From ND to MLB: Ron Reed

I’ve already profiled a couple of two-sport stars to come out of Notre Dame and make it to the Major Leagues, but Johnny Mohardt‘s second sport was football and Shaun Fitzmaurice‘s was track and field. (On this blog, baseball is always No. 1.)

For Ron Reed, the other sport was basketball. In fact, basketball was the first sport, with baseball as the No. 2, which isn’t surprising for a guy who stands 6-foot-6.

“I went to Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship, and only played baseball my senior year,” Reed told me in an e-mail. “Growing up in LaPorte, Ind., about 30 miles from campus, getting a full scholarship to N.D., even if it was for basketball, was a dream come true. Basketball was always my first love.”

In three years (1962-65) with the Irish cagers*, back when freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity, Reed scored 1,153 points and pulled down 872 rebounds. He still holds the single-season Irish rebounding average: 17.7 boards per game in 1963-64. His 18.9 points per game rank eighth all-time, his 872 rebounds remain 10th on the list and his 14.3 rebounds per game still stand as the third-highest mark in Irish history. As a senior in ’64-65, he was named to the NABC All-Star Game and the Division I All-District Third Team and received an honorable mention on The Sporting News‘ All-America team, which featured Bill Bradley on the first team and Rick Barry and Jerry Sloan on the second team.

*Basketball players are never referred to as “cagers” anymore, but they were then. Turns out, the term has New Jersey roots — the first cage around a basketball court was built in Trenton.

My dad arrived at Notre Dame the year after Reed did, so I asked him if he remembered the two-sport talent. “Yeah, he was a tall guy,” Dad said. “Very good basketball player, but he was a fireballer, too.” (It was 48 years ago; I wasn’t expecting a full scouting report.)

Two-sport pro

The Detroit Pistons chose Reed in the third round of the 1965 NBA draft, taking him 20th overall, but he also signed with the Milwaukee Braves as a free agent.

“My first baseball contract was signed in June of 1965, just after I got out of N.D.,” Reed recalled, “for $500 a month and a plane ticket to West Palm Beach, Fla., to pitch for the Milwaukee Braves’ Class A team in the Florida State League.”

Reed compiled a 3-2 record and 1.47 ERA in seven games (five starts) at West Palm, earning that first victory on Aug. 25 in a 1-0 win over the Miami Marlins. The one run was a rout, relatively speaking; Reed had lost his two previous starts by 1-0 and 4-0 scores.

That fall, he reported to the Pistons for his rookie season in the NBA. He played 57 games for coach Dave DeBusschere — who, in 1962 and ’63, pitched in the Majors and played professional basketball himself — averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds.

In 1966, Reed opened the season with the Kinston Eagles in the Carolina League, going 5-2 with a 1.76 ERA before a promotion to Austin in the Texas League to take the place of Bob Daniel, who left the team for his two weeks of Army duty. Reed won his debut with the Austin Braves in the second game of a doubleheader against El Paso on June 9. The first game of that twin bill was noteworthy for what Reed and his teammates wore for that one and only game: Red shorts cut from pants the club had worn in previous years. I sent that clip from The Sporting News over to Paul at Uni Watch when I came across it last week, then checked in with Reed again to see what he remembered.

“The shorts were worn in that first game as a trial to see if they would be appropriate for the Atlanta Braves players,” Reed told me. “Summers in Georgia are rather hot so some genius figured shorts might be better for the players rather than the wool uniforms they wore at that time. After a couple of our Austin players came back to the dugout with giant ‘strawberries’ on their knees and thighs from sliding into second, third, and home plate during that first game, the shorts idea was abandoned, thank God. Obviously there is no protection at all when bare skin meets the dirt around all of the bases when sliding.”

A month after his Austin debut, Reed picked up his third victory after two weeks away from the team for his own military duty. He defeated the Dallas-Ft. Worth Spurs, 3-1. Mike Lum, who was “married shortly before game-time,” according to The Sporting News, opened the game with a 345-foot home run.

That’s all the Braves needed to see from Reed at that level. After going 3-1 with a 1.20 ERA in just four starts with Austin, Reed was moved up again, to Triple-A Richmond in the International League, just one step away from Atlanta. In 14 games (11 starts), he went 5-2 with a 3.52 ERA.

With the Braves in the Governor’s Cup finals for the International League championship, Reed pitched two noteworthy games over three days in September. On Sept. 12, he was a hard-luck loser in a 2-0 defeat at Toronto, a game in which the R-Braves were held to one hit by the Maple Leafs’ Ed Rakow. With Atlanta pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt on hand specifically to see Reed pitch, the 23-year-old right-hander struck out 10 and yielded eight hits. Then on Sept. 15, with just two days’ rest and the Braves facing elimination, Reed went the distance to defeat Toronto, 4-1, back in Richmond. He scattered four hits, walked one and struck out five. The lone run allowed was unearned. Reed contributed on both ends, delivering an RBI single that scored Tommie Aaron in the Braves’ four-run fifth inning. Alas, the Maple Leafs won the title the next night, four games to one, when Tony Horton‘s two-run homer in the ninth gave Toronto a 6-5 victory and its second straight Governor’s Cup.

Making the Majors

Overall in 1966, Reed went 13-5 with a 2.57 ERA in 26 games (21 starts) across the three levels. Though no one knew it as such in ’66, he posted a 1.08 WHIP and, in 168 innings, he struck out 129. (Baseball-Reference’s strikeout totals for that year are missing his Kinston total, but through June 3, 1966, according to The Sporting News on June 18, he was among the Carolina League leaders with a 1.76 ERA, 5-2 record and 39 strikeouts in 51 innings — his total for the year at Kinston before his promotion. Consider that blank filled.) His performance in the bushes earned him a callup to the parent club in September. Reed made his Major League debut on Sept. 26, 1966.

“My Major League debut was as a starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves against Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal and the San Fransisco Giants,” Reed wrote to me. “The third batter that I faced that game was the great Willie Mays. Yes, I got him out. The fourth batter that I faced was the geat Willie McCovey. No, I did not get him out — he hit a home run over the center-field fence in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. It was a long time ago, but the memory of that night is still with me.”

The Giants won that game, 8-2, with Marichal going the distance and striking out 11 Braves. Reed lasted just 2 1/3 innings and took the loss, but only allowed those two runs on four hits and two walks. He struck out two.

He got a second start in the season finale on Oct. 2 at Cincinnati. According to a story in The Sporting News, “Reed trying to mix hill, cage efforts,” on Oct. 22, 1966, Braves manager Billy Hitchcock decided to use the last game of the season to evaluate a slew of minor league prospects. The Braves finished fifth that season, 10 games behind the Dodgers. Reed allowed just three hits and walked two in six shutout innings to earn the win.

“I was really nervous that first time I pitched,” Reed told The Sporting News. “But not the last time [in Cincinnati]. I guess it was because I looked behind me before the first pitch and saw all those guys from Richmond. After that, it was just like pitching at Richmond against Buffalo.”

Both Hitchcock and Wyatt, the pitching coach, praised Reed’s potential — “For a youngster,” Wyatt said, “he really knows how to pitch. He’s a real prospect.” — and the Braves hoped Reed would give up basketball to focus on his pitching. But Reed wasn’t ready to do that.

“Basketball is a tough game,” Reed said in the story, “and it will take me at least two weeks to get in shape. But it’s something I want to do. I don’t think it will affect my baseball.”

Reed signed with the Pistons for another season, but decided that this would be his final year playing both sports (The Sporting News, Dec. 31, 1966, right). He said he’d make a choice of which sport to pursue full-time following the 1966-67 NBA season. In 62 games that winter, Reed averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds, but it was mostly as a backup. The Braves, meanwhile, told Reed they considered him a starting pitcher — this back in the days when relievers were mostly pitchers who weren’t good enough to start. After a meeting in Atlanta with Braves vice president Paul Richards in early February 1967, Reed made the decision to quit the Pistons in time to join the Braves in West Palm Beach for spring training.

But the basketball gods made one final pitch. As described in The Sporting News story from March 4, 1967 (click the article for a larger view), Reed had decided that he’d tell DeBusschere, Detroit’s player-coach, of his decision after the Pistons’ Feb. 15 game against the 76ers. The Braves were to open camp in Florida the next day. But DeBusschere was sick and pulled himself from the game, inserting Reed in his place. Reed played 36 minutes and scored 22 points in the 127-121 loss, and it was almost enough to make him reconsider.

“It’s games like this that make you think about it,” Reed is quoted as saying. “Then there are the others when you sit on the bench.”

DeBusschere, of course, could understand where Reed was coming from, having made his own decision to quit baseball back in 1965 to play and coach the Pistons. But while maybe DeBusschere the player could sympathize, DeBusschere the coach wasn’t happy to be losing 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.

“My only contention was Reed was to be with us till the end of the season,” DeBusschere told The Sporting News. “We needed him fighting for the playoffs and he had signed a contract.”

The Pistons finished 30-51 that season, but DeBusschere’s comment about the playoffs wasn’t just coach-speak. Back then eight out of 10 teams made the postseason in the NBA. Detroit, unfortunately, was one of the two that didn’t, finishing three games behind the Chicago Bulls in the Western Division.

Full-time hurler

Reed had an auspicious debut in Florida. Now referred to as “ex-pro basketball player Ron Reed” in The Sporting News, he threw three shutout innings in Atlanta’s first intra-squad game. But he didn’t do enough that spring to stick with the big club to start the season. (In one box score I found, from March 18 when Reed gave up three runs — two earned — on four hits in four innings, fellow Domer Dick Rusteck pitched in relief for the Mets.) In fact, he spent nearly all of ’67 in Richmond as Atlanta went with Denny Lemaster, Ken Johnson, Pat Jarvis, Tony Cloninger and Phil Niekro in the rotation. (Niekro started just 20 of his 46 games that year and finished with an interesting stat line that included 207 innings, 20 starts, 20 games finished, 10 complete games and nine saves.)

After starting out 1-4 with Richmond — again with some feeble run support, yielding just four runs on 12 hits over a three-game span — Reed began to turn his season around. He two-hit Jacksonville, 3-0, on May 29, and followed that up with a five-hitter, an unearned run and seven strikeouts to beat Rochester, 12-1, on June 3. On June 8, he struck out 10 in a complete-game, 2-1 victory at Syracuse. After a seven-hit shutout of Toronto on June 13, Reed’s record stood at 5-4. Two more wins later — that’s six in a row — he was 7-4 with a 1.91 ERA that stood second in the International League to Tug McGraw‘s 1.87 at Jacksonville.

Reed finished that season 14-10 with a 2.51 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 222 innings. He ranked seventh in ERA and, as best I can tell (because you can’t sort columns in PDFs of microfilm scans), he was second only to Jerry Koosman‘s 183 strikeouts for Jacksonville. Reed completed 17 of his 27 starts, with five shutouts, and posted a 1.05 WHIP. The R-Braves won the International League pennant, but fell in the first round of the Governor’s Cup playoffs.

The scan of the team photo below is of terrible quality, but you can still make out Reed in the top row, second from right.

Following the season, Reed was one of three pitchers who earned honors as the best pitching prospects in the International League, based on a vote of the circuit’s managers. Syracuse’s Stan Bahnsen and Rochester’s Mike Adamson were the others, and Reed was tabbed the pitcher most ready for the Majors.

As he was in ’66, Reed was called up to Atlanta to finish out the regular season, again going 1-1. In three starts, he compiled a 2.95 ERA over 21 1/3 innings. The Braves finished seventh in the NL that year, 24 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, prompting Hank Aaron to express his frustrations about the heart and desire of some of his teammates. But Aaron was optimistic, according to The Sporting News:

Despite what Aaron called the Braves’ lowest morale in years, he sees better times ahead for the club because of youngsters like second baseman Felix Millan and pitchers Ron Reed and Jim Britton.

It seems Reed had caught the eye of more than the Braves’ brass.

After the season, Richards, the Braves’ vice president, decided to take a page from the book of the third-place Cubs, who finished 87-74 on the strength of four starters under the age of 26: Fergie Jenkins (24), Rich Nye (22), Joe Niekro (22) and Ray Culp (25). Richards laid out a plan to fortify the Braves’ lineup and dip into the farm system for pitchers, citing Reed, Jim Britton and George Stone. Atlanta didn’t go quite so young in its rotation, but under new manager Lum Harris, and with Reed going 11-10 in 35 games (28 of them starts), the Braves improved to 81-81, good for fifth place. Britton and Stone combined to go 11-10, making 19 starts between them (among 51 appearances).

From then on, Reed was a big leaguer for good and the Braves took another step forward in ’69, winning the new NL West division with a 93-69 record. Reed got the start in Game 2 of the NLCS, opposite Koosman and the Mets, but was tagged for four runs on five hits and three walks in 1 2/3 innings. He struck out three but took the loss as the Mets went on to sweep the series before winning the World Series over the Orioles.

A broken collarbone sustained in spring training in 1970 robbed Reed of the first two months of the season, but it could have been worse.

The 6-7 pitcher was going all out, running from home to first, when he got his size 14-AAs tangled and tripped over the bag.

The Braves’ skipper was advised that Reed, 18-10 last season and 9-2 down the important stretch, will be out from three to four months.

“But it probably means the season,” said [manager Lum] Harris. “Although knowing Ron, if anybody can overcome it, he would be the one.”

The Sporting News, March 28, 1970

Overcome it, he did, returning to the Braves on June 19 and going 7-10 that season.

A part of history

Reed spent 10 seasons in Atlanta, and not only was he there for Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, he was the starting and winning pitcher. Aaron’s two-run homer — this never seems to get mentioned — tied the game at 3 in the fourth inning. Al Downing faced two more batters, walking them both, before being replaced, and Atlanta scored two more runs to take the lead for good. Reed allowed four runs on seven hits in six innings, but that was enough in a 7-4 Braves win. It’s one of Reed’s personal top two career highlights. The other would come six years later.

Reed’s tenure with the Braves ended in May 1975 when they traded him to the Cardinals for Ray Sadecki and Elias Sosa. Following the ’75 season, Reed was dealt to the Phillies, who made him a reliever, in exchange for Mike Anderson. Reed would make only nine more starts in his career, but he also appeared in the postseason six times in an eight-year span from 1976-83, including two World Series (winning in ’80 and losing in ’83). He also had his seventh and final 10-win season out of the Philadelphia bullpen in 1979.

Between the personal highs of winning the game in which Aaron hit No. 715 and winning the 1980 World Series (his other top personal highlight), Reed cited the ’76 postseason as the lowest moment of his career.

“We had a two-run lead in the third game of the playoffs [the NLCS] going into the bottom of the ninth, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to George Foster and Johnny Bench to tie the game,” he said. “We lost in extra innings and lost the playoffs.”

That would be the game the Reds needed to sweep the series after winning the first two contests in Philadelphia. In what is likely more coincidence than an indication of how Reed performed, his first nine postseason appearances came in games his team lost. From Game 2 of the 1969 NLCS through Game 2 of the 1980 NLCS against the Astros, the Braves and Phillies dropped each one. But then Reed appeared in four straight winners for those ’80 Phillies: Games 4 and 5 (the clincher) of the NLCS and Games 2 (which he saved) and 5 of the World Series. Tug McGraw was the Phillies’ closer in ’80, finishing 48 games and saving 20, but Reed was second in both categories, finishing 29 and saving nine.

Reed stayed with the Phillies through the 1983 season — a total of eight summers in Philadelphia — before he was traded to the White Sox that December for a player to be named later. In February 1984, the player sent back to Philly was the former Met Koosman. The White Sox had plucked Tom Seaver from the Mets on Jan. 20, but traded Koosman on Feb. 15, meaning the one-time teammates were just that once again for a little more than three weeks.

Reed was 0-6 but had a solid 3.08 ERA and a team-leading 12 saves in 51 relief appearances for the ’84 White Sox. It would be his final season. Chicago released him on April 5, 1985.

After 19 years …

Among Domers who reached the Majors, Reed’s 19 seasons rank third overall and are the most of any pitcher. Outfielder Cy Williams also played 19 seasons, and Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski (23) and Cap Anson (27) are the only Domers who played more. Reed is also among the many players between 1947 and ’97 who wore No. 42, a number he can now see on the wall at just about every ballpark.

Reed still lives in Atlanta, where he works for an event management company called Marketing Event Partners.

“We put on various types of events, mostly golf tournaments, for organizations that raise money for various charities,” he said.

And the Irish are still very much on his radar.

“I ‘BLEED’ blue and gold,” he wrote in his e-mail. “I follow as many of Notre Dame sports that I can, but especially football, basketball and baseball. I’ve met [football] coach [Brian] Kelly and I have been good friends with [basketbal] coach [Mike] Brey since his arrival on campus. Coach [Dave] Schrage is still a good friend even after his dismissal as baseball coach at N.D.”

Because he had such a long career that began in the ’60s and ended in the ’80s, there is no shortage of Ron Reed baseball cards, photos and autographs, particularly on eBay. So I chose his rookie card, 1968 Topps No. 76, featuring Reed and Jim Britton.

1968 Topps Britton Reed
“I was really young then, and had very little Major League experience at that time,” Reed told me when asked about it. “No real thoughts concerning this particular card.”

As for why I chose the rookie card over all others, I suppose it represents the transition from Notre Dame through the minors to the Majors, the final step (but not the completion) of the journey. It shows the player as a Major Leaguer, but also as close to his Notre Dame years as possible. I could’ve gone with a later card, a 1984 Topps perhaps, showing Reed in that bright blue Phillies road uniform. That card would represent the longevity of his career and overlap with my own card-collecting past (just barely). But I like the image of a fresh-faced young prospect not far removed from college on the cusp of a career that would last nearly 20 years and include a World Series championship and one of the game’s greatest historic moments.

1968 Topps Braves' Rookie Stars

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