At age 29, Dave Baldwin of the Washington Senators is a rookie and one of the lesser figures among the faceless horde of young men who cling by their fingernails to the fringes of the big leagues. When he sets out to do battle on the baseball field he goes virtually unarmed. A right-handed pitcher, Baldwin has as his major weapon a peculiar side-arm curve ball that has been called everything from unimpressive to nightmarish. His job, in an era of increasing specialization, is so specialized as to approach nonexistence. He usually pitches only against right-handed hitters and then only under certain conditions, one of them being that the opposition must have a scarcity of left-handed pinch hitters.
Counting the three and two-thirds innings he had to extend himself to pitch in Washington's marathon 22-inning game with Chicago, Baldwin has averaged only slightly more than one inning of pitching in 31 appearances. Often he is allowed to face only one batter. This is as close to unemployment as a pitcher can get without being on the disabled list. Yet the frequency with which he is called upon to perform his specialty and the heady 1.61 ERA that decorated his name on the statistical sheets last week testify to his effectiveness.
Baldwin's strange delivery appears to start from third base. He releases the ball from somewhere between his belt and knees, with a sweeping motion that begins so far to the right that a right-handed hitter would have to look behind him to see it leave Baldwin's hand. "If you peek, you're dead," said Ruben Amaro of the Yankees, after a game in which he ended a Yankee rally by weakly popping out against Baldwin.
At best, a right-handed hitter picks up the ball late. If it's the curve, which Baldwin throws at least two-thirds of the time, the ball appears to be bearing down on the hitter. Just as the batter's instincts scream at him to bail out, the ball sweeps away from him, away and down. If the hitter has obeyed his impulse and has stepped back, he is in no position to hit the ball.
Left-handed hitters, however, are looking directly at Baldwin's hand when he releases the ball. They have no trouble following it and, by the time it begins its sweep into them, they are ready to pound it over some distant fence. So it is that Gil Hodges, the manager of the Senators, goes to some lengths to avoid having Baldwin face this ignominy. Other managers try just as hard to foil him. That's why in the second game of a twi-night doubleheader against the Yankees in Washington recently Ralph Houk of the Yankees was preparing to use a couple of kids named Frank Tepedino and Charlie Sands if Baldwin had come into the game. Tepedino and Sands are draftees without experience; Tepedino had batted only three times this season, Sands not at all. But they are left-handed hitters, and perhaps that is why Baldwin did not get into the game. "I doubt if Houk would have used them," Hodges said. "I just might have," Houk said with a wink.
Being at the center of this kind of summit strategy amuses Baldwin. Being at the center of anything amuses him. For eight frustrating, $3-a-day-meal-money-on-the-road years Baldwin was noticed by nobody. At one point during those years he had the distinction of being released, in a single season, by farm clubs of the two worst teams in baseball, the New York Mets and Houston. And at the time of his release from one of those farm teams—Durham—the team was in last place, 40 games behind. All baseball careers have low points, but that was ridiculous.
Indeed, Baldwin can recount his career as a series of nadirs. He was a high school whiz pitcher in Tucson, and 14 major league teams tried to grab him. He chose college instead, not so much to get an education, but to appear in the University of Arizona baseball showcase, do well and collect a huge bonus. But in his sophomore year he hurt his arm and his chance for big money. Only the Phillies and Yankees were still interested when his varsity career ended in 1959, and neither was willing to offer a bonus. Baldwin chose the Phillies since they needed help most—and he wound up being wrong about that, too. He was sent to Williamsport, where he had a 1-1 record and a 7.38 ERA. After that things got worse.
Like a stretch in the Army. And reinjuring his arm. In 1962 Baldwin got a chance at Triple-A ball, only to suffer a streak of wildness and wind up with a beautiful 15.00 ERA at Buffalo and a 9.00 ERA at Dallas- Fort Worth. In 1963 he was Little Rock property and, although he was completely healthy, he spent a good part of the season on the disabled list because Little Rock had no room on the roster for him. "There were nine of us," he recalls. "All healthy. All on the disabled list. We had enough men to start our own team." Later that year he was sent to Chattanooga and was put on the disabled list there, too. (What with injuries and pettifoggery, Baldwin has pitched a total of only 786 innings in eight seasons. "I'm not exactly burned out, am I?" he says with a wry grin.)
His big year was 1964. The Mets had taken over Williamsport, along with a lot of Philadelphia player discards, Baldwin among them. They took a quick look at his age—26—a faster look at his record and gave him his release. He sort of expected it, since most of the Phillie farmhands were getting theirs. He got lucky, though. The Durham club in the Houston chain had just lost a pitcher—by drowning. Baldwin got the job. In 10 games there he had an 0-2 record with a 5.14 ERA, and he was careful not to go swimming. At midseason, he was released.
"It's funny," he says now, his brown eyes glinting with amusement behind the professorial eyeglasses he wears, "but I was shocked. I really was surprised. For the first time I began to think that I would never make it to the big leagues. Ever since I was a kid I'd always taken it for granted that I would. It was a terrible thing. I didn't get over it for a long time. In the middle of the season you're out of a job, and you don't know where to go."