RIP to Dutch pitcher Win Remmerswaal, one of only 11 major-leaguers ever born in The Netherlands and the first European-trained ballplayer to reach the majors. Remmerswaal, who had been in a care facility following a stroke in 1997, died on July 24 at the age of 68. Remmerswaal played for the Boston Red Sox in 1979-80.
Wilhelmus Abraham Remmerswaal was born in The Hague on March 8, 1954. Specifically, in a small village of Wassenaar in the municipality of The Hague. “The baseball field was only 50 meters away from my parents’ home,” he said. In a 1977 interview with The Hartford Courant, he related the story of his introduction to baseball — or honkbal, in Dutch. He was about 8 years old in Haarlem when he saw some of his older brothers and their friends playing a game he didn’t understand. They invited him to swing a bat, and he missed on a pitch that bounced in front of him. He ran home when the older boys started laughing, but it didn’t take long for him to fall under baseball’s spell. He joined the youth leagues in The Netherlands and found much better luck throwing the ball than trying to hit it.
“It’s like soccer is over here,” he explained to the Courant. “There aren’t many, but the people who play and follow baseball are psychos about it, crazy over it.”
Remmerswall began reading the Dutch translation of The Sporting News and emulating his favorite pitcher, Sandy Koufax. As a child, he played on two Dutch Little League championship teams and one Babe Ruth championship team. He impressed the coach of the Dutch National team, Miami U. Coach Ron Fraser, who helped him secure a scholarship to the school. Unfortunately, Remmerswaal had a circulation problem in his throwing arm, and it required several surgeries and the removal of a rib to fix. Miami quickly lost interest, so he went back to the Dutch National Team. He was pitching for them when he was scouted by Boston Red Sox general manager Dick O’Connell, on the recommendation of Dutch coach Cees Herkamy, in an international tournament in Amsterdam in 1973. He was voted the best player on the Dutch team that won the European Amateur Championship. Eventually, Remmerswaal signed with Boston and reported to the Winter Haven Red Sox of the Florida State League in 1975.
In his first season, Remmerswaal made 16 starts and relieved in 11 other games. He ended the year with an 8-7 record and 2.69 ERA, along with 6 complete games and 3 saves. The 21-year-old showed good control, with 33 walks in 127 innings, and he struck out 65. He spent 1976 primarily as a reliever in Winter Haven, saving 10 games and accumulating a 7-6 record and 1.89 ERA. He made one appearance with the Double-A Bristol Red Sox of the Eastern League and gave up 2 earned runs in 1/3 of an inning. He joined Bristol as a full-time starter in 1977. While he had a sub-.500 record at 9-11 with a 3.47 ERA, he threw 8 complete games and 4 shutouts. Remmerswaal pitched in the 1977 Eastern League All-Star Game, which featured the EL All-Stars against the Bristol Red Sox. He took the loss after allowing a home run to Tim Doerr. By then, he was thought of as a legitimate pitching prospect, if not a slightly eccentric one.
“Good arm. I feel he can really pitch,” said Bristol manager John Kennedy. “He’s like all pitchers, a little, er, flaky. He’s hyperactive on the mound. Moving all the time. Always walking around. Superstitious. He’s a pitcher, and pitchers are a different breed of cat.”
During one game, Remmerswaal was brought in from the pen in the middle of a close game. He warned up, talked with the catcher, settled in to face the first batter… and then ran to the dugout, took a drink from the water fountain, ran back to the mound and retired the next two batters to get out of the inning. When Kennedy asked him why he did it, Remmerswaal shrugged and said, “I was thirsty.”
Remmerswaal pitched briefly with Triple-A Pawtucket in ’77 and spent all of 1978 there. He pitched a career-high 155 innings while picking up 8 wins. He was uncharacteristically wild, walking 96 batters. But when manager Joe Morgan needed him to make a spot start against the Richmond Braves in the International League playoffs, he threw a 4-hitter and beat the Braves 4-2.
Remmerswaal had been pitching since childhood, but the Red Sox had turned him into an all-new pitcher. “Every pitch I use has been changed in the past three years, since I started playing professional baseball. They started me all over again, from the beginning,” he said during his first spring training with the Red Sox in 1978. “I am still working on what they have taught me.”
Pawtucket moved Remmerswaal to the bullpen in 1979, and he had a 2.05 ERA in 39 games there. He also saved 7 games and struck out 93 batters in 92 innings. He was finally able to complete his dream with a call to the majors in August. Injuries to Jerry Remy and pitchers Chuck Rainey and Jim Wright gave him the long sought-after opportunity.
Remmerswaal made his debut on August 3 against the Milwaukee Brewers. He got the first batter he faced, Panamanian Ben Oglivie, to ground into a double play, doubling up Puerto Rican Sixto Lezcano. Then burly American Gorman Thomas stepped up and hit his second home run of the game. It was the only run Remmerswaal allowed in 3 innings of work, though he walked 3 and gave up 3 hits. He fanned 4, including Paul Molitor. “I’m sure nobody’s celebrating in Wassenaar tonight,” the pitcher said after the game.
Remmerswaal won his first major-league game days later, against Milwaukee on August 5. He worked 3 innings in relief after starter Dick Drago left after the third inning. The Dutchman gave up 3 runs in 3 innings, including a 2-run double by Jim Wohlford, but Boston pounded the Brewers 19-5 to give him the victory anyway. Remmerswaal’s unusual story made him a minor baseball celebrity, and stories on him began to circulate, even after rough outings raised his ERA over 10.00 on the season. His final appearance was his best. After starter Bob Stanley was knocked out of the game in the third imming, Remmerswaal entered with two runners on base. Both runners scored on an Aurelio Rodriguez single to make the game 5-0, but the Tigers couldn’t score off him at all the rest of the game. He threw 6 scoreless innings on 3 hits, 1 walk and 5 strikeouts. The game lowered his ERA to a still-high 7.08, but it was a masterful performance.
Inside Red Sox circles, stories about Remmerswaal also had been circulating. He missed flights and missed games. When he reached the major leagues, one Boston journalist idly wondered what the Dutch translation for “Spaceman” was, in a nod to former flake Bill Lee. The Boston Globe noted in a December 1979 article that “Remmerswaal’s history of irresponsibility is legend.” “He’s got some growing up to do,” said Red Sox pitching coach Johnny Podres, “But he’s got the potential to strike people out as a reliever.”
Remmerswaal started the 1980 season in Pawtucket once again, though he didn’t have the same success as the previous season. His walk rate was up, and his ERA was 4.69 in 24 games. The pitcher had been complaining of a sore shoulder, which could account for his poor pitching. However, the Red Sox brought him back to the majors in June, and his pitching improved noticeably. In his first outing against the California Angels on June 21, he threw 5 innings of 1-run ball in a losing 4-2 effort. His first win of the season came on July 3, after starter Rainey pulled a muscle while facing Baltimore Pat Kelly, just the second batter of the game. Remmerswaal almost missed his cue — he told reporters he was “buying peanuts for the people in the bullpen” when Boston manager Don Zimmer summoned him into the game. Still, he worked 6 innings and allowed just 1 run on 2 hits, striking out 5. He ended his outing by catching Orioles slugger Eddie Murray on a called strike three. Boston won 5-2.
Remmerswaal pitched well throughout June and July, though he was rocked by Kansas City on July 31. He allowed 5 earned runs in 2/3 of an inning, including a 3-run homer to Hal McRae. After that, his chances to pitch became fewer and further between, and there’s no indication if it was because of tendonitis in his shoulder or if manager Zimmer had tired of dealing with another flaky pitcher. Remmerswaal ended the season with a 2-1 record and 4.58 ERA in 14 games, striking out 20 batters in 35-1/3 innings.
Remmerswaal started off poorly with Pawtucket in 1981 and may have burned his final bridge with the Red Sox organization when he vanished in June. “The good people of Pawtucket are still trying to figure out what Wilhelmus Remmerswaal is doing,” wrote Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe on Sunday, June 28, 1981. “He jumped the team when it went from Columbus to Charleston 10 days ago, and hadn’t been seen in Pawtucket as of Friday except for an appearance in the stands Tuesday night.” “I used to be able to walk from the bullpen to the mound and blow the ball by people,” the pitcher said at the time. “But I can’t now. So I’m quitting.” And then 10 minutes later he said, “Maybe I’m not quitting.”
“Remmerswaal is a curious person; he reads Sartre in the clubhouse and speaks six languages, but he also can do the damndest things…” Gammons concluded. The pitcher apparently rejoined Pawtucket, but it wasn’t for long. He lasted 20 games with the team in 1981, with an ERA of nearly 6. Those were his final games in professional baseball. One of those games became one of the most memorable in minor-league history — the 33-inning game between Pawtucket and the Rochester Red Wings. It started on April 18, and Remmerswaal worked 4-1/3 innings of it. But by the time the game concluded on June 23, the Dutch pitcher was AWOL.
In parts of 2 seasons with the Red Sox, Remmerswaal appeared in 22 games, all in relief. He went 3-1 with a 5.50 ERA, striking out 36 and walking 21 in 55-2/3 innings. He gave up 65 hits, and opposing batters hit .304 against him. Over 7 minor-league seasons, he had a 41-43 record and a 3.34 ERA, with 27 saves.
After showing up late to an assignment with the Bristol Red Sox in 1982, Remmerswaal announced he was disillusioned with baseball and vowed to return to The Netherlands. He gave a final interview with Hartford Courant staff writer Terese Karmel in a bar off Route 6 in Bristol. “I used to stand up during the national anthem and thank God for letting me play here, but then the last three years I was saying, ‘What did you do to me, God?'” he said.
Evidently, Remmerswaal found his spark overseas, because he continued to pitch — and pitch very well. He went to Italy and was part of a championship team in Parma in 1984. He also pitched for Nettuno and San Marino and returned to The Netherlands, where he pitched and, in 1989, coached the Amsterdam Pirates. During that time, according to his SABR biography, his drinking became problematic enough that he tried counseling, with no luck.
In 1997, Remmerswaal became ill with pneumonia and fell into a coma. He woke from the coma but had suffered brain damage and was confined to a care facility in The Hague from that point forward. There is a 20-minute documentary, “An Almost Perfect Game,” about Remmerswaal from 2010, and it is available on YouTube. The film is in Dutch (with some American clips from a Red Sox game featuring Remmerswaal). It shows Jaap Remmerswaal, Win’s father, visiting him at the nursing home. “Generally I can talk to him quite well, even if sometimes our conversations get mixed up. When he was a boy, together with other friends, he had created the teams that used to be called the White Sox and the Red Sox. When he arrived in Boston he said: now I’m really one of the Red Sox,” Jaap says, according to one translation from an Italian website. It also had interviews from others, as well as Remmerswaal himself. The translation provided by the above link makes his baseball life seem lonely, as he was either training, traveling, left alone in his hotel room, or drinking at the hotel bar.
“Life in Boston was not bad, even if very superficial,” he said. “But I really missed Europe with its different cultures … Italy, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Norway.”