On the day he became eligible to collect his major league pension, George Brunet of Aguila de Veracruz pitched a three-hitter to defeat Le�n 3-0. Brunet's manager, a fellow by the name of Willie Davis, gave him a 45th-birthday present by doubling in the first run and scoring the second. After the game the ball club threw a surprise party for El Viejo, the Old Man. Brunet, genuinely surprised, blew out the candles and, with a tear in his eye, said to his friends, "Muchas gracias. Nadie nunca a hecho esto para mi." Nobody had ever done that for him. After 28 years in professional baseball, 30 different uniforms and 4,719 innings, George Brunet was finally given a day, June 8, in Veracruz, Mexico.
Brunet's odyssey, surely the most arduous in the history of baseball, began in 1953 when he was a 17-year-old kid in Ahmeek, Mich. Brunet was signed by Schoolboy Rowe and Muddy Ruel of the Detroit Tigers. If those names don't date him, just consider that Carl Yastrzemski, the present-day patriarch of the majors, was in the ninth grade. "They gave me $500," Brunet recalls. "I bought a dining-room set for my parents, a coat for my mother and a night on the town."
Brunet first reported to Shelby, N.C. in the Class D Tar Heel League, but he had to pass through Alexandria, Va., Seminole, Okla., Hot Springs, Ark., Seminole again, Abilene, Kans., Crowley, La. and Columbia, Mo. before reaching Kansas City and the big leagues in 1956.
"I remember my debut," he says. "We were ahead 4-2 in the fourth, but the Red Sox had the bases loaded. Bobby Shantz would normally come in, but for some reason George Susce, the pitching coach, told me to go. I remember riding out of the bullpen in a brand-new pink Lincoln Continental. I had no idea who was up, and now that I think about it, Hal Smith, the catcher, knew better than to tell me. The guy swings at my first fastball and misses, then fouls off another one, and I'm ahead 0-2 when it dawns on me that I'm pitching to Ted Williams. This is my idol. My legs start shaking. Somehow I get the ball up to the plate, and he hits a sharp grounder that Vic Power at first base turns into a double play. When I got back to the dugout and sat down, I literally cried out of relief. The next day Williams comes over to me before the game and says, 'Kid, if you keep that fastball down, you've got a long career ahead of you.' "
There are two points to that story: 1) Guys that George Brunet once played with are now worth big money in vintage bubble-gum cards, and 2) Ted Williams knew what he was talking about.
In the next eight seasons the well-traveled Brunet went down to Little Rock, back up to Kansas City, down to Buffalo, down to Little Rock again, out to Portland, Ore., up to the Athletics once more, down to Louisville, up to Milwaukee, down to Vancouver, across to Hawaii, over to Oklahoma City, up to Houston, down to Oklahoma City again, up to Baltimore, down to Rochester, back to Oklahoma City and finally, in 1964, up to Los Angeles.
From 1965 through 1968, Brunet was one of the leading lefthanded pitchers in the league, averaging 226 innings a year with an ERA of 3.03. He began to bounce around again in 1969, when he was traded to the Seattle Pilots. In 1970 he pitched for the Washington Senators, managed by Ted Williams, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1971 the St. Louis Cardinals used him for only nine innings. He went back to Hawaii for the rest of 1971 and all of 1972. While in Hawaii, he got an offer to pitch in Japan, but held out, waiting for a call from the Minnesota Twins. The call hasn't come, and Brunet never made it back to the big time. He left with a career won-lost record of 69-93 and a 3.62 ERA. His pension time, according to Brunet, comes to "13 years, three months and 20 days."
In his peripatetic career Brunet has pitched for a lot of peripatetic teams. He belonged to the Philadelphia Athletics for a short time before they moved to Kansas City, and later to Oakland. He pitched for the Milwaukee Braves before they were shifted to Atlanta, the Houston Colt 45s before they became the Astros, the Los Angeles Angels before they adopted California, the Pilots before they turned into the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Senators before they were transformed into the Texas Rangers. Not only did these teams have identity crises, but they were also bad.
Brunet has survived because he has a great left arm. It is such a medical marvel, in fact, that he has had arm trouble just once. "That was back in 1958, a blood clot in my throwing arm," he says. "Kept me out for two weeks." Other pitchers have labored as long as Brunet, but almost all of them were relievers. Brunet has been a starter almost exclusively all this time. Performing in the Mexican League in the summer and the Mexican Pacific League in the winter, Brunet throws about 400 innings a year, although his statistics in the winter league aren't included in his official record. And he has made no concession to age. He is still a fastball and curveball pitcher, and he still challenges hitters, which is rare in the Mexican League, where nobody over six feet gets to see a fastball. When he pitched the three-hitter on his birthday, Brunet struck out Ivan Murrell, a former San Diego Padre and the Mexican League home-run leader, three times. "He still goes after you," says Murrell. "He's better than a lot of guys in the majors right now."
Before a strike cut short the season by two months, Brunet had eight shutouts, which is only two short of the league record. But even if the strike forestalled Brunet's pursuit of the record, it didn't stop him from pitching. He merely joined Coatzacoalcos, one of the six teams that stayed together to play a new schedule.