Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Virgil Trucks, 1917-2013

R.I.P. Virgil Trucks, 1917-2013. At 95, he was the oldest living ex-Yankee.

Virgil Oliver Trucks was born April 26, 1917, in Birmingham, Alabama.  He made his big-league debut as a late-season callup with the Detroit Tigers on September 27, 1941, and remained with them, except for the 1944 and '45 regular seasons, until 1952.  He was briefly a St. Louis Brown in 1953, was with the Chicago White Sox from 1953 to '55, spent '56 back with the Tigers, '57 and '58 with the Kansas City Athletics, and was on the Bronx-Kansas City shuttle of the late 1950s, pitching 25 games with the Yankees in 1958, going 2-1 with a 4.54 ERA at age 41.

A righthanded starter, who naturally got the nickname "Fire" Trucks, he wore Number 22 in his best years, and 21 in his season with the Yankees.  He won 177 games in his career, more than Dave Stieb, Frank Viola, Camilo Pascual, Fernando Valenzuela, Rick Sutcliffe, Monument Park honoree Ron Guidry, and Hall-of-Famers Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean.  For the moment, he has also won more than Derek Lowe, Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt and Barry Zito.  In fact, as of Opening Day 2013, the only active pitchers to have won more games than Trucks are Andy Pettitte (245), Roy Halladay (199) and CC Sabathia (191).

Those 177 wins came against 135 losses, for a winning percentage of .567.  His career ERA was 3.39, which amounts to an ERA+ of 117 -- meaning that, from 1941 to 1958, he was 17 percent better at preventing earned runs than the average pitcher.

He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and was discharged after V-J Day, in time to pitch in the Tigers' last regular-season game of the 1945 season, pitching into the 6th inning without getting the decision, as the Tigers went on to beat the Browns, 6-3.  This was a critical performance, as the Tigers beat the Washington Senators for the Pennant by only a game and a half.  Because of the unusual circumstances behind his return to the team, Commissioner Happy Chandler waived the rule requiring players to have been on the team's roster by September 1 to qualify for post-season play.  He went the distance in Game 2 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs at Tiger Stadium (then known as Briggs Stadium), winning 4-1.  This made Trucks the first pitcher ever to win a postseason game without winning one in the regular season, and it wouldn't happen again until Chris Carpenter did it last year with the Cardinals.

In 1952, went 5-19, but 2 of the 5 wins were no-hitters.  He blanked the Washington Senators on May 15 and the Yankees on August 25.  Both were 1-0 wins, and one was against the defending and soon to be again World Champions, so he really had to buckle down to get them.

He won 19 games in 1949, also leading the American League in strikeouts (153) and shutouts (6) that year.  He got to 20 wins in 1953, the year he divided between the Browns and the White Sox.  He won 19 more for the ChiSox in 1954, again leading the AL in shutouts with 5.  He was 37 years old at the time.  He was an All-Star in '49 and '54.  He probably wouldn't have won the Cy Young Award had it been established before 1956: It likely would have gone to Mel Parnell of the Boston Red Sox in 1949, Eddie Lopat of the Yankees or Billy Pierce of the White Sox in 1953, or one of the Cleveland Indians' Big Three of Early Wynn, Bob Lemon or Mike Garcia in 1954.

On April 15, 1954, Trucks was the starting pitcher for the visiting White Sox in the first major league game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, the first-ever home game for the Orioles.  Bob Turley, who would be traded to the Yankees the next year along with Don Larsen, started for the O's, who won, 3-1.  When the O's had their final Opening Day at Memorial in 1991, Turley and Trucks were invited back, and threw out ceremonial first balls while wearing replicas of their teams' 1954 jerseys.  (Turley, who would win the Cy Young Award in '58, with Trucks playing out the string as his teammate, is still alive.) (UPDATE: Turley died on March 30, 2013, just 3 days after I first posted this.)

Upon his retirement, he became the pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and received a second World Series ring in 1960, when they beat the Yankees.  One of the pitchers he coached, Vern Law, won the Cy Young Award -- which, until 1966, was for the most valuable pitcher in both leagues.  He later coached with the Braves, where one of his students was future Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro and another was future pitching coach Tony Cloninger, and returned to the Tigers, where he helped turn Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich into Cy Young winners.  He retired from active service in baseball in 1974.

Trucks' family is more musical than athletic.  His nephew is Butch Trucks, a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band.  Butch's son Derek is also in the band, and has also formed a band with his wife, Susan Tedeschi. There are other musicians in the family.

Trucks' death leaves Ed Mierkowicz, a local boy from Wyandotte who became their left fielder, as the last survivor from the Tigers' 1945 World Champions, and the earliest living World Series winner.  Mierkowicz just turned 89.  There are 2 survivors from the '46 Cardinals, Joe Garagiola and Bill Endicott; 2 from the '47 Yankees, Yogi Berra and Bobby Brown; and 1 from the '48 Indians, Al Rosen.  

Virgil Trucks is a member of the Sports Halls of Fame for his native Alabama, and the Tigers' Michigan.  Does he belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Unfortunately for him, the Hall's voting system doesn't allow playing and managing/coaching achievements to be combined.  Nor does it allow coaches, no matter what the men they coached achieved, who never managed in the major leagues to be elected.  In other words, don't expect to see such pitching coaches as Johnny Sain, Mel Stottlemyre, and the aforementioned Cloninger in Cooperstown anytime soon.

Baseball Reference, a website which is your friend whether you know it or not, has a "Hall of Fame Monitor," for which a "Likely HOFer" has a rating of 100; Trucks is at 45.  They also have "Hall of Fame Standards," for which the "Average HOFer" has a rating of 50; Trucks is at 28.  So he's well short.

They also have similarity scores, and list the 10 most similar players, weighting it by position, so that middle infielders don't get their offensive stats compared with those of outfielders.  The 10 most similar pitchers to Trucks, statistically speaking, are Stieb, Bob Buhl, Dave Stewart, Bob Shawkey, Dizzy Trout, Tommy Bridges, Sutcliffe, Ken Holtzman, Bill Donovan and Allie Reynolds.  Cases for the Hall could be made for Stewart, Shawkey and Reynolds, and possibly for Stieb.  But they're not in, and neither are any of the others.  So it seems like Trucks is, as some fans say, "in the Hall of Very Good."

But he was a really good pitcher for a long time, and a hero of World War II, and he should be remembered fondly.

*

With Trucks' death, the oldest living Yankee is now Rinaldo Joseph Ardizoia, one of just 6 major league players to date born in Italy.
Born November 20, 1919 in Oleggio, in the Province of Novara in the Piedmont region, near Turin, "Rugger" Ardizoia was one of many Italians who immigrated to San Francisco, included Giuseppe DiMaggio, father of Joe and his brothers.
Ardizoia went to Commerce High School in San Francisco, and made just one major league appearances, on April 30, 1947, in a game the Yankees lost to the host St. Louis Browns, 15-5 at Sportsman's Park.  Oddly, a former Brown star, 1st baseman George McQuinn, homered and doubled for the Yankees in the game, and Phil Rizzuto had a triple to drive in 2 runs.  DiMaggio had the other RBI with a single.  Allie Reynolds made one of his first starts for the Yankees, but got rocked.  So did Joe Page, who in the late 1940s closed so many games for the Yankees that when people were asked, "Who's pitching today?" the answer would often be "Reynolds and Page." Wearing Number 14, Ardizoia closed the game, pitching the 7th and 8th innings, facing 10 batters, allowing 2 runs (both earned) on 4 hits, walking 1 and not striking out a batter.  Denny Galehouse, who'd helped the Browns win the Pennant in 1944 but would help the Red Sox blow it the next year, was the winning pitcher.  It was a Wednesday afternoon, and the Browns stunk back then, so attendance was just 4,141.
Ardizoia might have reached the majors sooner if he hadn't served in World War II.  Ironically, since Italy was part of the Axis, he was still an Italian citizen when he enlisted in what was then known as the U.S. Army Air Force.  He even pitched a game on Iwo Jima after the Marines took the island from Japan.
After his 2-inning appearance, he was soon sent back down, and remained in the minor leagues until 1951.  He became a salesman for a linen service company.  His cup of coffee could be viewed as, essentially, that classically Italian drink espresso: Small and bitter.  But, still alive at age 93, he appears to have no bitterness. Here's a recent photo of him, wearing a replica of a cap of the Mission Reds, a San Francisco-based team in the Pacific Coast League, for whom he is apparently the last surviving player.
There are currently 2 ex-big leaguers who are at least 100 years old: Connie Marrero, a Cuban pitcher for the Washington Senators from 1950 to 1954; and Clarence "Ace" Parker, who played  few games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1937 and '38 but is better known as a great early quarterback, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Bobby Doerr, the great Red Sox 2nd baseman of the 1940s, is the oldest living Baseball Hall-of-Famer, and will (God willing) reach his 95th birthday in 2 weeks.

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