Grave Story: Dan Quisenberry (1953-1998)

For a period of about six years in the 1980s, the most dominant closer in baseball wasn’t a hulking fireballer like Goose Gossage or Lee Smith. It was a submarine-throwing soft-tosser with an endless supply of quotes and quips. Dan Quisenberry was one of those rare players who enhanced the game by his mere existence, and his early death was a tragedy for the game and its fans. Quisenberry pitched for the Kansas City Royals (1979-1988), St. Louis Cardinals (1988-89) and San Francisco Giants (1990).

Dan Raymond Quisenberry was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on February 7, 1953. He went to Costa Mesa High School and then attended Orange Coast Junior College, also in Costa Mesa. He was, by his own admittance, a high-strung pitcher. After one heartbreaking loss, he tried to kill himself by drowning — in the shower. It didn’t work, but it was an example of his temper that took a few years to tame.

Dan Quisenberry’s grave at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City, Mo.

Quisenberry then went to LaVerne College of Laverne, Calif., and their baseball team went to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) World Series tournament in 1974. One of the other teams, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh was knocked out of the tournament by LaVerne and their unusual starting pitcher, who improved his record to 12-2 with the 8-2 win. Said Oshkosh coach Russ Tiedemann: “LaVerne’s pitcher was a righthanded sidearm pitcher who was throwing sinkers to us. He had great command and had only walked 12 batters in 96 innings going into this game. For the first five innings we were hitting his sinker into the ground. Then we had the kids move up in the batters’ box so they would hit it before it began to drop, and we started to get some balls out of the infield. But we never got to him until the ninth and by then it was far too late.”

Dan Quisenberry at Baseball Almanac

If it’s any consolation to the kids from Oshkosh (who included shortstop and future Milwaukee Brewer Jim Gantner), they wouldn’t be the last batters who couldn’t figure Dan Quisenberry out.

Quisenberry was a starter in his college career, and a tireless one at that. On his freshman year at Orange Coast, he threw 144 innings. As a senior at LaVerne, he threw more than 190 innings, including appearing in seven of the 11 games for the NAIA District and Area championships. LaVerne won both titles, and Quisenberry threw complete games in the finals of both the District and Area championships. During that stretch, he only suffered a sore arm once, and it went away through the power of prayer — Quisenberry was deeply religious and earned a B.A. in religion from LaVerne after switching majors from psychology.

Quisenberry won two games in the NAIA finals in St. Joseph, Mo., before losing to eventual champions Lewis College. After that, he had no immediate plans. He went undrafted and was a free agent. According to his SABR bio by Steve Wulf, LaVerne baseball coach Ben Hines called scout Rosey Gilhousen and got him signed to Class-A Waterloo (Iowa) of the Midwest League.

Quisenberry’s professional debut was memorable, both for him and for the Waterloo Royals. The 21-year-old began the day by being baptized at the Church of Christ in Waterloo. Then he threw a complete game 5-3 win over the Wasau Mets, driving in a run with a suicide squeeze bunt. Quisenberry said that the baptism “took away all my fear… I wasn’t afraid at all, and I knew all week that I was going to pitch today.” The win closed out Waterloo’s first half with a 49-13 record, and the .790 winning percentage set a record for a split-season half. The record had been held by the 1934 Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. That start would be the only one of his professional career.

Quisenberry finished the 1975 season with Double-A Jacksonville. He spent most of 1976 back in Waterloo after getting off to a slow start in Jacksonville, and he was brilliant — a 0.64 ERA in 34 games with 11 saves. He was named to the Midwest League All-Star team and finished up his season by marrying Janie Howard. They were married for the rest of his life, and they had two children, Alyssa and David.

Quisenberry returned to Jacksonville in 1977 and ’78 and posted two more excellent seasons. In 1977, he had a 1.34 ERA in 33 appearances, throwing a total of 74 innings. In one game, he threw 7-2/3 innings of scoreless relief. But he was stranded in the minor leagues. “We felt he wasn’t a major league prospect,” Dick Balderson, Royals’ assistant farm director, later admitted. “He doesn’t have a major-league fastball, and he doesn’t have a major-league breaking ball.”

The Royals bullpen was so bad in 1979 that their nickname in the press box was “The Arson Squad,” and player development tried almost every other Triple-A pitcher they had before giving Quisenberry a try. Renie Martin and Billy Paschall were auditioned and had ERAs of 5.19 and 6.59, respectively. The best reliever the team had, closer Al Hrabosky, had an ERA approaching 4.00 and walked more batters than he struck out. If Quisenberry wasn’t the last choice, he was near the bottom.

Source: Kansas City Star, February 24, 1982.

Later in the season, after Quisenberry had turned around a flailing Royals bullpen and the team had gone on a hot streak to contend for the division title, Royals manager Whitey Herzog admitted that he had never seen Quisenberry pitch until he reached the majors. “I don’t know why he didn’t make the big-league spring camp. That’s the farm club department’s problem,” Herzog said.

Dan Quisenberry made his debut on July 7, 1979, and he threw 2-2/3 scoreless innings in a loss against Chicago. He faced 8 batters and allowed 7 ground balls. Two went for infield hits, and two resulted in double plays. He kept throwing scoreless outings — his first six games with Kansas City, in fact. He didn’t allow a run until July 22 against the Rangers, when Pat Putnam drove in Oscar Gamble with a single to tie the game at 6. The Royals came back to win 7-6, giving Quisenberry his first major-league win. He picked up his first save the very next day. Quisenberry ended the year with a 3-2 record, 5 saves and 3.15 ERA in 32 games. He struck out only 13 hitters but walked just 2 batters unintentionally all season long. The Royals made a late-season push for the division title but fell short, settling for second place. “I wish we’d had Dan Quisenberry a month sooner,” grumbled Herzog in late September. “Then maybe we’d be four games in front.”

Quisenberry, a mature 26-year-old rookie, was unfazed by the major leagues. “Heck, I have been getting out major-league batters since I was 11,” he said. “My brother was the Twins and I was the Braves. We used to play in the backyard with a tennis ball. I’ve struck out Harmon Killebrew thousands of times.”

After the season, Hrabosky became a free agent and signed with the Atlanta Braves. New Royals manager Jim Frey was good friends with Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner, and they agreed to let Pirates relief ace Kent Tekulve — another submarine pitcher — work with Quisenberry to drop his arm even further down than it already was. With an even more unconventional delivery than he had before, Quisenberry quickly established himself as the new closer.

What followed was a six-year peak that is one of the best in the history of relief pitching. From 1980 to 1985, Quisenberry led the AL in saves in five of six seasons. He averaged 69 games, 35 saves and 121 innings pitched — and that’s including a strike-shortened season. When he saved 45 games in 1983, the next closest pitcher was Bob Stanley with 33 saves. When he saved 44 in 1984, Bill Caudill was second-best with 36. When he dropped down to 37 saves in 1985, he was still five saves ahead of second-best Bob James. This was the era when the closer was coming into prominence, and nobody dominated the field like Quisenberry did.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 1998.

Technically, the Royals started the 1980 season with a closer by committee. Both Gary Christenson and Tim Stoddard picked up saves before Quisenberry got his first. But soon he took over the role — actually, he took over the entire final third of the game. He established a team record with 33 saves, and 18 of them were outings of longer than 2 innings. He picked up 4-inning saves twice. He worked 128-1/3 innings over 75 games. He perfected his role of the ground-ball pitcher with the pinpoint control, as he had just 37 strikeouts. But he was effective enough to finish in fifth place in the Cy Young vote and eighth place in the MVP vote. The Royals won 97 games, and Quisenberry, with his 33 saves and 12 wins, factored into 45 of them. The Royals reached the World Series, only to fall to the Philadelphia Phillies. Quisenberry pitched in all six of the games and lost two of them, as Mike Schmidt and Del Unser in particular knocked him around. He took the losses in stride, commenting that “Schmidt must be a heckuva golfer” with the way he connected off one of Quisenberry’s sinkers.

Quisenberry slumped for the first time in his major-league career at the start of the 1981 season. It wasn’t bad enough that he was removed from his role as closer, but Frey sat him for an extended period after his ERA climbed over 5.50. He gradually improved, and by the end of the season, he saved 18 games — third in the AL behind Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage — with a 1.73 ERA. He allowed a total of 3 earned runs over the last two months of the season, after the player’s strike ended. He also threw a scoreless inning in the postseason, as the Royals fell to the Oakland A’s in the AL Division Series.

Quisenberry was selected to three straight All-Star games starting in 1982. He also finished in the top three in Cy Young voting, including being a runner-up to winners LaMarr Hoyt in 1983 and Willie Hernandez in 1984. Quisenberry had more saves than Hernandez (44 to 32), but Hernandez struck out 112 batters and was part of a Tigers team that won the World Series. The Royals lost to the Tigers in the AL Championship Series, and Quisenberry actually had more saves than strikeouts (41). Not that the lack of strikeouts bothered him.

“We all have certain creative ability,” he said in a 1982 interview. “Some of us express ourselves with paint, others become engineers and others excel with numbers. I feel creative when I pitch a baseball. I’ve got to figure out a way to prevent a guy 6-foot-2, 215 pounds with great hand-eye coordination from hitting a baseball to St. Louis. It’s very satisfying to be able to perform under that pressure.”

Apart from his success on the mound, Quisenberry’s quick wit got him a following beyond baseball. He became one of the few ballplayers to make appearances on The Tonight Show. His lines like “I found a delivery in my flaw,” made him a frequent interview subject. When he received a 4-foot-tall bronze trophy for being the Royals’ Pitcher of the Year in 1983, he said, “Thanks for the trophy. It’ll make a nice necklace.”

It’s tough to decide which of the seasons from Quisenberry’s peak was his best one. The 1983 campaign is a good choice, as he reached a career-high 45 saves, establishing a new major-league record in the process. His ERA was 1.94, and he won 5 of 8 decisions. His ERA+ was 210, and his FIP (fielding independent pitching) was a career-low 2.86. His 1985 season, comparatively speaking, wasn’t as great, as he had a sub-.500 8-9 record and 37 saves with a 2.37 ERA. But more importantly, he was one of the leading contributors to the Royals winning the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

Led by manager Dick Howser, the Royals finished 91-71 to win the AL West. They got past the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS and then defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games, in one of the best World Series in recent memory. Quisenberry saw both extremes of a closer’s life in that postseasson. He was the losing pitcher in Game Two of the ALCS, blowing two leads and allowing a walk-off RBI single to Al Oliver in the tenth inning. In Game Four, he relieved Charlie Liebrandt in the ninth inning after the starter walked Damaso Garcia and gave up a double to Lloyd Moseby, tying the game. George Bell singled off him and Oliver doubled both men home, making the final score 3-1 Toronto. Bud Black filled in as the long reliever for Game Six after starter Mark Gubicza pitched the first 5-1/3 innings. Black worked into the ninth inning and departed with Garcia and Moseby on base and Garth Iorg at the plate. Quisenberry struck him out for the rare (for him) one-out save.

The Cardinals took the first two games of the World Series, and Quisenberry was ineffective in both. After Game Two starter Charlie Liebrandt stayed in the game longer than usual, some people assumed the closer was in the doghouse. Howser refused to abandon him, saying, “Dan Quisenberry is one of the people who got my contract extended through 1988.” Quisenberry, when asked for his usage, didn’t have a witty comeback for once. “I work at trying not to manage. I just keep my mind on the game, keep myself ready, go over the hitters I might have to deal with — when I am called upon.”

Bret Saberhagen threw a complete game win in Game Three, so there was no need for any relievers. Quisenberry threw a shaky scoreless inning in the Royals’ Game Four 3-0 loss. He allowed a single to Willie McGee and walked 2 batters (1 intentionally), but McGee was called out trying to score on a wild pitch to eliminate the threat. The Royals then needed to win three straight games to avoid a Series loss. Danny Jackson went the distance in the 6-1 win in Game Five. Liebrandt pitched into the eighth inning in Game Six but had to depart with the bases loaded and McGee at the plate. Quisenberry retired him on a force out, threw a scoreless top of the ninth inning and picked up the win when Dane Iorg drove in the winning run in the bottom half of the frame. Saberhagen shut out the Cardinals in the final game with an 11-0 laugher to make the Royals champions. Quisenberry had a 1-0 record, 1 save and a 2.08 ERA in the World Series.

Things started to go all wrong in 1986. Dick Howser announced he was diagnosed with brain cancer and missed the second half of the season. He tried to come back in 1987, only to find out that he was physically unable to deal with the rigors of the job. Howser died on June 17, 1987.

Quisenberry was pushed out of his closer’s role in 1986. The Royals as a team finished 10 games below .500, and Quisenberry finished with a 3-7 record. He still had a good 2.77 ERA, but after blowing too many leads, the Royals gave more and more save opportunities to Bud Black and Steve Farr. Quisenberry had just 12 saves.

Some of his struggles could date back to 1985. Despite the good stats — 37 saves, a 2.37 ERA — lefties hit Quisenberry at a .320 clip, and he started to hear some boos from the fans at Royals Stadium. It didn’t help that he had signed a “lifetime contract” with the Royals early in the ’85 season. Longtime Royals owner Ewing Kauffman had taken on a partner, Avron Fogelman, and would have transferred full ownership to the newcomer in time had he not later run into financial difficulties. But during the time he was in charge, Fogelman awarded “lifetime contracts” to Quisenberry, George Brett and Willie Wilson. The deal would keep Quisenberry in a Royals uniform through 1990, and it would have guaranteed him at least $49.3 million over the next 41 years through participation in a real estate partnership with Fogelman, reported the Kansas City Star in October of 1985.

After signing that contract, Quisenberry’s teammates saw a change in him. “Early in the season was the only time I really ever saw him uptight, and maybe scared,” said George Brett.

“He tried to go out and prove that he was worth a lifetime contract. The thing he forgot to remember is that he is no better because of the deal that he struck. He makes more money, but he’s the same pitcher,” said Hal McRae.

Quisenberry started to look more and more human in the second half of 1985, and his struggles continued into 1986 as the weak ground balls people used to hit went for extra bases. Quisenberry was philosophical about his struggles. “More than anything I can say, I think it was my time to get hurt. You can talk about the pressure of signing a new contract and being in the limelight and maybe having a sword over my head… But it was my time to get hurt. I know that.”

Dan Quisenberry released a book of poetry, called On Days Like This, shortly before he died.

The Royals under manager Billy Gardner didn’t really have a closer in 1987, as their starters threw 44 complete games — second-most in the AL. Quisenberry and Gene Garber were tied for the team lead in saves, with 8 apiece. The Royals as a team recorded just 26 saves. Quisenberry’s season looks decent on paper, with a 4-1 record and 2.76 ERA in 47 games. But he went months between save opportunities, and weeks without ever pitching. He gained a little more work once former teammate John Wathan became manager, but his situation improved only marginally. Suddenly, the lifetime contract that was supposed to provide financial security became an anchor that tied him to a team that had no confidence in him.

“I have anger. I have hurt. I have embarrassment,” he said in an interview in August. “It gets tough for me about 3:30 each day, the time I have to leave for the ballpark. I want to come to the ballpark and have a good day. But the way things are now, it’s impossible.” After the season had ended, the pitcher said he wanted to be traded elsewhere, even if he had to be bought out from his contract to do it.

It wasn’t a trade that got Quisenberry out of Kansas City. Now 35 years old, he struggled as a middle reliever while Farr had his first strong season as the new closer. Through 20 games, Quisenberry had a 0-1 record and a 3.55 ERA. His last save with the Royals came on April 28 against the New York Yankees. In early July, he got the thing he had requested: his release. Days later, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and was reunited with his first major-league manager, Whitey Herzog. He was immediately thrown into the fire, as Herzog put him into a game against San Diego with two runners on. He did exactly what he did best: face three batters, get 3 grounders. Unfortunately, two of them were just far enough away from infielders to become base hits, allowing the two baserunners to score.

Quisenberry’s half-season with the Cardinals was disastrous: a 6.16 ERA in 33 appearances, with 54 hits allowed in 38 innings. He returned to St. Louis in 1989 and had a very good year as a long reliever. He pitched in 63 games with 3 wins and 6 saves and had a 2.64 ERA. He stranded inherited baserunners and once more had pinpoint control. He credited pitching coach Mike Roarke for adjusting his delivery and help him compensate for the fact that he just wasn’t as flexible as he used to be. Quisenberry also provided some veteran leadership to a young pitching staff while proving that he wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture yet.

“I haven’t had this much fun since the Ming Dynasty,” Quisenberry said. “I came to spring training to see if I had anything left of if it was time to retire. I rediscovered some things. But I can’t really think about next year. I know they have some young arms and guys who shave twice a week that they want to see in these uniforms, too.”

Quisenberry earned his first NL save against the Padres on May 11. He also got his first major-league hit on July 6 off the Dodgers’ Tim Belcher, and it was a run-scoring single, too. The year went so well that he decided to test the free agency waters again in the offseason, signing with the San Francisco Giants. But he began to experience shoulder soreness in spring training, for the first time in his pro career. He was shelled in five appearances as a Giant, and he retired on April 29, with a 13.50 ERA and nothing left to give.

“It’s hard to walk away from the game,” he said upon his retirement. “If I hadn’t gone back to San Francisco, I would always have thought I had one more year. And now I know I don’t.”

Dan Quisenberry spends time pheasant hunting with former teammate Ed Hearn. Source: Kansas City Star, December 12, 1993.

In 12 seasons, Quisenberry appeared in 674 games. He had a 56-46 record and 244 saves, which was fifth-best all-time when he retired and is 38th-best now. He had a 2.76 ERA and 1.175 WHIP. He struck out 379 batters and walked 162, but 70 of those walks were intentional. So really, he only walked 92 batters, or fewer than 8 per season, when he was trying to get them out. He was named to three All-Star teams and won the Rolaids Relief Award five times in his career. He finished in the Top Five in the Cy Young Award five times. He also had a 3-4 record in postseason appearances, with 3 saves and a 3.21 ERA. Quisenberry was dropped from the Hall of Fame ballot after one appearance when he received just 18 votes. Maybe that was harsh but fair. But you can’t talk about the evolution of the closer without mentioning his period of dominance.

In a fairer world, Quisenberry would have his choice of a post-baseball career. He could have easily been a color commentator and entertained millions with his analysis and his one-liners. He could have joined the MLB Network and become one of the voices of Major League Baseball. Or he could have stayed at home with his family, wrote poetry, penned a memoir or two and enjoyed the adulation of a generation of fans who loved to watch him pitch and tried to emulate his delivery in backyard baseball games. But life isn’t always fair, and sometimes the people who bring the most joy into life are the ones who are taken too quickly.

Quisenberry was always active in philanthropy, and he continued that into his retirement. He stayed in Kansas City, visited the Royals from time to time and worked with several businesses, usually tied to one charity or another. He also released a book of poetry, On Days Like This, that dealt with baseball and life in general. But he mostly settled into a quiet life, a private citizen who always showed up for worthy causes or had a wisecrack about pitching at the ready.

In early 1998, Quisenberry and his family were vacationing in Colorado. He fell and hit his head, and then he started having blurred vision, dizzy spells and headaches. Thinking that he had a concussion, they returned home to Kansas City. There, a CT scan revealed a brain tumor. Quisenberry underwent surgery on January 8 to remove the growth, and the tumor was diagnosed as Grade IV malignant astrocytoma — the worst type of brain tumor possible. Further surgery was impossible, and an aggressive radiation treatment didn’t stop the tumor from regrowing.

The baseball world did its best to give Quisenberry his flowers while he could enjoy them. He was inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame in April, where his brother Marty read one of Quisenberry’s poems. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in May, and 30,000 fans came out to Kauffman Stadium to cheer him on. The field was packed with current Royals and old teammates to support the man who saved so many games for them. After a brief speech, he was driven around the field in a convertible, waving to the crowd. “I don’t know why I was waving. I’m not running for office,” he said.

Dan Quisenberry died in his home in Leawood, Kan., on September 30, 1998. He was 45 years old. His family was by his side. He is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.

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