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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dennis Bennett: The Quintessential Left-Handed Pitcher

Over time, left-handed pitchers have acquired the stereotype of being an eccentric bunch. From quirky exploits on the field to adventures off the field, southpaws are a breed unto themselves. One of the best was Dennis Bennett, who sadly passed away last year.

Bennett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies out of Shasta Junior College (California) in 1958. He pitched well in the minors, but saw his 1961 season cut short because of an ill-conceived somersault race. Fortunately, he was able to recover and made his MLB debut with the Phillies the following year, winning nine games for the seventh place team.

A tragic car accident in the winter of 1963 in Puerto Rico nearly ended Bennett’s career and his life. Remarkably, he recovered in time to assume his place in the Phillies’ rotation by late June of that year, and finished 9-5 with a 2.64 ERA.

Bennett pitched in seven major league seasons, always displaying his free-spirited ways. He became known for bringing a small arsenal of guns with him on road trips, thus cementing his legacy as the quintessential lefty. He finished his career with a 43-47 record and 3.69 ERA. In addition to the Phillies, he also pitched for the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, and California Angels. More information about his career statistics is available here.

This past January, I had a chance to speak with Bennett. Even though he had just received a diagnosis of cancer, he enthusiastically chatted with me for nearly 45 minutes and was optimistic in his outlook. Unfortunately, he lost his fight on March 24 at the age of 72. Baseball lost one of its great characters and pitchers, and he will be sorely missed.

Dennis Bennett Interview:

How did you first become interested in baseball?: I started playing Little League, and my dad, he played in the Coast League. When he was young he was a knuckleballer. He played for the Los Angeles Stars and I think, the Oakland Oaks. When we moved towns we didn’t have any baseball for kids at all, so he started a Little League. Then when I outgrew Little League he started Babe Ruth. When I outgrew Babe Ruth at 15 there was no other baseball because we didn’t have enough kids for an American Legion team and they didn’t have senior Babe Ruth at that time…

Once I got out of Babe Ruth I was only 16 and I had no place to play, so I started playing semi-pro for a team from Scott Mountain. Our own town team, they had a pitcher by the name of Butch Darymple. They were giving him $100 every Sunday, so I had to go to Scott Valley to pitch. But I started every Sunday.

Did you have a favorite team or player when you were growing up?: No, because I was growing up in the ‘50’s. The 40’s and the 50’s on the west coast, we didn’t have any baseball. That was something they played back east. The only time we would do anything was when we listened to the World Series, and I didn’t even really do that because I was usually busy doing something else; you know, spending a lot of time outside. So I didn’t have a favorite team and I didn’t have a favorite player.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience in getting signed by the Phillies in 1958?: Well, I could have signed with St. Louis in 1957 when I graduated from high school. My buddies, they wanted to go to school, so I tried to go with them. I had a free ride, but my buddies were going to a JC, so I went with them. We didn’t want to split up. There were three of us. We were all like brothers and still are. So I went down there and played baseball, and all of a sudden I came home one day and they were packing. I said, ‘what’s going on’ and they said, “we’re going in the Army; you want to go?” I said, ‘No, that’s the last place I want to go.’

In between there a scout called. He was a scout with the Phillies. He said, “Hey Dennis, you ready to go play?” I go, ‘Well yeah.’ He said, “Okay, we’ll meet you at your dad’s house tomorrow.” So I went back home and he came up and I signed. I didn’t even know anything about the minor leagues. Like I told him, ‘I don’t want to go too far from home.’ He said, “Of course. We’ll send you to Bakersfield.” I was in Bakersfield for three days and then they shipped me to Johnson City, Tennessee. I ended up quite a ways from home.

I didn’t really think about the big leagues for the first couple of years I played. I was just getting paid to do something I loved. I wasn’t much; I made a whole $250 a month when I first signed. I made $7,500 my first year in the big leagues. We made big bucks. You talked to players who played in the ‘40’s and ‘50s and they’d say, “God, you guys make a lot of money now-a-days.” They were making three or four hundred a month. The game has changed a lot, but that’s how I got started.

What type of pitches did you throw?: I guess it was just a fastball, a curveball, and a changeup. Back when I first signed I only had the fastball or the curveball. When I went to Johnson City there was an old boy there by the name of Ben Tincup, a pitching coach, and he taught me a changeup, or actually a palm ball. I didn’t throw the circle change; I threw a straight palm ball. So, when I got to the big leagues, those were the only three pitches I had.

In 1963, my second year, my pitching coach, Al Widmar taught me a slider, and I started throwing the slider, but I didn’t really use it that much.

What is your favorite moment from your playing career?: Probably it was one of my first big league starts. I shut out the Dodgers and struck out 11 (This was his first major league win and came on June 22, 1962. He beat the Dodgers 7-0). That’s kind of a highlight; my first win, and you know, almost winning the pennant in ’64. We had a 6.5 game lead with 12 left to play and lost 10 in a row. That was a high moment and a low moment. We had finished dead last in ’62 and ’63, and then we led the National League from opening day to the last day. We finished second by a game.

Getting traded to the American League to Boston, and I loved Fenway Park. I got my first win at Yankee Stadium. I mean, I think every ball player secretly wants to be a Yankee. It was great to walk into Yankee Stadium and look at all of the tradition, and the same way with Fenway and Wrigley.

What was your impression of Boston owner, Tom Yawkey?: He was great. I got in a car wreck in 1962 in Puerto Rico, after my first year. I got really banged up and spent three months in the hospital. I had cracked my shoulder blade, but nobody knew.

My arm started bothering after my last start in ’64. And so in ’65 it bothered me the whole year and I was like 5-7 for Boston, and I had got traded to Boston for Dick Stuart, so I had been traded for a pretty good player. In ’66 I went to spring training and my arm was so bad I couldn’t even throw. Billy Herman was our manager and said, “We’re going to send you down to Toronto, so you can go down to Triple-A and see if you can work out your problems.” I knew if I went to Toronto I was done, so I said, ‘I’m going to fly back to Boston and get another opinion.’ So I flew back and Dr. McGillicuddy in Boston finally found that in that wreck I had cracked my shoulder blade and calcium had built up on it. I went back to the ball club and talked to Herman and he said, “we we don’t allow players to have operations.” The doctor had said I had about a 50-50 chance of pitching again with the operation. I had no chance without it. So, I was arguing with him, and he’d say “no,” especially since they would be cutting on the back of the shoulder. We were talking about it and Mr. Yawkey walks in and he looks over and said, ‘Dennis, what are you doing here’ and I explained everything to him. He just looked at the doctor and said, ‘If the kid wants an operation, give him an operation.’ At that point I had an operation and went on to pitch for another six years. That was the type of person Mr. Yawkey was. He was a fantastic owner and a fantastic person.

If you could do anything about your career differently, what would that be?: Sure! I wouldn’t have gotten in that wreck. That set the tone for my whole career. When I first came up in ’62 they were comparing me to Koufax; I was one of the up and comers. I was 9-9 on a last place ball club and then got in that wreck. We were going to the ballpark for the game that night, the only ball club to drive in. I was sitting in the front seat and my pitching coach (Art Widmar) was sitting in the back seat, and another player (Joel Gibson) and his wife were in the back seat. The driver had a heart attack and died at 40 mile per hour. We hit a bridge and I went flying through the windshield and I ended up in the hospital for three months. They told me I might have trouble walking, let alone pitching, but I overcame all of that though I couldn’t overcome the shoulder. If I had it to do all over again I wouldn’t have gone to Puerto Rico!

As it was I loved every minute of it. My last four years I was a player/coach for Triple-A for the Angels. I spent three years with Hawaii and two years with Salt Lake. I really enjoyed that. They wanted me to travel because they wanted me to go to winter ball. I wouldn’t do it, so they released me. I was married and had four kids and had to wait for them all season long and I wasn’t about to be without them all winter too. I told them (Angels) I would go to Florida or to Arizona, but they wanted me to go to the Dominican.

Playing for the Red Sox during the 1960’s, what was your perception of the city and the team when it came to issues of race?: Well they were really one of the last teams to get colored players. When I was there we had Earl Wilson and Pumpsie Green. Then they traded Pumpsie.

I had never seen segregation until I signed and ended up in Tennessee. Every time the players went to a hotel, the colored players would have to go to a different section of town. 14. We didn’t have it (segregation) out here in California.

In spring training, the first year we went to Winter Haven, Florida, and Earl Wilson, and I, and Dave Morehead went to Lakeland to do something with the Detroit players or something. We stopped at this bar for a drink. We walked in and sat down. The bartender says, ‘I’ll serve you two, but I ain’t serving no niggers.’ I thought Earl was going to kill him, which is why we got him the hell out of there. Of course it got in all the papers.

I never had any problems. Richie Allen was one of my best friends. Like I said, when I was growing up we didn’t have any colored guys in town, let alone school. Even when I was in college none of them played sports.

From your perspective, were the Red Sox supportive of Wilson after the incident in the Lakeland bar?: I really can’t talk for Earl but I thought they were supportive. Boston was [known] for its cutthroat writers… Those guys were after all the scandal and dirt they could get. They really cut up the ballplayers. Of course, we had such a horses&%$# team, you know? In ’65 and ’66 we finished dead last. Then in ’67 we won the pennant. But I don’t think the Red Sox did anything wrong about Earl. I guess they decided to trade him; I forget who we got for him. I know they traded him in either ’65 or ’66…

Who is someone you played with or against who you believe was underrated and didn’t get the recognition they deserved?: Richie Allen was a hell of a player and he probably got recognized. Johnny Callison of the Phillies… I’m trying to think, but most of them got recognized. There was Yaz and Lonborg. He got recognized and was a hell of a pitcher when he came around. I can’t really think of anybody except for maybe Johnny Callison. He only had that one good year and he got traded around. In Boston I can’t think of anybody except for Reggie Smith. He went on and had a pretty good career for himself, but Boston had him underrated.

What have you been up to since you stopped playing baseball?: The only thing I knew was the bar business, so I moved here to Klamath Falls, Oregon and built a bar/cocktail lounge/steakhouse. I had it for about seven or eight years and then I sold it and opened up a boutique shop for my wife and a music store for me. I found out that wasn’t my gig. Then I really didn’t do anything for six or seven years.

I opened up another bar in ’94, and kept that until ’98. I then bought a four story building for my wife, so in ’98 I sold my interest in the bar and went to develop the building. On the first floor she had the boutique shop, and she also had a home interior store, where she sold linoleum, carpet, wood, and tile. On the next floor I have a bar and a back room that holds about 100 and has a dance floor. On the third floor I have a poker room, a pool room, another bar, and a big banquet room that holds about 400. Then I have a separate supper club type thing. I haven’t developed the top or the bottom; the top floor or the basement.


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