RIP to Bert Thiel, who pitched in 4 games for the Boston Braves in 1952. He died at his home in Pella, Wis., on July 31 at the age of 96. Thiel was one of two surviving members of the Boston Braves — Del Crandall being the other.
Maynard Bert Thiel was born in Marian, Wis., on May 4, 1926. He graduated from Marian HIgh School in 1944 and served in the U.S. Army in Germany from 1944 through 1947. He liberated several concentration camps and also taught baseball to German children. According to his obituary, Thiel went to a Boston Braves tryout upon his return to the United States and won a minor-league contract with a $500 signing bonus. The Braves assigned him to the Eau Claire Bears in the Northern League, which kept him in his native Wisconsin. He won 10 games in his first professional season and was moved up to the Class-B Jackson Senators of the Southeastern League in 1948.
Jackson manager Willis Hudlin was blessed with two pitching aces in Thiel (20-12, 2.99 ERA) and Zennie Britt (21-14, 3.07). They were the only 20-game winners in the league. No other Jackson pitcher reached double digits in wins, but the Senators reached the Southeastern League championship anyway. Thiel beat Vicksburg twice to get the Senators into the finals, and then he led the team to a 9-3 win over the Montgomery Rebels. Montgomery beat Thiel and the Senators in the championship game, but Thiel allowed just 4 hits and 2 runs, while his offense was shut out.
Thiel moved up to the Class-A Hartford Chiefs in 1949. He struggled in his first season there, with a 9-10 record and 4.60 ERA. One of those wins was a 7-inning no-hitter in the first game of a doubleheader against Elmira. Thiel underwent surgery in September of 1949 to have a bone chip removed from his elbow, and he rebounded to win 15 games against 7 defeats in 1950.
Thiel threw another 7-inning no-hitter, this time against the Toledo Mud Hens, while pitching for the AAA Milwaukee Brewers in 1951. It was the first no-hitter thrown by a Brewer pitcher in Milwaukee in 25 years. Thiel walked one batter while striking out two, and he also added a couple of singles to his accomplishments that day. He didn’t even know he had a no-hitter until late in the game.
“I didn’t notice any particular tenseness until that last inning, and then I could feel it from the crowd, which was cheering every pitch and even the easy outs,” he said. “I was really bearing down in the seventh.”
The Brewers pitching staff featured future big-leaguers like Ernie Johnson, Virgil Jester, Murray Wall and Thiel, all of whom won at least 13 games in ’51. It was thought that they would contribute to the Boston Braves’ pitching staff sooner rather than later. Thiel would get his brief chance in 1952.
Thiel broke training camp with the Braves in ’52 and made his MLB debut on April 17 against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He relieved Gene Conley in the fifth inning and retired the first three batters he faced before running into trouble in the sixth. He hit Jackie Robinson with a pitch and gave up back-to-back doubles to Duke Snider and Andy Pafko, leaving him with 2 runs allowed in 2 innings. He picked up his first (and only) major-league win in his next appearance, throwing 2 scoreless innings against the Phillies on April 19 in a 9-7 win. That game was also noteworthy for the fact that Eddie Mathews hit his first career home run, a 3-run blast, in the eighth inning.
Thiel took the loss on April 22, as the Dodgers knocked off the Braves 2-1 on a walk-off single by Roy Campanella. He was then knocked around by the Pirates in his final appearance, allowing 3 earned runs in an inning of work on April 30. The Braves sent him back to Milwaukee on May 7, ending his major-league career.
In 4 appearances, Thiel pitched 7 innings and allowed 11 hits and 6 earned runs, for a 1-1 record and 7.71 ERA. He struck out 4 and walked 6 while hitting 2 batters. Though he never pitched in the majors again, Thiel spent the rest of the decade in the minors, finishing up with 145 wins across 14 minor-league seasons.
After finishing the season in Milwaukee in 1952, Thiel spent three seasons pitching for the Toledo Sox from 1953-55. He won 16 games for the Sox in 1954, including 14 complete games. The fact that he was able to pitch at all in 1954 was a pretty remarkable accomplishment. He’d injured his shoulder after being demoted from the Braves roster and had a couple seasons with limited success. He went back home in Wisconsin in the offseason and put his sore shoulder to work by hefting a 5-pound iron ball. He simulated shot-putting all winter long until his shoulder stopped hurting. Thiel’s methods would probably not have been recommended by Dr. Frank Jobe, but it worked, and he was able to pitch without pain, and with a little more velocity than he used to have.
Thiel was drafted into the New York Giants organization in 1956. He responded by winning 18 games for the Dallas Eagles and was named the 1956 Texas League Pitcher of the Year. He threw 18 complete games and 4 shutouts, striking out 113 batters in 249 innings.
The Red Sox acquired Thiel at the end of 1957, and he made a strong bid to make the team’s pitching staff. He worked a spring training game against the Yankees and threw 3 scoreless innings, allowing 1 hit and retiring Mickey Mantle twice. In the end, though, he never played a game with the Sox and spent 1957 as a reliever for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Though he was in his early 30s and no longer considered any kind of a prospect, Thiel kept finding teams that saw value in him, and he pitched through 1959.
“I’ve seen plenty of pitchers with more stuff than Thiel, but I never saw one who tried harder to beat you,” said Rosy Ryan, former general manager of the Minneapolis Millers — where Thiel pitched in 1958. “You’ve got to beat him, because he won’t beat himself. If all it took was guts, he’d be just about the best there is.”
During the offseasons of his playing career, Thiel would return to Wisconsin to work as a logger. After his playing days were done, he managed teams in the Kansas City Athletics organization in 1960 and 1961 and the Chicago White Sox organization from 1972 to 1974. In between, he worked as an area scout for the Athletics, Braves and Senators. That allowed him to tend to his logging business while still staying active in baseball. He and his wife, Jean, also operated a tavern, originally owned by his parents, named it “Bert’s 10th Inning” and ran it for 10 years. He and Jean, a Mississippi native, met while he was pitching in Jackson. They were married for 61 years and had nine children.
When Thiel turned 94 earlier this year, the Atlanta Braves sent him a special video message. Braves manager Brian Snitker told him, “I hope we have a little baseball coming for you to watch.” Though Thiel, a widower, couldn’t spend his birthday with his children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren due to the Coronavirus pandemic, he told The Boston Globe that he was looking forward to the coming turkey season.
Thiel still recalled his MLB debut against the Dodgers with fondness, even if the results were a little rough. “I was upset that I gave up two runs with two outs. But I’ll never forget that day,” he told Globe columnist Peter Abraham. “It was a dream come true to pitch in the majors. It was what I wanted my whole life from when I was playing baseball with my father.”