By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
There’s nothing greater than a mother’s love, but it doesn’t hurt if she can also teach you how to throw a curveball.
Former Montreal Expos right-hander Bill Atkinson can attest to this.
It was his mother, Patricia, that not only showered him and his four sisters with love as they grew up in Chatham, Ont., but she also taught him a curveball grip when he was eight years old.
“My mother was a very good athlete herself,” said Atkinson in a recent phone interview. “I learned the curveball from her and everything seemed to go from there.”
Chalk it up to another case of “mother knows best” because Atkinson’s curveball – one with such movement that Hall of Famer Gary Carter once deemed it the best he ever caught – would become his ticket to an unlikely big league career. Without it, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound right-hander likely wouldn’t have got a sniff from big league scouts.
“The scouts wouldn’t even look at me today,” said Atkinson. “They don’t want anybody who’s under 6-foot-1.”
But Atkinson, who just turned 66, never let his size deter him. He drew inspiration from his strong and selfless mother who did everything she could for her children after Atkinson’s father left when he was four years old.
His mom worked six days a week as the head cashier at a local Dominion grocery store to pay the mortgage and to ensure that her children had opportunities to participate in local sports and community programs.
Even when he was very young, Atkinson used to the walk to the grocery store to meet his mom and walk her home at the end of her shift. And it was on one of those strolls that he was throwing stones when two men – local baseball coaches Howie Easter and Lloyd Doey – spotted him.
“They were coaching a tyke team and I was walking down the railroad tracks and I was throwing stones and they hollered over. They said, ‘Hey son, how’d you like to play baseball?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to ask my mom, so I ran into the store and told my mom I was going to be at the park. And she said, ‘OK, I get off in an hour.’ So I went and played and that was the team I started playing with,” shared Atkinson.
With his strong arm, Atkinson was a standout pitcher almost immediately and was added to the all-star team for his age group and he continued to impress as he progressed through the Chatham Minor Baseball ranks.
“We had good coaches,” said Atkinson. “They all took time off work to come and coach us.”
And when he wasn’t playing on an organized team, Atkinson could be found honing his skills in Stirling Park, just minutes from his Adelaide Street South home. One of his neighbours was Fergie Jenkins, who was 12 years older than him and a top pitching prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
“Fergie is the one who taught me to throw at a telephone pole,” said Atkinson. “If you throw snowballs at a telephone pole and if you hit the pole, you’re doing well.”
Atkinson admired Jenkins and knew at a young age he wanted to follow in his famous neighbour’s footsteps.
“I always told Fergie when I was a little guy that ‘I’m going to do the same thing you’re doing.’ And of course, he’s 6-foot-6 and he’s looking at me and thinking Yeah, OK. But when I did sign with Montreal, he was the first one to call me to congratulate me,” said Atkinson.
By his early teens, Atkinson was also starring in other sports. At John McGregor Secondary School, he lettered in basketball, football and track. But it was when he was 14 or 15 that his coaches started telling him that his baseball skills were special.
“I remember my coaches, Royce Hyatt and Gerry Beckett, took me aside one day and said, ‘You’ve got talent. Don’t abuse it. Use it,’” said Atkinson
He took their message to heart.
In 1971, when he was 16, Atkinson tossed a two-hitter to lead his Chatham Juvenile squad to a win over Kingston in the final game of the all-Ontario championships, and shortly after that, he decided to attend an Expos tryout camp in Windsor, Ont.
“I went down to Windsor in a car with a bunch of guys with Bob Swift, who was from Chatham and was a scout for Montreal,” recalled Atkinson.
The cannon-armed youngster initially played catcher at the tryout.
“I threw two guys out at second, so [Expos scouts] Mel Didier and Bill MacKenzie asked me if I could pitch and I said I could. So they took me to the side and I got loose and they wanted a curveball, so I threw a slurve – one that cuts right across not down. And they said, ‘No, a curveball!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got one of them.’ So I threw it and I hit the catcher in the foot. He couldn’t get his glove down fast enough.”
Didier and MacKenzie were encouraged enough by what they saw to invite him to an advanced tryout camp in Montreal. But the problem for Atkinson was how to get there. His mom, who was valiantly trying to support five kids, didn’t have the money for her son to make the trek. That’s when the community stepped up to help. Swift offered to drive Atkinson to Montreal and Bob Palmer Sr., a family friend, came forward to pay for Atkinson’s hotel.
“I told him [Palmer Sr.], ‘I won’t let you down,'” recalled Atkinson. “And he said, ‘Well, I’m not worried about it. I know you’ve got talent so just go ahead and do it.”
And Atkinson definitely didn’t let Palmer down.
At the camp, the 5-foot-8 right-hander found himself participating in drills with two players who stood 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-11 respectively. But Atkinson dazzled with his curveball and his quickness, and three weeks later, on his 17th birthday, he was signed by Expos scout Bill Schudlich. His signing bonus was $1,000, which he gave to his mother to use towards her second wedding.
“She took care of me for so many years that I wanted to give something back,” said Atkinson.
The not-yet 18-year-old Canuck reported to Expos spring training in Daytona, Beach, Fla., in 1972 and was eventually assigned to the club’s Low-A New York Penn League affiliate in Jamestown where he posted a 3.60 ERA and had eight saves in 19 appearances.
The following year he was promoted to the Class-A West Palm Beach Expos where he recorded a 3.03 ERA in 35 contests – including 13 starts – before being elevated to the Double-A Quebec Carnavals in 1974. Back in his home country, he registered a 3.70 ERA in 33 appearances and tossed seven complete games. Atkinson also showed that he could handle the bat, going 16-for-49, good for a .327 batting average.
“I loved to hit,” said Atkinson.
He continued his ascent through the organization’s ranks with the Triple-A Memphis Blues in 1975 and then with the Expos’ Triple-A Denver Bears in 1976 in the notoriously thin Colorado air.
“I didn’t have any problem pitching there. I was a curveball pitcher, so it didn’t really bother me,” said Atkinson.
Stacked with future big leaguers like Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Rodney Scott, Joe Kerrigan and fellow Canuck hurler Larry Landreth (Stratford, Ont.), that Bears team won the American Association championship.
After that triple-A title, Atkinson received his first big league call-up and he made his major league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals at Jarry Park on September 18, 1976.
Atkinson relieved starter Don Stanhouse in the fourth inning and proceeded to hurl three scoreless innings. His second inning was his most impressive. In that frame, he faced all-stars Gary Templeton, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons and Lou Brock. Hernandez was the only one to reach base when he singled to left field.
“You’ve got to face them. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said Atkinson, reflecting on that inning. “I didn’t worry about who was hitting, I never did.”
In total, Atkinson appeared in four big league games that September and didn’t allow a run. That scoreless streak extended in the ensuing season when he didn’t permit a run until May 6 in his 12th big league outing.
In 1977, Atkinson developed into one of the Expos’ most versatile and reliable bullpen arms. The 22-year-old righty finished second (to Atlanta Braves’ Rick Camp) among National League rookie relievers in wins (7) and saves (7) and established what was then an Expos’ record for appearances by a first-year pitcher (55). He also posted a tidy 3.35 ERA in 83-1/3 innings. In his 55 appearances, Atkinson pitched two or more innings 22 times.
“Back then you did what you had to do,” said Atkinson. “I’m not sure what [Expos manager] Dick Williams’ mind was saying, but he would just throw you out there and say, ‘Go get ’em.’”
Atkinson continued to be a key reliever for the Expos in the early part of the 1978 campaign before he was injured in the first Pearson Cup game. This was an annual exhibition showdown between the Expos and Toronto Blue Jays that took place from 1978 to 1986 (There was no game in 1981 due to the strike).
Atkinson was told he would be used for two innings, but that turned into four when the contest went into extra innings with the teams tied at 4. In the bottom of the 10th, Atkinson singled to lead off and then Andre Dawson and Ed Herrmann walked. Larry Parrish would then strike out, but next came a move that’s hard to comprehend. With Atkinson, his valuable 23-year-old relief pitcher on third base in an exhibition game, Williams ordered outfielder Sam Meijas to lay down a suicide squeeze. When Mejias got the bunt down, Atkinson sprinted towards the plate.
“I slid into home plate just underneath Alan Ashby’s legs. He dropped the ball, so I was safe. But I couldn’t get up because when I was about three or four steps from home plate my groin just went kaboom,” recalled Atkinson.
“I went into clubhouse and iced it down. The next day it [that area in the groin] was about four times the size.”
Though injured on the play, Atkinson had scored the winning run and, with that, became the first Canadian pitcher to earn a win in the Pearson Cup game.
In 1979, the Expos wanted Atkinson to throw more innings, so he began the year in triple-A Denver where he made 23 starts and set career-highs in complete games (11) and innings (187). This earned him a September call-up and he was an important member of the bullpen while they battled the Pittsburgh Pirates for the National League East title. In his first three appearances with the Expos that September, Atkinson tossed six scoreless innings and had two wins and a save.
In the end, the Expos finished 95-65, two games back of the Bucs, but Atkinson had shown he could still get big league hitters out with his curveball, posting a 1.98 ERA in 10 appearances.
“I had three different types of curveballs. I had the 12-5. I had the 12-6 and the 12-7. It just depended on where I placed my wrist,” explained Atkinson.
That curveball, in its many forms, befuddled some of the best major league hitters of that era, including Joe Morgan (0-for-2 vs. Atkinson), Johnny Bench (0-for-3) and Mike Schmidt (0-for-3). Pete Rose also failed to register a hit off Atkinson.
“Pete Rose used to call me ‘little shit,'” said Atkinson with a laugh. “I have a picture with Pete Rose that’s hanging on my wall here. He was the all-time hit king and he never got one off me. He was a tough out though. I’d throw him curveballs down and in and he’d hit a ground ball to second.”
Following the 1979 season, the Expos sold Atkinson to the Chicago White Sox. He’d spend parts of four seasons in their organization – including a stint with the triple-A Edmonton Trappers in 1981 – but he never returned to the big leagues.
After the 1983 campaign, Atkinson turned 29, and he and his wife, Marlene, had a two-year-old son named Dave. The Canadian right-hander wanted to settle down, so he opted to hang up his professional playing spikes.
““My son was two years old and I wanted to watch him grow up,” said Atkinson. “I didn’t want to be away from him.”
So Atkinson returned to Chatham, where he worked as a mechanic/labourer for Crown Cork and Seal, a food can manufacturer, for more than 25 years before retiring in 2009.
The curveball artist continued to pitch for local senior clubs until he was 50 and in recent years, he has provided pitching lessons to local children.
“I won’t teach them a curveball until they are at least 16 or 17,” he said. “But I learned to throw mine when I was eight.”
That was thanks to his mother, Patricia, who’s now 86 years young and still living on her own in Chatham. These days, Atkinson sees her regularly and spends as much time as he can with his wife, Marlene, son Dave and Dave’s wife, Chantelle, and six grandkids: Hayden, Jaxon, Isaiah, Emery, Kylan and Tierric.
He and Marlene will be celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary on November 1.
When he’s not with his family, Atkinson can sometimes be found on the golf course and he remains close pals with Jenkins.
And yes, at 66 years old, he could probably still throw that nasty curveball his mom taught him 58 years ago.
“I can still throw,” said Atkinson. “My arm is not like it used to be, but at my age, who cares?”