Former big league pitcher and Reds pitching coach Vern Ruhle was probably a far better person than pitcher, as his 67-career wins and this story on the anniversary of his untimely passing will attest.
(Ed. Note: When we first published this column in 2013 we received a number of responses complimentary of the story, and the ethic about which it represents. Sadly, the one man I wish could read it, cannot. But I thank him all the same. He taught me a lot one spring day in Alabama.)
Thanks to “work” and the schedules that many of us fall prey to during our day-to-day routine, sometimes we forget to appreciate the more impressionable moments of our lives.
You see, this is a column about “work”, and the impression made upon me in the spring of 1978 by former big league pitcher and Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Vern Ruhle. And my reference in being late pertains to the anniversary of Ruhle’s untimely death due to cancer, nine years ago this week, on January 20, 2007.
Vern Ruhle pitched for thirteen big league seasons, most notably with the Detroit Tigers and the Houston Astros, where his career-high 12 wins in 1980 helped the Astros win the National League West title. But falling prey to the inevitable issues of arm trouble he later became a journeyman pitcher with Cleveland Indians and the California Angels. He retired after the 1986 season and spent several successful seasons as a pitching coach, including time with the Reds.
But it was in 1978, on a hot, muggy May afternoon, that I came to know Ruhle, at the time rehabbing from a sore shoulder and pitching for the Columbus, Georgia Astros, the double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros in the Southern League. I was umpiring in that league in 1978 and on my way to a three-game series in Montgomery, Alabama when league president Billy Hitchcock called me on an off-day…a travel day to Montgomery.
“Son-n-n-ay…ah won’t you tuh doo me uh fa-a-vuh,” said Hitchcock by phone with his slow Alabama drawl. “Own thuh way tuh Montgomery tuhmar-ruh ah won’t you tuh stop bah Op-e-locka (Opelika, Alabama, site of the league’s office) an’ wuhk an intruh-squa-a-a-d game fuh Awhburn Univussity h’yere. Thuh Astros ah’ sendin’ Vunn Rool up h’yere tuh git in sum’ wuhk in front of thuh frunt awfus, an’ theh don’ won’t uh local amatuh umpire behin’ thuh plate. Ah promus’ you, son, you only have tuh wuhk while Rool is a pitchin’. When he’s dun, you’uh dun, too.”
You never say no to the league president, no matter what he asks, but working an extra, meaningless game behind the plate is never high on your “to do” list. Plus, my crew partner was excused. I was selected because I was the crew chief.
The game was to be played at a public baseball diamond in Opelika that was named for Hitchcock, a tiny park with a skinned infield (no grass), and outfield fences that had weeds growing halfway to the top. Sure enough, at 11 am an Auburn charter bus came rolling up and unloaded the baseball team. Moments later Ruhle drove in with minor league pitching coach Bob Cluck.
The dugouts (such as they were) consisted of a treated 2×12 pine bench with a corrugated sheet metal roof over top. For protection from foul balls some cyclone fencing had been stretched in front of the benches between two wooden posts anchored in concrete.
Home plate in that tiny park was so close you could hear the hitter, catcher and umpire breathe. And the sun rising high in the cloudless sky as noon approached made breathing nigh on to impossible. The heat and humidity was unbearable, so bad the players didn’t have to throw to warm up…they just shook hands.
There were sand gnats…big enough to pull a six-pack of Coke cans behind them as they flew. It was spartan conditions for a big league audition, but that’s the way it was.
There were no dressing rooms, so as I sat on the bench waiting Ruhle walked in and sat down beside me to put on his shoes. He wore no jersey, just a baseball undershirt, pants, Astros hat, socks and cleats. A pleasant man with a quiet voice, he recognized my status by my Southern League uniform, which except for the hat was the same as that worn in the big leagues.
“How did you draw this duty?” he said with a smile.
“Just happened to be in the area,” I replied. “Not my idea of an off day, but I was on my way to Montgomery, anyway.”
“Well, I appreciate you doing this,” said Ruhle with a nod towards the stands. “You see those guys sitting behind home plate? They’re here to see if I’m worth keeping. I’m trying to come back from some arm trouble. I don’t throw as hard as I did and if they don’t like what they see they’re probably going to cut me loose.”
Looking in the direction of his gesture, I saw three men sitting. One had a radar gun. Another held a pitching chart. And the third, Astros General Manager Tal Smith, was just sitting there with his arms crossed.
“Is this the best place they could find for this?” I asked, pulling on my gear. “You’d think it would be worth doing in Houston, wouldn’t you?”
“It’s not so bad,” said Ruhle. “It’s a little humble compared to the big leagues, but life is about honoring those who are humble. I don’t mind it. They just want to see if I can do the work, and all work is honorable,” he added with a smile as he got up to go throw.
Struggling to come back from a sore arm, he pitched five innings that afternoon against the Auburn Tigers. His control was sharp after a rough start. The mound was deplorable, but Ruhle quickly adjusted…as a pro would. His fastball might have hit 90 miles per hour, his breaking ball was sharp and accurate, and the college players, while hitting a few balls sharply, really didn’t do much against him, scoring one run during his 75-pitch outing. He was impressive…impressive enough to elevate to the big league roster. Four days later he started against the Atlanta Braves.
When he finished his last inning he walked up to me and offered his hand.
“Thank you for giving up your off day,” he said with sincerity. It was the only time in my seven-year minor league career that a player was so complimentary. “I wish you the best if we don’t meet again.”
I never forgot that day, and I never forgot Vern Ruhle, even during the last struggling days of his big league time with Cleveland and California. I always thought about what he said about all work being honorable, even that which could have cost him his existence that afternoon as a major league pitcher. I learned something from his example.
When it was announced a few years back that he was fighting multiple myeloma, a rare bone cancer, I rooted for his recovery, remembering his positive attitude and statement about life honoring the humble. His fight, his “work”, to recover lasted but a year, and who knows, maybe life did honor Vern Ruhle with something better. I hope so.
Something better than pitching against the Auburn Tigers in Opelika, Alabama…in the public park.