Card Corner: Phil Regan and his spitball

Phil Regan

Phil Regan did just about anything he could to a baseball to be effective as a pitcher in the big leagues.

Throughout the year, I’ll be examining some of the most noteworthy baseball cards that have featured Detroit Tigers players and managers. We’ll examine a variety of cards (and the people on them) that have come out since the Topps era began in 1952.

To begin, the 1964 card of Tigers pitcher Phil Regan offers us a glimpse into classic Topps from the 1960s. First off, it’s a spring training shot, complete with clear blue skies; Topps traveled to each camp every spring in order to procure profile shots and other posed images for their yearly sets. (Action shots would not come into vogue until 1971.) Second, Regan’s uniform gives us some insight into the baseball fashions of the day. As Regan takes on a classic pitching pose, hands held together above the head while clutching an imaginary ball, he also happens to be wearing a heavy windbreaker under his uniform jersey. Although we rarely see players looking like this today, the windbreaker-under-the-jersey was a common look for players during the 1960s.

I suspect players did this for two reasons. Florida weather could be a little bit cool in the early days of spring training, so the windbreaker provided some extra warmth. And if a player needed to lose a few pounds during the spring, he could throw on the windbreaker during workouts and hope to sweat out some of the excess weight. And in the case of Regan, he might have used that windbreaker to store a contraband substance. More on that later.

Eight years before this card was printed, Regan’s professional career began in the Tigers‘ organization. A product of Michigan’s Wayland Union High School, where he starred in three sports, he signed with the Tigers in 1956 and began working his way gradually through the Detroit farm system. He made stops in places like Jamestown, Durham, Birmingham, and Denver before finally landing with the Tigers in 1960. The Tigers gave the tall, 23-year-old right-hander a midseason look, using him both out of the bullpen and in the rotation. He didn’t do particularly well, allowing 95 baserunners in 78 innings while sporting a winless record of 0-4 and an ERA of 4.50.

Still, the Tigers saw enough from Regan to trust him with the role of spot starter and long reliever in 1961. Struggling in an expansion season where American League hitters dominated their pitching counterparts. Regan walked almost as many batters as he struck out and saw his ERA soar to 5.25.

With a repertoire that included a sinking fastball and slider, Regan made a breakthrough in 1962 and ‘63, as the Tigers gave him an increasing role toward the back end of the rotation. Logging 171 innings in 1962, he lowered his ERA by more than a run. The following season, he won 15 games and struck out 115 batters, as he emerged as the No. 3 starter behind staff ace Jim Bunning and left-hander Hank Aguirre.

Still only 26 years old, Regan appeared to have settled in for the beginning of a long tenure in the Tiger rotation. Surprisingly, the 1964 season brought disappointment. He pitched so poorly that he began to lose ground to two other young starters, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain. Winning only five of 15 decisions, Regan saw his ERA rose to 5.03.

The situation only worsened in 1965. Regan pitched ineffectively in 51 innings and earned a ticket back to Triple-A ball. While pitching for the Tigers’ affiliate in Syracuse, Regan reportedly learned how to throw another pitch, more specifically a greaseball. The illegal pitch, which Regan and the Tigers did their best to hide, gave him additional movement within the strike zone. Years later, Cardinals relief pitcher Al Hrabosky confirmed that Regan threw a pitch known as the “slippery elm.”

Even with the greaseball (or spitball) added to his repertoire, the Tigers harbored concerns. Discouraged by Regan’s two year slump, they put him on the trade block. At the 1965 winter meetings, they struck a deal, sending Regan to the Dodgers for utility infielder Dick Tracewski. Though Tracewski was about to begin a long association with the Tigers as a player and coach, it was a deal that the Tigers would come to regret in the short term, given Regan’s impending resurgence.

Aside from the addition of the spitball, the Dodgers also made an important change to Regan that would revitalize his career. They switched him to the bullpen, where he emerged as Walter Alston’s new relief ace. Appearing in 65 games, Regan spun an ERA of 1.62, posted an eye-popping WHIP of 0.93, and led the National League with 21 saves. Perhaps just as significantly, he won 14 games and lost only one in helping the Dodgers win the National League pennant. On several occasions, he entered games in which the Dodgers were tied or trailed, quickly saw the Dodgers take the lead, and then held on to emerge with a victory. Because of that tendency, Dodgers teammate Sandy Koufax playfully began calling him “The Vulture.” The colorful nickname would stick with him for the balance of his career.

Though some observers used the new nickname derisively, National League beat writers felt otherwise. They voted him a seventh-place finish in the league’s MVP vote, placing him just behind Juan Marichal and just ahead of Hank Aaron, Matty Alou, and Pete Rose. The balloting capped off a fine season that also saw Regan win Comeback Player of the Year honors while earning a place on the NL All-Star team. He also appeared in his first and only World Series, pitching a scoreless inning of relief.

Regan did not pitch as well in 1967, losing the relief ace role to Ron Perranoski. Still, he gave the Dodgers 96 innings of decent relief and kept his ERA under 3.00. He also furthered his reputation as a spitball pitcher. According to an article in Sports Illustrated, approximately one-fourth of major league pitchers threw the spitter in 1967. The article listed the leading practitioners, naming Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry, journeyman Bob Shaw, and of course, Regan. In answering a question about his reputation as a spitball thrower, Regan supplied a sideways answer. “I can’t come right out and tell you that I now throw the spitter,” Regan told a reporter, “but I’d say: I don’t use it nearly as much as everybody thinks.”

Though the spitter enhanced Regan’s effectiveness, Perranoski had clearly established himself as the new relief ace ahead of his teammate. By April of 1968, the Dodgers felt they could no longer afford the luxury of two high-quality, late-inning relievers. The Dodgers traded Regan and slugger Jim Hickman to the Cubs for journeyman outfielder Ted Savage and right-hander Jim Ellis. Realizing what they now had, the Cubs made Regan their closer and watched him save 25 games over the balance of the season. For that, he earned his second Fireman of the Year Award.

The 1968 season also brought controversy. During a three-inning relief stint in a late August game, home plate umpire Chris Pelekoudas repeatedly hounded Regan, asking to see several of the baseballs thrown by the right-hander. As always, Regan insisted he was throwing his slider, which he claimed could break as much as 15 inches, and not a greaseball or a spitball.

Regain remained effective in the relief ace role in 1969, even as the Cubs squandered a sizeable midseason lead over the upstart Mets. Ever the workhorse, Regan appeared in 71 games and logged 112 innings. Manager Leo Durocher called on the beleaguered Regan too frequently, wearing him out and damaging his performance at times during the stretch run.

The 1969 season may have taken an additional toll on Regan. The following year, he started to show significant decline. That was understandable, given the overwork and the fact that he had just turned 33. As his effectiveness waned, he moved into a long relief role and remained there until June of 1972, when the Cubs sold his contract to the cross-town White Sox. Appearing in only 10 games over the next seven weeks, Regain drew his unconditional release from the Sox on July 20. That move ended his career at 13 seasons, leaving him with 96 wins, 92 saves, and a respectable ERA of 3.84.

His playing days over, Regan remained in his home state of Michigan and began working as the head coach at Grand Valley State University. He remained at the post through 1982, when he returned to the big league scene as a minor league coach with the Mariners. From there, he scouted with the Dodgers and then found his niche as a major league pitching coach, first with the Indians and then the Orioles and Cubs. His post-playing career culminated in a brief stint as Baltimore’s manager in 1995. He also managed for a spell in the lower levels of the Tiger farm system.

It’s hard to believe, but Regan is still teaching the game. Foregoing retirement, the 76-year-old continues to work in the farm system of the Mets. As the pitching coach of the St. Lucie Mets, he has worked with Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard, the three prized right-handers who represent the future of the Mets’ rotation in New York.

I just wonder if Regan gave any of them lessons on throwing the greaseball. Old habits do die hard.




About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.