An Interview with Bob Bruce

added 08/29/01 by Ray Kerby

Pitcher Bob Bruce was not an expansion draft pick for the Colts, but was with the team from Day 1 thanks to a trade with Detroit before the start of the 1962 season. Bruce started his career as a Tiger, but had his best years in Houston. He was traded to Atlanta after the 1966 season and retired soon afterwards. He was gracious enough to grant us a telephone interview and had plenty of good stories to share.

(c) Houston Astros
Ray Kerby: Did you always want to be a ballplayer, and why?

Bob Bruce: Sure. I just loved playing all sports. We never had Little League or anything like that. I had to work when I was a young kid... my dad was sick and for a good part of my youth I had to work in order to have clothes to go to school. I really didn't start playing until a baseball coach made me come out as a [high school] senior, and I started playing then. I was playing sandlot ball and my senior year in high school I started playing more serious ball. We used to go out and play in the alley (laugh). We used to go out and pick up teams out in the sandlot. We'd throw the bat to each other and chit it up to see who got the first bat or the first pick and all that kind of stuff.

RK: What city did you grow up in?

BB: I grew up in Highland Park, Michigan. That's a little city right in the middle of Detroit.

RK: So were the Tigers your favorite team?

BB: Oh yeah. I had a paper route and I used to save papers and, during the war, for so many pounds of paper, you'd get so much off a ticket and I used to ride a streetcar down to Tiger Stadium and watch the game for fifty cents (laughs) and sit in the centerfield bleachers.

RK: Who were some of your favorite players?

BB: Well, yeah. Back then... Dizzy Trout, a crazy righthanded pitcher for the Tigers. Hank Greenberg was a home run hitting star then. Barney McCoskey... players like that.

RK: How did you get to the big leagues?

BB: That same year that I started playing in high school, I played on a sandlot team in Detroit. It was pretty much a select team and we won the National Championship for 18 & under in Louisville, Kentucky. On that team, three or four of us got to the big leagues and probably half of us signed a professional contract. We played against several players all over the United States that eventually became major league ballplayers, too. So it was really a great summer.

RK: Since Detroit was your hometown team, how did it feel making your major-league debut as a Tiger?

BB: (laughs) My first big league experience was... (laughs) unbelievable. I was playing for Charleston, West Virginia, their AAA farm club. They called me up at the end of the season and at Charleston we were on a two-week road trip. We used to fly DC-3's in AAA and you're only allowed to take one suitcase -- and they weren't real big suitcases, you couldn't get as much as into one today. I think our plane would only carry 23 people and all our baseball equipment and all our luggage. Of course, we had a sports announcer, a press man or two, and a trainer, so we didn't have much room. Every seat in the plane was taken. (laughs) We could only stay up in the air about two hours and then we'd have to come down and re-gas because of the weight restrictions.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I didn't have any clean clothes. I got back into Charleston at five o'clock in the morning and they just took my suitcase and I had to be in Yankee Stadium that night. So I got in at the end of a road trip -- we had only $5 a day meal money - so I was broke! I had no money when I arrived in New York, and went to the Roosevelt Hotel. I didn't have a suit -- in the major leagues you had to wear a suit, or a suit coat. (laughs) It's not like today. So anyway, I took a cab from the airport and I didn't have enough money to pay the cab. I got to the Roosevelt hotel and I looked like a bum. I hadn't shaved in two days and my clothes were dirty and wrinkled from sleeping on the plane. I went and borrowed some money from one of the players to pay the cab, went up to the room, sent all of my clothes out and went into Yankee Stadium looking like a bum. (laughs)

But that was my first experience and I was just in awe. I went and sat in the bullpen and the Yankees at that time had Mantle, Berra, and Howard... you could just go on and on. That night, after the ballgame, they still hadn't given me any meal money. I went out with Al Kaline, Red Wilson, and Rocky Colavito and we went to a real nice restaurant called Beauchamp's and I didn't have any money! (laughs) So they all ordered steaks and I ordered a hamburger and they said "hey, wait a minute. We'll buy you a steak". I think Rocky Colavito bought me the steak and I at least got to eat. The next day I got my clothes back and I got some meal money and they got me back to Detroit.

RK: How did your teammates help you adjust to the big leagues?

BB: Well, they all made me feel comfortable and made me feel a part of the team. But when you're a rookie, they really tease you anyway so it took me a while to get over that. We had a great bunch of guys.

RK: How did you feel when you were traded from Detroit to the expansion team in Houston?

BB: The Tigers had sent me down to play Winter Ball in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican teams could have three Americans and I was one of them. I couldn't understand Spanish or anything, but they had the radio on and I heard "Bob Bruce". I said "Hey, what'd they say?" (laughs) And they said "You've been traded from the Tigers to the Houston Colt .45s" And I was really hurt, in a way, but it turned out to be... I wouldn't trade being on the first Colt .45 team and going through the experiences there in Houston. Houston was a great city. I just loved every minute of it and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I had a lot of real good experiences there, but we didn't score many runs (laughs) We learned how to fend off the mosquitoes and stuff like that.

This is one thing that might be an interesting story: the first year there we all had to wear cowboy uniforms. When you traveled, you had to wear you cowboy uniform. We had these big boots and ten-gallon hats, and being a Yankee, I really looked funny -- I didn't even know how to wear a hat. Anyway, we walked into the Hobby airport, through the terminal, and there were tons of people and all these girls. We thought, "Man! All these people are coming out to watch us leave!". And then here was George Jones, the country singer, (laughs) and all these girls had come out to see him. And then someone else says, "Who are all those guys? Oh, that must be the rodeo." (laughs)

RK: Did being on an expansion team give you a chance for more playing time?

BB: No, I would have gotten it. That year that I played with Detroit, I got hurt and I had some arm problems. We won 101 games and we still ended up 8 games behind the Yankees. The Colt .45s had a pitcher by the name of "Sad Sam" Jones. He was a real experienced guy. They traded me for him and another guy. He was from the Dominican Republic and was a side-armer who could throw like 100 miles an hour. They were shooting for a pennant and they felt like the experience of this guy would put the Tigers right in contention again. So I understood the trade. It was a real experience from taking training in Lakeland, Florida where everything was first-class, to Apache Junction which was just a motel and a ballpark in the middle of a highway. (laughs) My greatest memory with Houston was pitching the last game in Colt Stadium against Don Drysdale and the Dodgers, going 12 innings and beating them 1-0 -- then opening the next season with the first league game in the Dome.

RK: Was the heat at Colt Stadium as bad as everyone has said?

BB: Oh, yes. It was unbelievably hot. I pitched a ballgame against Bob Gibson. It was on a Sunday afternoon; the game started at about 1:00 or 1:30. I think there were 12,000 people that showed up, but there wasn't over 1000 people in the stands at any one time. They were all underneath them [the stands], listening to it on the radio because they couldn't stand it there. I lost to Gibson 1-0 on an unearned run in the 8th inning, and I don't think either one of us threw more than five or six balls in the whole ballgame. We just threw the ball over because my feet were burning up on the mound. I'd come in after each inning and stick my feet in an ice bucket. We never wasted a pitch and we set a record for one hour and twenty minutes [for the game]. (laughs) Three up, three down!

RK: So it must have been a shock to walk into the air-conditioned Astrodome for the first time.

BB: Well, you know, we had the privilege of watching that thing go up. We used to sit there and watch it go up, and then all of the sudden it just took shape. Yeah, when we walked in from Spring Training into the dome it was a real experience because they couldn't grow grass. We had a few sprigs that did grow here and there and they painted it green for Opening Day. A guy would hit a ball to the outfield, a base hit or something, it'd come back with green all over it (laughs). But you couldn't see it if a ball would go up in the air. You'd lose it, until they painted it [the ceiling]. It was really funny to watch... we had all of our best fungo hitters trying to hit the top of it and we couldn't do it. Every team that came in got their best fungo hitter and they were hitting the fungoes up there. And, of course, we had that fantastic scoreboard. This was really new. They did the "Charge!" and they did all the stuff at the end of the innings. They had the screen up there that when they'd take a pitcher out, they'd show him going to the showers. Everybody was saying, "Man, that is really bush league. This is baseball!" And now it's all over -- everybody does it in every sport.

RK: I guess the worst was the Home Run Spectacular.

BB: Well, they didn't do it when we threw one [a home run], just when they did. It was something -- everybody looked forward to it. The Colt .45s had Mickey Herskowitz, the old poison penner, he was the beat guy. He was the only guy we had. That's about the only media attention we used to get. But then when we opened the dome, they had 3000 of those guys -- guys with cameras and stuff. That was a real experience, to all of the sudden have the attention of the whole world.

RK: You saw a lot of young stars in Houston. Who were some of the players you thought at that time would someday hit it big?

BB: I thought Rusty Staub would for sure. Joe Morgan... you know I wasn't that enthralled with him at the time. He was a good hitter but he developed later on into a real good ballpayer. Of course, Jimmy Wynn was always a good ballplayer. And Dierker... I was in St. Louis -- we walked out onto the field and they've got this big, tall righthanded kid throwing rockets in the bullpen. You'd hear the glove going BAM!... BAM!... BAM!... You knew that he was going to be something special. There were very few kids like that. Dierker had ice in his veins, and that's why I think he's such a darn good manager, too.

RK: So you follow the team closely now?

BB: Well, I'd see Larry a couple of times a year when he was a broadcaster. He interviewed me a couple of times for his radio program. In fact, I was with him about a week before he got named manager. I came down to a ballgame and the next thing I knew, he got named manager. But since he's been the manager, I don't bother him. He's got enough on his mind without anything... I'm sure that someday we'll play golf or go fishing.

RK: The team has certainly had a lot of success since he's taken over

BB: Oh, are you kidding? He's got some pretty good talent, but I think he's getting the most out of his pitching. They've been short of that. They had the Big Unit come in and help them for a while but he really hasn't had a [staff] like the Braves. It looks to me like they're coming now.

RK: Going back to your playing days in Houston, I'd like for you to tell me what you thought about Jim Umbricht.

BB: Oh, Jimmy was my lockermate in Spring Training. He was a real good relief pitcher. As a matter of fact, the day he showed me this mole on his leg -- I don't remember if we came in from the game or practice in Spring Training -- and said, "you know, it's a lump." Then he showed it to the team doctor and he was back in Houston that night and then they operated on him. He had a melanoma cancer, a very aggressive form, and he came back and pitched that year. I think he got back in August, and he'd slap a great, big, huge 12-square-inches of gauze on [his leg] and go out and play. But he died before the next Spring Training.

RK: What kind of a person was he?

BB: Oh, he was outstanding, first-class. They've retired his number and deservedly so. He was just a fine human being and one of the nicest people I've ever met.

RK: In Robert Reed's book, "A Six Gun Salute", he talks about an incident where you hit a batter twice and he threw the bat at you on a third strike. The point of the story was how times have changed with regards to pitchers knocking down batters and owning the plate.

BB: Oh yeah, that was George Altman of the Cubs. I had hit him three times in a row. I hit him with a slider, I hit him with a curveball, and I didn't hit with anything that I wanted to. He was a big, strong guy, I think he was 6-foot-7, 240 pounds. I did hit him one time real good and, again, it wasn't intentional. I used to keep him off the plate. Of course, when you get hit and you're used to being kept off the plate you get kind of testy. So the next time up, I threw the pitch and all he did was throw the bat at me. It was just coming out like a helicopter. That thing was going around and round and round and I just hit the dirt and it went over my head and that was part of the game. I think I even went and got the bat. (laughs)

In the last game in Colt Stadium, Don Drysdale was notorious for knocking people down, too. He came out and we didn't have too many hitters. He knocked Aspromonte or Wynn down, and I thought "well, there's only one way. I gotta suck it up and get some guts because he's a big, strong guy." So I knocked him down when he came up, and when I got up he knocked me down and we did that for the rest of the ballgame. We were pitching each other very tight, but that was part of the game. Pitching and hitting -- it's a war between the pitcher and hitter. If you don't pitch inside, then those hitters will get out over the plate and take the outside part of the plate away from you.

RK: Who was the toughest hitter you had to face?

BB: One year it was Ken Boyer. It seemed like one year, I could get him out all of the time -- he wasn't a problem -- and the next year, he'd own me. But for one year, he just tore me up. Ted Williams was, by far, probably the best hitter that I've ever faced. A pure hitter. A couple of the toughest outs you could have were Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente. They were always tough outs. I remember Pete Rose in his rookie year. He hit maybe .275 or something like that. He wasn't a real big guy and he's wasn't a particularly good hitter that year. But the next year in Spring Training, as the bus pulled up, he was in the batting cage. While he was hitting, we got dressed and went out in the playing field. An hour and a half later, we came back in to change our shirts and he's still hitting. I mean this guy was about as intense of an athlete as you'd ever want to run across, and he just made himself into a real tough out.

RK: What is your opinion on the issue of Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame?

BB: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame by baseball ability? Absolutely. But if he did what they said he did, and he bet on baseball and he bet on Cincinnati, then he deserves what he's got coming. As a player, does he belong there? Absolutely! He was a great ballplayer. But, he did wrong. He was betting on his own team, from what I understand. Now I certainly don't know the specifics, but I'm sure that baseball didn't want to kick him out of the Hall of Fame and kick him out of baseball because of his name and his reputation. Why would baseball want to do that? It had to be a real, real serious infraction for them to do that.

RK: Do you draw a distinction between betting on your team to win and betting on it to lose?

BB: I wouldn't bet on any baseball game. That's just not the thing to do. I think he had a gambling problem, but you don't bet on baseball. You don't bet on the sport that you're competing in -- especially while you're active. But who knows? My rationalization is this: here's a guy that deserves to be in the Hall of Fame that has tremendous fan appeal. He's been a great player for the game. He played with aggression... he fought you all the way. Of course, that's the game -- you've got to do that. But baseball would not want to terminate someone like that from the game unless it were really called for. I don't think that anybody had anything against anybody. I think they acted on what they thought were the facts. I would imagine that they would have done everything that they possibly could to overlook something if it was in a 'gray area'. They didn't have anything against Pete Rose.

RK: Getting back to your career, what kind of off-season jobs did you have to supplement your income?

BB: One year I worked in real estate. I sold new homes for a builder who had built my home. Then I worked and called on the colleges and high schools, selling sporting goods. I'd do that for three or four months.

RK: You were traded from Houston to Atlanta for future Hall-of-Famer Eddie Mathews. How did that turn out?

BB: I looked at being traded to Atlanta as a real opportunity. They had a great ballclub and I looked at it as an opportunity to maybe get into a World Series. I looked at it as we were going to score a lot of runs, which is something I really wasn't used to. Anyway, I went over there and got off to a great start. I was pitching against Tom Seaver, and Tom dug a hole in the mound by the rubber. It was like you would take a post hole digger and dig a hole, and then I'd go out and fill it all in in my half of the inning. I think I was winning 3-1 and I had a man on in about the 5th or 6th inning. I was pitching from the stretch and my foot got caught in that hole, underneath the lip of the rubber. I came out and threw as hard as I could, my foot got caught and stayed back, and I cracked a rib. I pulled whatever tendons around it, and it was excruciating.

For three weeks, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't sneeze, I couldn't cry, I couldn't cough, I couldn't do anything -- the pain was unbearable. We were fighting Cincinnati for first place and they were tearing us up. They had tore up our pitching staff, but I had pitched a real good ballgame against them in Atlanta and they were trying to get me to come back so I could pitch in Cincinnati. We got into St. Louis and it was like 100 degrees. I said, "Well, I'll try and throw batting practice and see what I can do". After about 20 minutes, I start throwing the ball pretty good. Then when we went into Cincinnati, they pitched on a Saturday afternoon game, and it was going to be real hot. So I tried it and they wanted to shoot me with Novocaine to deaden it. I said, "No, if I can't stand it, you're not going to do that". My fastball was about an inch or two too short and they were just getting enough of it to hit it on the handle and get it over the infield. They got two or three infield hits, then Bob Coleman hit a double and they took me out in the second or third inning. My ribs were really, really sore after that. I went out in relief one more time, then they sent down to the minor leagues, to Richmond, and that's where I finished my career.

RK: Did you stay involved with baseball after you quit playing?

BB: The Braves sent me a contract and cut my salary tremendously. I said to Paul Richards, "Look, if you don't pay me such-and-such, just put me on the voluntarily retired list." He said, "No, this is the most we're going to pay you" and I said "OK, just put me on the voluntarily retired list". I was 35 or so anyway, and then I went to work in real estate. I made more money in real estate in my first year out than I did in any year in baseball. Eddie Robinson, who was the general manager under Paul Richards, later sent me a letter and offered me a job in the organization as a pitching coach. They said that Luman Harris and people had put in a real good word for me and had wanted me to play and I never even answered the letter. What was involved was that you'd be away from your family for a good seven months out of the year. My kids were starting school and I just felt that, for the good of my family, it would be best if I just threw it in.

But later on, after I'd been out of the game for a long period of time, I got a call I think from someone on the Tigers asking if I'd be interested in a minor-league job as a pitching coach or something like that. I thought, "Man, my kids are gone. I'd love to get back into baseball" So I called Bob Lillis, he was then managing the Astros, and I asked him how the game had changed -- what are they doing different, who should I talk to, see if I could get some pointers and what I should study on to make sure I could do a good job if I did take a job like that. But that never came to pass. And it's probably the best anyway because I wouldn't want to be traveling all of the time anyway.

RK: What are you doing now?

BB: Oh, I'm fishing now (laughs)

RK: Mr. Bruce, I want to thank you for your time tonight

BB: Oh, it's been kind of nice. There hasn't been that big of a demand, (laughs) so it's been good to go back over and relive some of those stories.