Of all the players I’ve profiled for Detroit Athletic Company, Mike Kilkenny is probably the most obscure—and it’s not even close. Unless you’re a diehard Detroit Tigers fan who is at least 45 to 50 years old, it’s likely that you’ve never even heard of Mike Kilkenny. If you’re a card collector, perhaps you have his 1972 Topps card (pictured here), but it’s not likely that it’s one of your prized possessions and it’s certainly not going to fetch you a big price on the auction block.
So why Mike Kilkenny, and why his 1972 Topps card? Well, it has to do with what happened to Kilkenny during the 1972 season. It was a crazy summer for the journeyman left-hander, one that saw him travel the baseball globe in search of a permanent home. Kilkenny finally found a home in 1972, but not until two trips to the West Coast and a stop in the Midwest. Along the way, he set an unwanted record for the most teams in one season.
Before we get to the 1972 season, let’s fill in the backstory of the wonderfully named Mike Kilkenny (Kilkenny. That is a funny name. Like something out of South Park.) Born and bred in Canada, where the left-handed pitcher dominated the opposition all the way through his time at Bradford High School, Kilkenny drew the attention of almost every major league team in 1964. So highly touted, he actually received contract offers from 19 of the 20 teams that were in existence at the time. Everyone wanted Mike Kilkenny.
Ultimately, Kilkenny chose the Tigers, who generously offered him a bonus of $15,000. At the time, that was a record bonus for a player coming out of Canada. Kilkenny was so enthused about the contract offer and the bonus that he left high school early, prior to his actual graduation, and reported to Cocoa, the Tigers’ minor league affiliate in the Rookie League.
At the time of his signing, Kilkenny weighed all of 145 pounds. Set against his six-foot, three-inch frame, he looked rather cadaverous, but he could throw hard. (Even on his 1972 card, photographed on one of the back fields at the Tigers’ spring training site in Lakeland, Kilkenny looks incredibly thin. Striking an odd pose, he looks like a jumble of long arms and legs, almost spider-like in appearance.) By midseason, the Tigers advanced him to Lakeland of the Florida State League, where he proceeded to put up a 2.47 ERA in 51 innings.
In 1965, Kilkenny continued to pitch in the Florida State League, but this time in Daytona Beach. He struggled so much over the first half of the season that his manager, Al Federoff, sat him down for a stern lecture in mid-season. Kilkenny took the criticism to heart, emerging as the staff ace over the second half and throwing a no-hitter on July 16.
Impressed by his second half work, the Tigers bumped him up to Double-A Montgomery, but he injured his left hand trying to catch a pop-up during a pre-game drill. The injury to his left index finger affected him for the rest of the season, preventing him from gaining the proper feel on his breaking pitches. For the first time in his career, his ERA rose above 4.00.
In 1967, Kilkenny returned to Double-A Montgomery, but this time as a relief pitcher. He was overpowering at times, striking out a batter an inning, but he was also incredibly wild. It wasn’t until 1968—his third go-round in Montgomery—that Kilkenny finally assembled his repertoire and his control to the point that he and the Tigers wanted. He pitched so well out of the bullpen that the Tigers promoted him to Triple-A Toledo in midsummer. He wouldn’t make it to Detroit that summer, missing out on becoming part of the world championship effort, but the Tigers did extend a nice gesture, sending him a pair of World Series cufflinks during the winter.
By the spring of 1969, the Tigers deemed Kilkenny ready. He was on the Opening Day roster and made his major league debut on April 11, which happened to be the day of his 24th birthday. Kilkenny took on a significant role as a swingman for the Tigers, earning 15 starts and otherwise pitching out of the bullpen. He logged 128 innings as a jack-of-all-trades for manager Mayo Smith.
Kilkenny would never match that level of success during his days in Detroit. Over the next two seasons, his ERA soared above 5.00. He later found out that his struggles in 1971 may have been caused by a bout with mononucleosis, which was diagnosed after the fact.
Prior to the 1972 season, a flood of trade rumors swirled around Kilkenny. As a young left-hander with talent, Kilkenny was the kind of pitcher that other teams wanted. But Tigers GM Jim Campbell rebuffed all offers for Kilkenny, who was again part of the Opening Day roster in 1972. On April 30, Kilkenny made his season debut for the Tigers, but he was annoyed by Billy Martin’s insistence on calling all of the pitches from the dugout. After the game, Kilkenny expressed his disapproval, leading to a shouting match. At one point, Kilkenny threatened to punch Martin.
Not surprisingly, the confrontation doomed Kilkenny’s future with the Tigers. Less than two weeks later, the Tigers traded Kilkenny to the Oakland A’s for minor league first baseman Reggie Sanders. Having been given the news via phone in his hotel room, Kilkenny then made his way to the ballpark to pick up his personal items and say goodbye to his teammates. The Tigers, presumably under Martin’s orders, would not allow Kilkenny to enter the ballpark. Instead, he found his bags waiting for him at the entrance to the park. Without even the opportunity to say goodbye, Kilkenny was now an ex-Tiger.
Kilkenny reported to the A’s and made his first appearance in a game on May 13. It turned out to be his only appearance wearing the green and gold of the A’s. Just four days later, the A’s included him in a multi-player deal, sending him, veteran catcher Curt Blefary, and a player to be named to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Downtown Ollie Brown.
Compared to his tenure in Oakland, Kilkenny lasted a lifetime in San Diego. He managed to make five appearances in mop-up relief, but pitched poorly, his ERA bloating to 8.31. On June 11, just four days before the old trading deadline of June 15, the Padres gave up on Kilkenny, sending him to the Cleveland Indians for utility infielder Fred Stanley.
In joining the Indians, Kilkenny tied a major league record for most teams (4) in one season. (Thirteen players share that honor, if we can call it that). Those four appearances came within the span of the first three months of the season, making for a complete whirlwind of non-stop movement and giving new meaning to the term “journeyman left-hander.”
In a rather bizarre coincidence, Kilkenny’s 1972 Topps card features the following trivia question on the back of the card: “Which two hurlers worked for four A.L. clubs in one season?” The card, printed prior to the season, provided an eerie foreshadowing to Kilkenny’s tumultuous year.
Given the revolving door theme to his 1972 season, it’s a wonder that Kilkenny managed to maintain his sanity, much less his pitching abilities. In contrast to his relative struggles in Detroit, Oakland, and San Diego, Kilkenny actually found some longevity—and success—in Cleveland. Working mostly out of the bullpen but receiving an occasional start, Kilkenny won four of five decisions and posted a respectable ERA of 3.41. He finished out the season with the Indians, who then brought him back for the 1973 season.
During the spring of ’73, the Indians decided to demote Kilkenny to the minor leagues, but the veteran lefty balked at the move and refused to report. So the Indians placed him on the suspended list, and Kilkenny responded by heading home. He would remain on the suspended list until 1975, when the Indians finally released him, officially ending a career that had already reached its real-life conclusion.
Kilkenny turned to the world of golf, where he also excelled, becoming an instructor and repairing golf clubs in a pro shop. Over the years, Kilkenny has given golf lessons to a number of notables, including young PGA professional Ted Potter, Jr. Over the years, Kilkenny has worked with Potter on his swing and his mental approach to the game.
In recent years, Kilkenny has battled health problems, which have included a knee infection, the removal of his gall bladder, and a minor stroke. For now, he seems to have been restored to good health, lending some stability to his life.
Kilkenny’s life was anything but stable in 1972, when he seemingly traveled the globe, a left-hander who was always on the outs in one place but forever in demand in another.