From its $175-a-month origin, Wittig's big-league career was never boring

John Steadman

July 31, 1992|By John Steadman

When the Baltimore Orioles (International League vintage) invited Johnnie Wittig for a tryout, they let him warm up in street clothes and were impressed enough to offer a contract for $175 a month. It was the middle of the depression but his German-immigrant parents didn't want their son playing baseball.

"That boy has no time for games," said his mother. "Johnnie's got work to do." Then it was explained he was going to be paid and that gave it a different connotation. The Orioles -- three years later -- were to give him $500 as part of the purchase price when he was sold to the New York Giants in 1938.

In between, they rewarded his pitching efforts by instructing him to go to Fineman's clothing store on Baltimore Street and buy whatever he wanted -- at their expense. Compensation was modest in those days and Wittig, during his minor-league stops and a three-year stay in the major leagues with the Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox, never complained.

The memories come back into focus for the 78-year-old as he talks in his home in suburban Baltimore and recalls that upon reporting to the Giants, he was thrust into a pennant fight between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs that went to the last day of the 1938 season.

"I got sold to the Giants after beating the Montreal Royals and four days later relieved against the Cubs," he recalled. "Then, the first time we went to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates it was the largest crowd in Forbes Field history. They roped off the foul territory for standing room.

"Clyde Castleman, I believe, started for us. About the sixth inning, Bill Terry, our manager, said, 'Johnnie, warm up.' I asked him where? There was no bullpen available because of the spectators. People all over the place. So I got loose directly in front of the dugout while the game was in progress."

Then he went in to face the Hall of Fame brothers, Lloyd and Paul Waner. He got them on pop-ups. He was nervous, yet overjoyed, and headed off the mound prematurely. Terry told him he owed the Pirates another out. On the bench his teammate, Cliff Melton, was laughing and said, "In the big leagues you get three outs."

Johnny Rizzo was the final hitter and Wittig put him away with three fastballs to win his first major-league game. Later that season, Wittig, in his initial start, gave the Brooklyn Dodgers only six hits but lost. The thrill of his baseball life came, though, when it was over. He met Babe Ruth, then coaching first base for the Dodgers, who congratulated him on an impressive performance.

"The Babe asked me a lot of questions about Baltimore and his old hometown," he said. "It was the first and only time I met him. What a great fellow. All the players, as well as the fans, loved him. That's why I was disturbed when they didn't name the new Baltimore park for him."

As Wittig looks back on 17 seasons in baseball, including two stops with the Orioles, 10 years apart, he taps into a fund of anecdotes. He remembers when Tommy Thomas was suspended for sending Ellis Clary into the Memorial Stadium stands to beat up a heckler and he took over managing the team on a temporary basis.

Johnny Podgajny was pitching against the Newark Bears and got to the ninth inning, two outs and three men on base. Bud Metheny was at the plate but Podgajny delayed. Wittig went out to see what was wrong.

"'I can't get a ball past Metheny,'" Wittig said Podgajny told him. "'He owns me.' I asked if he wanted to come out and he did. I told him to tell the umpire he was hurt and that would give us time to get a pitcher ready.

"We didn't have anyone rested so I decided to relieve. You should have heard the Newark bench. The other players worked me over with insults. But guess what? I got three strikes past Metheny and we won the game."

Wittig was there, as just a youngster, when Hy Vandenberg, who also had been sold by the Orioles to the Giants, and was optioned to the Jersey City team, visited Oriole Park and called on Ogden, the general manager. Vandenberg demanded a percentage of his sales price from the year before. Heated words and then a fight ensued between the pitcher and Ogden, who insisted no such agreement had ever been made.

"I saw Vandenberg and walked him up the ramp to the dugout, down the left-field foul line and out the gate at the old park," he said. "I let him stay at my house in East Baltimore. Boy, what a big story that was at the time, a player and general manager throwing punches."

A strange twist occurred in 1940 when Johnnie was sold to Cincinnati. He wondered what the Reds wanted with him since they had such pitchers as Paul Derringer, Bucky Walters, Johnny Vander Meer, Jim Turner, Joe Beggs and others.

"I asked Warren Giles, the GM, what the story was," he said. "I wasn't getting any work. Then Giles admitted the Reds thought they were getting infielder Mickey Witek. Our names sounded alike. It shows what a crazy game it can be."

So Johnny Wittig, who wasn't Witek, moved on, eventually returning to the Giants. It was probably the only time in baseball history a deal was consummated that involved a careless case of pronunciation.

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