Sports

ARCHIVE: A career full of memories

PROSPERITY - Johnny Buzhardt birdied Mid-Carolina Country Club's 18th hole that day in January 2002, then relaxed and enjoyed the good feeling that an ideal finish to a round of golf produces.

Finally, he prepared to leave the clubhouse and head home, and his world turned upside-down.

He collapsed. A stroke, the doctors said. A long rehabilitation. Perhaps paralysis.

All the negatives came true, and therapy, not golf, occupies his physical activity 21/2 years later. A motorized scooter and a wheelchair have replaced a golf cart for transportation.

He refuses to permit the setback to get him down too much; his multitude of friends see to that.

Besides, he always will have his memories from his days in professional baseball and what a delightful frolic into the past that is.

He can look back . . . .

* to the one-hitter he pitched for the Cubs against the Phillies.

* to earning his first major-league win by throwing one pitch.

* to his first major-league hit - off Sandy Koufax.

* to pitching the complete-game victory that snapped the longest losing streak in modern major-league history.

* to Bobby Thomson's home run - to him far more important than the one synonymous with the player's name.

* to outdueling Whitey Ford 1-0 and his general mastery of the Yankees.

* to pitching in Cuba during the Castro revolution and seeing insurgents on the diamond with hand grenades hanging from their belts.

Those moments just scratch the surface, which provides a pretty nice legacy for the guy whose first baseball goal focused on wearing the red uniforms of a team in the semi-pro Dutch Fork League.

$250 to sign

Johnny Buzhardt sits in the same clubhouse where he was stricken on Jan. 9, 2002, and a steady stream of friends comes by with pat on the back, encouraging words or to swap a yarn.

He laughs with his golfing buddies, swapping lies about their exploits on the course.

"These guys," he says and shakes his head. "I would have to go home and tell Mama" - Jane, his wife of 50 years -"that I couldn't take her out to dinner. They got all my money again."

Yeah, but there were other times, they say, and they recount the story about having to go home and mow their lawns.

"I held up the cash that day," Buzhardt says, "and told them I would have somebody mow my yard."

Laughter comes easily in the bull sessions. The time flies, just as the years seem all too short in reliving his pro career that began a half-century ago.

His thoughts turn to an even earlier time, his days at old Prosperity High.

"We didn't have enough players to scrimmage in football," he says. "We would have to split up and just run plays to one side."

But baseball was his game, and he made an impression around Prosperity, then, now and forever his home.

"Must have been my 10th grade year," he says. "We played Pomaria (in a Dutch Fork League game) and I heard one of their guys says, 'Let's get him; (his pitches) have nothing.'

"One of his teammates said, 'He must have something; he's whipping us.' "

Word spread, and Buzhardt gave up the goal of wearing that red semi-pro uniform for the pros. He signed with the Cubs' organization in 1954 -"I got $250 to sign and $250 if I lasted for 60 days," he says - and set forth on a baseball odyssey that saw him pitch in 38 states.

Scary time in Cuba

He made the majors with the Cubs late in the 1958 season and got his feet wet with three relief appearances. In the third, his only pitch resulted in a double play, and Chicago rallied in the next inning to win - and he earned the decision.

"(Cubs manager) Bob Scheffing told me I had been pitching pretty good and I would start against the Dodgers in Chicago," Buzhardt remembers. "I had a 2-0 lead, then Don Demeter hit a two-run homer in the ninth to tie the game."

Thomson, the player whose home run won the 1951 pennant for the Giants, then made Buzhardt a winner with a homer.

His next start came against the Dodgers in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and he won again. But his single off Koufax really made his day.

"My first hit," he says. "A line drive that gets longer and harder every year."

He pitched winter ball in Havana after the season and had a front-row seat to the revolution.

"The kids with grenades . . . that was scary," he says.

Scarier might have been the Phillies' teams Buzhardt would pitch for in 1960 and '61.

'The Gee Whiz Kids’

"Those weren't bad teams, just young teams," Buzhardt says.

He had introduced himself to the Phillies a year earlier with his one-hitter. He gave up a single to Bob Sadowski, a catcher who mustered only seven hits and batted .130 that season.

He found himself in their company a year later after a trade. The best part, he says, is that Alvin Dark went, too.

"(Dark) was my right-hand man," he says. "When I came up, I didn't know the hitters, and he told me how to pitch to them."

Those 1960 Phils had such little promise that manager Eddie Sawyer resigned after the first game. A year later, they set the modern record for futility with 23 straight losses.

Buzhardt won the last game before the dismal streak, and he won the game that stopped the skid.

"You remember Philadelphia had had the Whiz Kids (that won the 1950 National League pennant)," Jane Buzhardt says. "They called that team the 'Gee Whiz Kids.' "

The Phillies snapped the streak, he says, "because we happened to score some runs that day."

During the skid, "We would go into the clubhouse after another loss and you could hear a pin drop," Buzhardt remembers. "Finally, somebody would get up the nerve to take a shower, and the water running sounded like a thunderstorm."

Buzhardt beat the Milwaukee Braves 7-4 in the second game of a doubleheader to stop the streak.

"We flew back into Philadelphia that night, and you would have thought we won the pennant," he says. "They had a band playing and everything. They say Philadelphia fans have booed Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but they were great to me."

Masterful against Yanks

Pitching for the White Sox from 1962-67, Buzhardt enjoyed the best seasons of his 11-year career. He particularly found success against the Yankees.

"I went 7-0 against them," he says. "They had a lot of free-swingers, and they would swing at a lot of pitches out of the strike zone.

"I didn't have his record, of course, but I pitched a lot like Tom Glavine. I wouldn't throw a strike until I had to. I didn't throw that hard, but I had a good curve, they called it a roundhouse curve. A slider hurt my arm, so I didn't use it until I needed a strikeout."

A 1-0 win against Ford and the Yankees at Chicago's Comiskey Park occupies a prominent place in his museum of memories.

"The wind was blowing hard into toward the plate," Buzhardt remembers. "The only way to hit a home run was to hit a line drive. The wind knocked down everything else.

"Jim Landis hit a home run for us, then Yogi Berra came up with two out in the ninth inning. He blasted one, and he went into his home-run trot, but the wind got it and (the right-fielder) caught the ball against the fence."

He wasn't always so fortunate. He recalls the night he gave up a monster homer to the Twins' Harmon Killebrew.

"We were going home after the game and I didn't say a word," Jane Buzhardt says. "Finally, we were almost there and I said, 'I don't think I have ever seen a baseball hit that far.' "

Johnny Buzhardt picks up the story: "I told her, 'Shut up, woman!' " he says, laughing.

Besides, he says, "She didn't see the longest one (Killebrew) hit off me (in Minnesota).

"(Killebrew) was at the All-Star Game the other night and she asked if I remembered him. I told her, 'I would recognize him even without a bat in his hands.' "

A deceiving record

Other than a couple of years they stayed in Chicago in order for their three children to remain in the same school, the Buzhardts always returned to Prosperity during the winters.

Indeed, the desire to keep their children - Richard, Allen and Donna - in the same school played a role in his decision to retire after the 1968 season.

"The travel is tough on a family," he says. "They would have to change schools three or four times a year, and that's not fair to them."

Another factor: although only 31, he says his pitches did not have the same zip. His 3.66 career earned run average tells far more about his ability than his 71-96 record.

He worked 21 years for Carolina Eastman before retiring and "I had 10-11 real good years" before suffering the stroke.

He reconsiders for a moment, then adds, "Life is still good."

So are the memories.

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