Jim Brewer called himself a screwball, and he threw one. It saved his career. After three years of trying, the left-hander mastered the delivery with help from a Hall of Famer. Beginning when he was 30 years old, he fashioned a six-year run as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ late-inning fireman.
Brewer became most famous for one of his defeats, when Billy Martin decked him with a sneak punch that spawned a long-running lawsuit.
James Thomas Brewer was born in Merced, California, on November 14, 1937, the second son of James M. and Pauline (Johnson) Brewer. For a time, the family lived in Los Angeles with Jim’s paternal grandparents. While California was the Promised Land for thousands of Depression-era farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl, the Brewers moved in the opposite direction, back to their native Oklahoma, settling just outside Tulsa in Broken Arrow when Jim was a preschooler.
He grew to 6-feet-1 and became a basketball and baseball standout at Broken Arrow High. After he posted a 0.87 ERA in his senior year with 76 strikeouts and just eight walks in 52 innings, the Chicago Cubs gave him a reported $10,000 bonus as soon as he graduated in June 1956.
Following his first season in Class D ball, Brewer married a hometown girl, Patricia Gann Smith. He moved up through the Cubs’ farm system for the next three years. In 1959 he went to spring training with Double-A San Antonio. During an exhibition game against a semipro club, the opposing manager heckled him without pause as Brewer coughed up seven runs in a single inning, including three straight homers. After he finally recorded the third out, he charged across the field, knocked the manager to the ground, jumped on top of him, and bit his nose.1
Demoted for a second year at Class B Burlington, Iowa, he turned a corner with a league-leading 2.67 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 162 innings. He finished the season in San Antonio to earn a non-roster invitation to the parent Cubs’ spring camp in 1960.
Brewer went back to San Antonio and made the American Association All-Star team before the Cubs called him up in July 1960. After one disastrous relief appearance, manager Lou Boudreau put the 22-year-old into the starting rotation. In his second start, Brewer held the powerful Milwaukee Braves to a single run in 8 2/3 innings, but the Braves’ Bob Buhl shut out the last-place Cubs.
The rookie had lost three straight decisions when he faced Cincinnati at Wrigley Field on August 4. With two out in the second inning, Brewer threw a high, inside pitch to Billy Martin, who ducked away. Martin swung and missed at the next offering and flung his bat toward the mound. He acknowledged it was deliberate because he believed the pitcher had thrown at his head. As he stalked across the infield to retrieve the bat, Martin said Brewer came toward him with his fist clenched. Brewer thought the belligerent Martin was itching for trouble “just because of the look on his face.” Brewer said he yelled, “You want to fight?” and Martin replied, “No, kid, relax. I’m just getting my bat.” As Brewer turned away, Martin suddenly pivoted to belt him with a right to the cheek.2
Brewer went down and both benches emptied. In the brawl that followed, several of Martin’s teammates said Reds pitcher Cal McLish punched Brewer repeatedly. Whoever did the damage, Brewer went to a hospital with a broken orbital bone under his right eye, an injury that required three operations.
Martin was fined $500 and suspended a token five days. When it became clear that Brewer would miss the rest of the season, he and the Cubs sued Martin for $1,040,000. Martin quipped, “I wonder if they want this in cash or by check?”3 After 8½ years and two trials, a Chicago jury awarded Brewer $10,000 plus legal fees and court costs, bringing Martin’s penalty to $22,000, more than his annual salary.
For the next three years, Brewer struggled to hang onto a major-league job. He spent most of 1962 in Triple A. On December 13, 1963, the Cubs traded him to the Dodgers’ Triple-A farm club at Spokane.
The Dodgers brought him to spring training in 1964, and he accompanied the team home to Los Angeles, though he was still on Spokane’s roster. Just before Opening Day, the Dodgers traded pitcher Larry Sherry, creating a spot for Brewer. Used primarily in relief, he enjoyed his first successful major-league season with a 3.00 ERA in 93 innings. With the club far out of the pennant race, manager Walter Alston gave him five starts in September, and he won three of them.
But he was still no better than the number-three man in the LA bullpen, with only two save opportunities all year. “I knew I had to have another pitch, that I couldn’t make it with a mediocre curve and fastball,” he said.4 He had been working on a screwball but never felt confident enough to use it in a game. One day he spotted the Braves’ Warren Spahn, one of the rare practitioners of the pitch, in the bullpen. Spahn, 43, had already won more than 300 games.
They had never met, but Brewer approached the master and asked for help. “Spahn never said a word,” he recalled. “He just took a baseball out of his pocket, showed me his grip and how he released it.”5 The 30-second lesson turned his career around. “I had been releasing the ball off my middle finger, but he showed me how he let the ball go off his index finger which gave much more velocity to the pitch.”6
Alston thought enough of Brewer’s improvement the next spring to keep him on the roster when the front office wanted to send him down. He was obviously a different pitcher, posting a 1.82 ERA despite problems controlling his new weapon and flareups of elbow pain that limited him to only 19 regular-season games in 1965. He managed to make his first World Series appearance as the Dodgers beat the Twins, but after the series he had surgery to remove bone chips and a cyst in the elbow. Recovery was slow; he managed only 13 appearances in 1966.
Alston gave him 11 starts in 1967, the last ones of his career, but Brewer excelled as a reliever, with a 1.88 ERA in 19 appearances out of the bullpen. He also proved that he was fully recovered from the elbow surgery. The Dodgers showed what they thought of him when they pulled off the biggest trade of baseball’s winter meetings.
After winning two straight pennants, Los Angeles had fallen in 1967 to eighth place in the 10-team league, reeling from the forced retirement of their sore-armed ace, Sandy Koufax. To turn things around, they shipped their left-handed relief stopper, Ron Perranoski; another reliever, Bob Miller; and veteran catcher John Roseboro to the Twins for former American League MVP shortstop Zoilo Versalles, and right-handed pitcher Mudcat Grant.
Soon after Opening Day in 1968, LA traded its top right-handed reliever, Phil Regan, leaving Brewer as the bullpen’s No. 1 man. At 30, he leaped at the opportunity. He closed out the season by earning a win or a save in each of his last 11 games. Working in 54 games, he finished with 15 saves while blowing only three opportunities, an 8-3 record and 2.49 ERA.
Brewer held down the closer’s job from 1968 through 1973, though he was not called by that name and was not used like the modern closer. But he was not used like the typical 1970s relief ace, either. Manager Alston usually relied on a left-right tandem to finish games so, while many top relievers pitched in 75 to 90 games and up to 150 innings, Brewer’s workload never reached 60 games or 90 innings. He was the manager’s first choice when the score was close.
He said Perranoski had taught him to handle the role. He never wasted many bullets warming up in the bullpen and threw at full speed for only his last four or five pitches. But he defied the convention of the reliever with ice water in his veins. “When I come into a game, I’m as excited as a ten-year-old kid,” he said. “My heart is pounding so fast I think it’s going to come through my uniform. My eyes are like saucers. But that’s the way I pitch. I’ve got to be excited.”7
As he grew older, Brewer became fanatical about conditioning. He began his winter running program around New Years and continued to run during the season, coming to the park early to put in his laps. He made a joke of his age, telling teammates how he had pitched to Ty Cobb.8
After their brief slump when Koufax and Don Drysdale were forced to retire, the Dodgers charged back into pennant contention. From 1970-1973, the club finished second in the NL West every year. In his six years as the top reliever, Brewer saved 118 games, while blowing 38 chances, a 76 percent success rate. He often pitched the last two or three innings and was frequently called in with runners on base. He struck out about eight batters per nine innings, extremely high for that era. Catcher Jeff Torborg said his screwball “comes up to the plate and just seems to stop and go the other way. It just drops right off.”9
The screwball was a notorious arm-killer, but despite his chronic elbow trouble, Brewer said the pitch did not deserve its reputation. “Any pitch is hard on your arm. Throwing a rock is hard on your arm. But throwing a screwball is actually more natural than a slider or curve.”10
He was on his way to his best year in 1972, chalking up a 1.26 ERA and 0.843 WHIP, and retiring 25 consecutive batters in one two-week stretch. One morning in August he and his wife, Patti, were having breakfast when he reached for his coffee cup and felt a sharp pain in his left elbow followed by numbness in two fingers. “The pain is just like it was in ’65 when I had to undergo surgery for bone chips,” he said.11 His season ended early, and he paid another visit to surgeon Frank Jobe.
Returning in 1973, he was the oldest Dodger on the roster at 35. “When you’ve had your arm cut on twice and you’re my age, you never know what to expect,” he told a reporter. “One day I may be out there, and it just may all end just like that.”12 He was chosen for his only All-Star team but sat out almost two weeks in June with a tired arm and spent three days in traction with back pain in September. Brewer blamed himself when he had three losses and a blown save down the stretch as the Dodgers blew a lead and again wound up second in their division.
The uncertain state of Brewer’s arm led the club to go looking for relief help. They found it in a swap of two problem children. Los Angeles traded veteran center fielder Willie Davis, who had clashed with Alston, to Montreal for reliever Mike Marshall, who described himself as “totally uncoachable.”13 He didn’t march to a different drummer but to a totally different orchestra. Marshall was studying for a Ph.D. in kinesiology, the science of human body movement, and was sure he knew more about the pitching arm than any coach or manager.
A stocky 5-foot-9-inch right-hander with muttonchop sideburns, Marshall believed that a pitcher, properly conditioned, could pitch every day. He had appeared in a record 92 games for the Expos in 1973. Now he told Alston, “I’ll let you know if I’m not able to pitch on a certain day. Otherwise, you can pitch me every day if you feel that I can help you win a ball game.”14
He did not pitch every day, but he took the mound 106 times, a major-league record, and pitched 208 1/3 innings, a record for a reliever. That did not leave much work for Brewer, who also missed two months with more back and elbow trouble. He got into only 24 games. The Dodgers won the pennant, though they lost the World Series to the Oakland A’s, and Marshall won the Cy Young Award, the first reliever to collect that hardware.
In public, Brewer said all the right things, marveling at Marshall’s endurance and insisting he did not resent being shunted aside. But in private he asked to be traded. In July 1975 Los Angeles sent him down the freeway to the California Angels in return for a minor leaguer.
He pitched effectively for the Angels when he was able. In the spring of 1966, the 38-year-old was sidelined by a torn elbow ligament. The end of the road was in sight. “If I was 25, I’d be in surgery tomorrow,” he said. But he declined an operation and retired at the end of the season.15
He did not have to look far to find work. Dick Williams, his manager with the Angels, was moving on to the Montreal Expos. He took Brewer with him as pitching coach, “any team’s most important coach by far,” as Williams put it.16 Williams had been impressed by the way Brewer helped the Angels’ young pitchers. “He is a very dedicated man,” the manager said. “He’s one of those guys who’s out at the ballpark every day at 2:30 for night games.”17
The Expos had lost 107 games in 1976 with the worst pitching in the National League. By Williams’s third year in 1979, the club was fighting for the NL East title. The lineup included future Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tony Perez, and the pitching staff compiled a league-leading 3.14 ERA. Brewer set up the starting rotation—including Steve Rogers and Spaceman Bill Lee. Williams leaned on his pitching coach to decide when to call the bullpen. “His influence transcended the pitchers,” Rogers said. “He explained decisions that came out of the manager’s office to all the players. He was the glue that held this team together.”18
But the club fell apart in the final week, losing four of their last five games to finish two games behind Pittsburgh. It had not been a smooth ride; according to Williams, the team was infested with illegal drugs and the manager fought constantly with pitchers Rogers and Lee.
Brewer resigned after the season, saying he needed to tend to his business interests at home in Oklahoma. He had invested in real estate around Tulsa, and the lure of life on his farm was strong. One sportswriter described him as “a fisherman of unquenchable passion [who] likes a can of beer and a 10-cent cigar.”19 Jim, Patti, and their three children lived in a house he built himself.
Although the resignation was sudden, there was evidently no bad blood between him and Dick Williams; Williams tried to hire him as Seattle pitching coach seven years later but said the team’s owner would not pay a coach $60,000.20
Brewer kept his hand in baseball as a part-time pitching coach for Oral Roberts University, where one of his pupils was Mike Moore, a right-hander who was the No. 1 pick in the 1981 amateur draft (by the Mariners) and went on to a 14-year big-league career. The Dodgers hired Brewer as a part-time consultant to teach the screwball to some of their prospects after the success of screwballer Fernando Valenzuela. In 1987 he joined the Dodgers staff full-time as a coach for Great Falls in the Pioneer (rookie) League and in the Arizona instructional league that fall.
Brewer celebrated his 50th birthday at home with his family on Saturday, November 14, 1987. The following Monday morning he headed out for a pitching clinic in Louisiana. He ran into a heavy thunderstorm along the way and was killed in a head-on collision outside Carthage, Texas.
Last revised: June 19, 2021 (zp)
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Evan Katz.
1 “Razzing Coach Bitten on Nose,” Albuquerque Journal, April 6, 1969: 13.
2 Quotes from Dick Young, “Brewer KO’d by Martin, Forgives and Forgets,” New York Daily News, February 23, 1961, in HOF file. Account of the fight also from Bill Pennington, Billy Martin, Baseball’s Flawed Genius (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). For SABR’s Games Project account of the August 4, 1960 game, see: https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/august-4-1960-billy-martin-ends-jim-brewers-season-in-on-field-brawl/.
3 Associated Press, “Cubs, Brewer Sue Martin for $1 Million,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 23, 1960: 33.
4 Ross Newhan, “Screwballs? Dodgers Have ‘Em Right and Left,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1974: III-4.
6 Bob Hunter, “Brewer Steps into Perranoski’s Shoes,” The Sporting News (hereafter TSN), February 17, 1968: 29.
7 Fred Claire, “Cool in Clutch? Not Jim Brewer,” Long Beach (California) Independent, March 11, 1969: 19.
8 Dick Miller, “Angels Also Have Idols, Poll Shows,” TSN, May 29, 1976: 12.
9 Claire, “Brewer Frustrates Astros,” Long Beach Independent, July 15, 1969: C-1.
10 Mike Littwin, “LA’s Screwball Coach Looking for Prospects,” Daily Oklahoman, July 21, 1981: 22.
11 Newhan, “Stargell’s Homer in 9th Defeats Dodgers, 3-2,” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1972: III-1.
12 United Press International, “Jim Brewer Fatalistic about Future,” Pomona (California) Progress-Bulletin, June 20, 1973: B-8.
13 Daniel G. Habib, “Mike Marshall, Cy Young Winner,” Sports Illustrated, April 9, 2001, https://vault.si.com/vault/2001/04/09/mike-marshall-cy-young-winner-august-12-1974.
14 Norman L. Macht, They Played the Game (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 152.
15 Dick Miller, “Lady Luck Finally Smiles at Angels’ Ross,” TSN, June 19, 1976: 10.
16 Dick Williams and Bill Plaschke, No More Mr. Nice Guy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 299.
17 Ian MacDonald, “Dodger Stalwart New Expo Coach,” Montreal Gazette, October 15, 1976: 21.
18 MacDonald, “Lingering Questions Shorten Expos’ Fete,” Montreal Gazette, October 25, 1979: 32.
19 John Wiebusch, “Happiness Is a Screwball for Jim Brewer,” Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1969: 7.
20 Williams and Plaschke, No More Mr. Nice Guy, 300.