Obituary: Joe Horlen (1937-2022)

RIP to pitcher Joe Horlen, a standout college pitcher before embarking on a 12-year, All-Star career in the majors. His alma mater, Oklahoma State University, reported that he died on April 11 in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 84. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for several years. Horlen played for the Chicago White Sox (1961-1971) and Oakland Athletics (1972).

Joel Edward Horlen was born in San Antonio on August 14, 1937. He was referred to as “Joel” for most of his life — except for his time in the majors, when his first name was usually shortened to “Joe.” He was a multi-sport star athlete at Luther Burbank High School in San Antonio — he was a quarterback on the football team and a guard on the basketball team, in addition to his baseball skills. In 1956, he was a pitcher on the All-United States team that played a group of New York All-Stars in the annual Hearst Sandlot Classic.

Horlen then went to Oklahoma State, where he became part of one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball. In 1958, he led the Cowboys in strikeouts (52), innings pitched (66-2/3) and complete games (7), while turning in a 6-3 record and 2.28 ERA. The following year, he posted a 9-1 record and 2.23 ERA and was part of the reason that Oklahoma State went into the College World Series Tournament as the favorite. The team’s fearsome pitching staff brought the the CWS Championship to Stillwater, and Horlen was named to the All-American Second Team and Big Eight First Team for his performance. In the tournament, Horlen won 2 games with a 1.99 ERA.

See Joe Horlen at Baseball Almanac

Shortly after the Cowboys won the 1958 World Series, Horlen signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox. He reported immediately to the Lincoln Chiefs of the Three-I League, and the hitters there didn’t treat him particularly kindly. He went 1-9 — the complete opposite of his Oklahoma State pitching line — and had a 5.64 ERA. He worked hard with manager Ira Hutchinson to smooth out the flaws in his game, and when he reported to the Charleston White Sox of the Class-A Sally League in 1960, he was a much improved pitcher. He was 7-5 in 12 starts and 14 relief outings, with 3 complete games and his first professional shutout. His ERA fell to 2.93, and he fanned 77 batters in 120 innings.

The White Sox moved Horlen up to San Diego of the Pacific Coast League in 1961, and he won 12 of 21 decisions with a fine 2.51 ERA. He was brought to the majors in September of 1961, as the White Sox were running through a series of young pitchers. A day before Horlen made his debut, Chicago manager Al Lopez threw 18-year-old Mike DeGerick into a game against the Twins. He was passing through from the Appalachian League to Duke University and threw 1-2/3 innings in his debut. (He’d pitch in just one more game in the majors.) Horlen’s debut came on September 5, in relief of starter Cal McLish, who allowed 5 runs in 3 innings. Horlen threw 4 scoreless innings against the Twins on 2 hits and 4 walks. Meanwhile, the White Sox rallied against Minnesota starter Jim Kaat and won 9-5. Horlen, who was so new that he didn’t even have a number on the back of his uniform, picked up the win in his first appearance.

Lopez gave Horlen 4 starts at the end of the season, and he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning in any of them. The California Angels and starter Eli Grba beat him twice, and by the time the Red Sox beat him 6-4 on September 27, Horlen had a 1-3 record and 6.62 ERA, with 25 hits and 13 walks in 17-2/3 innings.

Source: The Jackson Sun, July 30, 1963.

Horlen’s 1962 campaign got off to a much better start, even though it involved yet another loss to the Angels. He scattered 5 hits and allowed just a ninth-inning home run to Leon Wagner in a 1-0 loss. In his next start, he shut out the Twins 8-0 on 6 hits. Even then, Horlen didn’t relax. “I don’t feel like I have this club made,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity Al Lopez has given me and I hope I can justify his confidence in me.”

A lengthy stay on the disabled list cut into his effectiveness, but Horlen managed a 7-6 record and 4.98 ERA with the White Sox in ’62. He was shaky at the start of the 1963 season, working both as a starter and in relief. He was sent back to the minors for most of July and was dominant as a starter. When he rejoined the White Sox, he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of his second start, against Detroit. With one out in the ninth inning, Horlen gave up a single to Chuck Hinton. Two batters later, Don Lock hit a 2-run homer off a hanging curve, saddling him with the tough-luck 2-1 loss.

“The curve ball was my good pitch all night. I lived with it and died with it,” he said after the game. Horlen went on to win 11 games against 7 defeats and sported a 3.27 ERA. Starting in 1964, he began a streak of six seasons in which he topped 200 innings pitched and had double-digit win totals. Whatever success the White Sox enjoyed in the 1960s was due largely to the pitching staff, and Horlen was one of its aces.

The ’64 White Sox, for instance, featured 20-game winner Gary Peters and 19-game winner Juan Pizarro. However, it was Horlen who, despite just 13 wins, led the team in ERA with 1.88. It was second-best in the AL, behind Dean Chance‘s 1.65 with Los Angeles. Horlen did lead the AL with a 0.935 WHIP and 6.1 hits allowed per 9 innings. He walked just 55 batters in 210-2/3 innings — he walked the exact same total in 124 innings in 1963 — and fanned 138.

“I can’t ever remember being as sharp as I have been since the start of June,” Horlen said on July 21, after a five-game stretch in which he’d struck out 30 batters and walked 4, with a 1.05 ERA. “Lately it’s been my slider and fastball, but a better curve has helped me past a lot of lefthanders… I like to work hitters in and out, up and down — but never in pro ball have I had the success of putting the ball where I want it as I have recently.”

Lopez chalked up the success to an improved curveball — Horlen had been “short-arming” his curve. That is, he’d been releasing it too early. “We got him to snap the ball off in front of his body and it made a world of difference,” explained the veteran manager.

Joe Horlen calls his family after throwing a no-hitter. Source: The Journal Times, September 11, 1967.

Horlen’s control was even better in 1964, when he walked 39 batters in 219 innings. Even though his ERA rose to 2.88, he was still stingy with baserunners — and had just a 13-13 record to show for it. His ERA dropped to 2.43 in 1966, but he finished under .500 with 10 wins and 13 losses. His nickname of “Hard Luck” Horlen was entirely appropriate. That 2.43 ERA was second-best in the AL behind teammate Peters, who had a 1.98 ERA — and was just 12-10. The White Sox finished 83-79 in 1966, and part of the reason was that the team hit a league-worst .231. Pretty much any of the White Sox pitchers could have had the nickname of “Hard Luck,” and it would have been justified, but Horlen seemed to consistently suffer from a lack of run support.

Horlen’s luck was just fine in 1967, though. He started the year with 8 wins in a row, making it until June 23 before he took a loss. He had an ERA of 3.00 after his first game of the year — a complete game win over the Senators — and it never reached 3 again for the rest of the season. Horlen was brilliant, with a 19-7 record and a league-leading 2.06 ERA. He threw a career-high 258 innings with 13 complete games, and his 6 shutouts was tops in the major leagues. His 0.953 WHIP also led the majors. Three of his shutouts came in September, and the highlight of his year came on September 10, when he no-hit the Detroit Tigers 6-0. The only Tigers to reach base were Bill Freehan, who was hit by a pitch, and Eddie Mathews, who reached on an error by first baseman Ken Boyer. Horlen struck out 4, and only two balls reached the outfield. When he retired Dick McAuliffe on a grounder to shortstop to complete the no-no, a usually reserved Horlen threw his glove into the air.

“I couldn’t be more proud if I was Joe Horlen’s father,” said manager Eddie Stanky. “There’s a lot behind Joe Horlen. He’s dedicated. His kind get ulcers.He used to chew tobacco for his nerves. Then gum. Today, he chewed Kleenex… I really got a kick out of seeing that boy toss his glove in the air. He’s no extrovert.”

(Stanky was correct. Horlen was known to chew facial tissue during games because of his nerves.)

Horlen received plenty of accolades for his banner year. He was named to his only All-Star team (he didn’t appear in the game) and finished second in the Cy Young voting (behind Boston’s Jim Lonborg) and fourth in the MVP voting (behind Carl Yastrzemski).

The 1967 Sox team was remembered for years because of the three-headed pitching monster of Horlen, Peters and Tommy John. It was long suspected that groundskeeper Gene Bossard and manager Stanky were creating an unfair home advantage to help their pitchers. It was obvious that Bossard let the grass grow long in the infield to smother ground balls and soaked the dirt in the batter’s box to stop fast baserunners. He had another trick that his son, Roger, discussed in a 2020 article in the Chicago Tribune. He froze baseballs.

Well, they didn’t literally freeze the baseballs. Bossard kept some game balls in a small room with a humidifier, where they would pick up a little extra weight from moisture. It wasn’t a huge effect, but it was probably enough to turn a fair number of home runs into long fly outs. Yes, it would have decreased the offense on both teams, but the thought process was that the fine pitching of Peters, Horlen and John could shut down any offense, while the Sox batters could scratch out enough runs for the win.

“John, Horlen and Peters were all low-ball pitchers, and Dad had the front of home plate watered down,” Bossard told the Tribune‘s Paul Sullivan. “The union wasn’t that strong back then, and you could get away with it. So there was like mud in front of home plate. They called it ‘Bossard’s swamp.’ And the infield grass was 3 inches high, and also they had the frozen baseballs.”

The White Sox finished 1967 with an 89-73 record, which was good for just fourth place in the AL. But they were in first for a significant part of the season before a late August slump knocked them out of contention. They were a .500 team on the road, but they were nearly a .600 team at home. Thanks to their home-field advantages.

Unfortunately, Horlen’s hard luck returned in 1968. He started 35 games, had a 2.37 ERA, and opposing batters hit .238 against him, and he still finished 2 games under .500 with a 12-14 record. The White Sox, involved in the pennant race for most of 1967, lost 95 games and fell all the way to eighth place in the AL in 1968. All the groundskeeping chicanery couldn’t help the team in the Year of the Pitcher. As good as Horlen and John were (Peters struggled mightily), they couldn’t save the Sox season all by themselves.

For Horlen, it must have been an especially tough blow. In spring of the year, he talked about all the accolades he’d earned in his pro career, but he hadn’t reached the World Series. He had won a national championship with a Pony League team and with his Oklahoma State team, but never with the White Sox. “I thought last season was going to be our year, but things just didn’t work out,” he said in the spring of 1968, when the team’s outlook was still rosy. “I think we have helped ourselves more in the offseason than any club in the league.” The addition of shortstop Luis Aparicio didn’t help a team with no power — the only Sox player to reach double digits in home runs in 1968 was Pete Ward with 15.

The aces of the White Sox pitching staff: Tommy John, Gary Peters and Joe Horlen. Source: The Indianapolis Star, March 30 1969.

Horlen’s struggles continued with the White Sox in 1969, when he turned 31 years old. Though he won 13 games, he also lost 16 and saw his ERA rise up to 3.78. His former pinpoint control was starting to slip, as he surrendered a career-worst 77 walks. He also allowed more than a hit an inning for over a full season for the first time in his career. He still had excellent outings, such as a 5-hit, 1-0 shutout against the Orioles and Jim Palmer on May 6, which was the first win for new manager Don Gutteridge. Those dominating appearances occurred less often, though. His ERA increased by more than a run in 1970, as he went 6-16 with a 4.86 ERA. He also missed pitching 200 innings for the first time since 1963, thanks to knee surgery that sidelined him for the month of August.

Horlen started 1971 in the bullpen because of a second knee surgery in the offseason. He made his first start of the season against Baltimore on May 31, and his wildness may have contributed to a wild brawl between the Sox, Orioles and a daring (but stupid) fan. Horlen started the second game of a doubleheader by hitting Don Buford in the legs with a pitch. Buford later homered off Horlen, who was removed from the game after 4-2/3 innings. Chicago reliever Bart Johnson later hit Buford again, and Buford headed to the mound — with his bat still in his hands. Buford wasn’t ejected from the game as the benches cleared, but the next time he was in the on-deck circle, he was jumped from behind by a fan who made his way onto the field. The Orioles team rushed to their teammate’s defense and pounded the fan, who escaped security custody and was never caught. But he was said to have been bloodied and spiked by the Orioles, so he didn’t get away without any consequences.

That poor outing aside, Horlen had a decent year for the Sox in ’71, with an 8-9 record and 4.26 ERA. His control improved, as he walked just 30 in 137-1/3 innings. It couldn’t save his career with the White Sox, though. Late in spring training of 1972, the team tried to trade him but, failing to find any takers, released the most senior member of the team. The move, according to columnist Milton Richman, brought tears to the eyes of Sox manager Chuck Tanner. It was also peculiar timing. Days before the release, White Sox manager Stu Holcomb told the team about the generous pension plan the owners were proposing for the players if they didn’t go on strike. Then Horlen, acting in his role as the team’s union representative, told his teammates about all the things Holcomb said that weren’t true. “I know it all got back to Holcomb,” Horlen said. Just that quickly, the veteran pitcher who looked to have a secure future with the team was released. Marvin Miller, head of the Players’ Association, threatened to file a charge of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board.

Horlen wasn’t out of work for long. The Oakland A’s signed him, primarily to be a long reliever. He adapted well to the role. He appeared in 32 games, including 6 starts, and he had an even 3.00 ERA in 84 innings, with 3 wins, 4 losses and a save. That Oakland team finished first in the AL West, so Horlen finally got his chance to pitch in the postseason. He took the loss in Game Four of the AL Championship Series against Detroit. He was one of three relievers who let Detroit score 3 runs in the bottom of the tenth inning to win 4-3. Horlen faced just two batters. Gates Brown walked, and Bill Freehan reached on an error by the second baseman Gene Tenace. Gates later scored the winning run. The A’s advanced to the World Series, and Horlen pitched 1-1/3 innings of Game 6 against the Cincinnati Reds. He allowed an RBI single to Cesar Geronimo in an 8-1 loss, but Oakland won Game Seven to win the World Series, and to make Horlen a champ at the amateur, collegiate and major-league level. Horlen was released after the World Series, along with other veterans like Orlando Cepeda.

In 12 seasons in the majors, Horlen had a 116-117 career, with a 3.11 ERA. He started 290 of his 361 appearances, with 59 complete games, 18 shutouts and 4 saves. He pitched a total of 2,002 innings, giving up 554 walks and striking out 1,065 batters. Baseball Reference credits him with 23.2 Wins Above Replacement, and he had a lifetime ERA+ of 110.

Horlen retired to tend to a home-building business in San Antonio, but he came back to pitch for the San Antonio Brewers of the Texas League in the summer of 1973. He won 6 of 7 decisions and showed he still knew how to retire hitters. He never pitched again but worked for a time as a roving pitching instructor in the Cleveland organization. He also continued to prosper as a home builder in Texas. If you ever lived in a house on 2234 Shadow Cliff in San Antonio, “La Casa de Oro,” you lived in the first house that he ever designed.

Horlen stayed involved in sports for some time. He helped launch the University of Texas-San Antonio golf program and served as a golf coach. After his brother Bill, a college basketball referee, was killed in a plane crash in 1986, Horlen decided to return to baseball. He enjoyed a lengthy career as a minor-league pitching coach. He coached everywhere from Shreveport to Fresno for the next decade-plus. He retired back to San Antonio at the end of his coaching career.

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6 thoughts on “Obituary: Joe Horlen (1937-2022)

  1. I well remember watching WGN-TV’s 1967 telecast of Horlen’s no-hitter and Jack Brickhouse calling the game. Even though it was a big Sunday doubleheader in the midst of a pennant race, only about 16,000 fans were in attendance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a baseball with his name on it … we got the baseball when we lived in Pasadena Texas.. I was just a little boy… we lived in a apartment building his parents managed they were good friends of my parents .. I meet Joe once he visited his parents… we were thrilled… I meet a pro baseball player… never will forget it… I gave the ball to a friend who’s a big White Sox fan it’s still around…. We got it in 1968

    Liked by 1 person

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