Obituary: John Cumberland (1947-2022)

RIP to John Cumberland, who spent nearly 40 years in professional baseball as a pitcher and a coach. He died at his home in Lutz, Fla., on April 5, at the age of 74. Cumberland played for the New York Yankees (1968-70), San Francisco Giants (1970-72), St. Louis Cardinals (1972) and California Angels (1974).. He also coached at the big-league level for the Red Sox and Royals. He wrote a memoir with Paul St. Cyr called Four C’s. The four C’s — confidence, control, concentration and command — were Cumberland’s cornerstones for pitching success.

John Sheldon Cumberland was born in Westbrook, Maine, on May 10, 1947. He began to gain notice as a pitcher with the Westbrook High Blue Blazes baseball team as a senior in 1965. The southpaw pitcher struck out 15 batters in a game against Thornton. That summer, the American Legion team from Westbrook won the state tournament. Cumberland won the Most Valuable Player Award for his 1-hit, 21-strikeout performance against Bangor.

Source: Deseret News, August 17, 1973

Cumberland parlayed that success in his senior year to a professional baseball contract in 1966 when he signed with the Cardinals organization and joined the Eugene Emeralds of the Class-A Northwest League. He won 4 games in 17 appearances but was relatively ineffective. He walked 31 batters in 33 innings. Cumberland was claimed by the Yankees in the minor-league draft and moved all the way up to Triple-A Syracuse in 1967, as a 20-year-old. He spent most of the season as a starter and had a pretty successful run, considering he was one of the youngest players in the league. His 4-5 record and 4.07 ERA doesn’t look impressive, but his control had greatly improved, and he struck out 71 in 104 innings. Syracuse manager Frank Verdi called him a “can’t miss” pitcher.

See John Cumberland at Baseball Almanac

The Yankees gave Cumberland a couple of cups of coffee in 1968 and ’69 after two more successful seasons at Syracuse. His major-league debut came on September 27, 1968, in Boston. The Red Sox pounded the Yankees 12-2, and Cumberland worked the final two innings. He gave up 4 runs (2 earned) on 3 hits. The first batter he ever faced was Carl Yastrzemski, and Yaz hit a comebacker right back to him for an easy out. The rest of the game wasn’t as easy. Reggie Smith hit a 2-run homer, and Dalton Jones hit a 2-run double and scored on an error by shortstop Tom Tresh. Cumberland returned to the Yankees in July of 1969 when the Yankees sent down catcher John Ellis. He pitched in 2 games and allowed 2 runs in 4 innings before being returned to Syracuse.

Though his stays in the majors were brief, Cumberland at least had reached the highest level of pro ball. “Once you make it the first time, it makes all the difference,” he said in the spring of 1969. “Then you can relax in the spring and just pitch yourself into shape. [Stan] Bahnsen pitched with me in Syracuse in 1967, and he told me last year, after he made it, that it was easier in the majors. I honestly believe that. The trick is to get there.”

Cumberland finally had a chance to stick in the majors with the Yankees in 1970. He achieved a couple of milestones on April 23, when he picked up his first major-league win with 6-1/3 innings of relief. He fanned 6 Senators in the 11-6 win and also hit an RBI single for his first hit and first run driven in. He had just one bad performance, which was a start against Cleveland where he gave up 5 home runs — 2 to Tony Horton, 2 to Ray Fosse and 1 to Jack Heidemann. But he bounced back in his next start to throw his first complete game against the White Sox in a 3-1 win.

Charlie Fox congratulates John Cumberland after a win, as Willie McCovey walks off the field. Source: Daily Independent Journal, July 9, 1971.

Through 15 appearances, including 8 starts, Cumberland had a 3-4 record and 3.94 ERA for the Yankees. Still, New York traded him to the San Francisco Giants on July 20 in exchange for pitcher Mike McCormick. “We’re gambling that McCormick can still pitch,” said Yankees manager Ralph Houk. “We hated to give up a young pitcher like Cumberland.” The Yankees lost that gamble. McCormick won the last two games of his career with the Yankees but was limited to 20+ innings for his Yankees career. Cumberland also won 2 games but had an ERA of 0.82 in 11 innings, though his time with the Giants was a little tumultuous. After two appearances with the Giants, he was sent to Triple-A Phoenix with instructions to lose 15 pounds and add a new pitch. Cumberland was never a svelte athlete, but he dutifully dropped the weight and added a screwball.

“Getting sent down was the big blow. It shook me up. I was kind of complacent until that happened, and it made me think about my future,” Cumberland later said about his demotion. Not only did he dominate when he returned to San Francisco in 1970, but he became a well-used swingman for the team in ’71. He made 21 starts and 24 relief appearances and turned in a 9-6 record with 5 complete games, 2 shutouts and 2 saves, along with a 2.92 ERA. He didn’t strike out that many batters — 65 K’s in a career-high 185 innings, but he didn’t allow many baserunners, either. He had a WHIP of 1.124, and he fit in well on a staff with aces Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal as well as a Cy Young candidate with reliever Jerry Johnson. “Right now, Cumberland is my best left-hander so I’m going to go with my best shot,” said Giants manager Charlie Fox.

After being discarded by the Yankees and nearly discarded by the Giants, Cumberland ended up starting Game Two of the 1971 NL Championship Series between the Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates. He made it through a shaky first inning, working around two singles, but he allowed an RBI single to Manny Sanguillen in the second inning and a solo homer to Bob Robertson in the fourth inning. After Sanguillen singled again, Cumberland was removed from the game. Reliever Jim Barr allowed that inherited runner to score, leaving Cumberland with the loss in the 9-4 Pittsburgh win, having given up 3 earned runs in 3 innings. Pittsburgh went on to win the NLCS and the World Series.

Cumberland earned a starting role in 1972 after a fine showing in spring training, including a win against the Tokyo Lotte Orions in an exhibition game. However, once the season got underway, he was rocked by National League batters. In 25 innings with the Giants, he gave up 38 hits, including 6 home runs. He also broke his hand in two places in what he later described only as an accident, and instead of having a cast put on it, Cumberland tried to pitch through it. He had a 0-4 record and 8.64 ERA when he was claimed by the St. Louis Cardinals — his original organization — on June 16. The Cardinals used him mainly in relief, and he was marginally better, with a 6.65 ERA. His only win of the season came in a 3-inning relief outing against his former Giants teammates. He allowed just 1 hit, a home run to Chris Speier, while the Cardinals rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win 7-3.

After the 1972 season, St. Louis traded Cumberland and outfielder Larry Hisle to Minnesota for pitcher Wayne Granger. Cumberland was released by the Twins in spring training, and he rejoined the Giants organization. He started slowly for Phoenix before turning some good performances. Still, he was released and signed a minor-league contract with the Angels. He finished out the ’73 season with Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League.

Cumberland was, by now, frustrated about his place in the game. After being one of the keys to the Giants’ success in 1971, he felt he didn’t get enough work from either the Giants or the Cardinals in 1972 to stay sharp. He thought the Twins represented a new start, but he was trimmed from the Opening Day roster in spite of a good spring. After failing to find a major-league team willing to sign him, Cumberland was released outright by the Twins without ever having thrown a regular-season pitch for them. He was out of baseball and working as a sales representative when he got the minor-league contract offer from California Angels general manager Harry Dalton.

“I’ve pitched for five different organizations since signing back in 1966. I’d have to say that so far California has been the most impressive in regards to living up to promises,” he said. “I just hope I can continue to do the job here in Salt Lake and get a real good chance at the major league camp next spring.”

Cumberland didn’t start the 1974 season with the Angels, but when the team needed a reliever, he was brought up from Salt Lake City at the end of May. He was reasonably effective, with an 0-1 record and 3.74 ERA in 17 games out of the bullpen. He wasn’t thrilled to have the role of the LOOGY (lefty one out guy), but after a series of team changes, he was a little gun shy about speaking out. “I’d like to ask Bobby (manager Bobby Winkles) for a start, but I think I’ll wait awhile. I’m afraid to say anything. This game is crazy,” he told the San Bernardino County Sun. It didn’t matter. Winkles was fired and replaced by new manager Dick Williams. Cumberland was one of several players who were sent back to the minors, as Williams revamped his roster. Cumberland finished the season with Salt Lake City and retired from the game. He was 27 years old when he left baseball.

John Cumberland, retired from baseball but yet to begin a coaching career, shows off a game ball he received in 1972 when he best the Giants as a member of the Cardinals. Source: Tampa Bay Times, December 24, 1979.

Over parts of 6 seasons, Cumberland appeared in 110 games, including 36 starts. He had a 15-16 record, with 6 complete games, 2 shutouts and 2 saves. Cumberland had a 3.82 ERA and a 1.241 WHIP, and he struck out 137 batters in 334-1/3 innings.

Cumberland had moved to Florida after high school and lived there for the rest of his life. Immediately after his retirement, he operated a horse feed and tackle store in Oldsmar and coached at different Little Leagues in Pinellas County. By 1979, he was feeling the itch to get back into the game. Unlike a lot of ballplayers who lose touch with the game, it was still very much a part of him. “After doing it for so long, it gets in your blood and you can’t get away from it. There’s hardly ever a game I miss on TV. And I never miss a box score,” he said in a 1979 interview.

Cumberland got his chance to return to baseball when he was hired as a coach for the Lynchburg Mets of the Carolina League in 1982. One of his first great success stories was working with Dwight Gooden. After Gooden’s outstanding 1984 rookie season, Cumberland helped him develop a changeup and quickened his delivery to make it more difficult for baserunners to steal off him. “I think the more he pitches, he can make little adjustments and get a little better… It’s hard to believe he can get better, isn’t it?” Cumberland said.

More than anything, Cumberland lit a competitive fire in Gooden. Gooden was a struggling 18-year-old in Lynchburg in 1983, with Cumberland as his pitching coach. In one game, Gooden loaded the bases with nobody out. Cumberland made a mound visit, but probably not the one Gooden expected. “I just told him I didn’t think he wanted to win and that he wasn’t much of a competitor,” Cumberland recalled. Shaken, Gooden promptly struck out the side and told his pitching coach, “You were right. I was too timid but that will never happen again.” Gooden went on to win 19 games with Lynchburg and struck out 300 batters, and the Mets brought him directly from Class-A ball to the majors the next year.

It wouldn’t be the last time that a young pitcher would get the tough love treatment. “I’ve been known to go to the mound with unkind words,” Cumberland said. “I believe in consistency… My forte is getting pitchers to believe they’re good. If you believe you’re good, you will be.”

Cumberland was a part of the Mets organization until 1990. He then worked as a pitching coach for Wichita (San Diego Padres affiliate) in 1991, Milwaukee Brewers’ minor-league pitching coordinator in 1992 and Las Vegas (Padres) pitching coach in 1993. Cumberland returned to the major leagues when he was named pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox in 1995. He was a late addition to manager Kevin Kennedy’s staff, and while he had some success stories, a couple of veterans had poor years. Cumberland was asked to take a leave of absence for unspecified reasons in July and was reassigned to the role of advance scout. After several years of coaching in the minors with the Red Sox, he returned to Boston in 1999 as the bullpen coach. He was dismissed in 2001 and joined the Royals organization the following season. After the Kansas City bullpen imploded one too many times in 2002, Cumberland was brought to Kansas City to be the pitching coach for new manager Tony Pena. He replaced Al Nipper, who coincidentally had replaced Cumberland as pitching coach for Boston in 1995. That assignment lasted until July of 2004; the Royals’ young arms hadn’t developed as quickly as management thought that they should, and the pitching coach, as usual, was the one to take the fall.

Cumberland retired from baseball after his time with the Royals ended. He retired to Florida, and he collaborated with St. Cyr for his book. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Pat, as well as sons John, Chris and Paul.

For more information: Dignity Memorial

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