Gordie Sundin (TRADING CARD DB)

Gordie Sundin

This article was written by Malcolm Allen

Gordie Sundin (TRADING CARD DB)When Gordie Sundin turned down numerous college football scholarships to pursue a career in professional baseball, it seemed the sky was the limit for the 6-foot-4 right-hander with an overpowering fastball. Instead, when injuries forced him out of the game at age 23, he went down in history with the dubious distinction of an infinite career major league ERA.1 In his lone appearance, with the Baltimore Orioles on September 19, 1956, he faced just three men and was yanked before the third at-bat concluded. Sundin was then just 18 years old.

Gordon Vincent Sundin, Jr. was born on October 10, 1937, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, Gordon, Sr., was a tailor whose parents both came from Sweden. His mother, Vera (Johnson), was the daughter of a farm attendant for a milk retailer. She had Swedish and German ancestry, and worked as a salesperson in a department store. By 1940 the census placed them in Chicago, where Gordon, Sr. was a die cutter for Spies Bros. in the jewelry business.

The family soon returned to Minnesota, where their son played his first baseball for Park Board teams. He grew big, fast and strong by his early teens, as illustrated by his high school hall of fame write-up: “At the age of 15, Gordie stood 6’4” and weighed 200 pounds with the speed of a sprinter. In ninth grade at Ramsey Junior High School, Gordie set the school record for the 400-yard dash, a record that stood for well over 30 years.”2

At Washburn High School, he was a member of the glee club and men’s chorus, but a telling quote appeared next to his senior yearbook photo: “Sports are my only love.” Playing baseball, basketball, and football in each of his three years there, Sundin became the institution’s first nine-letter winner. “Gordie was one of the best all-around athletes to ever come out of Minnesota,” said longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman. “He could do it all.”3

When Washburn’s basketball squad won the state championship in 1955, Sundin earned all-state honors with his skillful combination of scoring and rebounding. He “was a power forward before the term was used” noted one report.4

He was an even better football player. When Washburn won the Minneapolis City Conference title his senior year, going undefeated before falling in the Twin City championship game, Sundin scored 14 touchdowns. Most of them — including four in a single game against West — came as a sure-handed receiver and halfback, but he also returned an interception 102 yards to score against South.5 He was named the City Conference’s back of the year, earned all-state honors, and won the Thom McAn Trophy as the region’s most valuable player.6

In baseball, in addition to starring for nearby Richfield’s American Legion team, he pitched Washburn to the 1955 state championship by winning three games at the state tournament in Rochester.7 That made the Millers the first Minnesota school to win both the baseball and basketball titles in the same year.8 Sundin earned all-state recognition and manned left field or shortstop when he wasn’t on the mound. He finished his high school career with a 20-1 won-lost record, including five no-hitters and an average of 14 strikeouts per game.9

Following his June 1955 graduation, Sundin received more than 20 college football scholarships.10 He seriously considered attending Notre Dame, Wisconsin or Minnesota.11 Baltimore Orioles manager/general manager Paul Richards was determined to convince Sundin to choose professional baseball, however. In addition to putting the 17-year-old on his first airplane trip to visit Baltimore, he also provided a hotel suite for the prospect and enabled his parents to rendezvous with the Orioles in Chicago. Though Sundin didn’t discover it until years later, his mother also received a two-page letter from Richards warning about football’s injury risks.12

Orioles scout Phil Gallivan, a former big-league pitcher, had seen enough of Sundin’s fastball to know it was big-league quality. “It was between me and [1955 American League Rookie of the Year] Herb Score on who threw the hardest,” Sundin recalled in 2006. “They didn’t have all the [radar] guns they have now, but Score was approaching 100 mph and I was approaching Score. So, you can take it from there.”13

Sundin signed on July 26 for $50,000 spread over five years.14 The Orioles had the worst record in the majors when he worked out with them that afternoon before heading to the club’s Class-B Piedmont League affiliate in York, Pennsylvania. The teenaged Minnesotan collapsed in the Baltimore humidity on a 90-degree day at Memorial Stadium, but Orioles trainer Doc Weidner pronounced him fine after an examination.15

Two nights later, with Richards and other Orioles officials in attendance, Sundin hurled seven innings of three-hit ball for the York White Roses in an exhibition game.16 York’s third baseman was an 18-year-old rookie named Brooks Robinson.

Dealing with elbow soreness17 and numbness in his right hand.18 Sundin appeared in just five games for York for a 1-2 record. In 14 innings he struck out 17 and walked 11. He started against Lancaster in the Piedmont League semifinals, but walked nine in just four and two-thirds innings in York’s season-ending loss.19 He then joined the Orioles, but did not see action.20

After a full winter of rest, Sundin was the youngest player on the Orioles roster when he reported to Scottsdale, Arizona. for advance drills on February 15, 1956. The Sporting News reported that the fleet Minnesotan “outran his fellow Orioles” in several footraces.21 When former major-league pitcher Lum Harris, Baltimore’s third-base coach, saw the 18-year-old, he raved, “If there’s a better 19-year-old [sic] pitcher than the Orioles’ Gordie Sundin, I’ve never seen him.”22

Within a month, however, Sundin was recuperating from elbow surgery at Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital. A thickened ulna nerve near the joint was causing him severe pain, and both the Orioles’ team doctor and an outside physician agreed that an operation would be necessary to feel relief.23 “Today, it would have been an arthroscopic procedure that would have sidelined him a few weeks,” Baltimore Sun writer Dan Connolly noted in 2006.24

After Sundin’s parents granted their permission and Richards gave his okay, the rookie went under the knife on March 9.25 His arm remained in a cast for three weeks, but he was expected to make a full recovery. “I can’t straighten the elbow fully yet and it’ll be a while until I’m throwing,” he told reporters in early April.26

“He has had a little arm trouble, a crossed nerve in his elbow, but surgery straightened that out,” Richards told The Sporting News that summer. “He can throw right through a brick wall when he really lets go. When he develops control, he will be a great one.”27 Sundin spent the entire 1956 season with the Orioles rehabbing his elbow, champing at the bit to get back on the mound.

Finally, on the chilly Wednesday afternoon of September 19 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, Sundin made his major league debut in front of 1,435 fans. “I was plenty scared and apprehensive,” he admitted.28

Baltimore was trailing Detroit, 8-1, when he came on to work the bottom of the eighth inning. When Sundin described what happened next, the names of the players and coaches involved varied over the years. The comprehensive data available on Baseball-Reference helps correct the record.

After Tigers pitcher Frank Lary went to first on a leadoff walk, Harvey Kuenn, the American League’s hit leader that season, drew a base on balls, too. “By this time, I’m not so scared as angry,” Sundin recalled years later.29 He proceeded to fall behind in the count to Jack Phillips as well, knocking the Detroit first baseman down with one wild offering.30 One report said Sundin had thrown 11 consecutive balls.31 However, he insisted, “I got a strike in there somewhere.”32

Regardless, either Richards33 or Harris34 (Sundin told the story various ways) came out of the dugout to pull him in the middle of the at-bat. When he asked to finish taking care of the hitter, the reply was, “That’s what we’re afraid of, son.”35

Sundin had no way of knowing he’d just thrown his final major league pitch as he retreated to the visitors’ clubhouse. “George Kell consoled me. I didn’t know it was anything special at that age, that stage,” he recalled. “I thought I was going to play ball forever.”36

Before the Orioles got out of the inning, Detroit’s Al Kaline drove in Lary with a sacrifice fly to give Sundin — who didn’t record a single out — an ERA of infinity. In a tragic footnote, Sundin’s catcher, Tom Gastall, died the next day when his single-engine airplane went down in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

On October 13, 1956, Sundin married the former Mary Ann Dorsey, a Washburn alum and excellent athlete in her own right. Earlier that year, at the Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Mary Ann had been an alternate on the United States figure skating team. The newlyweds traveled that night to Mexico, where Gordie pitched for the Puebla Parrots in the Veracruz Winter League.37

Sundin pitched a great game on November 22 but lost, 1-0, to the Poza Rica Oilers on a double and three walks in the ninth inning.38 While he was there, the Orioles sold his contract to the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League in December. 39 Before year’s end, he’d walked 10 batters in one three-inning start and seen his record sink to 1-8 for the last-place Parrots.40

At Vancouver in 1957, Sundin worked only 12 1/3 innings in eight appearances before going on the disabled list after being hit by a batted ball.41 Baltimore shipped him to the Class-C Phoenix Stars in late June, hoping he could improve his control. Though the Stars finished with the best record in the Arizona-Mexico League by 10½ games, he struggled to a 2-5 mark in his 13 outings.42

Other than three games with the Single-A Knoxville Smokies in August, Sundin spent most of 1958 in Vancouver, starting 17 of his 25 games. After teammate George Bamberger won the opener of an April 27 doubleheader, 1-0, with a one-hitter against Spokane, Sundin lost the nightcap by the same score when his teammates were no-hit.43 Twelve days later, he earned his first win of the season, out-dueling Marty Kutyna of the Seattle Rainiers with a five-hitter in another 1-0 final.44

Sundin twirled another shutout on May 31, beating Joe Stanka and the Sacramento Solons with a three-hitter the same week he became a father for the first time.45 Overall, however, his Triple-A ledger in 1958 showed a 6-8 won-lost mark with a 4.29 ERA. To make matters worse, after walking 61 and striking out 42 in 127 innings, he underwent another operation on his elbow to remove bone chips and a bone spur.46

In 1959, Sundin went 1-1 in 16 appearances split between Vancouver and the Double-A Amarillo Gold Sox. He spent most of the summer on the disabled list and logged only about 30 innings in organized ball.47

Prior to the 1960 season, Sundin told a reporter, “I’m quite sure I can continue pitching. My arm is coming along real good.” In the same interview, he addressed his stalled career, saying, “It could be that I compensated too much after that first operation and hurt my arm by pitching wrong.”48 He didn’t appear in a single game all year.

Sundin was still only 23 when he resurfaced with the Class-B Tri-City Atoms in 1961. In 15 appearances for the Northwest League club based in Pasco, Washington, he won three, lost five and pitched to a 5.86 ERA in 66 innings. That marked the end of his professional baseball career. “He tried so hard, but the pain was so intense, and he figured he had to give it up,” his wife explained.49

Gordy and Mary Ann’s daughters, Cindy and Terri, had already been born, and a third, Cori Marie, soon arrived. He had studied for two years at the University of Minnesota, done construction work, and owned a bar during previous off-seasons; now it was time to plan for life after baseball.

Sundin became a salesman for Campbell’s Soup.50 He later started his own steel company and eventually became a successful real estate developer. He and his family relocated to Naples, Florida, in 1984, where he sang in his church choir and stayed busy in the Kiwanis Club, St. Mary’s Rehab Alumni, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Major League Baseball Players Association Alumni.51

“I never felt myself a big-leaguer,” he confessed in a 1990s interview. “You got to win, participate, contribute.”52 “The only record I have is that I didn’t get anyone out,” Sundin told the Baltimore Sun in 2006. Nevertheless, he’d retell the story of his lone major-league appearance that stuck him with that infinite ERA in perpetuity. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I might as well grin and bear it.”53

When Washburn High School started a Hall of Fame in 2007, Sundin was inducted with the inaugural class.54

On May 2, 2016, Sundin died in Naples, Florida. He was 78. After a Mass of Christian Burial at that city’s St. Agnes Catholic Church, his remains were laid to rest at the St. John the Evangelist Memorial Garden. He was survived by his wife, three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.ancestry.com, www.baseball-reference.com, and the United States Census from 1930 and 1940.

 

Notes

1 As of the end of the 2020 season. 16 major-leaguers have recorded a career ERA of infinity and seven others have undefined ERAs (zero innings pitched, zero earned runs allowed).

2 “Washburn High School Hall of Fame,” http://whshof.org/2007/gordie_sundin.aspx (last accessed September 24, 2020).

3 Joel Rippel, “Obituary: Gordon Sundin: Washburn High Star, Pro Baseball Player, Businessman,” (Minneapolis, Minnesota) Star Tribune, May 11, 2016. https://www.startribune.com/gordon-sundin-prep-athlete-professional-baseball-player-businessman/378892211/?fbclid=IwAR2YPBda5jMyd0uhndeWAiJ9QEuUObPgNomyZE8L9qkC241igCk9yrk_gGk

(last accessed September 25, 2020).

4 “Washburn High School Hall of Fame.”

5 “Washburn High School — Wahian Yearbook — Class of ’55,” page 98.

6 “Washburn High School Hall of Fame.”

7 “13 Major Loops Scouts on Hand,” Austin (Minnesota) Daily Herald, June 25, 1959: 10.

8 Rippel, “Obituary: Gordon Sundin: Washburn High Star, Pro Baseball Player, Businessman.”

9 Jesse Linthicum, “Walsingham Bird-Watcher on Spending,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1956:16.

10 “Orioles Lure Schoolboy,” Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas), July 27, 1955: 11.

11 Rippel, “Obituary: Gordon Sundin: Washburn High Star, Pro Baseball Player, Businessman.”

12 Dan Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry,” Baltimore Sun, September 19, 2006: 1E.

13 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

14 Glenn Miller, “Mem and Gordie: One Game in the Bigs,” https://glennrmillerwrites.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/mem-and-gordie-one-game-in-the-bigs/ (last accessed September 24, 2020).

15 “Rookie Collapses in Oriole Drill,” Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), July 27, 1955: 21.

16 “York Roses Beat County Foe, 5-1”, Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania), August 1, 1955: 20.

17 “Elbow Surgery for Sundin, Flashy Oriole Hill Prospect,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1956: 16.

18 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

19 “Roses Removed from Playoffs,” Gazette and Daily, September 17, 1955: 25.

20 Jesse Linthicum, “Cellar-Bound Orioles Still Hope to Reach 900,000 Home Draw,” The Sporting News, September 14, 1955: 17.

21 Jesse Linthicum, “Walsingham Bird-Watcher on Spending,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1956:16

22 John Barrington, “Fair of Foul,” Greensburg (Indiana) Daily News, February 22,1956: 13.

23 “Elbow Surgery for Sundin, Flashy Oriole Hill Prospect,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1956: 16.

24 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

25 “Docs Optimistic on Sundin,” The Sporting News, March 21, 1956: 57.

26 Jim Ellis, “Oriole Power Surge Led by Triandos,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1956: 31.

27 Carl Lundquist, “Speed, Not Tricks, Big Hill Aspect,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1956: 3.

28 Miller, “Mem and Gordie: One Game in the Bigs.”

29 Miller, “Mem and Gordie: One Game in the Bigs.”

30 Sundin mistakenly told interviewer Glenn Miller he was pitching to Al Kaline, who he did not face that day.

31 Linthicum, “Walsingham Bird-Watcher on Spending.”

32 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

33 Miller, “Mem and Gordie: One Game in the Bigs.”

34 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

35 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

36 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

37 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

38 Miguel A. Calzadilla, “Puebla’s Plight Only Drab Spot in Flashy Race,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1956: 28.

39 “Deals-of-the-Week,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1956: 27.

40 Miguel A. Calzadilla, “Locke’s Classy Hurling Keeps Cordoba in Race,” The Sporting News, January 9, 1957: 22.

41 “Vancouver,” The Sporting News, June 5, 1957: 30.

42 “Arizona-Mexico League,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1957: 45.

43 “No-Hit Gem, Two One-Hitters Same Day, Two at Vancouver,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1958: 34.

44 “Pacific Coast League,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1958: 36.

45 “Vancouver,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1958: 50.

46 John Lindblom, “Mountie Hurler Seeks Comeback”, Yuma (Arizona) Daily Sun, March 22, 1960: 7.

47 Lindblom, “Mountie Hurler Seeks Comeback.”

48 Lindblom, “Mountie Hurler Seeks Comeback.”

49 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

50 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

51 “Gordon ‘Gordie’ Sundin, Jr.,” Star Tribune, May 4, 2016, https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/134553/ (last accessed September 25, 2020).

52 Miller, “Mem and Gordie: One Game in the Bigs.”

53 Connolly, “He Walked Through the Majors –in a Hurry.”

54 Rippel, “Obituary: Gordon Sundin: Washburn High Star, Pro Baseball Player, Businessman.”

Full Name

Gordon Vincent Sundin

Born

October 10, 1937 at Minneapolis, MN (USA)

Died

May 2, 2016 at Naples, FL (USA)

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