May 3, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Many of the biggest highlights of Gary Waslewski’s baseball career happened when he was pitching in Canada.
In 1965 and 1966, he was a key pitcher for the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs and helped them capture back-to-back championships. In the latter year, he won 18 games and was named the league’s top pitcher.
Three years later, in his second start for the expansion Montreal Expos, Waslewski tossed a one-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium.
But most importantly, it was north of the border where Waslewski met his Canadian wife Nancy, whom he has now been married to for more than 55 years.
Waslewski saw her at Maple Leaf Stadium a couple of times, but it wasn’t until they serendipitously attended the same party that they hit it off.
“I was just getting back from a road trip on a plane and the stewardesses invited me to a party and I went to the party with them and I guess she [Nancy] was there with somebody else and we were both being ignored, so we started talking and it just went from there,” he said.
These days, Waslewski, now 80, and Nancy split their time between homes in Connecticut and Arizona. The former Expo’s mind remains remarkably sharp. He can vividly recount details from his professional baseball career even though it has been almost 50 years since he threw his last pitch.
He still watches baseball, but you’re more likely to find him on the golf course.
“I play a lot of golf. I suck, but it’s fun for me,” he said with a chuckle.
When he reflects on his major league career, he’s amazed it even happened. He grew up on a dirt road in Kensington, Conn.
“We didn’t have enough kids to have a Little League team,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was 13 that I had a chance to play organized ball.”
This meant that he and his younger brother, Michael, had to improvise when they played games with the few neighboring kids.
“We would play two-on-two or three-on-three and have rules like you couldn’t hit the ball to right field,” he recalled.
There was also a pond on his property.
“My pond in the backyard became Ebbets Field and I can remember hitting left-handed like Duke Snider and right-handed like Campy [Roy Campanella] and Pee Wee Reese,” said Waslewski. “I was using a board that I whittled into a bat.”
He would throw rocks up and hit them, and if they travelled over the pond, it was a home run.
Finally when he was 13, his town was able to form a Little League team.
“We used to play all the towns around us and I think the first year that we played, it was a 13-to-15-year-old league and, of course, everybody else’s kids had been playing since they were nine,” he said.
Many of Waslewski’s teammates not only lacked experience, but also arm strength.
“The catcher couldn’t throw a ball all the way to second base,” he said. “And we only had one pitcher for a 14-game schedule. That was me. So we were like 0-14. We had to make it up as we went along. We didn’t even have uniforms. We wore dungarees.”
Fortunately, things would improve at his high school in Berlin, Conn., where Waslewski blossomed into a dominant pitcher. He went 10-0 in his junior year and led the school to a State Class-C Championship. The problem for him was that after he turned 16, he didn’t have a local summer team to play for.
“I had nowhere to play, but my mother grew up in the next town, Meriden . . . She went to school with a lot of the people who were on the board of directors of their Intermediate League,” explained Waslewski.
His mother was able to convince the Meriden club to let him to play for them and Waslewski was so impressive that he ended up pitching for a semi-pro team called the Meriden Knights where he regularly faced players in their 20s and 30s.
Waslewski returned to his high school squad after the summer, but he never seriously contemplated playing college ball.
“My father was a factory worker, so we didn’t have the money for college,” recalled Waslewski. “But I did end up going to UConn (University of Connecticut) for one year when Bill Gibney, who was the Berlin High School baseball coach, took me out of class and took me to UConn.”
After watching Waslewski throw, University of Connecticut coach J.O. Christian offered him a partial scholarship.
“They offered me a couple hundred dollars and my grandfather has passed away and he left about $800 or $900 for each of the grandchildren, so that and the partial scholarship was enough to cover one year of college,” said Waslewski.
After his freshman season, Waslewski came home and pitched for the local Knights of Columbus team. One night he competed against a team of barnstorming college all-stars and dominated, striking out 14 in a complete-game shutout.
Following the contest, he was approached by Pittsburgh Pirates scout Milt Rosner, and the Bucs eventually offered Waslewski a $4,000 signing bonus and a contract that would pay him $350 a month. The young righty accepted and was assigned to the Pirates’ Short-Season D club in Kingsport, Tenn.
“The Pirates were really big on fundamentals,” recalled Waslewski. “They taught you how to properly run the bases, how to slide and how to bunt. So that was a great foundation for me.”
In his first four seasons in the Pirates’ organization, he was used primarily as a starter. Following the 1963 campaign, he enlisted in the Army for a 20-week stint, but was discharged after contracted pneumonia and was suffering severe chest pains. It wasn’t until spring training that he was diagnosed with a collapsed lung and a heart murmur.
That delayed his start to the 1964 season, but after he was cleared to play, the Pirates assigned him to class-A Kinston, where he excelled, going 12-1 with a 1.64 ERA in 14 starts before he was promoted to double-A Asheville. He finished the campaign with a combined 17-6 record and a 2.61 ERA in 29 starts.
That November, he was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the minor league draft. They sent him to double-A Pittsfield where he went 6-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 12 appearances prior to being elevated to the triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I didn’t even know where Toronto was,” said Waslewski. “I didn’t even know how to get there.”
He eventually found his way to Maple Leaf Stadium where Leafs manager Dick Williams put him in the game the night he arrived.
“I didn’t have any sleep. I was tired as hell. We were losing, so Dick says, ‘We’ll put you in and give you a chance to throw a little bit,’” said Waslewski. “I gave up five runs and only got one guy out.”
That was Waslewski’s first experience with Williams as a manager.
“Eddie Popowski (Waslewski’s double-A manager at Pittsfield) was an easygoing guy. He was really helpful. He’d really talk you up. He’d really boost you up. He’d keep you going if things weren’t going good. Dick Williams was just the opposite,” recalled Waslewski. “He would yell and scream at people, especially if you weren’t doing basic fundamentals.”
Fortunately, Waslewski was well versed in fundamentals and things got better for him after that first game. In 20 appearances (16 starts) with the Leafs in 1965, he posted a 3.28 ERA and tossed five complete games. And with his help, the Leafs won the league championship.
Waslewski returned to Toronto the following season and evolved into the team’s ace, going 18-11 with a 2.52 ERA in 30 starts. For his efforts, he was named the International League Pitcher of the Year.
He accomplished this despite missing a week in the middle of the season after he was told he had been traded to the Kansas City A’s and was to report to the triple-A Vancouver Mounties.
“So I went to get an airline ticket to fly out there and called the airline and they were on strike and the trains and buses were all booked up,” recalled Waslewski.
He was told that it would take a week to get a train ticket, so he decided to go up to friend’s cabin on Balsam Lake and water ski for a week.
When he returned to Toronto to retrieve his belongings, he found the Leafs trainer Billy Smith waiting for him at his apartment.
“Smitty said, ‘Where the hell have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you.’ And I said, ‘I’ve been up north water skiing. Why?’” recalled Waslewski.
Smith explained that Williams had dealt Waslewski to the A’s without consulting the Red Sox front office who kiboshed the trade and Waslewski was to return to the Leafs. Williams initially refused to pitch Waslewski when he came back, but a group of Leafs players convinced their stubborn skipper that they needed their ace on the mound to win.
The workhorse right-hander returned to the rotation and helped the Leafs secure their second consecutive title.
“I pitched an awful lot that season,” said Waslewski. “I pitched a lot of times with only two or three days’ rest.”
Following the season, Waslewski reported to winter ball in Venezuela where he pitched 100 more innings.
After that heavy workload, he arrived at Red Sox camp in 1967 hoping to land a job on the big league staff.
“I can remember Ted Williams was standing there watching [one day at spring training] and I was pumping it up a little bit and throwing the ball past guys and I was jamming guys and he was ragging on some of the players, ‘You can’t hit that scrawny kid out there. He’s making you look bad,’” said Waslewski. “So I think I started throwing a little bit too hard too soon and ended up with bursitis in my shoulder about a week before spring training broke.”
The Red Sox brought Waslewski back slowly from the injury and he began the season in Toronto. However, after Billy Rohr faltered in the Sox rotation, Waslewski was called up in June.
“I worked my way back up without any medical help or anything and my first game was against Washington,” recalled Waslewski. “The first guy I faced hits a ground ball to Rico Petrocelli, who was probably the best shortstop in the big leagues. It was just a routine grounder. He bends down and the ball goes right through his legs.”
Waslewski ended up allowing four runs, but only one was earned, in three innings in his debut.
He responded by throwing nine scoreless innings in his next start and then only permitting two runs in 14 1/3 innings in his third and fourth starts before he began to struggle and was sent down to Toronto. He was recalled in mid-September and pitched out of the bullpen as the Red Sox clinched the American League pennant.
Waslewski was told the day before the World Series that he was being added to the postseason roster and he came in in relief of Gary Bell in Game 3 and tossed three perfect innings against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
Williams, now the Red Sox manager, was so impressed with Waslewski’s performance that he told him that if there was a Game 6 that the rookie righty would be the starter. Sure enough, with the Sox trailing the series 3-2 in a must-win game, Waslewski got the starting nod. With just two big league wins under his belt, he had the fewest major league victories of any pitcher to start a World Series game. But Waslewski proved his naysayers wrong when he allowed just two runs and pitched into the sixth inning.
“I didn’t have much of a curveball, so for most of the game, I just threw cross-seam fastballs,” he recalled.
He left the game with the Red Sox leading 4-2. The Sox bullpen blew the lead, but the club eventually rallied for an 8-4 win.
The Red Sox ended up losing the World Series in seven games, but Waslewski had been impressive and his postseason success helped him land a spot in the Red Sox rotation in 1968.
“At one point in 1968, they took me out of the rotation,” said Waslewski. “I won my first two games against Cleveland and then I lost the next seven games and [pitching coach] Darrell Johnson said, ‘We’re going to take you out of the rotation. They’re just not scoring any runs for you when you’re out there.”
He finished that season with a 4-7 record and a 3.67 ERA in 34 appearances, including 11 starts.
That December, he was dealt to the Cardinals where he made 12 relief appearances in 1969 prior to being traded to the Expos in their first season.
“The Expos needed a starting pitcher,” said Waslewski.
Unfortunately, he had spent the last several months pitching out of the bullpen, so he needed to be stretched out. The Expos attempted to build his arm strength back by using him as a reliever in his first four appearances.
On July 6, he was asked to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies and he ended up throwing a complete-game, one-hitter.
“I remember Ronnie Brand, our catcher, coming out and saying to me, ‘Your fastball is dropping like a rock. There’s no point in calling anything else.’ So we just kept firing that fastball up there and they kept hitting dribblers,” said Waslewski.
The Expos won 5-0, with the game lasting just 96 minutes.
“We probably would’ve played in less than one hour and 36 minutes except Gene Mauch started an argument with the umpire that lasted about five minutes,” said Waslewski.
Waslewski was also outstanding in his next start when he surrendered only an unearned run in 10 innings in the Expos’ eventual 2-1 loss to the Pirates.
Waslewski finished with a 3.29 ERA in 30 appearances – including 14 starts – for the Expos in 1969 and he returned the following year. Pitch selection was sometimes a bone of contention between Waslewski and Mauch. And the then 28-year-old right-hander knew his tenure with the Expos was all but over after a rough start against the San Diego Padres at Jarry Park on May, 8, 1970.
“It was a windy day and the old Jarry Park ballpark was wide open,” recalled Waslewski. “The wind blew out to right field pretty hard. So I had a game going there against San Diego. And a left-hander [Van Kelly] came up and I threw a curveball. I was trying to waste it down and in and the batter took a very weird swing and he hits a high pop up back up over second base. And Marv Staehle, the second baseman, starts running back. Rusty Staub’s in right field. He starts coming in and then all of a sudden he stops and then he starts going back and the ball goes over the right field fence for a two-run home run. That’s how hard the wind was blowing that day. So then from the dugout [from Mauch], I hear, ‘Son of a bitch, I’m going to send you so far down Western Union won’t find you.’”
A week later, Waslewski was traded to the New York Yankees, with whom he’d register a 3.18 ERA in 50 appearances over the next two seasons before he suffered a knee injury.
He pitched his final eight major league games with the World Series-winning Oakland A’s in 1972, but he was not on their postseason roster.
Waslewski spent 1973 with the A’s triple-A affiliate in Tuscon and toed the rubber in nine games for the triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox in 1974 before hanging up his playing spikes.
Fortunately, he had prepared himself for his post-baseball career. When he was with the Red Sox, he worked for a mutual fund brokerage in the off-season and secured his insurance license.
Waslewski later obtained a license to sell stocks, bonds and mutual funds and landed a position at The Hartford, a very successful, national investment and insurance company.
“I worked there for 24 years as a marketing rep in their estate business planning departments, promoting The Hartford’s service and products in Rhode Island,” said Waslewski.
He retired when he was 57 and purchased property in Arizona.
Waslewski speaks proudly of his two sons: Gary, a highly regarded sports orthopedic surgeon, and Dan, the director of operations and general manager of TPC Boston, one of the premier golf courses in the U.S.
The former Maple Leaf and Expo seems content with his career and his life, but he’s looking forward to coming back to Canada to see his relatives. His wife’s brother lives in Woodstock, Ont.
“We usually went back up to Canada every year. In fact, with the virus, they shut us down, so we couldn’t go back,” he said. “So we haven’t been back for almost three years. We were hoping they would back off a little more this year so we could get back up there this summer.”
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