Cooperstown Confidential: Thinking of Pat Dobsonby Bruce Markusen
December 23, 2011
As we approach the end of an old year, I inevitably start to think about the baseball people that have passed away over the last 12 months. Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, one of the nicest people you could expect to meet in any field or industry, immediately comes to mind. So do other players, less famous but players that I remember watching and following. The list includes Jim Northrup and Matty Alou and Bob Forsch, who lived just long enough to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game Seven of this year’s World Series. There’s also Charlie Lea, who was once a front line pitcher for the long-gone Expos, and Orioles ace Mike Flanagan, and Stanley Glenn, the former Negro Leagues catcher.
And let’s not forget excellent managers like Dick Williams and Chuck Tanner. All left us this year.
Looking back five years, I remember another baseball alumnus who died, and much too soon. He was Pat Dobson, who was a very good starting pitcher before becoming a terrific pitching coach and an insightful major league scout. Dobson died late in 2006 at the age of 64, succumbing to leukemia only one day after receiving the actual diagnosis of the disease.
As a young fan, I always used to confuse Pat Dobson and Chuck Dobson. Chuck was a good right-handed pitcher who always seemed to be having arm problems, which prevented him from being a more meaningful part of the Oakland dynasty that ran from 1971 to 1974. Also right handed, Pat made a name for himself in 1971, when he became one of four Orioles to win 20 games in the same season. Pat Dobson would have the longer career, one that would see him travel frequently, from Detroit to San Diego to Baltimore, with later stops in Atlanta, New York and Cleveland.
At the start of his major league career, Dobson became an important part of a World Championship bullpen. He pitched in long relief for the 1968 Tigers, succeeding workhorse starters like Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich on those rare occasions when they didn’t pitch into the eighth or ninth innings.
Although the Tigers’ starters accumulated a truckload of innings in 1968, Dobson pitched effectively when called upon. He put up a 2.66 ERA in 125 innings, struck out 93, finished second on the team with seven saves (the Tigers did not have a clear No. 1 fireman in their bullpen), and even made 10 appearances as a spot starter. Dobson filled a role that is rarely seen in today’s game of specialization: the “utility” pitcher, who can throw long relief, set-up relief, or even start from time to time. In these days of extreme pitch counts and one-inning relief limits, a useful utility pitcher like Dobson has become a thing of the past.
Dobson had some success with the Tigers, but he could not crack a fulltime rotation that included Lolich, McLain, Earl Wilson and Joe Sparma. So the Tigers traded the talented right hander and utility infielder Dave Campbell (the future ESPN broadcaster) to the Padres for a young Joe Niekro. Dobson pitched reasonably well for the 1970 Padres, an awful team that needed help everywhere, before being re-routed to Baltimore as part of a six-player deal that netted San Diego light-hitting shortstop Enzo Hernandez (profiled this week on THT by Frank Jackson).
The trade to the Orioles became the stroke of luck that changed Dobson’s career. He flourished under the mentoring of one of the game’s best manager/pitching coach combinations in Earl Weaver and George Bamberger. At the time Dobson joined the Orioles, he featured five pitches that he threw from several different angles and windups. Weaver simplified his approach, encouraging Dobson to adopt a single windup, repeat it each time, and concentrate on using his two or three best pitches. The approach worked; Dobson not only won 20 games with a 2.90 ERA in 1971, but also remained an effective starter in 1972, lowering his ERA to 2.65 and making his only All-Star team. Unfortunately, the Orioles didn’t score many runs for him, accounting for his 18 losses.
After the ’72 season, the Orioles foolishly traded Dobson and Dave Johnson to the Braves as part of the ill-fated deal for Earl Williams.
With the Orioles, Dobson emphasized his knee-bending overhand curve ball. He had struggled to throw the curve for strikes in Detroit and San Diego, but began to control it with greater precision in Baltimore. It wasn’t as good as that of a contemporary like Bert Blyleven (then again, whose curve compares to Blyleven’s?), but it was perhaps only a couple of notches below. Think of Neil Allen or Rod Scurry from the 1980s in terms of similarly effective curve balls. Or in today’s game, think of pitchers like Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright and Brett Myers.
If Dobson had ever developed another pitch with remotely the same effectiveness as his curve ball, he might have been a 200-game winner and a better known name to younger fans. Dobson never had much of a fastball, which he threw in the mid-80s, but he made up for the lack of velocity with a tenacious competitive streak. The ultimate battler, he persevered through seven minor league seasons and became a very good pitcher, a legitimate No. 3 starter for some very good teams in the 1970s. In today’s game, Dobson in his prime would have merited a four-year contract worth $40 to $50 million on the free agent market.
While the trade to Baltimore helped Dobson’s career, the move to Atlanta temporarily derailed it. Struggling to adapt to “The Launching Pad” in Atlanta, Dobson pitched badly during the early season, convincing the Braves to trade him to the Yankees for four young players, all of whom failed to develop. The half-season in Atlanta left Dobson feeling sour toward the fans and their mistreatment of the man approaching Babe Ruth’s home run record. “Atlanta is the most prejudiced town I’ve ever been in in my life,” Dobson told the New York Times. “Can you imagine guys coming to the ballpark just to boo a nice guy like Hank Aaron?”
Thrilled to be in New York and not Atlanta, Dobson gave the Yankees two and a half solid seasons before becoming the trade bait that brought Oscar Gamble to New York. Dobson pitched well for Cleveland in 1976, but then fell off the map in 1977 and called it a career. But first he became something of a mentor to a young Dennis Eckersley. Among other things, Dobson taught Eckersley much of the colorful jargon that he became known for, such as saying “cheese” for a hard fastball, “yakker” for a curveball, and “in the kitchen” for throwing inside.
After his playing days, Dobson became a respected pitching coach with the Brewers, Padres, Royals and Orioles, where he became renowned for being able to diagnose a flawed pitching delivery almost immediately.
Later, he joined the Giants as a trusted scout and front office adviser. Always colorful and willing to be outspoken, Dobson brought those same traits to his role as a scout. He offered blatantly honest opinions on players to the media, allowing himself to be quoted by name. Sometimes he was so honest that he put himself in the front office’s line of fire.
I can remember an article in USA Today Baseball Weekly, in which Dobson put forth some brutally honest assessments of various players and teams. When asked to name the worst team at making offensive adjustments, Dobson spared no mercy. “The fighting fish,” said Dobson, referring to the Florida Marlins. “They’ve got nothing. I don’t know what they’re doing. I saw them seven straight games and they never ran once. Not even a hit and run.”
Or when asked about the Padres’ Ruben Rivera and whether he still had a chance to blossom into stardom, Dobson said, “Slim and bleeping none. He can’t hit. He has no clue on a breaking ball. And he can’t hit a fastball.” The Giants, his employers, were none too pleased and considered firing Dobson, but instead let him off with a reprimand. That decision was probably a tribute to the value that Dobson brought the Giants as a major league scout. It’s just too bad that Dobson, who was quick with a quip, never became a color analyst on radio or TV. He would have been a natural fit for the booth.
As someone who lives in Cooperstown, I often have the chance to meet former players. Regretfully, I never met Dobson. But I felt as if I knew him, if only through the enjoyment of reading articles that quoted him. He was a legendary storyteller, a funny free spirit, and an incisively honest assessor of major league talent, both good and bad.
Pat Dobson was someone who made it far more entertaining to be a baseball fan.
References and Resources
New York Times
The Sporting News
USA Today Baseball Weekly
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.
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