This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Rick Kreuger grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Grand Rapids named Wyoming, Michigan. He was born – the youngest of four children – on November 3, 1948, to Leona Kreuger, a homemaker, and her husband, Bernard, an electrician at the General Motors assembly plant in Grand Rapids. Bernie Kreuger, in Rick’s words, knew “enough about baseball, just enough about pitching, that he told me a couple of things to do. They turned out to be very important things.” One lesson was to “throw every ball at the knees.” Bernie Kreuger knew that form counted when you pitch. He knew that rhythm was important and told Rick to “point your toe with your kicking leg and look pretty. It held me back, and allowed me to lean into the plate with my hip.”1
There was an alley beside the Kreuger house and Bernie would catch his son’s pitches whenever he could, starting when Rick – properly Richard Allen – was around 7 or 8 years old, when Rick was old enough for Little League. Neither Rick’s older brother, Tommy, nor their twin sisters played baseball. Rick had the desire, though, and they lived not far from the front gate of Lee Field, the facility for Lee High School. It was a simple walk across the street to play sandlot ball.
When it came time for high school, Rick made the varsity baseball team as a pitcher while still a sophomore (freshmen were not eligible) at Catholic Central, a larger Class A high school. He transferred back to Lee High, though, a much smaller school, but the coach at Lee High already had his players in mind and would not let Rick join the pitching staff. He made him play the outfield and throw batting practice, but never so much as granted him a tryout on the mound. “I begged him all through my junior year, and he would not let me pitch. And senior year came and I was begging him again. So finally, I just said to him well, can I just have the ball and I’ll throw on my own against the screen, because my dad had taught me when I’m not around to just take a piece of rag and put it up on the screen and throw at it. So I started doing that, and apparently [someone] saw me and told the athletic director who told the coach, ‘Give this kid a chance.’ So he let me start a game against another small school [laughs]. And I pitched a one-hitter for five innings and he still took me out. It even came down to the last game of the year, and we’re beating the heck out of this team, so everyone was taking a turn at pitching. And I said, ‘Let me throw, I want to throw.’ ‘Nah, you don’t want to throw against these guys.’ Ironically, when I finished there, I went to [Grand Rapids] junior college as a nobody. But the coach mistook me for a different Kreuger. There were two Bob Kreugers from large schools that had graduated, and both were pitchers and I signed up and he said, ‘Kreuger, Kreuger, aren’t you a pitcher?’ And I said, ‘Yep,’ but I was left-handed. But anyhow, from there I became an All-American and I got a scholarship to Michigan State.”
After Grand Rapids Junior College, Rick went on to Michigan State and started off well, though a basketball ankle injury robbed him of almost his full junior year. A Detroit Tigers scout based in Grand Rapids, Bob Sullivan, urged the coach to give Kreuger a try as a pitcher. MSU was losing to Notre Dame by something like 7-0 and Rick came in and held them for four or five innings, while Michigan State came from behind to win the game. Kreuger helped with a home run. He got off to a tremendous start his senior year; he recalled, “No one even had a hit off me in the spring.” After building a 4-0 record, he developed mononucleosis playing a rainy, sleety game against Central Michigan and riding a few hours on the bus back and forth. Depleted by the disease, Rick ended the season with a 5-3 mark and the scouts were no longer hovering around. So Rick pitched for a local team, the Grand Rapids Sullivans (Bob Sullivan was owner/manager). The team had tremendous success, traveling to the 1970 National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas. “We went to the national tournament and we won the national title. And, I beat Alaska in the final game. And actually I signed, just before I pitched that game.”
Boston Red Sox veteran area scout Maurice DeLoof signed Kreuger while Rick was just finishing up at Michigan State. The Sox sent him to their Class A affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina and he did very well. In 1972 he was to go to spring training and to play with Winston-Salem but there was an injury that almost ended his career. In between the ’71 and ’72 seasons, he had gone back to Michigan State to begin work on a graduate degree. He was playing “tough-guy football” with his fraternity brothers – no equipment, no protective padding – and he had a head-on collision with another player. Both were knocked unconscious. In spring training, the radiant back pain was still there and he was unable to pitch. He was sent back home, where a surgeon diagnosed a ruptured disc and cut him open to repair it. Rick missed the entire season, figured his career was over, and got a position teaching high-school mathematics.
It was sometime in the middle of 1973 that Kreuger unexpectedly heard from the Red Sox again. A letter arrived, saying to show up at Winston-Salem if he thought he could still pitch. School was over, so he reported to the Winston-Salem Red Sox. The manager there hadn’t been expecting him and asked Rick, “What are you doing here?” Rick explained about the letter, and so manager Bill Slack said, “Wait a minute, I’m checking this out with [farm director] Ed Kenney.” He called Boston, and then told Rick, “All right, yeah, I’m supposed to let you on the team … but we’re not paying you until you pitch.” He pitched soon enough, and won a game in relief. He was put in the next game, too, and would have won that one but for an error behind him. The manager gave Kreuger a start and he tossed three shutouts in a row, contending for the league’s scoreless innings record. “He loves me now, but I told him I had to go back early because I was coaching the freshman football team at high school.” Rick pitched the first game of the playoffs, won it, and hopped in his already-packed car. Just then the manager came out and pleaded with him to pitch the second game, too, because the scheduled pitcher had a sore arm. Kreuger told him, “I’ll tell you what. I can go put my uniform back on and start this game for you and go four or five innings.” He left the game, with a lead, after five. He went home and the team went on to win the playoffs, but the Red Sox were sore. “How could you leave us?” They told him, “You have to make it to spring training or forget it.”
Rick took a chance, left his teaching job, and reported in the spring of 1974, jumping to Triple-A. He threw 155 innings, and was 6-8 but with a very good 3.08 ERA. There were more twists and turns to come in his unusual career. He was called up to Boston at the end of ’74 but didn’t appear in any games that year. He might have been called up earlier in 1975 but both he and Jim Burton were pitching very well for Pawtucket and there was a choice to be made between them. The two each pitched a game in a three-day stretch. Kreuger pitched a nine-inning shutout in the first game. “And everybody’s going, ‘Kreug, you’re going to the big leagues, man!’” Two days later, Burton threw a seven-inning no-hitter. Burton got the call in June.
Kreuger got called up later, in September, and debuted in a blowout game on September 6, 1975. By the time he took over for Roger Moret, the Red Sox had a comfortable 20-4 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and one can guess that most of the 11,992 had already left County Stadium. Kreuger retired the side in the eighth, but gave up three hits and two runs in the ninth. He appeared in only one other game that year, on September 28, and threw a perfect sixth and seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. Dick Pole and Jim Willoughby weren’t as good that day, and the Indians won, 11-4. Kreuger didn’t make the Red Sox playoff roster, but did get a $250 check as a partial World Series share.
Talking about twists and turns, Rick might have made the team out of spring training in 1976 had it not been for a last-minute Tony Conigliaro home run. As Kreuger tells the story, it was the last day of spring training. He packed his bags and the clubhouse guys loaded them on the truck headed to Boston. Conigliaro was trying to mount a comeback, but it was “the last game or second to last game of spring, and he hit like .130, but he hit this home run, three-run homer or something. And so they tell me the last day as we’re getting ready to pull out, ‘Rick, we’ve decided to take Tony with us to Boston. You’re going have to go, you know, back.’ I was just devastated.
“Well, ironically, Darrell Johnson’s daughter was chasing me around then, right. And I knew, those guys would say, ‘Stay away from her. Stay away from her.’ So I stayed away from her, and I even told her so. But that last day, I was so devastated. I was with the guys in Triple-A, drinking it up and kind of having my pity party and she calls up and wants me to go off with her somewhere. So we do. Next thing I know, she’s, you know, writing and she’s telling her mother all about me. And I didn’t know this until I was brought up to Boston. And Mrs. Johnson said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re Rick Kreuger, Dara’s told us all about you.’ Those guys said it was the kiss of death. So the next thing I know is that winter, Darrell Johnson takes my big-league contract away from me.” It was the winter of 1975. By 1976, Kreuger continued, “the Red Sox had had enough of [Johnson]. I don’t know if it was because of his drinking or whatever else, but, anyways they got rid of him. As soon as they got rid of him, they gave my contract back to me.”
Kreuger felt he was sort of stuck behind Bill Lee in the Red Sox system, but he played under Joe Morgan in Pawtucket until he got a call-up to the big-league club. The last night before he was to report, though, Morgan put him in a game against Rochester and, while covering first base on a groundball, he caught his ankle in a little hole and “I sprained the crap out of my ankle.” His first appearance with Boston in 1976 was in August. He was given a start on the 17th in the second game of a doubleheader in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He was pulled in the fourth inning, with the Red Sox ahead 6-2. He’d walked six White Sox batters. An inherited run scored after Dick Pole came in. Kreuger got in seven other games, including three other starts, and wound up with a 4.06 ERA in 31 innings, with a 2-1 record. His best game was the night of September 21 in a start against Milwaukee at Fenway. Rick had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning, but lost 3-1, despite finishing with a complete-game three-hitter. “The crowd there gave me a standing ovation. I tipped my cap, absorbed it all in, and kept on going into the dugout. I wondered at the time, how many people actually get a standing ovation at Fenway Park? It doesn’t get much better than that.”2
In 1977 Kreuger failed to make the cut out of spring training and was back at Pawtucket once more. That year he appeared in only one big-league game. It was August 26 and the Red Sox and the Twins were tied, 4-4, after seven innings at Fenway Park. Kreuger took over for Don Aase, to pitch the eighth. He threw four pitches and never recorded an out. With two strikes on Rod Carew, he threw the pitch he wanted but Carew flicked a flare over Butch Hobson at third and made it to second base for a double. “Lyman Bostock comes up and I’m still thinking about Carew, and I throw the first pitch right down the chute.” Bostock hit it into right field, where Jim Rice was playing that day. Rice fired a ball to the plate but with so much force it flew over the plate and into the net behind home plate. Manager Don Zimmer called on Bill Campbell to come in. He got the first two batters, but then Mike Cubbage singled home Bostock, and Kreuger was charged with two earned runs in zero innings pitched, and quite properly tagged with the loss. Those were his four major-league pitches in 1977, and his last four for the Red Sox.
Zimmer wasn’t pleased. “He threw me in the bullpen after that, never to be heard from again.” Ferguson Jenkins was banished to the bullpen, too. “Fergie was in such bad terms with Zimmer that he was actually sleeping out in the bullpen. He knew he was not going to pitch. So I started calling him ‘Juan’ and he started calling me ‘Four Pitch,’ because I only got four pitches in.” Kreuger was one of the Buffalo Heads, the group of Boston ballplayers that didn’t get along well with manager Zimmer. “I was right in there with them.”
Kreuger may have tweaked Zimmer a bit, too. Acting apparently on his own, he chose to warm up in the bullpen, and did so for ten days in a row, hoping to get Zimmer’s attention. He was “trying to get him to have him call me into his office or something, you know. And he wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to me. And the fans start saying, ‘Hey Rick can we help you?’ ‘Yeah, put a sign out there that says “Kreuger Lives.” So they put a sign out there, and by the 10th day, they say, well, ‘Is there anything else we can do for you?’ ‘Yeah, add a word.’ So they put a second sign that says, ‘Kreuger Still Lives.’” The fan support likely didn’t help Kreuger’s cause, but it was probably a lost cause to begin with. “Zimmer was never Mr. Communication. I was a fun-loving left-hander and not a blood-and-guts football player like he liked. Butch Hobson was perfect for Don Zimmer. Bill Lee and I were the complete opposites.”
In spring training 1978, Rick said, Ted Williams approached him and asked him why he wasn’t pitching in the big leagues. Kreuger told him that Zimmer seemed to have it in for him. “I became friends with Ted that spring. He would hit me fungoes and stuff. I think he took a liking to me and wanted to see if he could get me a break.” He credited Ted with helping engineer a trade to the Indians in March 1978. The Red Sox got Frank Duffy in the exchange.
Kreuger appeared in six early-season games for the Indians, but his last major-league appearance came on May 7. He retired the only two batters he faced. But that was it. Kreuger hadn’t been pitching poorly, but nonetheless he was assigned to Portland in the Pacific Coast League, where he appeared in 37 games, with a 3.29 ERA.
In 1979 Kreuger signed out of spring training with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants to play in Japan. He was 2-1 with a 4.66 ERA with the Giants, but it was a frustrating year, as he experienced the oft-reported prejudice against gaijin (foreign) players in Japan. He even found that his own catcher was calling pitches that resulted in Kreuger throwing to a batter’s strength instead of to his weakness. He stewed, and began to look like he might become a little controversial. “It felt strange being the center of prejudice,” he recalled, but he had become a born-again Christian in the fall of 1977, during his last year with the Red Sox. “I made that commitment, but I had never been tested before.” The strength he found in Christianity helped see him through a difficult time. Finally the ballclub offered to pay his full salary if he would leave the team and go home. On one of his last nights there, one of the Giants’ veteran pitchers invited Rick to his home and apologized to him privately. “And I said, Wow! I feel like I’m sane again.”
After Kreuger returned to the States, Felix Millan invited him to Puerto Rico and he played there with the Caguas Criollos. “Jim Bunning became the manager of the team; we finished second, but I had the best earned-run average in the whole league. I got let go from that team because they wanted to bring Dennis Martinez in for the playoffs.” Bunning and Kreuger didn’t click. “Him and I didn’t hit off good. Any time I seemed to run into a blood-and-guts type manager who was overly serious, we just didn’t communicate very well. They always thought that I was kind of goofing off, when it was just a style thing. I was more of a free spirit and they didn’t like it. Don Zimmer was the same way. My manager Joe Morgan, [at] Triple-A, at first he was a little the same way, but then he got to know me and then he loved me.”
The Cleveland Indians sent Rick a contract, inviting him to spring training with their Triple-A affiliate, but he wasn’t really ready for a life of Triple-A ball in the summers and working other jobs in the winters, so he walked away from baseball at the time. He became a real-estate broker and did well with that for a number of years, with three years in residential real estate and 13 years in commercial. In 1996 and 1997, he served as head baseball coach at Cornerstone College, a Christian college, until it dropped its baseball program. When that position ended, Rick prayed for a day at his church, hoping for guidance on what he might do next, only to come home and get a call from a man who knew him from church. The man was starting a Little League team and offered Rick a job instructing the pitchers on the team. The local paper covered the story and from that grew a new sideline. In 1998 Rick founded Kreuger’s Baseball School (see kreugerbaseball.com) based right in Wyoming, Michigan. The school has worked with kids as young as 7 all the way up to working with some pro players. Starting in 2000 he began teaching eighth-grade mathematics at a school in Walker, Michigan, Walker Charter Academy.
Kreuger has done some mission work, traveling to Russia, and talked to children in orphanages and to soldiers. He has also gone on a couple of mission trips with former Cleveland Browns defensive end Bill Glass. They visited prisons in Pittsburgh and Florida. “I’d throw baseballs and pitch them to the prisoners and then talk to them about faith. It was kind of fun. They would come out to bat off of me, but they wouldn’t come out to listen to somebody on a soapbox. It was a different avenue to reach those prisoners.”
Rick’s daughter Sarah was active in fast-pitch softball. “She has the best arm on her team,” he said in 2005. “She threw five girls out at home plate from center field on her freshman team last year. And no girl has ever done that.” As of 2014, Sarah worked a softball hitting instructor at her father’s baseball school and also as a teacher at a Christian school.
Rick Kreuger is content with his life, but there are concerns. He is one of a large number of former major-league players who are excluded to one degree or another from the major-league pension plan and he is one of 1,053 major-league alumni pursuing a class-action suit.3 Rick still receives regular mailings from the Red Sox as part of their alumni program, and he occasionally comes across former teammates like Bill Lee. Some years ago, he joined Bill at the Senior World Series in Arizona, and almost won a game there one year, losing 1-0 in extra innings.
He enjoys watching the Detroit Tigers play, because he gets the local broadcasts and can better analyze the play, but he still follows the Red Sox most of all. “You become a Red Sox, and it’s kind of like you’re part of such a history there.” He was pleased with the Red Sox’ success in 2004 and subsequently, but there remained a wistfulness of sorts occasioned by the way things worked out in his own time with the Red Sox. “It’s kind of bittersweet in the sense you were part of the team, and yet you were never allowed to be part of that team.” Kreuger was one of the 200-plus Red Sox alumni who attended Fenway Park’s 100th-anniversary celebration in 2012.
1 Interviews with Rick Kreuger, August 22 and September 23, 2005. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Kreuger come from this interview. Special thanks to Dan Desrochers for transcribing the oral history interview.
2 Kreuger quoted by Don Vanderveen, Advance Newspapers, May 13, 2012. See http://mlive.com/hudsonville/index.ssf/2012/05/rick_kreuger_helps_celebrate_1.html. Thanks to James Forr for additional information included in this biography.