Bert Thiel made his major league debut with the Boston Braves 68 years ago. He was a 25-year-old righthander from Wisconsin, his body made strong by working as a logger during the winter.
Facing the powerhouse Brooklyn Dodgers at Braves Field, Thiel replaced Gene Conley in the fifth inning and retired Carl Furillo, Johnny Schmitz, and Pee Wee Reese to leave Gil Hodges stranded at second.
He hit Jackie Robinson with a pitch in the sixth inning, then struck out Roy Campanella for the second out.
But that Dodgers lineup was deep. Duke Snider doubled to center and Robinson scored. Andy Pafko then doubled to drive in Snider before Thiel got Hodges to ground out.
Thiel faced nine hitters that day and four of them went on to the Hall of Fame.
“I was upset that I gave up two runs with two outs. But I’ll never forget that day,” said Thiel, his voice strong over the phone from his home in Marion, Wis. “It was a dream come true to pitch in the majors. It was what I wanted my whole life from when I was playing baseball with my father.”
Thiel pitched in only three more major league games, all that season. But he enjoyed a long career as a player, coach, manager, and scout. Professional baseball was part of his life for nearly 30 years.
Thiel’s 94th birthday is coming up May 4. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, his nine children, 17 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren won’t be able to celebrate with him in person. But he has already made other plans.
“It’s almost time for turkey hunting season, and I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “I like being outdoors.”
Outside of Thiel, 90-year-old Del Crandall is the only former Boston Braves player still alive. The franchise left Boston for Milwaukee after the 1952 season and then went to Atlanta in 1966.
Thiel gets an occasional newsletter from the Braves that he enjoys, but he doesn’t watch games on television often. He prefers his memories.
“I loved baseball," he said. "I wasn’t much of a hitter and I didn’t run very well. But I had a strong arm. That’s why I became a pitcher.
“There were three teams that scouted me, and I was ready to sign. But my number came up in the draft in 1944 and I went into the Army. Baseball was on hold for me.”
At 18, Thiel arrived in Europe after the Battle of the Bulge and helped push the Nazis back into Germany until they surrendered in 1945. He took part in liberating several concentration camps and after the fighting ended was part of a unit that taught German children how to play baseball.
“I saw some terrible things in those camps,” Thiel said. “Then they had me driving around with a Jeep and a trailer full of sports equipment.”
Once he returned to the United States, scouts got back in touch and Thiel tried out for the Braves in Milwaukee, where their Triple A team was at the time.
He signed before the 1947 season and stayed in Wisconsin after being assigned to Eau Claire in the Class C Northern League. The Braves sent him to Jackson, Miss., the following season. Thiel won 20 games and met his future wife, Jean.
“I found a Southern girl who didn’t mind the cold in Wisconsin,” he said. “It was a tough life sometimes. We were having kids and I was always going off to play somewhere in the spring.”
Thiel played two seasons in Hartford, then made it back to Milwaukee in 1951. He was 14-9 for a team that won 94 games.
“There were Triple A teams that were just as good as some major league teams,” Thiel said. “The Braves had a lot of talent back then.”
Thiel was 145-108 with a 3.76 earned run average over 14 seasons in the minors and won 14 or more games five times. But outside of those four games in 1952, he never made it back to the majors.
There were a few times he was close or was called up and didn’t get into a game. But he holds no resentment about his career and what might have been.
“I would have liked the better salary in the majors," he said. "But I met a lot of great people and played on some excellent teams. I don’t have any complaints.
“The best years I had were playing for George Selkirk, and Charlie Root was the pitching coach. They taught me so much about the game and about pitching. I was a winner everywhere I went because of them.
“I had a better fastball before I went in the Army, but Charlie, he showed me how to pitch in different situations.”
Thiel went to the Giants organization in 1956, then to the Red Sox in 1957. His teammates that season included Pumpsie Green, who broke the Sox color line in ’59, and future Red Sox catcher, general manager, and owner Haywood Sullivan.
Thiel also roomed with Jimmy Piersall during spring training.
“Quite an experience,” he said. “I saw him bring a water pistol to the plate and squirt the umpire when he struck out.”
Thiel played for former Red Sox pitcher Mel Parnell with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1959, then became a manager in the Kansas City organization in 1960. He went on to manage for five seasons and also spent time as an instructor and a scout.
“I liked working with the younger players,” he said. “I was shot by then as a pitcher, but I had something I could contribute. Every time I was looking for a job, somebody would call me.”
Thiel worked eight states in the upper Midwest, driving from place to place scouting for the Washington Senators, Braves, and White Sox.
All of his wisdom about the game was passed on. One of his sons, Kevin, was drafted by the Angels in 1976 and played three seasons in the minors. Thiel also helped coach youth players in Wisconsin for many years.
When his time in baseball ended, Thiel took over a tavern owned by his parents. It was aptly named The 10th Inning, and he ran the place into his late ’80s.
So, who was the toughest hitter he faced?
In addition to those great Dodgers players, Thiel also faced Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Richie Ashburn during his brief stint in the majors.
“It wasn’t in the majors,” he said. “I had to pitch against Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in the minors in 1951 in the American Association. Willie, he was a bad-ball hitter. You could throw it anywhere and he could hit it. Sometimes you were better off throwing it down the middle.
“Mickey, he could do everything. He hit for power and average and he could really run. You knew they were going to be big stars.”
When he does watch games now, Thiel is impressed with modern players.
“They’re better athletes than we were,” he said. “They work on baseball all year long. Me, I was home in the winter working as a logger and sawing trees.
“People talk about that catch Mays made [in the 1954 World Series]. One of the kids today would make that play easy because they’re all so fast. You watch games now and they steal home runs away all the time.”
One of Thiel’s granddaughters, Kim Radies, is the family’s baseball historian. His career is a source of pride for the family.
“He worked hard his whole life and was always affiliated with baseball,” she said. “Anybody who met him had a friend for life. He has no ill will towards anybody.”
Sale believes baseball needed
The Red Sox would have been 16 games into their season and in the middle of a West Coast trip at this point. Now we all wonder when baseball will be back.
Major League Baseball floated a trial balloon this past week, suggesting that all 30 teams could begin the season in Arizona as soon as next month. The idea would be to have players and staff essentially quarantined and play games at Chase Field, the spring training facilities in the Phoenix area, and three college ballparks.
Games would be played without fans but would be televised.
It seems impossible that several thousand people could be safely quarantined at ballparks and hotels over several months, and the plan received widespread criticism.
The latest version is to play games at spring training facilities and domed ballparks in Florida and Arizona and have the World Series between the champion of the Grapefruit League and Cactus League. Teams would have expanded rosters and all games would use a designated hitter.
That idea seems at least a little more realistic. If rosters were expanded, teams could get through playing in hot weather.
Any idea is a good one if it leads to a safe way to start the season. As much as we all want to watch baseball again, the game can’t get in the way of medical care getting to people who need it.
When baseball started up again after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was almost an act of defiance. Security was tightened and the nation showed it would not be intimidated by terrorists.
But extra police and bag checks won’t keep a virus from getting into a ballpark or clubhouse. It would be inexcusable if even one person died because baseball started up too early.
Red Sox lefthander Chris Sale, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, believes baseball can play a role in the country getting back to some semblance of normalcy.
“I think people have an outlet with sports and that’s a way for them to escape reality sometimes and decompress,” he said. “I would love to be able to give that back to them.
“Obviously, I’m not going to be playing. But I think, in a way, some people kind of enjoy getting away from things going on in the world through watching sports. Not just baseball, but everything.
“If there’s a right way to do this, then we definitely need to figure that out. The sooner we get back out there, across all major sports, the better off we’re going to be.”
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
▪ You may recall that Sale missed some time in spring training for what was termed mild pneumonia by the team. He said at the time that the illness tired him out, but he was able to recover after about 10 days.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, you had to wonder if Sale had COVID-19. So did he.
“Honestly? Yes, no doubt,” Sale said. “I don’t know if there’s a test now. But I think they’re working on a test to see if you have antibodies for it, meaning you had it ... It’s crazy to look at my symptoms and think about the symptoms of people who have the COVID-19 virus and some of the similarities. We may never know, but I’m definitely hoping not.”
There is, in fact, such a test and the National Institute of Health will soon administer it to 10,000 volunteers to determine its accuracy.
Sale believes that if he did have the virus, it would have spread to members of his family and teammates.
“It did cross my mind,” said Sale, who tested negative for the flu.
▪ Major league players will have their salaries adjusted if a 162-game season is not played. MLB and the Players Association brokered agreements to determine how much will be paid out.
For the Red Sox, it will mean saving at least some percentage of what would otherwise be dead money.
Sale is owed $30 million for this season. The Sox also are paying the Dodgers $16 million of the $32 million David Price has on his deal. Dustin Pedroia, who is already on the 60-day injured list, has $13 million coming this season. Rusney Castillo, trapped in Triple A, is due $14.2 million.
▪ Remember Austin Maddox? The righthander was called up late in the 2017 season and allowed one run over 17⅓ innings to earn a spot on the postseason roster. He then appeared in two games in the Division Series against the Astros and appeared to have a bright future.
But Maddox is now retired at age 28. A shoulder injury limited him to eight minor league games in 2018 and he had rotator cuff surgery that fall. He was unable to pitch in 2019, and a comeback this season fizzled out in spring training.
Kaline was a true Tiger
Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who died last Monday at the age of 85, played 2,834 games in his professional career. Every single one of them was for the Detroit Tigers.
Kaline signed with the Tigers on June 19, 1953, out of Southern High School in Baltimore and made his major league debut six days later. He never played a game in the minors or for another other team over 22 seasons.
Kaline retired after the 1974 season with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs. He was an All-Star that season but decided in the middle of the last game of the season that he would retire.
Kaline told manager Ralph Houk after two at-bats that he was done, and Ben Oglivie hit for him in the fifth inning. The crowd booed poor Oglivie, who had come over from the Red Sox in a trade before the season.
Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and Ichiro Suzuki are the only players with 3,000 hits and 10 Gold Gloves. Two oddities: Kaline never had a 30-home run season and he has the most All-Star selections (18) without winning a Most Valuable Player Award.
Ted Williams once said Kaline was the best righthanded hitter he ever saw.
But beyond all that, Kaline was a cheerful presence around Comerica Park. He befriended a number of Tigers players over the years and was gracious with his time and perspective with everybody he encountered.
Jose Bautista, who didn’t play last season, is hoping to make it back to the majors as a pitcher. The 39-year-old is posting videos of workouts on social media, and former teammate Marcus Stroman endorsed the quality of Bautista’s sinker, slider, and changeup … Mark Reynolds, who hit 298 home runs over 13 years, announced his retirement. The 36-year-old free agent made close to $30 million in his career and is ninth in career strikeouts with 1,927 … Happy 77th birthday to Vicente Romo. The righthander from Mexico was 14-12 with a 3.59 ERA in 100 games for the Red Sox from 1969-70. He made 21 starts and had 17 saves. In a six-player deal only 11 days into the ’69 season, the Sox acquired Romo from the Indians. Mike Macfarlane is 56. The catcher played for the Royals from 1987-94, signed with the Red Sox as a free agent for the 1995 season, then went back to the Royals as a free agent for two more years … Bruce Springsteen spoke for a lot of us when he appeared on SiriusXM this past week. “I miss baseball,” he said. “I’m not much of a sports fanatic at all, but I do miss baseball. All I know is when this is all over I’m going to take [his wife] Patti to a baseball game.” Amen to that.