Obituary: Dennis Ribant (1941-2023)

RIP to Dennis Ribant, a Detroit native who played for the 1968 World Champion Tigers, as a part of his 6-year journey in the major leagues. The resident of Newport Coast, Calif., died on April 24 at the age of 81. Ribant pitched for the New York Mets (1964-66), Pittsburgh Pirates (1967), Detroit Tigers (1968), Chicago White Sox (1968), St. Louis Cardinals (1969) and Cincinnati Reds (1969).

Dennis Joseph Ribant was born in Detroit on September 20, 1941. His SABR biography notes that ne never played baseball at St. Joseph High School because the schedule was too short and the competition not tough enough. Instead, Ribant got his baseball education in Detroit’s sandlots. Using a curveball taught to him by his father, he became one of the best amateur pitchers in the city. He was also a good hitter. Ribant got the base hit that drove in the winning run in a game that sent Hamtramck into the finals of the Midwest Regional Pony League tournament, on August 14, 1956. That squad lost in the finals to a team from Joliet, Ill., and Ribant primarily played second base. He was also a skilled hockey player and, while still in high school, played for Detroit’s Junior Wings team.

Dennis Ribant (left) and Red Faber are presented with plaques for their perfect games, thrown 51 years apart. Quad City Braves manager Al Monchak is on the right. Source: Quad City Times, July 26, 1961.

When Ribant graduated from high school and sought a baseball contract, he might have signed with his hometown Tigers. However, Detroit boss Bill DeWitt told the young athlete that he would have to scrap hockey entirely and focus only on baseball. The Milwaukee Braves organization made no such caveat, so Ribant signed with them instead. In the winter of 1960, he played for the Hamilton Red Wings of the Junior OHA (Ontario Hockey Association) and joined the Braves training camp in 1961. The team had promised him a $10,000 bonus — half up front and half if he made it through hockey season unscathed. Sure enough, Ribant got checked into the boards in a game and dislocated his left elbow. Luckily, Ribant was a right-handed pitcher, so the injury didn’t affect his baseball career — though it did bring his hockey career to a close. Braves exec John McHale personally asked the Red Wings to release Ribant so he could focus on baseball, and the Wings agreed to release him. He got the full signing bonus.

“I guess it was a pretty big sacrifice for them. I was the only American-born player in the whole Detroit organization who was considered a prospect for the NHL,” Ribant later said.

Ribant’s first professional season in 1961 was absolutely brilliant, and for one game, perfect. Pitching for the Quad City Braves of the Midwest League and Austin Senators of the Texas League, he won 21 games against 4 defeats and had a combined 1.68 ERA. His 13th win of the season, for Davenport on July 1, was a 1-0 perfect game against the Clinton C-Sox. He struck out 13 batters including all three hitters in the ninth inning. He achieve perfection in spite of a sore elbow that almost kept him out of the game. Ribant didn’t even know he would be pitching that night until he arrived at the ballpark and got the news from manager Al Monchak. “I was pretty nervous before the game because of the elbow, as I didn’t know how effective I’d be,” Ribant said. “I was really glad to strike out Bill Dawson for the final out of the game. He was really razzing me the last time I pitched against then, and now I feel I sort of evened up the score.”

Shortly after the perfect game, Ribant was honored by the Braves, along with Urban “Red” Faber, the last pitcher to throw a perfect game in Davenport, Iowa… in 1910. Both men received plaques with 27 silver dollars on them to commemorate their feats, 51 years apart. Ribant also received a telegram from John Mullen, Braves farm director. It ended with the sentence, “See you in Milwaukee.”

Ribant never reached the majors with Milwaukee, though. He won 11 games in 1962 and 15 in ’63 while pitching at various levels in the team’s minor-league system, but his ERA crept higher as he advanced. He sported a 5.07 ERA while splitting 1963 with Triple-A Toronto and Denver. He was more effective in Denver to start the 1964 season, but he was used more as a swingman, starting 14 games and relieving in 16. The Braves traded him to the New York Mets on August 8, 1964, for pitcher Frank Lary, and the Mets brought him right to the majors.

Ribant made his debut on August 9 against Philadelphia, throwing a scoreless 2/3 of an inning in relief. Mets manager Casey Stengel then gave him a start on August 12 against Pittsburgh. Ribant pitched 6 innings and struck out 5, but he was victimized by the long ball, Willie Stargell his a solo homer, and Jerry Lynch crushed a 3-run shot to hand Ribant his first major-league loss. The Mets were all set to start Ribant again on August 16, but he begged off, noting that he pitched better on four days’ rest instead of three. It was a brave move by the young pitcher to go against the wishes of Stengel and veteran pitching coach Mel Harder, but it paid off. With that extra day of rest, Ribant went out on the 17th and threw a 4-hit shutout against the same Pirates team that beat him earlier. He fanned 10 batters in the 5-0 victory, including Lynch twice, in a bit of revenge. The performance even impressed the home plate umpire, Frank Secory. “It’s rare to see a young pitcher keep the ball around the plate with such consistency. He is all business,” Secory said.

Ribant gets words of wisdom from Mets manager Casey Stengel (#37). Source: LaCrosse Tribune, August 18, 1964.

Ribant made a few more starts but couldn’t match that success, and he ended up finishing the season working out of the Mets bullpen. He made a total of 14 appearances — 7 starts and 7 relief outings — and had a 1-5 record with a save and a 5.15 ERA. He walked just 9 batters in 57-2/3 innings and fanned 35. He broke training camp with the Mets in 1965 and pitched very well… until he faced the Pirates on May 30. Before that game, he had been 1-2 with 3 saves and a 2.93 ERA as a reliever. Then Pittsburgh scored 6 runs off him in 3 innings of relief work, hitting 3 home runs along the way. The game shot his ERA up to 5.40 and caused the Mets to demote him to the minors. Ribant had a hard-luck record of 3-12 in Triple-A Buffalo, because Buffalo had even less talent than the woebegone Mets. But he rejoined New York in September and got back at the Pirates. He got the start against Pittsburgh on September 28 and threw 6-hit shutout ball through 11 innings — and got a no-decision. The Mets won the game 1-0, but it took 12 innings to do so, and reliever Darrell Sutherland got the win instead. Ribant was still bitter about the demotion, but the no-decision wasn’t a big deal. “All I wanted was to look good. This game right now won’t help me, [but] it’s gonna help me next spring.” Ribant’s pitching in September lowered his ERA to 3.82 on the season for the Mets.

Riban’s busiest and most successful season came in 1966. The Mets, now managed by Wes Westrum, gave him 26 starts and 13 relief appearances. He pitched a career-best 188-1/3 innings and was one of 3 Met starters to win 11 games (Jack Fisher and Bob Shaw being the other two). His 11-9 record resulted in a team-best .550 winning percentage, and his 3.20 ERA also led all Mets starters. Additionally, he and Shaw (11-10) became the first starting pitchers in Mets history to post winning records, in their fifth year of existence.

Dennis Ribant didn’t stay with the Kansas City Royals long enough to play in a game with them, but at least he got a baseball card.

Ribant’s success came as a surprise to Westrum, who didn’t consider Ribant for a starting role prior to spring training. “He pitched pretty good in Florida and the next thing I know we’re in the middle of the season and Ribant is threatening to be my best pitcher,” the manager said. “We’d all been working with him, of course, but nobody realized the message was sinking in.”

The message, according to Ribant, was that he didn’t need to challenge every hitter with a fastball. He admitted that he had been too cocky. “So when I was up the second time last year, I finally began to use my brain,” he said, noting that he threw his 11 shutout innings against Pittsburgh by doing what coaches had been telling him to do — keep the ball low, pick the corners, change speeds. “I was amazed. It worked. Those guys were right.”

That December, the Mets traded him and outfielder Gary Kolb to Pittsburgh for outfielder Don Bosch and pitcher Don Cardwell. Ribant was crushed to leave the Mets, and when he showed up to spring training in 1967, he still had a “Let’s Go Mets” decal on his car. He even pointed it out to general manager Joe Brown, who jokingly said, “Do you want me to break your windshield now or later?” The Pirates used him in much the same way that the Mets had done, and he turned in a 9-8 record and 4.08 ERA in 38 games, 22 of which were starts. The Pirates underperformed and were a .500 team, and a lack of offense led to the rather pedestrian win-loss record. Ribant ended up having to be an offensive sparkplug himself. He had a career year at the plate, hitting .267, with 3 RBIs and 2 triples and 2 doubles among his 16 hits.

Once again, Ribant found himself on the move after the season, as the Pirates traded him to Detroit for pitcher Dave Wickersham. His return to his native Detroit didn’t go as smoothly as he probably would have wanted. He was ejected from two spring training games, once for throwing spitballs and once for getting into a field with Red Sox utility player George Thomas. Once the season got underway, he was used sparingly, appearing in 14 games in relief. He had a 2-2 record with 1 save and 2.22 ERA in 14 games, walking 10 and striking 7 in 24-1/2 innings. That 1968 Tiger team won the World Series, but Ribant wasn’t there to help bring the championship to his hometown. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox on July 26 for pitcher Don McMahon. McMahon was a lights-out reliever for the Tigers on their way to a championship. Ribant struggled with his new team, giving up 21 earned runs in 17 relief appearances. He sported a 6.03 ERA while with the team. After the conclusion of the season, he bounced around the waiver wires multiple times, moving from Chicago to Detroit to Kansas City to St. Louis. He began the season in Triple-A Tulsa and had a 3-0 record and 2.54 ERA in 8 games. He made just 1 mound appearance with the Cardinals. It came on June 5, 1969, and he allowed 2 runs in 1-1/3 inning — an RBI single by Jesus Alou and a solo homer by Joe Morgan. He also had a pinch-running appearance a few days later and made it from first to third on a fly ball… that was caught by Houston outfielder Norm Miller, who picked up the easiest assist of his career.

“I’ll say one thing — Ribant can run,” said Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst. “If he had run in the Belmont, he would have won.”

Ribant discovered tennis after his baseball career and became a doubles tournament champion. Source: Newsday, September 9, 1983.

Days later, St. Louis traded Ribant to Indianapolis, Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, in exchange for Aurelio Monteagudo. He joined the Reds in September and allowed just 1 earned run over the course of 7 appearances and 8-1/3 innings. They were the final major-league appearances of his career. He rejoined the Pirates in a trade for pitcher Bo Belinsky in February 1970. Ribant spent all of 1970 with the team’s Columbus affiliate in the International League and was a 14-game winner. After that season, Ribant pitched for a couple of years in Hawaii for the Padres organization and finished his pro career with 10 games for the Eugene Emeralds of the Pacific Coast League in 1973. His 1971 season was one of the best of his career, as he won 15 games with Hawaii, was among the league leaders with a 3.58 ERA and was selected to the PCL All-Star Second Team. He also made quite an impression on his teammates, including Honolulu manager Rocky Bridges. Pointing out Ribant’s twitchy, fidgety, talkative nature, Bridges said, “He can make a cup of coffee nervous… I actually wouldn’t mind if he pitches every fourth day and goes away in the meantime.”

Over parts of 6 seasons in the major leagues, Ribant had a 24-29 record and a 3.87 ERA. He threw 13 complete games, including 2 shutouts, and recorded 9 saves. He started 56 of his 149 career appearances and fanned 241 batters in 518-2/3 innings. Ribant also had a 95-65 record over 10 seasons in the minor leagues.

“I’ve always been high-strung, had a lot of nervous energy,” Ribant described himself in a 1983 interview. It took him a while to adjust to life outside of baseball. He got into the insurance industry, but he found a more satisfying outlet for his energy when he discovered tennis. He even won several doubles tournaments, including the Family Tennis Challenge tournament in 1983 with his daughter, Tracy.

Ribant remained a part of Quad Cities folklore, thanks to that perfect game from 1961. Decades after the fact, the game was still celebrated. “A lot of time has passed, but I remember it like it was yesterday,” he told the Quad-City Times in 1996. “I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the major leagues and fortunate enough to have a lot of memories from the game, but I remember that 1-0 win over Clinton very well.”

For more information: The Detroit News

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