MY FAVORITE PLAYER: DICK RADATZ
I had a wide range of major league baseball heroes when I was growing up in the wilds of the New Jersey suburbs, less than 10 miles from Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. I came of age as a fan in 1961, when I was 10, as our Cincinnati Reds won the pennant. I’m a Reds fan because my father was from Cincinnati; it’s a congenital defect. His favorite Reds player as a kid was Edd Roush, and he attended the 1919 World Series. Mine was Vada Pinson, followed by Frank Robinson and replaced by Pete Rose, with Jim Maloney heading my pitching staff.
From 1958-1961, the Yankees were the only team in town, and I spent lots of time watching them on Channel 11 into my teens, until they weren’t worth watching anymore. Though I was raised to root against the Yankees and always have, there have always been one or two individual players I liked a lot, initially Moose Skowron and Bobby Richardson, later Jim Bouton and Mel Stottlemyre.
I liked lots of the visiting players, stars like Rocky Colavito, Tony Oliva, Luis Aparicio and Al Kaline, and lesser lights like Vic Power, Dick McAuliffe, and Pete Runnels. For some reason, I didn’t appreciate great pitching until I started watching Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal mow down the fledgling Mets.
In 1962, a new sight appeared on the television console in our basement, a sight that awed me and terrorized American League batters for the next several years. Imagine a 6'6", thick-bodied hulk throwing a 95-mph fastball at you from a low sidearm delivery, and you’ll have an idea of how intimidating Dick Radatz was in the 1960s. Of the handful of major league pitchers in 1963 who were taller than Radatz, three (Gene Conley, Dave DeBusschere, and Steve Hamilton) played in the NBA. He was a freak with a fastball.
His weight fluctuated between 235 and 260 pounds. With his long stride and bulk dwarfing a release point that sent his fastball and slider homeward at unfamiliar angles, it’s no wonder he was totally untouchable for long stretches of four seasons before control problems curtailed his brilliance. It was tough to find the ball coming out of that Red Sox uniform and almost impossible to make solid contact.
When Radatz ended a game, usually with a strikeout, he would raise his arms exultantly, a trademark gesture that was rare in his time but presaged the triumphant flourishes common to today’s closers. Who was going to tell him to stop? Boston fans loved the way he terrorized, decimated, and demoralized opposing lineups. So did I.
Radatz cemented himself in my personal Hall of Fame on September 9, 1962, in the second game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. He had run roughshod over the American League all season and sported a 2.01 ERA when he entered in the seventh inning with the Red Sox ahead 4-3. I had seen him a couple of times against the Yankees and listened to a few of his exploits on the radio, but I wasn’t ready for this. He retired the first two hitters, but Tony Kubek singled, stole second, and scored the tying run on Tom Tresh’s single.
In the bottom of the ninth, Kubek doubled with two outs and tried to score on Bobby Richardson’s infield hit but was thrown out. My parents and I settled in after Sunday dinner to watch the extra innings. When the behind-the-plate camera angle so popular back then showed Radatz atop the pitching mound, he filled the screen. He looked like an Easter Island statue with a little ball cap perched atop his head. It didn’t seem fair.
Watching the Yankees flail at him, I sensed that you had to be prescient to hit a Radatz fastball. You had to guess during the windup where the pitch would cross the plate, swing there, and hope the ball found the bat. Though he had already pitched 107 innings that season, he was going to take care of business. He got tougher the longer he pitched.
His problem was that Yankees southpaw Marshall Bridges, brought in by Ralph Houk in the eighth inning, was just as tough. From the 10th inning through the 15th, Radatz and Bridges surrendered just two hits apiece. Radatz didn’t need to be “conveniently wild” to intimidate hitters, as the Yankees showed that day. He went on and on with that swooping whip of a delivery, getting enough movement on that sailing fastball to prevent solid contact. The Red Sox broke through in the 16th inning to win it for him.
It was nothing for the behemoth quickly dubbed “The Monster” to knock off two or three innings of relief to pin down a victory. His most famous endurance feat occurred in 1963, starting with six shutout innings to earn an extra-inning win at Baltimore on June 9, allowing just two hits and striking out 10. Two nights later in Detroit, he ran amok for another 8 2/3 innings to win in the 15th, giving up three hits and striking out 11.
“The Monster”, Dick Radatz, dominated on the mound and was twice named as The Sporting News “Fireman of the Year” — and saved more games than any American League pitcher in his rookie year of 1962 and again in 1964.
To put that in perspective, Mariano Rivera’s best month for strikeouts was 21, a figure that Radatz reached in less than three days. Rivera posted only three months in his 16 years as a closer with more innings than Radatz threw that week, part of The Monster’s streak of 33 consecutive shutout innings over a span of 33 days.
The best year for watching Radatz dominate the Yankees was 1964, when he went 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, beating them on Opening Day with 3 2/3 innings of work. In nine games, he logged 22 2/3 innings and struck out 23 Yankees, part of the 181 he fanned that season, a record for relievers.
By 1964, Radatz was also a star of my always expanding dice baseball universe. Whether it was his outstanding APBA card from 1962 or my own simpler dice game (which, as an only child, I played alone), he pitched great. I saw to that. I am here to confess that Radatz is the only player I cheated for in those solo games. If the dice showed that he had allowed a three-run homer, I would get temporary amnesia, forget that I had just rolled the dice, and fling them again to give him that rally-killing strikeout I had anticipated and seen so many times in reality.
How bitterly ironic that I was such a helpless witness when Radatz surrendered the most devastating three-run home run of his career. That was at the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium, which I attended with my father. We sat just above the auxiliary scoreboard in left field, just in fair territory. I was thrilled when Radatz entered in the seventh inning with a 4-3 lead, struck out Johnny Edwards and Ron Hunt and got Johnny Callison on a fly ball. In the eighth, he struck out Bill White and Leo Cardenas before Billy Williams grounded out.
So far, it looked like a reprise of his appearance in the 1963 All-Star Game, when he allowed a run in two innings while striking out five National Leaguers: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Dick Groat, Julian Javier and Duke Snider.
Then came the bottom of the ninth. He walked the leadoff batter, Mays, a big mistake. With everyone at Shea screaming for Willie to steal, he did and scored the tying run on Orlando Cepeda’s bloop single to right. Cepeda went to second on Joe Pepitone’s throwing error, and after an intentional walk, Hank Aaron pinch-hit for Ron Hunt. Radatz struck him out.
But he couldn’t get Callison a second time. To this day, I don’t know how Callison got around so quickly on a low fastball that seemed to scrape the ground. The result was a low, screaming line drive that cleared the fence in the right-field corner, roughly opposite where we sat, for the game-winning three-run homer.
As a National League fan, I was supposed to be overjoyed. Instead. I was sick. I couldn’t believe I had just witnessed the demise of my favorite reliever. I can still see the wicked low trajectory of Callison’s three-wood blast and remember the sudden jolt of witnessing the end of Radatz’s joyride.
He still had his moments, but his best stuff had deserted him by the end of the 1965 season. Maybe he was right that Ted Williams ruined him by convincing him to learn a sinker, which erased the movement from his fastball. Maybe overwork did him in — 538 innings in 270 appearances from 1962-1965 while winning 49 games and saving over 100 others. In 1966, he was traded to the Indians and went from there to the Cubs, Tigers, and Expos, searching in vain for his vanished mastery.
I knew where it was. It was still bouncing off the façade of the loge section near the right-field foul pole at Shea Stadium. When Callison hit that unhittable pitch, it showed that anything could happen, even to baseball’s supernova. There was no do-over, only the slow fade to baseball oblivion.
The winningest pitcher of the 1964 Boston Red Sox wasn’t a starter but rather Dick Radatz who set a record by relief pitchers of striking out 181 batters in one season. Radatz, who earned a second All-Star appearance, is shown here (right front) along with teammates Eddie Bressoud and Frank Malzone.