From 1984 to 1989, Walt Terrell was one of Major League Baseball’s most durable starting pitchers, averaging more than 32 starts and 210 innings per season. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-hander did not possess an overpowering fastball, but his credible sinker and change-up usually allowed him to keep his teams in games. During his 11-year career (1982-92), Terrell pitched for the New York Mets, Detroit Tigers, San Diego Padres, New York Yankees, and Pittsburgh Pirates, accumulating 111 victories.
Charles Walter Terrell was born on May 11, 1958, in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to John and Barbara (Firkin) Terrell. His dad painted dishwashers at the General Electric Plant and his mother was a seamstress.1 Walt had a brother, John, and a sister, Deborah. Growing up in rural Indiana, his family had no indoor plumbing for the first seven years of his life, and no phone for the first nine.
Terrell’s earliest baseball experience came in the Clarksville Little League where he was coached by his dad.2 Later, he played American Legion ball.3 At Jeffersonville High School, he competed in football, basketball, and baseball. His senior year, Terrell threw a seven-inning no-hitter, batted over .300 and was named an Indiana South All-Star..4
Jeffersonville baseball coach Don Poole noted that Terrell could battle control problems, and also possessed a hot temper, as was in evidence during one of his high school games. “He was a little wild that day and one of our coaches was yelling at him to throw strikes,” Poole recalled. “All of a sudden from the mound he yelled back ‘You don’t like it, you get somebody else out here.’”5
After high school Terrell chose to attend Morehead State University in Kentucky. “I think the biggest reason was they had Coach (Steve) Hamilton there,” he explained. “He had pitched in the big leagues. He knew what it was all about. And I thought his experience would help me. I figured he could teach me how to pitch,”6
The 6-foot-7 Hamilton had spent 12 seasons in the majors and was known for throwing a high, arcing lob pitch called the “Folly Floater.” He had also played two seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Minneapolis Lakers. Hamilton appeared in the World Series for the Yankees and the NBA Finals for the Lakers.7
Hamilton taught Terrell several things at Morehead State. “Every day he [Hamilton] kept telling me to work on my change-up, work on my change-up. He knew I needed an off-speed pitch,” said Terrell.8 “I didn’t know anything about pitching when I got to Morehead. Steve Hamilton made me aware that throwing wasn’t pitching. But the most important thing he taught me was to never second-guess yourself out on the mound. It doesn’t help.” 9
Over his four years at Morehead State, Terrell compiled 13 wins and 145 strikeouts. He was selected for the Ohio-Valley Conference First Team in 1979 and the Second Team in 1980.
Two significant things occurred during the summer of 1979. Terrell was picked in the 15th round of the 1979 Amateur Draft by the New York Mets – before future All-Stars Orel Hershiser and Don Mattingly. But he turned down a $12,000 signing bonus to stay at Morehead State for his senior year.
Terrell was also that summer named the Most Outstanding Pitcher in the Cape Cod Baseball League.10 He finished with a 9-4 record and 2.20 ERA for the Chatham Athletics, with 13 complete games in 17 starts. His 122 2/3 innings pitched set a league record. In 2007, Terrell was elected to the Cape Cod Baseball League’s Hall of Fame.
In June 1980, the Texas Rangers selected Terrell in the 33rd Round. He signed through scout Joe Klein.11 Terrell became the lowest pick of the 1980 draft who signed a contract to make it to the major leagues. Two pitchers drafted after Terrell that year — Rick Aguilera (37th round by the St. Louis Cardinals) and Jeff Robinson (40th round by the San Diego Padres) — made it to the majors but did not sign in 1980.
When Terrell was drafted in 1980, he was already married to his wife Karen (Forge) and a few months later the couple welcomed a baby boy named Ryan.
In 1980, Terrell debuted in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League by going 3-2 with a 1.42 ERA over 38 innings with the Sarasota (Florida) Rangers. That strong effort earned him a promotion to the Class A South Atlantic League, but he struggled with the Asheville (North Carolina) Tourists, posting a 6.75 ERA with eight walks in eight innings.
Terrell’s path to the majors made a significant turn in the right direction in 1981. Pitching in the Double-A Texas League for the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Drillers, he was 15-7 with a 3.10 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 174 innings. The Drillers – with a pitching staff featuring future major leaguers Ron Darling, Tony Fossas, Tom Henke, Jack Lazorko and Dave Schmidt – reached the postseason, where they were defeated by the Jackson Mets.
On April 1, 1982, Terrell’s career experienced a shakeup when he and Darling were sent to the New York Mets in a trade for outfielder Lee Mazzilli. Mets General Manager Frank Cashen – one of the major architects of the successful Baltimore Orioles’ clubs of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – had decided to trade his most popular player as part of a major organizational rebuild. (Mazzilli, a former All-Star, was a Brooklyn native with movie-star looks.) From the Mets perspective, the key to the deal was Darling, who had been drafted ninth overall the previous June out of Yale University. The Rangers had developed a reputation for trading away talented young pitchers, including Len Barker and Dave Righetti – each of whom would go on to pitch no-hitters for other big-league clubs.12
Terrell started the 1982 season with the Mets’ Tidewater (Virginia) Tides affiliate in the Triple-A International League. In 21 appearances (20 starts), he was 7-8 (3.96 ERA). The Mets called him up after rosters expanded13, and he made his major-league debut in the back end of a September 18 doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals at Shea Stadium. Starting against future Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, Terrell lost, 6-2, working into the seventh inning and allowing four earned runs. The big blow was a sixth-inning homer by Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter. Terrell made two more starts, losing both, but his overall ERA was a promising 3.43.
In 1983, Terrell started the season on fire, winning 10 of his first 12 starts for Tidewater. He lost just one decision, and his ERA was 3.12. In mid-June, the Mets called him up to replace Scott Holman in their starting rotation.
On June 20, Terrell earned his first major-league win, 6-4, over the Cardinals. Terrell worked five and two-thirds innings, gave up four earned runs, and notched one strikeout.
On August 6 at Wrigley Field, Terrell had a historic day. Facing future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, he allowed one run in seven and one-third innings to win, 4-1. He also achieved something that no Mets’ pitcher had previously done – slamming two home runs in one game.￼
The lefty-hitting Terrell had been 0-for-14 in 1983 before he hit two-run homers in the third and fourth innings. “I may never hit one again,” he said. “It still means more to me that I pitched well. It just happened.”14 On August 23, Terrell hit a three-run homer in San Diego. As of 2023, he shared the Mets‘ single-season home-run record for pitchers (three) with Tom Seaver (1972) and Noah Syndergaard (2016).
When Terrell met Jenkins again, on August 12 at Shea Stadium, he hurled a four-hitter for his first big-league shutout. He struck out seven and explained his unique solution for keeping a firm grip on the baseball on a cold night. “I wasn’t throwing, I was slinging,” said Terrell. “It was cold. Then Monbo (Mets pitching coach Bill Monbouquette) came out. He told me I wasn’t throwing. So, I used a little chewing tobacco to get a better grip on the ball.”15
Terrell pitched three more complete games, including a four-hit shutout against the Expos on October 2. He wound up 8-8 (3.57) for a team that finished 26 games below .500.
In 1984 Terrell tossed a four-hitter at the Astrodome to win his first start, and his 3-1 record in April helped the young Mets demonstrate their talent and promise. Defying predictions that they would finish in the NL East cellar, New York was in first place as late as July 31 and finished second with a 90-72 record – just the second time in the franchise history that they’d tallied that many victories. Terrell went 11-12 (3.52) with 215 innings pitched, second on the club behind rookie sensation Dwight Gooden.
The future looked bright in Queens, but Terrell wouldn’t be around to enjoy it. On December 7, 1984, he was traded to the reigning World Series champion Detroit Tigers for third baseman Howard Johnson.
A few months later, Terrell didn’t hold back regarding his feeling about his former club. “If you’re not a competitor, I don’t want you on my team,” he said. “Some players in New York didn’t bust their butts.”16
Terrell was a perfect fit for the Tigers since he was primarily a ground-ball pitcher. Tiger Stadium was known for its’ taller-than-normal infield grass, which helped to slow grounders. Another factor in Terrell’s favor was Detroit’s superb middle infield duo: second baseman Lou Whitaker and shortstop Alan Trammell, each of whom won Gold Gloves in 1984. “What I like is that Terrell keeps the ball low and gets a lot of ground-outs. The grass at Tiger Stadium should eat up most of those. He’ll be right at home,” said Detroit’s manager, Sparky Anderson.17
Terrell pitched like an All-Star when he took the mound at home in 1985, posting a 9-2 (2.86) record. Overall, he won 15 of his 34 starts, logging 229 innings. Only Tigers ace Jack Morris earned more victories (16). Morris, Terrell and Dan Petry formed one of baseball’s most formidable trios of starting pitchers, combining for 46 wins and 724 2/3 innings pitched. Despite their efforts, the Tigers finished in third place, 15 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays.
In 1986, Terrell had arguably the best pitching performance of his career: a one-hit shutout against the California Angels on August 20 at Tiger Stadium. His bid for a no-hitter was broken-up with two outs in the top of the ninth inning on a double by Angels rookie Wally Joyner. Following the heartbreaking hit, Terrell calmed his nerves and retired Reggie Jackson for the final out. “I’m very happy,” Terrell said. “I’m disappointed I didn’t get the no-hitter, but I got the next best thing. And we won.”18
Terrell finished the season with 15 wins and a 4.56 ERA. But for the second straight year, the Tigers ended up in third place, eight and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox.
The Tigers regained their winning ways in 1987, taking the American League East by two games over the Blue Jays. A key was the strong starting pitching down the stretch from Morris, Terrell, Frank Tanana, and veteran Doyle Alexander – obtained from the Atlanta Braves for minor league pitcher John Smoltz after the non-waiver trading deadline.19Terrell’s 17 victories and 244 2/3 innings were personal bests, and he threw 10 complete games. He won eight of his last 10 starts, going the distance in five.
Terrell’s only career postseason appearance came in Game Three of the American League Championship Series versus the AL West champion Minnesota Twins. His teammates built him a 5-0 lead, but Terrell couldn’t hold it, surrendering six earned runs over six innings, including homers by Greg Gagne and Tom Brunansky, The Tigers rallied with two runs in the bottom of the eighth to capture a 7-6 victory. But Detroit lost the series, four games to one.
If Terrell’s career was placed on a line chart, 1987 might be considered the high mark. His career would never be so successful afterwards. In January 1988, he slipped on the ice at Petry’s house, causing him to miss almost four weeks at the start of the season. He went 7-16 and lost six of his last seven starts. A few weeks after the season ended, the Tigers traded Terrell to the San Diego Padres for infielder Chris Brown and first baseman/outfielder Keith Moreland.
Terrell’s tenure with the west coast team didn’t last long. He made only 19 starts before he was traded, along with a player to be named later (Freddie Toliver) to the Yankees for third baseman Mike Pagliarulo and pitcher Don Schulze on July 22. Terrell lost two of his first three starts for the Bronx Bombers, but he overcame his struggles to win four of his last six. In his last start, at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, he threw a five-hit shutout. All told, he was 6-5 with a 5.20 ERA for New York.
He became a free agent and hoped to re-sign with the Yankees, but it wasn’t in the cards. Instead, Terrell signed a three-year contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $3.6 million, the biggest payday of his career.
Although skipper Jim Leyland led the Pirates to their first postseason appearance since 1979, Terrell made only 16 starts for the club in 1990 and compiled a 5.88 ERA.
In mid-July, Pittsburgh tried to send Terrell to their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, New York, but he refused the demotion and became a free-agent. Within two weeks, he re-signed with the Tigers and won six games over the last two months of the season.
Over the 1991 and 1992 campaigns, Terrell had a combined 19-24 record for the Tigers. He was the American League Player of the Week for August 19-25, 1991, when he shut out the White Sox on six hits and pitched a complete game victory against the Mariners.
In his final start, on September 27, 1992, Terrell went seven innings and allowed just three runs to earn a 13-3 victory over the Indians at Tiger Stadium. It marked Anderson’s 1,132nd win as Detroit’s skipper, surpassing Hughie Jennings(1907-1920) for the franchise’s all-time record.
Terrell had one final relief outing before he was released after the season. In the spring of 1993, he signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays. He made eight appearances for their Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs farm club before retiring in July.
Terrell settled in Northern Kentucky with his wife, Karen, and their three children: Ryan, Michael and Erin. Ryan also pitched at Morehead State.20 As of 2023, Terrell worked for Pepsi-Cola. He also previously coached the baseball team at St. Henry District High School and Kentucky Colonels, a travel baseball team.21
This biography was reviewed by Malcolm Allen and David Bilmes and fact-checked by Larry DeFillipo.
In addition to the sources cites in the Notes, the author also consulted the following websites: www.baseball-reference.com, www.basketball-reference.com, www.gocards.com, www.msueagles.com, www.capecodbaseball.org, www.newspapers.com, and www.tributearchive.com/obituaries/22239059/john-walter-terrell
The author also consulted the following newspapers: New York Times, Republic (Columbus, Indiana), South Bend(Indiana) Tribune, Daily Record (Morristown, New Jersey), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Times Herald (Huron, Michigan), Cincinnati (Ohio) Enquirer, and Tulsa (Oklahoma)World
1 Bill Plaschke, “Padres’ Terrell: ‘Simple, Quiet, Easy as Can Be,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1989: 58.
2 Bud Heldman, “Little League Rerun: Clarksville vs. Princeton,” Louisville Courier-Journal, July 23, 1970: 6.
3 Walt Terrell, Publicity questionnaire for William J. Weiss, February 3, 1981.
4 Terrell, Publicity questionnaire for William J. Weiss.
6 Gene McLean, “Ex-Eagle fooled everybody by making it to the majors,” Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader, July 29, 1984: C4.
7 Joe Gergen, “His Good Nature Was Big League,” Newsday (Nassau, New York edition) December 4, 1997: A92.
9 J.C. Clemons “Tigers hurler comes of age as big-leaguer,” Courier Journal, October 6, 1985: 15.
10 Terrell, Publicity questionnaire for William J. Weiss.
11 Terrell, Publicity questionnaire for William J. Weiss.
12 Gil Lebreton, “Sorry, Joe; Eddie and Zim can’t wait,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 2, 1982.
13 “Transactions,” Moline (Illinois) Sunday Dispatch, September 12, 1982: 22.
15 Fred Kerber, “Terrell 4-hitter chews up Cubs, 2-0; Heep HRs,” New York Daily News August 13, 1983: 29.
16 Tom Verducci, “Terrell Criticizes Some Mets’ Effort,” Newsday (Suffolk, New York edition), March 16, 1985: 26.
17 Tom Gage, “Terrell’s Image Fits Blue-Collar Detroit,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1985: 13.
18 John Lowe, “Joyner hits double with two out in 9th,” Detroit Free Press, August 21, 1986: D1.
19 “Alexander traded to the Tigers for minor leaguer,” Tampa Tribune, August 13, 1987: 5-C.
21 James Weber, “Kentucky Colonels baseball was showcase for top local talent,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 2017: 1B.