In a 1956 article in Sports Illustrated Ray Terrell bemoaned the lack of starting pitching in the league (sound familiar?) and opened his post with this.
The year may be 1906 or it may be 1956 but, if you are a baseball manager, the routine rarely varies. You watch your team come off the field after a game, and then, win or lose, you go home at night and pray for more pitching. Sometimes, of course, you pray for more pitching even before you go home.. . . Unless, of course, you happen to be Fred Haney of the 1956 Milwaukee Braves, whereupon the routine varies to this extent: you watch your team come off the field after a game, and then, win or lose, you go home at night and pray for more hitting.
In midsummer of 1956 the best pitching staff in baseball no longer consists of people with famous names . . .but, instead, of people with the sometimes rather obscure names of Burdette and Buhl, Conley and Crone and Spahn.
Those quotes too should sound familiar.
Yesterday I told you about Lew Burdette. Today I look at the second member of the original Braves Big 3, a tall right hander from Titusville Florida, Bob Buhl.
Buhl was originally signed the the White Sox in August 1946. They were unimpressed with their signing and released him in February 1948 after one season of D level minor league ball. The Braves signed him in March of that year and sent him to Saginaw (A ball). From there he moved Hartford in the Florida league in 49 and finally to Dallas in the Texas league AA ball in 1950. He entered the military in 1951 and returned in 1953 to join the Braves in Milwaukee.
If Run Support > ERA You Win
His rookie season in 1953 must have made the White Sox wonder what happened to him as Buhl posted a 13-8 record with a 2.97 ERA and a 1.335 WHIP and a 3.2 WAR. His career was however marked by recurring injuries causing his numbers to go up and down like a yoyo. In those days however it was wins that brought recognition and Buhl won a lot of games largely because the Braves averaged over 4 runs a game when he pitched (every year except 54 and 55) while he kept his ERA well under 4. If sabermetrics had been around back then Buhl would have regularly been the subject for many discussions. From 53 through 58 his WHIP was never below 1.335 and twice was over 1.4. Hew walked at least 4 men a game but he struck out about the same number. His saving grace was that he kept the ball in the park. His HR/9 rate at 0.6 – good enough to lead the NL in 56 – or under until 1959/60 when it crept up to 0.9. As I said however he won games and that’s what fans saw and what they were told.
In 1955 Buhl put up another 3.2 WAR year with a 13-11 record and a 3.21 ERA so when the time came for predictions Here’s what SI said about the Braves.
If Brooklyn can be beaten, the Braves are the club with the best chance to do it. They have solid starting pitchers in Warren Spahn (17-14), Bob Buhl (13-11) and Lew Burdette (13-8) and may find support from youthful Chet Nichols and Ray Crone. If Gene Conley, brilliant early last year, can recover from ailing shoulder, Braves could have the best pitching in the league.
Buhl’s record improved to 18-8 in 1956 and his ERA was a respectable 3.32 and he was third on the staff behind Spahn’s 20 wins and Burdette’s 19 it wasn’t enough and the Dodgers once again went to the World Series. The 1957 season belonged to the Braves. Behind Spahn’s 21 wins, Burdette’s 17 and Buhl’s 18 they put together a 93-61 record and went on to beat the Yankees behind Burdette’s 3 wins. Buhl posted an era of 2.74 and managed another 3.2 WAR season even though his WHIP was 1.440.
Buhl’s post season start in 57 was less sterling than Burdette’s. It lasted only 3 1/3 innings as the Yankee lineup didn’t let him get away with walking people and pounded him for five runs on six hits and six walks including a first inning homer by Tony Kubek.
The 1958 season was another injury shortened year but the next two seasons saw him return to double digit wins; 15 in 1959 including a league leading four shutouts and 16 in 1960 when he posted a 3.09 ERA and made the All Star Team. In 61 he posted a 9-10 record with a 4.11 ERA and in early 1962 he was traded to the Cubs for Jack Curtis. It was ironic that he should be sent to the Cubbies because he was part of one of the strangest incidents between the teams who were at the time strong rivals.
What’s The Flag Mean?
The Summer of 1960 saw the Braves beating up on every pitcher they faced. It seemed they knew what was coming before the pitcher let it go. Turns out they did, and Buhl was one of the two culprits caught in the act. Again the SI Archive turned up a description too good to alter.
The case was cracked in Chicago. Wrigley Field’s bleachers, like bleachers everywhere, are the happy haunt of those odds characters, the gamblers. Now if there’s anything gamblers can’t abide, it’s a fix (unless it’s their own fix). One of the gamblers spotted Milwaukee Pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay seated in their midst, stealing Cub Catcher Elvin Tappe’s signals with binoculars, and flashing signals to the batters with a scorecard semaphore.
One of the bleacherites tipped the Cubs’ bullpen, and now the news is all over the league. With remarkable charity, most National Leaguers say they doubt that Dressen knew anything about the spying. Wonder where he thought Buhl and Jay were spending the afternoon?
That thing in your hand is a bat.
Buhl holds another ignominious distinction as well. In his only start for the Braves in 1962 he went 0 for 1. He was then traded to the Cubs on April 30, and proceeded to go 0 for his next 69 making him 0-70 on the year, a hitless record that still stands. This however was only part of an 0 for 87 streak across two seasons which is a record too. His ineptitude at the dish was genuinely unrivaled, good old Bob holds the record for most at-bats in a career with a batting average less than .101. Being a teammate of two hitting pitcher like Spahn and Burdette Buhl tried everything to change his luck including batting left handed. Surprisingly he got a hit or more likely the pitcher hit his bat as he never got another from that side of the plate. In his career he was 76 for 857 with two doubles, 26 RBI and two stolen bases. His final slash was 0.89/.129/.091/.220
That’s A Wrap
It would be easy to say Bob Buhl was a footnote as a pitcher and if he had been on the Cubs he might well have not had a career. As a Brave however he was the perfect guy to follow Spahn and Burdette. He was the complete opposite of Burdette but somehow he managed to parlay less talent into a winning career. He was the little engine that could in the rotation, pitching with his mind instead of his arm and taking his lumps but never surrendering until his arm couldn’t do it anymore. As a Brave his final line was 109-72 with a 3.72 ERA and a 110 ERA+ in spite of a 1.390 WHIP. The two years the Braves got to the World Series he won 18 games losing on 7 one year and 8 the other so he was doing something right. Baseball creates unexpected friendships and none was less obvious that his long time relationship with Hall of Fame slugger Eddie Matthews. Buhl’s was Matthews roommate while on the Braves and coincidentally died two days after Matthews, on February 16, 2001
If you’re interested in more about Braves teams of the past you should check out a series by Lee Trocinski one of our writers who’s moved on to bigger and better things.
Braves all Decade Teams: