John Denny: The Forgotten Cy Young Award Winner
A friend of mine, Ross Moskowitz, is the director of Camp Westmont, a beautiful summer camp in the Pocono Mts. of Pennsylvania. It's the kind of place every kid should be able to attend at least once in their lives. He's also a baseball man. Played Division One NCAA baseball at the University of Maryland. So when he told me that John Denny was going to be his baseball instructor this past summer, I thought it would make for a very interesting story/interview. How does a good pitcher become the best pitcher in the world for one season and win the Cy Young award? From Bob Turley to Randy Jones to Mark Davis to Pat Hentgen, just to name a few, there have been a bunch of pitchers who've taken that step.
I spent a morning with John Denny at the end of August. He's 58 years old now and has kept in great shape. Simply put, he's one of the nicest, soft-spoken people I've ever met. Aside from working for the Arizona Diamondbacks for a few years, he hasn't had that much to do with Major League Baseball since he retired in 1986. Like most former ballplayers, he has a amazing memory of games, players, even specific at-bats from 25-35 years ago. He's also quite introspective about himself and his place in the game's past. His response to my question "So you won Game One of the 1983 World Series?" was unexpected. "Yeah, how about that," as if he still couldn't quite believe his good fortune. We went off topic at times, but his stories about his Hall of Fame teammates were worth hearing. I turned on the tape recorder.
David: In looking at your career, the numbers tell a story of a pitcher with obvious talent, twice leading the NL in ERA, who would follow those seasons with quite a few off years. Were injuries a major factor?
John: Injuries were a big problem for me. My rookie year, 1975, I started the season 2-2 for St. Louis, they sent me back to Triple-A for a month. When I came back, I won seven games in a row, I'm 9-2 and some people were talking about me as a Rookie of the Year candidate. One day, I'm jogging in the outfield in Cincinnati and I tore a lateral ligament. We were only a few games out of first, so I pitched through it and wound up 10-7. The next year, 1976, I was healthy and led the league in ERA (2.52). Then, in 1977, I started the season 7-0 and I strained my hamstring covering first base, then tore that hamstring at Dodger Stadium. And I wound up going 8-8. 1978, I was healthy again and had another good year (14-11, 2.96 ERA).
David: Who was your manager with the Cards?
John: Red Schoendeinst was my first manager, then Vern Rapp and finally Ken Boyer. This was right before the Whitey Herzog era. I would've loved to have played for Whitey, but I was traded to Cleveland. But I loved my time in St. Louis. I played with Joe Torre, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. They were true professionals and some of that rubbed off on me.
David: So you go from a great baseball city to playing in Municipal Stadium?
John: It was tough. That park seated 80,000 people, so even if we had 40,000 people in the stands, which we rarely did, it was half empty. And I think that affected a lot of our players. We had a good rotation. Bert Blyleven, Rick Sutcliffe, myself, Rick Waits, who won 15-16 games one year. Later, Len Barker. After a few years, I became a free agent while with Cleveland. And George Steinbrenner offered the world to me, but I turned him down.
David: I never knew that.
John: My agent handled it all. I never met Steinbrenner, but his quote the next day in the newspapers was something like "John Denny will never wear a Yankee uniform as long as I'm alive." I would've loved to have played for the Yankees, but word was he was very interfering, came down to the locker room all the time. I didn't think I could play for an owner like that.
David: I've never been shy about my feelings for him. I believe he demeaned the game more than anyone in my lifetime. Younger people, especially Yankee fans, forget just how hated he was in New York until they started winning again in 1996.
John: Well, he offered me the best contract with wonderful perks and opportunities for the future. I would've been way better off financially. But my thinking was I worked very hard and I played the game very hard. And I pictured myself working my butt off, putting every ounce of energy I had into the game. I was a thinking pitcher and I studied the hitters. And I pictured if things weren't going well, he'd call me into his office and air me out. And then go to the papers and tell them what he just did. I didn't want to put myself in that situation. And I eventually wound up with the Phils and I loved my time there. I missed almost the entire 1982 season, but then got involved with a strength and flexibility coach that Steve Carlton recommended and he helped me enormously.
David: Before we get to your time with the Phils, let me ask you, "Who was your toughest hitter to face? Who lit you up?"
John: Easy, Tony Gwynn. His pitch recognition was incredible. So I'd make some adjustments and the minute I thought I had him, he'd make adjustments too. Always one step ahead of me. As time went on, I thought I was starting to figure him out. If he had a weakness, it was inside. But you couldn't live in there. The moment you thought you could pound him inside, he'd make that adjustment and take you deep. So I'd go to my sinking fastball and start to pitch him away, but he used to take that to left field really well.
David: How was Willie Stargell to face?
John: I don't know what my actual stats against him were, but I'll tell you this story about Stargell. I was pitching in Pittsburgh one night and I threw him a fastball, down and away. He turned that sucker around right up the middle. I could hear that ball singing as it went by me. It short-hopped the fence in left center for a double. He hit it so hard and I remember thinking to myself that ball might've killed me. From then on, I pitched him only inside and I didn't care if he hit it five miles. He was a true professional too, an old school guy and I was a newer type of player. And I learned so much from the old schoolers.
David: Who else?
John: Pete Rose. I pitched a great game one night with St. Louis against the Big Red Machine — Monday Night Game of the Week. The next day he calls me over before our game. I'm 23 years old and I'm wondering what does Pete Rose want to talk to me about? He says "John, I just want to tell you last night you threw one hell of a ballgame. Your fastball was in on my hands all night. But I'll tell you something, next time I'm gonna get you good, you S.O.B." More than anyone, he helped show me how to be a professional and still show respect to the other team and the other players and still be the man and the player you need to be.
David: Let's talk about the 1983 Phils and your Cy Young season. Who was your pitching coach there?
John: Claude Osteen, who had been my teammate and pitching coach with the Cardinals. He was the perfect pitching coach for me.
David: The 1983 Phils are one of my favorite teams. The team had started to age quite a bit, had a lot of veterans, Schmidt, Carlton, Rose. Then they get even older by adding Joe Morgan and Tony Perez at the end of their careers and they win the pennant. Remarkable story.
John: They called us "the Wheeze Kids." (The 1950 pennant winning Phils were called the Whiz Kids).
David: Right. Now, obviously, you were healthy. Did you add a new pitch, change your motion?
John: No, but a few things happened. First, I was in great shape, the best of my career. I had started working out with a strength and conditioning coach, Van Hoefling. He had been with the Los Angeles Rams and when Roman Gabriel was traded to the Eagles, Van followed him to Philly. And Lefty and I got involved with him. And he was great for me. But no new pitch or motion. I was basically a fastball, curve pitcher. And I could add some sink or movement to both of them, so I guess I threw four pitches.
The biggest difference was that I was playing on a team with guys who knew how to win and it rubbed off on me.
David: It was attitude?
John: Attitude and being in great shape. Here's one example and this is what I loved about Pete Rose. I'd get two strikes on a batter and I'd hear him yell or whistle from his position at first base. "You got two strikes on this guy, you know what to do." Because you never want to lose a batter with two strikes on him, you need to finish him off. And Rose was the kind of guy who pounded it home. Just like his career. He took the talent he had and pounded it home, never let up. He stayed on me all year. I am so blessed I was able to play with him. And Lefty and Schmitty and Morgan and Perez too.
Lefty and I had lockers next to each other. Talk about two different guys. I was a Christian and he believed in Eastern religions, mysticism. But we were so close, worked out in the offseason together. One time I said to him, "Lefty, I've never thrown a slider in my life, show it to me." So he held the ball up, put his hand up and says "I just turn my wrist a little bit like this and I throw the shit out of it." (Laughter).
He had great catchers in Bob Boone and Tim McCarver who got to know him as well as he knew himself. I don't recall Lefty shaking off many pitches. And it was a combination of three things. I know what I'm doing out here, I really don't need to take charge because my catcher is handling it very well and I know I can throw what they want.
David: What a huge advantage for a pitcher.
John: Oh yeah. One of the things I tried to do was not to get into a disagreement with any catcher. If he's calling for a fastball down and away and I want to throw up and in, I would say to myself "What the heck, I can throw down and away and still get this guy out." And it made me a better pitcher and it also made my catcher better too because now he knows that I trusted him and then they would work even harder and call a better game." And Lefty had his catcher's trust and that's huge.
David: What was it like in 1983 to look behind you and see Rose at first, Morgan at second and Schmidt at 3rd?
John: You know, the first real ballgame I ever saw in my life, I was ten years old (1963) and my Little League coach, who I still stay in touch with, he was like a father figure to me, took me to Los Angeles from where I was born and raised in Arizona.
David: Were you a Dodgers fan?
John: Well, actually I used to listen to the Giants all the time because I could get KNBR radio very well where I lived. Willie Mays was my favorite player. So he took me to a Dodgers/Giants game. Juan Marichal and Don Drysdale and the Dodgers won 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th inning. I can still remember Marichal throwing that incredible overhand curve for a strike with that big leg kick. So at 10 years old, I get to see two great Hall of Fame pitchers in this great pitching duel and in 1983, I get to play alongside five Hall of Famers.
Now we played mostly on Astroturf back then. Perez, Morgan and Rose were all on their way out, had already lost a step, but anytime there were runners in scoring position, they'd always dive for balls. They saved me run after run after run. They always gave it everything they had and we won the pennant that year to a large degree because of their professionalism. And that leadership rubbed off on Schmitty and we desparately needed that because he could be quite volatile. The fans could really get on him.
David: Give me an example of Schmidt's leadership.
John: I was pitching against Nolan Ryan in Philadelphia. I was down 2-1 in the bottom of the 8th. Ryan was so unhittable that day, throwing darts. Top of our order, he goes through the first two guys. Garry Maddox or Gary Matthews, I can't remember which, draws a walk. Schmitty comes up and Ryan had been making him look terrible all day. Schmitty had no chance. Ryan was on the attack the whole game — attack, attack. He goes 3-2 on Schmitty. And Schmidt would always try to analyze what pitch was coming. Everyone on the bench was hoping for a fastball, because if Ryan dropped that hook on him, he had no chance.
Ryan was grunting on every pitch, never saw anyone throw harder than he did that day. He was so intimidating. Fastball. Ball landed in the second deck and we won the game 3-2. Now that's talent, but it's also leadership because Schmitty knew no one else on our club could touch Ryan that day. It was up to him.
David: So you win the pennant and you win Game One of the World Series?
John: Yeah, how about that.
David: Was the game at the Vet?
John: No, it was in Baltimore, won it 2-1, beat Scott McGregor. I gave up a home run to Jim Dwyer, who was my minor league teammate on the Cardinals, pitched well rest of the game. Only game we won.
David: 19-7, 2.37 ERA, Cy Young Award, win a World Series game.
John: Pretty great year to live through.
For the past 30 years, David Bromberg has lived in Northeast Pennsylvania, former home of the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Barons (Phils Triple A team) and current home of the S/WB Yankees Triple A team. He was dubbed "the most inveterate baseball fan in northeast Pa. by Ron Allen, who hosted the local nightly sports radio call-in show there.
I grew up a Reds fan and the first baseball game I ever went to was Padres vs Reds in 1986. John Denny pitched and (barely) won for Cincy, and I've since found out (via baseball-reference.com) that it was his last game ever. Tony Gwynn got three hits off him in that game, and Pete Rose was still managing the Reds.
Long story short, I loved this interview. Brings back a lot of awesome memories. thanks!
Posted by: Dave at October 9, 2011 9:04 PM
Very enjoyable interview.
Posted by: Al Doyle at October 9, 2011 10:19 PM
I just had to check the tracer on that Mike-Schmidt-Nolan-Ryan story. Denny got it pretty close to right. The game was April 10, 1984. Denny wasn't down 2-1, though. He was down 1-0, as he gave up a run in the top of the eighth (a solo homer to SS Craig Reynolds). Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Juan Samuel (not Garry Maddox nor Gary Matthews, neither of whom played in that game - Matthews wasn't on the Phillies in 1984) walked, Len Matsuzak singled, moving Samuel to second. Schmidt then homered off of Ryan, who, prior to that inning, had given up only 4 hits (all singles) and three walks. Ryan was promptly pulled from the game, as the Phils now had a 3-1 lead. Denny came back out for the ninth, but gave up a single to start the inning and was pulled. Al Holland retired the side, allowing a walk and two strikeouts, to get the save. Phils won 3-1. Frankly, as far as old ballplayer stories go, this one is pretty darn accurate.
Posted by: David at October 10, 2011 6:32 AM
David and John gave us a nice trip down recent memory lane. It is very important to note these *niche* players and how they have impacted the game just as much as the great and publicized players. This year's playoffs have reinforced the fact that it's these *others* who can have just as much if not more impact on the outcomes of the games.
The institutional memory of today's baseball analysts goes about as far as Sportscenter and their DVRs will take them. For some reason, if our sports talking heads did not see a player, that player is diminished in their eyes. John Denny, who sounds like a very classy, down-to-earth person, exhibits humility and joy and reminds us that even professionals can look back in wonder at what they accomplished.
David, please spare your Steinbrenner rants for the op-ed page. Other than that, great piece!
Posted by: Gary Cinnamon at October 10, 2011 8:13 AM
I remember John Denny as being a pretty good pitcher.
Posted by: Peter Weiss at October 10, 2011 8:30 AM
Thanks for your corrections on the Schmidt/Ryan confrontattion. I've been going to MLB games since 1956 and I'd hate to have my wonderful memories of some games fact-checked.
Posted by: David Bromberg at October 10, 2011 8:44 AM
David - Great column! Note to Basball Analysts ... print more of David's columns!
Posted by: Michael Last at October 10, 2011 11:53 AM
Great interview - Baseball Analysts should send you on the road to do more of your well-written pieces.
Posted by: Dave U at October 13, 2011 6:48 AM
Enjoyable interview, thank you for it.
Funny, regarding the memories of old ballplayers, Denny's memory about asking Steve Carlton how he threw his slider (where Carton says, per Denny, "I just turn my wrist a little bit like this and I throw the shit out of it.") doesn't ring true to this Phillies fan. But because the version I know, and have known since I was a kid in the 80s, has this exchange happening between Lefty and Dick Ruthven. It makes me wonder if it was misreported as having involved Ruthven, or if Denny heard the story so often he thought it was his own memory, or if Lefty pulled the same shit with everyone!
Posted by: Richard at October 15, 2011 4:44 PM
Well done! And happy to read that Willie was Denny's favorite player!
Posted by: Terry at October 17, 2011 10:01 AM
I found the interview to be very interesting. Denny is a perfect example of a good pitcher who sprung out of no where to have that great year or two. It was interesting to see what a player like Denny recalled about the ups and downs of his career. I found his comments about turning down a big-money offer from George Steinbrenner both interesting and informative. I also enjoyed David's comments regarding Steinbrenner. I can only wish there were more ballplayers like Denny who had the guts and integrity to walk away from the highest dollar contract offered to them. In the long run, these outrageous contracts are going to eventually kill the game IMO.
Posted by: Stu at October 17, 2011 10:32 AM
Back in the '80's JD was a close personal friend...and he still is. Thank you for a positive article, of which John is deserving!
Posted by: John Hibbard at October 28, 2011 7:34 PM
Interesting interview! I really enjoy it!
Posted by: Thomas G at November 4, 2011 5:06 AM