Bruce Kison, RIP

Talk about feeling old. It was around this time in 1971, a few days before Dartmouth graduation. I was in Baker Library reading an article in Sports Illustrated about a rail-thin 21 year-old minor league pitcher and his grizzled battery mate. The pitcher was Bruce Kison. The old catcher was Woody Huyke.

Pat Jordan, himself a one-time top young pitching prospect, described Kison for Sports Illustrated this way:

At 21, he looks like 15. He has a gawky adolescent body, all arms and legs and little torso. His face is long and fine boned and dusted with peach-like fuzz.

Less than a month later, the Pittsburgh Pirates called up the gawky, fuzz-faced youngster to fill in for Bob Moose who was serving a two-week stint in the Army Reserve. The Chicago Cubs hit Kison hard in his major league debut on July 4, but Kison then ripped off three strong starts in a row including a two-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres.

Kison remained with the Pirates when Moose returned from the army. At season’s end, his record was 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA in 95 innings.

Kison pitched four and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief against San Francisco in the fourth and final game of the NL championship series, picking up the win. In Game 2 of the World Series, Danny Murtaugh brought the rookie on in the fourth inning to quell a Baltimore rally. Unfortunately, Kison issued back-to-back walks, including one to the opposing pitcher, Jim Palmer. He left the game without having retired anyone.

Game 4 was the first night game in World Series history. In the bottom of the first inning, the Orioles jumped all over Pirates starter Luke Walker. With two out and three runs in, Murtaugh called on Kison. He retired Davey Johnson to end the inning.

Kison shut-out the Orioles for the next six innings, allowing just one hit and walking no one (though he hit three batters). Kison also fired up his team and the crowd when he barreled into Johnson trying to break up a double play.

Pittsburgh rallied, and Kison turned a 4-3 lead over to Dave Giusti, who recorded the save. The win evened the Series at two games each. The Pirates went on to defeat the Orioles in seven games. Earl Weaver, the Orioles manager, said “Kison turned the Series around.”

Immediately after the game, Kison turned himself around. A helicopter picked up Kison and his best man, Bob Moose, and flew them from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to the airport. There, they boarded a private jet and flew to Pittsburgh. Three hours after Game 7, Kison got married.

Though plagued by arm trouble, Kison became a mainstay of the Pirates staff in the 1970s. A baby-faced assassin, he liked to pitch inside (remember those three Orioles he hit during his great 1971 World Series performance). This approach triggered several brawls, the most famous of which occurred after he hit the great Mike Schmidt.

1979 was one of Kison’s best seasons. He went 13-7 with a 3.19 ERA.

That year, the Pirates returned to the World Series and again faced the Orioles. Though not the ace of the staff, Kison got the Game One start following a five game NL championship series against Cincinnati in which he did not appear.

In a reversal of 1971 form, the Orioles scored five runs (four of them earned) off Kison in the first inning, chasing him after he retired only one batter. It was his only appearance in the Series (won by the Bucs in seven games) and his last appearance as a Pirate.

In 1982, Kison found himself pitching in the post-season again, this time for Gene Mauch’s California Angels. He had split the regular season between the bullpen and the starting rotation, compiling a record of 10-5 with a 3.17 ERA.

In Game 2 of the AL championship series, Kison pitched a complete game and outdueled Milwaukee Brewers ace Pete Vuckovich 4-2. That evened the series.

Mauch handed Kison the ball for Game 5, the final contest in a best of five series. Kison did not disappoint. In five innings, he allowed just one earned run on three hits and three walks. When Mauch pulled him before the bottom of the sixth inning (Kison was pitching on only three days rest), the Angels led 3-2. But Milwaukee scored twice in the seventh to win 4-3.

That was Kison’s last post-season appearance. Even with the shellacking he endured in Game One of the 1979 World Series, his career post-season record, in ten games, stands at 5-1 record with a 1.98 ERA. At one point, he hurled 20 scoreless playoff innings in a row.

Kison retired after the 1985 season. His career mark is 115-88 with a 3.66 ERA.

Kison stayed in baseball for virtually the remainder of his life — as a minor league pitching instructor, a bullpen coach, a pitching coach, and a scout. He thus more than repaid the debt he owed his mentors, including Huyke, Don Osborn, and (above all) Harvey Haddix.

It wasn’t until last December that Kison retired from scouting. He died of cancer on June 2 at age 68.

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