With two minor-league seasons under his belt and the 1969 Midwest League campaign rapidly approaching, Leo Mazzone, then a starting pitcher with the Decatur Commodores, sought clarity about his short-term pitching prospects. The young hurler split his first two seasons in the San Francisco Giants system, a total of 56 appearances, between the Medford Giants of the Northwest League and Decatur. Of the 56 games in which he pitched, only 21 were as a starter. Mazzone, a 20-year-old left-hander tapped for a prominent role in the Commodores’ plans, turned to an unconventional source of enlightenment. Whoever or whatever he conjured on the opposite end of that Ouija board delivered a message the youngster was elated to receive. The prediction stated that he would earn 15 wins during the coming season.1
“The one year I remember,” Mazzone said, recalling the apex of his minor-league tenure, “was 1969 in Class A in Decatur, Illinois.”2 Having only 11 career wins through 1968, a 15-win season seemed like a pipe dream. Reflecting upon his pitching career, Mazzone admitted that his pitching skills were solid but would have benefited from a different approach. “I would have changed speeds a lot more,” he said, “instead of trying to pound my way through.”3
As the Commodores approached the halfway mark of the 1969 campaign, Mazzone compiled a 5-6 record with a 2.47 ERA. “I’ve given up worrying about my record anymore,” he said. “All I can do is try to keep my ERA down and just hope for the best.”4 Then something clicked. With the season drawing to a close, Mazzone toed the rubber against the Cedar Rapids Cardinals. In enemy territory on Sunday, August 31, he fanned 11 batters and pitched a complete game. He allowed two runs on seven hits to earn his 15th win of the season.5 Mazzone finished the season with 17 complete games, but he was slated to start during the final game of the regular season. “My teammates flooded the field because we were out of the pennant race and they didn’t want to play,” he said. He confessed to hurling invective at his fellow Commodores as they departed the ballpark. “I was really mad.”6
Mazzone was rewarded with a promotion to Double A the following season, but he failed to parlay his success into a major-league career as a pitcher. During his 10 years as a minor-league pitcher, he continued honing his craft. That bore fruit and led to coaching.
“Baseball was always my sport,” Mazzone said, reminiscing how the game was, and endured as a household tradition.7Anthony “Tony” Mazzone and his wife, Maxine, welcomed their son, Leo David Mazzone, on October 16, 1948, in Keyser, West Virginia, a city across the Potomac River from Maryland. Mazzone’s father was a World War II veteran and worked at a local paper mill for nearly half a century. The elder Mazzone was a baseball enthusiast and an accomplished coach and manager. That passion for the game proved significant during Mazzone’s earliest baseball instruction.8 His father, who was a former catcher, piloted his teams to 14 league championships during an 18-year tenure as a manager in Westernport’s Bi-State Pony League.9
The Mazzone household was strict. Leo admitted that he and his younger sister, Mary Frances, were the products of a traditional household that prioritized Catholic education and daily attendance at Mass.10 In addition to learning fundamentals in the classroom, Mazzone, with assistance from his father, concentrated on pitching mechanics. Following painstaking days at work — and never missing a day in the process — the elder Mazzone would travel with his son to a neighborhood park to convey pitching essentials.11
“He would catch for me as long as I wanted to throw,” Mazzone said. “We would spend hours playing.”12 Looking back, he said, “I pitched a long time in my life without walking too many guys.”13 But these pitching sessions were not always scripted and regimented. Mazzone found time for fun, too. “I’d go out and mimic the deliveries of the great pitchers like Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn,” he said.14 That list of imitations also included the likes of two Dodgers legends, Koufax and Don Drysdale. “I loved Sandy Koufax,” he said. “I had all their deliveries down when I was a kid.”15
While Mazzone exhausted his spare daylight hours on the diamond, his time away from the park was filled with baseball, too. A fan of the New York Yankees, he followed their stars and kept a scrapbook chronicling the team and his favorite players like Ford and Mickey Mantle.16 “I would listen to any ballgame I could get on the radio,” Mazzone said, reminiscing about his old transistor radio that was firmly hidden beneath his pillow. “I could hear the games, but mom and dad wouldn’t know I was still up.”17
Mazzone’s dedication to his craft during his formative years paid dividends as he attracted professional attention at an early age. The hurler initially received accolades as far back as 1963, when he compiled a 10-1 record and guided his Westernport (Maryland) Pony League team to a pennant and a playoff appearance. As a pitcher for his Bruce High School Bulldogs squad in Westernport, Mazzone was touted as the strikeout king of the Alleghany County High School League. During his senior year, he logged a 7-1 record and fanned 129 batters in 62 innings. Just before signing his first professional contract, Mazzone was pitching for Westernport in the Pen-Mar League.18
On September 8, 1966, Mazzone was signed to a San Francisco Giants contract by scout Frank “Chick” Genovese.19Mazzone’s father announced his son’s signing and added that the young lefty had enrolled at Allegany Community College for the fall, but would report to spring training for the Giants’ farm teams at Casa Grande, Arizona.20 After signing his $400-a-month contract, Mazzone inquired about a signing bonus. Genovese responded by saying, “You’re kinda small. You’ll make all your money once you reach the big leagues.”21
Mazzone’s inaugural training camp in the Arizona sun threw the youngster a curveball. Homesick, he left camp for home, but quickly returned. Mazzone captured the eyes of the coaches and was assigned to Medford of the low Class-A Northwest League.22
After success with Medford and Decatur (high-A Midwest League), Mazzone was promoted in 1970 to the Amarillo Giants of the Double-A Texas League, where he transitioned from starting to relieving. “When you don’t sign for any money, you have to keep making a spot for yourself every year,” he said, making note of the politics inherent to the game. “The top guys got all of the attention, and the other guys got ignored.”23
Mazzone remained on the Amarillo Giants roster throughout the early 1970s before jumping south of the border and playing in the Mexican League. He opened the 1974 season with the Monterrey Sultanes. “It was unbelievable,” Mazzone said, remembering his brief but raucous tenure in Monterrey. “The first time I pitched down there I threw a shutout and when I came off the field they were yelling ‘Viva Mazzone, viva Mazzone.’ I lost the next couple of games and I thought they were going to run me out of town.”24
Eventually Mazzone accepted the fact that he would not receive a call to join a major-league squad and that he would never throw a pitch in the big leagues. So after leaving the Giants’ system and signing with the Oakland Athletics, he started contemplating his post-playing-career options.
The Athletics’ farm director, Syd Thrift, saw Mazzone’s potential. “I knew very well that he had a great baseball aptitude, that extra sense about how to pitch and how to play,” Thrift said. “He was a very astute judge of what was going on in the present.”25 When Oakland initially offered Mazzone a managerial position, he did not respond well and called Thrift many colorful names. The following day, he apologized and inquired about the job.26 In April 1976 Mazzone was tapped as player-manager of the new Corpus Christi Seagulls of the Gulf States League. “My goal is to get to the big leagues as a manager,” Mazzone said. “But my immediate goal is to create a sound, fundamental base for professional baseball in Corpus Christi.”27
As a player, Mazzone ended the final season of his pitching career with a 7-2 record and a 3.73 ERA, pitching in 14 games. As a manager, the 27-year-old guided the Seagulls to a first-place finish with a 50-27 record. In 1977, Mazzone’s first exclusively as a manager, he led the Seagulls, now in the Lone Star League, to another first-place finish. This time, the Atlanta Braves were watching.
The Braves took notice of Mazzone’s managerial work ethic in the minor leagues and invited him to the franchise’s instructional league in 1979.28 Henry Aaron, the Braves’ slugging legend, had recently joined the organization as director of scouting. “Hank Aaron was one of my idols growing up,” Mazzone said, recalling the moment that he was encouraged to join the organization.29 “I was a nervous wreck,” he said. “We got on the plane to fly to Sarasota, and we hit it off right away on the plane.”30
Shortly after joining the Braves system, Mazzone discovered a mentor: Johnny Sain, who took the green pitching coach under his wing. (Sain, after an 11-year career as a major-league pitcher, had become a successful and well-traveled pitching coach.31)
“Johnny was a little bit of a rebel,” Mazzone said, referring to the owner of 139 major-league wins for the Boston Braves, New York Yankees, and Kansas City Athletics.32 Sain was searching for a protégé to whom he could impart his baseball knowledge. Sain, who himself had four 20-win seasons, taught the finer points of his craft to nine men who also compiled 20-win seasons: Jim Kaat, Whitey Ford, Mudcat Grant, Denny McLain, Jim Bouton, Al Downing, Jim Perry, Wilbur Wood, and Stan Bahnsen.33 Mazzone willingly accepted Sain’s tutelage.
During their initial spring-training sessions, Mazzone opened his mind and absorbed all of Sain’s baseball knowledge. That meant firing up the grill outside Sain’s Winnebago RV, enjoying beverages, and discussing the finer points of pitching.34
Both Mazzone and Sain understood that the art and science of pitching was changing. The days of the four-man starting rotation were relegated to the past. With five-man rotations, pitchers were throwing fewer innings and fewer times between starts. Mazzone was drawn to Sain’s revolutionary approach to the game. “He was ahead of his time,” Mazzone said, discussing his mentor’s unorthodox approach. “People were very critical. They feared his knowledge.”35
The consensus among teams dictated that in a five-man rotation, starting pitchers would throw one session off the mound between starts. Mazzone knew that pitchers needed to place a premium on throwing. He adopted Sain’s thinking that pitchers needed more work to close the gap. “I wanted to do two,” Mazzone said, acknowledging his belief that pitchers remained sharper in a four-man rotation.36 Mazzone instituted a new pitching regimen. Pitchers would now pitch more often between starts, but with less intensity.
Mazzone received the call he longed for during the 1985 season. He, along with his mentor, would share duties as co-pitching coaches for the Braves. Then, after returning to the minors for a few seasons, he rejoined the Braves on June 22, 1990.
During Mazzone’s tenure as pitching coach for manager Bobby Cox, the Braves experienced unequaled success and dominated major-league baseball during the 1990s. That run included winning 14 consecutive division titles, five pennants, and one World Series, in 1995. Players’ names and faces changed during that stretch, but the Braves stood in an elite class because of their pitching staff.37 Mazzone noticed overnight results. Many of the young arms he trained in the minors — pitchers like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, and Mike Stanton — skyrocketed to the major-league squad.38 Each would have independently served as the ace of any other major-league rotation. Later, the Braves signed Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux away from the Chicago Cubs.
Glavine, the future Hall of Fame left-hander and architect of 305 career wins, pitched 17 of his 22 seasons in the majors with the Braves. “He was very instrumental in me learning my mechanics, being able to repeat my mechanics, and most importantly understanding my mechanics so I could make my own adjustments,” Glavine said, shining a spotlight on Mazzone for transforming his career and guiding him along his path to Cooperstown. “That and really understanding regardless of how hard you throw, the importance of being able to locate a fastball and pitch off your fastball, regardless of velocity.”39
After losing 90-plus games annually to close the 1980s, the franchise’s fortunes changed immediately in the new decade. The string of consecutive division titles began in 1991. That season the Braves won the pennant and played in the team’s first World Series since departing Milwaukee. While the baseball world made note of Mazzone’s formidable young arms, it also noticed his interesting habit of rocking in the dugout. “One of the local radio stations did a song called ‘Rockin’ Leo,’” Mazzone said. “The first time I heard that, I was driving down the interstate to the Chop Shop.”40
“I’ve done it since I was a kid,” Mazzone said. “My mother said I did it in the high chair. The doctor said when I get excited, I rock.”41 He said that most of the time, he was not aware he was rocking. “When I was pitching, I rocked all the time,” he said. “It’s a soothing thing. It’s what happens when you’re in a high-intensity situation. And that’s my way of getting through it.”42
In the 1991 and 1992 World Series, the Braves lost to the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays respectively. But in 1995, all of Mazzone’s dedication to the craft of pitching was rewarded. The Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians in six games to win the World Series. “Tommy (Glavine) put a stamp on one of the greatest pitching rotations ever,” Mazzone said after the Game Six victory.43 After the game was over, he just sat in the dugout. “I don’t go between the lines,” he said. “I feel that’s for the players. A coach should be in the background.”44
In 1996 the Braves finished 96-66 and won the pennant again, the team’s fourth in six seasons. Their World Series foe was the Yankees. Game One was played at Yankee Stadium on October 22. The Braves throttled the Yankees, 12-1. Mazzone has declared that that was his favorite moment in baseball. “I grew up a Yankees fan,” Mazzone said, acknowledging the wave of emotions and boyhood dreams that washed over him before the game. “I always thought as a little boy Yankee Stadium was a cathedral, the most beautiful place in the world.”45 (The Yankees overcame the loss and won the Series in six games.)
Despite continually reaching the postseason, the Braves reached the World Series only once more with Mazzone as pitching coach, in 1999. They suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees.
After the 2005 season, Mazzone parted ways with the Braves and joined the Baltimore Orioles. He signed a three-year contract that reunited him with manager Sam Perlozzo, his longtime friend and the best man at his wedding.46 “He enjoyed beating you,” Perlozzo said, remembering their childhood competitions. “Winning and striking you out meant the world to him.”47
Mazzone was unable to match his track record of pitching excellence with the Orioles. After two seasons of his three-year contract, he was fired. “At the time it was a great move, but now I regret it,” Mazzone said. “I got a chance to go back to my home state.”48 Perlozzo, who had been fired during the 2007 season, admitted that the Baltimore teams suffered in comparison with Mazzone’s Braves. “Good baseball people know that Leo didn’t have much to work with there, and we had plenty of injuries on top of that,” Perlozzo said. “He’s still one of the best out there. I am very confident he will get a job, maybe even this year.”49
But there were no major-league opportunities. In 2016, confident that he still possessed valuable pitching advice, Mazzone accepted an offer to become a special adviser to Brett Harker, Furman University’s head baseball coach.50“He doesn’t directly coach our pitchers,” Harker said, stating that Mazzone would coach him on methods to train the team’s young arms.51 Harker added that Mazzone reminded him that pitching must be simplified. “You hear it from the best pitching coach of all time,” he said. “That makes you feel better as a coach, but it also carries some weight from the players.”52
“Leo really enjoys being on the field,” Perlozzo said. “It’s kind of like all he’s ever done.”53
Last revised: February 11, 2021
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and SABR.org.
1 Joe Cook, “Ouija Board Betrays Mazzone.” Decatur (Illinois) Herald, June 24, 1969: 14.
2 Leo Mazzone and Scott Freeman, Tales from the Braves Mound (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, LLC, 2003), 9.
3 Mazzone and Freeman, 197.
5 “Commodores’ Mazzone Wins 15th,” Decatur Herald and Review, September 1, 1969.
6 Mazzone and Freeman, 9.
7 Mazzone and Freeman, 7.
8 Mazzone and Freeman, 7.
10 Steve Rosenbloom, “Leo Mazzone,” Chicago Tribune, August 23, 2005.
11 Mazzone and Freeman, 8.
12 “They Call Him ‘Rockin’ Leo,’” Albany (Georgia) Herald, May 31, 2015.
13 Mazzone and Freeman, 8..
14 Mazzone and Freeman, 8.
17 Tony Rehagen, “Down & Away Undefined.” SB Nation, May 13, 2015.
18 “Westernport’s Leo Mazzone Is Signed by San Francisco,” Cumberland (Maryland) News, September 9, 1966: 16.
19 “Chronology of Sporting Events in Cumberland and the Tri-State Area for Year 1966,” Cumberland News, January 7, 1967: 6.
20 “Westernport’s Leo Mazzone Is Signed by San Francisco.”
21 Mazzone and Freeman, 9.
22 J. Suter Kegg, “Tapping the Kegg: Leo Mazzone Looks Forward to 1968,” Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times, September 12, 1967: 10. Mazzone is shown as 5-feet-10 and weighing 180 pounds.
23 Mazzone and Freeman, 9.
24 Emil Tagliabue, “Creating a Sound Base for Pro Baseball in City Is Mazzone’s Goal,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, April 9, 1976: 75.
28 Mazzone and Freeman, 11.
29 “They Call Him ‘Rockin’ Leo.’”
30 Mazzone and Freeman, 11.
31 J.C. Bradbury, The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed (New York: Plume, 2008), 55.
32 Graham Womack, “Baseball Dismissed Leo Mazzone and Johnny Sain — the Hall of Fame Doesn’t Have To,” The Sporting News, June 8, 2017.
33 Tyler Kepner, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 8.
36 Mazzone and Freeman, 14.
37 Bradbury, 56.
39 Myron Hosea, “Furman Gets Big-League Boost from Leo Mazzone,” Greenville (South Carolina) News, February 13, 2017: C1.
40 Mazzone and Freeman, 173.
41 Jack Curry, “Atlanta’s Pitching Wizard Takes His Magic to Baltimore,” New York Times, February 20, 2006.
42 Mazzone and Freeman, 172.
43 “At Last!,” Atlanta Constitution, October 30, 1995: 51.
44 Mazzone and Freeman, 81-82.
46 Albert Chen, “Off His Rocker: Does Pitching Coach Leo Mazzone’s Move Mean That Atlanta’s NL East Dynasty Is Near Its End?,” Sports Illustrated, October 31, 2005: 28
48 “Bored and Restless, Leo Mazzone Wants Back into Baseball,” East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Arizona), May 10, 2008.
49 “Bored and Restless, Leo Mazzone Wants Back into Baseball.”
50 “Leo Mazzone: Special Advisor,” Furman University Athletics (https://furmanpaladins.com/sports/baseball/roster/coaches/leo-mazzone/5).
53 “Bored and Restless, Leo Mazzone Wants Back into Baseball.”