This article was written by David E. Skelton
From manager Don Heffner’s perspective, hurler John Tsitouris drew favorable comparisons to Hall of Famer Red Ruffing because “when you sent him out to the mound, you knew he was going to give you a good job.”1 Splendid likeness for a pitcher with a lifetime 34-38 record. Tsitouris’s tantalizing ability caused teams to continually try to corral the gifted right-hander over the course of his 11-year major-league career. These efforts were often frustrated by Tsitouris’s own volatile nature. A record of suspensions and fines repeatedly landed the pitcher in the doghouse of his managers with resulting headaches for the front office.
One of six children (three boys and three girls) raised in the athletic family2 of Philip Tsitouris and Verla Mae Rowell, John Philip Tsitouris was born on May 4, 1936, in Monroe, North Carolina, 35 miles southeast of Charlotte. John’s father emigrated from Greece as a young man. In 1926 he married into the Rowell family with Carolina roots dating before the Civil War. Philip and Verla found success with the ownership of at least two restaurants in Monroe. A quiet student, John let his baseball abilities do his talking at Benton Heights High School. He also excelled in American Legion play and semi-pro ball with the Monroe Blue Sox. He soon attracted major-league scouts.3 In 1954 John was the first player signed by newly-anointed Detroit Tigers scout Rick Ferrell (a fellow-North Carolinian and later Hall of Fame inductee).
Assigned to the Georgia-Florida League, Tsitouris remained with the Class D Valdosta (Georgia) Tigers through 1955, posting a 10-9 record. He was the team’s only pitcher to advance to the major leagues. He began the 1956 season in Terre Haute, Indiana, until the Class B affiliate folded, and followed manager Bill Norman to Augusta, Georgia, in the South Atlantic League. “Most of the restaurants in Augusta [were] owned by people of Greek descent,” Norman observed. “They adopted Tsitouris. Every time he pitched they would take him out to dinner, win or lose.”4 After joining the league in midstream the righty placed among the league leaders with 13 wins while establishing the lowest single-season ERA (1.51) in South Atlantic history. The only eyebrows raised came when Tsitouris chose to not participate in the circuit’s All-Star tilt, a decision that earned his first fine ($25).
That same year the pennant hopes of the hard-hitting Detroit Tigers were foiled by a middling mound corps. The following spring new manager Jack Tighe looked to the record-setting 21-year-old to help bolster the pitching. Selected by the Tigers for advanced training in Florida prior to spring training camp, Tsitouris was tabbed to make the lofty jump from Class A to the majors. Though the hurdle proved too much, Tsitouris earned promotion to the AAA Charleston Senators. His early success in the American Association was often witnessed by family members trekking nearly 300 miles from Monroe, with John’s father becoming well known among both players and fans. On April 29, 1957, opposing manager Ralph Houk lavished praise on Tsitouris after he stymied the booming bats of the Denver Bears in an 8-4 victory. A month later the Bears fell victim again as Tsitouris aided his own cause with a home run in a 9-2 win. In June, with Tsitouris sporting a 7-4 record, the Tigers promoted the righty. “Tsitouris has a major-league arm,” Tighe said. “If he can win as a starter, we’ll have a six-man rotation.”5
On June 13 the Baltimore Orioles were at Detroit. Tsitouris arrived at Briggs Stadium during the second inning. When reliever Steve Gromek sustained a pinched nerve in the fifth, Tsitouris was unexpectedly pressed into service. He made his major-league debut by walking the first batter he faced. Tsitouris collected the win despite allowing five of the nine batters faced to reach base (he was the fortunate recipient of two outs on consecutive plays at the plate). Six days later he made a second inconspicuous appearance in a lopsided loss in New York. The Tigers abruptly reversed course by reassigning Tsitouris and promoting veteran righty Harry Byrd.
Instead of reporting directly to Charleston, Tsitouris exhibited the immaturity of his 21 years by returning to Monroe for a fishing excursion. The detour cost him $175 in fines. Things would continue spiraling south. Despite an impressive 1-0 blanking of the Indianapolis Indians on July 25, Tsitouris lost seven of his last ten decisions. Matters turned much worse in a late-season match against the Louisville Colonels. Norman turned to Tsitouris in relief of Duke Markell after the latter was injured on a batted ball. Inexplicably, “Tsitouris expressed his resentment by lobbing the ball across the plate, making no apparent effort to retire the Louisville batters.” He surrendered three straight hits before Norman jerked him from the mound. As boos rained down upon Tsitouris, he gestured unkindly toward the fans.
“’He’ll never play another game of ball for me,’ Norman raged after the game. And General Manager John McHale of the Tigers said as much, too, when informed of Tsitouris’ actions … As tempers cooled, Norman acknowledged, ‘That kid’s got a great arm and is a big league prospect if he ever curbs his temper.’”6 Tsitouris demanded that Detroit trade him. On November 20 the Tigers accommodated him, sending him to the Kansas City Athletics in a large multi-player swap.
Kansas City’s pitching was even more destitute than the Tigers’. In 1958 the Athletics tried to remedy this by inviting Tsitouris and 21 other hurlers to spring training. The strategy failed. Except for the lowly Washington Senators, the 1958 Athletics posted the worst ERA in the American League. They got there with little help from Tsitouris. One of the last cuts in camp, Tsitouris was optioned to the AAA Buffalo Bisons. The International League season was barely underway when Tsitouris was called away following the death of his father. On May 19 he reported a sore elbow. The combination of a tender arm and an aching heart contributed to a drab 4.50 ERA, mostly in relief. On July 4 Tsitouris left the club without notice but returned under threat of suspension. Demoted to the AA Little Rock Travelers, Tsitouris found even less success in limited play (0-3, 5.18 in seven appearances). Despite these challenges Kansas City selected Tsitouris among the September call-ups. In an apparent showcase of young arms for the 1959 season, Tsitouris’s only appearance was a start against the Chicago White Sox on the last day of the season – a three-inning stint where the only run surrendered came on a wild pitch.
In 1959 Tsitouris survived the spring cuts but the arm problems appear to have resurfaced. He did not make his first appearance until three weeks into the season, and did not survive the third inning in a start against Boston. Optioned to the AAA Houston Buffs, he did not gain his first win until June 6. Though Tsitouris captured just one more win versus six losses, his 3.60 ERA for the last-place Buffs (team ERA: 4.25) earned a recall by the Athletics. Used primarily in relief, Tsitouris’s remaining appearances demonstrated the seesaw nature that epitomized his entire major-league stay: a brilliant July 29 start against the Senators that earned his second career win; countered by a cheerless outing versus the Cleveland Indians two weeks later in which he surrendered seven earned runs. Kansas City chose to focus on the former. Though Tsitouris finished the campaign with a pedestrian record of 4-3, 4.97 in 83 1/3 innings, he remained among the crop of youngsters to be “watched with particular interest.”7
But Tsitouris would pitch just 33 innings more for the Athletics in 1960. During the first week in May he suffered a fractured jaw hurling batting practice in Boston and missed a sizeable portion of the season. In January 1961 Kansas City hired “Trader” Frank Lane as general manager. As was his wont, Lane began swapping players.8 On January 25, Tsitouris was among the first to depart when he was shipped to Cincinnati with pitcher John Briggs for veteran lefty Joe Nuxhall. By spring Briggs and Tsitouris were assigned to the AAA Indianapolis Indians (the former never returned to the majors).
Though the Indians raced to an 86-win campaign in capturing the 1961 American Association pennant, Tsitoursis’s contributions to this success were meagre. A mediocre 9-8, 5.06 – nearly a run higher than the league average – was due to the arm problems that continued to plague the young hurler.
In 1962 Indianapolis was no longer affiliated with the Reds. Tsitouris was assigned to the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League. A slow start suddenly turned around in June when he spun consecutive two-hit shutouts against Spokane (June 6) and Tacoma (June 10), igniting a string of 24 straight scoreless innings. On June 15 he earned his next fine ($50) and suspension (three days) for pushing an ump after a disputed call. The incident did not slow the righty’s progress. The PCL All-Star hurler garnered seven consecutive wins through August and finished among the league leaders with a 2.92 ERA. A record of 13-8 could easily have been enhanced had the Padres’ prodigious offense not disappeared when Tsitouris took the mound; he was denied at least two victories while surrendering two earned runs over 15 innings. On August 30 Tsitouris captured the Padres’ pennant-clincher, 3-2, over Vancouver, then led the team to the PCL championship.
Tsitouris earned the Padres’ Most Valuable Pitcher of the Year honors as manager Don Heffner enthused that “he deserves another chance [in the majors].”9 Heffner’s words proved prescient when the hurler was selected as one of Cincinnati’s September call-ups. After a shaky Reds debut, Tsitouris quickly settled down to yield one earned run in his final 21 1/3 innings. This stretch included two effective starts (including his first National League victory) versus Philadelphia, a seeming precursor to his role in the Phillies’ 1964 demise. Fred Hutchinson, the inspired Reds manager, projected Tsitouris as the team’s fifth starter in 1963, a large hurdle. As Tsitouris later admitted, “[o]nly a Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale [could] crack this starting rotation.”10
Tsitouris’s success continued with the Caguas Criollas in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Placing among the league leaders in ERA, Tsitouris led his team to a successful post-season run. On January 26, 1963, he surrendered six hits in 12 scoreless playoff innings against Santurce’s (and the White Sox) prized lefty Juan Pizarro, the Criollas capturing a 1-0 win in the 13th. Five days later Tsitouris was the victor in the playoff clincher, an 8-5 decision marred by a 15-minute melee after Tsitouris plunked Valmy Thomas with a fastball.
Decidedly different results surfaced in the spring as all hopes of securing the Reds’ fifth starter role evaporated. Referring to his September, 1962 success, Tsitouris admitted, “That … probably saved me this spring. If I had been just another rookie, I don’t think the Reds would have stuck with me as long as they did.”11 Matters went from bad to worse. On April 13, 1963, he combined with teammate Jim O’Toole and Pittsburgh Pirates ace Bob Friend for a major-league record seven balks in one game. Relegated to long relief, Tsitouris owned a record of 0-1, 6.66 ERA after nine appearances (24 1/3 innings). Meanwhile the Reds, who started the season with strong pennant aspirations, entered June one game under .500.
Part of the team’s plight emanated from the mound. Shoulder problems caused former mainstays Joey Jay and Bob Purkey, who combined for 24 wins in 1962, to manage a mere 13 wins between them in 1963. The team turned to other hurlers to fill the void, picking up 15 wins from 34-year-old Joe Nuxhall (reacquired following the veteran’s failed stint in the American League). When Nuxhall’s success was stalled briefly by a pulled leg muscle suffered on June 5, Hutchinson turned to Tsitouris for a spot start in the second game of a June 9 doubleheader. Despite the righty’s astronomical ERA the move was not all that surprising – the game was in Philadelphia.
Besides his late 1962 success versus the Phillies, Tsitouris’s few favorable outings so far in 1963 had been against Philadelphia. Surrendering just four hits, he earned a 3-1 complete game victory over his seeming patsies. Another successful outing four days later versus the Pittsburgh Pirates secured Tsitouris a permanent spot in the rotation. Seven wins in his first nine starts helped the Reds crawl back into contention as Nuxhall declared, “[Tsitouris] could win the pennant for [us] this year.”12 On June 22 Tsitouris’s 3-0 blanking of the Houston Colt .45s, sandwiched between the shutouts of emerging ace Jim Maloney and Purkey, contributed to a Reds franchise record. It marked the third (and through 2014, the last) time Cincinnati hurlers combined for three consecutive whitewashings.13
Beginning July 29, Tsitouris encountered a rough stretch (1-5, 4.30) in eight outings. He rebounded with four consecutive wins to finish the season with a record of 12-8, 3.16 (12-7, 2.65 as a starter). This success was attributed largely to his development of a screwball (dubbed the “Billy Williams pitch” by needling teammates). On September 15 Tsitouris had carried a two-hit shutout into the 9th inning against the Chicago Cubs when Williams cranked a screwball delivery far beyond the reaches of Wrigley Field. Twenty-eight days earlier Williams had planted another Tsitouris screwball into the stands in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field for a Cubs win. Undeterred, in his last two outings he snuffed out St. Louis pennant hopes with consecutive shutouts of the Cardinals. His sterling finish – three complete games surrendering no more than three hits – placed Tsitouris among select company: from 1919 through 2014, only 16 pitchers (including four Hall of Famers) have achieved such a successful three-game span.14 Crediting Reds pitching coach Jim Turner for his phenomenal turnaround, Tsitouris was poised to enter the next season among Cincinnati’s Big Four starters.
A perennial slow starter throughout his major-league career (4-11, 5.47 in 34 appearances in April-May), Tsitouris continued this form in 1964. He was returned to the bullpen following a difficult Florida spring camp. Despite twirling a combined one-hitter with Maloney15 on April 18 – the only hit surrendered by Tsitouris in the ninth after twice coming within one strike of a no-hitter – Tsitouris continued to struggle. In a start against the Phillies on May 8, even his mastery of Philadelphia was temporarily challenged with a miserable four-inning stint – including a 500-foot, game-breaking drive by outfielder Wes Covington that cleared the stadium to the left of the large clock atop the scoreboard. On May 22, 1967 Hall of Famer Willie McCovey became the second player in the history of Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium to equal this massive drive, harking remembrance of the Covington shot. Tsitouris appears to have recalled it as well. The next time Covington faced Tsitouris, on July 18, the batter was beaned and – for precautionary measures – hospitalized overnight.
In June Tsitouris began turning things around. Following a seven-inning blanking of the Cardinals on June 6, Tsitouris appeared on his way to a second consecutive win five days later when disaster erupted in the fifth. A third strike to Houston centerfielder Mike White, which should have ended the inning, got past the catcher. Two batters later third baseman Bob Aspromonte launched a grand slam that broke the game open. Another heartbreaking loss was suffered on July 9 at the hands of the Phillies despite Tsitouris’s single-game career-high 11 strikeouts. His season seesawed from splendid – a July 18 complete game victory over Philadelphia – to wretched – an August 9 start versus the San Francisco Giants when he garnered just one out. This same dichotomy would be exhibited over the final two weeks of the campaign.
As the 1964 season wound down, the National League pennant became a three-team race among the Reds, Phillies and Cardinals. On September 21 Tsitouris engaged in a brilliant pitching duel against Philadelphia righty Art Mahaffey, the only run scoring on a steal of home plate by Reds third baseman Chico Ruiz. The loss initiated a Phillies 10-game losing streak that removed them from contention. On the last day of the season – in a must-win situation – Reds acting manager Dick Sisler turned to Tsitouris to again perform his mastery over Philadelphia. Many expected the Reds to turn to Maloney on short rest but after consultation with Hutchinson – who was suffering from inoperable lung cancer – Sisler stayed with Tsitouris. Armchair managers and scribes roundly criticized the decision after the righty did not survive the third inning. The Phillies trounced the Reds, 10-0, and the Cardinals proceeded to the World Series.
Tsitouris finished the season with a disappointing 9-13, 3.80 in 37 appearances (24 starts). A fine fielder, he had tied a major-league mark on June 28 with five putouts for a pitcher. But this record could not assuage the heartbreak he and his teammates felt at the end of the season. In the winter the Reds received trade inquiries from Houston regarding Tsitouris, but nothing came of this.
Tsitouris began the 1965 campaign in the same fluctuating manner. On April 30 he dodged a bullet in New York. Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda hit what appeared to be a first-inning grand slam when the ball bounced onto the field after striking a backdrop above the centerfield wall. The umpire ruled the ball struck the wall and was in play. The long single plated just one run and Tsitouris settled down to a five-hit, complete game win. He was not as fortunate in subsequent outings. Relegated to the bullpen after his ERA topped four, Tsitouris was reinserted into the rotation as the Reds desperately sought mound help beyond Maloney and 24-year-old righty Sammy Ellis (Cincinnati’s league ERA of 3.88 was exceeded only by the hapless Mets). In August Tsitouris started two games in which he could not induce a single out. Alternating between the rotation and the pen, Tsitouris expressed his displeasure at the inconsistent use. He demanded a trade. The Reds appeared ready to accommodate these wishes when the environment changed radically in the offseason.
In October Cincinnati hired former San Diego skipper – and Tsitouris advocate – Don Heffner as their manager. Tsitouris dashed off a letter to the Reds complimenting them on their decision, adding how happy he was to see a manager who wanted him on the team. With renewed vigor, Tsitouris worked strenuously at his Monroe home and reported to spring training having shed 18 pounds (he’d ballooned to 200 in 1965). Despite Heffner’s welcome, the hurler appears to have been on a short leash with upper management. On April 19 Tsitouris made his first appearance of the 1966 season – a rough one inning in relief – and was promptly assigned to Buffalo.
Used primarily in relief, Tsitouris posted middling numbers for the Bisons, though on June 21 he captured his first shutout in two years – a 2-0 decision over the Toledo Mud Hens. A successful Venezuelan campaign over the winter attracted interest from the Washington Senators. The team made arrangements with the Reds to examine Tsitouris on a trial basis during the 1967 Grapefruit League season. The tryout proved unsuccessful; the righty was returned to Cincinnati in April. The Reds, in turn, made arrangements with the Phillies to assign Tsitouris to San Diego, a Philadelphia affiliate since 1966. If the hope was that the 31-year-old might rebound in an environment where he’d sustained success five years earlier, this hope would be richly rewarded.
In 1967 Tsitouris won his first three Padres decisions, and 13 of his first 15, as he raced to a 17-7, 2.58 record in 28 starts. He placed among the Pacific Coast League leaders in wins, complete games (14) and innings pitched (195) – though also placing in HBP (13) and wild pitches (14). He led the Padres to the East Division pennant. A poll of PCL managers selected Tsitouris as the league pitcher most ready for the majors, while the league’s writers and broadcasters picked him as second team All-Star pitcher. Recalled by the Reds in September, Tsitouris made two appearances, including a start against Chicago on the last day of the season. He held the Cubs to two hits over six scoreless innings, collecting his last major-league win. Over the winter Tsitouris led Caguas to the playoff finals in the Puerto Rican League. The North Carolina-native appeared poised to regain his perch in the major leagues.
A rare strong spring, combined with an injury-marred staff, earned Tsitouris the starting nod in the Reds’ third game of the 1968 campaign. Locked in a 1-1 tie through six innings, Tsitouris surrendered Hall of Famer Phil Niekro’s first major-league home run in the seventh. The game quickly unraveled thereafter. Tsitouris did not survive past the fifth inning in two subsequent starts. On April 24 his record stood at 0-3, 7.11. When righty phenom Gary Nolan was recalled on May 8 following recovery from a strained shoulder, Tsitouris was optioned to Indianapolis.
The disappointed righty appears to have considered walking away from the game. On May 15 the Indians suspended Tsitouris after he failed to report to the team. He joined the club around the first week in June and captured his first win on June 8. In 17 starts Tsitouris’s 2.92 ERA (team: 3.68) netted a pedestrian 7-8 record for the pitiable near-last-place Indians. Tsitouris’s 15-year career was over.
Tsitouris had married fellow Monroe native Dorothy Keziah before 1960. They would have five children. He followed his father-in-law into automobile sales. In 1989 John’s son Marc – a standout baseball player at Wingate University in North Carolina – was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers. He did not sign. The following year he was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 24th round, launching a two-year minor league career. In 2012 Marc was inducted into Wingate’s Sports Hall of Fame.
A highly-prized prospect, Tsitouris had collected just 12% of the win total garnered by Hall of Fame hurler Red Rufing, to whom he had been compared. He finished with a pedestrian record of 34-38, 4.14 in 663 innings (149 games, 84 starts). In 1963 the then 27-year-old righty had credited Reds pitching coach Jim Turner for converting him from a thrower to a pitcher. Had he had such tutoring at an earlier age, Tsitouris might have developed into the sterling pitcher that many so fervently believed he was destined to become.
Last revised: June 8, 2015
The author wishes to thank: Julia Skrinde Otto whose Tsitouris/Rowell research proved invaluable; and SABR members Charlie Bevis and Bill Mortell.
The Sporting News
1 “Lifetime Ambition Fulfilled as Heffner Takes Reds’ Reins,” The Sporting News, November 6, 1965, 26.
2 In 1959 one brother gained selected to the Greensboro Daily News All-State Legion Junior baseball team, while a sister found success on the hardwood courts. John’s son Marc went on to a two-year minor-league career with the Montreal Expos: http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=tsitou001mar
3 Through 2014 Tsitouris is the only major-league player to emerge from Benton Heights.
4 “Tsitouris Tabbed Tigers’ Sleeper Twirler by Tighe,” The Sporting News, March 13, 1957, 17.
5 “Maxwell Showing Bengals He’s No ‘One-Year Wonder’ as Hitter,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1957, 18.
6 “Tsitouris’ Temper Tantrums Sealed His Fate With Tigers,” The Sporting News, November 7, 1957, 7.
7 “Vacancy Sign at Every Post Will Spur A’s,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1960, 27.
8 By mid-1961 only four players remained from the June 1960 roster.
9 “Tsitouris Returning To Majors?” The Sporting News, August 18, 1962, 40.
10 “Purkey, Jay Rub Out Big Question Marks, Put !!! After Names,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1964, 21.
11 “Reds Gloating Over Bargain: Ace Tsitouris,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1963, 11.
12 “Reds Flashing Couple of Aces to Back Up Full House on Hill,” The Sporting News, July 6, 1963, 15.
13 This was also accomplished in 1908 and 1962.
15 Maloney was removed after six innings with a muscle strain in his lower back.