1968: What a year for Warden

Jon Warden only pitched one year in the Major Leagues.

But what a year it was.

It was 1968 and he was a no-name rookie lefthanded reliever with the Detroit Tigers.

Oh, by the way, the Tigers just happened to win the World Series that season, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in a grueling seven-game series.

“That was a great year,” the 65-year-old Warden said prior to Thursday night’s sponsors dinner at Outback in conjunction with today’s Niekro Golf Scramble.

“I was a bright-eyed, 21-year-old kid out of Harrisburg, Oh. (just south of Columbus).

“I made the team out of spring training and spent the entire year with the Tigers,” he added. “It was a great experience.”

Warden went 4-1 during that magical season with 11 saves. He worked in 28 games, pitching 37.3 innings and compiling a 3.62 ERA.

“What was unique about it was the Tigers had lost the pennant the year before to Boston by one game. They split a doubleheader on the last day of the season. Detroit had a fairly veteran bullpen that season, but it just didn’t get the job done.

“I had had a fairly good year at (Class A) Rocky Mountain (N.C.) in 1967. My manager back then told me he was going to recommend me for the Major League roster, and I asked, ‘what does that mean?'”

Warden was told he would go to spring training with the big boys and even get a little meal money.

“I was like, wow!” he said with a huge smile. “I was just hoping to make it to triple-A because that was in Toledo and I thought my mom can drive up from Columbus.”

He said he would pitch one day and then not again until four or five days, maybe even longer.

You’ll have to remember. The Tigers’ starting rotation include the likes of Denny McClain, the 1968 Cy Young Award winner after recording a Detroit-record 31 victories, and Mickey Lolich, who was named the World Series MVP after he beat the Cardinals three times.

The other two were Earl Wilson and Joe Sparma, a former quarterback at Ohio State who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Woody Hayes and eventually turned to baseball after three seasons as a Buckeye.

The main two relievers were Pat Dobson and John Hiller.

“I remember looking around one day at spring training and we were down to like 14 pitchers,” he recalled. “I was like, I’ve got a shot here.”

The last weekend of spring training saw the Tigers and Cardinals square off in what would turnout to be a preview of the World Series.

“I came in in the ninth inning and pitched the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th innings. I struck out six and gave up no runs on one hit and no walks. Management was like, ‘you just made the team.”

Warden said he spent much of his rookie season shadowing McClain.

“He was kind of the free spirit and I hung around with him all the time,” Warden continued. “I was a 21-year-old kid that didn’t know any better. Not many of the other teammates hung around with him because of his free spirit.”

While McClain was making history with his amazing feat, Warden also has a claim to fame.

“I was the first pitcher, in either league, to record his first three professional victories out of the bullpen. I didn’t know it at the time until a writer from Sports Illustrated told me. He said you hold a record, and I said for what, getting hot dogs for the bullpen?”

What is amazing about his feat is that it came out of the bullpen.

“Think about it for a minute,” he allowed. “To win three straight appearances in relief, with relief being the key word, is something.”

He still remembers his third victory as if it were yesterday.

“It was in Chicago and I had just walked in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning,” he noted. “Now there’s still one out and the bases are loaded. A sacrifice fly or anything and the game is over. I hung a slider to Ken Boyer, but he hit a frozen rope to third for an inning-ending double play.

“Willie Horton hits a two-run double in the top of the 10th and we win. The guy from Sports Illustrated came up to me and said, ‘Jon, you’ve pitched 3 innings and you’ve got three wins. What kind of season do you think you can have?’ I replied, heck, I should win 45-50 games.”

Following the 1968 season, Warden was selected No. 12 in the expansion draft by the Kansas City Royals, but an arm injury cut his promising career short.

Warden stayed involved in baseball as he has taken his one year of fame and combined it with his extraordinary sense of humor to forge a second career. He is quickly becoming the new Clown Prince of Baseball, being mentioned in the same breath as Joe Garagiola and Max Patkin.

In 1989, Warden’s wife purchased the Baseball Encyclopedia for him as a Christmas present. That’s when he second career really got jump-started and his love for the game has resulted in 57 Hall of Famers autographing the treasured reference book. The signees total more than 1,200.

“I’ve got a lot of father-son, brother-brother combinations,” he mentioned. “Including Joe and Phil Niekro.

“I’ve become good friends with Phil and I also knew Joe very well,” Warden said. “I saw Phil and Gordie (Longshaw) at the Knuckler event in Houston that honors Joe. Gordie told me about the Niekro Scramble and I told them I wanted to be here.

“I made the drive over from Loveland where I live because Phil is such a good guy, and raising money for a good cause like this is great.”

Soon-to-be knee replacement won’t allow Warden to take to the course today, but he will be around the greens somewhere.

“I’m just a chipper or a putter now,” he laughed.

Phil Niekro was just as appreciative for Warden being in the Ohio Valley for the annual event.

“Jon is a lot of fun. We’ve known each other for years, and he will really spice up the place.

“It’s always great to come back home. All of my memories of baseball growing up are right here in that backyard in Lansing,” he said. “That’s what got me to where I am today.”

North can be reached at knorth@timesleaderonline.com