Former Expos reliever Mike Marshall passes away at 78

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

Former Montreal Expos closer Mike Marshall passed away on June 1 at the age of 78 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

The Los Angeles Dodgers reported his death on their Twitter account after being notified by Marshall’s daughter Rebekah.

Marshall died in hospice care in Zephyrhills, Fla.

Durable, outspoken and non-conforming, Marshall became the first reliever to win a Cy Young Award, when he nabbed the National League honour after a record-breaking season with the Dodgers in 1974.

But it was with the Montreal Expos from 1970 to 1973 that Marshall blossomed into a dominant bullpen arm. It was also during the renegade right-hander’s tenure north of the border that Montreal Gazette reporter Ian MacDonald dubbed him as potentially “the most controversial athlete this city has known.”

Born in Adrian, Mich., on January 15, 1943, Marshall was a multi-sport athlete in high school, starring for the baseball, football and basketball teams. In a 2009 interview with the Twins Trivia blog, he said that as a kid, he dreamed of being a physical education teacher and a high school baseball and football coach rather than a baseball player.

His outstanding baseball skills, however, made him hard to ignore and after his senior high school year, he was offered a baseball scholarship to Michigan State University. At the same time, the Philadelphia Phillies offered him $20,000 to sign. He eventually chose to sign with the Phillies when he wasn’t satisfied with the terms of the scholarship offer.

Marshall began his pro career as a shortstop and while he excelled offensively (.304 with 14 home runs for class-A Magic Valley in 1963), he struggled defensively (68 errors for class-C Bakersfield in 1962).

His education, however, was always his priority and while he was playing professionally he continued to work towards his degree in physical education at Michigan State. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965, a Master’s in 1967 and a doctorate in 1978. While studying, he developed a keen interest in the physiology of body movements, including the throwing motion.

As a result, his transition to the mound in 1965 was relatively seamless. Not surprisingly, he brought with him some unconventional ideas, including throwing hard every day and the importance of pitching in short sleeves in all types of weather. He also developed a screwball.

After splitting his first season as a pitcher between class-A and double-A in the Phillies’ organization, he was sold to the Detroit Tigers in 1966 and made his major league debut with them the following campaign. He proceeded to go 1-3 with a 1.98 ERA in 37 relief appearances, despite the fact that Tigers manager Mayo Smith refused to let him throw his screwball.

He spent the entire 1968 season in triple-A as a starter before he was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft. He thought the Pilots might offer him his first big league break, but like Smith, Pilots pitching coach Sal Maglie wouldn’t allow him to use his screwball and he finished with a gaudy 5.13 ERA in 20 appearances, including 14 starts.

The Pilots, who became the Milwaukee Brewers, sold Marshall to the Houston Astros on November 21, 1969. where Astros manager Harry Walker again restricted his use of the screwball. Marshall also clashed with Walker on the dugout boss’s long list of rules which he found “dehumanizing.”

“I don’t need them – my own first rule is to do absolutely nothing that might jeopardize my best performance,” Marshall would say in a 1972 interview when reflecting on the Astros rules.

It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that Marshall would challenge a team’s rules, but the Expos were not terribly concerned about Marshall’s free-thinking ways when they acquired him on June 23, 1970 in exchange for little-used outfielder Don Bosch. Former Expos GM Jim Fanning regarded it as one of his best moves.

In Montreal, Marshall finally found a manager in Gene Mauch that gave him freedom on the mound, which meant employing his screwball and his five variations of it.

The against-the-grain reliever joined the Expos in 1970 and posted a 3.48 ERA in 24 appearances, including five starts. But the ensuing season would be more difficult for him. Hometown hero Claude Raymond had been the Expos’ closer in 1970 and Marshall took over that role in 1971 and the Jarry Park fans booed him so much that he wouldn’t allow his three daughters to attend home games. It didn’t help that Marshall struggled for much of June and July before finishing the season with a 4.28 ERA and 23 saves.

The most damage that was done off Marshall that season came when John Bateman was catching. The headstrong right-hander wanted to call his own pitches, but Bateman, also an alpha male, refused to let him do so. The end result was Marshall’s ERA was 5.21 when Batemen caught him and 2.35 when John Boccabella, who let Marshall call his own pitches, was behind the dish.

“He had to give the orders,” Marshall would tell the Montreal Gazette about Batemen. “I don’t take orders from anyone. And he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Fortunately for Marshall, Bateman was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in June 1972 for Tim McCarver and the opinionated righty would enjoy a breakout campaign. In a league-leading 65 relief appearances, spanning 116 innings, he posted a 14-8 record, a 1.78 ERA and notched 18 saves.

“Mike Marshall is the best relief pitcher that I have ever seen,” Mauch told the Montreal Gazette in August 1972.

Then San Diego Padres manager Don Zimmer agreed.

“He’s the best I saw this year. Maybe he’s the best in the major leagues,” Zimmer told the Montreal Gazette after his team lost to the Expos on July 11. “Some guys with screwballs don’t have anything else. Marshall has the good fastball as well. You don’t know what you are going to get.”

For his efforts, Marshall was named the Expos player of the year in 1972 and received a $10,000 Cadillac that the right-hander wouldn’t accept without several stipulations.

“Marshall insisted on so many demands – licences and taxes paid – that the award eventually cost double the original value of the car,” Ian MacDonald later wrote in the Montreal Gazette.

Marshall barely drove the car and said he placed no significance in winning awards.

“I don’t measure my performance by scores or statistics or others’ evaluations,” Marshall told the Montreal Gazette in September 1972. “That’s Lombardi stuff. What I strive for and what I teach is that a person has to do the best he can, he has to fulfill his own potential. It’s the effort, not the result, that counts.”

His philosophies were ahead of his time and flew in the face of the “winning is the only thing” mantra espoused by most baseball traditionalists. And his non-conformist attitude and general surliness made him difficult to embrace, especially for fans whom he steadfastly refused to sign autographs for.

“Why do I back away from autographs?” Marshall responded when asked by Montreal Gazette reporter Ted Blackman in June 1972. “Alright, let me tell you. I don’t believe in them. Autographs do no more than reflect the adulation in baseball that I’ve found entirely unwarranted. I simply don’t feel people should idolize professional athletes.”

It was also never a certainty that Marshall would return each season. He made it clear that education was his priority and while he was taking courses to earn his doctorate at Michigan State, he was also teaching courses.

But he did come back to the Expos in 1973 and he continued his obstinate, unconventional ways. He wore short sleeves every game — even on those wintry April days at Jarry Park. He jogged three miles each morning, didn’t believe in incentive clauses in contracts and abhorred smoking. More than once, he got off Expos team buses and walked back to the team hotel on the road if his teammates insisted on smoking.

He also continued to reiterate that he didn’t believe in rules.

“Regulations,” he told the Montreal Gazette in August 1972, “do nothing but impede the development and imagination of an individual and turn people into a bunch of sheep.”

When he pitched, Marshall also wanted to position the players behind him and was often critical of them when an error was made. Nevertheless, when he was on, which he was for the most of his 1972 and 1973 seasons with the Expos, he was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, and unquestionably the most durable. But after two rough outings in mid-April in 1973, despite his excellent previous season, he was booed again by the fans at Jarry Park.

“Montreal has the most extreme fans of any city I’ve been in,” Marshall told the Montreal Gazette in August 1973. “When the team wins, they go berserk with excitement. When it’s losing, they’re the quickest to boo, hiss and complain.”

But Expos fans had little to boo about when it came to Marshall’s on-the-field performance for the rest of that season. In 1973, the workhorse closer set franchise records for relievers with 92 appearances, 73 games finished and 179 innings. He finished 14-11 with a 2.66 ERA and was selected as the Expos Player of the Year for a second straight season. This time the reward was $5,000 cash, but the Expos and Carling O’Keefe, the brewing company sponsoring the award, were left red-faced when Marshall refused to accept the money.

“I never accept being in competition with my teammates for money,” Marshall told the Montreal Gazette.

And if his teammates weren’t shaking their hands after this decision, they would be a few days later when Marshall unloaded on some of them when talking to a young Michigan State University newspaper reporter. In the Michigan State article, he was quoted as saying he didn’t want to come back and pitch for the Expos because of their “terrible” defence.

“There’s no way we can play another year with Ron Hunt [at second base],” Marshall told the young reporter. “In fact, if I felt I had to go back and play another year with Ron Hunt next year, that would be a very strong deciding factor of not going back.”

Then Marshall lit into third baseman Bob Bailey.

“Third base? We have absolutely no defence. Zero. You can put a high school kid out there and get the same production out of our defence,” said Marshall.

To his credit, Marshall phoned Hunt and Bailey to apologize. But in a Montreal Gazette article after the Michigan State report, he couldn’t stop himself from criticizing the Expos’ defence again.

“I can look at my 11 losses [in 1973] and give you eight of them right to my defence — hand them right to them,” he insisted.

Even though he was the Expos reigning Player of the Year, it was going to be hard for Marshall to return for another season. So on December 5, 1973, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Willie Davis.

Davis had a solid season with the Expos in 1974, batting .295 with 12 home runs, 89 RBIs and 25 stolen bases in 153 games, but Marshall was other-worldly with the Dodgers. He set several records for relief pitchers that still stand, including most pitching appearances (106), relief innings (208 1/3) and games finished (83). He ended up with a 15-12 record and a 2.42 ERA and was voted the National League’s Cy Young Award winner.

Marshall was an all-star with the Dodgers again the next season, but his antics were starting to wear on his teammates.

“He was a tough guy to play behind. He never made a bad pitch, according to him,” said veteran Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell, reflecting on Marshall for a Sports Illustrated article in 1979. “And according to him, we were always out of position . . . Mike was just a different person.”

The Dodgers traded Marshall to the Atlanta Braves on June 23, 1976. He’d spend half of a season with the Braves before he was sold to the Texas Rangers on April 30, 1977. Hampered by a bad back, he’d make just 12 appearances for the Rangers and then decide to retire.

But a call from his former Expos manager Gene Mauch, then the dugout boss of the Minnesota Twins, in May 1978 convinced him to return and he rediscovered his form, posting a 2.45 ERA in 54 relief appearances in 1978. He was back with the Twins in 1979 and made an American League record 90 relief appearances and registered 31 saves.

He’d toe the rubber for one more season with the Twins before completing his career with the Mets in 1981. In total, in parts of 14 big league seasons, he had a 97-112 record with a 3.14 ERA and 188 saves in 724 appearances.

After hanging up his playing spikes, he became a physical education teacher and coached the baseball team at West Texas A&M until 1994 when he started his own baseball academy in Zephyrhills, Fla. Not surprisingly, his academy offered revolutionary training techniques. The pitchers training under Marshall threw hard every day and could be found practising their wind-ups with 30-pound weights on their wrists or throwing 12-pound iron balls against a wooden backstop.

And Marshall remained as confident, defiant and truculent as ever. In an interview with Twins Trivia in 2009, he called today’s pitch counts and five-man rotations “the ruination of baseball.” And he felt he was never properly recognized for his dominance and durability.

“For me not to be considered the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball is silly, just plain silly,” he told a Sports Illustrated reporter in 2001.

And eight years after that, he was still railing against the baseball establishment.

“Terrible,” Marshall said when asked about the state of baseball by Twins Trivia. “Nobody has any idea how to teach and train baseball pitchers.”

Marshall is survived by his wife, Erica, and his daughters Rebekah, Kerry and Deborah and four grandchildren.

10 thoughts on “Former Expos reliever Mike Marshall passes away at 78

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  1. You have done a superb job of summarizing – if more than 2,000 words could be called summarizing – Mike Marshall’s baseball career. I loved reading it.

  2. Great piece, Kevin. To say Mike Marshall was “anti-establishment” would be a gross understatement. Even as a doctoral student at Michigan State he was hired by tennis superstar Stan Smith, to analyze his stroke with corrections to avoid tennis elbow. Smith paid him the handsome sum of $5,000. Without permission from the Michigan State Kinesiology Department, Marshall used all of their equipment down in Arizona. The two parties finally agreed to a settlement that included Marshall being allowed to keep the entire five grand, as long as he turned over the tapes to the MSU Kin. Dept. for biomechanical analysis in their undergraduate classes. Our class was told this story by Dr. Kwok Ho in 1981, when I was an undergraduate at MSU.

    An interesting tidbit about Marshall when he picked off pinch running specialist Herb Washington at first base in Game 2 of the 1974 World Series. Steve Garvey was the first basemen who put the tag on him. Washington was a world class sprinter from Michigan State who was an All American in 1965 and 1966. Steve Garvey was on a football scholarship at MSU and was a baseball All American in 1968. Both Washington and Garvey had Mike Marshall as an instructor at MSU while majoring in Physical Education. Marshall taught many undergraduate classes while working on his Ph.D. at Michigan State.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Steven. I knew about Garvey and Washington, but I couldn’t seem to fit that into the article, but the tennis story is completely new to me. Wow. Thanks for sharing that. It certainly sounds like the kind of situation that Marshall tended to get himself involved in.

  3. Wow, a great pitching career, but obviously had some trouble with the teammates.
    Thanks for sharing all these great details Kevin. I had no idea

  4. I had no idea either. There is certainly more in baseball than the game. I was awakened in the ’70s when I read Jim Bouton’s, Ball Four. The coaching must be hard with 25 different personalities.

    1. Thank you very much for reading this, John. I’m going to have to re-read Ball Four. It’s been years since I’ve read it. I was thinking as I was writing this article that Marshall must have been interesting to cover as a sports writer, but I think I would’ve been intimidated by him if I was his teammate.

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