Obituary: Fred Wenz (1941-2020)

RIP to “Fireball” Fred Wenz, who pitched for two different teams in the late 1960s. Though his career was short, he still had a couple of remarkable accomplishments on the mound — one good, one not so good. He died on October 6 at his home in Branchburg, N.J. He was 79 years old. Wenz played for the Boston Red Sox (1968-69) and Philadelphia Phillies (1970).

Frederick Charles Wenz was born in Bound Brook, N.J., on August 26, 1941. He was raised by his grandmother, who had a greenhouse and raised chickens. Wenz first became interested in plants and animals as a child, which came in handy for a career after his baseball days were over. He also played baseball in nearby Bridgewater and was part of the Somerset County all-star team in 1957. His fastball was already racking up plenty of strikeouts in his ballgames — and plenty of walks too. He threw a no-hitter while pitching for Bridgewater in the Somerset County Senior League, striking out 11 and walking 8 in the 13-1 win.

Source: Central New Jersey Home News, August 16, 1965.

Wenz graduated from Somerville High School in 1959 and signed his first professional contract with the San Francisco Giants soon after. After signing the deal, reportedly worth more than $6,000, Wenz reported to the team’s rookie team in Hastings, of the Nebraska State League. On one of his first games, he struck out 6 batters in a row and at one point retired 11 straight by himself, either via the strikeout or comebackers to the mound. But his control was erratic, and he ended his first season with a 3-5 record and a 6.88 ERA, with 34 walks and 41 strikeouts in 51 innings.

Wenz was a powerful if unrefined talent. Standing 6’3″ at the age of 17, he must have confounded the Giants management. At times, he could render a team practically helpless. Other times, he wouldn’t make it past the first inning. In his early years, he averaged better than 10 strikeouts a game, but he also had similar number for walks per game. He was sort of a right-handed version of Steve Dalkowski. The Giants gave up on him after a couple of seasons, and he joined the Red Sox organization. The Sox showed considerable patience with the young fireballer, keeping him in action even as his early ERA’s were in the 6’s and 7’s. Gradually, Wenz transitioned away from the starting rotation and into the bullpen.

After six rough seasons in the minors, Wenz, now 22, turned in a 4-7 record and a 4.01 ERA for the Reading Red Sox of the AA Eastern League in 1964. It was far and away his best season to date and showed that Wenz was headed in the right direction. He started 17 of his 24 games and fanned 87 batters in 92 innings — with 67 walks. What was even more impressive is that he had badly dislocated his elbow and strained his tendons in 1963. The injury was thought to be career-threatening, but he bounced back brilliantly from it.

Building off that success, Wenz became a full-time reliever for the Pittsfield Red Sox in 1965 and had a brilliant season: a 10-9 record, 2.38 ERA in 55 games, with 129 strikeouts in 102 innings. Even better, he gave up just 40 bases on balls. That August, three busloads of New Jersey fans traveled to Pittsfield, Mass., to honor their native son at a “Fred Wenz Night” ceremony between games of a doubleheader. They presented him with a portable television set and a sport coat, among other gifts.

Now firmly established as a reliever, Wenz moved up to AAA Toronto of the International League for two seasons. He wasn’t quite as dominant as he had been with Pittsfield, but he kept his walk totals down and showed he could be an effective reliever against tough competition in the International League. In 1966, he was named the most valuable player of the Governor’s Cup playoffs, which Toronto won. He worked 7 innings in the final three games and fanned 15 batters. He was the winning pitcher of the final game, when he struck out 11 batters in 5 innings. The following season, he saved 17 games and was recognized as the IL’s outstanding relief pitcher by the Sporting News.

Fireball Wenz in his MLB debut. Source: Boston Globe, June 5, 1968.

Wenz’ manager in 1966 was Dick Willliams, who moved up to the Red Sox in 1967 and led the “Impossible Dream” team to the World Series. Williams was a fan of the fireballer more than he was of reliever John Wyatt, who saved 20 games for the Sox in ’67. “Wyatt did not help us down the pennant stretch. We think so much of Wenz, a reliever being brought up from Toronto, we may trade Wyatt,” he said in December.

Wenz came into 1968 ready for anything. “This is my first time in the Red Sox spring camp, and I don’t intend to be cut. I think I’ve got control now,” he said.

Unfortunately, Major League Baseball had passed a new regulation that teams had to start the season with a 25-man roster, instead of getting to a 25-man roster after a month into the season. That limited Boston’s options, and manager Williams opted for Wyatt over Wenz. The fireballer went to AAA Louisville and waited for his turn. It came in early June, after the Sox sold Wyatt to the Yankees.

“When I saw they sold Wyatt, I thought, ‘If I don’t get called up now I never will,'” Wenz said, and he was correct. He was brought to the majors to make his debut on June 4, 1968. It was an amazing debut, though it was soon overshadowed by larger events. Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles the following day.

Wenz entered in the top of the ninth inning with the Red Sox up 2-0. He started his MLB career by walking opposing pitcher Pat Dobson on four pitches — earning him a 50-cent fine. He struck out Dick McAuliffe and walked Mickey Stanley, pitting a runner in scoring position. Wenz then got Jim Northrup and Norm Cash to look at third strikes, getting out of the inning. While the 2 walks may have been troubling, the takeaway was that Wenz struck out the side in his first major-league inning — fanning three left-handers, all on called strikes.

“I wasn’t especially nervous coming in, but when I got behind Dobson I was shook up. You’re not supposed to let an out man get away,” Wenz said after the game.

“I’m a strikeout pitcher. I had 19 in 11 innings in Louisville. I feel if I can strike them out down there, I can strike them out up here,” he added.

Source: The Courier-News (Bridgewater, N.J.), March 23, 1961.

Unfortunately, Wenz’s right arm stiffened up during the game, and he was unable to pitch any further for Boston. He was given a series of cortisone injections, and one of them nicked a vein in his shoulder. Wenz was ordered to throw on the side, allegedly by Boston pitching coach Darrell Johnson. The next day, his upper right arm and a portion of his chest were discolored from hemorrhaging. Wenz asked to be sent back to Boston for treatment, but Manager Williams demoted him to Louisville instead. When Louisville manager Eddie Kasko saw Wenz’s condition, he immediately contacted Boston’s upper management, who brought the pitcher back to Boston for treatment for a ruptured blood vessel. He eventually returned to Louisville to pitch — thanks to Kasko’s judgment, and not Boston’s.

Wenz’s 1969 season with the Red Sox is quite possibly unique in baseball’s history. He threw 11 innings in 8 games and allowed 7 earned runs — and every single one was on a home run. That’s 7 earned runs on 7 homers. It’s a remarkable accomplishment; it’s not a great one, but it’s remarkable. I don’t know that any other pitcher has given up that many earned runs in a season, with 100% of them coming via the long ball. We’ll get into the reasons for it in a moment, but let’s look at the numbers:

April 15: 3-run home run by Frank Robinson (Baltimore) (1 run was charged to Wenz, 2 were charged to Bill Landis)
May 3: Solo home run by Al Kaline (Detroit)
May 18: Solo home run by Mike Marshall (Seattle)
May 18: Solo home run by Larry Haney (Seattle)
May 18: Solo home run by Ray Oyler (Seattle)
May 24: Solo home run by Ken Berry (Chicago)
May 24: Solo home run by Walt Williams (Chicago)

Now for the reason, according to Wenz. Best case scenario, it was gross mismanagement by Dick Williams. Worst case scenario, it was sabotage.

“I’m sure Williams didn’t want to take me north with the club,” Wenz said, after he’d been demoted to Louisville. He was briefly demoted after allowing the homer to Robinson, but he had a 2.25 ERA at the time he was sent away. He was brought back in May, threw a scoreless inning against the Senators and won his first game when he held the Tigers to 1 hit (the Kaline homer) over 3 innings on May 3. Wenz helped win that game by walking in the bottom of the eighth inning and eventually scoring the go-ahead run on a Tony Conigliaro squeeze bunt single. It was Wenz’s first major-league win.

Williams promptly kept Wenz on the bench for two weeks. “Then he brought me in against Seattle,” Wenz explained. “I gave up three homers in 1-2/3 innings. Three days later, I allowed two homers to the White Sox in 1-1/3 innings. I had no idea where the plate was. The only work a relief pitcher can get is under game conditions. I was being humiliated. I never want to play for him again.

“If it weren’t for Kasko and the great guys on this (Louisville) club, I might have retired,” he added. “I’m glad to be here. I want to stay here all year.”

Whether it was the routine struggles of a reliever or a deliberate attempt by Williams to get rid of Wenz, both sides got what they wanted in the end. Wenz spent the rest of the season in Louisville, where he did a fine job as the team’s closer. At the end of the season, his contract was purchased by Philadelphia, getting him out of the organization entirely. His only regret was not getting to play for Kasko, who became the Red Sox manager after Williams was fired for alienating most of his players.

RIP to Fireball
Fred Wenz, shown here at a wedding with family dog Stormy. Source: The Berkshire Eagle, September 4, 1990.

Wenz began the 1970 season with the AAA Eugene Emeralds and missed some time because of a rib injury. When he recovered, he was brought up to the major leagues and spent the rest of the season with the Phillies. He got rid of the home run jinx — he allowed just 2 in 30-1/3 innings of work, and he struck out 24 batters while walking 13. He ended the year with a 2-0 record and 4.45 ERA.

The ended up as his final season of professional baseball. Phillies manager Frank Lucchesi announced early in 1971 that Wenz would have to fight for a job in spring training — a strike against him, as he always got off to a slow start every year. Then, Phillies general manager John Quinn offered Wenz a contract worth $2,000 less than his 1970 deal. The pitcher called the offer “ridiculous” and decided to retire at the age of 28 and pursue a new career.

“It is apparent that Mr. Quinn and I have different opinions as to my performance for, and my value to, the Philadelphia Phillies,” Wenz said in a statement. “Even though a baseball career seems glamorous, the disruption of a normal family life, constant travel and mental torment, such as knowing my fate lies in the hands of one or two people, make it a demanding and fatiguing job… I find the situation unsatisfactory, therefore I am retiring from baseball.”

In parts of three seasons, Wenz pitched in 31 games and had a 3-0 record and 4.68 ERA, with 1 save. In 42-1/3 innings, he recorded 38 strikeouts (8.1 K’s per 9 innings) and 25 walks (5.3 BB’s per 9 innings).

Wenz found his new career with Garden Oaks Nursery in Bridgewater, which he owned and operated with his late wife, Madeline. The business is now known as Garden Oaks Specialties and sells everything from sheds and gazebos to playhouses and fencing. Wenz operated it for nearly 50 years. He also became a snowmobile enthusiast and raised exotic fowl at his home in Branchburg.

Looking back on his career in a 1988 profile, Wenz seemed to have overall fond memories of his baseball career and the fact that he got as far as he did with essentially one pitch — a fastball. But he seemed to regret the demands that baseball has. He wished he could have learned more of his grandmother’s secrets for raising plants and animals, but baseball called him away from that at an early age.

“He’s really brought his love to the garden center,” Madeline said in 1988. “He’s enthusiastic because he believes in what he sells. He saved all the ideas he dreamed about and just went out and did it. He really believed in himself.”

Wenz was part of the first class honored by the Somerville High School Athletic Hall of Fame, along with his Phillies teammate Joe Lis, actor/civil rights advocate Paul Robeson and NFL coach Charlie Winner.

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