Obituary: Les Rohr (1946-2020)

RIP to Les Rohr, who pitched in a total of 6 games in the major leagues, but one of those games was for one of the most famous championship teams of all-time. He died on November 6 at his home in Billings, Mont., at the age of 74. Rohr played for the New York Mets from 1967-69.

Leslie Norvin Rohr was born on March 5, 1946, in Lowestoft, United Kingdom — his father was serving there in the Air Force. The family moved back to the States when he was 6 months old, and Rohr grew up in Billings. He played American Legion ball and attended Billings West High School. The young left-hander was one of the pitchers who led the Billings Legion team to the Little World Series tournament in 1962. The team was 48-8 on the season and beat Hampton, Va., before losing to St. Louis and New Orleans. Rohr pitched 3-2/3 innings of scoreless ball in relief in the elimination game.

Rohr’s fastball was in a class by itself. He struck out 23 Kalispell hitters in a game in 1964, with a leadoff single being the only hit he allowed in a 5-0 win. In his final season in Legion ball, Rohr went 23-0 with a 0.32 ERA, and he threw 4 no-hitters in his career. He was eligible for the first-ever MLB Amateur Draft, held in June of 1965. The Kansas City A’s had the first pick and chose Rick Monday of Arizona State University. The New York Mets, with the second pick in the draft, chose Rohr. He is the answer to several trivia questions, as he was the Mets’ first draft pick, the first pitcher ever selected in the amateur draft, the first high school player ever picked and the first southpaw pitcher ever picked. He was also the second pitcher to enter professional baseball from the Billings Legion team, as Dave McNally had pitched there in the late 1950s.

Rohr and the Mets came to terms pretty quickly, and he signed a contract on June 21, 1965, for what was reportedly an $80,000 bonus. Scout Charlie Frey said he would have been the Mets’ first choice even if they had the first pick. “We expect Les to be with the Mets within three years,” he said.

Les Rohr, center, signs his New York Mets contract as scout Charlie Frey and his mother look on. Source: The Billings Gazette, June 22, 1965.

Rohr first reported to the Mets, who were on a road trip in Houston. He stayed with the team for a few days, worked out under the watchful eye of Warren Spahn — a pretty successful lefty in his own right — and reported to the Williamsport Mets of the Eastern League. The Mets sent the 19-year-old straight to AA, but he performed well, with a 4-6 record and 1.84 ERA in 12 starts. Five of those starts were complete games, so obviously the philosophy of easing young pitchers into a heavy workload was not in practice in 1965.

Things got tougher for Rohr in 1966, as he lost his only 6 decisions for Williamsport and was demoted to the Auburn Mets of the New York-Penn League. He had a combined 144 strikeouts in 132 innings, but he also allowed 93 walks. He spent parts of 1966 and ’67 working in the Florida Instructional League and getting his wildness under control.

Rohr pitched a pretty limited amount in 1967, but he reached the majors, ahead of the ambitious schedule mentioned by the Frey, the scout who signed him. He went 3-4 for the Mets in the Florida Instructional League and then 1-1 for the Durham Bulls of the Class-A Carolina League. The Mets decided to bring him to the major leagues in September to great fanfare, and his first ever start came against the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 19.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” he said of his promotion. “It’s a strange, brand-new feeling. It looks like all that hard work is finally going to pay off.”

Rohr gave up 2 runs in the first inning, as he walked Willie Davis to lead off the game, allowed a single to Ron Hunt and got Lou Johnson to ground into a fielder’s choice, scoring a run. Johnson came around to score on a Luis Alcaraz grounder that first baseman Ed Kranepool bobbled. Rohr pitched 6 innings and allowed 3 runs (2 earned) on 6 hits, 3 walks and 6 strikeouts. He was in trouble in almost every inning but worked out of the jams. Meanwhile, the Mets scored 6 runs to give Rohr a 6-3 win in his first outing.

Rohr was knocked out early in his next start against the Astros for the first loss of his career. He rebounded in his third and final start against the Dodgers again. He pitched 8 shutout innings and fanned 7, while the Mets battered Don Drysdale for 5 runs. The win gave Rohr a 2-1 record, a 2.12 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 17 innings. The 9 walks were a little alarming, but his last performance gave hope that Rohr could be a left-handed complement to the team’s young ace, Tom Seaver.

Rohr stuck with the Mets out of spring training in 1968, but he wasn’t the only young pitcher to do so. Along with Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan were added to the pitching staff, there was no room for Rohr. He came out of the bullpen to pitch the end of a 24-inning marathon between the Mets and Houston on April 15. Rohr entered the still-scoreless game in the bottom of the 22nd inning. He made it through two innings unscathed, but Norm Miller led off the bottom of the 24th with a single. He would advance to third base on a balk and a fielder’s choice, sandwiched around a couple of intentional walks to load the bases. Bob Aspromonte hit a ground ball that went through shortstop Al Weis’ legs for a 1-0 heartbreaking loss. Rorh started one game on April 21, and the Dodgers got a bit of revenge with a 3-2 win. The lefty was sent down to the minors with an 0-2 record and 4.50 ERA because there was no work available for him. He made just 10 appearances for three different teams in the Mets’ farm system before cutting his season short due to Army Reserves training.

Rohr later said that he and Ryan became good friends. His first memory of the Hall of Fame pitcher was when Rohr worked out for Spahn for the very first time, in the Astrodome, after he was drafted. He was joined by Ryan, whom the Mets took in the 10th Round. Rohr had his workout, and then Ryan started pitching and broke the catcher’s collarbone with a fastball.

“I just kept thinking that I was No. 1 and Nolan was No. 2,” Rohr recalled. “After that, you could see the respect that everyone had for Nolan and it was obvious that I was suddenly No. 2.”

The 1969 “Miracle Mets” are one of the most famous World Champion teams of the 20th Century. Rohr was a part of that team for the briefest of moments. The bulk of his year was spent with the Memphis Blues of the Texas League, where he had a 9-7 record in 21 starts. He threw a career-high 150 innings and lowered his walks total to 52, with 116 strikeouts as well. He also threw an 8-0 7-inning no-hitter against San Antonio.

Rohr was called up in mid-September, when the Mets added a few arms to help in the NL pennant race. He came on to pitch the eighth inning on September 19, 1969, against the Pirates. The Bucs, who were leading 4-1, added 2 runs in the eighth with an RBI triple from Matty Alou and an E5 hit by Dave Cash to Ed Charles. Rohr retired Roberto Clemente on a ground ball to start the ninth inning, but he then allowed a double to Bob Robertson, an RBI single and stolen base to Manny Sanguillen and an RBI double to Richie Hebner. He was relieved by Bob Johnson, having allowed 4 runs (3 earned) in 1-1/3 innings. It ended up being the last game of his MLB career. He did not make the postseason roster, though he did get to watch the Mets defeat the Orioles from the Mets’ bullpen.

Rohr appeared in a total of 6 games with the Mets over 3 seasons, with 4 starts. He had a 2-3 record and a 3.70 ERA, with 20 strikeouts and 17 walks in 24-1/3 innings.

Les Rohr in a 1990 photo. Source: The Billings Gazette, July 1, 1990.

Rohr split the 1970 season between Memphis and AAA Tidewater. He had an 8-7 record and a 4.60 ERA. He was bothered by injuries, but that didn’t stop the Milwaukee Brewers from purchasing his contract at the end of the season. However, he never threw a pitch for the Brewers. He re-aggravated an old back injury during spring training in 1971 that left him in traction. Rohr returned to Billings for surgery in June of 1971. He underwent spinal fusion surgery, which ended his career at the age of 24.

Rohr worked with young pitchers in American Legion ball and operated a Big Rohr Pitching School in Billings. He also did concrete work for 35 years. He had a “69 METS” vanity license plate on his pickup truck, but he never really considered himself a part of the team. He even turned down an all-expenses-paid trip to reunite with the team in a 2009 pre-game ceremony.

“I don’t consider myself a Miracle Met, because I really did nothing,” he told the Billings Gazette. “I was just lucky to be there.”

Rohr’s decision to stay home could have stemmed from the fact that the New York Mets never gave him a championship ring. He was measured for one, but it never arrived. He said he bore no hard feelings over it but added that he would appreciate it if he ever got one. “It’s only a material thing, just a hunk of metal,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. If it does show up in my mailbox one day, I’ll be surprised. Somebody’s got it.”

(That interview was from 2009. I didn’t find any indication that the Mets ever sent him a ring in the ensuing 11 years.)

Rohr said that he still received autograph requests from fans, who saw him as a Miracle Met even if he didn’t.

“I’m very proud of what I did, the talent I had,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t gotten hurt.”

For more information: Billings Gazette

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