years later Joseph’s son—the ballplayer’s father—worked as a steel metal stripper. He married around 1938 and was living with his wife and eldest son under the roof of an older brother on Claremont Avenue five miles southwest of Chicago’s Comisky Park.

Despite its proximity to the famed park, baseball was not a priority in the Moeller household. Joe’s parents spent their leisure time dressed in Western gear performing a vaudeville-like routine shooting bows and arrows. They pushed their children into archery, and at six Joe won the Illinois state title. But Joe loved baseball far better. In 1951 the family moved to Los Angeles County where both parents found work with the Douglas Aircraft Company. Moeller made a deal with his father to forsake archery for baseball if he won the U.S. national junior championship. Which he did in 1955 and he never touched a bow and arrow again.

Athletic success carried over into his newest endeavor as the six-foot-tall right-handed hurler intimidated his fellow 12-year-olds in Little League competition. “The Boston Red Sox gave the family $5,000 for ‘first rights’ to his future career while Joe was still in Little League, an illegal practice today.”5 Moeller enjoyed continued success in both American Legion and prep school play at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, where he was also an accomplished basketball player. As an All-Conference pitcher with a 0.44 overall prep-school ERA Moeller attracted attention from a half-dozen major league scouts. On June 22, 1960, shortly after his high school graduation, Moeller’s father negotiated directly with Los Angeles Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley for a $100,000 bonus to sign both Joe and his brother Gary.6 Joe received the lion’s share of the hefty bonus, a still-sizeable amount that would later stir resentment among his lesser-paid teammates.

In October 1960, Moeller began his professional career in the Arizona Instructional League. Drawing comparisons to future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale for his pitching style and 6’5”, 192- pound stature, within the first few weeks of the season Moeller placed among the league leaders with a 2.00 ERA. The Dodgers invited him to early training camp in Florida the following spring.

The 18-year-old was initially assigned to the Reno Silver Sox in the California League (Class C). On May 27, 1961, Moeller came within two outs of tossing a no-hitter against the Stockton Ports while garnering the circuit’s Topps Minor League Player of the Month award. Moeller had an overpowering short stint in Reno: winning 12 and losing 3 (two in relief), a1.82 ERA, with 162 strikeouts in 119 innings. All of which helped the Sox to a 97-63, .693 pace to set “a California League record for most wins in a 140-game schedule.”7 In July Moeller was advanced to the Greenville (South Carolina) Spinners in the South Atlantic League (Class A) where he proved even more effective: 5-1, 1.06 in 51innings, including a four-hit, 18-strikeout win against the Jacksonville Jets on July 20. Moeller slowed down only after an August promotion to the Spokane Indians, the youngest player by far on a largely veteran Pacific Coast League club. During the offseason he was promoted to the Dodgers’ 40-man roster while the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America presented Moeller with the Winn Clarke award, an annual honor given to a first year player from Southern California who had the most outstanding debut season.

With just one year of professional ball under his belt Moeller was projected as the Dodgers’ fifth starter and long reliever. He strengthened his case by shutting out the parent club for three innings in the team’s first intra-squad game, thus clinching a roster spot on April 8, 1962 when he combined with Koufax and Ron Perranoski on a four-hit spring training shutout of the Milwaukee Braves. The National League’s youngest player on Opening Day, Moeller made his major league debut at home against the Cincinnati Reds on April 12, 1962. Entering the 6th inning with a 7-4 lead, he induced two double play ground balls in his first two innings before the Reds touched him for three runs (two homers and two wild pitches) over the last two frames. Six days later Moeller embarked on his first starting assignment and suffered his first major league loss by surrendering six runs in 1⅓ innings in Cincinnati. On April 23, he rebounded with a complete game win against the Braves, and over his next 12 outings he managed a record of 4-3, 3.65. But he continued to walk a lot of hitters, and it caught up with Moeller in a June 29 start against the New York Mets. In his one-third of an inning’s work, he walked four of the five hitters he faced and eventually was responsible for surrendering four earned runs in an ugly 10-4 Dodger loss. A month later Moeller was staked to a 10-1 lead against the Chicago Cubs but couldn’t get past the 4th inning. The problem stemmed from loss of control, an issue that grew progressively worse after the Dodger coaches had begun tinkering with his curveball that spring. So on July 29, he was assigned to Omaha in the American Association, concluding his debut season at 6-5, with a 5.25 ERA, and 58 walks to go with nine wild pitches in 85⅔ innings.

During the offseason Moeller returned to the Arizona Instructional League. On November 26, his chances of regaining a spot in the Dodgers’ rotation improved when starter Stan Williams got traded to the New York Yankees. An anxious Moeller was one of the first players to sign a 1963 contract with the Dodgers two months later, but his hopeful expectations soured when arm problems resulted in a dismal spring. In April, Moeller and Phil Ortega, another promising pitcher, were optioned to Spokane. Over the next few years various reports of the Dodgers rushing young pitchers to the majors appeared. The club’s misuse of the youngsters, so ran the stories, stunted their proper development. The list often began with Moeller and Ortega, and included such promising hurlers as Nick Willhite, Pete Richert and Dick Calmus among others. “[A] staggering fortune was expended on pitching prospects who could not be given the time and practice to mature,” The Sporting News reported.8

Excluding a 3-0, 2.25 finish in his final five appearances Moeller struggled through most of the 1963 season. A brilliant four-hit shutout against the Seattle Rainiers on May 29 was countered by a lopsided loss to the Portland Beavers 18 days later in which Moeller got hammered out of the game in the second inning. On July 21 Moeller had a chance to shine before visiting Los Angeles brass there to evaluate potential call-ups; he lasted just ⅔ of an inning in a loss to the Salt Lake City Bees. Despite his hot and cold performances Moeller finished with a record of 16-11, 3.61 in 212 innings, his last win a two-hit shutout of the Beavers on Labor Day.

The strong close followed Moeller into 1964. In February Lefty Phillips, the scout and close associate of general manager Buzzie Bavasi, said, “[H]e has found it again . . . His rhythm and his curve ball have improved tremendously and John Roseboro, who has been catching him, agrees that once again he looks like the pitcher we signed out of Mira Costa High.”9 Once more opportunity arose when Johnny Podres, the Dodgers’ southpaw stalwart, struggled following offseason elbow surgery. Ten days into the season Moeller stepped into the rotation. And for the next six weeks, from April 28-June 13, he proved one of the team’s most resilient hurlers, posting a 2.05 ERA over nine starts (61⅓ innings) that deserved better than the 4-4 win/loss record for the low-scoring club. On May 29, Moeller pitched his first complete game in two years, narrowly missing his first career shutout. In August, however, success went south and included a miserable start in Cincinnati on August 10 where Moeller did not retire a batter. Excepting two late-season relief appearances, Moeller’s season ended August 26 when he separated his left shoulder during batting practice. Despite a meager 7-13 record he finished with single-season career highs in games started (24), innings pitched (145⅓) and strikeouts (97).

Afflictions marred much of Moeller’s 1965 season beginning with a back injury in spring training that sidelined him for over a week. Competing with youngsters Mike Kekich and John Purdin for a final roster spot, Moeller got the nod to accompany the Dodgers north from the club’s Vero Beach, Florida, training site. But a month into the season Moeller still had not made an appearance, and he was sent to Spokane. His time began propitiously: 5-5 and a 3.18 ERA for the last place club. But trying to play peacemaker during a pre-game scuffle between teammates Bill Singer and Larry Staab on August 2, Moeller came away from the fracas having dislocated his left shoulder again. Sidelined for over three weeks, Moeller’s rusty return produced a 2-5, 5.27 record over the rest of the season. But injuries still stalked him. In October, Moeller accompanied Bill Singer to San Juan in the Puerto Rican League only to return stateside in December after a severe knee injury. One of the few highlights in Moeller’s injury-marred season came in Seattle’s Sicks Stadium. Though never an outstanding hitter, he was far from a sure out at the plate, and on at least one instance in July he was used as a pinch-hitter. On May 13, Moeller accomplished a one-in-a-million feat by drilling a home run through a hole in a Pan American airline promotional billboard—an all expense paid trip to Hawaii. But Pan-Am weaseled, claiming the campaign was intended solely for the home team (it is unknown whether any of the Rainiers’ ever accomplished the feat). Ultimately the airline yielded to pressure and awarded the trip to Moeller.

Injury-free and armed with offseason advice from future pitching coach and manager Roger Craig, in 1966 Moeller displayed the talent and stuff glimpsed in the Dodgers’ training camp two years earlier. He did not surrender an earned run in his first 11 innings of grapefruit league work and eventually earned a return to the parent club’s roster. With an eerily similar start to the previous year, Moeller did not make his first appearance of 1966 until three weeks into the season, and it was a poor relief stint in San Francisco that did not bode well for his longevity. But the next day he surrendered just one hit over three innings to claim a permanent stake in the Dodgers’ bullpen. With little need for a fifth starter among a rotation of Koufax, Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton, Moeller was literally the only other pitcher to receive a start (usually the back end of doubleheaders) outside the Big Four. He contributed mainly from the bullpen where, despite recurring back problems and an August groin injury, Moeller delivered a record of 1-1, 1.74 in 41⅓ innings (21 appearances) to assist the Dodgers to their second consecutive league title. On October 5, in what proved to be his only post-season appearance, he surrendered one run in two innings in Game 1 of the 1966 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

Koufax retired in the offseason, and in February 1967 Moeller was projected as the Dodgers’ fourth starter. But in accordance with the see-saw success pattern that characterized Moeller’s spring training history, he had a poor spring. Reassigned to a relief role, he couldn’t recapture the gains realized the preceding year. In June he actually threatened to quit baseball after he was optioned to Spokane to make room for utility infielder Nate Oliver. Moeller eventually reported to the Indians, but another injury-plagued season resulted in a colorless 7-7, 4.33 in 106 innings (most as a starter). On November 28, the Houston Astros scooped him up in the rule 5 draft, and his career with the Dodgers appeared over. “Moeller was one of the best pitching prospects in the league a few years ago,” explained Tal Smith, the Astros’ personnel director. “He’s only 24 now and our scouting reports say his arm is sound. We felt he would be a desirable acquisition.”10

Though his time with Houston was short—he returned to the Dodgers on April 1, 1968—while there Astros’ righty Don Wilson taught him to throw a slider, which renewed Moeller’s career. Assigned to Spokane, the new pitch helped Moeller produce his finest professional campaign above Class C. He won his first five decisions including an April 26 contest against the Hawaii Islanders in which he was the whole team, hitting a solo home run in a 1-0 win. His 15-9, 2.21 line put him among the Pacific Coast League leaders in nearly every pitching category including a disputed six shutouts (another source indicates seven). 11 His success garnered a September promotion to the Dodgers, after which Moeller travelled south to pitch for a Sparky Anderson-led San Juan club in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Moeller continued building his case for a permanent roster spot with the Dodgers with a three-hit December win before a touring Al Campanis.

From 1969-71 Moeller pitched in his longest continuous run in the majors. Used near exclusively in relief, his success attracted interest, but no commitment, from the expansion Montreal Expos. The next year he opened the season with a string of 21⅔ innings of seven-hit shutout innings, an achievement Moeller credited to a new delivery suggested by pitching coach Red Adams. The last three frames included Moeller’s first start of the season. Moeller much preferred the starter’s role. “I’m afraid they’re going to get the idea I like the bullpen,” [he] said, smiling. “I’m too young to die.”12 On June 10, 1970, Moeller earned his first complete game victory in six years. Two weeks later he secured his only career shutout. With his “sizzling pitching”13 Moeller appeared on pace to construct his finest major league season before he sustained another injury. He pulled a groin and pitched through it in a win against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 28. But the injury apparently handicapped his latter performances: he fell to 2-5, 5.68 ERA over his final 10 appearances.

The Dodgers’ offseason acquisition of lefty Al Downing combined with the emergence of rookie Doyle Alexander and the later free agent signing of 48-year-old knuckler Hoyt Wilhelm, gradually pushed Moeller out of the picture in 1971 (he made a mere 12 appearances over the Dodgers’ last 85 games). After Wilhelm encouraged him to develop a knuckleball, when somebody asked him whether “he had used it in a game, Moeller shot back, “When was I last in a game?”14 It more or less summed up his season. Against the Astros on September 29, 1971, Moeller pitched in a mop-up situation, and it was his last appearance in the majors. He spent the next two years in the minors. On May 30, 1973, the AAA Hawaii Islanders traded him to the Phillies’ Eugene, Oregon, affiliate where he concluded his playing career.

Moeller returned to Southern California and reunited with his wife and four children. In 1961 he had married his high school sweetheart Elizabeth “Lee” Burroughs. An attractive blonde, Lee was a part time model and appeared on two television game shows (she won $1,700 on Hollywood Squares) and a never-aired pilot. During the 1970s the attractive couple often attended the Dodgers’ Christmas celebration for underprivileged children. Moeller passed along his inherited athletic ability to his collegiate basketball playing son and grandson. His son Gary, who also played baseball at Cal State Fullerton, achieved professional success in Sweden and New Zealand. ). Though his marriage survived Lee’s kitchen fire in 1966 that destroyed their newly-renovated kitchen, the union ended in divorce 14 years later. In 2003, following a second failed union, Moeller married Trudy Breneman whom he described as both his wife and best friend.

Moeller spent the offseason working while pursuing a college education (one winter serving as an assistant manager of a sporting goods store while continuing his studies). Starting at El Camino Community College in Los Angeles County, he continued his course work after his playing career. In 1977, while dabbling in real estate, Moeller earned a degree in physical education with a minor in sociology from California State University, Dominguez Hills. During this time he returned to Dodger Stadium to throw batting practice before each home game and in 1976 he became the baseball coach for the El Camino Warriors. After the 1977 season his former roommate and Cleveland manager Jeff Torborg hired him to serve as the Indians’ bullpen coach. Moeller had to resign the job on the eve of the 1978 season when business affairs called him back to California. In 1986, Moeller was the pitching coach for USC’s Rod Dedeaux during the famed coach’s final year. Ten years later he coached the Korean National Team in the 1996 Olympics and the professional Samsung Lions the following year. Moeller returned to the United States where from 1988-99 he averaged over 100 public appearances a year with the Dodgers’ public affairs bureau. He went on to serve as an advance scout for the Montreal Expos and later the Florida Marlins through 2015. Over this period he spent eight years working with MLB managers developing a computer program that graphically tracked players’ tendencies. Several teams bought the program, including the White Sox, Mets, Padres, Reds, and Royals.

Moeller’s computer programming expertise was not limited to baseball. In the 1990s he developed and operated a computerized flight bidding service for flight attendants with American Airlines. He also served as a consultant for a public finance firm specializing in infrastructure financing.

As previously mentioned, Moeller’s Dodger teammates resented his sizeable bonus, and his deeply held faith also annoyed them. He had embraced the Christian faith in his youth with little encouragement from his parents. Consequently, his Christian beliefs and clean-cut image required that he forgo the late-night carousing of his many teammates. Tommy Davis and other African-American players befriended him, and he later forged a bond with fellow-Christians Don Sutton and Jeff Torborg, with whom he established a chapel service on Sundays before games. Moeller’s faith manifested itself in his involvement in a variety of charitable efforts both during and after his career. He participated in numerous fundraising exhibitions, including one alongside Downing, slugger Lee May, and others in an anti-drug abuse basketball tour through the Midwest in 1972-73. In later years Moeller volunteered with Midnight Mission, a homeless advocacy organization in Los Angeles and served on the boards of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an international non-profit sports ministry program, and the Canine Companions for Independence, which provided trained assistance dogs for people with disabilities. He also played golf.

Decades removed from his playing days Moeller still weighed-in close to his playing weight of 192 pounds. He snow-skied and participated in 10K runs into his 50s, slowed only in later years from surgery to repair a torn hip flexor in 2001 and a hip replacement in 2005. Even after these repairs, Moeller remained in shape by lifting weights and riding a recumbent bicycle three times a week.15

Moeller never achieved the Koufax-like comparisons of his youth. Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston, Dodger executive Al Campanis, and others expected more. But injuries shortened Moeller’s promising career, just as they have so many others.

Last revised: April 21, 2016

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Bill Mortell for his invaluable input. Further thanks are extended to Tom Schott for review and edit of the narrative.

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Ancestry.com

Joe Moeller, telephone interview, February 6, 2016

 

Notes

1 “Ross Newhan,” The Sporting News, July 24, 1971: 23.

2 “Shoddy Hurling Puts Squeeze on Dodger Advance,” ibid., July 7, 1962: 24.

3 “Roebuck’s Snappy Sinker Gives Big Boost to Dodgers’ Bull Pen,” & “Clouting ‘Em . . . With Joe King,” ibid., March 14: 66, April 11: 10.

4 “Dodgers, Kissing Off ’64, Turn Their Goo-Goo Eyes Toward ’65,” ibid., July 25, 1964: 10.

5 “Former Dodgers pitcher measures success God’s way,” Godreports, March 7, 2011, Accessed February 21, 2016, http://blog.godreports.com/2011/03/former-dodgers-pitcher-measures-success-god%E2%80%99s-way/.

6 The bonus, variously reported from $75-$100,000, was too steep for the Red Sox, and they declined their first option rights; Gary Moeller spent one year in Class D. Moeller’s father would die at 49 years of age on September 29, 1963, at the conclusion of one of his son’s most successful minor league seasons.

7 “Top 100 Teams: No. 55, 1961 Reno Silver Sox,” MILB.com, Accessed February 21, 2016, http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=55 .

8 “King’s Klouts by Joe King,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1965: 12.

9 “No. 4 Dodger Starter? Duo Firing Bullets,” ibid., February 22, 1964: 11.

10 “Astros Gamble, Pick Lockwood; A’s Ruse Fails,” ibid., December 16, 1967: 42.

11 “Pacific Coast League,” ibid., August 10, 1968: 32, 38.

12 “Moeller New King of Dodger Bullpen,” ibid., June 13, 1970: 8.

13 “Four-Year L.A. Flag Drouth Irks O’Malley,” ibid., September 26: 8.

14 “Dodger Bullpen Bulging With Freak Pitches,” ibid., September 4, 1971: 21.

15 “Staying fit through the years: 4 profiles,” The Orange County Register, March 5, 2014, Accessed February 28, 2016, http://www.ocregister.com/articles/years-604442-year-says.html .