By chance I was in Warsaw, Illinois a while back. Driving down the hill of a street leading to the base of the Mississippi River was a grain loading dock for barges.
And it was there I caught a glimpse of Jimmy Qualls, whom I had met a couple of years before. Qualls was in the Reds organization for a while in the early 1970s and played with the Indianapolis Indians in AAA and was at a couple of Red spring trainings.
But whenever I see or hear the name Jimmy Qualls, I always think about Tom Seaver. Those two are forever linked in baseball history.
It was Jimmy Qualls who broke up Seaver’s perfect game in July 1969. It came in a heated pennant race between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. Qualls got his base-hit in the 9th inning after Seaver retired the first 25 Cub hitters in front of a sold-out Shea Stadium.
A left-handed hitting outfielder, Qualls got the start that night after Cubs outfielder Don Young misplayed a couple of fly balls the night before that allowed the Mets to rally and defeat Cubs ace hurler Ferguson Jenkins in the first of a three-game series.
So when my cousin in Warsaw talked about a guy with the Cubs who was involved in a no-hitter, it perked my interest. The only Cub pitchers in my lifetime who had thrown one were Ken Holtzman, Milt Pappas, Burt Hooten, Carlos Zambrano and Jake Arrieta.
That’s when I threw out the name Jimmy Qualls and that’s who it was. So my cousin set up a time for Qualls to come to our camp and he did and we talked about Seaver, baseball and the Reds for most of the morning.
Qualls’ hit was clean – a line drive single that fell between outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. Cubs Manager Leo Durocher downplayed Seaver’s effort after the game. “Just another one-hitter,” said Durocher. “That’s all it was.”
But back to Tom Seaver. Starting pitching has long been an Achilles heel for the Reds. Good starting pitching has been the exception rather than the norm for the last, oh say, fifty years. For sure, Reds starters were awesome in 2012 and they were incredibly solid last year and for a period time in the era of the Big Red Machine.
So when the Reds acquired Seaver in 1977, I was ecstatic. And every time Seaver took the mound for Cincinnati, I had an inner confidence that the Reds were going to win. That doesn’t happen very often, I’m not talking fancy statistics or lefty-right situations. Seaver was Seaver. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Have you ever felt that with a Reds pitcher? Who were you supremely confident in over the years?
I had it with Johnny Cueto for a while. The same for Mario Soto. But man, with Tom Seaver, I had it for every game. And I hope I get that with Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in 2020. They’re close.
So seeing Jimmy Qualls again, even if for a second, brought back memories of Tom Seaver. His family publicly came out last year and said that Seaver had dementia and would be pulling away from any public appearances. So I wonder how he’s doing. I feel bad for him, as I do for anyone afflicted with that illness.
I remember the first time I watched Seaver pitch in person. It was in the Astrodome during the 1978 season. My buddies and I had seats by the Cincinnati bullpen. I couldn’t take my eyes off Seaver as he warmed up; the pure, compact pitching motion, the attention to detail, the conversations he had with the Reds pitching coach. The Reds beat the Asterisks that night 2-1.
So here are my Top 5 Red starting pitchers that I loved to see take the mound– and felt good about winning. (Sorry, Milt Pappas isn’t one of them)
- Tom Seaver
- Mario Soto
- Jim Maloney
- Johnny Cueto
- Jack Billingham
Tell me your picks. And hopefully, Gray and Castillo will be among them in the future.