(Editors’ note: Without baseball being played, we’re going to take a look at fictional characters from many baseball movies – interweaving facts we know about these players from the movies, and expanding with their stories with some things we could perhaps infer about them from what we know).
The story of Morris Buttermaker is one full of ups-and-downs, both professionally and personally. Born in the North Valley of California in 1927, Buttermaker was a standout athlete at the now closed Berryessa High School. The right-handed pitcher set school records for both wins and strikeouts in both a single season as a senior, and in a career. After graduating in June of 1945 he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In that 1945 season, the Dodgers would send Buttermaker to join their affiliate in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was going to be in the rotation be another young right-handed pitcher with plenty of promise, 19-year-old Ralph Branca. The younger Buttermaker wasn’t as strong that season as Branca, who had two seasons in the minors, and even some big league experience under his belt by that time. But he did outshine him in the rotation at times, showing off both his curveball and screwball that left hitters baffled when he was on top of his game.
The following season Brooklyn would send the North Valley native to their affiliate up north in Montreal. Easily the youngest pitcher on the staff, it was another up-and-down season for Morris Buttermaker. His elbow began barking at him at the mid-season point and he would shut down for a few months before returning late in the year to make a handful of starts.
With his health once again, Buttermaker returned to Montreal to pitch for the Royals. He put up the best season of his career. The then 20-year-old however couldn’t get his chance in the Major Leagues in 1947. The Dodgers big league pitching staff was outstanding as the team went on to win 94 games and reach the World Series before losing in seven games to the Yankees.
But that 1947 season led to Morris Buttermaker getting invited to big league spring training in 1948, and it was there that he would pick up what would become the best baseball story he would tell to anyone in the future. The right-handed pitcher would face off against the Boston Red Sox in Vero Beach during spring training. He would face off against reigning Triple Crown winner Ted Williams on that day, who was coming off of a season in which he hit .343/.499/.634 with 47 strikeouts in 692 plate appearances.
The story, as told by Buttermaker, is that he struck out Williams several times that day – an impressive feat given that he had struck out just 47 times the previous season in 154 games played. He goes on to describe the final encounter, “March 15th. Score tied, nothing to nothing. It was the top of the ninth. No, it was the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded. There was ole Ted, coming to the plate and swinging a menacing bat. Strike one.”
But that’s where the story stops within The Bad News Bears, as Buttermaker then passes out due to having about eight more alcoholic beverages than he should have. We’re going to work with the assumption that ultimately he struck Williams out to get out of that inning unscathed – otherwise, why even tell the story?
(Note, this story is told in the movie, but it’s inaccurate – as Buttermaker says it happened in 1947, but Vero Beach did not see any spring training baseball until 1948).
Despite his seemingly outstanding day where he threw a shutout against the Red Sox in spring training, and struck out one of the greatest hitters that ever lived multiple times in the game – Morris Buttermaker was left off of the 1948 Brooklyn Dodgers roster. The defending National League champions simply didn’t have a spot for the 22-year-old on their roster and he headed back to the minors.
For Buttermaker, this is where his professional baseball career began to run into problems. Disappointed in being sent back to the minor leagues despite a strong performance in Vero Beach, he began to spend too much time after games at bars and it led to a decline in his performance and in his consistency. Both the 1948 and 1949 seasons would see that play out – as Morris Buttermaker would still have those nights where he would dominate opponents and tantalize scouts and coaches. But far too often he simply didn’t have it.
The 1950 season was one that once again saw Buttermaker miss too much time due to injury. His elbow began barking again and he missed several months in the second half of the year. The Dodgers were giving him one more chance in 1951. Early in spring training the right-handed pitcher simply hadn’t rebounded all of the way. His velocity wasn’t quite where it used to be. The big curveball wasn’t as sharp. His screwball was a pitch of the past due to the elbow issues he kept encountering.
Noticing that he was struggling to get things going again, a former teammate now with the Brooklyn Dodgers big league club shared a tip with him. A little bit of vaseline on the underside of the bill of your cap could help get a little extra something on his breaking ball. And sure enough, it was working. Heading to the minors in 1951, the now 24-year-old was sent out to Phoenix to play for the Senators in the recently former Southwest International League under manager Wayne Tucker.
The league’s offensive environment was insane – as every team in the league except one scored well over 5-runs per game. The league ERA was nearly 6.00, settling in at 5.88. But Morris Buttermaker dominated with his new-found breaking ball. While his record wasn’t indicative of his dominance, going just 9-6, he picked up 170 strikeouts on the year and posted a 2.86 ERA. He was third in the league in ERA behind future Major League pitchers Memo Luna and Vince Gonzales.
Luna went 26-13 for Tijuana that season with a 2.52 ERA in 314.0 innings. He pitched in one game at the Major League level for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954. On April 20th, 1954 Memo Luna pitched started against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Ohio. The left-handed pitcher didn’t make it out of the first inning as he allowed two earned runs on two hits and two walks. Both Roy McMillan and Ted Kluszewski would double in the inning before Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky would walk to the mound and make a pitching change. It didn’t matter much on the day as the Reds pounded out 16 hits in a 13-6 win that saw Joe Nuxhall toss 7.0 innings of relief and get the win.
Vince Gonzales pitched for Juarez in that 1951 season. The 25-year-old Cuban posted a 2.76 ERA to go along with his impressive 32-11 record that season. In his 35 starts and 20 relief appearances he threw 319.0 innings. He would pitch his lone game in Major League Baseball on April 13th, 1955 for the Washington Senators. The game looks like a high school one that has a mismatch of epic proportions. The New York Yankees won the game 19-1, and Whitey Ford threw a complete game. Washington ran four pitchers out that day, with the last one being Gonzales who pitched both the 7th and 8th innings. The left-handed pitcher allowed six runs on six hits and three walks while picking up a strikeout.
But it was that 1951 season for Morris Buttermaker that was both great for his career, and the beginning of the end of his career. Late in the season the opposing manager of the Las Vegas Wranglers, Newt Kimball, noticed something prior to every breaking ball that Buttermaker was throwing – he was licking his fingers and then appearing to dry them on the tip of his cap. In the 6th inning of the game he went to the home plate umpire to ask him to investigate. And with that, the jig was up. Buttermaker’s secret to his breaking ball was spotted and he was ejected from the game. The league also suspended him for a week.
When he returned, the league all had eyes on him and he couldn’t risk using vaseline on the baseball any longer. His final five outings of the year weren’t strong as his curve simply didn’t have the same action that it had previously.
The following spring Morris Buttermaker was released by the Brooklyn Dodgers when he simply couldn’t rebound with his stuff in a fair manner. Over the next few years he would pitch for several minor league teams, but under the contract of the minor league team itself rather than under the contract of a Major League team. He couldn’t catch back on with a Major League club, and after the 1954 All-Star break in the Pacific Coast League, Buttermaker didn’t return to the Portland Beavers. He retired and moved back to his home town.
The now 28-year-old fell into old habits as he battled with what felt like a mid-life crisis – watching his dreams of being a Major League Baseball player come to an end. He began to rely on alcohol as a way to help, and it would effect him in the long run. Working as a pool cleaner, he ran his own business, but had a reputation at times over the years of falling behind on his jobs and not completing them. At times he was also seen having young children working for him in the North Valley area.
Fast forwarding a bit, a desperate city councilman needed a last-minute coach for a youth baseball team. Knowing that Morris Buttermaker had once been one of the best baseball players around, and certainly in need of money, he approached him with the job – which Buttermaker accepted. He was now the manager of the Bears. And it was bad news.
This was what it turned out the now 52-year-old needed to help get his life back on track, though. But things didn’t start out that way, as early in the season he didn’t seem to take his job all that seriously. Throughout that season, though, he would develop relationships and have moments with the kids on his team. One kid that he made a real difference with would go on to play in the Major Leagues one day – but we’ll save that story for a different day.
Morris Buttermaker began the year with a group of kids that weren’t good enough to play for any of the other six teams in the league, and who couldn’t record a single out in the first game of the year before forfeiting to the Yankees. The year ended in the league championship game, also against the Yankees, in a game that ended in a play at the plate that would have tied the game up. While the finish wasn’t quite what everyone wanted – for Buttermaker, the season taught him quite a bit about how to treat people better, and also helped him move on past his drinking issues that had plagued him for most of his adult life. That led him to stronger relationships outside of the game of baseball.
In fact, it led him to reuniting with his star pitchers mother, who he had dated years before and how he had known Amanda Whurlitzer in the first place. Taking his life more seriously, and getting away from alcohol, Morris Buttermaker saw himself become a family man – eventually marrying Amanda’s mother and helping raise her. He would remain married until he passed away in 1999 at the age of 72.