Lee Pfund pitched in 15 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, but his real claim to fame came after he retired from professional baseball and became a college baseball coach.
Leroy Herbert Pfund was born on October 18, 1919, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb adjacent to Chicago. His parents were Liebhart and Helen (Turner) Pfund. Brothers Liebhart and Paul Pfund, along with Bruce W. Bell, owned the Pfund Nursery Company, a florist business, in Elmhurst, Illinois.1 Lee had two younger sisters, Ruth and Phyllis.2
Lee’s father took him to the first All-Star Game, played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1933, and Lee was hooked on baseball.3 He played baseball at the University of Illinois for a couple of years before breaking into professional baseball in 1941 with the Albany (Georgia) Cardinals, a St. Louis affiliate in the Class-D Georgia-Florida League.
A stipulation in the deeply religious Pfund’s contract allowed him not to play on Sundays. On the other six days he pitched 157 innings in 27 games and finished with a 10-10 record, 186 hits given up, and a 5.16 ERA. He and Mabel Lillian “Mibs” Tillman were married in August in a double wedding with Mabel’s sister. (Pfund’s manager, Joe Cusick, adjusted the pitching rotation so Pfund had a week off.)
Pfund spent spring training with Albany in 1942 and did well. He would have played in Albany that season, but his wife was pregnant and the doctor warned that the pregnancy would be a difficult one, so Pfund asked to play closer to home. Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ general manager, told Pfund: “We have several teams that want you as a result of your spring training. Where do you want to play?”4 Pfund chose the Decatur (Illinois) Commodores of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) League. Pfund pitched in 28 games for Decatur, winning 6 and losing 10. He lowered his ERA to 4.86 and gave up 176 hits in 163 innings, but walked more batters than he struck out.
Pfund stayed out of professional baseball for the entire 1943 season. His wife was expecting again and her health during her pregnancy delayed his draft examination until late summer, when he was rejected for military service because of a floating bone chip in his left knee. He played with a semipro club in Alton, Illinois. That fall, Pfund accepted a teaching position in a school in Wheaton, Illinois, where he and his wife eventually settled.5 (Mabel died in 2006 at the age of 88.)
In 1944 Pfund went to spring training with the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association. Weak from a cold, he was hit hard in his first outing. His next appearance was against the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, a team managed by Mickey Cochrane and consisting of top major leaguers, including Johnny Mize, Bob Feller, Ken Keltner, Dick Wakefield, Schoolboy Rowe, Virgil Trucks, and Billy Herman. Pfund entered the game as a reliever and after retiring the first man he faced on a fly ball he stuck out Billy Herman with a side-arm curveball, his “out” pitch. He wouldn’t throw it until he had two strikes on a batter. Pfund earned a start from this performance and pitched five innings against the Kansas City Royals. He drove in all of the Red Birds runs with a double and a triple to earn the win.6
Pfund was 4-4 in 19 games with Columbus before being sent to the Mobile Bears of the Southern Association in August. Mentored by former journeyman catcher Bill “Buddy” Lewis, who told him, “I’ll send you to the big leagues,”7 Pfund pitched in 10 games for Mobile and finished with a 6-2 record and a 3.06 ERA.
In the fall of 1944 Branch Rickey came into Pfund’s life again. Rickey had become president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in November of 1942. Pfund was subject to the minor-league draft, and the Dodgers, impressed with his performance in Mobile, the Dodgers drafted him.8
Pfund made the pitching-poor Dodgers’ squad in 1945. Rickey intended for him to be a starter.9 In his first game as a Dodger, on April 21 against the New York Giants, Pfund relieved starter Ben Chapman in the seventh inning. He hit the first batter he faced, Steve Filipowicz, who then was erased in a double play. Pfund finished the game, giving up no hits and no runs in two innings pitched.10 On April 27 he pitched in relief against the Giants again, giving up a run and two hits in two innings.
On May 14 manager Leo Durocher gave Pfund his first start, against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Ebbets Field.11 The Pirates scored a run in the third to take the lead, but the Dodgers tied it in the fourth and took the lead for good with two runs in the seventh. With two out in the eighth inning, Pfund walked two Pirates on eight pitches. Manager Durocher visited the mound but then left Pfund in the game and he retired the next batter. Pfund completed the game and the Dodgers won 4-1, his first major-league win.
In his next start, four days later against the Chicago Cubs, Pfund was knocked out in the second inning. He was saved from picking up the loss by Brooklyn coming back to win, 15-12. On May 26 Pfund pitched a complete-game victory over the Cardinals.
Shortly after, Pfund mentioned to Branch Rickey that he was having trouble making ends meet. A few days later his regular paycheck was accompanied by a $700 bonus check, enough to get him through to the end of the season.12
As the season went on, Pfund pitched either really well or really poorly. After giving up five runs to the Cubs in four innings on June 28 and four runs to the Pirates on the 30th, he was sent to the bullpen.
Because of travel restrictions the major leagues did not hold an All-Star Game in 1945. Instead, there were benefit games against, typically, a geographical matchup. The Cubs played the White Sox, the two Boston teams played each other, as did the two Philadelphia teams. The Dodgers played the Senators in Washington.13 Pfund was going to start that game, but before the game a downpour soaked the field. The game began anyway. In the second inning, Washington’s Jose Zardon topped a sinker and the swinging bunt died on the wet turf as it rolled towards third. Pfund ran over to the ball and bent to pick it up. He twisted his knee and it swelled up like a football. He might have been able to return later in the season, but Rickey ordered him sidelined for the rest of the season; he didn’t want Pfund to come back too soon and risk reinjuring the knee.14 Pfund finished his only major-league season with a 3-2 record and a 5.20 ERA.
Pfund began the 1946 season in Mobile. He pitched better than he had with the Dodgers in ’45, but poor hitting support cost him some victories. Late in the season a Dodger scout came to see Pfund pitch and told him that wanted to bring him up, but bring him up on a win. Pfund tried extra hard that night, ended up hurting his shoulder, and missed the next three weeks. He finished the year with 7 victories and 16 defeats, and after the season the Dodgers sold his contract to their Montreal farm team.15
Pfund went to spring training in Havana with Brooklyn in 1947. He and Jackie Robinson were close and talked often about faith and the Bible.16
Pfund split the 1947 season between Montreal (1-0) and St. Paul (5-7). He fought pain in his shoulder and knee the entire season. After two more seasons in the Dodgers farm system, he retired as a player in 1950.
Pfund joined the staff at Wheaton College, where he had earned a degree in 1949. He coached baseball and basketball for three decades. In 1957 he coached the Crusaders to an NCAA College Division (later called Division II) national championship.17
Pfund coached baseball from 1948 to 1974, missing the 1960 season because of injuries suffered in a serious auto accident.18 In 26 years his teams won 249 games. His 1951 team was the last to win a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Championship.
Pfund became Wheaton’s winningest baseball and basketball coach. He is a member of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. From 1951 to 1975 his basketball teams won 361 games and lost 240 (.601).19 After his coaching days ended, he was the executive director of the Wheaton College Alumni Association from 1976 to 1987. In 1977 Pfund received Wheaton’s Alumni of the Year award.20 In his honor, the college holds a basketball tournament, the Lee Pfund Classic, every November. In 2012 the ballfield at Wheaton was named Lee Pfund Stadium at Legion Field in his honor.
Pfund coached his three sons on the Wheaton basketball team. His son Randy went on to become a coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and general manager of the Miami Heat. Both teams in the 2006 NBA finals had general managers who played for Pfund at Wheaton: Randy was GM of the Miami Heat and Donn Nelson was GM of the Dallas Mavericks.21
Thanks to Lee Pfund for providing some details during phone conversations on October 31 and November 5, 2014.
1 The American Florist, June 4, 1921. Retrieved from: books.google.com/books?id=Gek-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA980&dq=the+american+florist+june+4,+1921+liebhart+pfund&hl=en&sa=X&ei=EulaVL7WMse4ogS5iYKACg&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=the%20american%20florist%20june%204%2C%201921%20liebhart%20pfund&f=false, 980.
3 Craig Allen Cleve, Hardball on the Home Front (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2004), 55.
4 Cleve, 56.
5 Cleve, 57.
6 Cleve, 58.
8 Cleve, 59.
11 John G. Zinn and Paul G. Zinn, Ebbets Field Essays and Memories of Brooklyn’s Historic Ballpark, 1913-1960 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013). Retrieved from: books.google.com/books?id=umiBgPgZE-IC&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=lee%2Bpfund&source=bl&ots=Yfgp4Zs8zN&sig=WRjXWg0ZiLjXr8FmxhcRhK0RZUc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eZ9SVLvxI87coATMxYGYCw&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAzgo#v=onepage&q=lee%2Bpfund&f=false
12 Zinn, 64.
14 Cleve, 65.
15 Cleve. 67.