Obituary: John Strohmayer (1946-2019)

RIP to John Strohmayer, who had a 5-year career as a relief pitcher in the early 1970s. According to Canadian journalist/author Danny Gallagher, he died on November 28 at the age of 73. Gallagher was given the news by Strohmayer’s friend and former teammate Steve Renko, who said the pitcher had been in intensive care with heart problems. He died before doctors were able to operate. Strohmayer played for the Montreal Expos (1970-73) and New York Mets (1973-74).

John Strohmayer was born on October 13, 1946, in Belle Fouche, S.D. His father was in the construction industry and moved the family to California when he was young. Strohmayer went to high school in Central Valley High in Shasta Lake, where he went 12-1 and threw a no-hitter. He won a scholarship to the University of the Pacific in Stockton and graduated with a BA in history. As a college pitcher, he was named a Northern California collegiate All-Star by the San Francisco Examiner in 1968. The paper called him a fine control pitcher with an excellent curveball.

Strohmayer was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 26th Round of the 1968 June Amateur Draft. He’s one of two players drafted in that round to make the major leagues — Bob Forsch was drafted by the Cardinals 17 picks after Strohmayer. He earned a $3,000 bonus by signing with Oakland.

The A’s put him in the low minors in the summer of 1968, and Strohmayer was absolutely brilliant. He went 5-0 for the Gulf Coast League A’s with a 0.66 ERA. He struck out 56 batters in 41 innings there and was promoted to the Peninsula Grays of the Carolina League. His record was 3-3 there, but he had a 1.85 ERA in 6 starts.

The 1969 season was just as good, as Strohmayer had a 2-3 record and 1.36 ERA as a reliever with the Lodi Crushers of the Class-A California League and a 3-3 record as a starter with the AA Birmingham A’s. Strohmayer was left unprotected in the offseason Rule V Draft and was picked by the Montreal Expos. He came at the recommendation of several Expos scouts, including Billy Hitchcock.

Source: The Circleville Herald, March 31, 1970.

Despite the fact that he had pitched just 185 professional innings, and none above AA, the Expos considered Strohmayer among their top pitching prospects and invited him to his first major-league Spring Training in 1970. As a Rule V pick, Montreal either had to keep him on the major-league roster for a full season or offer him back to Oakland. The 23-year-old right-hander made the team and was thrilled to be an Expo — even though he had never seen the Expos play.

“I dreamed of playing big league ball ever since I was 10 years old,” he told the Central Press. “I’ve admired Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron all my life, too. And to think that now I may be pitching against Aaron.”

Strohmayer did indeed face Aaron 8 times in his pitching career. Hammerin’ Hank had 2 hits in 6 at-bats, with a home run (number 680 in his career), a walk and a hit by pitch.

Strohmayer’s introduction to the Expos fans at Jarry Park didn’t go exactly as planned. Before the home opener, the public address announcer brought each Expo onto the field… except Strohmayer. He trotted out with no introduction after trainer Joe Liscio was announced.

Expos manager Gene Mauch used the untested pitcher sparingly. His first MLB appearance was part of a 10-0 blowout loss to the Padres. He worked 2 innings and gave up a home run to Al Ferrara while striking out 3. Strohmayer appeared in a total of 42 games for the Expos, and they won just five of those games. He did get the credit for three of those wins in relief, though. Strohmayer struggled early on, as you might expect from a pretty raw rookie. By the end of May, his ERA hovered near 7. Gradually, things improved. On July 28, he threw 4-1/3 innings of scoreless relief against the Padres, and he picked up the win after Ron Fairly hit his second homer of the game for a 5-4 victory.

By the end of his rookie season, Strohmayer had lowered his ERA to 4.86 and had a 3-1 record, with 75 strikeouts in 76 innings. He also had his first major-league hit, a single off the Pirates’ Gene Garber and picked up his first MLB win because that single was sandwiched between home runs by Bobby Wine and Mack Jones to break a 5-5 tie. Strohmayer also faced his first major-league beanball in that game, as Garber was less than pleased to give up that Wine homer.

Rather than taking the winter off, Strohmayer played winter ball in Puerto Rico as a starting pitcher. “I think I proved last season that I can relieve,” he told The Gazette. “Now I want to be prepared physically and mentally to be a starter. It’s an entirely different approach.”

Mauch again didn’t use him much at the start of the 1971 season, and he was briefly demoted to the minors. As the season wore on, Strohmayer became a valuable pitcher. He appeared in a total of 27 games for the Expos in ’71, and 15 of them were starts. He threw more than 100 innings for the only time in the majors and had a 7-5 record and 4.34 ERA.

Strohmayer’s best season came as a reliever in 1972. He appeared in 48 games and had a career-low 3.52 ERA, with 3 saves. He struck out 50 batters and walked 31 in 76-2/3 innings. Some of that success could be credited to Eddie Lopat, the star Yankees pitcher of the 1950s who managed the Caguas team in Puerto Rico Winter League. He worked with Strohmayer on his control and his pitching strategy, and it seemed to have paid off.

Welcome to the majors: John Strohmayer ducks away from a Gene Garber beanball attempt on May 17. On the bright side, he picked up his first MLB win against the Pirates. Source: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, May 18, 1970.

Unfortunately, Strohmayer couldn’t keep that pace going beyond 1972. Mauch continued to use him pretty infrequently, and he appeared in just 17 Expos games by the time Montreal put him on waivers on July 10. He was 0-1 with a 5.19 ERA at the time.

Mauch said that the team didn’t need 11 pitchers and that he didn’t have the arm strength to throw 9 innings. Strohmayer hinted at a personality conflict between himself and the manager.

“Either that or he just didn’t like my pitching. I always got the feeling that it didn’t matter how well I pitched, I would still be only spotted when he was stuck,” he told The Gazette. “I’m just not the type of pitcher who can be called on every eight or nine days and be effective.”

The Mets had been interested in Strohmayer in the past and claimed him off waivers. It could be that he was a certified Mets killer in his career; the only two complete games he had in the big leagues both came at their expense. He was pretty ineffective as a Met, with an 8.10 ERA in 7 games for the rest of 1973. He got into just 1 game with the Mets in ’74, throwing a scoreless inning against the Cubs on September 14, 1974. The rest of that season was spent with the AAA Tidewater Tides.

Though his time with the Mets was limited to 8 games and 11 innings, the team was incredibly generous to the pitcher. For one, he was given a half-share of the team’s 1973 World Series bonus, which amounted to $7,500. For another, he entered the 1974 season two days away from qualifying for a major-league pension. That brief September call-up put him over the top.

In five seasons in the majors, Strohmayer had an 11-9 record, 4 saves and a 4.47 ERA, over 142 games (18 starts). He struck out 200 batters in 312-1/3 innings.

Strohmayer left professional baseball after 1974, returned to California and entered the post-baseball career he had planned for himself — teaching. Danny Gallagher reported that he became a teacher, assistant principal, principal and superintendent in his teaching career. He was a teacher and coach at his old high school, Central Valley. He was part of a group of Gateway United School District employees who regularly bought lottery tickets. That paid off in a big way when they won a $76 million jackpot in 2009. Unsurprisingly, he retired in 2009, after 32 years as an educator.

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