This article was written by Eric Vickrey
Few people get to fulfill the childhood dream of playing for their hometown team, but John Fulgham did just that. Fulgham was born in St. Louis and grew up there as a diehard Cardinals fan, idolizing players such as Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. He went on to pitch for the Cards in 1979-80. Although his major league career was shortened by a rotator cuff injury, it was a successful one. His total statistical line of 231 1/3 innings pitched, 14 wins, three shutouts, 2.84 ERA, 1.068 WHIP, and a 5.0 pitching WAR reads like the season of a Cy Young Award contender.1
John Thomas Fulgham was born on June 9, 1956, to Thomas and Jan (née Wrape). Thomas served in the U.S. Navy for eight years and then worked as a dockworker for a trucking company. Joan worked as a receptionist. They also had three girls: Jodi, Judi, and Janet. John had a fair complexion, blue eyes, and brown hair. He grew to be 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds. Like most kids in the Gateway City, Fulgham grew up rooting for the Cardinals. His favorite player was Gibson, and he would take the Redbird Express bus to Busch Stadium to watch him pitch.2
The right-handed Fulgham started playing baseball in the Khoury League (a St. Louis area program) at age seven.3 He primarily played shortstop, third base, and catcher in Little League and then at Pattonville High School. He also played quarterback for the high school’s football team. During the summer between his junior and senior years, he played for the Southwest Kiwanis, a traveling baseball team that played approximately 85 games that year.4 The team’s coach noticed Fulgham’s excellent arm and suggested he try pitching. That summer, he went 10-3 on the mound and then continued to work on pitching in his senior year at Pattonville, going 4-4.5
After his senior year, the Cardinals offered Fulgham a contract, but he decided to accept a scholarship at the University of Miami. “I didn’t have that lively a fastball to be drafted, although the Cardinals offered me a free agent contract. I felt a Miami scholarship was worth more,” said Fulgham at the time.6 The program, then headed by coach Ron Fraser, was and is one of the best in the nation.
Fulgham was recruited to Miami as a catcher, but when he got to campus, he realized he wouldn’t be seeing much action behind the Hurricanes’ returning All-American catcher, Ron Scott (who went on to become the longtime coach at Fresno City College after a brief minor-league career). Thus, Fulgham focused on pitching, working on a changeup and fine-tuning a breaking ball. He pitched 47 innings, finishing with a 5-1 record and 0.54 ERA, which broke a school record and led the nation.7 His only loss came in a 1-0 defeat to Florida Tech in which he allowed only four hits. Among his Miami teammates were Tom Holliday, father of Matt Holliday, and future major-leaguer Wayne Krenchicki.
In the summer of 1975, Fulgham played for the Kenai Peninsula Oilers of the Alaska League, a summer league for college baseball’s top players. His freshman year success at Miami was noticed by New York Yankees scout Tom Greenwade, who told Fulgham that if he transferred to a junior college, he would be eligible for the draft with a promise of being the Yankees’ first pick.8
At the start of the fall semester, Fulgham called Coach Fraser and informed him he would not be returning. He took Greenwade’s advice and enrolled at Yavapai Junior College in Prescott, Arizona. “Being young and since I primarily throw a fastball, I wanted to get into the draft as soon as possible,” said Fulgham in January 1976, adding, “I won’t sign just to be signing though. I’m looking for a typical first-round bonus.”9
Indeed, Fulgham was taken in the first round (15th overall) of the winter draft by the Yankees. He told the Bronx Bombers he was committed to playing for Yavapai and would not sign until after the season, but they were not willing to wait. As a result, Fulgham proceeded to pitch for Yavapai and posted a 9-1 record.10 He signed a letter of intent to play with Florida State the next year as a backup plan.
Because he did not sign with the Yankees, Fulgham was eligible for the secondary phase of the draft in June. That is when St. Louis selected him with their first pick. He signed with the Cardinals and reported to their rookie level team in the Gulf Coast League. He appeared in 12 games that summer, seven of them starts, and finished with a 3-3 record and 3.38 ERA.
In 1977, Fulgham was assigned to the Cardinals’ Class A team in St. Petersburg, FL. He was teammates with several players who would go on to make names for themselves in the game but for very different reasons. Tom Herr, Leon Durham, Tito Landrum, and a 24-year-old Scott Boras all played with Fulgham that season.
On May 20, Fulgham had quite the day. He got engaged to be married and then threw a shutout versus the Cocoa Beach Astros. “I knew I was going to win because I got engaged to Marianne Klinedinst of Sarasota,” Fulgham said after the game.11 The bride-to-be was a native of Rockford, Illinois, where she grew up more a fan of football than baseball. She was attending the University of Florida when she met Fulgham.12
After Fulgham won his 13th game of the season with a five-hitter, manager Hub Kittle summed up his thoughts on the prospect: “If that guy can’t pitch higher in organized baseball, I’m a damned Chinese aviator.”13 Fulgham had a brilliant year overall, finishing the regular season with an 18-6 record and 2.05 ERA in 202 innings pitched. He completed 17 of his 26 starts. “He has one of the best sliders in the league,” said Kittle at the time.14
In the fall of 1977, Fulgham pitched in the Florida Instructional Baseball League for the Cards’ squad managed by legendary coach George Kissell, who helped him with fundamentals such as bunting and holding runners on base. Fulgham worked on his slider and change-up and won his first five decisions, finishing with a 7-1 record.15 Including a playoff loss with St. Petersburg, he had a combined record of 25-8 for the year and likely approached 300 innings pitched for the year. That was a very heavy workload for such a young arm; arguably, it may have contributed to his later shoulder problem.
In 1978, Fulgham moved up to Arkansas, the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate, and spent the entire season with the Travelers. He experienced some adversity early – at one point he had a 2-7 record and his ERA was over 6.00.16 He bounced back, however, and won his last seven decisions. For the season, he covered 154 innings in 27 games, all but three of which were starts. He posted a 9-7 record with an ERA of 4.03.
Fulgham then pitched for Hermosillo in the Mexican winter league, where he threw a no-hitter in his first start.17 The opposing pitcher in that game, Dave Stewart, allowed only a solo home run.18 Fulgham was added to the Cardinals’ 40-man roster.
Fulgham was in big league spring training for the first time in 1979, playing alongside players he grew up idolizing. “I’ve caught myself stargazing at people like Brock, John] Denny, and Ted] Simmons. I’m tempted to go up and ask for an autograph,” he said at the time.19 At the end of spring training, Fulgham was assigned to Springfield, Illinois, then the home of the Cards’ Triple-A team. He got off to a solid start with a 6-3 record and 3.62 ERA in 11 starts.
In mid-June, the Cardinals had a need for a starting pitcher when Bob Sykes had to go on the shelf with a blood clot in his left shoulder.20 To take his place on the roster, Fulgham got the call to St. Louis.
On June 19, the 23-year-old Fulgham made his big-league debut in San Diego against a Padres lineup that included Dave Winfield and Ozzie Smith. After allowing two unearned runs in the first inning, Fulgham settled in and held the Padres scoreless the rest of the way for a complete game, 7-2 victory. His confidence was evident in that he shook off catcher Simmons “eight or 10 times” because he preferred to throw his fastball.21
His next start came six days later when he made his home debut versus Montreal. With many friends and fans in the stands, Fulgham struggled, allowing six runs in just three innings. “After that, I thought I’ve got two more starts and I’d better show something real quick,” he later reflected.22 He did just that, allowing Philadelphia just three runs in 8.2 innings (the bullpen let him down in a loss, 6-4) and then shutting out Pittsburgh.
Fulgham remained in the Cardinals’ rotation for the rest of the season and was their most effective pitcher. His best start of the year came on August 17 versus San Francisco, when hits by Mike Sadek and Willie McCovey were all that kept him from a perfect game. After this dominating performance, Simmons said: “He throws strikes and gets ahead of hitters, then he can use either his fastball or slider. He has a very nice slider.”23 Fulgham completed seven of his last eight starts and finished the season with a 10-6 record and 2.53 ERA. He pitched to contact, striking out 75 and walking just 26 in 146 innings.
That off-season, Fulgham stayed in St. Louis and worked in public relations, a field he was interested in as a potential post-baseball career. He was honored at the St. Louis Baseball Writers’ annual dinner as the Cardinals’ co-rookie of the year along with Ken Oberkfell. He did not receive any votes for NL Rookie of the Year, though (Rick Sutcliffe of the Dodgers won easily).
Riding his success in 1979, Fulgham went to spring training in 1980 with his name penciled in the Cardinals’ starting rotation. “Last year, I was a salesman trying to impress somebody. This year, I can just work at my own pace and be ready when the season starts,” he said that spring.24
Fulgham faced the defending World Series champion Pirates in his first two starts of the 1980 season. The first was a loss in which he lasted just three innings. A week later, he pitched a complete game in a 2-1 victory, retiring 22 of the last 23 men he faced. After the game, he mentioned that his right shoulder felt stiff.25 After two more starts, he missed three weeks. Cardinals beat writer Rick Hummel reported that Fulgham “surmised that a lower back injury suffered in winter ball led to his adopting bad mechanics in spring training, accounting for the inflammation in his shoulder.”26
He returned in mid-May and made four starts, allowing just one earned run in 28 innings. However, during a June 8 outing as part of a doubleheader at Montreal, he again developed shoulder stiffness and lasted just three innings. On that same day, the struggling Cardinals fired manager Ken Boyer. Fulgham had this to say about Boyer’s dismissal: “It’s a damn shame…unfortunately there are not 25 people on this team as intense as Kenny Boyer.”27
Fulgham attempted to make his next scheduled start against Cincinnati but continued to have shoulder trouble while warming up. Team physician Dr. Stan London prescribed rest.28 On the team bus to the Cincinnati airport, there was an argument between Fulgham and Keith Hernandez about Fulgham’s inability to take the mound. A tussle ensued that left the pitcher with a torn shirt.29
Fulgham was on the disabled list until late July, missing 53 games. New manager Whitey Herzog and pitching coach Claude Osteen felt that his cross-body throwing motion contributed to his shoulder problems, and Fulgham worked to correct the motion while rehabbing.30 In his first game back against the Giants, he threw a five-hit shutout. He made five more starts but continued to experience shoulder trouble and tried to pitch through the pain. He had to leave the game on August 27 versus Houston after one inning in what proved to be his final major league appearance. His final line for the year was a 4-6 record and 3.38 ERA in 85.1 innings.
When undergoing more tests at the end of the 1980 season, Fulgham was diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear, and surgery was recommended. At that time, few pitchers had returned from such surgery, and those who did had limited success. Steve Busby, the former Kansas City Royals pitcher who won 56 games and made two All-Star teams 1973-75, was the first active pitcher to have the operation in 1976.31 He was able to return to a big-league mound but won just eight more games and retired at age 30. Others, like Don Gullett, never pitched in the majors again.
Fulgham decided to try a period of rest and rehab. “The doctors told me they didn’t want me to do anything with my right arm…I didn’t move it for about three and a half months,” he said in 1981.32 He reported to spring training early and resumed throwing, but the pain returned. It was clear that surgery was the only option. Fulgham was realistic about his prognosis at the time but maintained optimism in view of his young age (24) and the partial nature of the tear.33
The surgery was performed in March 1981 by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe, who had also operated on Busby. The expected recovery period was up to two years. “The surgery went well, and I think we got a good repair,” said Jobe. “My opinion is he is going to be well, but we can’t really be sure until it’s been a year and he has put stress on the shoulder.”34
While major league baseball players were on strike during the ’81 season, Fulgham was reporting to Busch Stadium every day for rehab. He resumed throwing well ahead of schedule and participated in the Florida Instructional League in the fall of ’81. He threw 18 innings and did not allow an earned run, though his fastball was only around 80 mph.35 He had hopes of pitching for the Cardinals again in 1982.
Just one year after his rotator cuff surgery, Fulgham was pitching in spring training games. He was assigned to St. Petersburg at the end of spring training in part because of the warmer weather. After a couple of poor outings to start the season, Fulgham enjoyed success with St. Petersburg, just as he had in ’77. In eight games, he had an ERA of 2.45 and a record of 4-2. He was promoted to Triple-A Louisville in early July. In 10 starts with Louisville, he pitched 51.1 innings and had an ERA of 7.01 and WHIP of 1.821. His fastball sat in the 82-83 range, and he was able to throw the slider at only 79 mph.36 Prior to his injury, he threw his fastball at 86-88 mph.37
“The biggest thing I did was answer the bell every four or five days,” Fulgham said after the season.38 As far as his results on the field, he was more blunt: “I got my brains beat out at Louisville. It was embarrassing.”39
That August, the Louisville press reported that Fulgham did some work in the broadcast booth for the Redbirds.40 In October 1982, he sat in the box seats at Busch Stadium and watched the Cards defeat the Brewers in the World Series.
Fulgham reported to spring training in 1983 ready to compete and hoping to get back to the majors. Said Kittle, who had become the Cardinals’ pitching coach in 1981: “If anyone can do, it, Fulgham is the one. He is dedicated in mind and heart.” He pitched well enough in spring training to be considered for a roster spot. Ultimately, he was sent to Louisville with the thought he would be the first pitcher recalled when needed.
As it developed, he made just five starts. On May 12, Louisville was in Wichita with Fulgham on the mound. Heavy rain began during the game, but the umpires let play continue because there was no tarp and they wanted to make the game official. The mound became muddy and slippery, and Fulgham fell twice. The umpires still did not halt play. Then Fulgham fell a third time and felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder. He was able to pitch one more inning but had considerable pain. “And that was it, I will probably never pitch again because of what happened on that day,” he said later that year in describing that fateful game.41 Doctors discovered that he had again torn his rotator cuff and advised that he not pitch again.
Following his injury, Fulgham again provided color commentary for the Louisville team. His duties included both radio and TV. He was going to continue in the job in 1984.42 Instead, however, he went into business in Oklahoma City.43 He started a consulting firm focused on advising professional athletes on insurance and investment programs, job training, and endorsements.
In 1985, Fulgham filed suit against the owner of the Wichita Aeros, three umpires, the city of Wichita, the American Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. He contended that he was injured because he had to pitch “despite the existence of a known, dangerous condition.”44 One wonders, however, why Louisville manager Jim Fregosi left Fulgham in despite the bad field conditions and the pitcher’s arm history.
John and Marianne had two daughters: Stacey and Kelley. The family moved to Florida when John took a job as baseball coach at Rollins College. After coaching from 1992-94, he tired of long hours and time away from family and went back to working as a financial advisor.45 During his tenure at Rollins, his teams accumulated a 103-68 record, and the 1993 team advanced to the NCAA Division II National Tournament.46 In 2019, Fulgham returned to baseball as pitching coach for the Sanford River Rats in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
It would have been understandable for Fulgham to be bitter or full of regret at the way his career ended, but his words in the spring of 1984 expressed quite the opposite: “Nobody can take away the memories I had playing the game. I can’t feel sorry for myself. I was lucky enough to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, my hometown team, and unless you’ve lived in St. Louis and grown up there, you don’t really understand what that would mean.”47
Last revised: August 31, 2020
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to sources cited in the notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Wins above replacement on Baseball-Reference.com.
2 Rick Hummel. “Starry-Eyed Fulgham Enjoys Living Dream as a Cardinal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 9, 1979: 33.
3 “Khoury League to Honor Fulgham and Ty Keough,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 1980: 55.
4 Neal Russo. “Fulgham: A Coach’s Dream,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 12, 1980: 11.
5 Russo. “Fulgham: A Coach’s Dream.”
6 Bob Kearney. “Win Allays Fulgham’s Suspicion,” The Miami Herald, April 27, 1975: 112.
7 “Pitcher Signs with the Tribe,” Tallahassee Democrat, May 21, 1976: 18.
8 Bud Burns. “A Love Affair,” The Tennessean, March 28, 1979: 31.
9 Henry Seiden. “Krenchicki Will Go Pro for the Right Price,” The Miami News, January 8, 1976: 24.
10 “Pitcher Signs with the Tribe.”
11 Larry Bugg. “City Cards’ Fulgham Conquers Cocoa 4-0,” Tampa Bay Times, May 21, 1977: 3C.
12 Russo. “Fulgham: A Coach’s Dream.”
13 Larry Bugg. “City Cards Cruise; 13th for Fulgham,” Tampa Bay Times, July 29, 1977: 4C.
14 Bugg. “City Cards’ Fulgham Conquers Cocoa 4-0.”
15 Neal Russo. “Cards Find Relief Down Mexico Way,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1977: 46.
16 Rick Hummel. “Fulgham Survives, Gives Cards a Tonic,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1979: 15.
17 “Fulgham Added to Cardinals’ Roster,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 31, 1978: 42.
18 “Where Are They Now?,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 2, 1999: 66.
19 Rick Hummel. “Starry-Eyed Fulgham Enjoys Living Dream as a Cardinal.”
20 Rick Hummel. “Redbirds’ Wings Are Clipped on West Coast,” The Sporting News, July 7, 1979: 29.
21 Hummel. “Redbirds’ Wings Are Clipped on West Coast.”
22 Rick Hummel. “Fulgham Makes a Big Splash,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1979: 36.
23 “Cards Back into Win Column,” The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, August 18, 1979: 2.
24 Rob Rains. “Improved Fulgham is Sure of his Future,” Springfield Leader and Press, March 18, 1980: 15.
25 Rick Hummel. “Fulgham Gains Peace of Mind,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 20, 1980: 95.
26 Rick Hummel. “Decision is Near on Ailing Pitchers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 11, 1980: 20.
27 Rick Hummel. “Players Take Blame for Boyer’s Firing,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 9, 1980: 33.
28 Rob Rains. “Arm Troubles Continue to Plague Cards’ Fulgham,” The Springfield News-Leader, June 18, 1980: 43.
29 Rick Hummel. “Cards Scuffle After Latest Loss,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1980: 15.
30 Rick Hummel. “Fulgham Faces Cold, Hard Fact,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 8, 1981: 15.
32 “Cards’ Fulgham Plans Comeback,” Daily Press, February 8, 1981: 4.
33 Hummel. “Fulgham Faces Cold, Hard Fact.”
34 “Cards’ Fulgham Sees Comeback Next Year,” The Daily Dispatch, May 29, 1981: 16.
35 Bub Burns. “Beating the Odds,” The Tennessean, December 5, 1981: 22.
36 “Optimistic Fulgham Facing ‘Test Year,’” The Sporting News, November 15, 1982: 45.
37 Rick Hummel. “Fulgham Making a Pitch for a Miracle,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 23, 1983: 31.
38 “Optimistic Fulgham Facing ‘Test Year.’”
39 Bob Fallstrom. “Fulgham’s Comeback Encouraging,” Herald and Review, March 25, 1983: 12.
40 “Pee Wee Reese Will Be Going to Bat for the Redbirds,” Louisville Courier-Journal, August 12, 1982: 18.
41 Frank Dolson. “Fulgham Known Odds Against His Comeback Try,” The Tampa Tribune, August 7, 1983: 48.
42 “Redbirds,” Louisville Courier-Journal, February 23, 1984: 34. Rick Hummel. “Fulgham Starting New Career as Louisville TV Commentator,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 25, 1984: 20.
43 “Redbird Voices,” Louisville Courier-Journal, March 18, 1984: 13.
44 “Fulgham Files Suit,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 27, 1985: 72.
45 “Where Are They Now.”
46 Jerry Greene. “Rollins Baseball Coach Quits, Cites Undisclosed Reasons,” The Orlando Sentinel, September 7, 1994: 30.
47 Hummel. “Fulgham Starting New Career as Louisville TV Commentator.”