Dick Fitzgerald

This article was written by Dan Raley

Dick Fitzgerald’s left arm should be put on display in a glass case, if not donated to science. It’s known as the ultimate innings-eater. It has Satchel Paige wear-and-tear. It has an expiration date on it somewhere, doesn’t it?

Doing a complete inventory, the Pennsylvania native has served up more than a million pitches, encompassing youth, college, amateur, senior, semipro and pro baseball levels. He’s won an estimated 700 games. He’s pitched for nearly seven decades. He’s thrown and seen it all.

There’s just one problem in conducting a museum tour or medical examination involving Fitzgerald’s extra-durable limb: It’s still firmly attached to his body and in frequent use, astounding everyone with its steadily churning odometer readings as he nears 80 years old.

Fitzgerald’s arm has been everywhere except in an official big-league game. He got close once. In 1959, he was informed that he was a Baltimore Orioles injury call-up before management had a change of heart overnight, resorting to a harsh solution on multiple fronts: Ailing Orioles pitcher Billy O’Dell was instructed to wear a back brace and play on, and Fitzgerald was told to unpack his bags and stay put with the Triple-A Vancouver Mounties. It’s hard to say who was in more pain after that decision.

More than a year later, Fitzgerald walked away from pro baseball, turning to a successful career in finance and insurance. Yet he never stopped pitching. He was just getting started.

The gentlemanly Fitzgerald shows up every spring, looking for a mound to stand on and a game to play in. Take a peek at his post-pro baseball resume, and he’s become the extra-inning contest that won’t end. He’s thrown batting practice to the expansion Seattle Mariners in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He’s embraced the senior baseball boom of the 1990s. Today, he’s widely considered the nation’s top 75-and-over hurler.

“You know why?” Fitzgerald asked in typical self-deprecating fashion. “The rest are either dead or in nursing homes.”

Richard Edward Fitzgerald was born in Philadelphia on June 16, 1935, the only child for a family with a baseball background. His father, Alex, was a bullpen catcher for the University of Illinois and, later as a chemical and ceramic engineer on a New York business trip, witness to Lou Gehrig’s heartfelt farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. The elder Fitzgerald never seemed far from front-page headline-makers, an uncanny trait he would pass along to his son. While inspecting steel mills, Alex Fitzgerald was just a quarter-mile away when the Hindenburg caught fire in the New Jersey skies and crashed to earth. He played in a pro-am golf tournament with the great Ben Hogan, who went from real talkative before teeing off to not saying a word during the competition to chatty again when it was over.

Dick Fitzgerald was just 10 when he and his dad encountered the great Connie Mack following a Philadelphia Athletics game and politely asked him to sign a baseball. The legendary manager complied, but it took him considerable time to fulfill the request. Mack wrote out his full name, Cornelius McGillicuddy Sr., which was a rare autograph from him. Unfortunately, the Fitzgeralds didn’t realize the significance or value of the moment and the ball eventually disappeared at home.

While attending Lower Merion High School, which later produced NBA standout Kobe Bryant, Fitzgerald wasn’t permitted by his dad to play football, but he took part in a summer basketball league that involved a young and slender Wilt Chamberlain. Fitzgerald also was an all-state soccer goalie, drawing attention for his ability to consistently heave a ball 50 yards to streaking wings.

Above all, Fitzgerald, who lived in the northwestern Philadelphia suburb of Narberth, was a dominant pitcher. No one could touch him and his smooth delivery. Over three seasons, he was 22-6 with a no-hitter for his high school team, 27-5 with two no-hitters for his American Legion club and 11-2 for a sandlot team. He accepted a scholarship from Lafayette College and was an even better pitcher. For the freshman team, he went 6-0 and struck out a record 20 batters against Rutgers, and as a sophomore he was 8-2 with a varsity-record 18 strikeouts against Fordham.

“At my best I was high 80s, 88 to 89; I wasn’t a 90s guy,” Fitzgerald said of his pitch speed. “I had three pitches: a fastball, a good change when I was younger, and a slurve or slider. I didn’t have a great breaking ball.”

His pro baseball courtship was showy and seductive. Paul Richards, the combined Orioles general manager and manager, took Fitzgerald and his parents to the 1954 World Series opener at New York’s Polo Grounds in which Willie Mays made his legendary overhead catch in straightaway centerfield. They sat in the leftfield bleachers and were treated to a close-up view of baseball history. Richards, who wore a big cowboy hat and boots, impressed everyone when he pulled out a big wad of cash to pay for a game program. Fitzgerald was sold on Baltimore and this impressive baseball man. He signed for a $4,000 bonus and an under-the-table life insurance policy that he cashed in later for $67,000.

Fitzgerald played six years in the pros, two-plus at the Triple-A level. He didn’t get the ultimate big-league reward, but he was left with terrific baseball memories. He pitched to Mays twice during Arizona spring training, making the Hall of Famer ground out to second each time. He went head to head against Early Wynn and, while in total awe of this Hall of Famer, held his own in a spring B game. He roomed with Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson in the low minors. He relieved the legendary Paige in a spring training game held in Puerto Rico. He was a long-time business associate of Robin Roberts, yet another enshrined in Cooperstown.

“I can’t believe he’s still pitching,” said Robinson, who teamed with Fitzgerald on three different Orioles minor-league teams, beginning with Class B York in 1955. “He’s older than me and I can’t play a lick now.”

Robinson, an Arkansas native and two years younger, and Fitzgerald were each in their first season of pro baseball when they met. They shared a house in York, Pennsylvania, in Amish country, in the middle of a continual horse-and-buggy rush hour, with two others who wouldn’t play in the big leagues, outfielder Bill Lajoie from Michigan and infielder Gene Oden from Texas. Lajoie, however, would find another way to get there, becoming a Detroit Tigers scout, general manager and front-office administrator.

Playing just 100 miles from home, Fitzgerald went 3-4 with a 4.59 earned run average in 13 games for the York White Roses. With his easy demeanor, he was well-liked by teammates. He was permitted to dream a little back then, too.

“I thought the world of him,” Robinson said. “We had a good relationship. He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. We were both happy to get our feet wet in pro baseball. We were all very excited because the Baltimore Orioles weren’t very good and we thought we might be able to get to the big leagues real quick.”

Fitzgerald’s finest pro season came next in Georgia. Playing in 1956 for Class A Columbus, Fitzgerald found a groove, compiling a 10-4 record with a 2.88 ERA. He held Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew to a 0-for-3 outing the first time he faced him. He started on the mound against future big-leaguer Juan Pizarro in the Sally League All-Star Game. The good times didn’t last, though. Mononucleosis and hepatitis sent Fitzgerald home early.

His next stop was San Antonio and the Class AA Texas League in 1957. Fitzgerald played for future big-league manager Joe Schultz (Pilots, Tigers), but he struggled throughout the season. He was 3-10 with a 4.39 ERA. He didn’t bounce back right away either.

The 1958 baseball season was a wash by design. Fitzgerald appeared in just five Pacific Coast League games for Vancouver because he enlisted and served a sixth-month Army stint at Fort Dix in New Jersey, volunteering in order to keep his military obligations to a minimum. Had he been drafted, it would have meant at least a two-year commitment. A civilian once more, Fitzgerald headed for winter ball in Nicaragua to jump-start his baseball career at the urging of the Orioles. His mother, Marie, was outwardly distressed by this: Certain it was not safe in the Central American country, she feared he might not come back. Fitzgerald easily survived three interesting and entertaining months. He played on a team that included eventual big-leaguers in reliever Phil Regan, shortstop Ron Hansen, third baseman Steve Boros and outfielders Joe Taylor and Joe Hicks. He got to know another big-leaguer in opposing shortstop Zoilo Versailles, who hit him up for money while both returned to the states together, pleading poverty.

Games were held in Managua three times per week. Overflow crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 often filled the stands to watch “The People’s Team.” Victories brought fireworks and celebrations in the street.

To amuse themselves, the other ballplayers went alligator hunting at night, using canoes and flashlights to track their prey. Fitzgerald didn’t want any part of this dangerous activity, which the others gleefully noted.

“One night I was sleeping, woke up, rolled over and there’s an alligator next to me,” he said. “Joe Hicks said he had never seen me run that fast. The alligator was about as long as I was.”

In 1959, Fitzgerald returned to Vancouver for a much longer stay. Used mostly as a reliever, he went 4-6 with a 4.16 ERA in 41 Triple-A appearances, numbers that didn’t warrant any big-league consideration. From a personal standpoint, however, the season was a huge success.

While playing a road series in Seattle, Mounties catcher Jerry Zimmerman spotted two attractive women seated in the stands and pointed them out to Fitzgerald. One wore a sailor hat. Zimmerman sent a batboy to fetch their phone numbers. When the kid returned empty-handed, Zimmerman got angry and ordered him to ask again, and this time the young intermediary came back with the desired information.

On the long bus ride back to Canada, Fitzgerald noticed he was clutching a Vancouver number. He found this surprising and convenient. He had low expectations that anything would come of an impulsive phone call, but he dialed it anyway. This is how he met his first wife, Margie, the one in the sailor hat. They went out for ice cream. After five months of dating, he proposed to her. They were married for 35 years.

“A month after the season ended, he says, ‘I’m coming back up and getting married, will you be my best man?’ ” recalled Wes Stock, his Vancouver teammate and roommate, and later a big-league pitcher. “I told him of course I would.”

Fitzgerald split the 1960 season between Vancouver and Seattle, getting loaned in July to the pitching-challenged Rainiers, which had just one other left-hander on the roster, Don Rudolph, and none in the bullpen. While enjoying a serious upgrade in his home life, Fitzgerald battled continuous back problems on the mound that summer. He appeared in just 19 games for the two PCL teams, piecing together a 2-2 record and a somewhat bloated 6.08 ERA. Teammates remembered only the good times.

“He was very effective,” said Dave Stenhouse, a Rainiers teammate and big-league pitcher. “He not only got lefthanders out, he had good movement on his pitches.”

The notable exception was a game in Portland early in the 1960 season, when Fitzgerald still played for Vancouver. In one inning, he served up homers to Lenny Neal, Nippy Jones and Jim Greengrass, with each blast leaving Multnomah Stadium over the left-field fence. Mounties manager Charlie Metro was so incensed by the sudden long-ball barrage he gave his pitcher a nasty tongue-lashing, telling him in no uncertain terms that he should have knocked someone down.

“I had the stuff,” Fitzgerald recalled. “Looking back, I wasn’t tough enough. I didn’t handle adversity well.”

The lefty was saddled with another unwanted footnote late in that 1960 season, too: He was tagged for Ron Fairly’s final minor-league home run, a three-run blast in Spokane, just before the slugger was summoned to the big leagues for good by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Fitzgerald was returned to the Orioles organization by Seattle in the offseason and he showed up at Triple-A spring training in Florida once more in 1961, facing a self-imposed crossroad. Baltimore wanted him to be a reliever. He figured his only way to the big leagues was as a starter. He reluctantly gave up the pro game.

“You needed to win 15 games in the minors to get called up,” Fitzgerald said. “They said if I wanted to be a starter, I’d have to drop down to the Texas League. I didn’t want to do that. I walked out of camp. I was 25. A funny thing happened -- nobody called me.”

Fitzgerald worked briefly for a bank, then on Wall Street, before joining a Philadelphia investment and insurance firm. He sold policies and mutual funds to self-employed people such as lawyers and doctors. He became a CEO, chief operating officer and executive vice president. He wasn’t done with baseball, though. He started pitching again in the semipro Pen-Del League, with and against friends and mostly on the weekends. In seven seasons, he won 49 out of 57 decisions.

Roberts, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, was still finishing up his 19-year big-league career when he joined the same Philadelphia investment firm during the offseason to supplement his modest baseball earnings. Fitzgerald and Roberts became friends. Roberts was always amused that his business colleague continued to pitch so late in life and teased him about it whenever he could.

Invited years later to share in the Phillies’ new ballpark opening, the now-retired Roberts sent Fitzgerald a postcard with the following wise-guy inscription, forever dangling the big-league carrot in front of him: “It was a great night. Thought you might want to know that I asked all around. No one wants you.”

Through the years, Fitzgerald kept up his friendship with Robinson, who built a connection to the big leagues far longer than most. Robinson played 23 seasons for the Orioles and became arguably the game’s greatest fielding third baseman. He would have gladly shared a big-league out, game or season with his friend if it were possible. He understood how unfair the highest level of baseball could be, foremost to his fellow Orioles farmhand.

“I thought he was an outstanding pitcher, but I’m not surprised about anything that happens in baseball,” Robinson said. “I’m sorry it didn’t materialize for him.”

Fitzgerald opened a Seattle office for his firm in 1968, returning to the city in which he threw his final pro baseball pitch. Looking for a place to play, he called Seattle Times baseball writer Hy Zimmerman, someone he had met during his time with the Rainiers, for suggestions. The journalist pointed him to a semipro powerhouse, the Cheney Studs.

He spent nine years with the Tacoma-based team, sharing in four national championships and compiling a glistening 91-6 pitching record. He had a 0.00 earned average one season, roughly pitching 80 innings. He had two young sons who were batboys for the team and joined in those duties by another pitcher’s brother -- a kid named Fred Couples.

When he turned 40, Fitzgerald considered leaving the Studs and giving up baseball, but he had an emphatic dissenter at home. He really had no choice but to continue on.

“Margie called me a quitter and told me to get back out there,” he said.

Fitzgerald was back in the big leagues from 1977 to ‘82, if only for pre-game duty. He became one of two batting-practice pitchers for the expansion Seattle Mariners. Stock, who was hired as pitching coach for the new team, arranged for his old friend and roommate to get the job. Fitzgerald was paid $20 for 20 minutes of throwing at the Kingdome. He was given three game tickets each night that usually went unused.

He handled this role routinely until Joe Simpson, a left-handed-hitting Mariners outfielder and later an Atlanta Braves TBS broadcaster, threw an ugly tantrum. Simpson was enraged that every batting-practice pitch broke away from him. Fitzgerald wasn’t keen on throwing inside and possibly hitting someone. Simpson got so angry over this he flung a bat off the L-screen that protected Fitzgerald, upsetting the part-time pitcher. Other Seattle players took note of the meltdown and ridiculed the ways of their hot-tempered teammate.

“[Tom] Paciorek and [Bruce] Bochte came up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, those .200 hitters are always complaining,’ ” Fitzgerald recalled.

Under much calmer circumstances, Fitzgerald played in Seattle-area adult baseball leagues, winning 107 of 121 pitching decisions over a dozen years. In 1989, he joined a newly created men’s senior baseball league, and over the next 13 seasons he won 195 of 228 decisions. He was the winning pitcher in 58-, 60- and 65-and-over national championship games. He played on a team that included former Mariners catcher Bob “Scrap Iron” Stinson. He did all of this by staying healthy and strong, using yoga and swimming to maintain his fitness. At age 53, he could still hit 84 miles per hour on a radar gun. Into his 70s, he was still capable of throwing 75 mph.

Sadly, all was not right at the Fitzgerald home in suburban Seattle. Things turned life-changing and heart-breaking. Fitzgerald was 60 when he abruptly retired from his business world to spend as much time as he could with Margie, who had ovarian cancer. She was 58 when she died in 1995.

Five lonely years later, Fitzgerald met and married his second wife, Sally. She had a mutual friend who had known Margie, a welcome connection. She was OK with his baseball obsession, too, another deal-maker.

“I got lucky twice,” Fitzgerald said.

Further keeping him passionate about baseball, he was joined in the local senior league by two of his three sons, Mike and Paul. Mike, who is 53 and still plays, also was a successful race-car driver, winning the 2000 World Porsche Cup. A third son, Bob, preferred soccer over baseball.

Three others felt like family to Fitzgerald: his catchers. Reds McMillan was on the receiving end of his pitches throughout high school and American Legion ball, and was his best friend growing up; Tom Kallas caught nearly every Cheney Studs game in which he pitched, and Ken Combs has been his catcher for the past 32 years. In 1999, Fitzgerald thanked them all for their loyalty by paying for everyone’s airfares to a Puerto Rico senior baseball tournament.

The game continued to take Fitzgerald in different directions. In 2005, he went on a world tour with others in his older age bracket, playing in 13 cities in eight countries inside a month. He pitched from Tokyo to London. He now has taken the mound on every continent except Antarctica. Spending his winters in Arizona, he annually helped coach a Scottsdale high school team, naturally throwing daily batting practice to eager, young hitters, often as many as 400 pitches per day. He pitched whenever and wherever he could.

“We all kind of find our niche,” said Johnny O’Brien, a 1960 Rainiers teammate and former big-leaguer. “I guess he found his.”

As his 80th birthday approached, however, Fitzgerald wondered if the end was near. In the late summer of 2014, his shoulder hurt. This marked just his second pitching-related injury over his exhaustive career; elbow discomfort had sidelined him briefly 25 years earlier, forcing him to seek treatment from Mariners team physician Larry Pedegana. He prepared for the worst this time, even joked about breaking out his golf clubs. It was a false alarm.

With the help of physical therapy, Fitzgerald reached back and pitched through the pain. He finished strong, throwing as effectively and frequently as he had earlier that season. He headed for his desert escape, mulling whether to accept invitations to pitch for 60-, 65-, 70- and 75-and-over teams in Sunbelt tournaments in Arizona and Florida. He already was looking forward to the following season when he would turn 80. It was a league of his own.

Working his way out of trouble -- always the sign of a savvy, veteran pitcher -- Fitzgerald sized up his baseball future by repeating the relentless refrain of the great Robin Roberts: That he wouldn’t quit pitching because he was still trying to make it to the majors. It was way simpler than that.

“I guess I just like playing,” he said.

Last revised: February 2, 2015

 

Sources

Most of the information gathered for the story was supplied by Dick Fitzgerald during a series of lengthy sit-down interviews. I first wrote about Dick while serving as a Seattle Post-Intelligencer sportswriter (1980-2009). I called and interviewed former big-leaguers Brooks Robinson, Dave Stenhouse, Johnny O'Brien and Wes Stock to obtain quotes for the story. SABR member Eric Sallee supplied additional statistical and anecdotal research and cross-checking for the story. SABR member Dave Eskenazi provided the images.