Card Corner: Wayne Granger: 1973 Topps

Before there was Kent Tekulve, there was Wayne Granger.

As evidenced by his 1973 Topps card, Granger does not look your typically intimidating closer. Whether it’s the short blonde hair, the baby face free of stubble, the thin neck masked by a turtleneck, or the rail-thin upper body, Granger gives us an image of an overage batboy. He is the antithesis of Dick Radatz, “The Monster.” Appearances, in this case, are deceiving, but also somewhat accurate.

The appearance of Granger’s uniform is also deceiving. Without any question, the logo on Granger’s Cardinals cap is airbrushed. After all, he did spend the 1972 season with the Twins. But the turtleneck and the jersey appear more authentic, leading me to believe that this photograph was actually taken during his earlier days with the Reds. The top of the Reds’ jersey, with its red and white color scheme, was similar to what the Cardinals wore in the early 1970s. So I’ll guess this is a photo from 1971 updated with an airbrushed cap to create the illusion of a St. Louis uniform.

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Not surprisingly, the stick-thin Granger was not a heralded prospect. Bypassed in the first amateur draft of 1965, he settled for a free agent contract with the Cardinals, who discovered him pitching semi-pro ball in Canada. The Redbirds did not have particularly high expectations for the skinny 21-year-old. They assigned him to Raleigh of the Class-A Carolina League. But Granger opened some eyes in making 20 starts, impressing the brass enough to receive a late-season promotion to Double-A Tulsa.

In 1966, Granger remained at Double-A but switched teams to Arkansas, the Cardinals’ new affiliate in the Texas League. The Cardinals made a fortuitous decision by switching him to the bullpen fulltime and watched him dominate Double-A hitters. Granger also changed his arm angle, switching from a three-quarters delivery to a sidearm motion, which helped his fastball sink. Save records were not kept at the time, but the side winding right-hander won 11 of 13 decisions and put up an ERA of 1.80. He didn’t dominate hitters with power, striking out only 57 batters in 95 innings, but he was highly efficient. Good control, coupled with a sinking fastball, made him one of the better minor league relief pitchers in 1966.

All that stood between Granger and the major leagues was a stopover at Triple-A. He received the first taste in 1967, when he pitched creditably for Tulsa, now a Pacific Coast League franchise. It turned into a stroke of good fortune. “The luckiest break I had in my career was when I had Warren Spahn as my manager in Tulsa,” Granger told Arthur Daley of the New York Times. “He is to pitching what Ted Williams is to hitting. It’s a pure science to him.

“He taught me concentration. I can’t throw within the six-inch circle he used to target, but I can hit it one out of three times and come close on the others.”

With a boost from Spahn, Granger pitched well enough to make the jump to St. Louis in 1968. Yet, the Cardinals ranked as the defending world champions and featured a deep bullpen. Despite brilliant pitching in spring training, Granger was one of the final cuts before Opening Day. So he started the season with Tulsa, dominated the league for a couple of months, and then received a promotion in mid-June as a replacement for the ineffective Dick Hughes.

Almost immediately, Cardinals beat writers and headline writers dubbed him “The Lone Granger.” Others called him “Stick,” an obvious reference to his unusually frail build. More pertinently, Granger joined a stalwart group of relievers highlighted by relief ace Joe Hoerner. With Hoerner dominating from the left side, Granger provided a right-handed complement. Over the balance of the season, he appeared in 34 games, finished off 19, and posted an ERA of 2.25, the best mark among Cardinals relievers other than Hoerner.

As a rookie, Granger received the added bonus of a World Series appearance. He didn’t play a prominent role in the Series, pitching only once in a game in which the Cardinals trailed, 13-0. But Granger did the job in Game Six, hurling a pair of scoreless innings against the Tigers. The Cardinals fell short of winning the title, as they lost a Game Seven heartbreaker, but Granger’s first major league season had turned into a rousing success.

At 24 years of age, Granger had every reason to believe that his future in St. Louis was secure. With Hoerner now past 30, Granger seemed like the relief ace in waiting. But the fortunes of the winter dictated otherwise. The Cardinals figured that they would lose Granger to either the Padres or the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft. When the Cardinals had a chance to acquire veteran star Vada Pinson from the Reds, they agreed to include Granger as a throw-in, along with young center fielder Bobby Tolan. Granger would turn out to be much more than an afterthought.

The Reds already had two good relievers in Ted Abernathy and Clay Carroll, but Abernathy was also 35 and near the end of his prime. In January of 1969, the Reds dealt Abernathy to the Cubs for a package of three minor leaguers. That move cleared some space for Granger, who now appeared to run second fiddle to Carroll in a revamped Reds bullpen.

When Carroll suffered early season back pain, the Reds turned to Granger to fill the role of relief ace, the term used for closers in the 1960s. Realizing he now had a rubber arm in Granger, manager Dave Bristol used him often and for multiple innings at a time. The most extreme example occurred on September 8, when Granger pitched eight scoreless innings of relief, as the game plunged into extra innings. And this came in the second game of a doubleheader, after Granger had already appeared in the first game!

For the season, Granger appeared in 90 games, a major league record at the time. He compiled 144 innings (or as many innings as some starters pitch today), put up an ERA of 2.80, and saved 27 games. Granger finished 15th in the league’s MVP voting, an impressive finish for a little-known reliever. Just like that, Granger had become arguably the National League’s top relief ace.

As with the Cardinals, and in contrast to relievers like Radatz, Granger did not overpower hitters. He relied on excellent control and a darting sinker, which kept his infielders busy and also made him a double play specialist.

Granger’s demeanor drew hearty praise from his pitching coach, Harvey Haddix. “Wayne is a cool cat,” the hip Haddix told Ed Rumill of the Christian Science Monitor. “Nothing bothers him. He looks like he can’t wait to walk into the middle of a jam and face the challenge.”

Pitching aside, Granger also drew attention for his scrawny physique, which made him arguably the skinniest player in the major leagues. Teammate Pete Rose said Granger “looked like a professional blood donor.” Johnny Bench said that if he wore a fur coat, he’d look like a pipe cleaner. Another teammate said Granger could “shower in a shotgun barrel.”

The barbs continued, but Granger pitched even more effectively in 1970. Although new manager Sparky Anderson cut down Granger’s workload, he still called on his accomplished right-hander as his relief ace. Lowering his ERA to 2.66, Granger saved 35 games, good enough to lead the National League. Walking only 27 batters, the pinpoint Granger finished eighth in the league’s Cy Young Award race.

Granger’s pitching helped the Reds win the NL West on their way to an appearance in the World Series against the Orioles. Unfortunately, Granger pitched his worst ball of the season against the Birds, giving up five runs and seven hits in just over an inning of work. Four of the runs scored on a grand slam surrendered to the opposing pitcher, Dave McNally. Though he was hardly alone, Granger was one of several Reds culprits who stumbled during the Series.

In spite of his World Series failure, the Reds continued to turn to Granger in 1971. For the second time in three seasons, he led the league in appearances and also notched 100 innings. But he was not as good as he had been his previous two seasons; his ERA soared to 3.66, and he had to share the fireman’s role with Carroll and journeyman left-hander Joe Gibbon.

Amidst whispers that the Reds had overworked him, Granger’s name started to come up in trade talks. At the 1971 Winter Meetings, the Reds saw a chance to deal Granger for a younger pitcher and harder thrower. GM Bob Howsam sent Granger north to the Twins, in exchange for fastballer Tom Hall, who was known as “The Blade.”

Hall, at six feet and 150 pounds, weighed even less than Granger. In acquiring The Stick for The Blade, the Twins felt they had fortified their bullpen and made Granger their new fireman. Granger responded by pitching brilliantly over the early weeks of the season, but then hit a rough stretch in midsummer. American League hitters appeared to solve him after the first go-round. Granger struggled so badly that he began to share late-inning duty with a young Dave LaRoche.

Granger’s season-ending numbers weren’t bad (a 3.01 ERA and 19 saves), but his overall performance disappointed the Twins. Clearly not the pitcher he had been during his Cincinnati peak, Granger appeared to be paying the price for the heavy workload he had carried for the Reds. Once again, the trade winds hit Granger. In late November, the Twins sent him back to his original team, the Cardinals, in exchange for young outfielder Larry Hisle and journeyman southpaw John Cumberland.

The trade appeared to be a godsend for Granger. The Cardinals desperately needed a relief ace, after none of their pitchers failed to post as many as 10 saves in 1972. With everything cleared in his favor, Granger flopped miserably. For the first time in his career, he put up an ERA over 4.00. Diego Segui emerged as an effective late-inning reliever, making Granger expendable. On August 7, the Cardinals ended his second tenure in St. Louis by dumping him on the Yankees for cash and a player to be named later.

Now 29 years of age, Granger found himself at the crossroads. The Yankees had no need for a fireman, not with Sparky Lyle on the premises, but they needed help in the setup and long relief roles. Manager Ralph Houk gave him a look and came away impressed. Appearing in seven games, Granger struck out 10 batters in 15 innings, spinning an ERA of 1.76. At just the right time, he had found new life.

So how did the Yankees reward Granger in 1974? They released him in late March, of course, apparently for reasons having nothing to do with baseball. “It must have been for personal reasons,” Granger told sportswriter John Hillyer. “My salary could have been part of it. I went through arbitration, and I know some clubs have said they’d get even with players who did that.” The move made little baseball sense, instead representing another move influenced by the bad feelings between management and the Players’ Association.

Only one week later, Granger found work with the White Sox. They signed him just before Opening Day and added him to the 25-man roster. Unfortunately, Granger pitched very poorly in 1975, allowing 16 hits in seven and two-thirds innings, and earning himself a demotion to Triple-A Iowa.

After a truncated season in which he pitched only five times for Chicago, the White Sox gave Granger his release during the winter. Once again facing the cliff of his career, he signed a make-good contract with Houston just before spring training. Fighting his way onto the team, Granger proved himself healthy and pitched respectably in middle relief for the Astros.

Granger pitched well enough to merit a return to Houston, but he was now 31 and no longer a premier reliever. So in December, the Astros released him. Refusing to give up, he found a new suitor in the Montreal Expos, who desperately needed bullpen help. Granger again pitched reasonably well in 27 games, but not well enough to avoid another trip to the minor leagues. The following February, the Expos released the sidewinding right-hander. He then signed with the Braves, but failed in his bid to make the team.

Although his major league days were now behind him, the 32-year-old decided to take his wares to the Mexican League in 1977. That’s where he pitched for a summer before making a comeback with the ill-fated Inter-American League in 1979. When the league folded in midseason, Granger packed up his right arm and headed home, this time for good.

Only three years later, Granger won election to the Reds Hall of Fame in 1982, an impressive feat given that he pitched only three seasons with the team. But that’s how dominant he was during that span, particularly when he won two Fireman of the Year awards in 1969 and 1970.

Since putting his glove down, Granger has remained out of baseball, but he continues to be an active participant in reunions of Reds alumni. I recently saw a photograph from one of the Reds’ Hall of Fame inductions, and in a development that comes as no surprise, he is still thin and still has that youthful look, making him appear much younger than his listed age of 69.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rubber-armed right-hander could still snap off one of those nasty sidearm sinkers.

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Comments

  1. Dennis Bedard said...

    As usual Bruce, a great article about a better than average player who brings back memories of growing up a baseball nut.  Thanks for another trip down memory lane.

  2. Jim Sconing said...

    I don’t understand why the Yankees move is criticized here.  While it might be true that his salary had something to do with his release, it seems more reasonable to assume that they concluded (correctly) that he had nothing left. The fact that Granger disagreed with them is not evidence they were wrong.

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