Where Are They Now Classic: Wayne Granger – The Closer That Got Away

Wayne Granger was a tall skinny hard throwing right hander that the Cardinals found while scouting pitchers in Canada in 1965. When they originally assigned him to Class A Raleigh, the experience he had gained in Canada became apparent and he was promoted to Tulsa (AA) before the season ended.

Granger’s first big career break would happen in 1966, while pitching for the Cardinals new AA affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers. Both Granger and Chuck Taylor were moved from the rotation to the bullpen as a new generation of pitchers being developed strictly as relievers. Both excelled in their new rolls, turning in ERAs well under 2 runs per game. The elder Taylor would be promoted to Tulsa midway though the season. Granger would take his place in 1967, pitching alongside top prospect Mike Torrez, Jim Cosman and veteran Tracy Stallard. Expectations were high entering spring training in 1968.

Pitching was a tale of two cities for the Redbirds during the spring of 1968. Bob Gibson and Larry Jaster were nearly unhittable, while Nelson Briles and Ray Washburn struggled. With injuries to Dick Hughes and Ron Willis, all it would take is an impressive performance for Granger to make the big club. And he did just that, bit apparently it just wasn’t enough. Even though he did not allow a single run in his last 13 innings, Granger would join Jim Cosman as the last two pitchers cut from the roster. Manager Red Schoendienst gambled that all Dick Hughes needed was a bit of rest – a gamble that Red would lose. The tenth pitching spot went to a tall lefty named Hal Gilson, who had been equally as impressive as Granger.

Soon after being told of his assignment back to Tulsa, Bobby Tolan offered the disappointed youngster some advice. He told Granger not to get discouraged because he would be back with the Cardinals soon. It didn’t take very long for Tolan’s prediction to come true.

Major League Debut

As it became apparent that Dick Hughes was not recovering, Granger was recalled and made his major league debut on June 5, 1968 against the Houston Astros. Staked to a precarious 3-1 lead, Granger was brought into the game after starter Larry Jaster walked the leadoff batter in the bottom of the ninth inning. Granger’s fastball and wicked sinker overmatched the Astros hitters. The first man he would face was notorious Cardinals killer Bob Aspromonte. Granger would record his first career strikeout. Pinch hitter Lee Thomas popped out harmlessly to Orlando Cepeda at first base. The final Houston batter, former Cardinal Julio Gotay would strike out. Granger would only face three batters on the way to recording his first career save – the first of many.

He would finish the season with the Cardinals, turning a very respectable rookie campaign. In 34 appearances, the lanky right-hander would compile a 4-2 record with an ERA of 2.25. Granger was about as dependable as anybody in the Cardinals bullpen, only blowing 2 saves in 4 months of relief. When it came time for the World Series, Granger pitched 2 scoreless inning in Game Six.

An impressive debut, to say the least.

The Trade That Killed the Cardinals

Granger as a Cardinal

Two unrelated events would lead to the loss of Wayne Granger, and with him the hopes of another trip to the World Series.

The first was the retirement of Roger Maris, right after the Cardinals lost the 1968 World Series to the Detroit Tigers. Wear and tear from injuries suffered in New York had finally taken their toll on the veteran outfielder, and Maris did not want to continue playing. That set in motion a hurried search for a replacement outfielder. Rather than hand the job to Bobby Tolan, which in retrospect would have been the smartest thing to do, the Cardinals opted to find a veteran player in the hopes of duplicating the magic Maris had brought in 1967.

Several days later, they found their new right fielder in Vada Pinson from the Cincinnati Reds. Pinson had been a star outfielder, playing largely in the shadow of Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson. Since Robinson’s departure to the American League, National League teams started appreciating Pinson’s talent. A deal was put together where the Cardinals would send Bobby Tolan to the Reds for Pinson. That’s when the second event delivered the death blow to the Cardinals.

In a few days, four expansion teams (San Diego, Montreal, Seattle, Kansas City) would hold a draft of major and minor league players to fill out their rosters. Teams could only protect a limited number of players, and each spot on that list was valuable. Reds General Manager, Bob Howsam, had originally drafted both Tolan and Granger, and wanted both players in the deal. Realizing that the Cardinals were going to lose Granger, or an equivalent pitcher at the AAA level, they made the deal, sending both players to Cincinnati. The extra spot on the protected list allowed the Cardinals to keep both Mike Torrez and Jerry Reuss, but they did lose newly acquired hurler Dave Guisti plus the veteran, Larry Jaster.

In a sense, they also lost Pinson. Although he got off to a great start, a broken leg that he’d been playing on started taking it’s toll, and his production fell off sharply in May. It would result in a trade sending Pinson away after the season was over, starting somewhat of a revolving door in right field as the Cardinals sank into mediocrity throughout the decade of the 1970’s.

Fireman of the Year

To say that Granger had a couple of good years in Cincinnati is a gross understatement. In an era where the role of the closer was still developing, Granger helped define it by appearing in a record 90 appearances, throwing 144 2/3 inning and earning 27 saves to go with a 9-6 record. His ERA over those 144 2/3 inning was a measly 2.80. That would be good enough to earn the tall right-hander the NL Fireman of the Year award for 1969.

September 8, 1969

The National League's best closer

The best performance of his career, perhaps one of the best ever for a reliever, came on September 8, 1969, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The Reds were playing the San Francisco Giants, who they trailed by just 1 1/2 games entering the first game of this double header. We know that the Atlanta Braves went on a tear and outlasted the Reds and Giants, winning the first ever NL West division title. But on this night in September, the race was between the Reds and Giants.

In the first game, veterans Juan Marichal and Jim Maloney battled each other for eight hard innings. With the Reds leading 5-3 in the top of the ninth, Maloney ran into trouble. An error, walk and a single brought the Giants to within a run, and the tying run was in scoring position. In comes Granger, and he makes quick work of the Giants. He got Ken Henderson to hit a harmless fly out and then coaxed a game ending double play off the bat of Ron Hunt. Granger would earn his twentieth save for his efforts.

Now just a 1/2 game out of first place, the Reds jumped out to a 4-1 lead over the Giants in the nightcap. In the seventh inning, Gerry Arrigo, Clay Carroll (who would eventually replace Granger as the Reds closer) and Dennis Ribant failed to hold the lead. Former Cardinal hero, Al Jackson would get the final out in the inning, but not before the Giants had tied the game at 4 runs apiece.

Even though he had pitched in the first game, Reds Manager Dave Bristol would bring Granger in the game to pitch the eighth inning. Granger would keep the Giants scoreless for the next eight innings, allowing just three hits while striking out five in the process. This was the equivalent of pitching a complete game shutout. Perhaps it was fitting that Bobby Tolan would drive in the winning run in the bottom of the 15th inning with a walk-off single, scoring former Cardinal, Ted Savage.

On the day, Granger would earn a win and a save, and the Reds moved into first place by half a game.

Fireman of the Year, again

As impressive as Granger’s 1969 season was, 1970 was even better. In 67 appearances, Granger would lead the National League with a then record 35 saves. He would also post a 6-5 record with an ERA of 2.66 over 84 2/3 innings. For his efforts, he was awarded his second consecutive Fireman of the Year award.

Granger’s 35 saves were a huge part of the Big Red Machine’s plowing their way into the World Series. While he had been dominating with the Cardinals in the 1968 Series, Granger struggled in the 1970 Fall Classic. In Game Three, he would give up a grand slam to the opposing pitcher, Dave McNally. Not only did that break the game open, it was the turning point of the World Series as Baltimore would go on to win in just five games.

For the 1971 season, Granger and Clay Carroll would share closer duties. Granger and his sinker still logged a huge number of innings, 100 in 70 appearances, but his ERA would start inching up, finishing the season at 3.33. He would turn in a similar season with the Minnesota Twins in 1972, before making his second appearance in St. Louis in 1973.

After a short time in St. Louis, Granger would play for the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees , Houston Astros and finally Montreal Expos before retiring following the 1976 season. For his 9 year career, Granger would end up with a 35-35 record with a very respectable 3.14 ERA. He would also finish his career with a total of 108 saves, a huge number for the era.

After starting his career with the Cardinals, Wayne Granger became one of the league’s best relievers. If not for a confluence of unfortunate events, he might have stayed in the Gateway City just a bit longer, and maybe the Cardinals would have returned to post-season at least one more time before a guy named Whitey Herzog rebuilt the team into a perennial winner.

Bob Netherton covers Cardinals history for i70baseball.com and writes at On the Outside Corner. You may follow Bob on Twitter here or on Facebook here.

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