The Year Of The Card: Al Fitzmorris, 1975

The poets (and I guess I consider myself one) will tell you that the beauty of baseball is that it is timeless and unchanging and all that jazz. And in a way, it’s true. I would wager that, were you transported back to 1919 and sent to a baseball, football, and basketball game, you would find the baseball game to be the most recognizable.

But in many other ways, baseball evolves just like all of our other sports. One big difference, over the baseball of even 20 years ago, is the rise in strikeouts. So when you look at the stats of someone from a different era, the numbers can be eye-popping in different ways. For example, consider a starting pitcher who works 242 innings. In 2019, you would expect that pitcher to crack 200 strikeouts for the season. Maybe in the 150-175 range if he’s the proverbial “crafty lefty.”

But 44 years ago, Al Fitzmorris pitched 242 innings for the Royals. He did not collect 200 strikeouts. Or 175. Or 150, or 125, or even 100. Seventy-eight. That’s it. And still, he had a successful season, one of several he enjoyed in Kansas City. It was a different game.

Alan James Fitzmorris was born on March 21, 1946, in Buffalo, New York. However, by the time he was 18, the family had traded the cold of Buffalo for the warmth of San Diego. Despite starring in football and basketball at Madison High School there, Fitzmorris chose minor league baseball over college scholarships in those sports. There was a simple reason for that.

“I got married in my senior year of high school. If I took any football scholarships, I would have had to go to junior college for a year or two. I was supporting a family, so I couldn’t do that. My father and grandfather thought my best bet was professional baseball. They thought I had a better chance to make some money there. I always wanted to be a ballplayer, anyhow.”—Fitzmorris, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, June 6, 1970

However, Fitzmorris wasn’t drafted in the 1965 amateur draft. Instead, he signed with the White Sox as an amateur free agent after the draft. He was actually signed as an outfielder but switched to pitcher before the 1966 season. Perhaps hitting .223/.309/.306 at Class A Clinton was a factor; regardless, it was a good career move. Fitzmorris split time between the outfield and the mound in 1966, then went 14-8 with a 2.27 ERA at Class A Appleton in 1967. Repeating Class A ball with Lynchburg in 1968, he went 11-1 but had a 2.73 ERA (and, ironically given the beginning of this story, led the Carolina League in strikeouts). And then the Royals plucked him from the White Sox minor league system in the 1968 expansion draft, with the 40th pick.

Kansas City was a bit aggressive with Fitzmorris, starting him at Class AAA Omaha. It worked, though; Fitzmorris posted a 10-6 record and 3.75 ERA, earning himself a September callup. He made his major-league debut on September 8, pitching three scoreless innings and picking up the win in relief in Oakland.

Back then, most players (except the highest-paid ones) would take part-time jobs in the offseason to make ends meet over the winter. Fitzmorris was no exception; however, his part-time job was as a musician. He’d been writing songs and playing guitar since high school and spent much of the 1968-69 offseason performing in his band. Expecting to be a contributor for the Royals in 1970, and not wanting to leave his bandmates in the lurch when spring training started, Fitzmorris cut back heading into 1970. A broken bone in his hand delayed his spring training, but Fitzmorris broke camp with the big club, and proceeded to go 8-5 in 43 games with a 4.44 ERA. Most of that damage came in his starts. Fitzmorris was 4-3 as a starter but had a 6.36 ERA. As a reliever, he was 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA.

In a tradition-dominated sport like baseball, and moreso in the early 1970s, Fitzmorris stood out early in his career because he wore his hair long, dressed like a typical 24-year-old (that is to say, not in a suit and tie), played guitar in a rock band, and rode a motorcycle.

“We have to wear a tie and a jacket on the road. It’s too bad because I find a lot of young kids interested in baseball and they come up to me and say they like the way I dress and look. Kids say they can identify with me. But they can’t identify with me if I’m wearing a tie and a jacket and if I have my hair short.”—Fitzmorris, quoted by Murray Chass in the New York Times, August 30, 1970

Charlie Metro took over as Royals manager in 1970 and demanded Fitzmorris get a haircut. He complied, but Metro wasn’t long for the job. He was fired 42 games into the season and Bob Lemon took over. Lemon was a little more forgiving, and Fitzmorris enjoyed playing for him.

“Bob Lemon was my favorite manager. He was a really competitive guy, but he didn’t have a personal agenda; he was all about the Kansas City Royals. What he cared about was the name on the front of the uniforms. I remember a game I pitched in Boston: I had pitched eight really good innings, and when I was taking the mound for the ninth, he said to me, “If you get in a jam, I am going to take you out. Don’t feel bad, you have just pitched too good of a game for me allow you to lose it.” How can you not love a man like that? I finished the game.”—Fitzmorris, quoted by David Laurila, Baseball Prospectus, March 1, 2009

Fitzmorris also made a little history in 1970, becoming the first switch-hitter in Royals history to collect hits from both sides of the plate in the same game. He did it on July 19 in a home game against Detroit.

The 1971 and 1972 seasons were much the same as 1970: Fitzmorris pitched mostly in relief, with the occasional start. And he did much better in a relief role. He wasn’t a closer, or what passed for a closer in those days, although he picked up a few saves.

The 1973 season was a bit different, though. For one thing, Fitzmorris started the year back in Omaha. He hadn’t had a great spring training and, in those days of smaller staffs, lost out. But in Omaha, Fitzmorris put together a string of terrific starts. When the Royals suffered a string of injuries, Fitzmorris was summoned, and then went 8-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 15 games, 13 of them starts. He had helped stabilize the rotation and keep the team in contention, as they finished six games behind Oakland in the AL West. Although he admitted that the demotion during spring training was a disappointment, Fitzmorris credited it with making him a better pitcher.

“When I was sent down, lots of people told me I hadn’t been given a real chance last year. I believed ‘em, but Jack McKeon did the right thing. Before, I wasn’t doing the extra things you have to do to be successful. I guess my attitude wasn’t what it should have been. I just didn’t work hard enough. Now I have a purpose. I’m not just another guy on the roster and I want to do the things I have to. Before, when I pitched a game and won, I really didn’t know why. Now when I pitch well, I know why. The game is as much mental as it is physical.”—Fitzmorris, quoted by Sid Bordman, The Sporting News, June 29, 1974

That still didn’t guarantee Fitzmorris a spot in the 1974 rotation. He did begin the year as the fifth starter, beating out Marty Pattin for the job, but acquitted himself nicely with a 6-3 record and 3.72 ERA from mid-April through June. A couple of rough starts got him demoted to the bullpen, but come August, he was back. In 12 starts to end the season, he was 7-3 with a 2.03 ERA.

And now he was, at last, definitely part of the team’s plans as they headed into 1975. He rewarded the Royals with a hot start, hurling three complete games (including one shutout) in the first three weeks of the year. He closed April with a 3-1 record and 2.77 ERA.

Three bad starts in May lifted his ERA to 4.14, which would be its high point for the year. He rebounded to toss a complete game and a shutout in his last two starts of the month. The latter win kept the Royals just one game behind Oakland in the standings as June beckoned.

The first two starts of June were good ones, and somehow Fitzmorris held Detroit to two runs in four innings on June 12 despite allowing 10 hits. He labored through a start against Boston on June 13 before leaving in the seventh with a knee injury. His next start came nine days later, and for the second time in the month he gave up 10 hits. But he pitched five scoreless innings on the 27th, ending June with an 8-4 mark and 3.57 ERA.

July was not a good month for Fitzmorris or the Royals. The pitcher went 2-5 with a 5.20 ERA, although he did shut out Texas on the 26th. The team, which had been in first place on June 3, ended the month 10 games behind Oakland, and it was apparent the long-awaited postseason appearance would have to wait another year. Also, McKeon got fired on the 24th, and Whitey Herzog was brought in.

Kansas City responded well to the new manager, going 35-23 over the final two months. Fitzmorris picked up three wins in August and dropped his ERA to 3.98. In September, he continued to roll, with three more wins and an ERA of 1.99. His final numbers were a career-best 16 wins (against 12 losses) and career highs in innings pitched (242) and complete games (11). And then there were the strikeouts, all 78 of them (against 76 walks). That

How did he do it? Well, Fitzmorris specialized in throwing both sinkers and sliders. That in turn led to lots of grounders, a good strategy with John Mayberry, Cookie Rojas, Frank White, Freddie Patek, and George Brett behind him. And pitching in spacious Royals Stadium helped him limit home runs even more—he allowed just 16 in those 242 innings. That turnaround in late 1974 coincided with regaining control of his slider.

“I lost my slider. I was getting under it and I just couldn’t get the ball to break. I’d stand out in the bullpen and throw the slider for 20 minutes but nothing would happen…Finally I got on top of my slider again and it started breaking…If you have two pitches working for you, then the hitters have to do a lot more thinking.”—Fitzmorris, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, September 14, 1974

Fitzmorris continued to pitch well in 1976, going 15-11 and dropping his ERA to 3.06 (and setting his career high in strikeouts with 80). But even though he was an important part of the Royals finally capturing an AL West title, he did not appear in the ALCS loss to New York.

“Whitey [Herzog] and I kind of got in a big argument. We were in Oakland and kind of got into it, and started screaming at each other. But what didn’t make a lot of sense to me-and we had some good pitchers-is that Whitey said that if we get to the World Series, I’d be starting, because [the Cincinnati Reds] have a lot of right-handed hitters. The Yankees were loaded with left-handed hitters, so they had seen a lot of left-handers all year. And they hit well against them. Larry Gura pitched a pretty good ball game against them, but there was really no reason other than the personal thing between Whitey and me.”—Fitzmorris, quoted by David Laurila, Baseball Prospectus, March 1, 2009

“Fitz will do all right with Cleveland. I see where he said we must have had some other plans for him because we didn’t pitch him late in the season or in the playoffs, but that’s not so. He didn’t pitch in Oakland because he came to me and said he had a tender ankle. We used the lefthanders against New York, but I told him that if we got in the Series he was going to pitch the opening game against Cincinnati.”—Whitey Herzog, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, November 27, 1976

For the record, Fitzmorris hadn’t faced the Yankees at all in 1976. In 1975, he had two starts against them—one a complete-game shutout, the other one a game in which he gave up five runs in 5 1/3 innings. Still, it’s rather amazing he couldn’t at least have appeared in relief.

Whatever happened, the Royals left Fitzmorris unprotected in the expansion draft for the 1977 season (when Seattle and Toronto joined the American League). They were hoping the two new teams would stay away from a veteran pitcher, but Toronto wasted little time in selecting him. The Blue Jays used the 13th pick in the draft to take Fitzmorris, then promptly dealt him to Cleveland for catcher Alan Ashby and utility player Doug Howard. When Fitzmorris was drafted, it meant the last remaining Royal from the 1969 team was gone from the organization.

Fitzmorris pitched for Cleveland until July 1978, when he was released with a 6.28 ERA. California signed him and he appeared in nine games for the Angels in their futile bid to catch the AL West-leading Royals. He signed with San Diego as a free agent before the 1979 season, failed to make the team out of spring training, and was finally released in August, ending his career.

Of course, he wasn’t done working. In addition to a series of business ventures and a continuation of his music career, Fitzmorris became known to a new generation of Royals fans as an analyst on pre- and post-game shows on TV and radio in Kansas City. As you might imagine from the quotes above, the thoughtful player became a thoughtful analyst; I always enjoyed his assessments of some pretty bad Royals teams.

Al Fitzmorris’ best games of 1975:
9/22 vs. TEX: Scattered eight hits, struck out four and walked two in 2-1 win.
5/27 vs NYY: Held Yankees to three hits, had three strikeouts and no walks in 3-0 win.
9/2 @ CHW: Only allowed one run over 11 innings in 4-1 win.
8/5 vs. MIN: Struck out five and limited Twins to two hits in 6-1 win.
5/23 vs. BAL: Pitched complete game, holding Orioles to seven hits in 10-1 win.

About the card:
Looks like Fitzmorris had trimmed his hair some before spring training 1974, when I assume this picture was taken. Is it just me or does the color scheme of this card make anyone else think about Easter eggs?

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