Jerry Reuss’ baseball life becomes open book

Reuss-Book-University-of-Nebraska-PressBy Mark Langill

On a Saturday morning in 1982, Dodger pitcher Jerry Reuss made an appearance at the local Sears department store in Alhambra. Sitting in the middle of the men’s clothing department and signing autographs on a makeshift podium, a Spanish-speaking patron walking nearby wasn’t sure the identity of the 6-foot-5 pitcher, whose puffy blonde hair inspired Dodger teammate Bobby Castillo to call him Big Bird in the clubhouse. With a straight and sincere face, Reuss pointed to a Dodger photo of himself in a baseball uniform and revealed his identity to the woman as “numero uno.” She politely nodded her head and continued her shopping.

And after hearing the story of Mr. Reuss Goes to Sears, my mother for the past 30 years has referred to Reuss by his Spanish name.

Those early impressions of Reuss as a fan come to mind upon this week’s release of his riveting autobiography from University of Nebraska Press, “Bring in the Right-Hander!” There never seemed to be any middle ground with Reuss. He was a fierce competitor on the pitcher’s mound, winning 220 regular-season games with eight teams during a Major League career that spanned four decades from 1969 to 1990.

Yet this was the same person who could pull off some of the most classic practical jokes, often at the expense of his flabbergasted manager, Tommy Lasorda. He once donned a Dodger groundskeeper outfit and dragged the infield. When friends of pitcher Joe Beckwith sent a live pig to Lasorda’s office, Reuss became a prime suspect when stadium security called the manager in the middle of a game and reported the pig took an elevator ride to the top of the ballpark.

Reuss usually wasn’t much for small talk with fans when leaving a game and heading for the parking lot. But he was the only player who prepared for autograph seekers, passing out a pre-signed Dodger baseball sticker, his flowing autograph still a work of art.

Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in April 1979 in exchange for pitcher Rick Rhoden, the Reuss deal followed the pattern of Dodger general manager Al Campanis, who previous acquired veteran pitchers Tommy John (White Sox), Andy Messersmith (Angels) and Burt Hooton (Cubs).

Reuss didn’t exactly look like a steal in 1979 when he posted a 7-14 record during the team’s disappointing third-place season. But an offseason workout program strengthened his back and regained his All-Star form. After beginning the 1980 season in the bullpen, Reuss eventually joined the rotation after Dave Goltz suffered an injury and reigning Rookie of the Year Rick Sutcliffe was struggling as a sophomore. Reuss in 1980 went 18-6 and pitched the only no-hitter in the Majors on June 27 at San Francisco.

During the team’s championship season in 1981, Reuss went 10-4 with a 2.29 ERA. He pitched 18 scoreless innings in two starts against Houston in the N.L. Division Series and later outdueled the Yankees’ Ron Guidry in a 2-1 victory over New York in Game 5 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, which gave L.A. a 3-2 lead in the series heading back to Yankee Stadium.

As an author, Reuss takes his readers in the world of professional baseball. The statistics are public record, and there are no surprises about the pennant races – the Dodgers are champs in 1981; Joe Morgan (1982) and Jack Clark (1985) will prevent similar happy endings. Reuss offers an honest assessment of his emotions, both in the moment and upon reflection, and he isn’t afraid to offer an apology when necessary.

Reuss broke into the Majors at a time before free agency, which led to salary disputes, arguments about whether he could grow a mustache in a conservative St. Louis organization, and working with the Players Association to process labor grievances.

Reuss even finds meaning in the subtle moments of the game. When Reuss was traded from the Cardinals to the Houston Astros in April 1972, he went to the clubhouse the following day to pack his gear.

“As I made the forty-five minute drive from my home in Chesterfield, I thought about the reaction to my trade from the players, who were teammates Saturday and now former teammates on Sunday,” Reuss writes. “Yes, I was apprehensive, being twenty-two years old and traded for the first time. How was I supposed to handle this? Should I let the trade roll off my back and come up with some witty quip? I wasn’t in a witty mood. Should I make the occasion an opportunity to rip the club? Not a good idea, as my parents and other family members still lived in St. Louis. And my uncle worked for the brewery. How about if I just thanked everyone for their support and wished them the best? I chose option three.”

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