Mike Blyzka was part of one of major-league baseball’s biggest trades – a 17-player mega-swap between the Orioles and Yankees in the fall of 1954. Headlining New York’s acquisitions were future Cy Young Award winner Bob Turley and Don Larsen – the pitcher who later twirled the only (as of 2022) perfect game in World Series history. Baltimore’s package included Gus Triandos, a catcher who went on to start consecutive All-Star Games. But of the 16 past or future big-leaguers exchanged, only Blyzka never appeared in the majors again.1
Working mostly in relief, Blyzka, a right-handed pitcher, compiled a 3-11 record and 5.58 ERA over two seasons with a pair of 100-loss teams, the 1953 St. Louis Browns and the 1954 Orioles. “I only played two years in the big leagues,” he quipped in 1999. “I had to retire by popular demand.”2
On December 25, 1928, Michael John Blyzka was born in Hamtramck, Michigan, about five miles north of Detroit. He was the youngest of eight children – four boys and four girls – from the marriage of John and Stella (Lowciewicz) Blyzka. The correct pronunciation of their surname is “Bliss-ka.”3 John and Stella had emigrated to the United States in 1910 and 1916, respectively, from a part of Poland that was then ruled by Russia. (John listed his birthplace as Vilna – the Russian name for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.)
In the 1910s, Hamtramck’s population swelled from 3,559 to 48,615 as Polish laborers moved in to work at the Dodge Brothers automobile plant that opened in 1914.4 John was among them, according to his 1918 military registration card, and he later worked for the Champion Spark Plug company. Hamtramck had become more diverse by the 2020 census, but one 1956 newspaper described the city as having “an almost 100-per-cent Polish-American population.”5
Mike attended the Kosciuszko School early on, then Hamtramck High School in his teens. Swimming was one of his hobbies, and he liked football, but the baseball field was where he starred for three years.6 Asked who was most responsible for his baseball career after he turned professional, Blyzka answered, “Mr. [Joe] Rosbeck, high school coach, and Al Ohab, who taught me the finer points of the game.”7 Ohab’s identity is a mystery. Blyzka also played American Legion baseball for Henry Bushway Post 24 in 1945.
Following Blyzka’s high school graduation in 1946, he signed with the Chicago White Sox through scout Ray Meyers.8 In 1943, Meyers had signed another Polish American from Hamtramck High, Casimer Kwietniewski.9 Playing as Cass Michaels, Kwietniewski – a future two-time All-Star infielder – debuted for Chicago at age 17 and was already in his second full major-league season when Blyzka turned professional. However, Blyzka’s road to the big leagues was longer, with more twists and turns.
According to his contract card from The Sporting News, Blyzka was assigned to the Class B Waterloo (Iowa) White Hawks in July 1946, then to the Class D Madisonville (Kentucky) Miners before the month was over. But the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder did not see action for either team.
Blyzka’s career began inauspiciously in 1947. He started and finished the season with Madisonville, but his record was just 2-6 (4.60 ERA) in 10 Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League appearances. Between July 3 and August 25, he was even worse for another one of Chicago’s Class D affiliates, going 0-9 (5.65) in 16 outings for the Lima Terriers of the Ohio State League.
The White Sox released Blyzka during spring training 1948.10 He caught on with the St. Louis Browns organization and had a solid year for their Belleville Stags farm club in the Class D Illinois State League. The Stags finished 16 games below .500, but Blyzka went 12-9 (3.37), with a league-leading 192 strikeouts. Per nine innings, he allowed just 7.6 hits but walked too many, 6.1.
In 1949, Blyzka advanced to the Class C East Texas League and enjoyed an outstanding first half for the Marshall Browns. He had a no-hitter going with one out in the ninth inning on May 2 until two Henderson Oilers hitters singled.11 On July 6, he pitched all 12 innings of a 1-0, 11-strikeout victory over the Longview Texans. Scouts Roxy Middleton (of the Boston Braves) and Johnny Hudson (New York Giants) were in attendance, and the Longview News-Journal reported, “they agreed that Blyzka and Joe Jones, who opposed him, are two of the most promising young pitchers they have seen.”12 (Jones, a lefty who turned 24 shortly thereafter, peaked in Class AA.)
Blyzka was a unanimous All-Star selection.13 He carried a 12-4 record into the league’s showcase on July 11, in which he pitched two innings.14 On August 12, however, Marshall began a stretch of 18 games in 12 days. One writer observed that this forced the team’s starting pitchers “to take their turns on the mound when they could hardly pitch batting practice.”15 Blyzka was scratched from his scheduled start on August 22 because of a sore arm.16 He finished the 1949 season with career highs of 262 innings and 24 complete games, but his once-sparkling record wound up at 15-14 (3.61).
The Browns promoted Blyzka to the Class A Western League in 1950, and he posted a 13-6 (3.43) record for the Wichita (Kansas) Indians, including a string of 27 consecutive scoreless innings.17 “Joe Schultz, my manager at Wichita, and a former catcher, showed me how to throw a curve,” he said later. Blyzka worked only 152 innings, as many of his 36 appearances came out of the bullpen. “Blyzka became the ‘Joe Page of the Western League,’” Schultz recalled. “He’d start and he’d finish – a real ‘money’ player.”18 After the season, the Browns added him to their 40-man roster.19
On January 20, 1951, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published a small story headlined “Browns Line Up Pitcher Blyzka,” describing how the pitcher was one of the team’s first players to sign his contract for the coming year.20 The United States had become involved in an armed conflict in Korea, though. Instead of reporting to spring training, Blyzka was drafted into the Army.
Blyzka spent the better part of the next two years stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Yet he continued to play baseball, joining the Brooke Army Medical Center team in March 1951. That roster included two former Browns – infielder Owen Friend and outfielder Dick Kokos – plus at least another half-dozen players with minor-league experience. “The use of the draft to collect a flock of athletes to be used only for a public display or to bring a measure of some sort of ‘glory’ to any military post is ridiculous and entirely unfair to every other boy being drafted,” complained Austin Statesman columnist Bill Harding. “Combat veterans don’t give a tinker’s tootle about Joe Blow’s batting average. They just want a square deal for every man in the services.”21
That summer, the Army allowed the Sinton (Texas) Plymouth Oilers semipro squad to borrow Blyzka, Kokos, and Friend for the National Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series. Back in Wichita on August 28, Blyzka made national news by no-hitting the Camp Pritchett, Virginia, 43rd Division club, with Friend hitting a three-run homer.22 When Blyzka shut out a team from Atwater, California on September 6, Sinton became the first Texas-based team to win the tournament.23 He was named the leading pitcher of the 1951 NBC World Series.24
On December 6, 1952, Blyzka married Elizabeth “Betty” R. Norman. The Sporting News described her as “a former swimming teammate of [U.S. 1952 Summer] Olympian Mary Freeman.”25
Browns spring training was already underway in San Bernardino, California when Blyzka was discharged from the Army in March 1953. Major-league teams were permitted to keep up to five returning servicemen who wouldn’t count against the 25-man roster limit that season. In addition to welcoming Kokos back, St. Louis kept Blyzka and his former Wichita teammate, fellow right-hander Don Larsen.26 “These boys have the tools to become great pitchers,” explained Browns manager Marty Marion. “Their old boss, Schultz, believes they’re about ready to hit the high spots. I’m counting on both of them.”27
On April 21, 1953, Blyzka made his big-league debut at Cleveland Stadium. On a Tuesday afternoon with 1,772 in attendance, he pitched three innings of scoreless relief without allowing a hit in a game that the Browns lost to the Indians, 4-3. Five days later, Blyzka made his first start, at Sportsman’s Park – renamed Busch Stadium by the new owner of the facility and the Cardinals that season – against the White Sox. Through eight innings, he traded zeroes with Chicago righty Joe Dobson and allowed only two hits. But after the White Sox’s Ferris Fain and Minnie Miñoso each singled to put runners at the corners to start the ninth, Blyzka’s wild pitch allowed the game’s first run. Tom Wright and Chico Carrasquel added RBI singles before the inning ended, and Blyzka lost, 3-0. Nevertheless, he impressed Browns and Cardinals broadcaster Dizzy Dean, who remarked, “Gentlemen, that boy throws what I call a fast one.”28
After lasting less than three innings in his next outing, however, Blyzka spent four weeks in the bullpen. On May 31, he went the distance against the White Sox at Comiskey Park to earn what proved to be his only victory as a starter all season. Blyzka was charged with two defeats during St. Louis’s 14-game losing streak at the beginning of June. After he lost a 2-1 decision to the Athletics in Philadelphia on June 28, he went back to relief work for four more weeks while the Browns sank to the bottom of the American League standings to stay. “I guess we just didn’t have the firepower that other teams had,” Blyzka reflected 40 years later. “If Johnny Groth ever got paid for the miles he covered in center field, he’d be a millionaire. Vic Wertz and Dick Kokos were the other outfielders, and they couldn’t move like Groth. If he didn’t catch it, it didn’t get caught.”29
Defense was important to Blyzka, who averaged just 2.2 strikeouts per nine innings as a rookie. He continued to hone his curveball with teammate Harry Brecheen, a former star in his final season before beginning a 14-year run as a major-league pitching coach. “[Brecheen]’s been teaching Mike to hold the ball far back in his hand for the curve, not at the edge of his fingers,” Marion explained.30 That winter, Blyzka said, “I think it’s my best pitch now.”31
Blyzka appeared in 33 games (nine starts), posting a 2-6 (6.39) record. He logged only 31 1/3 of his 94 1/3 innings after the All-Star break because another one of his former Wichita teammates – Bob Turley – returned to the Browns from Fort Sam Houston.32 Blyzka often worked in contests that didn’t count in the official statistics. “Every Monday, we played an exhibition game in some little town. We had to do that to make money,” he recalled. “I had a heck of a record in exhibition games. Old Marty Marion said, ‘How come you can’t do that in the regular games?’”33
Shortly after the 1953 season ended, the Browns learned that they would relocate and become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. Blyzka moved to Baltimore – within driving distance of his in-laws in Philadelphia – and found winter work lifting crates at Crown Cork & Seal. When he returned his signed contract to Orioles GM Arthur Ehlers, Blyzka told him, “I must have a lot of work to be a consistent winner… I have control trouble if I’m not worked a lot.” Ehlers assured him that he would get it, and Blyzka said, “I figure I’ll be a lot better pitcher this year. I would like to be a starter, but wouldn’t mind relieving, provided I see a lot of action. They say this club needs pitching. I aim to give it to them.”34 Prior to Baltimore’s first major-league home opener since 1902, Blyzka rode with Jay Heard, the club’s only African American, in the pre-game parade.35
Blyzka appeared in only one game – allowing five runs in 1 2/3 innings of relief – before the May 13 deadline to reduce major-league rosters to 25 players, Ehlers announced that he would send him to the Richmond Virginians of the Triple-A International League to gain experience, a move that the pitcher reportedly welcomed because he wanted more work. But AL President Will Harridge informed the Orioles that Blyzka’s Army years counted as major-league service time, meaning that the circuit’s other seven teams would have to grant waivers first. Thus, outfielder Jim Fridley was dropped instead while the situation was resolved.36 On May 18, Ehlers confirmed that one club he declined to identify was willing to pay the $10,000 waiver price, causing plans for Blyzka’s demotion to be canceled. “We’ll hang onto him for a while and see what happens,” Ehlers said. “Mike’s a strong boy with a good arm and we might be able to work him in.”37
In four relief appearances between May 28 and June 1, Blyzka allowed just one earned run over 10 innings. On June 8 at Fenway Park, he earned his only victory for Baltimore by hurling the last three frames of a win over the Red Sox. Back in the same ballpark on July 19, Blyzka was summoned to protect a 7-3 lead with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth. He caught Del Wilber looking at a third strike for the second out, then surrendered a two-run double to Jimmy Piersall. Blyzka intentionally walked future Hall of Famer Ted Williams to reload the bases, only to lose the game on a walk-off grand slam by Mickey Owen.
The Orioles lost 100 games but finished ahead of the Athletics in seventh place. Blyzka relieved 37 times and compiled a 1-5 (4.69) record. Next, he reported to the Cuban Winter League to pitch for the Marianao club.38 While he was overseas, Blyzka was traded to the Denver Bears, the New York Yankees’ Triple-A American Association affiliate.39 The transaction was part of the 17-player deal with Baltimore, which took nearly three weeks to complete.40
In 31 appearances (11 starts) for Denver in 1955, Blyzka went 9-5 and displayed his best control since turning professional (39 walks in 101 innings). However, his ERA was 4.99 and he surrendered 11.3 hits per nine innings. The highlight of his year came on June 22, when Betty gave birth to their son, Michael John Blyzka Jr.41
Denver was so appealing to Blyzka and his wife that they bought a home there. He landed an offseason sales job with the May Company department store and worked out nightly at Regis College with Bears teammate Whitey Herzog.42
The Bears advanced to the American Association finals in 1956, but Blyzka did not pitch well. He earned all of his five victories by June 4 and finished with a 5.92 ERA in 37 outings (13 starts).43 He was available in that fall’s minor-league draft but was not selected. On December 20, Denver released him to the Minneapolis Millers, the New York Giants’ American Association affiliate.
On May 9, Blyzka became the first American Association pitcher with six victories in 1957.44 Blyzka’s undefeated record heading into his next start prompted one reporter to opine, “With an impressive performance, he might just be called up to the National League by the parent Giants.”45 But Blyzka was hit hard that night.46 He did not win again until June 18.47 His record was 7-3 (5.31) in 22 games (10 starts) when he was demoted to the Springfield (Massachusetts) Giants on July 28.Although Blyzka compiled a 2.25 ERA in 40 innings with that club, it came against Class A Eastern League competition.
The Toronto Maple Leafs of the Triple-A International League signed Blyzka on January 10, 1958. That city’s Globe and Mail newspaper, citing the 29-year-old right-hander’s rumored sore arm, reported the following day, “Word from Maple Leaf Stadium last night claimed that the Leaf pitching staff had been ‘bolstered’ by the signing of former major-leaguer Mike Blyzka as a free agent. That remains to be seen.” Blyzka insisted, “I’m still throwing as hard as I did at St. Louis. Last season, my curve was breaking better than ever. Altogether, I believe I’m a better pitcher than I was with St. Louis.”48 But he was released in spring training, ending his professional baseball career.49
In 1961, Blyzka was a member of the Cheyenne Merchants club that won Wyoming’s semipro championship and advanced to the NBC World Series in Wichita.50 Cheyenne was where he lived out his remaining years. When he returned to St. Louis for a Browns reunion in 1993, he said he worked as a bartender.51
Blyzka, limping and using a cane following hip surgery, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch why he had gathered with his former teammates again in May 1996. “I’ll tell you why I love it. The St. Louis Browns Fan Club appreciated us years ago as good guys. We didn’t win a lot of games, but we were good ballplayers. And everybody hustled.”52
Baseball author Bill McCurdy said that Blyzka was retired, living alone, and in poor health when they first met in 1996. They renewed their acquaintance annually at Browns reunion dinners until 2003.53
Blyzka was 75 when he died on October 13, 2004, in Cheyenne. He is buried in that city’s Lakeview Cemetery.
This biography was reviewed by Gregory H. Wolf and Rory Costello and checked for accuracy by members of SABR’s fact-checking team.
1 Blyzka was traded to the Yankees along with Jim Fridley, Billy Hunter, Darrell Johnson, Dick Kryhoski, Don Larsen, and Bob Turley. The Orioles received Harry Byrd, Don Leppert, Jim McDonald, Bill Miller, Willy Miranda, Kal Segrist, Hal Smith, Gus Triandos, and Gene Woodling. All 16 of the aforementioned players performed in the majors, and Blyzka was the only one who did not do so after 1954. The 17th player in the deal, Ted Del Guercio, peaked in Triple-A. Matt Monagan, “60 Years Ago, the Yankees and Orioles Completed a Three-Week Long, 17-Player Trade,” MLB.com, December 1, 2014, https://www.mlb.com/cut4/60-years-ago-the-yankees-and-orioles-completed-a-three-week-long-17-player-trade/c-102844224 (last accessed September 25, 2022).
2 Tom Wheatley, “Browns Have Their Last Great Roundup,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 26, 1999: C3.
3 “Here’s Right Way to Pronounce That Guy’s Last Name,” The Sporting News, April 14, 1954: 26.
4 “Welcome to the City of Hamtramck,” https://web.archive.org/web/20080210003527/http:/www.hamtramck.us/about/pages/index.php (last accessed September 23, 2022).
5 “Blyzka is Grizzlies’ Stopper,” Denver Catholic Register, June 28, 1956: 13.
6 “Blyzka is Grizzlies’ Stopper.”
7 Mike Blyzka, American Baseball Bureau publicity questionnaire, August 7, 1946.
8 “Blyzka Promises to Blitz Orioles’ Foes with Curves,” The Sporting News, February 3, 1954: 15.
9 “Chisox Boast Rookie Star Shortstop,” Elmira (New York) Star-Gazette, May 4, 1945: 13.
10 “Browns Line Up Pitcher Blyzka,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 20, 1951: 18.
11 Associated Press, “Browns Extend Etex Margin,” Austin (Texas) Statesman, May 3, 1949: 16.
12 Robert “Roxy” Middleton had been a professional outfielder from 1907-1925 and scouted for the Braves from at least 1946-1959, according to his contract card from The Sporting News. Buster Hale, “Sport Shots,” Longview (Texas) News-Journal, July 10, 1949: 12.
13 “Trio Unanimous Choices on Team,” Longview News-Journal, July 3, 1949: 6.
14 Staff Writer, “Stone Hits Two Home Runs for South Team,” Longview News-Journal, July 11, 1949: 18.
15 Townsend Miller, “The Second Guess,” Marshall (Texas) News Messenger, August 31, 1949: 7.
16 “Drillers Hit Hard, Beat Browns Twice,” Marshall News-Messenger, August 23, 1949: 7.
17 Buster Hale, “Notes Off the Cuff,” Longview-News Journal, July 12, 1950: 10.
18 “Browns Trio from Wichita Praised by Former Manager,” The Sporting News, October 29, 1952: 20.
19 Associated Press, “Browns Bring Up Hill Trio, Fielder,” Daily News (New York, New York), October 27, 1950: 89.
20 “Browns Line Up Pitcher Blyzka.”
21 Bill Harding, “Press Time,” Austin Statesman, March 8, 1951: 29.
22 “Brownie Prospect Hurls No-Hitter in Wichita Meet,” The Sporting News, September 5, 1951: 31.
23 Associated Press, “Sinton, Tex. Oilers Win Ball Tourney,” Rhinelander (Wisconsin) Daily News, September 7, 1951: 6.
25 “Blyzka Promises to Blitz Orioles’ Foes with Curves.”
26 Edgar R. Brands, “Seven Players Change Clubs in Majors’ Deadline Shifts,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1953: 8.
27 Ray Gillespie, “Lists Four Potential Starters,” The Sporting News, April 22, 1953: 14.
28 “Blyzka of Browns Blazes to 11 Whitewash Innings,” The Sporting News, May 6, 1953: 17.
29 Tom Wheatley, “Brownie Points Forty Years Later,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 30, 1993: 5F.
30 Ray Gillespie, “Marion Pins Posies on a Pair of Rookies,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1953: 14.
31 “Blyzka Promises to Blitz Orioles’ Foes with Curves.”
32 Ray Gillespie, “Browns Tout Burly Turley as Hill Prize,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1953: 26.
33 Wheatley, “Brownie Points Forty Years Later.”
34 “Blyzka Promises to Blitz Orioles’ Foes with Curves.”
35 John Eisenberg, “O’s Quiet Pioneer: Heard,” Baltimore Sun, April 23, 2004: 1E.
36 Ned Burk, “Orioles Dispose of Johnson, Fridley, Bickford, Lenhardt,” Baltimore Sun, May 13, 1954: 23.
37 Lou Hatter, “Zernial,” Baltimore Sun, May 19, 1954: 19.
38 Clarence Young, “Young, Sima, Cole and Blyzka Signed by Winter Teams,” The Sporting News, October 6, 1954: 27.
39 Dick Young, “Yanks-Birds One Man from Completing Deal,” Daily News (New York, New York), December 2, 1954: 85.
40 Monagan, “60 Years Ago, the Yankees and Orioles Completed a Three-Week Long, 17-Player Trade.”
41 “Blyzka is Grizzlies’ Stopper.”
42 “Blyzka is Grizzlies’ Stopper.”
43 “Denver,” The Sporting News, September 19, 1956: 42.
44 Associated Press, “Wichita Pads AA Lead,” Salina (Kansas) Journal, May 10, 1957: 10.
45 Associated Press, “Eyes Recall,” Muskogee (Wisconsin) Times-Democrat, May 14, 1957: 11.
46 Associated Press, “Miller Ace Bombed; Wichita Takes Lead,” Parsons (Kansas) Sun, May 15, 1957: 12.
47 “Minneapolis,” The Sporting News, June 26, 1957: 34.
48 “Blyzka Signs Leaf Contract as Free Agent,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 11, 1958: 41.
49 Al Nickleson, “Around the Bases,” Globe and Mail, April 5, 1958: 22.
50 Judy L. and Gabriel A. Lopez, From Sugar to Diamonds, (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2009): 89.
51 Wheatley, “Brownie Points Forty Years Later.”
52 Tom Wheatley, “Long-Gone Browns Live on in a Time That Baseball Forgot” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 28, 1996: 5C.
53 Bill McCurdy, “Mike Blyzka: One of the Last Old Browns,” Pecan Park Eagle, April 22, 2010, https://bill37mccurdy.com/2010/04/22/mike-blyzka-one-of-the-last-old-browns/ (last accessed September 25, 2022).