AGAINST THE ODDS!
Former Major League Pitcher Dennis Bennett
Overcame Car Accident To Succeed In Majors
By David Hogle
Flying through a windshield nearly killed former major league pitcher Dennis Bennett. But, it couldn’t kill his competitive spirit and his desire to play the game he loved.
Bennett had the potential to be something special on the mound. He was a 6-foot-5, 205-pound lefthander who possessed a powerful fastball along with a nasty curve and a nice change up. He was compared favorably with another famous lefty of his generation – Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.
“They said I threw as hard as anybody,” Bennett said. “How hard that was I don’t exactly know. But, I could get all my pitches over the plate, which was pretty rare for a lefthander at age 22.”
Dennis Bennett pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies for three seasons and survived a horrific car accident to help the Phillies contend for the 1964 National League pennant.
|For a short time, Bennett was one of the best pitchers the Philadelphia Phillies had on their staff. During their valiant but unsuccessful run toward the National League pennant in 1964, the Phils relied heavily on Bennett’s arm and heart.But, no thanks to a horrific car accident during the winter of 1962, Bennett’s promise was short lived. He was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico and was riding one afternoon with his team’s owner.
“We were coming back from a team picnic and we were on our way to the ballpark,” Bennett remembered. “He had a heart attack and died while he was driving. I went through the windshield and I was in the hospital for four-and-a-half months.”
Bennett cheated death but suffered a shattered ankle, broken pelvis, and face lacerations in the wreck. He also suffered a cracked left shoulder blade which doctors didn’t detect for nearly three years.
“They didn’t even catch that because I was so banged up,” Bennett said. “Puerto Rican doctors took an amazon thermometer and told me I would never pitch again or walk again.”
But, Bennett beat those odds – and then some. There’s no telling what the big lefty might have accomplished on the mound had he not been so seriously injured. Still, Bennett persevered and contributed as much as he could.
The fact that he was able to come back at all from such a terrible mishap was certainly a miracle. But, it only served to prove how much Bennett wanted to play baseball and how much he loved the game.
Bennett (now 66) was raised in Yreka, Calif. He pitched collegiate ball at Shasta County (Calif.) Junior College and is a member of the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame, which includes other notable major league alums like Rick Bosetti, Buck Martinez, Mark Parent, and Bill Plummer.
|“I only went there one year,” Bennett said, “and I wasn’t from that county. But, it’s good to be in that company with those guys.”Growing up, Bennett didn’t get a chance to follow baseball like other youngsters around the country. He broke into professional baseball in 1958 with Johnson City (Tenn.) in the Class D Appalachian League, going 7-3 with 92 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 77 innings pitched. He led the league with a miniscule 1.52 ERA.
“When I was a kid all the baseball was on the East Coast,” Bennett said. “We didn’t even get the box scores in the local newspaper. The only time we watched baseball was the World Series. When I got to the big leagues, people would ask me who my favorite player was. I told them I didn’t have one because I never watched.”
Bennett steadily worked his way up through the Philadelphia farm system. After starting the ’62 season with a 3-1 record and 2.00 ERA for Buffalo in the International League, the Phillies called him up and he made his major league debut on May 12 during a 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Dennis Bennett (as he appeared on his 1964 Topps baseball card)
Bennett pitched three innings that day, allowing three earned runs on four hits while striking out two and walking two. He didn’t figure in the decision. On June 2, he earned his first major league win by beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 7-0. Bennett gave up just four hits and three walks while striking out 11 in a complete-game effort that ended a 13-game winning streak for the Dodgers.
The Phillies in ‘62 won 19 of their last 26 games to finish the season 81-80. They finished in seventh place, 20 games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. But, it was a tremendous improvement over 1961, when Philadelphia was a miserable last-place club with a 47-107 record.
Dennis Bennett in a Boston Red Sox cap.
|Art Mahaffey won 19 games for the Phillies as the team’s ace while sluggers Don Demeter, Johnny Callison, Roy Sievers and Tony Gonzalez paced the offense as all four had 20 or more homers. Bennett finished his rookie season with a 9-9 record and a 3.81 ERA.
He punctuated his fine freshman campaign by winning three straight complete-game starts in September which evened his ledger. Then, that winter while in Puerto Rico, Bennett was hurt in that awful crash.
“They kept me down there three days and then flew me back to Philadelphia on a plane strapped across three seats,” Bennett said. “I had a doctor and a nurse with me the whole time.”
Dr. John Moore (one of the leading orthopedic surgeons in the world at the time) operated on Bennett, who was back on the mound by June of ‘63. Everything seemed fine with his arm as he finished the year 9-5 with a 2.64 ERA. Bennett was voted Most Courageous Athlete by the Phillies, who moved up to fourth place in the standings at 87-75.
The foundation was set for 1964 as the Phillies were seemingly on the way toward their first National League pennant since 1950. Dick Allen won Rookie of the Year honors by hitting .318 with 29 homers, 91 RBI, and 201 hits while leading the Senior Circuit in runs scored (125) and total bases (352).
Callison was the star of the All-Star Game in New York’s Shea Stadium that year – hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Dick Radatz to win the contest for the Nationals 7-4. He also finished second to Ken Boyer for the league’s MVP award by hitting .274 with 31 homers and 104 RBI.
|Hall of Famer Jim Bunning went 19-8 and threw a perfect game against the New York Mets on Father’s Day. Chris Short was 17-9. The Phillies were leading the National League by 6-½ games with 12 to play. Winning the pennant seemed certain; the Phils even got the “OK” to print World Series tickets.
But, the wheels fell off as Philadelphia lost 10 in a row and finished one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals with a 92-70 record. At one point, manager Gene Mauch decided to go with just a two-man rotation of Bunning and Short. It proved to be an ill-advised move.
“He shouldn’t have done that,” Bennett said of Mauch. “I don’t know why he thought he couldn’t start someone else. We had guys like Art Mahaffey, Ray Culp, and Rick Wise who were ready to go.”
Bennett (the Phils‘ opening day starter in ‘64) finished 12-14 with a 3.68 ERA. He went 9-5 before the all-star break – and then his left arm started hurting.
“My arm started bothering me then and they couldn’t find out why,” Bennett recalled. “They took X-rays and they did this and they did that. On road trips, in every town I went to, I would go to see their top physicians. I even went to the Mayo Clinic and they couldn’t find anything wrong. I was still pitching but I couldn’t throw that good really. It hurt so much.”
In September, Bennett remembers a three-game stretch where his arm felt normal. He beat the Dodgers 5-1 and the Giants 1-0 in back-to-back complete games. Then, he beat the Houston Colt 45s 1-0 with a little help from closer Jack Baldschun to even his record.
But, Bennett lost his last two starts to Cincinnati and St. Louis as his arm started aching for good during the dreadful losing skein.
“For some reason, when we came on a West Coast trip, my arm didn’t bother me at all,” Bennett said. “I was the first guy ever to strike out Willie Mays three times in one game. After the Houston game, my arm went back to popping. For some reason in those three games, my arm just didn’t bother me.
Despite the collapse, Bennett looks back fondly on his days with Philadelphia – especially his relationship with Mauch, who died earlier this year at age 79. Mauch won 1,901 games as a manager with Philadelphia, Montreal, Minnesota, and California during his 26 years as a major league skipper.
Mauch has been labeled by some as the best manager in history to never lead a team to the World Series. Besides ‘64, Mauch also came close in 1982 and ‘86 with the Angels before those clubs also short-circuited in the playoffs.
“He was the best manager I played for – him and Bill Rigney with the Angels,” Bennett said. “Gene was great with young pitchers. He would take us aside and talk to us younger pitchers. We’d go over how we would pitch different guys. It’s a shame that he has that tag on him that he never won a World Series or never won the pennant. He was a great manager in my estimation.”
Bennett also was close to Bunning (now a U.S. Senator for Kentucky) even though the two were teammates for just one year in ‘64. “I learned a lot from Jim,” said Bennett of Bunning, who (with 224 career wins and 2,855 strikeouts) was the second pitcher behind Cy Young to log 100 victories and 1,000 whiffs in both leagues. “He and Chris Short were my good friends.”
Bennett had the chance to pitch in the same game with his younger brother Dave on June 12, 1964. In an 11-3 loss to the Mets in Philadelphia, Dennis was knocked out of the game in the third inning after allowing five runs (four earned) on four hits. Later, Dave (a righthander) pitched the ninth and allowed one run on two hits. It was Dave’s only major league appearance and one of only 21 instances since 1900 where brothers pitched for the same team.
“It’s the only time in the history of baseball that two brothers pitched in the same game where one was lefthanded and one was righthanded,” Bennett said. “There haven’t been many brothers pitch or play in the same game, let alone for the same team. That’s something special to me.”
On Nov. 29, 1964, Philadelphia traded Bennett to the Boston Red Sox for slugger Dick Stuart. His arm hurt him all year long – resulting in a 5-7 record and a 4.38 ERA in ‘65. Again, he went to another doctor in Boston.
This time, the source of Bennett’s discomfort was finally found. Calcium had built up and deposited along the crack in his left shoulder blade which had previously gone undetected. Surgery was a risky option, but Bennett elected to have it in the spring of 1966.
“Calcium had built up on the crack,“ Bennett said. “That’s what irritated my arm and why I couldn’t throw well. Back then, if you had a bad arm, you worked it out in the sunshine. They left you back in Florida or you worked it out in the minors. They didn’t baby you like they do now. But (Boston owner) Tom Yawkey walked in one day and asked how I was doing. He said if I wanted to have the operation, I should have it.”
|In the meantime, Bennett had become friends with pitcher Earl Wilson, who was just the second black man ever to play for the Red Sox behind Pumpsie Green. Wilson had been Boston’s best pitcher in ’65 with a 13-14 record. Buddies like Wilson made spring training in Florida enjoyable for Bennett in ‘66.
“We had spring training in Winter Haven,” Bennett said. “That was the first year we had spring training there. In ‘65, we were in Scottsdale, Ariz. We had a day off. Me, Earl, and Dave Morehead went to Lakeland to see some of the Detroit players, which is where they trained. We talked and had a couple of beers with ‘em. We were on our way back and stopped at a bar to have a beer.”
The bartender took orders from Bennett and Morehead but refused to serve Wilson – reportedly calling him the “N” word. Instead of raising a big stink, the trio promptly left the establishment.
“They refused to serve Earl because he was ‘colored’ and we just got up and walked out,” Bennett said. “I didn’t know at the time how bad (racism) was because I was from California and I wasn’t used to segregation and all that stuff. We had to restrain Earl a little and we were all mad. But, we just walked out.”
Wilson (who hit 35 career homers as a pitcher and hurled a no-hitter in 1962) was traded later that season to the Detroit Tigers, where he led the American League in wins with 22 in ‘67. “That whole incident made an impression on me,” Bennett said. “Earl was a hell of a guy.”
Bennett came back after the all-star break in ‘66 and went 3-3 with a 3.24 ERA. In ‘67, he was 4-3 with a 3.88 ERA in 13 games for the Bosox before he was dealt to the Mets in late June. The Red Sox went on to capture the American League pennant by one game before losing to the Cardinals in the World Series in seven games.
“(Manager) Dick Williams and I didn’t get along,” Bennett said of Williams, who guided the Bosox to a 92-70 record in ‘67. “In fact, we didn’t even talk to each other. Right before the all-star break, they traded me to the Mets.”
Bennett was good friends with MVP Carl Yastrzemski and Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg. Yaz won the Triple Crown in ‘67 with a .326 average, 44 homers, and 121 RBI. Lonborg went 22-9 with a 3.16 ERA and led the Junior Circuit with 246 strikeouts.
“They helped me out when I had the arm troubles,” Bennett said. “They stuck by me and built me up. I had a lot of good teammates through my career.”
After going 1-1 with the Mets the rest of the year, Bennett was traded to the Angels in May 1968 and went 0-5 with a 3.54 ERA. In the spring of ‘69, he was the last pitcher cut by California and that was it for the big lefty in the majors. But, he continued playing in the minors – and he pitched well.
The Islanders featured a roster filled with former big leaguers like Bennett, who tied for the league lead in wins with 18. Former Pirates reliever Roy Face was on the team. So were Jim Hicks, Ray Oyler, Juan Pizzaro, Jim Coates, Ron Kline, George Brunet, Floyd Robinson, and Gary Bell – all with solid major league credentials.
Hawaii’s best young players were shortstop Marty Perez and second baseman Doug Griffin, who formed a slick double-play combination for the Islanders. Both would go on to play in the majors. Hawaii also had pitcher Dave LaRoche, who would later be an all-star with California and notch 126 career saves in the majors.
“Hawaii was like a castoff for former major leaguers,” Bennett said. “We had a lot of ex-big leaguers over there. It was a great place to play. It worked out good for me. In Triple A, you really only had to worry about the third, fourth and fifth hitters. I was a smart-enough pitcher by then to get by on what I had. I got by with my head more than anything else.
“I pitched in Hawaii until 1973. My arm was still hurting, but I won several games. Nobody would take a chance on me, though.”
Good hitters seemed to pose little problem for Bennett during his career. But, it was lesser-touted players like third baseman Jim Ray Hart of the Giants who gave him the most trouble.
“I had a three-hitter once and he had all three hits,” Bennett said of Hart, who hit .278 with 170 homers during his 11-year career. “He owned me for sure.”
Bennett had a 43-47 record with a 3.69 ERA during his brief seven-year major league career. He had 572 strikeouts and just 281 walks in 863 innings.
“If I could have maintained it and if I hadn’t gotten hurt,” Bennett said, “who knows what I could have done. The calcium on my shoulder blade ruined my career. It’s hard to say how good I could have been. If it hadn’t been for the car wreck, I don’t know what I could have done. I think I would have had a lot better career, pitched a lot longer and won a bunch more games. But, I’m fine now.”
Bennett opened a bar in 1969 called the City Club in Klamath Falls, Ore., where he currently resides. He also overcame a case of identity theft in the 1990s when a man passed himself off as a rodeo announcer, a minister, and a former major leaguer named “Dennis Bennett.” The FBI eventually ironed out that whole mess.
|“This guy had open heart surgery in Oklahoma City and I got a bill for $77,000,” said Bennett, who went blind in his left eye eight years ago. “Somehow, he even got his picture on one of my baseball cards. It had all my stats on back but it was his face on the front.
“It caused me a lot of misery for several years. It’s all water under the bridge now, but for about five years, I couldn’t even buy a pack of gum on credit. That’s how bad that guy ruined it.”
Bennett (who likes to golf) has a big family. He’s been married 37 years to his wife Terry and together they have six sons (Darrin, Dax, Zinn, Michael, Patrick, and Daniel) and three daughters (Lisa, Vanessa, and Sheri.)
Daniel (at 18 the youngest) was his high school’s MVP as a senior in four sports – baseball, football and basketball. A 5-foot-11, 170-pound freshman, he pitches in the junior college ranks for the Cougars of Taft (Calif.) College.
“He’s got a shot to be something,” Bennett said of his son, who throws righthanded. “He’s got a ways to go but hopefully he’s not finished growing. He’s a pitcher but he swings the bat pretty good, too. If pitching doesn’t work for him, maybe he’ll end up like Babe Ruth or Stan Musial and switch positions.”
Better still, maybe Daniel will end up like his father and simply play the game with passion and desire – striving for excellence and overcoming the odds no matter what obstacles may confront him on or off the diamond.