Cooperstown Confidential: The wild life of George Brunetby Bruce Markusen
April 26, 2013
We know plenty about the stars, the legends, the Hall of Famers. We know their stories; we enjoy hearing about them. But it is the journeymen, the less talented players who truly fascinate me. They seem to be the most colorful; they have to overcome the greatest adversities. Their stories are often the most compelling, if only we are willing to dig and search.
One of those journeymen who has intrigued me is George Brunet. I first became aware of him in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. I then heard about his exploits, at an advanced age well into his 50s, in the Mexican League. After that, I noticed that old friend “Repoz” (also known as Darren Viola) had posted a baseball card of Brunet over at Baseball Think Factory.
And then a few years back, I read Steve Treder’s entertaining article at The Hardball Times, where he constructed an imaginary conversation between himself and Brunet’s left arm. For me, that was the tipping point. I decided at that time that I needed to write about Brunet. It took me a few years to advance from that point to the actual process of writing about Brunet. Well, after months and months (and now years) of unceasing procrastination, that time has arrived.
Brunet’s professional career dates all the way back to 1953, when Tigers scout and onetime Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Schoolboy Rowe signed the left-hander to his first contract. After debuting with Shelby of the Tar Heel League, the Tigers assigned Brunet to Seminole, a team in something called the Sooner State League, where he hurled poorly for parts of two seasons. Most exasperating was his inability to throw strikes. Under most normal circumstances, struggles in the Sooner State League could signal the end of a pitching career and give a young man every hint that it was time to pursue another line of work.
It’s rather remarkable that a young pitcher deemed unworthy of Class-D ball could make the jump all the way to the majors within two seasons, but somehow Brunet turned the trick. He helped his cause in 1956 by pitching a no-hitter for Crowley in the old Evangeline League. He struck out 16 batters that day, as he hurled the first no-hitter in the league’s history.
Promoting him in mid-season, the Athletics gave him a very tough assignment in only his second major league appearance. Manager Lou Boudreau summoned Brunet from the bullpen to face Ted Williams, who was only the game’s best hitter at the time (and perhaps of all time). Throwing a good curve ball, Brunet induced a weak groundout from the great Williams.
That was the high point of Brunet’s debut season. He struggled for most of the balance of the summer, causing the Athletics to question their decision to promote him. After his unimpressive trial in Kansas City in ‘56, Brunet spent most of the 1957 season pitching for Little Rock of the Southern Association. First, the good news. He struck out 235 batters to lead the league in K’s and won a respectable 14 games. Now the not-so-good. Over a stretch of 52 and a third innings, or the equivalent of nearly six complete games, Little Rock failed to score a single run in support of Brunet. The left-hander actually lost eight straight games over that span, which must represent some sort of unofficial record for offensive futility behind one pitcher. Thanks in large part to those eight straight defeats, Brunet totaled 15 losses for the summer. The Summer of George it was not.
Although he pitched briefly for the Athletics in 1957, he would spend all of 1958 and most of 1959 toiling in the minor leagues. (The 1958 season marked the only time he hurt his arm, as he developed a blood clot, which sidelined him for two weeks.) On the rare occasions that the Athletics auditioned Brunet in their bullpen, he struggled. After making Kansas City’s Opening Day roster in 1960, his misfortunes continued through his first three appearances. On May 11, the Athletics gave up on Brunet, trading him to the Milwaukee Braves for an unusually named right-hander, Bob Giggie.
The Braves tried Brunet as both a starter and reliever, but he continued to flail, putting up an ERA of 5.07 in 17 appearances. When those struggled persisted in 1961, the Braves sent him back to the minor leagues before finally dispatching him for good in 1962. The Braves dealt him to the Houston Colt .45s for Ben Johnson (not the actor, but a burly minor league right-hander).
As an expansion team, the Colt .45s seemed like a good landing place for a 27-year-old left-hander trying to find himself. The Colts needed all sorts of players, and certainly needed pitchers. Brunet made 11 starts and six relief appearances for Houston, putting up a 4.50 ERA. As in the past, there were too many walks, too many hits, and not enough strikeouts for Brunet to gain traction on a major league mound.
Three problems in particular marred the early frustration of Brunet’s career. Though he had a live arm and a repertoire of four pitches, he was often overweight and out of shape. He also had a furious temper, which boiled over when he pitched badly or his fielders flopped behind him. And then there were his considerable off-the-field journeys, which often found him in bars and unknown hotel rooms.
Practically from the start of his minor league career in 1952, Brunet became known as a “Dalton Boy.” This was a player who, once the game ended, headed for the nearest watering hole to begin his latest round of heavy drinking. Like other Dalton Boys on his teams, Brunet enjoyed the night life, partying until the wee hours and breaking more than his share of team curfews.
One of Brunet’s most famous episodes occurred during spring training in 1959. After a hard night of drinking with his teammates in West Palm Beach, Brunet somehow placed himself in front of the team hotel, directing traffic in the middle of the night. One of the cars that he stopped contained A’s manager Harry Craft and general manager Parke Carroll. They were not amused by the traffic stop. Shortly thereafter, the A’s sent Brunet out to Triple-A.
While the Mickey Mantles of the world somehow prospered, such a lifestyle seemed to affect Brunet’s performance. After a dreadful start to the 1963 season, the Colt .45s saw enough of their wild left-hander. This time they sent him packing in a straight cash transaction, selling him to the Orioles. Given their success in developing young pitching during the early 1960s, the Orioles seemed like as good a destination as any. The O’s didn’t need starters, so they used Brunet exclusively as a reliever. Unfortunately, the “Oriole Way” devised by the brilliant Paul Richards had no impact on Brunet, who was ineffective in 19 appearances, pushing his ERA to 5.40.
The Orioles sent Brunet back to Triple-A to start the 1964 season. Then came the break that would change the course of his career. On August 18, the Orioles sold Brunet to the Los Angeles Angels, another recent expansion team in desperate need of pitching.
In the ultimate irony, Brunet took the roster spot of Bo Belinsky, the colorful left-hander who was known for a hard-living, off-the-field style that actually exceeded that of Brunet. Some skeptics wondered if living and playing in Los Angeles and near the Hollywood scene would provide the right recipe for Brunet. As an unnamed member of the Angels’ organization proclaimed when he heard that Brunet was joining the team: “Hide the bottle!”
Good fit or not, Brunet joined an Angels club that featured several players known for their willingness to visit bars (including Jim Fregosi) and a cadre of colorful characters (principally Jim Piersall and Dean Chance). Later on, the Angels would add Jay Johnstone to the fray. For Brunet, it was the perfect opportunity to resurrect the days of the Dalton Boys.
Giving him a late-season look in their rotation, the Angels watched Brunet pitch the best ball of his peripatetic major league career. He put up a 3.61 ERA, struck out 36 batters in 42 innings, and generally kept the Angels in each game. His numbers might not have looked outstanding, but they represented major improvement over anything that the Athletics, Braves, Colt .45s, or Orioles had ever seen.
After the ‘64 campaign, the man known as “Lefty” dealt with one of the criticisms that had dogged him throughout his career. He made a strong effort to lose weight and improve his diet. “I did 100 or more sit-ups everyday,” said Brunet, according to a press release issued by the Angels’ organization. “I never ate after six o’clock, and if I did get hungry, I ate non-fattening foods like fruit.”
The regime worked wonders. Brunet lost 35 pounds, which was just the amount of weight that the Angels hoped he would lose. Looking little like his former self, Brunet put up a career-best ERA of 2.56 in 1965, while splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation. He also improved his curve, which complimented his plus fastball. At the age of 30, the late-blooming Brunet had arrived.
Brunet also credited his manager, veteran Angels skipper Bill Rigney, with helping him execute the turnaround. “Bill has given me the opportunity to pitch regularly up here, something I’ve never had before in the major leagues,” Brunet told the Angels in the interview. “The pressure is off me. I know that my job doesn’t depend on one game.”
The 1965 season marked the start of a successful four and a half year stretch in Southern California. The Angels made Brunet a fulltime starter in 1966. He emerged as a tireless workhorse, compiling 212, 250 and 245 innings over the next three years. His ERAs of 3.31, 3.31, and 2.86 were certainly helped by the pitching-friendly conditions of the time, but they also represented good work by the maturing left-hander.
Unfortunately, Brunet was also hounded by bad luck. The Angels simply did not score runs for him, a development that was exacerbated by the presence of so many weak hitters in the lineup, from catcher Buck Rodgers to second baseman Bobby Knoop to rhyming third baseman Paul Schaal. In 1967, the luckless Brunet lost 19 games, the most of any American League pitcher. He nearly matched that total with 17 defeats in 1968, again pacing the league in the unwanted category.
Brunet continued to live life hard and fast away from the ballpark, but by 1967, he had tired of his reputation. “The stories are always the same,” Brunet told sportswriter Ross Newhan. “It was always, ‘Here comes George, hide the bottle.’ That’s all they wrote and talked about. It was either that or my weight.”
He also felt that writers and players tended to exaggerate his exploits after games. “Even last year, even in LA and Anaheim, there were columns [written] which embarrassed my wife and myself. I’m really a little disgusted with that whole bit.” Brunet tried to curb his behavior, and also controlled his temper during those stretches when the Angels failed to score runs in support of him.
Brunet had undergone a remarkable turnaround, but by 1969 he started to frustrate the Angels. He showed up to spring training badly overweight, and with little inclination to drop the excess poundage. General manager Dick Walsh ripped into the hefty left-hander. That summer, his level of pitching fell off, which further infuriated Walsh.
On July 31, the Angels decided to make room for some youth on their roster by selling the portly Brunet to the expansion Seattle Pilots. While the Pilots were headed to the oblivion of a last-place finish in their first and only season, and Brunet would pitch poorly for Seattle, the opportunity to pitch for the Pilots would bring him some newfound notoriety. He would become a featured player in Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 season. Ball Four would give Brunet some nationwide fame for the first time in his journeyman career.
Shortly after he joining the Pilots, Bouton noticed that Brunet had a strange habit, at least strange for the time. He did not wear underwear, which made Bouton curious enough to ask him about the habit in Ball Four:
'No, I never wear undershorts,’ Brunet said. ‘Hell, the only time you need them is if you get into a car wreck. Besides, this way I don’t have to worry about losing them.’ Brunet’s explanation about foregoing underwear made some sense, at least in a Cosmo Kramer kind of way.
Brunet’s lack of underwear made an impression on the Pilots, but his pitching did not. As the Pilots moved to Milwaukee, they left Brunet behind; they traded him to the Washington Senators for right-hander Dave “The Brain” Baldwin.
Desperate for starting pitching, Ted Williams and the Senators gave Brunet 20 starts. He pitched creditably enough to build up some trade value; on August 31, the Pirates sent young right-hander Denny Riddleberger to Washington in a one-for-one deal. Used as a situational left-hander out of Danny Murtaugh’s bullpen, Brunet pitched beautifully, striking out 17 batters in 16 innings.
Headed to the 1970 National League Championship Series, the Pirates would have loved to add Brunet to their postseason roster. But the rules of the day prevented that. Since Brunet had officially joined the Bucs after the August 31st deadline, he was deemed ineligible for the playoffs.
It was a particularly cruel fate for Brunet, who had never appeared in the postseason during his long career. He very likely would have had that chance for the Pirates in 1971, a year in which Pittsburgh won it all, but Bucs GM Joe Brown included him in the trade that sent Matty Alou to the Cardinals for Vic Davalillo and Nelson Briles. Instead of basking in postseason glory, Brunet made seven appearances for the also-ran Cardinals, who gave up on him quickly and released him on May 10.
At the age of 36, the heavy and well-traveled Brunet appeared to hit the end of the line, summarized by 15 years and nine different big league clubs. No other major league teams showed interest in his services. That didn’t matter to Brunet. He signed a minor league contract with the Padres, accepting a pleasant minor league assignment to Hawaii. It was a reunion of sorts for Brunet, who had pitched for Hawaii in 1962. With his bulging beer belly, Brunet looked like a softball pitcher, giving him a distinctive look on the mound of the minor league Islanders. He pitched creditably over the next season and a half, winning 14 games in 1972.
Brunet enjoyed the climate and cuisine of Honolulu, but the Padres lost interest in the aging pitcher and released him. So he packed his bags and headed to the mainland, signing with Eugene, Oregon, for the 1973 season. After a five-game audition, the parent Phillies sent him packing, ending his association with Organized Ball.
Brunet was now 38, but he had no plans after baseball. He wanted to keep pitching. A friend of his, former major league shortstop Chico Carrasquel, convinced him to give it a whirl in the Mexican League. At the time, the league served as a bastion for over-the-hill major leaguers who still felt they had something to offer.
It was typical for aging players to spend a season or two in Mexico before calling it quits for good. Brunet did not look at the situation with such a perspective. Determined to keep pitching long-term, he became a standout starter in the Mexican League, pitching from 1973 to 1976. In 1977, he briefly became the manager of Poza Rica before deciding that he needed a return to the mound. Later that summer, he hurled a no-hitter, doing so at the age of 42. As Brunet told The Sporting News, “I’m too young to be a manager. It’s never too late when you know how to pitch.”
As each Mexican League season came, Brunet kept appearing. He also pitched winter ball in Mexico each year, which put his innings total at roughly 400 per year. He kept pitching and kept setting records. In 1980, he threw a three-hitter for Veracruz and was then treated to a surprise birthday party after the game. Tears in his eyes, he said in Spanish to his teammates and manager Willie Davis, “No one has ever done that for me.”
The following year, Brunet’s health took a bad turn as he suffered a heart attack. But he made a remarkably quick recovery and continued his career soon after.
Though he became an unofficial baseball ambassador to Mexico, he also claimed that police or citizens pulled a gun on him at least a half-dozen times. Nicknamed “El Viejo” (The Old Man), he would not retire until 1989; unbelievably, he appeared in the majors or minor leagues every year for 37 years. Along the way, he pitched for over 30 different teams.
In Mexico League play alone, he posted 55 shutouts, setting a league record. He won 132 games in Mexico, to the tune of a 2.66 ERA. Those numbers would earn him eventual election to the Mexican League Hall of Fame.
Not only did Brunet prosper in Mexico, but he loved the culture and the geography. When he-finally stopped pitching, at the age of 54, he decided to maintain his home in Mexico. After his retirement, he spent his time teaching Mexican youngsters how to play the game in a variety of clinics, camps, and leagues.
That is what he continued to do in his hometown of Poza Rica until an October day in 1991, when he suffered his second heart attack. This one was more serious than the first one that he had endured 10 years earlier. This time there would be no recovery. Shortly after the heart attack, Brunet died. He was 56 years old.
Perhaps Brunet’s heart gave out after too many years of partying, drinking, and overeating. Or perhaps his life just wasn’t the same once he had to give up his first and foremost love: pitching.
While his heart wore out, his arm never did. Amazingly, he pitched an estimated 6,000 innings between his work in the majors and the minor leagues. A remarkable man, George Brunet could throw all day, throw all night, and then he could throw some more.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.