RIP to Bob Locker, a durable (and record-setting) relief pitcher who appeared in nearly 600 major-league games in the 1960s and ’70s. He died on August 15 in Bozeman, Mont., at the age of 84. Locker played for the Chicago White Sox (1965-69), Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers (1969-70), Oakland A’s (1970-72) and Chicago Cubs (1973, 1975).
Robert Awtry Locker was born in George, Iowa, on March 15, 1938. His parents owned a ranch at the edge of town and raised cattle, sheep and show horses and ponies. He and brother John attended George High School, and they both pitched on the school’s baseball team. Bob Locker attended Iowa State University after graduation, along with Bob Locker. Yes, there were two Bob Lockers on the team. One was the future MLB pitcher, and the other was a catcher who previously attended Slater High School in Iowa. The Cyclones got good production from their all-Bob Locker battery, for one was a good hitter and the other a good pitcher. To complicate matters more, the Cyclones third baseman was Ron Locker, a brother of the other Bob Locker.
Bob A. Locker was named to the 1960 Big Eight All Opponent team and was the only Cyclone selected. He learned a sinker ball from coach Cap Timm, and it quickly became the most important pitch in his arsenal. “The first year I pitched I had a ball that hopped. The next year it turned into a slider. Then Cap had me shorten my pitching stride over a foot,” Locker said. “That brought about the sinker and I’ve had it ever since. I throw a nickel curve and a slider, but about 50 percent of my pitchers are sinkers.”
Locker graduated in 1960 with a degree in geology and signed with the Chicago White Sox. His first year in the minors was derailed somewhat by a broken knuckle, which limited his pitching. In his first full season with the Lincoln Chiefs of the Class-B Three-I League in 1961, he won the Rookie of the Year Award with a 15-12 record and 2.57 ERA. He threw 228 innings and fanned 215 batters. He also threw a no-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader on August 4, shutting down Cedar Rapids 6-0 with 10 strikeouts. It was a bit of a delayed no-no, as the official scorer originally gave Cedar Rapids’ Ron Hunt a hit on a ground ball to second base that he beat out. However, umpire George Sosnak ruled that the first baseman had pulled his foot off the base, turning the hit into an error.
Locker missed the next two seasons to fulfill his military obligations. He returned to organized baseball in time to play in the winter Florida Instructional League in late 1963. He was so dominant that the 26-year-old was sent to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians of the Pacific Coast League for 1964. He won 16 games, utilizing both his sinker and his book smarts. Back before reviewing game film became popular, Locker was taking notes on every batter he faced and even tracked the tendencies of PCL umpires. “Sometimes when I’m having trouble with a certain pitch, I consult the book to see what other pitch was effective against a particular batter,” he explained. “It doesn’t always work, but it’s more right than wrong.”
Locker’s 1965 spring training performance impressed manager Al Lopez and earned him a place on the White Sox pitching staff. However, it was as a reliever, not a starter. He adapted to the role well and never made a single start in his 10-year major-league career. His pitching repertoire was reduced almost exclusively to a steady diet of sinkers.
“There are two kinds of sinker,” Locker explained, per the blog South Side Sox. “One is a roll-over sinker — Tommy John had one of those — a predictable pitch. I had a smothered sinker, which is a lot like a knuckleball. It’s hard to predict. I had to fight it every day, every pitch. But when everything was right, the ball had some pretty wicked downward movement. It offset my liabilities. You know that if you throw it and the guys get a couple of singles off it, you keep throwing it and they’ll eventually hit it at someone and you’ll get a double play.”
Locker was drilled by the Baltimore Orioles in his first major-league appearance, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits in 2 innings on April 14. In his next assignment, he threw 4 innings against the Senators when starter Juan Pizarro was yanked after a wild first inning. Locker struck out 4 and allowed a run on 2 hits, earning his first career win with a 5-3 victory. His first couple of months in the majors were a little shaky, but he adapted as the season progressed. Locker’s ERA for April and May was 3.98, but it was a full run less from June to the end of the year. The White Sox had two knuckleball relievers in the bullpen with Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher, so Locker didn’t get many late-inning opportunities, but he made the most of his chances. On August 29, he won the first game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox by retiring the last batter in the top of the 14th inning before J.C. Martin won the game in the bottom of the inning with a sacrifice fly. Locker then retired the final five batters in the nightcap to earn a save. On the year, he had a 5-2 record, 2 saves and a 3.15 ERA.
Locker got off to a hot start in 1967 not allowing any earned runs until he took a loss against the Tigers on May 9. By then, he’d already won 2 games and saved another, and he had established himself as a go-to reliever for new Sox manager Eddie Stanky. “I think he has learned all about relief pitching. He has great recuperative powers. He knows how to condition himself, and that is very important,” Stanky said.
Locker personally preferred to be a starter. “It’s really a lot easier to have the pressure on only every three or four days instead of each day,” he explained. But he accepted his role as a one-pitch reliever and continued to baffle AL hitters… except Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox. When asked for the best way to pitch to Yaz, Locker answered, “High and behind him.”
Stanky used Locker increasingly in key situations, and the pitcher responded with 9 wins and 12 saves in 1966. He had a career year in 1967, leading all relievers with 77 appearances. He picked up 20 saves, finishing second in the AL behind California’s Minnie Rojas with 27. Locker also had a 7-5 record and an outstanding 2.09 ERA. He also struck out 80 batters in 124-2/3 innings while walking just 23. Chicago finished just 3 games out of first place, losing their final five games of the year against Kansas City and Washington. The late collapse spurred reports that the White Sox would have to trade some of their pitching surplus to acquire more offense. The trade didn’t happen in 1968, when the offensively challenged White Sox fell to eighth place in the AL and went through three managers, from Stanky to Les Moss to Al Lopez, again. Locker didn’t have as many save opportunities, but he still picked up 10 saves to go with a 5-4 record and 2.29 ERA in 70 games.
Locker got off to a poor start in 1969, and as his ERA shot over 6.00, he was traded to the Seattle Pilots for veteran pitcher Gary Bell. He righted the ship as a Pilot and made 51 appearances with the team, picking up 6 saves and lowering his ERA to 3.14 on the season. Yes, he does make a few appearances in Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four, most notably talking about a contract negotiation with White Sox general manager Ed Short. Short lied to Locker about what relief ace Phil Regan earned with the Dodgers in order to sign the pitcher to a lower contract.
Locker moved to Milwaukee with the rest of the Pilots in 1970. It actually wasn’t the first time he played in County Stadium, as the Chicago White Sox played several home games in Milwaukee as a way to prove the viability of baseball in the city. He pitched fairly well as a Brewer, with an 0-1 record, 3 saves and 3.41 ERA in 28 games. His big break came on June 15 when the Oakland A’s purchased his contract for an estimated $75,000. Locker never received many save opportunities with the A’s, as they had established closers with Jim “Mudcat” Grant and then Rollie Fingers. However, he became a key part of the bullpen on some playoff-bound A’s teams.
Locker recorded a 2.88 ERA in 38 games with Oakland in 1970. He became the second-busiest reliever on the team in 1971 (behind Fingers), logging 72-1/3 innings in 47 games. He finished with a 7-2 record and saved 6 games. He was 33 years old, and his strikeout totals were steadily declining, but batters still struggled to make solid contact off his sinker. The A’s finished first in the AL West with 101 wins but fell to Baltimore in the AL Championship Series. Locker made just one appearance in the ALCS. He was the one pitcher in Game Three who did not give up a run as the Orioles completed their sweep of the A’s. He walked the first two batters he faced with some uncharacteristic wildness, he got Jim Palmer to ground into a double play and get out of the seventh inning.
Following that loss, the A’s recaptured first place in the AL West in 1972, and then the team knocked off the Tigers in the ALCS and the Reds in the World Series to become world champs. Locker, Fingers, Darold Knowles and Joe Horlen anchored an outstanding bullpen. Locker won 6 of his 7 decisions and saved 10 games in 56 appearances. His 2.65 ERA was actually one of the higher numbers on the team and good for just a 108 ERA+, making it somewhat of a down season for him. He made two appearances for the A’s in the ALCS — the two games that the Tigers won. In Game Four, he worked two innings and allowed a solo homer to Bill Freehan. In Game 5, he allowed singles to Dick McAuliffe and Al Kaline in the bottom of the tenth inning, with the A’s leading 3-1. He was yanked from the game, and neither Horlen or Dave Hamilton could retire even a single batter as the Tigers scored 3 runs to win the game. In the World Series, Locker’s only performance came in Game Six, when he relieved Vida Blue in the bottom of the sixth inning. After baserunner Bobby Tolan stole second, Locker threw two intentional balls to complete a walk to Johnny Bench (which was charged to Blue) and allowed an RBI single to Tony Perez, making the score 3-1 Reds. He retired Hal McRae to end the inning, but the Reds eventually won that game 8-1. “Just about all I did was cheerlead,” Locker later said of his World Series experience, though he at least earned a championship ring.
Locker also contributed to the team in ways that mattered off the field. According to a San Francisco Examiner article, Locker recommended the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull to his teammates. “Some of the A’s went so far as to claim the book helped give them strength to do things they weren’t confident of accomplishing,” wrote Examiner reporter Glenn Schwarz.
The Athletics traded Locker to the Chicago Cubs on November 20, 1972, in exchange for outfielder Bill North. Locker reported to the Cubs only on the condition that the team trade him back to either a West Coast team or the Twins (he lived in Minnesota) after the season. He won a career-high 10 games and set a team record with 18 saves (broken by Bruce Sutter in 1977). He threw more than 100 innings in a season for the third time in his career and fanned 76 batters, the most he’d recorded in a season since 1967. After the season, Cubs management followed through on their promise by sending him back to Oakland in exchange for reliever Horacio Pina. Locker never threw an inning for the A’s in 1974 — he was sidelined for the entire season after surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. He did qualify for a full share of the World Series pot when the A’s won another championship, at least. After the season was over, Locker was traded back to the Cubs, along with Knowles and young infielder Manny Trillo in exchange for Cubs legend Billy Williams.
“My arm feels better than it has in three years,” Locker said after spending a year away from baseball. Unfortunately, his first pitch for the Cubs in 1975 was knocked into the the Wrigley Field bleachers by Pittsburgh’s Manny Sanguillen. Locker recovered with a few good performances but had a very uneven half-season with the Cubs. He was released in late June with an 0-1 record and 4.96 ERA in 22 appearances. The transaction marked the end of his playing career.
In 10 seasons, Locker appeared in 576 games, all in relief. He had a 57-39 record and 95 saves, with a 2.75 ERA. He struck out 577 batters in 879 innings and walked 257. He had a career ERA+ of 122, and Baseball Reference credits him with 10.2 Wins Above Replacement. At the time of his retirement, he held the record for most appearances by a pitcher without starting a single game. That record was later broken by Sparky Lyle in 1977.
Locker, a long-time part of the Major League Baseball Players Association going back to his playing days as a union representative, was a strong supporter in the push to get famed MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He even ran a website, ThanksMarvin.com, that included laudatory notes about Miller from many former players. He also, according to his obituary, petitioned the commissioners office and MLBPA to grant pension benefits for the handful of ballplayers who had been left out of baseball’s generous pension plan because of their accumulated playing time.
Locker, his wife Judy, and their four children remained in Oakland after his retirement from the game. He got involved in real estate. Judy was a talented designer, and the two combined their skills for a home remodeling business in the Bay Area. Locker also was an avid fisherman and worked for a fishing supply goods company in the offseasons of his playing career. He published maps that showed the best fishing spots in several California lakes. The Lockers retired to Montana in the 2010s. He enjoyed all the outdoor hunting and finishing opportunities that Montana had to offer and even invented some of his own fishing tackle. He also wrote a couple of books. He is survived by Judy and children Mark, Shaun, Rory and Ryan.
For more information: Dahl Funeral & Cremation Service