Mike Cuellar, a lefthander who was a four-time all-star and pitched 15 seasons in the majors, died April 2 in Orlando. He was 72.
Cuellar spent most of the first three years of his pro career pitching in his native Cuba for Havana (International). He made his big league debut in April 1959 with the Reds, getting into two games before being sent back down. He didn’t get back to the big leagues again until 1964, when he worked mostly out of the Cardinals bullpen, and landed a full-time big league job with the Astros in 1966. He would spent three seasons in the Astros’ rotation, earning his first all-star appearance in 1967 during a season in which he went 16-11, 3.04.
Traded to the Orioles after the 1968 season, Cuellar blossomed in Baltimore. He won 23 games with a 2.38 ERA in his first season and was co-winner of the 1969 Cy Young Award, finishing tied atop the voting with the Tigers’ Denny McLain. He then outdueled the Mets’ Tom Seaver in Game One of the 1969 World Series, throwing a complete game in the process. That would be the Orioles’ only win of the Series, however, as the “Miracle Mets” won in five games. Things turned out much better for the Cuellar and the Orioles in 1970, as the lefty won 24 games and the team got back to the World Series, where they knocked off the Reds in five games. Cuellar threw a complete game in the clinching Game Five, allowing three runs on six hits.
Cuellar didn’t slow down over the next four seasons, winning at least 18 games in each of them, ending with his 22-10, 3.11 season as a 37-year-old in 1974. He made his final all-star appearance that season. Cuellar finally tailed off in 1976 and was released after the season. He signed with the Angels, but was released again after making just two appearances. Cuellar’s big league career came to a close with him sporting a 185-130, 3.14 career record. He was a four-time 20-game winner and had a 4-4, 2.85 record in 12 career postseason starts.
Tom D’Armi, who was Duke University’s head coach for seven seasons, died July 10 in Wilson, N.C. He was 75.
D’Armi took over from Enos Slaughter as Duke’s head coach following the 1977 season and guided the Blue Devils to five consecutive winning seasons from 1980-84. He won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s coach of the year award in 1981 after leading Duke to a 29-10 record. D’Armi won 125 games during his tenure and had seven players drafted. He remained at Duke after his coaching career, working as the school’s director of athletic facilities until 2004.
Van Fletcher, a righthander who pitched in one major league season, died March 17 in Yadkinville, N.C. He was 85.
Fletcher’s pro career spanned eight seasons, but he only made it to the big leagues once, making nine appearances for the 1955 Tigers. Fletcher had broken into pro ball in 1949 and worked his way up the ranks before breaking out with Seattle (Pacific Coast) in 1954, going 4-6, 2.77 in 78 innings. That performance led the Tigers to acquire him before the ’55 season and he made Detroit’s Opening Day roster. Fletcher recorded a 3.00 ERA in a couple of different stints in the Tigers bullpen. He didn’t figure in any decisions and still wound up spending most of the year back in the minors. He only pitched one more season in pro ball, spending most of the 1956 campaign in the Southern Association with Little Rock and Montgomery, going 8-14, 6.32 in 158 innings.
R.C. “Red” Gaskill, a longtime scout with four organizations, died July 10 in LaMarque, Texas. He was 89.
Gaskill is best remembered as the bird dog who tipped off Mets scout Red Murff about Nolan Ryan as a high schooler, though Murff is usually credited with discovering Ryan. Gaskill scouted for 35 years in all, working for the Mets, Expos, Indians and Angels along the way. He received a national scout of the year award in 2002 and was also a member of the Texas Baseball Scouting Hall of Fame.
Joe Gates, a second baseman who played two seasons with the White Sox, died March 28 in Gary, Ind. He was 55.
The Royals signed Gates as a nondrafted free agent in July 1973 and he made his pro debut the following season, winning a batting title in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League with a .379 average in 174 at-bats. He worked his way up to Double-A Jacksonville (Southern) in 1976, hitting .280 with one homer and 21 RBIs, and was traded to the White Sox after his second season there. Gates caught fire in 1978, his first season in Chicago’s system, batting .332 with four homers and 53 RBIs with Double-A Knoxville (Southern) and earning his first big league callup that September. He got into eight games for the White Sox and went 6-for-24.
Gates went back to the minors for most of the 1979 season but did make 16 appearances for the White Sox. He played three more seasons after that, spending most of his time at the Triple-A level and also playing a short stint in the Mexican League in 1982. Gates got into coaching after his playing career. He worked both at the high school level and with his hometown minor league club, the independent Gary SouthShore RailCats of the Northern League. He had coached with the RailCats since the franchise’s arrival in 2003.
Billy Hoeft, a lefthander who pitched in the majors for 15 seasons and was an all-star in 1955, died March 16 in Canadian Lakes, Mich. He was 77.
Hoeft signed with the Tigers out of high school in 1950 and reached the big leagues after just two seasons in the minors. He worked mostly out of Detroit’s bullpen as a 20-year-old rookie in 1952, but also made 10 starts and went 2-7, 4.32 in 125 innings overall. He transitioned to the Tigers’ rotation full-time in 1953 and had his breakout season in 1955, going 16-7, 2.99 in 220 innings and making the all-star team. Despite pitching for a fifth-place team, he posted a career-best 20 wins in 1956, though his ERA slipped to 4.06 in 248 innings.
Hoeft was traded to the Red Sox in May 1959, then was dealt again a month later to the Orioles. He went 2-5, 5.56 between his three stops that season, and would spend most of the remainder of his career pitching out of the bullpen.
He posted a 2.02 ERA for the Orioles in 1961 but was traded to the Giants after going 4-8, 4.58 in 1962. He would go on to pitch for the Giants, Cubs and the Milwaukee Braves over his final four seasons, ending his career after going 1-4, 4.80 for the Cubs and Giants in 1966. Hoeft’s career came to a close with him sporting a 3.94 lifetime ERA and a 97-101 record.
Reeve “Bud” Watkins, a righthander who pitched professionally for nine seasons, died March 14 in Anaheim. He was 79.
Watkins pitched almost his entire career in the Pacific Coast League, primarily with the Sacramento Solons. He made his pro debut in 1952 with Stockton (California), going 5-5, 2.71 in 103 innings, but also got in four appearances with Sacramento that year and spent the rest of his career in the PCL.
Watkins split his time between starting and relieving throughout his career in Sacramento, enjoying his best season in 1957 when he went 8-10, 3.25 in 177 innings. He set career highs for wins (11) and innings (200) in 1959, a season which he split between Vancouver and Phoenix, before returning to Sacramento in 1960. Watkins pitched his final season in 1961 for the Hawaii Islanders, working in 41 games and going 1-5, 5.84 in 91 innings.
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