Every time Denny McLain chug-a-lugs another dozen Pepsis and wins another game, Jim Bouton of the Seattle Angels drinks a glass of Knox Gelatine and walks to the bullpen to experiment with his knuckleball. Every time Bob Gibson mercilessly strikes out some defenseless hitter, Jim Palmer of the Elmira Pioneers winces and thinks, "There I was just two years ago, getting ready to pitch in the World Series." And every time Don Drysdale or Juan Marichal shuts out a team of .193 hitters, faceless kids like Tom Fletcher and Dennis Musgraves try a little harder to fool the hitters in Denver and Memphis with their slow, breaking pitches.
This year, while the McLains and Gibsons and Drysdales and Marichals dominate the pitching revolution in the major leagues, the Boutons and Palmers and Fletchers and Musgraves linger obscurely in the minor leagues—all trying to recover from sore arms. They are only a handful of the sore-armed victims of present-day baseball.
Wally Bunker, 23, Don Sutton, 23, and Gary Nolan, 20, developed bad arms after instant success with the Orioles, Dodgers and Reds. They still are pitching in the major leagues, but the most any of them has been able to achieve is five victories. Most of baseball's other sore-armed pitchers are not as fortunate as these three. For every strong-armed Ferguson Jenkins or Luis Tiant, who take their regular pitching rotations in Chicago and Cleveland, there are five Fred Newmans and Tom Kelleys and Chuck Estradas and Art Mahaffeys and Jerry Walkers, who savored success for a short time and then silently faded into the obscurity of El Paso or Waterbury, their arms stitched up or cast in a sling.
The guilty party in most sore-arm cases is baseball's front office—the general managers and club presidents who meditate over the best 86 Proof and seem more obsessed with the count of the turnstiles than the physical capabilities of their athletes. What has happened is this: in its haste to create instant McLains or Gibsons or Tiants, pitchers who win about every four days and attract large crowds at the same time, the baseball hierarchy has subjected tender, young pitching arms to intolerable pressures. Management seems to operate on the theory that if it produces one good young pitcher and six sore-armed kids every year, then all is well in the conference room. Perhaps it is.
So the scouts sign gangs of promising young throwers, and the front office assigns them to Williamsport or Aberdeen or Sioux Falls. It does not matter that these teams probably do not have pitching instructors or adequate medical and training-room facilities. There are 10 pitchers on the minor league roster; the big club hopes maybe one of them will make it to the majors.
One pitcher usually does—for a while, anyway, until his arm becomes sore. In most cases the big-league team has simply overworked an arm that was not ready for major league ball. Consider the records of four young pitchers.
1) Wally Bunker pitched 99 innings and had a 10-1 record for Stockton, Calif. in 1963. The next year he pitched 214 innings and won 19 games for the Orioles. In 1965 he began to complain of a sore arm. Three years later he opened the 1968 season at Rochester.
2) Don Sutton pitched 249 innings in his first two seasons of pro ball in the Dodger organization. In 1966 he was the No. 4 starter for the Dodgers and pitched 226 innings—winning 12 games. He did not pitch in the World Series that fall, however. His arm was sore.
3) Gary Nolan pitched 104 innings for Sioux Falls in 1966, his first season as a pro. Last year he hurled 227 innings for the Cincinnati Reds and won 14 games. This year, complaining of a sore and tired arm, he has pitched 81 innings and won five games.
4) Jim Palmer pitched 221 innings in his first two seasons of pro ball. In 1966 he worked 208 innings for the Orioles and beat Sandy Koufax (who pitched only 205 innings in his first three years as a Dodger) in the World Series. Last year, his arm very sore, he threw for only 83 innings. Now he is in Elmira and thinks of becoming a first baseman.