The First Legitimate Closer in Houston Colt
By James Anderson
"I was my own set up man AND closer!"
- Hal Woodeshick
Ask Hal Woodeshick about baseball and expect to be spending a fair amount of your day talking about the great game. Ask Hal about the state of pitching in the Major Leagues these days and the hair will stand up on the back of his neck as he ponders how to express his personal opinion on this particular topic without losing his temper.
Hal Woodeshick, who came to be recognized as the very first true "closer" in Houston Major League Baseball history, also became one of the top relievers in the league after teammate Rusty Staub taught Woodeshick how to throw a slider.
Woodeshick began his Major League career as a starting pitcher with the Detroit Tigers, which was only a glitch on the radar screen as he spent the next 4 seasons with Cleveland, Washington, and again with Detroit as a starting pitcher. When Woodeshick joined the new expansion team in Houston, the Colt .45s, as a free agent he continued as a starting pitcher with equally mediocre success, but at some point prior to the 1963 season teammate Rusty Staub taught Woody how to throw a slider. After moving to the bullpen in 1963 for the Colt .45s, Woodeshick put up some very impressive numbers using his newly mastered breaking pitch. 114 innings pitched and an ERA of 1.97 resulted in an absolutely astounding turn of events in the career of Mr. Woodeshick along with an appearance in the 1963 All-Star game as the teams only representative.
Woody again impressed as a top reliever for Houston in 1964, accumulating a league-leading 23 saves during a time when relief pitchers were given credit for a save only when they actually faced the winning or tying run at the plate. And, as Woodeshick reminded, there were no setup men or "closers" who had specific rolls on a team, as is the case today. It was not unusual for a closer in Woodeshick’s day to regularly come in and pitch 2 or 3 innings to close out a game. As Woodeshick exclaimed, "I was my on setup man AND closer!" With relief pitchers pulling down millions of dollars and pitching only 40-45 innings a year it is outright ludicrous to Hal Woodeshick who put up 114 innings pitched as a closer in 1963.
I remember Hal Woodeshick when as a kid I attended games at old Colt Stadium. Woodeshick would many times keep you on the edge of your seat when he'd walk the first two batters he'd face in the 9th inning only to settle down and strike out the next three batters in order.
Woody was also afflicted with a sort of mental block on ground balls he had to field—mainly bunts. It wasn't Woodeshick's fielding that was the problem. He handled that part of the play ok. It was when he threw the ball to first base that all logic went out the window. You see, Hal simply could not make an accurate throw to first base no matter how routine the play was. Finally, .45’s GM Paul Richards and pitching coach Cot Deal worked with Woody almost endlessly at trying to improve on his defense and throws to first base. They eventually convinced Woodeshick to simply cradle the ball before throwing it and jog towards first base, lightly tossing the ball overhand to the first baseman to ensure that Mr. Staub could cradle the tossed ball in his glove without having to make a diving catch to prevent the ball from caroming down the right field line.
In his book Colt .45's - A Six Gun Salute, Robert Reed wrote the following about Hal Woodeshick, his defense, and his realization that this likely would be his last trip to the Major Leagues if he didn't shape up:
"Woodeshick, Richards, and pitching coach Cot Deal drilled endlessly on fielding fundamentals and techniques. Woodeshick knew it was now or never. 'I've got to,' he (Woodeshick) said, when asked whether he liked the extra work the coaches were putting him through. 'I've had more individual attention paid to me in this camp than all other years I've been up with Major League clubs. I know that it's this time or forget it.'"
Former Colt .45s general manager Paul Richards would later describe Woodeshick as "one of the best moves I ever made in those early days."
In 1965 after appearing in 27 games for the re-named team the Houston Astros, Woodeshick was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for another pitcher named Mike Cuellar, who went on to star with the Baltimore Orioles. It was a trade at the time that appeared to help both ballclubs, since Cuellar pitched well for the Astros. However, after Cuellar was squandered away to the Orioles for journeyman first baseman Curt Blefary, it was the apparent beginning of many questionable moves by Judge Hofheinz after he wrestled control of the team away from majority owner R. E. "Bob" Smith. In the long run, the end result was that the Astros had basically given away both Woodeshick and Cuellar.
After being traded by the Astros, Woodeshick continued his successful role as a relief pitcher for the next 2½ seasons with the Cardinals including appearances in the 1967 World Series before he decided to hang 'em up for good at the end of the 1967 season. From there, Woodeshick moved back east and settled down in Virginia until a close friend convinced Woodeshick that there were great opportunities in Houston. Since Woody did leave some close friendships behind in Houston, he finally decided to make his move back to Houston in 1970 where he still makes his home to this day.
Hal Woodeshick will never be considered a match for the likes of Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell, nor even be looked upon as in the same league as it were talent wise for the impact that both Biggio and Bagwell have made with their gloves and bat, but when it comes to having been part of a group of stars on a fledgling ballclub that endeared themselves to many young and new fans such as myself who passed on my love for the team down to my children in the same way my father passed on his love and loyalty for the team down to me, the likes of Hal Woodeshick along with other new stars on the team such as Jimmy Wynn, Turk Farrell, Rusty Staub, Bob Bruce, and others have no equals in the history of the Houston Major League franchise. The Biggios and Bagwells of the world simply picked up the mantle left by the likes of the colorful Hal Woodeshick and his teammates and continued to maintain that connection to the loyal fans who were first drawn to this new Houston team back in the early 1960's by a group of colorful and dedicated ballplayers called the Colt .45s.
Thanks again Woody for those wonderful memories!