DUANE PILLETTE earns the first win in modern Baltimore Orioles history
“It’s a bum’s game. I should know.” That’s what Herman Pillette, a professional pitcher for more than three decades, told his son to discourage him from pursuing a baseball career. The elder Pillette won nineteen games for Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers the year his son Duane was born, and over 200 more in the Pacific Coast League, but he refused to even leave a pass so that his boy could see him play. They got along fine on other matters but, when it came to baseball, Herman Pillette’s son wasn’t getting any tips or encouraging words.
That didn’t stop Duane Pillette, though. He’d sneak into ballparks -and risk getting whooped by his old man- to pursue the sport that he loved. After spending three years in the service during World War II, Duane signed with the New York Yankees prior to 1946 at the age of twenty-three. Before leaving for spring training, he asked his dad to show him how to throw a sinker, but the request was denied.
On his own, “Dee” as friends still call him, reached the big leagues a few days before his 27th birthday in 1949. Less than a year later, he was traded to the lowly St. Louis Browns, and no American League pitcher lost more games in 1951. The following season was much better thanks to improved control, but 1953 proved difficult for most Browns players with the team about to leave town. Many St. Louis fans felt betrayed, and the men on the field bore the brunt of their anger.
When Pillette -a right-hander described as “suave” and “gray-thatched”- learned the team would become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, he sent a letter to the Baltimore News-Post promising improved play from the ballclub once they arrived in a city that actually supported them.
Pillette grew up in California, but his Orioles debut took place in the city of his birth -Detroit- on April 14, 1954. The game was a Wednesday afternoon affair in front of a small crowd of 4,847, with Baltimore looking to get in the win column before their home opener the following day. The Orioles lost their return to the American League by getting shut out in the series opener, but quickly ensured that it would not happen again.
Bobby Young doubled leading off, and Baltimore loaded the bases in a hurry on Eddie Waitkus’ walk and a bunt single by Gil Coan. After Vic Wertz went down swinging against Tigers right-hander Ray Herbert, Sam Mele singled home the first run in modern Orioles history. Then, Vern Stephens hit safely as well to knock in two more.
The Tigers loaded the bases in the second inning, and scored when Al Aber drove in Ray Boone, but that was all Pillette allowed for eight innings. The sinkerballer got eighteen outs from Detroit hitters on ground balls. Young and Waitkus completed the Orioles only double play of the afternoon to help the right-hander get through the seventh.
Entering the final frame, Pillette -who doubled- accounted for as many extra-base hits as he’d allowed. The Orioles did not add to their run total after the opening frame, so Bill Tuttle’s solo homer off Pillette in the bottom of the ninth pulled the Tigers within 3-2. That proved to be the final score though, and Pillette went the distance to earn the first victory in the history of the American League Baltimore Orioles. He hurled a six-hitter, striking out two and walking four.
Pillette won two of his first three decisions, and later shut out the Red Sox at Fenway Park, but the 1954 Orioles were a bad team that went on to lose 100 games. Despite an impressive 2.70 earned run average, Pillette’s won-lost record slipped to 6-10 by the All-Star break, but it could have been 10-6 with a little bit of luck. Baltimore got shut out in two of his losses, and managed just a single run in seven others.
Yankees manager Casey Stengel chose Pillette to throw batting practice for the American League All-Stars, and the junior circuit’s best went on the rack up a record (at the time) seventeen hits in the contest. At the game, Red Sox great Ted Williams told Pillette he was the toughest pitcher he’d faced all year and Al Rosen of the Indians -the reigning AL MVP- rated him one of the league’s best fastball pitchers. No one had ever accused Pillette of that prior to 1954, but Orioles pitching coach Harry Brecheen explained it like this, “Pillette has finally learned to utilize every ounce and inch of his 205-pound, six-foot-four frame. He’s built like a fastballer and now, for the first time, he’s following through like one.”
Pillette won his first start after the break to surpass his father’s career win total. Two more wins in succession improved his record to 9-10 by July 27, but then his arm started bothering him.
Pillette used an awkward, twisting arm motion to deliver his sinker, and it was taking a toll. His win against the White Sox at Comiskey Park on September 19 turned out to be the last of his career. He finished the season with a 10-14 record, completing eleven of his twenty-five starts, and leading the Orioles with a 3.12 ERA.
Bone spurs in Pillette’s right elbow gave him fits the following spring, and he wasn’t about to abandon his sinker in search of relief. “If I stop throwing my sinker, I might as well quit,” he said. “It’s my bread and butter pitch”.
After Pillette got off to an 0-3 start in seven apperances with a 6.53 ERA in 1955, the Orioles optioned him to Oakland of the Pacific Coast League. Baltimore manager Paul Richards said that Pillette would be back “if he can pitch a couple of nine-inning games”, but that never happened. The muscles above his elbow were weakened, and when he put extra strain on his forearm in an attempt to compensate, he’d run out of gas after four or five frames.
Pillette tried to come back with the Indians in spring training 1956, but they soon sent him to the Phillies. He made Philadelphia’s opening day roster as a reliever, but after twenty ineffective outings, his major league career was over.
Duane “Dee” Pillette, the first winning pitcher in modern Baltimore Orioles history, went 38-66 with a 4.40 ERA in eight major league seasons. Now 85, he still resides in California.
by MALCOLM ALLEN