R.I.P. to Aubrey Gatewood, who pitched in parts of four seasons in the 1960s and ’70s. He died on June 5 at the age of 80 in his hometown of North Little Rock, Ark. Gatewood played for the Los Angeles/California Angels (1963-65) and Atlanta Braves (1970).
Aubrey Gatewood was born in North Little Rock on November 17, 1938. He signed with the Detroit Tigers in June 1959 after playing for Arkansas State College. He made his debut the following year, winning a combined 11 games for the Durham Bulls and Duluth-Superior Dukes. In December 1960, Gatewood was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the team’s expansion draft. (The Angels took pitcher Eli Grba, who passed away earlier this year, as their #1 pick.)
Gatewood got off to a good 1961 with the Des Moines Demons, with a 3-5 record and 3.48 ERA. However, he struggled in Dallas and Portsmith later that season. The Mets drafted him in 1961 but returned him to the Angels in April 1962. So while Gatewood can lay claim to being picked in two expansion drafts, he never actually pitched for the Mets outside of a handful of Spring Training innings. “I’d like to keep you,” Mets manager Casey Stengel is supposed to have told him, “but we have some experienced pitchers here and we may be fighting for the pennant, so I got to go with experience.”
The 1962 Mets. Fighting for a pennant. Check your history books to find out how that went.
Gatewood rebounded from a rough 1962 with a 6-10 record with the Nashville Volunteers in 1963. However, his 3.37 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 139 innings earned him an All-Star nod with the Vols and a promotion to the major leagues that September.
Gatewood’s MLB debut on September 11, 1963 was a complete success. He beat the Red Sox 4-1 on a four hitter, walking 5 and striking out 5. He lost his shutout bid in the 9th inning, when Dick Stuart tripled and scored on a sac fly by Russ Nixon. Gatewood pitched a total of 24 innings over 3 starts and 1 relief appearance, and he went 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA. He walked 16 batters, but outside of that, it was a great start.
Gatewood had off-and-on problems with bone chips in his right elbow. He was sent to AAA Hawaii to open the 1964 season, and while he wasn’t particularly effective there, the Angels brought him back to the majors in July. He started off with 20-2/3 scoreless innings and ended up with a 3-3 record and 2.24 ERA in 15 games, 7 of which were starts. He struck out 25 batters on 60-1/2 innings, and his walk rate dipped to fewer than 2 walks per 9 innings. (One of his teammates with the Angels, Barry Latman, died April 28, 2019.)
Why was Gatewood so much more successful in the majors than he was in the minors? He chalked it up to confidence.
“I have more confidence pitching up here,” he told columnist Ross Newhan of the Independent (Long Beach, Calif.). “Just put a little mustard on the ball and throw it over the plate. With the infield the Angels have it’s an absolute sin to walk anyone. Let ’em hit it and you’ve got an out.
In spite of two good seasons, the 1965 Angels once again broke camp with Gatewood being sent to the minors, and this time he was angry enough to consider quitting baseball altogether.
“I am tired of being made the scapegoat. Each spring it’s the same thing. I go and they keep donkeys who have yet to win a game in the big leagues,” he said, according to the Independent.
The Angels excuse was that he didn’t pitch well in Spring Training and that he needed to be brought along slowly after having his bone chips removed from his elbow in the offseason. Still, Gatewood was weighing the options of being demoted to Seattle and keep his $12,000 salary or chucking baseball altogether.
“It’s more than money. It’s a matter of pride which they have a way of shattering every spring,” he added.
Gatewood never pitched in Seattle, or any other minor league team that I could find. He debuted with the Angels in May and appeared in 46 games, 3 of which were starts. Regardless of the use, he was pretty good, with a 4-5 record and 3.42 ERA. Late in the year, he discovered he could throw a knuckleball. The first time he tried it in a game situation, he struck out 5 out of 8 Senators batters he faced.
For whatever reason, Gatewood spent most of the rest of his career in the minor leagues. The Angels, again, left him behind in Spring Training 1966, after a kidney infection delayed his start. The Reds then bought his contract in July. He also spent time in the Orioles organization before signing on with the Braves. His last 3 MLB games came out of the Braves bullpen in 1970. He allowed a run on 2 innings of work for a 4.50 ERA.
For his career, Gatewood appeared in 68 MLB games, with 13 starts and the 1 complete game in his debut. He had a 8-9 record, 2.78 ERA and 1.307 WHIP. He walked 67 batters and struck out 75. He also had 11 seasons in the minors, mostly as a starter. He was 61-90 with a 4.36 ERA, which is one of the stranger majors/minors splits I’ve ever seen. Gatewood was right back in 1964 when he said he threw with more confidence in the big leagues.
Renowned columnist Lewis Grizzard summed up Gatewood’s career in the late 1970s when he called him a potential Phil Niekro. “Spent years trying to learn the knuckleball. When he finally learned it, he was too old to throw it.”