A.L. “Shorty” Hardman, the late sports editor of the Charleston (WV) Gazette, extolled Ray Washburn just as the lanky right-hander was to attend his first major-league spring training camp in 1962:
“… Ray must be considered the best investment the Cards have made since they signed Stan Musial to a contract back in the late ’30s.”[fn]A.L. Hardman. “Card Brass Stamps ‘Can’t-Miss’ Tag on Whizzer Washburn,” The Sporting News (TSN), January 24, 1962: 16[/fn]
While this assessment seems preposterous in retrospect, given Washburn’s modest 72-64 lifetime won-loss record, the fact is that he appeared to be on his way to fulfilling those lofty expectations until he suffered a devastating shoulder injury in 1963. With grit and determination, the Washington State native came back from this debilitating ailment to compile a respectable 10-year career, capped by a historic no-hit pitching performance in 1968. All but one of those years was as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ray Clark Washburn was born on May 31, 1938, in Pasco, Washington, and grew up in the nearby small town of Burbank, at the confluence of two mighty rivers of the West, the Snake and the Columbia. His grandmother traveled by buckboard wagon from Kansas City to Moscow, Idaho, where she met Ray’s grandfather. Together they homesteaded a wheat farm in the area known as Horse Heaven Hills near Kennewick, Washington. His father Chet made a meager living as a truck driver, while his mother Bernice raised three boys and two girls. Ray was the oldest son. Life was pretty simple in rural America immediately after World War II. “Being in a small town, there were all kinds of vacant lots – that’s how we played all the time,” Washburn recalled. “We’d scrape out an area, build our own field, and round up something we’d make a backstop out of.”[fn]Interviews with Ray Washburn, March 10 and October 27, 2010. All quotations from Washburn are from his interviews with the author in 2010 unless otherwise noted.[/fn] By the time he was 14, Ray was bicycling into Pasco four times a week to play organized ball. Upon graduation from tiny Burbank High School in 1956, he became the first member of his family to attend college, receiving an athletic scholarship from Whitworth College, a small Presbyterian institution in Spokane, Washington.
Washburn was a standout basketball player in college, but he always knew that baseball was his game. He honed his skills by playing in regional semipro leagues each summer. In 1958 he pitched for Bellingham in the semipro National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, Kansas, and won three games against the likes of future major leaguers Earl Wilson and Floyd Robinson, who played for the San Diego Marines team. In 1959 Washburn toiled through a 152-pitch no-hitter in which he walked eight batters, and helped Lethbridge win the Southern Alberta Baseball League pennant. One of his teammates was Steve Schott, who would take a different path to the major leagues from Ray, becoming part-owner of the Oakland Athletics in 1995.[fn]www.attheplate.com[/fn]
In his senior year at Whitworth, Washburn led the Pirates to the 1960 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship in Sioux City, Iowa. In what can be described simply as a Ruthian performance, he struck out 37 batters in 19 innings and socked two home runs.[fn]Neal Russo. “Washburn’s Hit No Surprise to His Old Coach,” TSN, June 19, 1965: 23[/fn] In the tournament semifinal game, Washburn fanned future teammate and Hall of Famer Lou Brock three times in a 4-0 shutout of defending champion Southern University.[fn]Bob Burnes. “Rookies Cashing In on ‘Chance of a Lifetime,’ ” TSN, April 25, 1962: 4[/fn] He was voted the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and was named to its All-Star team.[fn]“Ray Washburn’s Uniform Retired,” Tri-Cities Herald, June 15, 1960: 16[/fn]
At the recommendation of St. Louis scout Charlie Frey, Washburn was flown to Pittsburgh, where the Cardinals were playing, for a tryout at Forbes Field. After an impressive workout, the Redbirds signed the 6-foot-1 right-hander to a contract with a $50,000 bonus, payable in installments, and assigned him to their top farm club, in Rochester, where he posted a 5-4 record.
One of Washburn’s most memorable teammates was the 44-year-old former Negro League and American League first baseman Luke Easter. “He didn’t know your name. He just called everybody Bub,” Washburn recalled with a laugh. After the season Washburn enlisted in the Army for a six-month tour of duty. After his active duty, he reported to the Cardinals’ minor-league camp in Homestead, Florida.
Pitching for San Juan-Charleston in 1961 (the team began the season playing in Puerto Rico and was transferred to Charleston in May), Washburn led the International League with 16 victories and a 2.34 earned-run average, and was promoted to the parent club in September, going 1-1 with a complete-game victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. On November 25, 1961, Ray wed the former Beverly Anderson of Seattle, whom he had met at Whitworth College. He was invited to the Redbirds’ 1962 spring training camp and earned a spot in manager Johnny Keane’s starting rotation. Washburn finished his rookie campaign with a 12-9 record in 175 2/3 innings, and was chosen for the John B. Sheridan Rookie Award by the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“I felt I probably threw in the mid to upper 90s at one time,” the fireballer remembered about his fastball, in an era before radar guns. “I developed a good slider. I could throw it up there at probably 89, 90, like Mariano Rivera. He calls it a cut fastball.” Washburn was basically a two-pitch pitcher. “I could throw a sinker or a curve, but I was probably doing them a favor.” After the 1962 season, Washburn was sent to the Florida Instructional League to work on his curveball and changeup, and excelled with a 7-1 record and a 1.71 ERA.
After pitching brilliantly in Florida, Washburn joined Bob Gibson and Ernie Broglio at the top of the Cardinals’ rotation in 1963. He began the season with a shutout of the New York Mets at the Polo Grounds in New York on April 10, and followed with complete-game victories over Pittsburgh and Houston. On April 27 in Los Angeles, Washburn took a perfect game into the seventh and a no-hitter into the eighth inning and shut out the Dodgers, 3-0, on a three-hitter. He returned home on May 2 to beat Chicago, 4-3, holding the Cubs hitless until the seventh and striking out a career-high 10 batters. Mixing an occasional off-speed pitch with his two-seam fastball and hard slider, the sensational Washburn was 5-0 and leading the major leagues in victories, complete games, and strikeouts.
Then his season, and nearly his career, started to unravel. Washburn lost his next three starts and began feeling discomfort in his pitching shoulder. After several ineffective appearances, he was optioned to Tulsa on June 17 to work out the soreness. Ultimately, it was discovered that the intensely competitive Washburn had torn his triceps muscle. Washburn said in a 2010 interview that he didn’t know when it happened. Cardinals manager Johnny Keane and the team physician, Dr. I. C. Middleman, felt it may have happened during his victories over the Dodgers and Cubs, in which he took no-hitters deep into both games. “He was really bearing down,” said Keane. “He was throwing too hard.”[fn]Lonnie Burt. “Rickey: If Ray Is Sound, We’re In,” St. Petersburg Times, March 14, 1964: 1-C[/fn] “If I’d only known,” the hard-throwing right-hander said. “If I learned something more off-speed … when I hurt my arm, it probably was because I was throwing too hard, too long.”
Trainer Bob Bauman said Washburn tore the shoulder twice, the second time in Tulsa, noting that “he had discoloration from his elbow to his belt.”[fn]Neal Russo. “Cards’ Patience Pays Off Big in Washburn Case,” TSN, May 18, 1968: 7[/fn] Many years later, underscoring the severity of the injury, Bauman said he’d never seen a worse tear, and counted his rehabilitation of Washburn among his greatest accomplishments.[fn]Dave Dorr. “‘Rebuilding’ of Washburn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 7, 1989: 5-B[/fn] Washburn’s sophomore year ended with a 5-3 record in 11 starts with St. Louis, plus 1-1 in four games at Tulsa, as the second-place Cardinals fell just short of winning the National League pennant.
The road back to health was not an easy one for Washburn. After the season he began an arduous rehabilitation program. He worked out with a three-pound iron ball the size of a baseball, developed by Bauman, and used wall pulleys to stretch the arm muscles. He reported to camp in 1964 ready to throw.
Washburn pitched well in exhibition games, but was optioned to Jacksonville to get more work under the warm Florida sunshine. After pitching twice at Jacksonville, he was recalled to St. Louis on May 5 and pitched eight strong innings in a 2-1 victory over Philadelphia. Over the next six weeks, Washburn started eight games and posted a 3-4 record and 3.12 earned-run average for a Cardinals team that was struggling to play .500 ball. But his return from serious injury gave general manager Bing Devine the reassurance he needed to deal starting pitcher Ernie Broglio to the Cubs in the celebrated six-player trade for left fielder Lou Brock on June 15. Had Washburn not returned, it is doubtful that Devine would have made the trade. “We wouldn’t want to deal Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn, or Ray Sadecki,” the general manager said. “Broglio thus seemed to be the most logical to deal.”[fn]Neal Russo. “Redbirds Label Speedy Brock Hot Asset for Present, Future,” TSN, June 27, 1964: 12[/fn]
It turned out that Washburn’s comeback was short-lived. In his 10th and last start of the year, on June 29, he was pulled in the third inning after developing a blister on his pitching hand.[fn]Neal Russo. “Birds Flutter, Start Flirting with 9th Spot,” TSN, July 11, 1964: 21 [/fn] He made only five more appearances, all in relief, the rest of the season. On July 23 the Cardinals placed Washburn on the disabled list after a calcium deposit formed at the point of his previous shoulder injury. At the time, the club was tied for seventh place in the standings, nine games behind the league-leading Phillies. Washburn rejoined the team in September, when rosters were expanded beyond the 25-man limit, and pitched in a mopup role in two games. He finished the 1964 season at 3-4 with just 60 innings, and did not factor in the Cardinals’ pennant surge.
Perhaps as a reward for his effort to rebound from injury, Washburn was added to the World Series roster by manager Keane. However, he did not make an appearance in the Series.[fn] Other Cardinals who did not appear in the 1964 World Series were pitcher Mike Cuellar, catcher Bob Uecker, and infielder Ed Spiezio. Source: The Official Baseball Guide, Charles C. Spink & Son, 1965[/fn] Keane never even had him warm up. “I knew the circumstances, I wasn’t 100 percent,” Washburn remembered. He said he wished he could have contributed more to the pennant drive, although without his encouraging mound comeback in May that paved the way for the Broglio-Brock trade, there might well have been no pennant drive.
In 1965 Washburn continued on his road to recovery under the watchful eye of Bauman and new manager Red Schoendienst. “I had to change to a different type of pitcher,” he recalled. “I could still throw pretty well, but not ever to the overpowering (degree) that I did before. That’s when I came up with more of an off-speed curveball. It made my fastball look better than it did before.”
The Cardinals field staff proceeded cautiously with Washburn the next two years. Gradually he came around, going 9-11 in 117 innings as a spot starter/reliever in 1965, and improving to 11-9 in 170 innings as a full-time starter in 1966. On May 12, 1966, he started the first game at the new downtown Busch Stadium. From May 31 through July 27, Washburn won eight of nine decisions with an ERA of 1.99. It was around that time that he was given the nickname “Deadbody” by teammate Bob Gibson, because “he moved as if every particle of life had been sucked out of him.”[fn]Bob Gibson, with Lonnie Wheeler. Stranger To The Game. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1994: 129[/fn] He accepted this moniker gracefully, as almost everyone in the close-knit clubhouse had one.
While he did not complete games as often as most starters of his day, Washburn had proved his durability by not missing his turn in the rotation throughout 1966. For the first time since 1963, he reported to spring training in 1967 free from speculation over the condition of his shoulder. On May 3 he hurled a two-hit shutout over the first-place Cincinnati Reds, matching Gibson’s performance the previous night. The Cardinals overtook the Reds for the top spot by mid-June, and Washburn continued to take his regular turn until a chip fracture of his right thumb during the game on June 21 landed him on the disabled list. He returned to action on July 16, the day after Gibson suffered a broken leg after being nailed by a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente.
With Gibson out for an extended stretch, Washburn and the rest of the Cardinals starters stepped up to the challenge. By the time Gibson returned on September 7, the team had all but clinched the pennant. Washburn finished the season at 10-7, tied for second on the club with 27 games started, and third with 186 1/3 innings pitched. Unlike 1964, Washburn did see action in the World Series this time, throwing 2 1/3 scoreless innings in two relief appearances. His parents saw him pitch major-league ball for the first time during the 1967 World Series. His mother passed away the following spring, and his father died soon after.
The next season, 1968, will forever be known as the Year of the Pitcher. It was also the year Ray Washburn finally achieved his full potential, justifying the $50,000 bonus and patience bestowed by the Cardinals organization. He posted career highs in victories (14), games started (30), complete games (8), shutouts (4), innings pitched (215 1/3), and strikeouts (124), while spinning a 2.26 ERA, eighth best in the league.
From the All-Star break on, the 30-year-old veteran was sensational. In 16 starts covering 127 1/3 innings, Washburn allowed just 19 earned runs for a microscopic 1.34 ERA, while pitching six complete-game victories and three shutouts. But he was also a bit of a hard-luck hurler, twice going 10 innings without giving up an earned run, yet coming away with no decision in either game. On the afternoon of September 18 in San Francisco, Washburn reached the pinnacle of his career. After Gaylord Perry had no-hit the Redbirds the night before, Washburn twirled a no-hitter of his own against the Giants. It was the first time in major-league history that consecutive no-hitters had been tossed in the same ballpark. Washburn scattered five walks, but knew he had a no-hitter going all along.
In the bottom of the ninth he retired Ron Hunt and Willie Mays on groundballs, and then faced the dangerous Willie McCovey. “I got the ball in on McCovey and he pulled it way foul down out there towards the Bay,” Washburn recalled. “The next pitch he hit a high fly to center field.” It was only the second time a ball had left the Cardinals’ infield that day. When Curt Flood tracked down the deep drive, the no-hitter was secured. Washburn threw 138 pitches, of which 42 were curveballs that kept the Giants off-balance. “I never saw a guy throw a curve much better,” Mays said at the time. “It floated, but you couldn’t hit it.”[fn]Neal Russo. “Gay, Ray Play No-Hit Tit for Tat,” TSN, October 5, 1968: 22[/fn] Washburn’s no-hit gem was the first by a Cardinals pitcher in 27 years.
Washburn started Game Three of the World Series in Detroit, drawing Earl Wilson, his old adversary from the National Baseball Congress tournament a decade earlier, as his mound opponent. Washburn came away with a 7-3 victory despite struggling with control of his curveball. In his next start, in Game Six, Washburn was ineffective in the Tigers’ 13-1 drubbing of the Redbirds.
Because of his strong showing in 1968, the Cardinals kept the soon-to-be 31-year-old Washburn on the protected list from the 1969 expansion draft. But his pitching career quickly came to an end. He tumbled to a 3-8 record as the Cardinals failed to keep pace with the Miracle Mets in the first year of division play. After the season he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher George Culver. He pitched poorly in middle relief in 1970, but earned one more World Series check with the Reds before being given his unconditional release. After an unsuccessful tryout with the California Angels in 1971, Washburn retired.
During his major-league career, Washburn worked full time during the offseason at a sporting-goods store in Seattle. In 1963 he picked up the necessary credits for his college degree. In 1964 he and Beverly bought a home in suburban Seattle, and raised a family of two daughters and a son. In 1972 he managed the Seattle Rainiers, a co-op team in the Class A Northwest League, before accepting a teaching position the following year at Bellevue Community College. On nights and weekends, Washburn earned a masters of education administration degree at Seattle University. Eventually he became chairman of the department of physical education and athletic director at Bellevue College. He retired from full-time duties in 2003. He also coached the baseball program there for 12 years. He continued to teach part-time at the school, which became Bellevue College. Washburn is a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, the Inland Empire Hall of Fame, and the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame.
It is tempting to dwell on how Washburn’s career might have turned out had he not severely injured his shoulder. “I was fortunate to have the career I had,” he reflected in 2010, without bitterness on what might have been. “I was fortunate to play with a lot of great players.”
This biography is included in the book “Drama and Pride in the Gateway City: The 1964 St. Louis Cardinals” (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by John Harry Stahl and Bill Nowlin.
Feldman, Doug, El Birdos, the 1967 and 1968 St. Louis Cardinals. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2007.
Gibson, Bob, with Lonnie Wheeler. Stranger To The Game. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1994.
The Official Baseball Guide. The Sporting News, 1961 through 1972.
The Sporting News, 1960-1972.
Interviews with Ray Washburn, March 10 and October 27, 2010.