By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
After talking to Tom Bruno over the phone for an hour, you almost forget that he’s not Canadian.
The easygoing Chicago native, who now resides in Pierre, South Dakota, has fished for walleye in Gravenhurst, Ont., trained hunting dogs in Saskatchewan and, most memorably for us baseball fans, toed the rubber for the Toronto Blue Jays in their inaugural season.
“I thought the people in Toronto were nice and the city was nice. I just wish I had pitched better there,” said Bruno in a recent phone interview.
In fairness to Bruno, he wasn’t given much of an opportunity by Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield. Primarily a starter in the minors, the then 24-year-old right-hander was limited to 12 relief appearances in two months that season.
“I didn’t have a good rapport with Roy,” reflected Bruno. “He was kind of a quiet guy and for whatever reason, we just didn’t click, but he was a good manager. He did his job the best he could.”
The expansion Blue Jays would lose 107 games in 1977, which no doubt wore on Hartsfield, but Bruno admits he probably didn’t help his own cause with Hartsfield that year.
“I’d have to go north to fish and then I’d have to get back to the ballpark and sometimes there was traffic, so that’s where Roy Hartsfield and I had a little bit of dilemma because I wasn’t always on time because I shouldn’t have been fishing as long as I was on some days,” said Bruno.
But 45 years later, Bruno has few regrets about his major league career, which spanned parts of four seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Blue Jays and St. Louis Cardinals. He is grateful for his time in The Show. And though he didn’t know it at the time, those Ontario fishing expeditions would help prepare him for a successful second career.
Since 1992, Bruno has operated Major League Adventures, which offers fishing trips to groups in prime locations in South Dakota. He has also fished competitively.
Another part of his business is taking groups on pheasant hunting trips.
“My passion in life has always been fishing, hunting and playing Major League Baseball,” Bruno writes on his company website. “I am truly blessed in that I have been able to make a living while enjoying my passion.”
“Blessed” is a word that the 69-year-old Bruno used often when he reflected on his career in a recent phone interview. Life has been good to him, despite a less than ideal start to it.
Born in 1953 in Chicago, Bruno was given up to a Catholic orphanage by his mother. His birth father was killed in action in Korea. Fortunately for him, Tony and Jackie Bruno paid a visit to the orphanage.
“I kid around and say I won the lottery when I was six months old because visualize a gymnasium or a large room and let’s say there are 100 cribs in there and these two people [Tony and Jackie] went in there and pointed at me and picked me up,” said Bruno. “And they were the people that raised me and cared for me and loved me.”
The Brunos took him home to Downers Grove, Ill. Bruno’s father worked as an engineer and his mother was a nurse and he was often babysat by his maternal grandfather, Martin, whom Bruno credits for his love of the outdoors.
He can also remember his grandfather walking him to his first Little League tryout when he was six or seven. Bruno made the team and his coaches quickly discovered his strong arm and put him on the mound.
“Everywhere from Little League on, I pitched and that was the primary spot I played and that was what I always desired to do,” said Bruno.
He knew from the time he was in Grade 3 that he wanted to be a major league player.
“It was like the light bulb went on and that was my direction,” he said. “I just assumed that was what I was going to do.”
Bruno developed into a standout hard-throwing hurler on his Little League, PONY and Babe Ruth League squads and became one of the top multisport athletes at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., playing football, basketball and baseball.
“Baseball was way low on the totem pole [at Fenwick High School],” he said. “I think the swim team had more backing as far as alumni dollars, but Bob Atwood was the baseball coach. He also ran the cafeteria. We didn’t really have a home ballpark. I think we had to use the Oak Park High School baseball field . . It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to play.”
When not on the diamond with his high school squad, Bruno could be found honing his skills with his friend Randy Poffo, who most of us know as WWE legend Randy “Macho Man” Savage.
“Randy’s father built a batting cage that we were able to utilize, which was unheard of back then,” recalled Bruno
He remembers going to the local ball field in Downers Grove to practice with Randy’s father Angelo Poffo, who had also been a well-known pro wrestler.
“Randy would hit and I’d be in the outfield shagging balls and Angelo his father would be pitching or I would hit and Randy would be in the outfield,” said Bruno. “We spent a lot of time together.”
The younger Poffo was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 and spent four seasons in the minors before entering the world of professional wrestling.
Despite his high school’s lackluster baseball program, Bruno did notice scouts at his games, but he was disappointed when he was not selected in the 1971 MLB draft.
Bruno had, however, managed to impress Kansas City Royals Midwest scout Gene Baker who encouraged him to attend the Royals Baseball Academy in Sarasota, Fla. So Bruno and his father hopped on a plane and headed south. The then 18-year-old right-hander dazzled the Royals’ brass and was signed by the club on August 21, 1971.
“I remember my dad had to go home himself because I stayed in Florida to play baseball,” noted Bruno.
The Royals Academy was revolutionary for its time. Players received instruction from hitting savants like Charley Lau and Ted Williams, as well as running tips from Olympian Wes Santee.
“The owner of the Royals at the time, Ewing Kauffman, was very supportive of the athleticism and he had an idea of the type of people he wanted in the Royals’ organization,” said Bruno.
After soaking in what he had learned at the Royals Academy in the fall of 1971, Bruno was assigned to the Royals’ Rookie Ball Gulf Coast League team in 1972, where he went 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA in five starts. He was then promoted to class-A Waterloo where he continued to shine, recording a 3-1 record and a 2.25 ERA in six starts.
He’d spend 1973 with the class-A San Jose Bees and go 13-8 with a 4.07 ERA and get his first taste of pitching out of the bullpen. Twenty-nine of his 42 appearances that season were in relief.
In 1974, he returned to the starting rotation with the double-A Jacksonville Suns and was promoted to triple-A Omaha later in the year. Pitching through shoulder soreness, he completed the campaign with a combined 3.80 ERA in 30 games, including 25 starts. He would also split the following season between double-A and triple, finishing with a 10-15 record and a 3.47 ERA in 27 starts.
He began 1976 in triple-A and went 9-4 with a 3.79 ERA in 20 games, which earned him his first big league call-up to Kansas City on July 28.
“Kauffman Stadium was fairly new at the time and it was impressive,” reminisced Bruno. “I felt like I was at the place where I wanted to be. It was like a dream come true.”
The 6-foot-5 right-hander recalls little about his big league debut – a relief outing on August 1 in which he allowed one run in 3 2/3 innings in the Royals’ 8-4 loss to the Rangers.
More memorable was his first big league win on August 26 against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. In that contest, Bruno entered in the 14th inning and held the Red Sox scoreless for two frames in a Royals’ 7-6 win. Three of the Red Sox hitters he’d face – Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk and Jim Rice – have since been elected to the Hall of Fame.
In all, Bruno made 12 relief appearances for the Royals in his first taste of big league action. However, about a month after the season, he was notified that he had been selected by the Blue Jays in the expansion draft.
“I should’ve been a lot more up on it [the expansion draft] since that’s what I was doing to make a living, but I really didn’t know anything about Toronto or Seattle or how the draft worked,” said Bruno. “I was kind of surprised. I had been with the Royals and I assumed that I was going to try to make the ball club in spring training.”
When he arrived at the Blue Jays’ first spring training in Dunedin, Fla., in 1977, he felt he had a good chance to crack the big league roster, but his optimism soon waned.
“When I look back at that spring, there were some things that I was taking for granted that I shouldn’t have,” said Bruno. “And I was negatively surprised that I wasn’t really getting an opportunity to make the ball club out of spring training.”
Near the end of March, he was assigned to the triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, which was a Cleveland affiliate, because the Blue Jays did not have a triple-A club.
Bruno pitched well for the Mud Hens, posting a 2.49 ERA in his first five starts and the Blue Jays called him up on May 5. Unfortunately, he was used infrequently and exclusively as a reliever by Hartsfield.
“I didn’t pitch well when I was there and I wasn’t there long enough to give you a good synopsis of what it was like,” said Bruno of his time with the Blue Jays.
At one point, Bruno approached Hartsfield and asked the manager to consider giving him a start. The Blue Jays’ bench boss was not thrilled with the suggestion and the inquiry seemed to bury Bruno deeper in the club’s bullpen.
During his two months in Toronto, Bruno lived in a house on Bathurst Street with Bob Bailor and Jerry Johnson.
“One thing I recall and I was really surprised about Toronto was when I first got there I didn’t realize it’s like the New York of Canada,” said Bruno. “It’s a big city. So that was surprising to me how big of a metropolitan area it was . . . As a young person, I also remember there was a lot of action on Yonge Street.”
He also remembers Exhibition Stadium. When it rained, he recalls water pooling between the pitcher’s mound and second base on the artificial turf and watching the seagulls land in the puddle.
The best part about Toronto for him, however, was its proximity to good fishing. He fished for walleye in Gravenhurst, Ont., and also dipped his pole in Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario.
“When I recall my time in Toronto, I think it was wonderful because it was that close to walleye fishing,” he said. “And that’s hard to come by.”
When his frustrating campaign with the Blue Jays ended, he decided to pitch in Winter ball for the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico. His manager there was St. Louis Cardinals coach Jack Krol.
After a strong showing in Puerto Rico, Bruno reported for spring training in Dunedin determined to make the Blue Jays. But despite some outstanding early Grapefruit League performances, he could see he had little chance of heading north with the club.
Bruno believes that Krol encouraged the Cardinals to swing a deal for him. And on March 15, 1978, he was shipped to the Cards for outfielder Rick Bosetti. He was happy to land with the Cardinals where he thrived under manager Ken Boyer, going 4-3 with a 1.99 ERA in 18 appearances, including three starts.
“It helps when the manager feels confidence in you. It makes you feel comfortable. At least it did in my situation,” he said. “I wish that season would’ve lasted longer because I was on a good roll.”
Bruno returned to the Cards in 1979, but was hampered by a shoulder injury and his ERA rose to 4.23 in 27 appearances. He was with the Cardinals the following spring when the final eight days of camp were cancelled due to a player’s strike. Bruno was cut on March 31 and never pitched in the big leagues again.
“I can’t say that a shoulder injury was the reason my baseball career ended. The reason was that I couldn’t get enough guys out, that was my problem,” reflected Bruno. “I kid around with people, they say, ‘You retired in 1980.’ And I say, ‘No, I got fired in 1980.’”
In the Collective Bargaining Agreement in place up to the spring of 1980, a player had to accumulate four full years of service to qualify for an MLB pension, but with the revised CBA in 1980, players needed only one day of big league service to receive health benefits and 43 days to be eligible for a retirement allowance. But the new agreement was not retroactive for players who had completed their career between 1947 and 1979. In other words, if Bruno had spent one day in the big leagues in 1980, he would be eligible to receive health benefits from MLB today. It’s a situation Bruno would like to see rectified, but he’s not bitter about it.
The same year he was let go by the Cardinals, Bruno began training hunting dogs in Saskatchewan. He continued to work with dogs in the U.S. and Mexico prior to starting Major League Adventures, his fishing and hunting tour company, in 1992. Now 30 years into the business, he is trying to wind it down and enjoy more time with his wife, Jayne.
“I’m doing about 50 per cent of what I used to,” he said.
Bruno schedules his fishing trips from mid-May to the early part of September.
“We catch a few fish and then we have a beer at the end of the day,” he said.
Following fishing season, he starts his pheasant hunting expeditions, which generally run from mid-September to the U.S. Thanksgiving.
Bruno has not been back to Toronto since 1977. He says if the Blue Jays had a reunion of that inaugural club he’d be interested in coming back.
“That would definitely be enjoyable,” he said.
And judging by the volume of mail he gets, Blue Jays fans haven’t forgotten him. He regularly receives mail requests to sign his 1977 Canadian O-Pee-Chee card.
“I’m very appreciative when people send me that card,” said Bruno. “I guess there are some guys that want to forget their major league careers. I’ve heard from a few guys over the years who for, whatever reason, don’t acknowledge the things sent to them. But I’m grateful to get them.”
Bruno not only autographs this card when it is sent to him, but he also dates and signs the back of the letter and thanks the person who wrote it for being a Blue Jays fan.
“I was fortunate enough to play this game and these people are kind enough to send me something to sign, so I want to make sure I thank them,” he said.