They made me out to be mean and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t really mean, just an outgoing personality — a pitcher in the major leagues doing what was necessary to stick around. I just wanted to WIN.
— Virgil “Fire” Trucks, Throwing Heat
His career ended three years before I was born, but as one who became avid early in life about both baseball and books, I grew up with at least a casual awareness that Birmingham’s Virgil Trucks was one of the hardest-throwing and most-feared pitchers of his era. Maybe it was the nickname that caught my young imagination, but I recall reading of Trucks’ formidable presence on the mound in more than one of the baseball-themed books I checked out of my elementary school library. I have a particular memory of reading about the two no-hitters he pitched for the Detroit Tigers in 1952 — a single-season feat accomplished by only two men before Trucks and two others since.
Among batters who faced Trucks, there were two common threads: Few recalled getting many hits off him, and none enjoyed standing in against him. Hank Bauer, a longtime Yankees outfielder, summed up the general feeling when he said, in Trucks’ 2004 memoir, “I didn’t like hitting against him. He’d come inside on you…” The fireballer himself weighed in on this topic with a time-tested bit of baseball wisdom that was an accepted part of the game for most of its history.
“If a guy knew you might throw inside at 100 miles per hour,” wrote Trucks, “then he was less likely to dig in and swing from the heels. I never wanted to hit anybody. I just didn’t want anybody getting a hit off me.” He went on to point out that the success of his philosophy was apparent in the fact that no batter ever hit two home runs off him in the same game.
“If they hit one out on me,” he wrote, “they knew where I was going to pitch then the next time they came up. Inside or further inside — they knew that I would come close.”
In a 17-year major league career — he lost the better part of two years to military service during World War II — Trucks won 177 games pitching for mostly mediocre teams. His career numbers fall at least slightly short of being Hall of Fame-worthy, though it’s worth pointing out that, among pitchers in the Hall, two — Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean — had fewer wins than Trucks, and eight — Bert Blyleven, Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Ferguson Jenkins, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton — had lower winning percentages. There is no doubt that, at his best, Trucks was among the top pitchers in the game.
I had the pleasure of meeting Trucks in the summer of 2010, at a lunch arranged by our mutual friend, Chris Langdon. It was also Chris who sent me an email on Monday of this week, informing me that Trucks died last Saturday, a month shy of his 96th birthday.
I sat next to Trucks at our lunch that day, surrounded by a tableful of his friends and acquaintances. At 93, the old hurler was lively, self-effacing and downright funny. He clearly relished baseball talk, happily answering questions he’d heard ten thousand times. Best all-around player he faced? Joe DiMaggio (“He could do it all — hit, run, field, throw. Mickey Mantle was close behind him.”). Toughest out? Ted Williams (“I didn’t pitch him inside,” Trucks joked. “I’d pitch low and behind him, hoping to hold him to a double.”). Favorite teammates? Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg (“A terrific man…he won my only World Series game for me, homered with three men on.”) and Satchel Paige (“One of the best friends I ever had.”).
Trucks also told some great stories. He laughed about a game in which Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher and master malapropist, who was also famous for his propensity to swing at — and hit — pitches far outside the strike zone, homered off him.
“I threw him a curve ball that broke that high off the plate,” Trucks said, lowering a hand to just above ankle level. “He hit it like a golf ball, over the wall in left field. He rounded third and I yelled at him, ‘Yogi, next time up, I’m gonna knock you right on your ass! What do you think of that?’ He just laughed and yelled back, ‘What do I think? I ain’t got nothin’ to think with!’”
Another story involved an early-season game in Boston one year. Trucks got in trouble early, as the first three pitches he threw were stroked for a single and two doubles. The Tiger manager called time and trekked to the mound.
“He asked my catcher, Matt Batts, ‘Doesn’t Virg have it today?’ Batts said, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t caught one yet.’”
We all left the restaurant after about an hour and a half, pausing in the parking lot for handshakes all around. Trucks handed me a baseball card with a picture of him in his heyday and his career stats on the back, then obliged my request that he autograph it. That occasioned one last question, about how players’ attitude toward fans has changed over the years.
“After games, there’d always be 50 or 100 kids or more hanging around, and we’d stay and sign every ball and every piece of paper they pushed at us,” Trucks said. “Ballplayers today get dressed and sneak out. Some of them even have bodyguards. The only bodyguard I ever had was my wife.”
“How’d she do?” I asked.
“Well, no other women would come around me, that’s for sure.”
We laughed and shook hands again. Then he climbed into his big car and was gone.
I sure am glad I met him.