Former Yankees Pitcher Tom Sturdivant
Enjoyed Brief Tenure As One Of Game’s Best
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By David Hogle
Former major league pitcher Tom Sturdivant may not have been king of the mountain for very long and his reign as one of baseball’s best hurlers was a relatively short one for the New York Yankees.
But, it was definitely sweet.
Born in Gordon, Kan., and raised in Oklahoma City, Sturdivant had the skills early on to be a big league pitcher. When he graduated from Capitol Hill High School, professional scouts were ready to sign the youngster in a hurry.
“We were a powerhouse,“ Sturdivant recalled. “Capitol Hill played for championships in many sports. We worked at winning. There were quite a few of us from Capitol Hill that went professional.“
In the minors, Sturdivant made steady progress on the mound before donning pinstripes. In 1952, he was 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA for Beaumont in the Texas League. In ‘53, he was 10-7 with a 3.76 ERA for Birmingham of the Eastern League. In ‘54, he was 8-9 with a 3.57 ERA, 133 strikeouts and just 59 walks in 169 innings for Kansas City of the American Association.
Former Yankee Tom Sturdivant was one of the American League’s best pitchers in 1956 and ’57.
|Sturdivant relied on a varied repertoire of pitches – a knuckleball, curveball, and fastball – to become one of the Yankees’ best pitchers in 1956 and ’57. Nicknamed “Snake” for his excellent curve, the 76-year-old Sturdivant was a lethal and venomous weapon for a short while.
“My fastball was my best pitch,” Sturdivant said, “because I had excellent control of it. I wasn’t afraid of walking everybody. I’d start with a knuckleball and go on through (my assortment of pitches.) As long as I could get somebody out with my knuckleball, I’d get ’em out. If I couldn’t get ’em out with that or the curveball, I’d go to my fastball. But, I went right at ’em.”
That’s exactly what any pitcher had to do against American League sluggers in the 1950s – a decade which featured many of the game’s revered names like Ted Williams, Al Kaline, Larry Doby, Harmon Killebrew, Jackie Jensen, Gus Zernial, Roy Sievers, Minnie Minoso, Harvey Kuenn, and several others.
For a couple of years, Sturdivant was one of the best at getting them out.
“You got to challenge the hitters because if you don’t,“ said Sturdivant, “then they’ll just wait there for their pitch – wait for that big fat one in their wheelhouse.”
Hitters didn’t get many fat ones from Sturdivant during his tenure with the Yankees. After going 1-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 33 games as a rookie for New York in 1955, Sturdivant immediately came into his own the following summer in ‘56 with an impressive 16-8 record along with a 3.30 ERA, 110 strikeouts and only 52 walks in 158-1/3 innings pitched.
Sturdivant ranked fifth in victories and eighth in ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.12) was tops in the American League. Sturdivant also ranked fifth in strikeouts per nine innings with 6.25 and fifth in bases on balls per nine innings with 2.96.
He held opposing hitters to a measly .224 average and he also recorded five saves – tied for sixth in the league. Sturdivant even hit .312 that year, going 20-for-64 with just seven strikeouts – not bad for a pitcher. Strong attributes both as a starter and a reliever (and even as a hitter) helped make Sturdivant one of manager Casey Stengel’s most valuable commodities.
|In ‘55, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally won their first (and only) World Series against the hated Yankees. They had lost their five previous World Series to the Bronx Bombers in 1941, ’47, ’49, ’52, and ’53. Brooklyn was loaded again in ’56 with the likes of Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, and Carl Erskine.
The Dodgers won the National League pennant by one game over the Milwaukee Braves with a 93-61 record. New York, though, was also armed and mighty dangerous as they won the American League pennant by nine games over the Cleveland Indians with a gaudy 97-57 record. As far as the Yankees were concerned, a little payback was in order.
“Anytime you played Brooklyn, you were going to have a great Series,” Sturdivant said. “To me, it was a wonder world to beat the Dodgers. They really had a good ball club.”
In the ’56 World Series, the Dodgers jumped on Whitey Ford early and won the first game 6-3 at Ebbets Field. In the second game, they battered seven Yankee pitchers into submission en route to a 13-8 victory. As the Series shifted to Yankee Stadium, everybody knew it was do or die in the Yankee dugout.
Ford (who was 19-6 during the regular season) put aside his shortcomings from the first game and came back strong in Game 3 – holding the Dodgers in check on eight hits for a 5-3 win as he pitched a complete game. Still down a game to “The Bums,” it was now up to Sturdivant and company to try and even the Series at two games each.
Tom Sturdivant enjoyed a 6-2, complete-game victory in the fourth game of the 1956 World Series. His efforts helped set the table for Don Larsen’s perfect game the next day.
With the aid of home runs by Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer, Sturdivant went the distance in a 6-2 victory. The Dodgers managed just six hits against the 6-foot-1, 186-pound Sturdivant, who helped his own cause with his only hit in four career Series at-bats.
That set the stage for Don Larsen in Game 5, who sat in a bar eating pizza and drinking beer the night before the big contest – predicting he could throw a no-hitter against Brooklyn. He did it one better by throwing the only perfect game in World Series history – beating the Dodgers 2-0 as Dale Mitchell watched strike three go past him into catcher Yogi Berra’s mitt for the final out.
“Whitey pitched the day before I did and he won,” Sturdivant said. “But, he and Larsen had pitched in the first two games and got killed. Larsen came back and pitched that perfect game. It was a big turn of events for our team.”
Tom Sturdivant went 16-6 in 1957 and led the American League in winning percentage at .727 while finishing second in ERA behind Yankee teammate Bobby Shantz (2.45) with his own mark of 2.54.
|Bob Turley allowed just four hits and struck out 11 in Game 6, only to lose 1-0 when Jackie Robinson singled home Jim Gilliam in the bottom of the 10th inning at Ebbets Field. But, Johnny Kucks (who went 18-9 during the regular season) closed out the Series with a complete game – winning 9-0 behind a pair of two-run homers by Berra and a grand slam by Moose Skowron.
“Turley came back and pitched almost as good a game as the perfect game but lost in 10 innings,” Sturdivant said. “Johnny Kucks pitched the seventh game and was as good as any of them. He got all groundballs that day. That’s really something when you have an 18-game winner and he doesn’t get to pitch until the last day. To do that against a team like the Dodgers was something.”
Of all the great Yankees that Sturdivant played with, Mantle made the biggest impression on him. In ’56, Mantle won the Triple Crown with a .353 batting average, 52 home runs, and 130 RBI. His running catch of a drive off the bat of Hodges into the left-centerfield gap in the fifth inning helped preserve Larsen’s perfecto.
Mantle could do it all with bat and glove despite his many physical ailments, according to Sturdivant.
“Mickey Mantle made the biggest impact on me and we became very dear friends,” Sturdivant said. “You couldn’t believe that somebody could hit one back into the monuments at Yankee Stadium and somebody would get it. But, Mickey would catch them. We had Mantle, the Giants had Willie Mays, and the Dodgers had Duke Snider. I consider those three up there with the best that ever lived. But, Mickey was something else.
“You couldn’t believe what he’d do. He had that problem with his legs. Sometimes he’d be wrapped up all the way down around one ankle, up around his back, and down the other leg – just to hold everything together. But, I never remember him ever loafing after one ball. All of us Yankees, we played together and we played baseball for the fun of it and the joy. You could tell it, I think.”
In 1957, Sturdivant was even better than he was the year before. He went 16-6 and led the league with a .727 winning percentage. He recorded 118 strikeouts in 201-2/3 innings and had a sparkling 2.54 ERA. Sturdivant held opponents to a .232 average and he completed seven games with two shutouts.
His ERA in ‘57 was second in the Junior Circuit behind only teammate Bobby Shantz, a former MVP with the Philadelphia A’s in ’52 who had a 2.45 ERA. Sturdivant also was tied for second in victories with Dick Donovan of the Chicago White Sox and Tom Brewer of the Boston Red Sox. Jim Bunning of the Detroit Tigers and Billy Pierce of the Chisox each paced the AL with 20 wins. His strikeouts, hits allowed per nine innings (7.59), and strikeouts per nine innings (5.27) all ranked among the top 10 in the league.
In the World Series, the Yankees lost in seven games to the Milwaukee Braves. Hank Aaron hit .393 with three homers for the Braves while pitcher Lew Burdette won three complete games (two by shutout) to earn MVP honors. But, the Yankees got revenge in ‘58 by beating Milwaukee in seven games.
“It was really great to be on top of that mountain for a while,” Sturdivant said. “In ‘56, I won 16 and got to pitch in the World Series. That was really my two goals – to pitch in the World Series and be a winner with the Yankees. The next year, I had an even better year at 16-6. But, something happened and I don’t know what it was. I still think about it.”
Sturdivant hurt his arm in ‘58 – going just 3-6 in 15 games as his ERA ballooned to 4.20. He was never the same again after that. But, Sturdivant doesn’t blame the injury for the drop from his lofty perch.
“I had an arm injury but that wasn’t it,” Sturdivant lamented. “It just got to where I couldn’t throw my fastball where I wanted to every time. I might do it six or seven times – then throw one down the middle. Major league ballplayers don’t miss the pitches down the middle – no matter how hard you throw.”
On May 26, 1959, Sturdivant (along with Kucks and infielder Jerry Lumpe) was traded to the Kansas City A’s for Ralph Terry and Hector Lopez. After nearly five years with the Yankees, Sturdivant embarked on a journey which saw him pitch for seven different clubs over the next five years.
“It was a goal for most guys to be with the Yankees for five years,” Sturdivant said. “If you were with the Yankees for five years, you were lucky. It didn’t seem like a lot of guys would stay that long.
“But, if you did, you got to play in the World Series just about every year and get that bonus money for winning it. You never made so much that you could sit on your fanny all winter. Still, it was nice to be in that position.”
|Sturdivant admits that he was never as good again as he was with the Yankees. But, there were still times after he left New York that would conjure up memories of his more powerful previous self.
In 1961, Sturdivant found himself in a Washington Senators uniform. He was picked up in the expansion draft in December 1960 from the Red Sox, who had traded catcher Pete Daley to the A’s for Sturdivant in December 1959.
On May 13, 1961, Sturdivant had the distinction of throwing the first shutout in the history of the expansion Senators, beating the Red Sox 4-0. Sturdivant allowed only one hit that afternoon – a double by Vic Wertz in the fifth inning. Sturdivant also helped himself by singling and scoring a run in the game.
Tom Sturdivant as a Washington Senator in 1961.
“That was one of my better outings after I left the Yankees,” Sturdivant said. “It seemed like I would throw good for a while after (my stint with the) Yankees. Then, my ol’ brain would go crazy at times and I don’t think I was ever in as good a shape as I was with the Yankees. But, I was pretty good that day with the Senators.”
Wertz and Williams were the two toughest hitters on Sturdivant, according to him. “They were really tough on me,” Sturdivant said. “Williams was tough on everybody but Wertz had a higher batting average against me than Williams did. That’s hard to believe, I know. But, Wertz was pretty stout.”
Sturdivant was later traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Tom Cheney on June 29 that year. After going 2-6 with Washington the first half of ‘61, Sturdivant went 5-2 for the Bucs the rest of the season – throwing six complete games along with a 2.84 ERA.
In ‘62, Sturdivant helped Pittsburgh finish fourth in a highly-competitive National League race that season. The Pirates were 93-68 and finished eight games behind the San Francisco Giants for the pennant.Sturdivant was one of the team’s most effective pitchers out of the bullpen with an occasional spot start for the Bucs. His 9-5 record translated into a .643 winning percentage – good enough to rank seventh among Senior Circuit pitchers. He had a 3.73 ERA in 125-1/3 innings.
In ‘63, he pitched for the Pirates, the Tigers, and the A’s. It seemed like Sturdivant never had a chance to unpack his suitcase that year. But, he worked a respectable total of 45 games, going 2-4 overall with a 3.75 ERA over 108 innings between the three stops.
In his final year in the big leagues, Sturdivant started the year with the A’s before being released on May 10. The New York Mets picked him up that same day and three weeks later, Sturdivant found himself pitching in one of the longest games in major league history.
|The Mets and Giants hooked up for a twin bill at Shea Stadium on May 31. Juan Marichal won the first game 5-3 for the Giants. In the nightcap, the contest lasted 23 innings before pinch-hitter Del Crandall delivered a run-scoring double off Galen Cisco in a game that lasted 7 hours and 23 minutes. The entire doubleheader lasted 9 hours and 52 minutes as both times are still National League records as far as marathon baseball is concerned.
Sturdivant was one of four Mets relievers that kept the high-powered Giants offense scoreless for 19-2/3 innings before losing. He worked 2-2/3 innings and allowed three hits while striking out two. But, he says he can’t recall anything about that game.
Tom Sturdivant (as he appeared on his 1962 Topps baseball card)
“When you play 23 innings, that’s almost three games,” Sturdivant said with a laugh. “I guess it all kind of runs together.”
Tom Sturdivant (as he appeared on his 1964 Topps baseball card)
|When Sturdivant was released by the Mets on June 27, 1964, he ended his major league career with a 59-51 record and a 3.74 ERA in 335 games. He started 101 of those and pitched 1,137 total innings. With 704 strikeouts and just 449 walks, Sturdivant’s strikeouts per nine innings (5.57) and bases on balls per nine innings (3.55) look pretty good overall.
But, it was his two-year run with the Yankees in ’56 and ’57 that Sturdivant is most proud of. At his best, he often pitched against another team’s top starters which made for stiff competition – something that Sturdivant relished.
“When we went to Cleveland, I’d get Herb Score or Early Wynn,” Sturdivant remembered. “When we went against Chicago, I’d get Dick Donovan or Billy Pierce. That was very rewarding for a person like me, to get matched up with a guy like Paul Foytack or Jim Bunning of Detroit. They were all top pitchers, league leaders and such. It was just fun to pitch against them.”
|Sturdivant used to work as a freight manager for several trucking companies after he retired from baseball. Now, he is on the board of directors for Metro Tech in Oklahoma City and for Integris Hospice of Oklahoma County.
Sturdivant has developed a deep friendship with former major league slugger Don Demeter, who played mostly with the Dodgers, Phillies, and Tigers during his 11-year career. Demeter had four straight seasons of 20-plus home runs from 1961 to ’64, including a monster year with Philadelphia in ’62 when he hit .307 with 29 homers and 107 RBI.
Demeter is a minister at Grace Community Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Like Sturdivant, he graduated from Capitol Hill High School. While both former ballplayers share a professional kinship, they also share a personal one as well – albeit a tragic one.
Tom Sturdivant today.
Demeter’s son Todd was a high school phenom and first-round draft choice who played six seasons in the Yankees’ minor league system before dying in 1996 from Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer. In the last two years, Sturdivant has lost both of his sons (Tommy, 52, and Paul, 47) as they passed away in their sleep.
“We became good friends when he was with Philadelphia and I was in Pittsburgh,” Sturdivant said of Demeter. “I knew him before that, but we come from the same area. We talked a lot and now we kind of look after each other. He and I play in a lot of golf tournaments together. It seems we just look after each other pretty good. I go to his church where he’s a pastor. He’s a sensational fellow and I’m glad he’s my friend.”
Sturdivant may not be a household name among most casual baseball observers these days. But, to many Yankee fans of the 1950s, he proved to be one of the mainstays of a rotation which was one of the best in the American League.
“I was just a kid who was lucky enough to make his dream come true,” Sturdivant said.
And, for that, Sturdivant is most grateful.