Mike Caldwell (MILWAUKEE BREWERS)

Mike Caldwell

This article was written by Issac Buttke

Mike Caldwell (MILWAUKEE BREWERS)Baseball is no stranger to big personalities. The game has seen colorful characters ranging from Mark Fidrych and his strange mound antics in the 1970s to Adrian Beltre simply being his ridiculous self after the turn of the century. On the opposite end of the spectrum, players like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens are better known for their relatively hot heads. One can find Mike Caldwell, known by many as “Mr. Warmth,” in the latter group. The nickname was partly due to his fiery demeanor on the mound. “He’s one of the most fierce competitors you’ll find in this business,” former Padres manager Don Zimmer said.1 Vic Feuerherd of Madison.com commented that Caldwell was “ornery, obnoxious, nasty and sometimes downright mean.”2 Even so, the passion Caldwell brought to the mound helped make him an instrumental part of the Milwaukee Brewers’ run to the World Series in 1982.

Ralph Michael Caldwell was born on January 22, 1949, in Tarboro, North Carolina, to Ralph Franklin and Annie Bruce (Holland) Caldwell. He attended Tarboro High School, then enrolled at North Carolina State University in 1968.

At NC State, Caldwell was expected to be one of the Wolfpack’s top pitchers as a freshman thanks to “good control” and “a sneaky fastball,” according to the team’s preseason outlook booklet.3 The left-hander’s talent was certainly evident at Tarboro High, where he threw three straight shutouts and two consecutive no-hitters.4 Wolfpack head coach Sam Esposito had tempered optimism regarding Caldwell’s standing, saying, “Our young boys like [fellow freshman Joe] Frye and Caldwell have talent, but we just don’t know how they’ll react in tight situations.”5

Not only did Caldwell manage to meet those high expectations, but he was a major cog in one of NC State’s best seasons ever. The southpaw led the Atlantic Coast Conference with nine complete games, and tied for the conference lead among freshmen with eight victories in 1968. The Wolfpack won the ACC championship with a 25-9 record and made it to the College World Series, where they finished in third place.

Although the team’s performance never got back to that exemplary level, Caldwell continued to dominate collegiate hitters. He led the ACC in complete games the next two seasons, led the league in shutouts during his junior and senior years and finished his collegiate career with a 32-10 record and a 2.30 ERA. As of 2019 he remained the ACC’s career complete-game (32) and shutout (10) leader. He earned first-team All-ACC honors in 1970 and 1971, and won the ACC Player of the Year award in 1971.6 He graduated from the university in four years with a degree in sociology.7

Coming out of college, Caldwell wasn’t a major draft prospect. He wound up falling all the way to the 12th round, where the San Diego Padres selected him with the 273rd overall pick. Caldwell seemed to be disappointed by being selected this low in the draft. In response to the perceived slight, he began hunting for other work and lined up a position with a phone company in Tarboro.8 But the Padres increased their signing bonus offer and signed him. In hindsight, the lefty fared much better than the Padres’ top draft pick, right-handed pitcher Jay Franklin, who appeared in just three major-league games.

Caldwell began his professional career in the lower levels of the minors and immediately proved his worth. With the short-season Tri-City Padres, he overwhelmed the young hitters, striking out 19 batters and allowing just two runs in 11 innings of work. He was promoted to Class-A Lodi, where he continued his strong showing with a 3.66 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 32 innings.

The Padres, in the midst of what would become a 100-loss season, decided to energize the fan base by calling up three young prospects for the final month of the season: 1971 first-round pick Jay Franklin, 1970 first-round pick Mike Ivie, and Caldwell.9 While Franklin and Ivie were more highly regarded because of their more prominent draft position and their relative youth (both were teenagers, forming the youngest battery in the majors that season10), Caldwell held his own in his first taste of the majors, pitching a scoreless inning in relief on September 4, 1971. Afterward manager Preston Gomez said, “Caldwell showed me a great sinker and kept the ball down.”11 Scouting director Bob Fontaine said, “We’re very encouraged the way Franklin, Ivie, and Caldwell broke in. This certainly bodes well for the future of the Padres.”12 Caldwell pitched five more times that September, keeping the opposition scoreless in each instance.

Mr. Warmth’s stock kept rising, with many in the organization beginning to take notice. Pitching coach Johnny Podres likened Caldwell to his former teammate Ron Perranoski, who pieced together several good seasons as a starter and a reliever for the Dodgers and the Twins. Podres said, “Mike has Perranoski’s poise and the same kind of equipment — a great sinker, a sharp curve and control. And he throws harder than Ron did in his prime.”13 Caldwell paired this newfound high standing in the organization with a strong spring performance in 1972, and earned a major-league roster spot. He split time between the rotation and the bullpen, producing a 7-11 record and a 4.01 ERA in 163⅔ innings. The 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings he posted were a far cry from Tri-City and Lodi, but the figure wound up being the best mark of his career in the majors.

After proving to be a versatile and durable pitching option for San Diego in 1972, Caldwell was expected to be a major cog in the Padres’ pitching plans in 1973, whether as a starter or as a reliever.14 In some respects, he did take a step forward. In 13 starts and 42 relief appearances, Caldwell improved his ERA to 3.74 and earned 10 saves. But he had just a 5-14 won-lost record and walked batters at a higher rate than the season prior.

After the season Caldwell’s tenure with the Padres came to an abrupt end. The Padres jumped at a chance to acquire Willie McCovey from the Giants, sending Caldwell to San Francisco in exchange for the slugging first baseman and outfielder Bernie Williams.15 Gaining a power bat was a positive for the Padres, but they still seemed sad to part with Caldwell. General manager Peter Bavasi said, “We hated to lose Mike.”16 But Bavasi said the team had a pair of young pitchers who could fill the void, right-handers Dave Freisleben and Mike Johnston.17

San Francisco’s fans weren’t thrilled about losing McCovey, but the decision-makers seemed excited about their return. Manager Charlie Fox said, “Caldwell pitched very effectively against us. He’s a left-hander who can throw strikes. He can be either a starter or a reliever, long or short. From all our reports, he has great promise.”18

With a new team came a new role: Caldwell was expected to start the season as a member of the starting rotation. Fox put it firmly: “Caldwell is a sound big-league pitcher, definitely a starter.”19 He said Caldwell would be the number-four starter behind Ron Bryant, Tom Bradley, and John D’Acquisto.20 Caldwell responded well, posting a 14-5 record and a 2.95 ERA for the season. However, things deteriorated quickly. Caldwell had to have surgery after the  season to remove bone spurs from his elbow, and as a result he wasn’t the same pitcher the next two seasons.21 He produced 7-13 and 1-7 records with ERAs of 4.79 and 4.86 in 1975 and 1976 and was transitioned into more of a bullpen role for the Giants.

The Giants opted to deal Caldwell. Soon after the 1976 season they swung a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, sending Caldwell, D’Acquisto, and catcher Dave Rader to St. Louis for outfielder Willie Crawford, left-handed pitcher John Curtis and utilityman Vic Harris.22 Whether Caldwell was included for on-field or off-field reasons, he was certainly happy to be out of the Giants’ clubhouse. For one thing, he didn’t think he was used enough in San Francisco.23 And there were some internal issues Caldwell was fine leaving in the past: “I didn’t get along with a couple of the coaches, and they took it personally,” he said. …” I’m glad to get away from Candlestick. Not because of the ballpark. I’m just glad to get away from a bad situation.”24

One of the staff members in San Francisco was pitching coach Buck Rodgers, who later became the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. Rodgers wasn’t specifically named by Caldwell as one of the coaches who drew his ire, though there’s a good chance he was, based on later events in Milwaukee.

For the time being, though, Caldwell had to carve out a role in St. Louis. The Cardinals planned to use him in middle relief, but then dealt him again at the tail end of spring training. This time, Caldwell went to Cincinnati in exchange for Pat Darcy. Caldwell was used sparingly with the Reds, appearing in just 14 games and logging a 4.01 ERA in the first 2½ months of the season. Despite what seemed to be a downturn in his career, the southpaw caught a break that resurrected his career.

On June 15, 1977, the Reds traded Caldwell to the Brewers for minor leaguers Rick O’Keeffe and Garry Pyka.25 The initial reaction in Milwaukee wasn’t favorable. Milwaukee Journal columnist Bob Wolf called Caldwell a “longshot” to produce anything for Milwaukee.26 “Caldwell hasn’t done a thing since his one big year, 1974,” Wolf wrote, even calling him “an anonymous member” of the Reds’ bullpen.27

Wolf also noted that the price the Brewers paid to get Caldwell seemed a bit steep. Pyka had shown little promise in the minors, but O’Keeffe was considered the team’s top pitching prospect. Wolf questioned why a club in need of pitching help would trade away one of its brightest youngsters in exchange for a seemingly broken-down hurler. Manager Alex Grammas went as far as to say “[O’Keeffe]’s a cinch major-leaguer of the future.”28 But few could argue that Caldwell’s presence would at least add some depth to a bullpen in need of just that. Caldwell wound up splitting time between the bullpen and the starting rotation, notching a 5-8 record with a 4.58 ERA in his first half-season with Milwaukee.

In 1978 Caldwell was thrust into the starting rotation because of injuries to two starters: an elbow injury to Bill Travers at the end of 1977, the other an elbow injury to Moose Haas in April. Caldwell produced the best season of his career: a 22-9 record, a 2.36 ERA, and a league-leading 23 complete games en route to a second-place finish in Cy Young Award voting, while also earning American League Comeback Player of the Year honors by a wide margin over Ferguson Jenkins.29

Caldwell attributed part of this massive upswing to his naysayers: “Lots of people had given up on me. Maybe the people who gave up on me were responsible in an indirect way for my coming back. I knew I could pitch, and I hope those who gave up on me will say now, ‘Well, he had the guts to battle back and win.’”30

Others thought something else was the reason for this unexpected bounceback. Many American League hitters believed his sinker had evolved into more of a “spitter.”31 In his book Nine Innings, Daniel Okrent suggested that manager George Bamberger even helped Caldwell perfect the pitch.32 The New York Yankees were the main accuser of the left-hander, and for good reason: Caldwell shut them out three times and concluded the season with a 0.64 ERA in five starts against them. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner vowed to place cameras all over Yankee Stadium during the 1979 season in an attempt to catch Caldwell in the act. However, the Brewers fought back. Brewers owner Bud Selig recalled, “I told George we had filed a spitter complaint on his Ron Guidry.”33

Caldwell’s strong 1978 campaign effectively assured him a spot in the Brewers’ rotation for 1979. Things started out well, as Mr. Warmth shut down the Yankees once again on Opening Day in a 5-1 victory. However, he got off to what some considered to be a slow start: a 6-5 record with a 3.18 ERA by the beginning of July. This was nowhere near as good as his breakout 1978 campaign, but it was still a solid line. It was also close to the same line he held around that time the year before, so few in the Brewers front office were worried about Caldwell. But he was unable to fully recapture the magic that won him the Comeback Player of the Year Award, and he finished the year with a 3.29 ERA in 30 starts, though he went 16-6.

The 1980 season also started poorly for Caldwell. Before he even took the mound at spring training, the southpaw injured his ankle on a shopping trip in Milwaukee and ended up in a walking cast for a couple of months. Caldwell explained, “I had just bought some T-shirts to take to some kids in North Carolina. I was carrying a box, and I hit some concrete that was uneven and turned my ankle.”34 He called the issue a minor one despite the need for the cast. “I usually start working out in December, so I didn’t miss anything. … By spring training, I should be the same as always.”35

Perhaps he was fine in terms of health, but in terms of performance, things continued to trend downward. Caldwell was 13-11, but his ERA rose to 4.03, the first time it had exceeded 4.00 since his brutal 1977 campaign. His 11 complete games were his fewest since that same year. The 1981 season wasn’t much better, either, as he wound up winning just 11 games (9 losses) and throwing a mere three complete games to go with his 3.93 ERA. The frustration also seemed to be getting to him: He went as far as to flip a table at a reporter after the reporter had written something he didn’t like.36 He struggled in his two appearances during the Brewers’ American League Division Series matchup with the Yankees. After dominating the team during his best years, Caldwell gave up four runs and two home runs in 8⅓ innings. It appeared that Caldwell’s best years were behind him.

The Brewers were nearly persuaded to deal the left-hander before the 1982 season. They reportedly talked with Philadelphia that offseason, with the Phillies offering Ryne Sandberg, Jon Reelhorn, and Don McCormack in exchange for Caldwell.37 Despite his recent struggles, the Brewers were content with keeping Caldwell and declined the trade. Having Sandberg, a future Hall of Famer, on the roster could have altered the history of the franchise, but keeping Caldwell around wound up working in the Brewers’ favor in the short term.

The Brewers started off the 1982 campaign slowly, ending May with a 22-24 record. Caldwell was struggling, holding a 5.04 ERA into mid-June, after a stretch in which he allowed 38 runs in 42⅔ innings. Something had to be done. General manager Harry Dalton fired manager Buck Rodgers in an effort to improve the clubhouse dynamic. This development was music to Caldwell’s ears. As Daniel Okrent wrote in Nine Innings, “Caldwell had hated Bob Rodgers and Bob Rodgers had hated him, and there was no one else on the team as happy to see Rodgers gone.”38 Caldwell even lashed out on a team flight during the rough month of May, exclaiming, “I hope we lose 10 in a row and get his [butt] fired.”39 The feeling between the player and manager appeared to be mutual: Rodgers reportedly considered Caldwell a “cancer,” and even speculated that Caldwell “tried to stab [him] in the back” during his tenure as manager.40 Still, Rodgers was out and Harvey Kuenn was in as the skipper, marking the start of a summer filled with Brewers wins.

Caldwell nearly wasn’t a part of the team for the entire season. According to Vic Feuerherd, then of the Milwaukee Journal, the Brewers were considering a trade that would have sent him to the Texas Rangers for Doc Medich.41 In the end, the Brewers did not pull the trigger. Caldwell did his best to help the team’s cause down the stretch, finishing the regular season with a 3.91 ERA in 258 innings, his highest workload since his outstanding 1978 campaign.

At the onset of the postseason, Caldwell appeared to still be on his way out the door. In his lone start in the American League Championship Series against the California Angels, he lasted just three innings, allowing six runs (five earned) on seven hits and a walk. However, the Brewers won the series and trusted Mr. Warmth enough to let him take the hill for Game One of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Caldwell rewarded their confidence in him with a shutout, allowing just three hits and a walk. He got the ball again for Game Five and managed to scrape out a victory despite allowing 14 hits in 8⅓ innings. His luck ran out by the end of the Series as he was called upon to get the final out of the eighth inning in Game Seven and wound up giving up two run-scoring hits as the Cardinals took the Series.

Caldwell was dismayed by the end result, but was grateful to even be put in the position to win. He said, “I think more than anything else in the world, I wanted to win it for Harvey Kuenn. Even above getting a ring, getting the money, getting all that stuff in the winter, I wanted to win it for Harvey. Just below that, for Bud Selig and Harry Dalton and the Brewers organization. It’s the finest organization I’ve ever played for and I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to play for a better one.”42

Caldwell’s strong performance in the World Series didn’t carry over to the next couple of seasons. The 1983 season started off well enough: He was one of three Brewers pitchers to open the season with complete games. However, he soon fell off and concluded the season with a 12-11 record and a 4.53 ERA, his worst ERA since his time in the National League. He got off to a hot start in 1984, but an ankle injury sidelined him for a bit in May. This problem seemingly hampered him the rest of the year, leading to a demotion to the bullpen, a 6-13 record and a 4.64 ERA in 126 innings pitched.

Adding to the list of issues was an ongoing drug probe by the commissioner’s office that accused Caldwell and fellow Brewer Paul Molitor of using cocaine. The two-year investigation concluded with no action being taken against the pair.43

Between the decline in performance and the off-field allegations, it seemed that Caldwell’s time in Milwaukee was coming to an end. The Brewers made that notion a reality before the 1985 season, waiving the nearly 36-year-old hurler in order to make room on the roster for Rollie Fingers, who returned to the team on a two-year pact.44 Caldwell remained optimistic despite being cut, stating, “I’m glad they did it now instead of two, three weeks into spring training. This way, I’ll have a chance to catch on with someone.”45 That chance didn’t come, though, effectively ending Caldwell’s big-league playing career.

Although he left the game with little more than a murmur, Caldwell was heralded for his bountiful pitching career. He was inducted into the North Carolina State University Hall of Fame in 2013 on the basis of his collegiate and professional accomplishments.46 In 2014 the Brewers inducted him into the Wall of Honor, which honors “Brewers players, coaches and executives (for their) service to the organization and/or career accomplishments.”47 While it’s not the Walk of Fame, which is more akin to other teams’ Hall of Fame, it’s still a prestigious honor.

Caldwell finished his career with a 3.81 ERA and a 137-130 record in 475 appearances (307 of which were starts). While his hot demeanor sometimes spoke louder than his performance, there’s no denying that Mr. Warmth has a prominent place in Brewer lore for nearly helping to deliver a World Series title to Milwaukee.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also relied upon Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Phil Collier, “Padres Lift Eyes to Caldwell for Pitching Help,” The Sporting News, March 3, 1973: 22.

2 Vic Feuerherd, “Trade Winds Start to Blow/Fiery Starter Mike Caldwell Was One Brewer on the Trading Block in the Summer of 1982.” Madison.com, August 12, 2007.

3 “1968 Wolfpack Baseball,” North Carolina State Library, accessed April 29, 2019.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Mike Caldwell NC State Athletic Hall of Fame bio, accessed April 1, 2019. gopack.com/hof.aspx?hof=12.

7 Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings (New York: Book Sales, 1985), 111-112.

8 Phil Collier, “Meteoric Rise by Padres’ Caldwell,” The Sporting News, April 1, 1972: 36.

9 Paul Cour, “Padres’ Farms Produce Trio of Future Phenoms,” The Sporting News, September 25, 1971: 29.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Phil Collier, “Meteoric Rise by Padres’ Caldwell.”

14 Phil Collier, “Padres Lift Eyes to Caldwell for Pitching Help.”

15 Phil Collier, “Padres Unzip Their Wallet, Pocket Big Mac and Matty,” The Sporting News, November 10, 1973: 26.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Pat Frizzell, “McCovey Trade Irks Giants’ Fans,” The Sporting News, November 10, 1973: 38.

19 Pat Frizzell, “Only Giants’ Hill in Air as Fox Selects a Lineup,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1974: 39.

20 Ibid.

21 Neal Russo, “Cards Swing 3-for-3 Deal — And They’re Not Through,” The Sporting News, November 6, 1976: 21.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 “Brewers Get Lefty from Reds,” Milwaukee Journal, June 16, 1977: 21.

26 Bob Wolf, “Brewers Still Lack Pitching,” Milwaukee Journal, June 16, 1977: 21.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Mike Gonring, “Caldwell Battles Back to Gain A.L. Honors,” The Sporting News, November 25, 1978: 39.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Okrent, 111-112.

33 “Caldwell Under Scrutiny,” The Sporting News, April 28, 1979: 36.

34 Tom Flaherty, “Injury Fails to Shake Caldwell,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1979: 54.

35 Ibid.

36 Feuerherd.

37 Hal Bodley, “Phils Disgusted; Deals Collapse,” The Sporting News, January 2, 1982: 38.

38 Okrent.

39 Feuerherd.

40 Tom Flaherty, “Fired Rogers ‘Saw It Coming,’” The Sporting News, June 14, 1982: 25.

41 Feuerherd.

42 Tom Flaherty, “A Dream Ends for Caldwell,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1982: 29.

43 Stan Isle, “No Action in Brewers’ Drug Probe,” The Sporting News, November 19, 1984: 57.

44 Tom Flaherty, “Fingers Is Sticking With Brewers,” The Sporting News, January 21, 1985: 38.

45 Ibid.

46 Mike Caldwell NC State Athletic Hall of Fame bio, accessed April 1, 2019. gopack.com/hof.aspx?hof=12.

47 “Wall of Honor,” Brewers.com, accessed April 15, 2019. mlb.com/brewers/ballpark/attractions/wall-of-honor.

Full Name

Ralph Michael Caldwell

Born

January 22, 1949 at Tarboro, NC (USA)

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