Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Card #131: Stan Bahnsen

Who Can It Be Now?
Stanley Raymond Bahnsen was born on December 15, 1944, in Council Bluffs, Iowa -- just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. Nicknamed the "Bahnsen Burner" for his mid-90s fastball -- a nickname which is certainly one of the first chemistry-experiment-related nicknames I've heard -- Bahnsen was the only real athlete in his family. His father Raymond was a brakeman for the Union Pacific Railroad, and his mother Viola was a homemaker. 

As the Des Moines Sunday Register article linked above mentions, Bahnsen grew up throwing balls constantly at first a piece of canvas with a bull's eye on it and then at the garage door. His throwing at the garage door destroyed the door, according to his brother Jerry, so when Stan signed his first contract, the first thing he did was build his dad a new garage.

Bahnsen was recruited to play baseball for the University of Nebraska out of Abraham Lincoln High School in CB.  He spent just one season with the Cornhuskers and was named to the All-Big Eight team and as a third-team All-American.  As a result of his college playing, the New York Yankees selected Bahnsen in the first-ever amateur draft in June of 1965 in the fourth round with the 68th pick overall. 

Based on his collegiate background, the Yankees sent Bahnsen to Double-A Columbus (Ga.) -- the "Confederate Yankees" (what a great team name, by the way) -- in the Southern League in 1965. He moved up to Triple-A Toledo in 1966 and made his major league debut in a September call-up that year -- notching a save against the Boston Red Sox in his first ever appearance. His next game was a complete game win -- 10-5 -- over the Washington Senators.

He did not make the team out of spring training in 1967 and, further, did not get called up to the majors that year at all either. This failure to make the team was blamed later on a back injury that affected his pitching motion. 

The next year -- 1968 -- however, Bahnsen broke camp with the Yankees. All he did was finish 17-12 with a 2.05 ERA (2.64 FIP) in 267-1/3 innings with 68 walks and 162 Ks in what was by most measures (other than wins) his most successful season as a major leaguer. For his efforts, Bahnsen was named as the American League Rookie of the Year, earning 17 of the 20 votes. Del Unser of the Senators finished second, and if you click through that link to Baseball Reference, you might wonder who in their right mind was voting for Unser (.230/.282/.277, -1.5 WAR) over Bahnsen. At least I do.

Bahnsen spent parts of five seasons with the Yankees. He received criticism, according to his SABR biography, for his inability to pitch complete games. He finished "only" 36 of his 139 starts for the Yankees, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s would be considered unmanly, I suppose. 

Thus, after the 1971 season and in the pre-Steinbrenner days of flailing aimlessly forward under the ownership of the media moguls at CBS, Bahnsen was traded to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for utility player Rich McKinney. McKinney played 37 games for the Yankees in 1972 before being traded to Oakland after the season. 

Bahnsen finished 21-16 for the second place Chicago White Sox, teaming with Wilbur Wood to give the Chisox two twenty-game winners in what amounted effectively to a three-and-a-half man rotation under pitching coach Johnny Sain. Bahnsen started 41 games, knuckleballer Wood started 49 games, and Tom Bradley started 40. The rest of the pitching staff combined for 24 starts, with Dave Lemonds chipping in 18 of those 24 starts.

The White Sox tried the same approach to starting pitching in 1973 with less favorable results -- dropping to fifth place in an American League West Division propped up by the horrible Texas Rangers. Bahnsen lasted just one more season in the Second City. When his ERA ballooned to 4.70 in 1974 and then to 6.01 in 12 starts in 1975, the White Sox traded him to the Oakland A's with pitcher Skip Pitlock for pitcher Dave Hamilton and outfielder Chet Lemon. After 1974 and at the age of 29, Bahnsen never again threw more than 200 innings, topping out at 143 innings in 1976 with the A's.

Once in Oakland, Bahnsen pitched far better than he had in Comiskey and was a part of the 1975 A's team that was swept by the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series that year. Unfortunately for Stan, he did not pitch in that ALCS so he did not get a taste of postseason baseball from the mound.

Bahnsen lasted into 1977 for Oakland. He was traded to the Montreal Expos as part of Charlie O. Finley's complete sell-off of anything that was not bolted down to the ground at the beginning of free agency. In return, the A's got Mike Jorgensen.  

With the move to Canada, Bahnsen transitioned from being a rotation starter to being a swingman who might be available for a spot start once or twice a year but otherwise pitched out of the bullpen. Indeed, as the Expos acquired better talent starting in 1978 and bringing up Scott Sanderson and Dan Schatzeder in 1979 and Bill Gullickson, David Palmer, and Charlie Lea in 1980, Bahnsen was pushed further into the bullpen behind Elias Sosa, Woodie Fryman, and Fred Norman.

In 1981, Bahnsen was 36 years old and pitched as poorly as he had since 1977 -- a 4.96 ERA in 49 innings (4.84 FIP) with a K/BB ratio of 1.17. He did get to throw 1-1/3 innings in relief of Scott Sanderson in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Phillies -- holding the line on the Phillies and allowing his Expos to come back from a 4-0 deficit to tie the game at 5 (though he did give up a single to allow the score to go from 2-0 to 4-0...), only to watch Jeff Reardon lose the game in the bottom of the 10th inning on a solo home run by George Vukovich.

Bahnsen went to spring training in 1982 with the Expos. At the end of the spring, Bahnsen was among the final cuts. He signed with the California Angels on April 8 only to be released on May 14. The Phillies then signed him on May 31. He spent much of the 1982 season with the Phillies' Triple-A team in Oklahoma City before getting a September call-up that year. 

He pitched very well for the Phillies in limited action -- 1.35 ERA (2.04 FIP) in 13-1/3 innings. But, that was not enough to earn him a spot in the majors the next season. After a disastrous 15-game stint in Triple-A Portland in the Phillies' organization in 1983, the Phillies let Bahnsen go and his time in organized baseball came to an end.

Mustache Check: Bahnsen was a good Midwestern boy, not some hippie from the coast. So he's clean-shaven.

Nanu Nanu
Despite appearing in 15 games in 1982 and despite the 792-card sets of the day, Stan Bahnsen did not appear on any additional Topps Cards as a player after 1982. So, this is his sunset card.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Bahnsen barely made any impact on me as a kid because he was a National Leaguer by the time I could remember things for myself. I do remember his 1978 Topps card, for some reason, and I knew his name. But I have no reason why I remember those things other than, perhaps, repetition.

Bahnsen has led an interesting post-baseball career. For 20 years, he worked with Norwegian Cruise Lines in promotions. He did promotional work for Arrow Shirts starting in the early 1970s and continued to do so after his playing career took him to other cities. 

Amidst all that, Bahnsen continued pitching from time to time. He pitched in the Senior Baseball League in 1989 for the Gulf Coast Suns and in 1990 fro the Daytona Beach Explorers. Then, in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, he decided to be a trailblazer of sorts and moved to The Netherlands to pitch in the Hoofdklasse Honkbal league there. At the age of 48, he moved to Haarlem and became the first former major league pitcher to appear in that league (though Wim Remmerswaal started in the Dutch league before coming to the US).

Over the years and around his job with the cruise lines, he has spent a significant amount of his time teaching kids how to play baseball.  You can find photos on Facebook of him in a Yankees uniform working with little kids -- probably 10 or 12-year-olds -- at the Players Edge Baseball Academy a couple of years ago.  Bahnsen is a local legend in Council Bluffs. Even today, he has a park in town named for him.  

These days, Bahnsen is still in the cruise industry. He organizes baseball-themed cruises for MSC Cruises USA. One cruise leaves on November 29 for a 7-night Caribbean tour with Kevin Seitzer, Juan Marichal, Amos Otis, and John Denny on board (in addition to Bahnsen). Another cruise is scheduled for February 7, 2015; that cruise currently has Art Shamsky and Gorman Thomas scheduled to be on board with Bahnsen. Both cruises depart from and return to Miami after visiting St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas.

So, maybe you can combine your baseball card fun with a trip to make your significant other happy too!


  1. I remember Robert on Everybody Loves Raymond named his dog Shamsky. I can't imagine the conversation with my wife trying to explain to her that I want to go on a cruise featuring semi star baseball players that made their careers before I was born.

    1. Aw, you're just too young to have seen John Denny win the 1983 Cy Young, or to see Gorman Thomas be the Home Run king in 1979.

      But come on -- Juan Marichal is a Hall of Famer!