Obituary: Juan Pizarro (1937-2021)

RIP to Juan Pizarro, who had one of the greatest pitching careers of any Puerto Rican pitcher. Counting all his work in the major leagues, minor leagues and foreign leagues, he is estimated to have won over 400 games. He died on February 18, 2021, in Puerto Rico at the age of 84. According to ESPN Deportes, Pizarro had been battling cancer for several years. In Major League Baseball, Pizarro played for the Milwaukee Braves (1957-60), Chicago White Sox (1961-66), Pittsburgh Pirates (1967-68, 1974), Boston Red Sox (1968-69), Cleveland Indians (1969), Oakland Athletics (1969), Chicago Cubs (1970-73) and Houston Astros (1973).

Juan Roman Pizarro was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico on February 7, 1937. He would pick up the nickname “Terín” because he loved the comic strip “Terry & the Pirates.” Pizarro’s early life is detailed extremely well in his SABR bio, written by Rory Costello. He didn’t live a cloistered lifestyle by any means, and it started early — he once told author Edward Kiersh, “I was so busy being bad, I didn’t start playing ball until I was fourteen.”

Once he discovered he had a talent for baseball, he advanced pretty rapidly. He went from being a batboy for the Santurce team when he was 13 (around 1950) to pitching for them five years later. Santurce team owner Pedro Zarrilla sold Pizarro’s contract to the Milwaukee Braves for an estimated $35,000, and he made his American debut in 1956 with the Jacksonville Braves. Though he was just 19 years old and hadn’t had a wealth of experience as a pitcher, he outclassed the rest of the Sally League — badly. The young left-hander with “a weird pretzel of a windup” mowed down opposing batters. He ended the year with a 23-6 record and a sublime 1.77 ERA, becoming one of the top players in the League.

Pizarro’s pitching motion. Source: The Charlotte News, July 28, 1956.

Jacksonville, realizing what a drawing card he was, tended to start him at home most frequently. That was a sore spot with the other teams in the league, in fact. “He would be a big drawing card in any park on the road,” reported The Charlotte Observer. The South Atlantic League had come a long way. Hank Aaron and several other African-American players integrated the League in 1953, and those pioneers were greeted with boos and thrown rocks. Now, teams were upset that Jacksonville wasn’t using the dark-skinned Pizarro in their parks.

The newspapers tracked Pizarro’s strikeouts total almost right from the start. He reached the 50-K mark in his first 37 innings. He struck out 20 batters in a 3-0 shutout win over Macon. He topped that with 21 strikeouts against Charlotte, though it took him 12 innings to reach that number. He finished the season with 318 strikeouts and the Sally League MVP Award.

Pizarro was invited to the Braves training camp, and it appears that everyone except the Braves believed him to be ready to play in the majors. Sally League President Bill Terry compared him to Carl Hubbell and believed he’d be winning 25 games a year soon. “He definitely has a big-league arm,” added the Cardinals’ Stan Musial, though he admitted he hadn’t seen enough of him to tell if he was ready for the majors. Sam Jones, Musial’s teammate, remembered Pizarro from his winter ball years with Santurce. “He was our batboy then and threw a few during batting practice. But our manager didn’t let him pitch too much because he was wild. Now he certainly has a lot of control.”

Nevertheless, Milwaukee had Pizarro start 1957 in AAA Wichita, where he started 5 games and won 4 of them. He was brought to the majors and made his MLB debut on May 4 in Pittsburgh. He allowed 1 run in 7 innings while striking out 6, but he took the loss because the Pirates’ Vern Law threw a 2-hit shutout. He picked up his first major-league win in his next start in St. Louis on May 10. He gave up 5 runs in 9 innings, including a couple of home runs to Ken Boyer and Wally Moon, but the Braves scored 10 runs to bail him out.

When he started to falter in some of his starts, the Braves moved Pizarro to the bullpen. He appeared in a total of 24 games, with 10 starts, and finished with a 5-6 record and 4.62 ERA. He struck out 68 batters in 99-1/3 innings and walked 51 while allowing 16 home runs. The Braves advanced to the World Series and beat the Yankees to become World Champs. Pizarro worked 1-2/3 innings in the Series and allowed a couple of runs. Still, completing a rookie season with a World Series ring is a great way to kick off a career.

Braves manager Fred Haney and pitching coach Charlie Root observe Pizarro during spring training. Source: The Sheboygan Press, March 20, 1957.

Pizarro, as many Puerto Rican players did, returned home to play winter ball in the offseason. He set a record with 19 strikeouts in a game on November 20, 1957, breaking the record of 18 that Satchel Paige had set in 1939.

The Braves never fully committed to Pizarro in the time he was with the team.. He once again started 1958 in the minor leagues and wasn’t recalled until July. He immediately threw complete games in 5 of his first 6 starts and won 4 of them, with a save thrown in for good measure. He threw his first career shutout against Cincinnati on September 10, shutting the Reds down on 3 hits and 8 strikeouts. He won 6 games and lost 7 in 16 appearances with Milwaukee and had a fine 2.70 ERA. Pizarro won 6 games each year from 1958 through 1960, in fact, as the Braves kept him in a swingman role. When he struggled a bit in 1959, the Braves demoted him to Louisville of the American Association. He made the most of his trip to the minors, throwing a no-hitter against Charleston on June 16. But by the end of the 1960 season, it was hard to tell what the Braves had with the 23-year-old southpaw. He had won 23 games in four seasons, had never thrown more than 135 big-league innings in a season and had only stayed in the majors for a full year once.

The Braves were part of a three-team trade on December 15, 1960. They sent Pizarro and Joey Jay to the Cincinnati Reds, and the Reds sent Pizarro and Cal McLish to the Chicago White Sox for Gene Freese. If the Braves wondered how best to use Pizarro, the White Sox had no doubt. He was a starting pitcher for them, and he put together some of his finest seasons with Chicago, including the only two All-Star Team selections of his long career.

In his first season as a full-time starter in 1961, the 24-year-old Pizarro won 14 games, which is more than double his best year with the Braves. He demonstrated his durability with 194-2/3 innings pitched, more than 50 innings more than he’d thrown in the majors in any prior season. He had 188 strikeouts, as well. He had started in the bullpen, as Sox manager Al Lopez noted that Pizarro had no confidence at the start of the season. He was pressed into service with a start against the Senators on June 10 and allowed 2 unearned runs in 7 innings. He then won his next 4 starts and put himself into the starting rotation for good.

Lopez said he’d never be as fast as some of the league’s fireballers, but “he can overpower the best of hitters as he did Mickey Mantle and other Yankees the other night.” As Lopez noted, Pizarro was one of the few AL southpaws to throw complete games against the Yankees. He beat them 2-1 on August 15 to snap Whitey Ford‘s 14-game winning streak. He struck out 10 Yankees, and the only run he allowed was Roger Maris’ 46th home run.

Source: Daily Press, May 21, 1964.

After dropping to 12-14 in 1962, Pizarro won 16 games against 8 losses in ’63 and was selected to his first All-Star team. Batters hit just .219 against him, and his 2.39 ERA was second-best in the AL behind the 2.33 mark of his teammate, Gary Peters. He tossed a scoreless inning in the All-Star Game, retiring Johnny Edwards, Tommy Davis and Hank Aaron in short order. Lopez again touted Pizarro’s confidence, while the pitcher credited a new pitch for his success. “I now have a slow curve,” he explained. “When I change the speeds on the curveball the hitters can’t get their timing.”

Pizarro had a second brilliant season in 1964 record, with a 19-9 record and 2.56 ERA. He had 11 complete games and 4 shutouts while logging a career-high 239 innings. His strikeouts declined to 162, and he never again was the fireballing strikeout artist he had been earlier in his career. He made the All-Star team again, though he didn’t appear in the contest, and he even picked up a few MVP votes after the season.

Just like that, the winning seasons tailed off, and Pizarro never had double-digit win totals again. He arrived late to spring training in 1965 and pitched terribly when his season got underway. He was put on the disabled list in June, when his ERA was in the 7s, with a torn tricep tendon in his left shoulder. He missed about a month of the season and was brilliant when he returned, with a 2.44 ERA and 5-1 record for the rest of the season. He even threw a 1-hitter on August 11 against Washington, with a Woodie Held single in the fifth inning being Washington’s lone hit. That season marks the end of Pizarro’s starting career, more or less. He would get more starts throughout the rest of his career, but from 1966 onward, he was primarily a reliever.

The relationship between Pizarro and the White Sox became strained beyond repair by 1966. He was a regular spring training holdout, and the team was growing tired of his demands for better salaries. He also continued to pitch winter ball in Puerto Rico, though the team wanted him to rest his already-injured arm. Finally, the team didn’t seem to care for his attitude, though this may have been more of a cultural/racial stereotype more than any problems on Pizarro’s part. A Sox-friendly article from February in the Chicago Tribune called Pizarro “strange” and said he “snoozed for a month” the previous season — when he was healing from the torn tendon!

Whatever the reason, Pizarro made 34 appearances got the White Sox in 1966, with 9 starts, and ended up with an 8-6 record and 3.75 ERA. He was dealt to Pittsburgh in the offseason as the player to be named later for Wilbur Wood. While his first tour of duty in Pittsburgh lasted little more than a season, he opened up to Pittsburgh columnist Al Abrams about the reputation that he was supposedly “difficult.”

“All my life I am what you call a loner. I keep to myself a lot,” Pizarro explained. “I don’t go out with the other ballplayers too often. Some people make something of this. They say I am hard to get along with. If that’s what they think, it is up to them.”

The Pirates had no problems using Pizarro often, in a variety of roles in 1967. He made 9 starts and appeared in relief in 41 other games, and he had an 8-10 record with a career-high 9 saves to go with a 3.95 ERA. He got off to a good start in 1968, but his control was a little off, with 10 walks in 11 innings. After 12 games with the Pirates, he was put on waivers and acquired by the Boston Red Sox, who thought he would fill their need for another starting pitcher. He showed that he could handle the role, with 6 complete games among his 12 starts with Boston. His stay in Boston was marred by a 1-day suspension after he and teammate were arrested at 3am near Boston Common in late July after Foy’s car hit a taxi. Both players had been drinking.

Pizarro made a tour of the American League in 1969. He started the season with Boston and made 6 appearances, with 2 saves and a loss, giving up 6 runs in 9 innings. On April 19 the Red Sox traded him, Dick Ellsworth and Ken Harrelson to Cleveland for Joe Azcue, Vicente Romo and Sonny Siebert. He pitched very well for the Indians, with a 3-3 record and 4 saves in 48 games, including 4 starts. His ERA was a solid 3.35, and the only knock was that he walked 58 batters in 99-1/3 innings while getting 52 strikeouts. Why, then, did Cleveland send him to the Oakland A’s right at the end of the season?

Source: The Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1972.

This is Cleveland manager Alvin Dark’s story: Near the end of the season, Pizarro decided he didn’t want to take a road trip to Detroit. So he asked Dark how much he would be fined if he missed the trip. Annoyed, Dark snapped, “Two-fifty.” On the spot, Pizarro took out a check book and wrote out a check for $250 for Dark. Dark got in touch with Hank Peters, Cleveland’s VP of player personnel, and told him to call A’s owner Charlie Finley and offer him Pizarro. Finley refused, until Dark got on the phone and told him to make an offer, any offer. Finley agreed to $1,000. Dark took the offer, not realizing at the time that the team would have to pay for Pizarro to travel to Oakland, which under the labor agreement at the time was $900. So Cleveland sold a still-effective reliever to Oakland for a grand total of $100 — plus Pizarro’s $250 fine, presumably. He pitched three games for Oakland and had 1 win, 1 loss and 1 save.

The A’s decided to send Pizarro to the minors in 1970. After some poor performances for Iowa, the pitcher asked for and received his release. Pizarro signed with the California Angels and was assigned to their AAA affiliate, the Hawaii Islanders. He was a perfect 9-0 there in 13 games, tying Bo Belinsky for the longest winning streak in team history. His success drew the attention of the Chicago Cubs, who purchased his contract in early July. He appeared in 12 games in relief for the Cubs, with no record, a save and a 4.60 ERA. He failed to make the team in the spring of 1971 and spent half the season in the minors before he was brought back to Chicago in July. Though his record was a pedestrian 7-6, he had 3 shutouts in 14 starts and outdueled the Mets’ Tom Seaver twice. He homered off Seaver in a 1-0 shutout win, in fact. He also threw a 1-hitter against San Diego.

Pizarro was 34 years old and still showed he was capable of wowing the opposition. He changed speeds and added more curves to his repertoire. Despite continuing his good pitching in the first half of 1972, he seems to have run afoul of Cubs manager Leo Durocher, as he was hardly used in the second half of the season. After just two games with the Cubs in 1973, his contract was sold to Houston, where his manager was… Leo Durocher. Pizarro pitched poorly there and ended 1973 with a combined 2-3 record and 7.24 ERA.

His final action in the major leagues came with the Pirates in 1974. After Houston had released him, Pizarro returned home to Puerto Rico. He found a job pitching for Cordoba in the Mexican League, and the Pirates, when looking for an additional pitcher to help them in the pennant race, saw that he had a sub-2.00 ERA with 13 wins. That was enough to bring him back to Pittsburgh. His relief work was a mixed bag, but he had two strong starts against the Mets in late September to leave him with a 1-1 record and a 1.88 ERA in 7 outings. His last regular-season game was an 8-inning performance on September 26. He allowed 10 hits over 8 innings but held the Mets to 3 earned runs, picking up the win in an 11-5 victory. It was his 131st and final MLB win. His last appearance with the Pirates came in the NL Championship Series, and he threw a scoreless 2/3 of an inning against the Dodgers, as Los Angeles advanced to the World Series in four games.

Pizarro failed to make the Pirates roster in 1975 but continued to pitch in Mexico and Puerto Rico for a few more seasons. He quit pitching for good after the 1976-77 season, but he continued to work as a pitching coach in Puerto Rico until well into the 2000s.

In 18 seasons in Major League Baseball, Pizarro had a 131-105 record and a 3.43 ERA. He threw 79 complete games and 17 shutouts and picked up 28 saves as well. He struck out 1.,522 batters and was worth 19.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Pizarro could hit, too. He hit 8 home runs in his career and had a batting average of .202. He also had 157 wins while pitching in Puerto Rico, mostly while pitching for Santurce, and he is one of the winningest pitchers in the league’s history.

Pizarro was inducted into the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame in 2000. He was also inducted into the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, as part of a class that included Moises Alou, Vinny Castilla, Bert Campaneris, Aurelio Lopez, Omar Moreno, Luis Salazar and Cesar Tovar.

Pizzaro is survived by his wife as well as two children from a prior marriage. Juan Ramon born on May 11, 1958, and Shari Lolita was born on December 18, 1959, in Milwaukee, Wis. Juan still resides in Milwaukee. Shari resides in Austin, Texas.

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8 thoughts on “Obituary: Juan Pizarro (1937-2021)

  1. Juan Pizarro was one of many fine White Sox pitchers of the early 1960s, along with Ray Herbert, John Buzhardt, Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher, Joel Horlen, Frank Baumann, and Gary Peters. But the team just didn’t have the offense to overtake the Yankees during those years. Ray Berres, the White Sox pitching coach, was considered one of the best.

    Pizarro was a pretty good hitter for a pitcher as well. Of course, not as good as Gary Peters, who was often called upon as a pinch-hitter for the White Sox.


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