The Greatest Pitcher You Don’t Know
by Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*
Some called him Lefty.
Some called him Red.
Some called him crazy.
George Brunet was a well-traveled pitcher, and one you’ve probably never heard much about; mostly because he was a pretty good pitcher who got stuck on some really bad teams. Over a major league career that went through parts of fifteen seasons, George compiled a record of 69-93 with a 3.62 ERA and 921 strikeouts.
There’s not a whole lot of anything up in Keweenaw County, MI. Sure, there’s fishing and hunting, old copper mines and the logging industry, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. Michigan Technological University is just a short drive down US 41. But in an area known more for record snowfalls, one would expect hockey and skiing to be the big sports, not baseball.
“It was on my 15th birthday,” Brunet later recalled. “I was fishing… I wandered over to one of the games they played in Ahmeek. They needed a pitcher. Most of those guys were a lot older than I was, and I had on my fishing boots with the hobs on them. But damned if I didn’t go out there and throw a no-hitter.” The sport was popular in the limited summers up north, and in 1953 upon graduating from Calumet High School, George was scouted and signed by the Detroit Tigers.
As a side note, another famous Calumet High School alum in the world of sports? George Gipp, as in “Win one for the Gipper.”
Brunet made his professional debut in the Tar Heel League with the Shelby Clippers down in North Carolina. He appeared in only seven games for 19 innings, striking out 17, but he walked 15, and had an ERA of 8.05. Control wasn’t his strong suit early on: even after reaching the majors, he was involved in an 11-run inning in 1959 where the Chicago White Sox had only one hit. Brunet, brought in with the bases loaded, walked two batters, hit the next, walked another, struck the next guy out, walked two more, then got out of the inning with a grounder back to him. After the inauspicious start, the Clippers pretty quickly said “Thanks, but no thanks,” and then it was off to Louisiana and the Philadelphia Athletics organization. Then Oklahoma. Arkansas. Oklahoma again. Texas. Louisiana. South Carolina. That’s a pretty good chunk of travel time for a kid who had never been further from home than a trip across the lake to Ontario. By now, George was a grizzled 21-year old veteran; at least as grizzled as one can be at that age.
In 1956 came the first Major League contract with the now-in-Kansas City A’s and the string of bad teams in the show began. In only his second game with the A’s, the lefty was called in with the bases loaded… and got Ted Williams to ground out. Brunet said he was shaking upon getting back to the dugout; he didn’t realize he was pitching to his hero until he had an 0-2 count on him. The next day, Williams told him “Kid, if you keep that fastball down, you’ve got a long career ahead of you.” Little did he know…
From Kansas City, George went on to Little Rock, Buffalo, and Portland in between sporadic calls up to the A’s, including the previously mentioned nightmare of an inning where the White Sox hung up 11 runs on a single hit. In 1960, it was off to Louisville and Milwaukee following a trade to the Braves, then Vancouver, then another trade, this time to Houston with some time in Oklahoma City and Hawaii. In 1963, It was off to the Orioles, and then out to California in 1964.
In the offseason, it was always back to Michigan, living in tiny New Allouez… right next door to my dad. After the 1963 season, George came back with a batting practice ball signed by the whole Orioles team. Along with Brunet are signatures from Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio, and coach Luke Appling. The ball still sits in my dad’s collection today, along with about seven of Brunet’s ten cards.
An article in Sports Illustrated in 1980 shows just how bad the teams were that Brunet pitched on in the majors– of the nine major league teams he appeared in games with, six are now known by different names. Over fifteen seasons, he was on only one playoff team– the 1971 Pirates in his final season in the show. Even in the minors, the guy couldn’t catch a break. In Little Rock in 1957, George had a stretch of over 50 innings where his team failed to give him a single run of support. His record went from 10-3 to 10-11 in that span. He finished the season at 14-15, one loss away from the league lead, but he did lead the league in a positive category, striking out 235 batters.
“George had the unfortunate luck to pitch with second-division clubs most of his career,” said sports historian Bob Erkkila. “Otherwise, I think he would have gone on to bigger things.”
In 1970, Brunet ended up with the Washington Senators. His manager? Ted Williams. “Long career ahead of you” indeed.
Brunet gets a couple mentions in the seminal baseball tome Ball Four by Jim Bouton. Bouton said of the Seattle Pilots’ acquisition of Brunet, “He’ll fit right in on this ballclub. He’s crazy.” Bouton later discovered Brunet had a habit of not wearing underwear. “Hell, the only time you need them is if you get into a car wreck,” George said. “Besides, this way I don’t have to worry about losing them.” According to other witnesses and George himself, no cup either. “Getting out of the way of ground balls up the middle has cost me a few singles over the years,” he said.
After the Pirates traded him to the Cardinals who released him, George bounced around the minors. He spent 1971 and 1972 in Hawaii, then 1973 in Eugene, Oregon who cut him in the midst of financial woes. Faced with the likelihood of having to retire and make his way back to Michigan, living out the days fishing and hunting, instead George kept at the game he loved, coaching youth ball in Anaheim. Then at the age of 37, Chico Carrasquel brought him to Mexico and George’s career was reborn. After fifteen Major League seasons, Brunet went on to toss another sixteen in the Mexican Leagues.
As much as George wanted to keep his career going, his heart wasn’t in it. Literally, not figuratively. In 1981, he suffered a heart attack, but recovered and kept on going for the majority of the decade, pitching for Coatzacoalcos. At 54, he finally hung up the spikes, but stayed in Mexico and kept on coaching, managing, and working baseball clinics with the kids in Poza Rica. Incredibly, he only suffered any sort of arm trouble once: a blood clot in 1958 that kept him out for two weeks. While some guys can pitch forever (Jesse Orosco comes to mind here), most do it as relievers for the later part of their careers, if not the majority, or the entirety. George spent his whole time as a starter.
“I played with and for George in Poza Rica,” said Craig Ryan of George’s player-manager days. “If you bunted on him and made him leave the mound, the next time up you’d better be loose because he would keep throwing at you till he got you.”
George’s zaniness may have been part of the reason he was stuck on bad teams. In 1959, ready to be the A’s fifth starter, George found himself outside a team hotel in Florida directing traffic at 3 am after a night out with teammates. Unfortunately, one of those cars had the team’s manager and GM inside. After showing up late for a meeting the next day, Brunet was suddenly shipped to the minors, then off to Milwaukee where he and Bob Buhl made quite a pair of wild and crazy guys. Legend has it that when Buhl was warned on a road trip that anyone not in their hotel room at midnight would be fined $500, he pulled out his wallet, handed the manager the cash, and got off the bus.
Even out in California when Bill Rigney gave him a chance to shine, he managed to get on the manager’s bad side. “One time I really got angry when he took me out, and we had words in the dugout,” George recalled. “Rigney starts counting, ‘$100, $200, $300.’ I didn’t stop until he hit $700. Then I went in and tore the clubhouse apart. The next day I came in and wrote out a check for $700 to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Fund.”
Twenty years ago today, at age 56, George Brunet died in Mexico following his second heart attack. He was just two years removed from a thirty-seven year career that took him to thirty cities in three countries. His totals of at least 3,175 strikeouts in the minor leagues, 55 shutouts in the Mexican Leagues, and 37 seasons pitched still stand as records today. He was inducted into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Mexican Salon de la Fama in 1999. His photo is on the cover of the 1985 SABR publication Minor League Baseball Stars, Volume II.
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