Obituary: Bill Campbell (1948-2023)

RIP to Bill “Soup” Campbell, who had a lengthy 15-year career as a reliever in the major leagues. He died on January 6 at the age of 74 in the Chicago area. Campbell had been battling cancer, and Canadian journalist Danny Gallagher reported just before Christmas that he had been transferred to hospice care. Campbell played for the Minnesota Twins (1973-76), Boston Red Sox (1977-81), Chicago Cubs (1982-83), Philadelphia Phillies (1984), St. Louis Cardinals (1985), Detroit Tigers (1986) and Montreal Expos (1987).

William Richard Campbell was born in Highland Park, Mich., on August 9, 1948. According to his SABR biography, Campbell’s father was in the military, so they moved around a bit before settling in Southern California. Campbell attended Ganesha High School in Pomona, where he played baseball and basketball until his graduation in 1965. He then went to Mount San Antonio College for a year-and-a-half. Campbell had been an outfielder and third baseman in high school, but he struggled so much at the plate that he made the conversion to a pitcher in his freshman year of college. He pitched well enough that he was invited to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona and its baseball program. In the process of transferring, Campbell lost his college deferment and was inducted into the Army. He spent nearly a year in the Vietnam War as a radio operator near the DMZ (demilitarized zone). He then had a year serving stateside before he was discharged.

See Bill Campbell at Baseball Almanac

Like so many others who went to Vietnam, Campbell came back changed. He spoke with The Charlotte News in 1972 about his experiences. The article started off noting that Campbell was standing with the rest of his Charlotte Hornet teammates when someone popped a paper cup in the stands. Campbell recoiled at the sound.

“I was a very serious person when I left Vietnam,” he told the News. “I went into Nam hoping to kill every Commie. My best friend was killed just before I got over there and the only way I could attend his funeral was to be a part of the military escort. And believe me a military funeral is the saddest thing in the world.

“So I was very patriotic, and I wanted to go to Nam to avenge my friend’s death,” he said. “But when I got there and looked around, I realized Nam was something different… The more I stayed there the more I realized it was a waste. When I left Nam I took things in a whole different light. I wanted to get my education, but I saw some things in college that seemed rather petty to me — fraternities, big drunks. War changes your outlook. It matured me a little. It made me realize how lucky people in the States have it. In Nam I saw women scooping slop out of garbage buckets for food for breakfast. I saw poverty some people haven’t seen. I’m not bragging about what I saw. I’m just saying it was an experience that really sobers you.”

Source: Boston Globe, June 28, 1978

When he returned to California, Campbell began playing semipro baseball with a Dodgers rookie team, for fun, while going to school. Pro ball was the furthest thing from his mind, he later said. He threw a no-hitter against a Twins rookie team, catching the attention of Minnesota scout Jess Flores. He signed Campbell to the Twins, and Campbell made his pro debut with the Wisconsin Rapids Twins in 1971. Campbell was injured early in the season when he separated his shoulder while shagging fly balls, but he was brilliant when he was healthy. In 9 games, including 8 starts, he had a 5-3 record with a minute 1.14 ERA. He fanned 91 batters in 63 innings and walked just 19. He shut out Clinton on 2 hits and 16 strikeouts on June 1, prompting Clinton manager Max Lanier to say, “Campbell belongs in Triple-A ball, not here in an A league.”

Campbell rose quickly through the Twins organization. He won 13 games with a 3.04 ERA and 14 complete games for Double-A Charlotte in 1972, and many of his 10 losses were due to bad luck and a weak offense. He then won 10 games for Triple-A Tacoma in 1973 and was brought to the majors by Minnesota in July. There was one hitch. Campbell had one made only 1 relief appearance in his 56 minor-league games, and manager Frank Quilici was going to use him as a reliever. “I don’t know how my arm will stand up if I have to get up and throw, sit down and then throw again in the bullpen. I’ve been in the habit of pitching every four days as a starter,” the rookie said.

Campbell adapted quickly. He pitched his first game in the majors on July 14 against Cleveland. He threw a scoreless ninth inning, getting both Chris Chambliss and Rusty Torres on called third strikes. On July 26, he came into the third inning of a game against Oakland, after starter Jim Kaat gave up 4 runs in 2-1/3 innings. Campbell worked 6 innings and allowed just 1 run in relief. The Twins won that game 7-5, thanks to a walkoff 2-run homer by George Mitterwald against Rollie Fingers. Campbell made a couple of starts for the Twins, but he excelled in the relief role. Campbell picked up 7 saves in 28 games and had a fine 3.14 ERA, with a 3-3 record. With a baffling screwball pitch and the ability to throw from several arm angles, he became a key part of the Minnesota bullpen.

Campbell started 1974 with 21 consecutive scoreless innings before taking the loss against Cleveland on April 29. By then, he’d already won 2 games and saved 6 others. He finished the year with 19 saves, which was good enough for third place in the AL. Of his 63 appearances, 45 of them were multiple innings, and he topped 100 innings as a reliever for the first of six times in his career. He quickly became popular among his teammates. “When he comes into a game, you are more relaxed,” said Twins second baseman Rod Carew. “He throws strikes, and that keeps you alert because you know the ball is going to be hit somewhere. Plus, you know if you need a grounder, like for a double play, he has the screwball to get it.”

Bill Campbell lays out to try and snag a ground ball hit by Royle Stillman of the Chicago White Sox. Second baseman Denny Doyle ended up making the play. Source: Boston Globe, June 14, 1977

Campbell blew a few save opportunities early in 1975 and was moved into the starting rotation temporarily when ace Bert Blyleven was out with a shoulder injury. He was 3-2 in his 7 starts and threw a 5-hit shutout against Texas as part of a July 4 doubleheader. But Campbell’s ERA as a starter was over 5, and he ended the year with just 5 saves. He followed that up with a sensational year in 1976. He made a league-high 78 appearances out of the bullpen and won 17 games against 5 losses; his .778 winning percentage was the best in the majors. Campbell also added 20 saves while striking out a career-best 115 batters and posting a 3.01 ERA. He accomplished the rare feat of leading his team in both victories and saves. At the end of the season, Campbell finished in the top 10 for the Cy Young and MVP Awards, and he won the inaugural Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award (now the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award).

Campbell played the entire 1976 season without a contract, as Marvin Miller and the MLB Players Union continued to fight for the right for free agency. Twins owner Calvin Griffith had offered Campbell a $22,000 salary in the spring, and the reliever held out for $30,000. While Griffith had a change of heart during Campbell’s breakthrough season and offered the $8,000 raise, Campbell became part of the first large-scale group of free agents after the season. The players, including Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor, Rollie Fingers and Bobby Grich, were subject to a “re-entry draft” instead of true free agency. Teams selected players, and then those teams were given the right to negotiate with the players they had selected. Campbell was one of the more popular players, with 13 teams selecting him. He ultimately signed with the Boston Red Sox for a four-year deal valued at around $1 million.

Campbell started 1977 by losing 3 games in his first 5 appearances. In fact, it took a 3-inning save against Oakland on April 29 for his ERA to get comfortably below 4 digits. As one might expect, the Boston fans weren’t happy with their high-priced free agent, particularly since the Red Sox had raised the price of their tickets after signing the closer. Campbell was showered with verbal abuse until he warmed up in May and returned to form as the lock-down closer he had been with Minnesota. By the end of the year, he sported a 13-9 record and a 2.96 ERA, leading the AL with 31 saves. He was selected to the 1977 All-Star Game and worked a scoreless seventh inning, striking out Joe Morgan and Willie Montanez. He also finished fifth in the Cy Young Award voting and won his second straight Rolaids Relief Man Award.

Campbell acknowledged that he had a temper in his early days but had learned to be more steady by watching Minnesota reliever Tom Burgemeier go about his business. That steadiness helped keep him from climbing into the Fenway Park stands to go after the loudest hecklers when they were ripping him and his salary, or even throwing things at him in the bullpen. Pitching coach Al Jackson kept the faith that Campbell would pitch his way out of his funk. “I had never seen him pitch before this year, but the way I figured it, the people who gave him a million dollars, they’re not stupid,” he reasoned.

By July, Campbell entered games to raucous cheers. “Nobody seems to say anything about money anymore,” Campbell noted. “In fact, a guy out in the bleachers said the other day that I was worth the extra 50 cents, that it was worth paying $2 to watch me pitch. I liked that. I liked that a lot.”

In 1976 and ’77, Campbell racked up 30 wins and 51 saves. However, he also pitched in 147 games and threw 307-2/3 innings. He came down with a sore arm in 1978 and was limited to 29 games and 50-2/3 innings. He was diagnosed with a torn muscle in his arm. He still won 7 of his 12 decisions, but his ERA rose by almost a run to 3.91, and he had just 4 saves. Manager Don Zimmer went to a closer by committee, and Bob Stanley (10), Dick Drago (7), Burgemeier (4) and Andy Hassler (1) all recorded saves for the Red Sox. For the remainder of his time in Boston, Campbell struggled with arm soreness and frequent ineffectiveness, and his save opportunities were few and far between. His ERA climbed to 4.28 in 1979 and then 4.79 in 1980. The 31-year-old Campbell appeared in just 23 games that year and didn’t register a single save.

“My heart bleeds for him,” Zimmer told Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan in August of 1979. “Every time I put him in I just want something good to happen.” Campbell, known as a prankster and a goofball in the locker room, had the support of his team, and he delivered enough good performances that the Sox kept using him, even if those high-leverage opportunities decreased. Campbell finally turned things around in the strike-shortened 1981 season. It was too late for Zimmer, who had been fired the previous year. But at least new manager Ralph Houk was able to utilize a relatively healthy and effective Campbell, who had 7 saves in 30 games and a 3.17 ERA.

(One of the first ballgames I ever attended was Baseball Card Day at Wrigley Field in 1983, so this is one of the first baseball cards I ever owned.)

Campbell re-entered the free agent/re-entry draft market after the season and signed with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs pitching staff was largely unsettled, but Campbell was expected to be one of the busy right-handers in the bullpen. Cubs General Manager Dallas Green almost missed out on signing Campbell. He was late for an appointment with Campbell’s agent, LaRue Harcourt, and intercepted Harcourt as he was crossing a street during the winter meetings to meet with Brewers owner Bud Selig. Harcourt and Green negotiated the deal in the middle of traffic in Hollywood, Fla.

Campbell’s years-long recovery from his torn muscle taught him one thing: “I’ll ask for a rest. When you’re a relief pitcher, you never want to say ‘no.’ It’s your livelihood. That’s the mistake. You say ‘yes’ too often. Saying ‘no’ is the secret,” Campbell told the Herald and Review (Decatur, Ill.) in 1982. “Some guys like Rollie Fingers can pitch every day. I can’t do that anymore. Two or three days in a row is my limit. The innings have taken a toll.”

Campbell recorded 5 saves through the end of May for the Cubs in 1982. He didn’t keep the closer role for long, though it wasn’t because of anything he did wrong. Manager Lee Elia started the year using young fireballer Lee Smith as a middle reliever and then auditioned him as a starter. When that experiment failed, Elia gave Smith some late-inning opportunities, and he ended up with 17 saves as the team’s new closer. Campbell saved 8 games in 62 appearances and 100 innings pitched, and even if he wasn’t as good as he was in his heyday, he extended his career by several years by becoming an effective middle reliever.

To demonstrate that Campbell’s damaged arm was feeling better, he led all pitchers in 1983 by making 82 appearances. His ERA was on the high side at 4.49, but he worked 122-1/3 innings, fanned 97 batters and had a 6-8 record with 8 saves. He was part of a significant spring trade in 1984 that saw the Cubs acquire outfielders Bob Dernier and Gary Mathews and pitcher Porfi Altamirano from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Campbell and utility player Mike Diaz. The deal originally involved disgruntled Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner, but when Buckner and the Phillies couldn’t agree on details, the Cubs substituted Campbell and Diaz to save the trade. Campbell pitched in 57 games and went 6-5, with a reasonable 3.43 ERA. He signed with the Cardinals for 1985 (in actual free agency, not a re-entry draft) and made 50 appearances as a late-inning reliever. He earned 4 saves as the Cardinals were in the one year between the Bruce Sutter and Todd Worrell closer eras. Campbell made the only postseason appearances of his career with St. Louis in 1985; he threw 2-1/3 scoreless innings in the NL Championship Series against Los Angeles and gave up a run in 4 innings in the World Series against the Kansas City Royals. Following his year with the Cardinals, Campbell spent 1986 with the Detroit Tigers, earning the final 3 saves of his career while again providing above-average relief work. His career ended in 1987 after 10 ineffective innings with the Montreal Expos.

Over 15 seasons in the major leagues, Campbell had an 83-68 record and 126 saves. He appeared in 700 games, all but 9 of which came in relief. He had a 3.54 ERA and 864 strikeouts against 495 walks. His career ERA+ was 111, and Baseball Reference credits him with 12.4 Wins Above Replacement.

Though Campbell was one of the first relievers to receive a million-dollar contract, it didn’t guarantee financial security. His agent, LaRue Harcourt, made a series of bad investments that cost his clients millions of dollars. Campbell told Sports Illustrated that he lost an estimated $800,000. “I don’t like to get going on the subject,” he says. “It ruins my whole day.” His wife Linda said that she kept the phone numbers of 10 attorneys on the nightstand next to her bed. “That way,” she told the magazine, “I can get to them quickly if I need to.”

Campbell had a marketing job in Chicago after his playing career ended. He also spent a couple of winters pitching in the Senior League. The experience rekindled an interest in baseball, and he spent several seasons in the Brewers organization as a minor-league coach. He also served as Milwaukee’s pitching coach for the 1999 season.

In addition to Linda, his wife of 46 years, Campbell is survived by his children Kimberly, Emily, Marnie and Joseph. His oldest daughter, Tracy Lynn Campbell, died in 2021.

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