Card Corner: 1974 Topps: John Curtis

The name “John Curtis” has entered my consciousness on two occasions. One of them dates back to the old television show, The Waltons. Do you remember when Mary Ellen Walton, the eldest daughter to John and Oliva Walton, gave birth to a boy? He was given the name of John-Curtis Walton. The name of John honored Mary Ellen’s father, while the inclusion of Curtis referenced her husband, the World War II soldier.

CurtisThe other recollection of this name, to the surprise of no one, involves baseball. John Curtis was a left-handed pitcher who lasted 15 seasons despite middling levels of success. I remember first seeing one of his baseball cards in 1974, when Topps issued this dandy action-packed piece of cardboard.

It is one of the few cards of the era that gives us a real taste of Fenway Park. We see Curtis on the pocked mound, his motion near its apex, as he is set against the majestic backdrop of the left field wall at Fenway, including the left side of the old-time scoreboard. “The Wall” is the equivalent of the façade at Yankee Stadium, or the ivy-covered brick wall at Wrigley Field, or the advertiser-filled fences of old Connie Mack Stadium. By including Fenway in the background, Topps has given us a classic card from the early 1970s.

As much as I’m tempted by Fenway, Curtis is the primary subject of the card. He began to draw major attention as an amateur pitcher; scouts loved the live-armed left-hander who fired three no-hitters and a perfect game while pitching at Clemson University. He also gained attention at the 1967 Pan American Games by becoming the first American to defeat Cuba in national competition.

The Red Sox happily made Curtis their first-round pick in the 1968 June draft and assigned him to Winston-Salem of the Carolina League. To the Sox’ disappointment, Curtis pitched creditably but did not wow his instructors or the Red Sox’ talent evaluators; he showed middling control and spun an ERA of 3.41.

The Red Sox kept Curtis at Single-A ball in 1969, but assigned him to a different team in a different league. Pitching for Greenville of the Western Carolinas League, Curtis showed an explosive fastball by striking out 158 batters in 149 innings, but his other numbers displayed problems. He walked 97 batters, saw his ERA rise to nearly 4.50, and lost 12 of 18 decisions.

Curtis’ performance indicated that he needed more time at the Class-A level, but the Red Sox bumped him up to Double-A Pawtucket in 1970. Curtis improved his control and allowed only 113 hits in 138 innings. He made such substantial progress that the Red Sox called him up in mid-August and put him in the bullpen. His debut did not go well. After loading the bases, he faced left-handed hitting Ed Kirkpatrick. He promptly allowed a grand slam to the man known as “Spanky.”

As Curtis eventually admitted, he shouldn’t have even been on the mound at all. “There probably never was a guy less ready to pitch in the majors,” Curtis later told Ray Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe, displaying the kind of honesty that would trademark his frequent interactions with the media.

After bombing in his debut relief outing, Curtis headed back to Pawtucket to finish the season. Still, the Red Sox liked what they saw of Curtis that summer and promoted him to Triple-A Louisville in 1971. Once again working out of the rotation, Curtis struck out nearly a batter an inning and won 10 games. On the downside, his control imploded. He walked a whopping 111 batters in 187 innings.

Such wildness normally would have set off red flags, but the Red Sox needed starting pitching badly. With only Sonny Siebert pitching well among the starters, the Sox called on Curtis late in the ‘71 season and gave him three starts along with two looks in relief. Stunningly, Curtis walked only six batters in 26 innings. He pitched so well that he convinced the Red Sox to give him more serious consideration for a role in the Boston rotation in 1972.

After eight mostly dominant starts at Triple-A Louisville to start that season, the Red Sox called Curtis up. With no left-handed starters in the Boston rotation, Curtis fit in nicely behind right-handers Siebert and Marty Pattin. In making his first career start, Curtis pitched a seven-hit shutout; that performance kept him in the rotation for nearly the balance of the season. He favored his fastball, but also threw an effective curve ball and change-up. He showed radical improvement in his control: He won 11 games while pitching to an ERA of 3.73. Finally, John Curtis had arrived.

Curtis also began to make a mark in his pursuit of a second career. Known as a scholarly thinker and speaker, Curtis wrote an article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. As much as he enjoyed pitching, he also wanted to pursue a career as a writer for a newspaper, and eventually as an author of novels.

His teammates could have easily nicknamed him “Author,” but they chose a different nickname for their intellectual teammate. The Red Sox began to refer to Curtis as “Doctor,” a moniker that seemed to fit for a man who didn’t carry himself like a stereotypical ballplayer.

In terms of on-field performance, Curtis pitched even more effectively in 1973, as he put in a complete season of 30 starts and 221 innings. He walked a few more batters than he wanted (83), but lowered his ERA to 3.58 and completed 10 of his starts. He also drew praise from opposing scouts, who noted his competitiveness on the mound. One of his biggest supporters was famed Orioles superscout Jim Russo, who lauded Curtis’ willingness to work hard at all aspects of pitching. It also didn’t hurt that Curtis had a reputation as one of the game’s nicest guys.

At only 25, Curtis looked like a keeper in Boston’s future. Then came the winter meetings of 1973. The Red Sox began talking to the Cardinals about a swap of pitchers. Ultimately, the Red Sox decided to trade Curtis and two other young pitchers (Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman) for a more polished starter in Reggie Cleveland and veteran relief ace Diego Segui. Just like that, Curtis’ career in Boston had ended.

The Cardinals so desperately wanted a left-handed starter that they gave up Cleveland, a young right-hander who had posted better numbers than Curtis. Hoping that he would fill their need for a southpaw, the Cardinals gave Curtis 29 starts, but his ERA rose to 3.78 and his strikeouts fell below 100 in nearly 200 innings of work. Those numbers took on more depressing overtones given Busch Memorial Stadium’s reputation as a pitcher’s park.

Considering his performance a disappointment, the Cardinals split Curtis between the bullpen and the rotation in 1975. His strikeout rate continued to fall, while he gave up 13 home runs in 146 innings.

Curtis bottomed out further in 1976. Once again splitting his season between starting and relieving, he walked more batters (65) than he struck out (52). With an ERA of 4.50, Curtis’ lack of development became a major concern to the Cardinals.

After three seasons, manager Red Schoendienst and GM Bing Devine had seen enough. That October, the Cardinals included him in a package with outfielder Willie Crawford and utility man Vic Harris to the Giants for pitchers Mike Caldwell and John D’Acquisto and catcher Dave Rader.

The Giants hoped a change of scenery and a change of roles would help Curtis. Neither did. Shifting to mostly  bullpen work, Curtis struggled terribly with his control. His ERA soared to 5.39, a career high. Curtis became an unpopular man at Candlestick Park.

As he neared his 30th birthday, Curtis faced a critical juncture of his career. The Giants decided to ease the pressure by making him a fulltime reliever; he responded well by lowering his ERA to 3.71 and cutting down his walks, from 48 to 29.

That winter, Curtis took on a second job, one that represented the fulfillment of a dream. He signed a contract to write for the San Francisco Examiner, which asked him to produce 13 weeks of 1,000-word essays. The Examiner didn’t restrict him to baseball topics, giving him free rein to write about whatever he chose. The Examiner liked Curtis’ writing enough to keep him on staff for three full winters.

Though he ventured into general news and pop culture, at one point, Curtis chose to write about teammate Bill Madlock and the swirl of trade rumors that had engulfed him. When Curtis pointed out that players like Madlock were often treated like “horseflesh,” several members of Giants management became upset.

Still, the Giants liked what they saw of their left-hander on the mound. When a flood of injuries assaulted the Giants’ rotation in 1979, manager Joe Altobelli moved him back to the rotation.

Curtis responded with  some of the best pitching of his career. Some members of the San Francisco media began referring to him as the ace of the staff. Once again, Curtis tried to introduce some honest analysis to the situation. “I don’t think what I’ve done in the past, or even this year, justifies talk of me being considered the stopper on this staff,” Curtis told UPI in July of 1979. “If that’s what I’m supposed to be, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

Curtis was right. With John Montefusco injured for a good portion of the season and Vida Blue dragging through the summer with a 5.01 ERA, the Giants won only 71 games. They called on Curtis to start 18 times. For the first time in five years, he reached double figures in wins.

Curtis’ resurgence, though hardly a signal that he had become an elite pitcher, came at the right time. He was now a free agent, and with a crying need for left-handed pitching around both leagues, he received several good offers. Ultimately, he took a five-year contract worth $1.75 million from the Padres.

For the short term, Curtis paid off. In 1980, he won 10 games and posted a 3.51 ERA, his best mark in a half-decade of work. The Padres were pleased, but they were just as disappointed the following season, when Curtis flatlined. He pitched so poorly that he lost his spot in the Padres’ rotation.

Curtis pitched better in 1982, but with the Padres out of contention on the last day of August, they sold Curtis, now 34, to the Angels, who hoped he could help their bullpen. The Angels ended up winning the American League West, but it wasn’t because of Curtis, who floundered in eight appearances.

Remaining in the bullpen, Curtis put up less than mediocre numbers in 1982, while walking more batters than he struck out. Injuries then limited him to only 28 appearances in 1983. Curtis became a free agent, but he knew that he was done. Free agency simply became a better excuse for retirement.

At 36, Curtis called it a career. While there were moments of promise and a few seasons of double figure wins, he wound up with mediocre numbers: 89 victories, 97 losses, and an ERA of 3.96.

Other than a brief stint as a pitching coach in independent minor league ball, Curtis has remained outside of the game. Not surprisingly, he has concentrated his efforts on writing. And he’s a good one. He has written freelance articles for a number of publications, including the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle and Sports Illustrated. He has also written numerous book reviews for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

About 10 years ago, Curtis gained some attention when he wrote a negative review of Pat Jordan’s book A Nice Tuesday. Curtis, a fan of Jordan’s earlier baseball books, took the veteran author to task for writing too much about his pet dogs in a non-compelling way. “The honesty is still there,” wrote Curtis, “but the older Jordan is more self-obsessed than self-aware. In A Nice Tuesday, his ego, to say nothing of the dogs, runs wild.”

I suppose it’s appropriate that John Curtis would make such an assessment. After all, we writers spend a lot of time criticizing ballplayers for what they do, or don’t do. It’s only fair that a ballplayer-turned-author should be allowed to do the same.

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Comments

  1. said...

    Nice article about a nice guy – in fact Curtis has twice been pitching coach for Double-A Southern league teams in the past five yrs or so, not just indie ball.

    He is open and honest with folks and is one of the cool cats among usually uptight coaches.

    thanks!

  2. Dennis Bedard said...

    Thanks Bruce. The names mentioned here bring back memories. Dave Rader, Reggie Cleveland, Lynn McGlothen, all mediocre but memorable players. And to finish it off, we see Pat Jordan, one of my favorite player/writers.

  3. alex said...

    I remember I saw John Curtis pitch for the Giants vs. the Cubs in 1979. Signed my program and then he went to warm-up I remember he was very pleasant.

  4. said...

    And nearly 30 years later, the Red Sox drafted a young high schooler in the first round (17th overall).

    This hurler also happened to be left handed.

    He was born in 1979 – the same year Curtis had his resurgence with the Giants as a starter.

    He was chosen eight spots after his high school teammate.

    His name?

    Well, John Curtice of course.

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