As a wild, hard-throwing left hander, Jon Warden experienced both ends of the spectrum of luck as a professional pitcher. On the one hand, the one year he pitched in the major leagues happened to coincide with the Detroit Tigers’ world championship season of 1968. On the other, he hurt his pitching arm after being taken by the Kansas City Royals with the 12th pick in the expansion draft, the injury essentially scuttling the rest of his big league pitching career.
Rather than fade into oblivion, the retired reliever has taken his one year of glory and combined it with an extraordinary sense of humor to forge a second career in baseball. He first made a name for himself on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza” as a wisecracking baseball analyst, turned in a stint as a pitching coach under Darrell Evans in the Golden Baseball League, and now travels the circuit for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, making appearances at golf outings and old-timers games across the country.
One of the most gregarious and accommodating of the retired players I’ve encountered, Warden is carving a reputation as the new clown prince of baseball. During the recent Hall of Fame Classic, held on Father’s Day in Cooperstown, Warden talked about his pursuit of autographs, his interest in the game’s history, and comparisons that have likened him to Joe Garagiola and Max Patkin.
Markusen: I wanted to ask you about the Baseball Encyclopedia that you carry around with you? Tell us about that. Why do you take it with you wherever you go?
Warden: That all started in 1989, when my wife got me the encyclopedia for a Christmas present, and then I helped with a golf outing in Cincinnati. The book had everybody that ever played the game through 1988. So we were in the hospitality room one night and Ryne Duren was arguing with some other guys in the room. Dick Radatz was there, and Gary Bell, and everyone else.
They said, “Duren, you were the worst hitting pitcher that ever lived!” So he said, “Naw, I was not!” He goes, “Hank Aguirre, Sandy Koufax, Bob Buhl…” and he starts naming guys. (Editor’s note: Former Giants and Mets right-hander Ron Herbel can be thrown into this discussion, too.) So I said that I could settle the dispute. I brought the book in the next day. So we looked at the book, and Duren was the worst hitting pitcher until we ran across my good friend Andy McGaffigan, who pitched with the Reds, Expos and Kansas City Royals. And he had a lower batting average than Duren. So Duren says, “I told you so!”
So while I had the book open, I said to him, “Why don’t you sign here by your name?” There were about 30 guys at that outing, and I got those 30 (to sign).
And then Dan Foster, who runs the alumni association, says to me—because I emceed the event and had the place rolling—“What are you doing next weekend?” I said, “Nothing. Why?” He said, “You’re going to Williamsport.” So I said, “What am I going to do in Williamsport?” So Dan said, “Exactly what you did here tonight.” So I went to Williamsport and got Hector Lopez and Bill Mazeroski and a lot of Pirates and a lot of Phillies. So I just started carrying the encyclopedia with me to every event, and I’ve got over 1,200 autographs.
I’ve got 57 Hall of Famers. I’ve got Yogi and Dale Berra. I’ve got Phil and Joe Niekro. Jim and Gaylord Perry. I’ve got a lot of father-son combinations, and brothers, George and Gene Freese. I’ve got Joe Coleman and Joe Coleman Sr. I’ve got Gus Bell and Buddy Bell. It’s just a neat thing to have. And the guys love signing it.
I did an event for (Tom) Seaver up in Darien, Conn., or somewhere up there in the East when he was working for Chase Bank. When he signed it, he said, “I wish I had thought of that. That’s awesome, that’s the best idea I’ve ever seen!” And so it just sort of caught on.
So of all the guys here in Cooperstown, I needed one guy this week (the week of the Hall of Fame Classic). It was Frank DiPino. I didn’t have him. So I got him, and it just added to my list.
Markusen: Do you have any one autograph that is your most cherished, a boyhood hero, or someone like that?
Warden: Well, Warren Spahn, I always idolized Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford, both left-handed pitchers, and I’ve got both of them in the book. And I got Hank Aaron at the All-Star Game in New York two years ago. Hank was a big addition to it. He’s one of the great hitters and players of all-time. I mean, you could talk about anybody you want, but Hank Aaron’s pretty good. Hank Aaron’s pretty darn good.
You know, Johnny Mize, “The Big Cat,” was such a gentleman, and I got him in there. And I’ve got guys like Jimmie Outlaw (an outfielder-third baseman who played for the Tigers), some obscure names. And I got Paul, I can’t think of Paul’s last name, but he pitched against Babe Ruth… Paul Hopkins, who gave up like his 59th home run (in 1927). I’ve gotten some guys, and some people have asked me, “Where did you see those guys?”
But I probably do more alumni events than anybody in the system. I go and emcee the events, use my gift of gab, and introduce the players. So I see a lot of guys. Like I said, the thing’s grown to 1,200 autographs plus.
Markusen: Has anybody ever turned you down?
Warden: I’ve never had one guy turn me down. I’ve seen guys turn somebody down, but when they see the encyclopedia, they say, ‘Hey, this is a great idea.” It’s so unique, and it something that’s not gonna be on eBay the next day. Because a lot of guys think this is a personal collection of mine that I’ll have forever, and then I’ll give to my kids. It’s a lot of fun.
Markusen: I’ve heard some characterize you as the new Joe Garagiola, in terms of being a funnyman, an ambassador for baseball. Do you think that’s accurate?
Warden: Well, they’re close. I guess I’m an ambassador for baseball. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that year with the Tigers. I’ve gotten more mileage out of that one year in the big leagues. I’m very thankful for it. I would never trade that one year. I hurt my arm with the Royals after the expansion draft. People ask me, “Aren’t you mad you didn’t make this big money?” I’m not mad. Yeah, I’d like to have played longer. But there are people out there who would have loved to play, but never played one day in the big leagues. I just feel fortunate that I had some talent that God gifted me, touched my arm, and I could throw and make the big leagues.
Johnny Sain was a big part of my career because he believed in me and actually took me to the big leagues after the Tigers lost the pennant in ‘67 by one game. They needed some young arms in the bullpen, and I was there. I got to be a part of that team.
A lot of people say I’m another Bob Uecker. And I do a lot of Max Patkin stuff. I didn’t do it today (at Doubleday Field). It’s tougher during the day because I do the water trick and you can’t see the water come out in the daytime. I’ve heard some call me the “new clown prince of baseball.” But Garagiola is pretty close. I can emcee and host, and Joe had a real gift for words.
I very seldom write anything down. Al Kaline, great Hall of Famer who was my teammate, and Bill Freehan (another teammate) asked me, “How do you think of that stuff?” Guys, it’s just up there. It just pops out. I have no idea how.
Markusen: And you got me with the water gun when I was walking through the press box…
Warden: (laughing) I’m sorry about that. I apologize.
Markusen: That’s all right. I thought it was one of the fans throwing water on me. It actually felt good on a hot day…. I was going to ask you a follow-up. Do you feel motivated to constantly add new material to what you’re doing?
Warden: Yes. Yesterday for the youth clinic I had about seven or eight people come up to me and say, “Hey, glad to see you’re back here. You got any new wigs? What do you got that’s different?” I have the hat with the hair on top, but I try to change things up. Otherwise, people will say, “Aw, he’s done this before.” So I try to throw something in new. I make the circuit, and I do see a lot of guys, a lot of repeated guys, and I try to throw in a couple of new jokes or digs on people. So yes.
Markusen: Final question for Jon Warden. What’s your favorite part of this weekend? You’re obviously a regular here in Cooperstown. What do you like the best about it?
Warden: First thing, being in Cooperstown, seeing all of the ex-teammates and opponents we played against. And then the fans. Did you see this place, the crowd we had today? It’s a real tribute to us, to the older fellows, like they’re saying thanks for coming out. What a great time to spend. Next year, I’m bringing my wife and daughter and my son, and get them up here so they can enjoy it, too.
Markusen: Happy Father’s Day, Jon. Always a pleasure.