Monday, October 19, 2015

Dean Chance, 1941-2015

Shortly before the 1965 baseball season began, The Saturday Evening Post was preparing an article on Dean Chance, the pitcher who won the previous season's Cy Young Award. At the time, the award was given to the most valuable pitcher in both Leagues. It wouldn't be an each-League award until 1967.

Chance, not yet 24 years old, told them they could title the article, "The Most Exciting Pitcher Since Bobby Feller."

"My God," he said, "you could go back further, and call your story, 'The Most Exciting Pitcher Since Dizzy Dean.'"

Feller was not one to brag about his achievements. Dean was, and he might have seen a kindred spirit in the young Chance. Indeed, he might have appreciated the chutzpah, if not the historical accuracy, of Chance's next comment: "Fifty thousand seen me at the All-Star Game last year, and I was the best damn pitcher out there. You could call the story, 'From Rags to Riches.' Or, how's this: 'The Greatest Year Ever!'"

Let the record show that Chance started that All-Star Game, played at the then-brand-new Shea Stadium in New York, and was long gone by the time Johnny Callison won it for the National League with a walkoff home run in the 9th, 7-4. But let the record also show that the game's other pitchers included Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Jim Bunning. All are in the Hall of Fame. Chance is not.

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Wilmer Dean Chance was born on June 1, 1941 in Wooster, Ohio, about 60 miles southwest of Cleveland and 95 miles northeast of Columbus. He dropped his first name, and grew up on a farm in nearby New Salem. At Northwestern High School, he went 51-1 with 18 no-hitters, winning a State Championship, and winning another in basketball.

After his graduation in 1959, the Baltimore Orioles signed him for a $30,000 bonus. After the 1960 season, they lost him to the new Washington Senators in the expansion draft, but the Senators quickly traded him to the other American League expansion team, the Los Angeles Angels.

He made his major league debut on September 11, 1961, against the Minnesota Twins at Metropolitan Stadium in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. It didn't go so well for the 20-year-old righthander with the windup that twisted him around so that he'd briefly turn his back on the batter, much like the later star Luis Tiant. Wearing Number 41, Chance started, and lasted into the 8th inning, allowing 4 runs (3 earned) on 10 hits, including a home run by future big-league manager Joe Altobelli, and 3 hits by the opposing pitcher, Camilo Pascual. (Another pitcher who would appear in that 1964 All-Star Game, and would also have a better career than Chance.) The Angels got only 5 hits, 1 a home run by Lee Thomas, and the Twins beat them, 5-2.

But he impressed the Angels enough to put him on the big-league roster to open the 1962 season. Switching to Number 31, he won 14 games that season, and 13 the next, showing no sign of what was to come in 1964. It didn't help that he was a drinking buddy of another hotshot Angels pitcher, the hard-partying Bo Belinsky.

Here's what came in 1964: He was 5-5 through July 1, but then went on a tear, going 15-4 the rest of the way, finishing 20-9. He led the AL in the following categories: Wins, earned run average (1.65), complete games (15), shutouts (11), innings pitched (278 1/3rd), and fewest home runs per 9 innings pitched (0.2). As stated, he was named the AL's starter in the All-Star Game.

He pitched against the Pennant-winning Yankees 5 times that season. He won 4 of them, 3 by shutout. In the 5th, he pitched 14 scoreless innings before the Yankees broke through against a reliever and won the game in the 15th. He pitched 50 innings against the Yankees, giving up just 14 hits and 1 run, a home run by Mickey Mantle. The Mick considered himself lucky, telling sportswriter Maury Allen, "Every time I see his name on the lineup card, I feel like throwing up." (Of course, that may also have depended on how much Mickey drank the night before.)

Chance was 23, and he remained the youngest pitcher to receive the Cy Young Award until 1981. In hindsight, he probably shouldn't have gotten it: It's the most valuable pitcher, not the most outstanding, and the Angels only finished 5th, 17 games behind the Yankees. The Award should have gone to Ford, who went 17-6 with a 2.13 ERA for the League Champions.

True, Chance had the stats. But he also had the powerful Los Angeles media behind him, whereas the New York media had already given up on the perennial powerhouse Yankees and had begun to favor the pathetic, but more interesting Mets.

It also helped Chance that the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax got hurt, and, while still putting up very good stats, wasn't putting up superhuman stats like he did in 1963, and would again in '65 and '66, and the Dodgers, for the only time between 1958 and 1967, were not a factor in the NL Pennant race. Once UCLA's undefeated National Championship season was over in March, Chance was the big sports story in Southern California until the USC football team began its National Championship run in September.

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Chance didn't tail off much in 1965, going 15-10. But in 1966, he went 12-17, and the Angels traded him to the Twins, along with a player to be named later who turned out to be Jackie Hernandez, for Don Mincher, Pete Cimino and Jimmy Hall.

This turned out to be a big mistake for the Angels, and a big boost for the Twins. Now wearing Number 32, Chance went 20-14, leading the AL in games started, complete games and innings pitched. Again, he was named the AL starter in the All-Star Game, ironically at his former home ground of Anaheim Stadium. (The NL won in 15 innings, and Chance did not figure in the decision.)

On August 6, he pitched 5 perfect innings against the Boston Red Sox, before the game was called due to rain, denying him the chance for history. But on August 25, he got that chance, and pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians, giving up a run in the 1st inning on 2 walks, an error and a wild pitch. The Sporting News would name him AL Comeback Player of the Year.
The Angels finished 7 1/2 games out of 1st place, and with no pitcher winning more than 12 games, they could really have used Chance. The Twins, meanwhile were still in the race on the last day.

But that last day turned out to be epic. He started at Fenway Park against Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox, who went 22-9 and would beat him out for the 1st-ever AL-only Cy Young Award. Whoever won that game would clinch no worse than a tie for the Pennant, pending the result of a doubleheader being played by the Detroit Tigers. If the Tigers swept, they would face the Sox-Twins winner in a Playoff the next day; if they lost either game, the Sox-Twins winner would win the Pennant outright.

Chance allowed no runs, 4 hits and 5 walks through the 1st 5 innings, and was cruising. The Twins had given him a 2-0 lead. He had never gotten close to a Pennant before, and now he was just 12 outs away.

But he never got the next out: He allowed a bunt single to Lonborg, a single by Jerry Adair, an infield single by Dalton Jones, a game-tying single by Carl Yastrzemski, and a bobbled fielder's choice on a Ken Harrelson grounder that got a 3rd run home. Manager Cal Ermer pulled him for Al Worthington, who threw 2 wild pitches to make it 4-2 Boston. He struck out George Scott, but walked Rico Petrocelli, and Reggie Smith reached on an error to make it 5-2. As Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe, then in high school, would put it years later, "Red Sox fans can recite this inning faster than their own telephone numbers." The Sox won, 5-3, and when the Tigers dropped the nightcap of their doubleheader, the Sox were Pennant winners.

Chance went 15-15 in 1968, and was hit with a back injury in 1969. But he finally got to pitch in the postseason, as the Twins won the 1st-ever AL Western Division title. But this didn't go so well, either: The Orioles, the team that had originally signed him, swept the Twins in 3 straight. In the only postseason game he would ever pitch, he entered a Game 3 that was already hopeless, pitched a scoreless 7th inning, but allowed 2 runs in the 8th, and the Orioles won, 11-2.

After the season, the Twins traded him to the Indians with 3 players, including future Yankee star Graig Nettles, for Stan Williams (who was pretty much done) and Luis Tiant (who looked done, but was just getting warmed up -- one of many dumb trades Cleveland made in the 1960s, '70s and '80s).

He went 9-8 for the Tribe, then, late in the season, they sold him to the defending World Champion Mets. He pitched 3 games for them, all bad ones, and was traded to the Tigers at the dawn of the next season. He appeared in 31 games in 1971, was released afterward, and never threw another professional pitch.

He was done at 30, finishing with a career record of 128-115, an ERA of 2.92, and an ERA+ of 119. Once "The Most Exciting Pitcher," he was no longer exciting, and he was no longer a pitcher.

*

But he didn't dwell on the early end of his career. Nor did he dwell on being a horrible hitter, even by the standards of pitchers: In 662 major league at-bats, he got only 44 hits, batting .066 lifetime, the lowest average for any player with at least 300 plate appearances. In 1966 alone, he went 2-for-76, batting .026.

He bought a farm in New Pittsburg, only 3 miles from the one on which he grew up in New Salem. In the 1970s and '80s, he became a carnival barker, operating games of skill at the Ohio State Fair, employing up to 250 people at a time. In the 1990s, he became a boxing manager. He ended up making more money at these endeavors than he did as a baseball player. His life was a success story, if a strange one.

He was married to a woman named Judy Larson, but they got divorced. He had a son named Brett, who went into the family business: Not baseball, but worked at the Ohio State Fair, and now works for Instagram. Brett gave Dean 2 granddaughters.

This past August, the team now known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim inducted Chance into their team Hall of Fame. The bravado of half a century earlier was gone. He thanked fellow Angels Hall of Fame member Bobby Knoop, the 1960s 2nd baseman and longtime team coach, for making a fielding play that saved his 20th win in 1964.
Dean Chance died on October 11, 2015, of a heart attack on his farm. He was 74 years old.

No, he didn't have the same kind of career as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, or his early 1960s Los Angeles contemporary, Sandy Koufax. Heck, he didn't even have as good a career as Camilo Pascual. But he did make himself a baseball legend, and that's more than most of us will ever do.

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