Monday, May 9, 2011

#158 - Jack Billingham

This is a great action shot. Yeah, it's quite blurry and seems to focus on Jack Billingham's butt, but check out his face and its intensity. It is taken at Shea, which means there's a pretty good shot it is a post-season photo, since the stands seem full. It's of a guy on the hated Reds, who may have been the most consistent starter on those Seventies monster teams. In '73 Jack was the only Reds starter not to miss time to injury and he began the season with an 8-2 record, important because during that time both the rest of the pitching and the bats were cold. As things heated up and the Reds went after the division title, Jack proved to be the staff's ace starter. It was his best season and he would get an All-Star nod, lead the league in shutouts, and grab some Cy votes, finishing fourth. This photo also has a level of personal resonance, but I'll get to that later. And it probably has Tony Perez' ankle in the photo as well.

Jack Billingham was signed by the Dodgers in '61, just out of high school in Florida. He stayed close to home his first two seasons in D ball, but it didn't help much as his numbers were pretty terrible (a combined 2-11 with an ERA over 5.00). But in his defense he missed a ton of time to his military commitment. In '63 he moved to Single A ball and threw pretty well, going 9-6 with a 3.49 ERA and a huge reduction in his walk totals. All three of those first seasons he mostly worked out of the rotation. In '64 he moved to the bullpen and the results were significant: that year he went 8-4/1.70 with 157 K's in 127 innings. He continued that good work in a '65 split between Double and Triple A, going 7-3 with a 2.12 ERA. He then spent all of '66 and '67 at Spokane, LA's top Triple A franchise, as its top reliever, going 13-13/3.35. He finally made it to LA in '68, got into 50 games out of the bullpen and recorded eight saves in a very nice rookie year.

Things then moved pretty quickly for Billingham. In the winter of '68-'69 he was taken in the expansion draft by the Expos. Then right before the '69 season started, Jack was sent to Houston as part of a make-up trade in which the Astros sent Rusty Staub to Montreal for Donn Clendenon, who refused to report to to the Astros. After a serviceable year out of the pen in '69 the Astros got smart and midway through '70 put Jack in the rotation where he won 13 and knocked his ERA down 40 points. In '71 the ERA came down hard again, but he got zero run support (the Astros averaged less than two runs in his losses). He also had to have some varicose veins removed at the beginning of the season which put the damper on his value to other teams since that type of procedure was deemed a sign of being over the hill. So when the Reds gave up the right side of their infield for Joe Morgan, Dennis Menke, and a couple young outfielders, Jack was widely seen as a throw-in in the deal. And when the '72 Astros came strong out of the gate while Jack started 0-5, his value seemed dubious. But the Reds' bats picked up and he went 12-7 the rest of the way. He was strongest in the Series that year, blanking Oakland for a combined 13 innings.

While Billingham's ERA popped a run in '74 he would again win 19, followed by  15 wins in '75. That second year he again saved the best for last, giving up one earned run in nine Series innings. He would win 22 games the next two years but his ERA continued to spiral upward (it was above 5.00 in '77) and in the '76 Series he only threw relief. In '78 Jack went to Detroit for a couple minor leaguers and he had an excellent season, winning 15 as his ERA floated down to league levels. He won ten in '79, splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen. His last season was '80 which he split between Detroit and Boston. For his career, Jack went 145-113 with a 3.83 ERA, 74 complete games, 27 shutouts, and 15 saves. His numbers in the post-season were awfully good: 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in ten games.

 After playing, Billingham would do some coaching at various levels for the Astros, retiring in 2006.

Jack gets props for his '72 post-season and '73 regular season work. He is another guy who opted for a formal signature. And, yes, the Billinghams and the Mathewsons were related. This brings up the personal aspect I indicated above.

So what's this above? A baseball, obviously, perhaps a historically important one. When I bought this ball I was told it was authenticated. As it was my first serious foray into sports collectibles, I was not aware that the person who authenticated the ball would be the same guy who sold it to me. Lesson learned. It is the game ball from Christy Mathewson's first major league win in 1900. Or it's a ball from 1970 that someone ran over with his truck a couple times. Who knows? Anyway the authentication stated that it was purchased in a Mathewson/Billingham family auction in '72. So even if the ball isn't authentic, at least the relationship is. I like to think it's the real thing. At least it's a great conversation starter when guests come over.

Back to cousin Jack, he gets with Mr. Harris thusly:

1. Billingham and Jesus Alou '69 to '71 Astros;
2. Alou and Willie McCovey '63 to '68 Giants;
3. McCovey and Vic Harris '77 to '78 Giants.

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