George Brunet (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

George Brunet

This article was written by Andrew Sharp

George Brunet (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Left-hander George Brunet pitched professionally in a record 33 consecutive seasons. After his major league career with nine different teams ended in 1971, he pitched in Mexico until he was 54 in 1989.1 He eventually set the minor league record for strikeouts and earned a place in the Mexican League’s hall of fame.

Counting winter ball, Brunet pitched an estimated 6,000 innings for at least 36 different teams.2 Early on, he gained a reputation for drinking and carousing.3 His disdain for underwear, a jockstrap and a cup on the field earned him a part in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.4 In short, as one writer noted, Brunet was “the most interesting player you never heard of.”5

George Stuart Brunnette, his family’s spelling of his last name, was born in 1935 in the far northwest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — a narrow jut of land known as the Keweenaw Peninsula. His parents were Michigan natives George Leo Brunnette and the former Mable Bonenfant.6 The family was of French descent.7 His father worked a 48-hour week as a helper at a lumber company, according to the 1940 census. His mother was a homemaker. His parents had a second son, Paul, born in 1937. A third son, James, died at eight months old in December 1938.

Young George spent much of his free time fishing on nearby Lake Superior or the bay and inlets close to home. It became a lifelong pastime. His family lived in New Allouez, Michigan, which eventually put up a sign at the entrance to town proclaiming itself as “the Home of George Brunet, Former Major League Baseball Pitcher.” 8

Not yet 12, he was playing basketball on the L’Anse middle school team in February 1947. In a November 1948 game, he scored 21 points in his team’s 49-42 win.9 In answering a 1965 baseball questionnaire for minor league statistician William J. Weiss, Brunet wrote that he played football and baseball for Calumet High School, from which he graduated in 1953. He was a running back on the football team. Notre Dame football star George Gipp (made famous by Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” line) was a Calumet alumnus.

Recalling the day he turned 15, Brunet told Sports Illustrated in 1980 that rain had shortened a fishing outing, and as he was returning home, he stopped by a baseball game being played by older boys in Ahmeek, a town near New Allouze. “They needed a pitcher, so they asked me,” he told writer Steve Wulf. “I had on my fishing boots …. But damn if I didn’t go out there and throw a no-hitter. Hell, this is easy, I thought.”10 Obviously, somebody there must have known Brunet as a talented athlete with a strong arm.

In addition to playing for his high school team, Brunet also played American Legion ball during the short seasons in some of the northernmost towns in the lower 48 states.

In the fall of his senior year in high school, Brunet, by then a stocky six-footer, earned a tryout at Briggs Stadium with the Tigers. In the 1965 questionnaire, Brunet wrote that he was signed by Cy Williams, although Wulf of Sports Illustrated and other sources credit Schoolboy Rowe and Muddy Ruel with having signed him. “They gave me $500,” Brunet told Wulf. “I bought a dining room set, a coat for my mother, and a night on the town.”

Seven years after Brunet signed, John McHale, the Braves general manager who had been in the Tigers’ front office, said he had attended the tryout and played a role in signing Brunet. “I never forgot how he threw his fastball past everybody,” McHale said, not long after he had acquired Brunet for Milwaukee.11

The Tigers sent Brunet to Shelby, North Carolina, in the Class D Tar Heel League at the end of the season, where he pitched in seven games with an 8.05 earned run average. The next year, he was with Seminole, Oklahoma, in the Sooner State League. He started 25 of 33 games in which he appeared, throwing 171 innings. The results weren’t inspiring: a 6-12 won-loss record and a 6.37 ERA.

His personal life took a turn for the better in August1954. He married 18-year-old Oklahoma native Donna June Patterson. Their first child, daughter Karen, was born the next year and a son, Jeffrey, was born in 1956 in Seminole. The young family settled in Seminole, at least as much as dad’s baseball travels allowed. A second daughter, Deborah, was born in 1961. He kept his family in a trailer as he moved from team to team, Brunet told columnist Jim Murray.12

Brunet did better as a 20-year-old in 1955, splitting time between Seminole and Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the Class C Cotton States League. Still, his 4.59 ERA in 157 innings at Seminole didn’t impress the Tigers. They released him before the season ended. He soon signed with the Philadelphia Athletics, Hot Springs parent team, where in nine games he walked 25 in 37 innings. His ERA was 5.59.

With Class C Crowley in the Evangeline League in 1956, Brunet began to show what he could do with an above-average fastball and decent curve. His 7-2 record in 11 starts included a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts. The June 25 no-hitter was his third straight shutout. His ERA was 2.17 when he was promoted to Abilene in the Class B Big State League before the now Kansas City A’s moved him up to Columbia in the Class A South Atlantic League. His control was still a problem.For the season, he walked 123 batters in 172 innings.

The Athletics, on the way to losing 102 games, were desperate for pitching, so he got a September call-up. He debuted as a 21-year-old against Washington on September 14, 1956, pitching a scoreless ninth inning with a walk in a 4-1 loss. On September 18 in Kansas City, his second appearance was far more eventful. After Art Ditmar loaded the bases on a single and two walks, Brunet was brought in to face Ted Williams with the A’s ahead, 4-2. Brunet got Williams to ground to second for a 4-6 force out, with the runner on third scoring. Brunet retired Mickey Vernon, but Jackie Jensen’s single brought in another run, tying the game. Jensen’s hit ended Brunet’s day. Although he retired two batters and was not charged with a run, two of the three runners he inherited scored. (The A’s won, 6-5, on a Lou Skizas walk-off homer.)13

In the 1980 Sports Illustrated story, Brunet said Williams came up to him before the next game and said, “Kid, if you keep that fastball down, you’ve got a long career ahead of you.”14

Brunet pitched in six games before the 1956 season ended. He gave up seven earned runs in nine innings and walked 11 batters.

That fall, Brunet went to Panama to pitch in winter ball. In February’s Caribbean championship series, he shut out the favored Puerto Rican team on four hits. In other off-seasons over the years, he pitched in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

He spent the 1957 season at Little Rock in AA Southern Association, established himself as a legitimate prospect, and earned another September call-up. He began the minor league year with a 10-3 record before his teammates suddenly could not score when he took the mound. The scoreless streak lasted from June 21 until August 3 through 52 1/3 innings. He lost eight straight, but led the league with 235 strikeouts in 213 innings. In four September games with the A’s — two of them starts — over 11 1/3 innings, he gave up seven runs, but he walked just four batters.

After spending spring training with the A’s in 1958, Brunet was optioned to Buffalo in the International League, where he alternated between starting and relieving. He was demoted in midseason back to Little Rock, where he completed seven of 13 starts. His control was still shaky. Overall in 191 innings, he fanned 156 batters, but walked 111.

After a strong spring training in 1959 gave him a shot at the starting rotation for Kansas City, Brunet supposedly went out for a night of partying near the end of camp. Well after midnight, if the story is true, an intoxicated Brunet was out in the street near the team’s hotel, directing traffic. The A’s general manager, Parke Carroll, and manager Harry Craft were in one of the cars Brunet stopped. This story appears in Wulf’s Sports Illustrated story on Brunet, two decades after it happened, but Murray’s 1965 column on Brunet tends to lend credence to such an account.

“Every time there was a song to be sung, a beer to be opened, a card to be turned over, or a fight to be started, George was your man. Have temper, will travel.” Brunet did not dispute Murray’s characterization. “You have a hard time living down a youthful reputation,” Brunet told him.15

Although Wulf wrote that the incident resulted in Brunet’s immediate demotion to the minors, that didn’t happen. Brunet was on Kansas City’s 28-man opening day roster, although he did not appear until the team’s seventh game on April 18. If he had been optioned, Brunet might have been spared what clearly was one of the most brutal innings any pitcher has endured.

Brought into the April 22, 1959, game against the White Sox, Brunet walked five batters with the bases loaded. He also hit a batter with the bases jammed, before recording the third out. Chicago scored 11 runs with just one hit. They routed the A’s, 20-6.

This was Brunet’s last appearance with the A’s in 1959. He spent the rest of the season at AAA Portland. Although his record was 5-13, his ERA was 3.78 with 116 strikeouts in 138 innings. He seemed finally to find his control, walking just 41 batters.

Brunet began the 1960 season with Kansas City, where he lost two games of the three games in which he appeared, walking 10 batters in 10 innings. On May 11, 1960, the A’s traded him to the Braves for right-hander Bob Giggie. Milwaukee immediately sent Brunet to AAA Louisville. His 4-1 record and 0.78 ERA there earned him a recall in early June.

Braves pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt convinced Brunet to abandon his three-quarters delivery to improve his best pitch, his fastball. “[Wyatt] said pitching overhand would help my follow-through,” Brunet told beat writer Bob Wolf. “I found my fastball sailed down better and I had better control.”16

On June 17, 1960, Brunet pitched what to that point was his best game in the majors, although an unearned run in the ninth denied him a win. He pitched into the 11th, striking out 12 Cardinals in a game the Braves finally won, 3-2. His first big-league victory came four days later on June 21, when he went five innings in a 9-6 defeat of the Giants. He stayed with Milwaukee the rest of the season, appearing in 17 games. Although his ERA was 5.04, he struck out 39 in 50 innings.

After earning a spot in the Braves bullpen during spring training in 1961, he appeared in just one game before he had to have his appendix removed. He went on the 30-day disabled list on May 9. When he recovered, he pitched four times in relief before being optioned to AAA Vancouver at the end of June. Although he pitched well enough there, he didn’t get a September recall.

At end of spring training in 1962, the Braves optioned several players to help fill out the roster of the still new Hawaii franchise in the Pacific Coast League.17 Brunet began the season with the Islanders, but after seven games, he was traded to Oklahoma City in the American Association, Houston’s top farm club, in a deal for right-hander Ben Johnson. The Braves agreed to the deal as partial compensation for the $75,000 Houston paid for a draft choice (minor league pitcher Paul Roof), who turned out to have a bad arm.18 Overall with the two AAA teams, Brunet struck out 133 batters in 143 innings with a 3.21 ERA. He was called up by Houston in late July.

Brunet was hit hard in his first two starts but on August 18, he beat the Cubs, 2-1, on a three-hitter. The lone run he yielded was unearned. He gave up three runs over seven innings in his next start, fanning nine, as the Pirates shut out Houston, 3-0. On August 26, he stopped the Reds on five hits, 2-1. His three-start total — 25 innings, 15 hits, 17 strikeouts and four earned runs — drew praise from Houston’s manager; the same Harry Craft who had managed Brunet with Kansas City.

“I knew he had a major league arm when he first came up,” Craft said.19 Brunet thanked his manager for sticking with him.

“Craft let me stay in and pitch my way out… This really helped me, my confidence,” Brunet said. “It’s the first chance I’ve really had to pitch like this.”20 He beat the Mets September 8, giving up two unearned runs in seven innings. The rest of the month didn’t go as well. He failed to make it out of the third in his last three starts. His ERA jumped from 3.11 to 4.50.

Although he started the season with Houston in 1963, he couldn’t replicate his brief 1962 success. After five games and a 6.93 ERA, Brunet was back at Oklahoma City. Rather than give up, however, he turned his game up a notch. His 96 strikeouts in 87 innings and a 2.07 ERA attracted the attention of the pennant contending Baltimore Orioles. Seeking a lefty reliever, the Orioles purchased Brunet’s contract from Houston on July 14.

Brunet earned his first big-league save in his third appearance with Baltimore, but he gave up 25 hits and nine walks over 20 innings. He failed to win a spot in the Orioles bullpen in the spring of 1964. Sent out to AAA Rochester, he was reacquired by Houston on May 12 and once more sent to Oklahoma City, now in the PCL. Again, he pitched well — a 3.00 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 123 innings.

George Brunet (TRADING CARD DB)This time, another player’s troubles gave Brunet a new opportunity. After pitcher Bo Belinsky punched Los Angeles Times beat writer Braven Dyer in a hotel altercation, he was sent to the minors by the Angels. On August 18, Los Angeles filled his spot by acquiring Brunet from Houston.21 After a dozen seasons with five organizations, Brunet made the most of his chance. Over seven starts, he was 2–2 with a 3.61 ERA for the remainder of 1964. On September 5, he went seven innings in a 1-0 victory that knocked the Orioles out of first place.

“George Brunet showed he can do the job,” Marv Grissom, Angels pitching coach said as the season ended, “and he promised me that he’ll report next spring in much better shape.”22 In December, Angels manager Bill Rigney echoed those comments. “Brunet … generally ran out of gas after about five rounds,” Rigney said. “We think this was due to overweight.”23

For the first time since the end of the 1956 season, Brunet didn’t head south to play winter ball. He stayed in southern California and helped the Angels sell season tickets for their new home in Anaheim. “Staying in one spot not only was a great opportunity, but it ends the confusion for the children,” Brunet later told beat reporter Ross Newhan. “We packed their bags more often than we packed lunches.”24

Reflecting on his vagabond career at that point, “I know what they said: ‘I’m a has-been, I have a great arm but … I don’t know how to apply it or myself,’ ” Brunet said. He credited Rigney with giving him a chance.25

Arriving in camp nearly 30 pounds lighter in 1965, Brunet won a job in the Angels starting rotation. “In his trim form, he should be a nine-inning pitcher,” Rigney predicted.26 Indeed, Brunet completed eight games while posting a team-low 2.56 ERA for the season. The .209 batting average against him was the fourth lowest in the A.L. He ranked in the top 10 in a number of metrics either unknown or unused at the time, including walks and hits per innings pitched, fielding-independent pitching, and wins above replacement among pitchers.

Brunet had a solid season as an Angels starter, winning 13 games in 1966, the first of three years in a row that he made 32 or more starts and threw at least 212 innings. “I’m just learning to pitch,” he conceded, despite 14 seasons of pro ball. “My fastball is as good as ever, and now I’ve got some off-speed stuff to go along with it,” he said in June.27

In 1967, Brunet was the Angels Opening Day starter and winner. He went the distance, as the Angels defeated Denny McLain and the Detroit Tigers, 4-2. For the year, he threw a career-high 250 innings, by far tops on the team, and matched his 1966 ERA of 3.31.However, a lack of run support left him with a league-leading 19 losses. At one point, he lost nine straight. By mid-season, sounding a bit frustrated, he again bemoaned his reputation. “It was always, ‘Here comes George. Hide the bottle…. It was either that or my weight.’”28

In the second game of a season-ending doubleheader in 1967, Brunet came on in relief against the Tigers, who needed a win to tie the Red Sox for first place. With runners on first and second, nobody out and the Angels up, 8-5, Brunet got the first batter to fly out and then induced a double-play grounder. Brunet’s save, his only one of the season, assured a pennant for Boston. Earlier that day, the Red Sox had knocked out the Twins.

After another workhorse season in 1968 — even though he again led the league in losses — Brunet’s conditioning became an issue the next spring. He showed up at camp in 1969 way over his previous playing weight. Due to his lack of interest in getting in shape, Brunet lost favor with Angels general manager Dick Walsh. Despite pitching back-to-back shutouts on July 9 and 14, the Angels sold the soon-to-be 34-year-old’s contract to the Seattle Pilots on July 31, 1969.29

Brunet went 2-5 with a 5.37 ERA for the Pilots in their only season in Seattle. His time there and what he didn’t put on under his uniform became the stuff of legends in teammate Bouton’s unbridled account of life with the ne’er-do-well team. “The only time you need them is if you get in a car wreck,” Brunet told Bouton about not wearing underwear. “Besides, this way I don’t have to worry about losing them.”

Before moving to Milwaukee to become the Brewers, the team traded Brunet to the Senators for erudite righty reliever Dave Baldwin on December 4, 1969. He made the starting rotation in Washington, but was dealt to the Pirates on August 31 for 24-year-old lefty Denny Riddleberger. Brunet pitched well out of the bullpen for playoff- bound Pittsburgh, but joined the team too late to be added to the post-season roster. In late January 1971, Pittsburgh sent Matty Alou and Brunet to St. Louis for Nelson Briles and Vic Davalillo.

Brunet’s time in St. Louis did not go well. He gave up six runs in seven relief outings before being released on May 10, 1971. Soon, he signed a minor-league deal with the Padres to pitch for Hawaii in the PCL. He had last pitched there in 1962. This time, he remained through the 1972 season. At age 38, he signed on with the Phillies to play for their AAA team in Eugene, Oregon, in 1973, but didn’t last long. After five games — his last professional appearances in the United States — he was released.

Rather than call it quits, he took the advice of a friend from winter ball in Venezuela, Chico Carrasquel, to join several other former big-leaguers playing in the Mexican League.30 His first team late in the 1973 season was Petroleros de Poza Rica in the Mexican state of Veracruz. He pitched for Poza Rica through the 1978 season, establishing himself as one of the Mexican League’s top starters. In 1977, he briefly took over as manager of the team, but soon decided he’d rather keep pitching. The decision paid off. On June 20, 1977, he threw a no-hitter, at age 42. The feat occurred 21 seasons after his no-hitter in Class C Crowley.

Brunet made his year-round home in Poza Rica, continuing to pitch in winter ball, while his wife and children remained in California. “After his marriage broke up, coming back to his one-time home in Anaheim was too painful for him,” according to an October 1991 story by John Hall, a sports writer who had covered the Angels and befriended the lefty.31 Brunet became known in Mexico as El Viejo — “The Old Man” — as he strung together eight seasons of double-digit wins, five times topping 200 innings. His 55 Mexican League shutouts were a record when he finally stopped pitching.

On his 45th birthday in 1980, the day he qualified to start receiving his major-league pension, he threw a three-hit shutout for Aguila. His manager, former Dodger Willie Davis, and teammates gave a post-game party. Brunet, clearly touched, thanked them in Spanish.32

After suffering a heart attack in 1981, he recovered quickly enough to win 14 games for Veracruz in 1982. While he was still an active player in Mexico, the Angels hired him to do some scouting.33 Although some of the Mexicans to whom he was pitching were making no more than $400 a month, Brunet was earning $3,500 a month by 1980. He got back to the States to see his children for just three or four weeks a year. 34

“If the owners would quit worrying about my age, I could pitch two or three more years,” Brunet said in June 1984, underestimating how long he would last. “I’m throwing as good as I was five or six years ago,” he told The Sporting News.35

In 1985, Brunet was pictured on the cover of the SABR publication Minor League Baseball Stars Volume II. A short summary of his career appeared inside the cover.

Brunet split time between pitching and coaching his fellow hurlers with the Mexico City Tigers in the mid-1980s.36 The two games in which he appeared in 1985 stretched his record of consecutive seasons pitching to 33. He continued pitching to age 54, making occasional appearances on the mound through 1989. When finally retired, he remained in Mexico, conducting baseball camps for young players and running a charter fishing business.37 On October 25, 1991, in Poza Rica, a second heart attack claimed his life at age 56.

“Perhaps Brunet’s heart gave out after too many years of partying, drinking, and overeating,” baseball author Bruce Markusen wrote in 2013. “Or perhaps his life just wasn’t the same once he had to give up his first and foremost love: pitching.”38

“To be honest with you, it’s the only thing I know,” Brunet said in 1980. “I can’t think of anything that has made me happier than pitching.”39

“Nobody ever had more courage on the pitching mound,” Rigney, his former manager, said on hearing of Brunet’s death. “He gave you everything he had until his arm fell off. The miraculous thing, though, is that his arm never fell off.”40

Last updated: December 14, 2020 (ghw)

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Notes

1 Bill Reader, “Seattle Pilots … Where are they now?” Seattle Times, December 25, 2006, accessed online: https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=20060709&slug=pilotsbios09

2 Mike Petriello, MLB.com, “He had a Hall of Fame pitching career … It began at age 39,” https://www.mlb.com/news/george-brunet-is-the-most-interesting-pticher-you-never-knew, posted May 5, 2020.

3 Jim Murray, “Brunet High, Dry,” syndicated column, Pacific Stars and Stripes, July 1, 1965: 18.

4 Jim Bouton and Leonard Shecter, Ball Four (World Publishing, New York 1970), 282, 307.

5 Petriello, MLB.com.

6 1940 U.S. Census.

7 Brunet’s player file, Baseball Hall of Fame research center.

8 Photo in his Hall-of-Fame player file.

9 “L’Anse Bees Defeat Mass in Tourney Game,” L’Anse (Mich.) Sentinel, February 12, 1947: 9.

10 Steve Wulf, “Beisbol is in his blood,” Sports Illustrated, August 19, 1980: 24.

11 Bob Wolf, “Wyatt’s Tip Turns Brunet into Slab Blazer,” The Sporting News, June 29, 1960: 5.

12 Murray.

13 In latter tellings, Brunet said it was his debut when he faced Williams and he got the Hall of Famer to hit into a double play. This account has been repeated several times in published accounts over the years.

14 Wulf.

15 Murray.

16 Wulf.

17 Fred Borsch, “Lefty Egan Sparks Islander Comeback,” The Sporting News, May 23, 1962: 37.

18 Clark Nelson, “Ex-Hill Dud Brunet Fires Bullet Slants as Colt .45 Blazer,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1962: 14.

19 Nelson.

20 Nelson.

21 Dick Miller, “Harried Haney Shouts Aloha to Fallen Angel Bo,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1964: 11.

22 Ross Newhan, “Angels Mound Stars Hang Up Gaudy Numbers,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1964: 22.

23Braven Dyer, “No Sad Songs in Angel Camp When Belinsky Bids Bye-Bye,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1964: 12.

24Newhan, “Nomad Lefty Brunet Finds Home at Last on Angels’ Hill Staff,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1965: 24.

25Newhan.

26Newhan, “Go-Go Chance Sets Hot Training Tempo in Angel Camp,” The Sporting News, March 13, 1965: 8.

27Newhan, “Brunet Tabbed as Mr. Reliable on Angels Shaky Mound Staff,” The Sporting News, June 18, 1966: 19.

28Newhan, “Brunet Has More Fun, Singeing Angel Foes,” The Sporting News, July 29, 1967: 10.

29 Bruce Markusen, “Cooperstown Confidential: The wild life of George Brunet,” Hardball Times, April 26, 2013, https://tht.fangraphs.com/cooperstown-confidential-the-wild-life-of-george-brunet/

30Markusen.

31 John Hall, “Fun-loving former Angel Brunet dies,” Orange County (CA) Register, October 26, 1991: 56.

32 Wulf.

33 Peter Gammons, “Expos Brimming With Quality,” Boston Globe, March 13, 1983: 66.

34 Wulf.

35Salo Otero, “Brunet Going Strong at 49,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1984: 30.

36 Jayson Stark, “Phillies Hope Mexican Star is Another Valenzuela,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1986: F1.

37 “Metro/State” brief obituary, Detroit Free Press, November 12, 1991: page unknown, included in Brunet’s HOF clip file.

38 Markusen.

39 Wulf.

40 Hall.

Full Name

George Stuart Brunet

Born

June 8, 1935 at Houghton, MI (USA)

Died

October 25, 1991 at Poza Rica, Veracruz (Mexico)

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