Favorite Obscure Cardinals Player: Ray Washburn (Part 1)


One of the most enjoyable parts of being a member of the United Cardinal Bloggers is participation in the various monthly projects.   This one is of particular interest to me personally, as the subject is “your favorite obscure Cardinals player”.   If you are a reader of this blog or some of my past efforts over at I-70 Baseball, or we share game time conversations over on Twitter, you know that going back and revisiting often forgotten Cardinals is the primary focus of my writing.

When this subject of favorite obscure Cardinal was suggested a few days ago, my head nearly exploded with possibilities, as there are so many stories left untold.   How can you pick a favorite out of Jim Cosman and his delight at being given a full share of the 1967 World Series bonus, or the never quit attitude of Dick Hughes as he pitched in pain with a blown out shoulder.   Then there are the lefties – Al Jackson and Larry Jaster, bench players like Phil Gagliano and Carl Warwick or exceptional substitutes, such as Tito Landrum, Cesar Cedeno or Dan Driessen.   And then there’s always Dal Maxvill.   Who can forget Glen Hobbie or Jack Lamabe ?   This is an impossible task.

Yet, in the volume of words already devoted to this particular topic here, there remains one name curiously absent, or at least downplayed to the point where you could easily overlook it.   That is not by accident, but rather fear – the fear of not adequately telling the story of this particular player.   The former flamethrower that this site is dedicated to is not Bob Gibson, as many might presume.  It is, in fact, Ray Washburn.

College Champ to Cardinals Prospect

A Washington State native, the 6ft 1in right hander attended Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, playing both baseball and basketball.   During the summers, he would play semi-pro baseball, most notably with Bellingham, Washington (1958) and then in Lethbridge, Alberta (1959).    It was as a member of the Lethbridge White Sox that Washburn would have his first taste of history.   On July 27, 1959, Ray Washburn threw a no-hitter, both striking out and walking eight batters.   Nearly a decade later, he would accomplish the same feat with the Cardinals, except that some of those opponents are now members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

It was while pitching for Whitworth College in the 1960 NAIA Championship tournament that scouts took note of Ray Washburn.   Behind the strength of Washburn’s pitching, Whitworth went on to win the championship and Washburn was named tournament MVP.   He would post a 3-0 record, striking out 37 batters in 19 innings, while allowing no runs and just five hits.  Two teams took a special interest in the young flamethrower.   The Los Angeles Dodgers, believing their system had a surplus of pitching prospects, would have assigned Washburn to one of their lower level farm teams.   The Cardinals, recognizing that Washburn’s college and semi-pro experience meant that was nearly ready to pitch in the major leagues, outbid the Dodgers by offering a signing bonus and a spot with their AAA farm club.

Washburn would sign with the Cardinals and reported immediately to their AAA team in Rochester, New York, where he would finish the short season with a 5-4 record and an ERA of 4.45.   Although both were probably gone by the time Washburn arrived, that 1960 Red Wings team also featured a young Bob Gibson and Ray Sadecki.  Rochester fans were treated to some of the best young pitching talent anywhere in baseball.   That team also included the subject of Marilyn Green’s favorite obscure Cardinal.  (no spoilers, you have to click the link to fun out who).

For 1961, Washburn would find himself in the middle an unusual piece of baseball history.   The Cardinals had changed their AAA affiliation from Rochester to the Miami Marlins, and then moved the team to San Juan to start the season.   After a month of poor attendance, the team was moved again, this time to Charleston, West Virginia.   The 23 year old Washburn didn’t seem phased by all of those the transitions, and would lead the team in wins (16) and ERA (2.34, tied with Bobby Tiefenauer).  That performance would earn him a callup when big league rosters expanded in September.

No Looking Back

Washburn would make his major league debut, as many young pitchers do, in a blowout.   For Washburn, this would happen on September, 20, 1961 and his opponent would be the Philadelphia Phillies.   The usually dependable Ernie Broglio had been struggling since his first pitch.  He’d given up two runs in the fourth inning, and a Clay Dalrymple single with two outs in the fifth gave the Phillies a 6-0 lead.   That was it for Broglio, and Cardinals Manager, Johnny Keane gave the ball to his young right hander.

The first batter Washburn would face was future Cardinals third baseman, Charley Smith.  Smith grounded out harmlessly to end the inning.   As it so often happens,  Washburn’s nerves would show a bit in his second inning of work as he walked Ruben Amaro and then hit Johnny Callison with a pitch.   After that, he settled into a groove that we would learn to love over the next decade – a strikeout, a walk and then a double play.   Washburn would finish the game, throwing 4 1/3 innings, not allowing a hit or a run.   Hmm, maybe the Cardinals had something in this Washburn kid.

That long relief effort would earn him a pair of starts as the 1961 season wound down.   In seven solid innings of work against the Braves on September 25, Washburn would allow just two runs – a solo home run by Henry Aaron in the first, and a rookie mistake, balking in a run in the fourth.   He would otherwise pitch brilliantly, but took the loss as the Cardinals could only manage a single run.  As with the no-hitter back in Lethbridge, this would also be an interesting glimpse into Washburn’s future, as run support always seemed to a problem in his starts.

His final start of the season came on September 30, and it would come against the team he faced 10 days earlier, the Philadelphia Phillies.   Washburn would throw a brilliant complete game, allowing just two runs on five hits, striking out seven while walking three.    The 12-2 blowout would be his first career win.

Washburn’s solid performance would continue in the spring of 1962, and he would make the big club as they headed north to start the regular season.   He would begin the season in the rotation, but after 4 starts, Washburn would find himself in the bullpen, in spite of a 2-0 record.   At that point, he was giving up nearly 5 runs a game.   Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane, kept moving his pitchers around in what turned out to be an unusual six man rotation of Larry Jackson, Bob Gibson, Ernie Broglio, Curt Simmons, Ray Washburn and Ray Sadecki.   With four of these starters aged 26 years or less, the future looked very bright for the Cardinals, if Keane could just find the right combination of starters.

Washburn would finish the 1962 season with a 12-9 record and an ERA just over 4 runs per game.  It was a very impressive rookie season, but the best and worst were yet to come.

Nearly Perfect

Coming out of the 1962 regular season, and preparing for the 1963 Spring Training, there was a lot of optimism about the Cardinals chances to win the NL Pennant.   Their starting rotation of Larry Jackson, Ernie Broglio, Bob Gibson, Curt Simmons and Ray Washburn was as good as any in baseball, and there was a young left handed phenom, Ray Sadecki, waiting in the wings in case any of the five went down with an injury, or perhaps, a trade that was too good to pass up.   One of those had already happened, just weeks after the season ended, when the Cardinals sent long time staff ace, Larry Jackson, to the Cubs in a six player deal.  The key player received was George Altman, whom Cardinals General Manager, Bing Devine, had hoped would be the answer to the revolving door in right field.   He wasn’t, and it would take yet another deal with Cubs a year later to solve that mystery, but that’s a story for another day.

For Washburn, the sophomore jinx would not come in the form of a bad season.   Quite the opposite in fact.   The now 24 year old would breeze through his first three starts of the 1963 season, winning all three in complete games.   Over those first 27 innings, he would strike out 21 while walking just 5.  The five runs he allowed gave him a sparkling ERA of just 1.67.

Those were just an opening act for what may have been his greatest single performance, well actually performances, in his career.  Both of these took place just a month before his 25th birthday.

The date was April 27, 1963 and the Cardinals were in Los Angeles to face the Dodgers, ironically, the team that Washburn turned down.  Both teams would be witness to near perfection as Washburn just overpowered the Dodgers hitters.  Forget that Larry Sherry was also pitching a gem, the story of the night was Washburn as he retired the Dodgers batters in order – a groundout to the pitcher, a strikeout and then a groundout to a middle infielder.  Nothing was hit squarely, so nothing was hit particularly hard.   As the game progressed, Washburn was throwing harder and harder, and there is where the sophomore jinx would come into play.

When Washburn retired Maury Wills on a dropped third stike for the second out in the seventh inning, he had retired the first 20 batters.   Just three balls had been hit beyond the infield, and all three were caught.   Well, there was a fourth, and it was dropped for an error, but it was a foul ball.   Washburn’s bid for a perfect game came to an end when he walked Ron Fairly, the first Dodgers base runner.   He would fan Frank Howard to end the inning, keeping the no-hitter and shutout in tact, at least for the moment.

Bill “Moose” Skowron

With one out in the eighth, Washburn would lose the no-hitter when former Yankees slugger, Bill “Moose” Skowron,  hit a clean line drive single to right field.   Washburn would give up two more hits, but he would finish the game, recording his fourth win on the season, and second complete game shutout.

But this win would take its toll, and forever alter the career of Ray Washburn.   As he threw harder with each successive inning in the cool night air in Los Angeles, he was slowly tearing a muscle in his right shoulder.

At first, nothing seemed wrong as Washburn would be nearly as brilliant in his next start at home against the Cubs.   As with his previous outing in Los Angeles, he would take a no-hitter late into the game, and as before, throwing too hard on a particularly cold day in St. Louis continued to damage the muscles in his right shoulder.

Washburn would lose his second  no-hit attempt in the seventh inning when future Cardinal, Lou Brock, singled to lead off the inning.   Ron Santo would add a single in the eighth inning as Washburn took a two hit shutout into the ninth inning.  He would not finish the game.   After retiring the first two Cubs hitter, a double and single would bring Ron Santo back to the plate and Santo would victimize Washburn with a long three run homer.   The Cardinal lead was now just a single run at 4-3, so Johnny Keane went to his bullpen for Ed Bauta, who got the last out, preserving the win for Washburn.   It would be his fifth …. and last on the season.

Washburn would last just 2 2/3 innings in his next start, at home, against the Dodgers.   He would surrender 5 runs in the short outing.   He would also take his first loss on the season.   After struggling through two more six inning outings, things turned from bad to worse.  After two more starts where he didn’t even get out of the third inning, Washburn’s spot in the rotation was giving to Ron Taylor.

The most interesting of these rough Washburn starts was on May 29, against the Houston Colt 45s.   After walking Ernie Fazio with two outs in the third inning, Washburn had to be taken out of the game.  His relief pitcher was Bob Gibson, who threw 6 1/3 innings, nearly the equivalent of a regular start.  Bobby Shanz would earn the win in extra innings when Bill White hit a walk-off home run in the tenth inning.

After skipping his next two starts, Washburn’s 1963 season would come to an end on June 14, after facing just one batter.  What had started out as a most promising season, a 4-0 record with four complete games and two shutouts, ended after just 11 appearances, and a final record of 5-3.

1964 would not fare much better for the young right hander.  An injury in spring training sidelined Washburn for the first month of the season.  After a quick tuneup in the minors, he would join the team in early May.  It first looked encouraging as Washburn won his first two starts.  It soon became evident that his torn shoulder muscle had not fully recovered.  Lacking the velocity on he once had on his fastball, opponents started hitting him with more authority.  It wasn’t just Washburn having troubles in the early going, Ernie Broglio looked nothing like the pitcher who had gone 60-38 over the last four seasons.   Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane, kept juggling the rotation, hoping to find four or five that he could begin to pencil in every day.

As the calendar turned from June to July, Washburn was moved from the rotation into the bullpen.   He would make just three appearances before being placed on the disabled list, missing the next two months.  He would make two more relief appearances late in the season, but would be left off the World Series roster.  One of the Cardinals brightest young stars, whose quick rise to the major leagues allowed Bing Devine to assemble the final pieces of a championship team, did not throw a single pitch in the postseason.

This is just the beginning of the story.   We’ll continue with part 2 in a couple of days.

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One Response to Favorite Obscure Cardinals Player: Ray Washburn (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Our Favorite “Obscure” Cardinals — United Cardinal Bloggers

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