Blast From The Past: Virgil Trucks

Sports humble the best of men. Athletes dream of going down, eyes flashing, guns blazing, yelling defiantly: “No retreat, no surrender.”

These men (and women) ultimately find out that they fall to the enemy within. One cannot defiantly bellow at one’s body and slowing reflexes. Boxers see the light only when they’re looking up at it. Hockey players find themselves on the fourth line. Football players begin to see a clipboard in their hand more often than a football, and baseball players see rising earned run averages and falling OPS as evidence that they cannot slay the final opponent.

However, sometimes there’s that rare bird of one who indeed puts an exclamation point on their careers. Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at bat. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio hit .261 in the 1951 World Series with a home run and five RBI. Wearing the mantle of champion, DiMaggio sat at his locker and said quietly: “I have played my last game.”

Others aren’t quite so dramatic, but are still interesting sagas nonetheless. A lesser known pitcher left baseball on top — Virgil Trucks. Trucks’ journey began in 1935 playing with a semi-pro team in Birmingham. He wasn’t a pitcher, however, but the team’s fourth outfielder.

In 1936, Trucks played outfield full time for the Hightower Box Company team in the Birmingham City League. During his stint in the outfield, he was remarkable for his cannon of a throwing arm. In 1937, Trucks landed a pitching job with Shawmut in the Valley League of North-Central Alabama. The team in Andalusia got hold of Virgil late in 1937 and used him late in the season and in the playoffs. In 1938, the 19 year old with the electric arm blossomed. In the first game of the 1938 season, Trucks fanned 20 batters. A Tigers’ scout signed Trucks immediately, claiming that only Bobby Feller threw harder.

It was only the beginning.

On May 30th, Trucks whiffed 22 Panama City Pelicans. The game against the Pelicans was the fifth time that year that Trucks struck out more than 16 batters in a game. Trucks continued to dominate the league and finished the season 10-2 with an eye popping 420 strikeouts in 263 innings. So in 1939, Trucks moved up to Beaumont in the Texas League, and his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers shortly thereafter.

After a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1941, Trucks put together two stellar seasons — where he went 14-8 (144 ERA+) and 16-10 (124 ERA+) — before his country required his services. After serving all of the 1944 season in the Armed Services, Trucks returned to the Tigers late in 1945. His first game back was the pennant clincher for the Tigers. Trucks pitched five innings and allowed two earned runs against the defending league champion St. Louis Browns. However, fatigue set in, and Trucks was relieved by Hal Newhouser. Newhouser got the win, and the Tigers won the American League championship.

In the World Series, Trucks started two games, winning one and getting a no-decision in the other. The Tigers won the first post-World War II World Series in seven games.

Over the next four seasons, Trucks enjoyed steady success in the Tigers rotation. In 1949, Trucks won 19 games with an ERA+ of 148 in 275 IP and was the winning pitcher of the All Star Game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The following year, arm miseries set in, and he pitched in just seven games. In 1951, at the age of 34, Trucks only managed 13 wins with an ERA below the league average (96 ERA+). The roof fell in for Trucks completely the following year, finishing 5-19. Oddly, two of his wins were no-hitters. On May 15, Trucks tossed a no-no against the Washington Senators. On August 25, the Tigers came into Yankee Stadium, and Trucks left the Yankee faithful speechless as he repeated the feat against the defending American League champions. Other than those two highlights, Trucks became a bad pitcher on a bad team. The Tigers sued for divorce, and Trucks was exiled to American League purgatory, AKA the St. Louis Browns.

The Tigers went on to regret doing so. Truck’s no-hitters weren’t a fluke as it turned out.

Trucks lasted just twelve starts with the Browns before the Chicago White Sox, who needed pitching help for their pennant run, traded for him. Trucks went on a tear with the Pale Hose, going 15-6 with a 2.86 ERA (141 ERA+) down the stretch. Coupled with his totals in St. Louis, Trucks enjoyed his first 20-win season. Proving that it wasn’t his last hurrah, Trucks, at the age of 37, went 19-12 with a 2.79 ERA (134 ERA+) the following season.

He pitched one more season in Chicago before he returned to Detroit. Trucks was now 39 years old and pitched like it. Again the Tigers parted company with Trucks. His trade to the Kansas City Athletics at the time was relegated to the section of the newspaper under: “and in other news” section. Still it proved to be much more significant than it initially appeared.

Kansas City didn’t want Trucks to be a starter. The Athletics wanted him to be a reliever. At the age of 40, Trucks was born again as a pitcher. In 1957, Trucks won nine games and saved seven others for the Athletics, posting an ERA+ of 130 in 116 IP. Trucks broke camp again with the Athletics. Trucks sharp relief efforts continued, saving three games with a stunning ERA+ of 192 (albeit in 22 IP).

In New York, the Yankees were rolling. The Yankees were stinging after the Milwaukee Braves had beaten them in seven games in the 1957 World Series. The Yankees were running away with the American League. Still, the ever cautious general manager, George Weiss, wasn’t taking any chances. On the maxim: “you can never have enough pitching,” coupled with the rest of the league’s reticence to trade with the Bronx Bombers, left but one trading partner — their favorite one –the Kansas City Athletics.

Many deals had been consummated by the two clubs, and George Weiss made still another. Weiss sent Bob Grim and Harry Simpson into America’s heartland for Duke Maas and… Virgil Trucks.

The deal proved to be a prudent one. In August, Whitey Ford was called in to relieve two days after pitching a shutout. Ford warmed up too quickly and injured his arm. Ford would not win another game during the regular season. Another pitcher, Tom Sturdivant, was spiked during some horseplay with teammate Bobby Shantz. Sturdivant was placed on the disabled list, his season effectively over. Two other Yankee hurlers, Johnny Kucks and Art Ditma, slumped, going a combined 3-11 through August and September.

Saving the pitching staff were the former Kansas City Athletics. Maas won five of six decisions, and the antiquated Trucks won two games, saving a third in support of fireballing closer Ryne Duren.

While Maas continued his fine pitching into September, Trucks, at age 41, wore out. Trucks early success caused Stengel to run Trucks out almost every second game. Trucks finally lost command of his once blazing fastball and was walking almost as many as he struck out. Trucks was hit hard in late September, and his ERA rose to 4.54 (78 ERA+). The Yankees went on to win the pennant and the World Series in seven games over the Milwaukee Braves. Trucks didn’t pitch a single inning in the Fall Classic.

The Yankees, grateful for Trucks’ contributions in late August and early September, extended an invitation to spring training in 1959. Trucks pitched well and made the squad, but had a change of heart. Trucks decided to go out on top.

Keep On Trucking:

  • In addition to his pair of major league no-hitters, Trucks threw four others in the minors.
  • Trucks was the winning pitcher of the 1949 All Star Game played at Ebbets Field.
  • Satchel Paige threw a 12-inning shutout against Detroit in 1952. Trucks pitched nine shutout innings and was lifted for pinch hitter Johnny Pesky in the tenth inning.
  • Trucks liked to take his cuts. In 949 major league at bats, Trucks walked nine times.
  • Trucks also struck out 153 times, giving him a K/BB ratio of 17:1.
  • Trucks led the American League in strikeouts (153) and shutouts (6) in 1949.
  • Trucks also led the American League in shutouts in 1954 with five.
  • Trucks was part of a record that will likely never be broken. Washington’s Dean Stone was credited with 1/3 of an inning in the 1954 All-Star Game and got the win. Stone never threw a pitch. With the National League leading 9-8 in the top of the eighth, Stone replaced the White Sox’s Bob Keegan with two out. The Cardinal’s Red Schoendienst took the opportunity to test Stone and tried to steal home. Stone fired to catcher Yogi Berra, and Schoendienst was out to end the inning. The American League plated three runs in the bottom of the eighth to take the lead. Virgil Trucks, replaced Stone in the ninth to finish the game. That left Stone with the win. One win with zero pitches — now that’s a record that may last forever.
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