RIP to Mike Marshall, a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher and one of the most durable relievers in baseball history. He died on May 31 in his home at Zephyrhills, Fla., where he had been in hospice care for Alzheimer’s disease. He was 78 years old. Marshall played for the Detroit Tigers (1967), Seattle Pilots (1969), Houston Astros (1970), Montreal Expos (1970-73), Los Angeles Dodgers (1974-76), Atlanta Braves (1976-1977), Texas Rangers (1977), Minnesota Twins (1978-80) and New York Mets (1981).
Michael Grant Marshall was born in Adrian, Mich., on January 15, 1943. Up to this year, he had been the only person in his immediate family to reach the major leagues, but that changed, when his nephew, Brent Honeywell Jr., joined the Tamps Bay Rays pitching staff. Marshall was a top pitcher for Adrian High School as well as a leading scorer on their basketball team. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $30,000 in September of 1960 — as an infielder. He reportedly turned down another team that offered him a larger sum if he would be a pitcher.
Marshall was a good hitter in high school, and he carried that over to the low minors with the Phillies. In four seasons as a shortstop, Marshall batted between .264 and .304, with a high of 14 home runs in 1963 with the Magic Valley (Idaho) Cowboys. Marshall got as high as the AA Chattanooga Lookouts in 1964 and was named to a couple of All-Star teams along the way. There was one problem. Marshall was a terrible shortstop at first, committing more errors than double plays turned. After three seasons with fielding percentages around .900, Marshall had a decent fielding season with the Lookouts in ’64, committing 39 errors in 118 games for a .932 fielding percentage.
In 1965, Marshall was converted to a pitcher, starting his career over at the age of 22. He said in a 1966 interview that he was his choice. “I didn’t feel the Phillies were giving me as good an opportunity as I deserved as an infielder. They held me back on the premise I was too young,” he said.”
In his one season as a pitcher in the Phillies organization, Marshall was very good. Still, the team traded him to the Detroit Tigers organization in the spring of 1966. Detroit toyed with the idea of Marshall as a two-way player briefly, but in the end, his pitching abilities won out over everything else. He won 11 games for the Montgomery Rebels of the Southern League, working exclusively out of the bullpen. The Tigers took notice and invited him to spring training in 1967. When he got off to a sensational start with the AAA Toledo Mud Hens in 1967, Marshall was brought to the majors.
Marshall made his debut on May 31 and gave up a run in an inning of work against Cleveland, striking out 2 along the way. After that, the good performances far outweighed the bad. His first major-league save came in his third appearance against the Yankees with a perfect inning of work in a 13-inning, 11-7 win. At one point in late July, he picked up saves in six consecutive appearances, including four in four straight days. By the time he had pitched 2 scoreless innings against the White Sox to record his 10th save of the season on July 30, Marshall had an ERA of 0.87. Strangely, it was the last save he would get. Detroit was in a tight pennant race and finished with 91 wins, just a game out of first place. Manager Mayo Smith went to a bullpen by committee, perhaps not trusting the rookie Marshall in a pennant race. He still ended the season with an excellent 1.98 ERA and 1-3 record in 37 games.
In spite of his early success with Detroit, it took several more years and four different major-league teams before Marshall became known as one of the best relievers of his time. His first great seasons came in his late 20s — after almost a decade of professional ball. During that time, he worked on his education in the offseason, getting his bachelor’s degree and masters in physiology at Michigan State University.
“I wouldn’t recommend to a high school boy to sign a major league contract if he planned to go to college,” Marshall said in 1967, as he was working toward his Ph.D. “You can always play ball, but you can’t always get an education.” The fact that his statement was the reverse of the common way of thinking — you can always get an education, but you have a limited time to play ball — indicates his priorities were a little different from the majority of baseball people.
Detroit won the World Series in 1968, but it did so without Marshall, who was left in Toledo for the year. He won 15 games as a starter, as the Mud Hens finished first in the International League. He was left unprotected in the expansion draft held in the offseason and was drafted by the Seattle Pilots. The Pilots used him primarily as a starter, but he won just 3 of his 13 decisions with an ERA of 5.13 before he was demoted back to the minors.
Marshall blamed his ineffectiveness in Seattle to a mugging in Cleveland. Not “mugging” as in a bad game — he was actually robbed and beaten by unknown assailants. He gave the date as June 24, 1969, but judging by the Pilots’ schedule, he probably meant May 24. Marshall had his pants ripped off in the scuffle, as the assailants went for his wallet. “Must have been 10 to 15 of them and they worked me over for 10 minutes. I was almost unconscious, but managed to lean against a car and fend them off,” Marshall related. Marshall struggled to pitch more than 2 or 3 innings per start because of the after-effects of the beating, and he was subsequently moved to the bullpen and then back to AAA. According to Ball Four by Jim Bouton, Marshall also feuded with Seattle pitching coach Sal Maglie over his use of a screwball (Maglie wanted him to throw a curveball) and manager Joe Schultz over his education (Schultz apparently had a thing against college boys).
During that season, Marshall threw the only 3 complete games of his 14-year career and his only shutout. He also belted his one and only home run, off Boston’s Fireball Fred Wenz in a 9-6 win. By then, Marshall was an instructor in Kinesiology at Michigan State, and he came to one conclusion in 1969: lowering the pitcher’s mound reduced the distance from the pitcher to the plate.
“It cuts the hypotenuse two or three inches,” he explained.
The Houston Astros purchased Marshall’s contract in November of 1969 and brought him back to the majors in June of 1970. His stay with the team lasted just 4 games — he was battered for 8 hits and 5 runs in 4-1/3 innings. The Astros traded him to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Don Bosch. Reportedly, Astros general manager Spec Richardson was so desperate to unload Marshall that he took the first player that Expos manager Jim Fanning could name. Montreal is where Marshall finally turned his career around. It took some patience on the part of the Expos and manager Gene Mauch to see results, however. Marshall pitched as a starter when he first joined the team, with little success. He moved to the bullpen, and over the final month of the season, he appeared in 14 games, with 2 wins, 2 saves and a 1.55 ERA.
Marshall returned to the Expos in 1971 and kept up his strong pitching for an entire season. Using the screwball that Maglie wanted him to abandon, Marshall appeared in 66 games and had 23 saves. Far from a 1-inning closer, he logged 111-1/3 innings and struck out 85 batters. It was not without controversy. He was given a “stiff, stiff fine” by Mauch when he took himself out of a ballgame on July 24. St. Louis won the game 8-7 in 14 innings, after Marshall gave up 2 runs in the 12th inning — his fifth inning of work on the day. He disappeared, and pitching coach Cal McLish had to call the clubhouse to find out that Marshall had hit the showers without telling anyone. It came at a time when Marshall was pitching through a rough patch and was facing such abuse at Jarry Park in Montreal that his wife stopped letting their children attend games.
Marshall had his best season to date in 1972, when he went 14-8 with 18 saves and a 1.78 ERA. He led the NL with 65 appearances and threw 116 innings, with a low 1.112 WHIP. He finished fourth in the Cy Young Award vote and 10th in the MVP Award vote — things that were unheard of for a relief pitcher. He also confused reporters by trying to apply his higher education to baseball. For instance, he once tried to explain the development of his screwball by referencing Bernoulli’s Principle — the Law of Fluids, obviously. It explains why an object changes in flight. “The diameter and gravity are both consistent so velocity and pressure are the only variables. If velocity increases, the pressure decreases and vice versa,” he said, clearing it all up.
Traditionally, baseball doesn’t embrace independent thinkers, and there were few people, if any, in the game, who thought like Marshall. While other managers may have tired of him, Mauch loved Marshall’s results. He used the reliever at a historic pace in 1973. Marshall led all pitchers with 92 appearances that year and set a record for relievers with 179 innings pitched. He again won 14 games and led the NL with 31 saves. He finished as the Cy Young runner-up behind Tom Seaver and was fifth in the MVP vote.
Eventually, the Expos ran out of patience. That season, Marshall publicly boycotted a $5,000 award as the Expos’ MVP, sponsored by O’Keefe Brewery. His refusal came a year after he was given a $10,000 car for winning the same award but demanded that O’Keefe pay the taxes, tag and title, almost doubling the cost of the prize. It was all done, he said, to get rid of the award entirely. “I don’t think it’s right to have players on the same team campaigning, lobbying and competing against one another for a significant award,” he said.
Marshall also criticized what he saw as a toxic culture surrounding sports. He refused to sign autographs, believing that it contributed to hero worship among the game’s younger fans. He believed that true success in athletics lies in the thrill of competition and not the result of the score. He also criticized the attitude of fans who come to ballparks to boo and harass players. “Someone who resorts to such vicious abuse of other human beings to feel pleasure and elation must have the lowest possible regard for himself. He must be totally devoid of self respect,” he said, referring to an infamous boo-bird at Jarry Park.
The Expos had a practical reason for trading Marshall to the Los Angeles Dodgers — they needed a center fielder and got Willie Davis in the deal — but Marshall may have helped talk himself off the team.
Marshall’s first season with the Dodgers, in 1974, was one that had never been accomplished before and will likely never be accomplished again — unless pitching roles change dramatically in the future. Marshall pitched in 106 games, which is the most ever by a pitcher in baseball history. He threw 208-1/3 innings in relief, breaking his own record that he had set the previous year. Marshall was the runaway winner for the Cy Young Award, with 17 of 24 first-place votes (Andy Messersmith got 5, and Phil Niekro and Don Sutton got 1 each). He was the first reliever to ever win the award. He also won a career-high 15 games and saved 21 games, which led the NL.
As an example of Marshall’s durability, consider the Dodgers’ 17 games between June 18 and July 5. Marshall appeared in 15 games, won 7 of them, saved 2 more and had 2 holds. Most of those appearances were 2 or more innings, too. During that streak, he appeared in 13 consecutive games, setting a modern-day record for a pitcher.
“Mike Marshall is the most devastating psychological weapon in the league,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray (in a column entitled “Marshall the Prig”). “In the 50 or so games he did not appear, he was ready to. He was a PRESENCE. Every time Mike Marshall went out to a bull pen, the game was haunted for the other team.”
Marshall also threw 2 scoreless innings in the 1974 All-Star Game and appeared in 7 postseason games, throwing 12 innings with a 0.75 ERA. He saved Game Two of the World Series against Oakland but picked up the loss in the final Game Five. Joe Rudi homered off Marshall in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie, and the A’s won the World Series a couple innings later. The home run came right after a delay in the game when Oakland fans started throwing bottles at left fielder Bill Buckner. Marshall was given the chance to throw some warm-up pitches after the delay, but he declined and promptly allowed the homer.
Marshall never had another season like his 1974 season — no pitcher has ever had a season like it — but he wasn’t used up by any means. He earned another All-Star berth in 1975 and threw 109-1/3 innings in 58 games, with a 9-14 record and 3.29 ERA. He just missed another 100-inning season in 1976 by 2/3 of an inning. Dodgers executive Red Patterson referred to Marshall’s interest in kinesiology as the reason for his durability. “That has to do with the muscles,” Patterson explained. “He’s an expert on the subject. Most of us can’t even spell it.”
The Dodgers traded Marshall to the Atlanta Braves on June 23, 1976, for outfielder Lee Lacy and pitcher Elias Sosa, and Marshall was really good for the Braves for a half a season. He was 2-1 with 6 saves in 24 games for 1976, but his time with the team ended after just 4 games in 1977. He managed a win in one of those games, but he allowed 6 runs and 12 hits in 6 innings. Braves owner Ted Turner placed him on the disqualified list after Marshall missed a game, and the reliever, upset about his lack of playing time, requested a trade to a team that “better suits his pitching philosophies,” as Turner said.
The Braves sent him to the Texas Rangers on a waiver deal in May of 1977, and Marshall went 2-2 with a 4.04 ERA for his new team in 12 appearances, including 4 starts. He also battled injuries — his back was the problem, not his arm. He departed Texas as a free agent and signed with Minnesota in the offseason, after some encouragement from Twins manager Mauch.
Along with his pitching career, Marshall had become a successful consultant and analyst with Mike Marshall Kinesiology Inc., which treated professional athletes. Marshall coached NFL quarterbacks Brian Sipe and Fran Tarkenton, former teammate Andy Messersmith and others. He charged $5,000 for an initial consult and $10,000 after a successful treatment, operating out of MSU’s clinical center. While operating a profit-making business on university ground proved problematic, his clients were leaving satisfied with the results.
Going into 1978, Marshall was 35 years old and had struggled the last couple of seasons, but he found a new life with the Twins. Though the Twins brass had some concerns about his reputation, Marshall was glad to be reunited with Mauch. He appeared in 54 games for the Twins, with a 10-12 record and 21 saves. It wasn’t completely smooth sailing, as he got into an altercation at a Minneapolis rental car counter in his first trip to the state. He also parted unceremoniously with MSU after he was arrested after an altercation at one of the school’s athletic facilities. But his performance on the mound silenced questions about his pitching ability.
Marshall’s last great year came in 1979 with the Twins. He led the AL in saves with 32 and appearances with 90. He was fifth in the Cy Young Award vote and, once again, logged well over 100 innings as a reliever — 142-2/3 to be exact. Marshall’s time with the Twins ended in June of 1980, after 18 games. The Twins released him, ostensibly due to his 1-3 record and 6.12 ERA. He saw it differently. Marshall was a firm supporter of the player’s union — he even was rumored to be after union boss Marvin Miller’s job — and reported the Twins for every violation of the player’s agreement. That behavior, he said, put him on the outs with owner Calvin Griffith and caused Mauch to sabotage his performances.
“If Calvin Griffith was in any other industry, he would have no employees and he would have no customers. But this industry is so popular that even a man of his great incompetence can succeed,” Marshall said. As for Mauch, he said that “when you wallow with Calvin Griffith, you begin to think like him.”
After sitting out of baseball for more than a year, Marshall signed with the New York Mets in the second half of the 1981 strike-shortened season. By all accounts, he was happy working with manager Joe Torre, and he performed well in 20 games, with a 3-2 record and 2.61 ERA. When Torre was fired after the season, Marshall was let go as well. Aside from one disastrous appearance for the AAA Edmonton Trappers in 1983, he never pitched professionally again.
In 14 years in the majors, Marshall appeared in 724 games, with 700 of them coming in relief. He had a 97-112 record and a 3.14 ERA, with 188 saves. He struck out 880 batters and walked 514 for a WHIP of 1.294. His career ERA+ was 118, and Baseball Reference credits him with 18.2 Wins Above Replacement.
It will come as no surprise that Marshall remained an iconoclast in his retirement. He completed his Ph.D. and became Dr. Mike Marshall, and he developed an unconventional pitching delivery that he said would help to eliminate pitching injuries. He made several YouTube videos discussing his approach, and they’re highly recommended, even if you don’t agree with his methods.
Marshall coached a pitching staff from St. Mary’s of Texas, who then won the Division II NCAA World Series. He also coached at West Texas A&M in 1993-94. Later, Marshall ran a coaching school in Florida for interested high school and college pitchers. One of his students, Jeff Sparks, pitched briefly in the majors, but his use of Marshall’s delivery ran afoul of professional pitching coaches.
Jim Bouton, Marshall’s Pilots teammate, knew a little about being an iconoclast himself and understood Marshall’s position. “I haven’t studied what Mike is proposing, but I just know that Mike has always been way ahead of baseball,” he said in a 2006 interview. “When we were with the Pilots together, they dismissed Mike and he wound up in the minors because baseball couldn’t tolerate somebody like Mike Marshall, somebody who was different. They didn’t like his personality — and then he went on to become a Cy Young Award winner. He’s a guy who thinks outside of the box, and the guys in power are very much inside the box.”