RIP to Tommy Matchick, an infielder who was part of the 1968 World Champion Tigers. He died on January 4 in Ohio, where he and his family lived, at the age of 78. Matchick played for the Detroit Tigers (1967-69), Boston Red Sox (1970), Kansas City Royals (1970), Milwaukee Brewers (1971) and Baltimore Orioles (1972).
John Thomas Matchick was born in September 7, 1943, in Hazel Township, Pa. Baseball was a big thing in the Matchick household. His father, John “Wes” Matchick, played for and later managed the amateur Jeddo Stars Athletic Association ballclub, so any windows that were broken when young Tommy began throwing baseballs were quickly forgiven. Over the years, he developed from a mischievous Little Leaguer (who could also hit .600) to an American Legion pitcher with no-hit stuff.
He played basketball at Hazle Township High School, even though he was one of the smaller players on the team — he wouldn’t grow into his 6-foot-1 frame for a while. He was also a back on the football team and a pitcher for Freeland in the local Babe Ruth League. In 1959, he helped Freeland win the Consolation Championship of the eighth annual Babe Ruth World Series in Stockton, Calif. He threw a 4-hit shutout in the winning game against a team from Nashville. His play attracted numerous area scouts, but it was the St. Louis Cardinals and scout Ollie Vanek who signed him to a $17,000 bonus contract in September of 1961. When he departed Pennsylvania the following February for his first training camp, more than 250 well-wishers turned out to a banquet in his honor, hosted by the Jeddo Stars Athletic Association. The banquet’s keynote address was delivered by one of the scouts who didn’t sign him — Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers. Lasorda told Matchick two of the prerequisites to be successful — an appreciation for all those who helped him on his way, and trust in God.
Matchick saw a lot of movement in his first seasons in the minor leagues. In his first pro season in 1962, he saw action in both Winnipeg and Brunswick, Ga. It was there that he made a little notoriety for himself for getting caught up in a rundown between first second base that lasted 75 seconds, and they still didn’t get him out. The Cardinals made him a shortstop, and his fielding was pretty suspect as he adapted to the position. He played well enough in Brunswick (.311 batting average) to make the Georgia-Florida League All-Star Team, but he struggled in the higher-level Northern League with Winnipeg. The Detroit Tigers selected him in the first-year player draft.
Matchick showed himself to be a steady hitter as he advanced in the minors for Detroit. His fielding showed strong improvement as he got used to playing shortstop. By the time he spent a full season with Triple-A Syracuse in 1965, his fielding was one of his best assets. He batted .258 for the Syracuse Chiefs that season and also showed a little power, with 7 home runs. When the Chiefs played the parent club in an exhibition game in June, they beat the Tigers 4-0. Matchick doubled in his first at-bat, homered in his second, and narrowly avoided a beanball in his third. The high fastball made contact with the bat and resulted in a soft groundout that still drove in a run. Matchick’s parents were in attendance. His mother had lost her eyesight but was well aware of the way the crowd cheered for her son.
Matchick spent two more seasons in Triple-A, with Syracuse in 1966 and Toledo in ’67. He continued to display his newfound power, with 12 and 11 home runs, respectively. Detroit had him work at second and third base in the winter leagues to increase his versatility in the field. His work paid off with a trip to the major leagues in September of 1967. He had a hit in 6 at-bats as a pinch-hitter, and he played an inning of shortstop, fielding a grounder flawlessly. His first major-league hit was a memorable one, too, because he singled off future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter of the Kansas City A’s on September 6, 1967. He later scored his first run when Willie Horton drove him in with a single off reliever Lew Krausse. One batter later, Eddie Mathews hit a 2-run homer to score the final two runs of the inning, turning a 4-2 deficit into a 6-4 lead. The Tigers went on to win the game 8-5.
Matchick spent the entire 1968 season on the big-league roster, backing up Dick McAuliffe at second base and Ray Oyler at shortstop. Most of his work came at shortstop, as manager Mayo Smith spelled the weak-hitting Oyler (he hit .135 in 111 games) with Matchick and veteran Dick Tracewski. Matchick only batted .203 himself, with 3 home runs and 14 RBIs. He was 5-for-13 as the club’s top pinch-hitter. His first major-league home run was off California’s Larry Sherry on July 2, but his second career homer was the most memorable. It came on July 19, in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs, a runner on first base, Detroit losing 4-3 and Baltimore’s ace reliever Moe Drabowsky on the mound. Matchick launched a 3-2 pitch into the right field upper deck, sending the 52,000+ fans in attendance home with a 5-4 win.
“I didn’t see where the ball went out, but I knew it was gone when everybody started yelling,” Matchick said. “That was the only pitch Drabowsky brought in to me… I was just looking for something to pull.”
It was the second time Matchick had beaten the Orioles, as he’d hit a game-winning double off Tom Phoebus earlier in the season. The Tigers cruised to the AL pennant with 103 wins, 12 games ahead of Baltimore, and they defeated the Cardinals in the thrilling 7-game series to win the World Series. Matchick had 3 pinch-hit appearances in the Series. He accounted for one of Bob Gibson‘s 17 strikeouts in Game One of the Series.
Ray Oyler departed to the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft, leaving the job of shortstop open for competition in 1969. “Tommy Matchick will be given every chance to win the shortstop job,” said Smith in spring training. Unfortunately, Matchick was slowed in the spring by a sore arm, which gave Tracewski and converted outfielder Mickey Stanley opportunities to play the position. Detroit traded for shortstop Tom Tresh in June, ending the competition for good. But while Matchick hardly played at short, he had plenty of opportunities at second and third base and played in a career-high 94 games in ’69. He batted 242 with 11 doubles and 32 RBIs, while scoring 25 runs. He drove in 4 runs on August 1 with a double and a single to give Denny McLain his 16th win of the season with an 8-0 victory.
After the season, Detroit traded Matchick to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Dalton Jones. The Hazleton press reported that their native son was happy with the deal, as the Red Sox would give him more playing time. However, Boston used him mainly as a pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement, and he had 1 hit in 14 at-bats. He was traded to Kansas City in exchange for first baseman/outfielder Mike Fiore on May 28. Matchick lost time with the Royals because of a fractured thumb and military service, and he batted .196 in 55 games. He began 1971 in the minor leagues but was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in May for outfielder Ted Savage. He was eventually brought to the majors by the Brewers and hit .219 over 42 games. He also had hit first major-league home run since 1968 and his last in the majors.
Matchick played his final major-league games as a member of the Baltimore Orioles in 1972. He had been traded to the Orioles after the 1971 season. He spent most of 1972 in Triple-A Rochester and came back to the majors to play 3 games at third base, spelling Brooks Robinson. He had 2 hits in 9 at-bats. Matchick spent the next three seasons at various Triple-A teams, playing for Baltimore, the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh, but he was never able to return to the major leagues. He retired at the age of 32 after the 1976 season.
In 6 years in the major leagues, Matchick had a slash line of .215/.254/.270, with 178 hits that included 21 doubles, 6 triples and 4 home runs. He drove in 64 runs and scored 63 times. He played 110 games at shortstop with a .967 fielding percentage, as well as 74 games at third base (.976), 72 games at second base (.978) and 8 games at first base (1.000). He also had a .265 batting average across 12 minor-league seasons, with 53 home runs. He was awarded a Silver Glove Award in 1972 for his fielding excellence in the minors and was named for five minor-league All-Star teams.
Matchick and his family moved to Toledo, Ohio, and he became an executive in the aerial photography business. He remained a part of Detroit Tigers lore and returned to Michigan frequently to participate in reunions and autograph shows. He played in the annual “Dream Game” charity event between Tigers and Cardinals alumni. He drove in 5 runs in the 1989 game, including a 2-run homer off Ray Washburn. “I just pinch-hit in the World Series in ’68 and I was 0-for-3. So to do this is great.”
Matchick’s greatest memories came from his time with Detroit, but he had a wealth of memories from his entire baseball career — like that trade to Kansas City that was supposed to make him a full-time starter for the first time. “Charlie Metro, the manager at the time, told me ‘You’re my second baseman until you lose the job.’ So I went out for infield practice and broke my thumb.”
Matchick was inducted to the Hazleton Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.