He was mean, left-handed, all-business and had a blazing fastball.
Juan Pizarro passed away Thursday, at the age of 84.
Pizarro broke in with the Milwaukee Braves at the age of 20 in 1957, and played for them for four years. He pitched in both the 1957 and 1958 World Series against the Yankees, but Milwaukee soured on him.
The White Sox — specifically manager Al Lopez and pitching coach Ray Berres — had coveted Pizarro for years. Owner Bill Veeck tried to swing a deal for him, but the Braves refused to deal with the White Sox … so Veeck pulled an end-around play. He got his good friend, Bill DeWitt of the Reds, to make a deal with Milwaukee, then later that same day (Dec. 15, 1960) shipped Pizarro and pitcher Cal McLish to the Sox for scattergun infielder Gene Freese.
Almost immediately, Lopez and Berres got the best out of Pizarro. In 1961, Pizarro went 14-7 with an ERA of 3.05 to go along with 188 strikeouts in 194 innings. And he didn’t even win his first game until June 10.
So, what caused the turnaround? According to Lopez, talking with writer Bill Wise, it was simply a change in attitude. “When Pizarro first joined the club in 1961, he was fooling around with a screwball. Here was a young pitcher with control trouble, so I told him to concentrate on finding the plate with his fastball and curve and forget about the screwball. He had enough stuff without it.”
Juan had an “off-season” in 1962, going 12-14 with a 3.81 ERA, but he still struck out almost a hitter an inning, 173 of them in 203 innings pitched. Pizarro was his own worst enemy that season, as late-night carousing and skipping practices resulted in fines. But the Sox didn’t give up on Pizarro, as he said himself to writer Edward Kiersh: “The White Sox didn’t give up on me, they didn’t punish me, and I pitched my ass off for them.”
Pizarro was part of a baseball oddity that season, as the Sox set the A.L. record for sacrifice flies in an inning (three, in the fifth inning) as part of a 7-6 win over Cleveland at Comiskey Park. It was the second game of a doubleheader, with the Sox winning both contests. Pizarro, Nellie Fox and Al Smith did the honors. The Sox were able to accomplish this feat because Cleveland outfielder Gene Green committed errors on two of the fly balls.
The 1963 season was a breakthrough campaign, an All-Star year that saw Pizarro go 16-8 with a 2.39 ERA, 163 strikeouts in 214 innings worked. He also picked up a save that season. He and fellow Sox lefthander (and Rookie of the Year) Gary Peters combined to go 35-16 and give Chicago the best lefthander duo in baseball. Pizarro also threw a scoreless inning in the 1963 All-Star Game.
The 1964 season was even better. Pizarro went 19-9 with an ERA of 2.56 for the team that missed the pennant by one game to the Yankees, despite winning the last nine straight to close out the year. The strikeouts were still there, 162 of them in 239 innings pitched.
That year, he was runner-up to Peters for the ERA title and his 19 wins broke the big-league mark for most wins in a season for a player born in Puerto Rico. Pizarro was again named to the All-Star team, although he didn’t pitch in the game. Perhaps his best game that year came on July 31, as he struck out 14 Senators and allowed just four hits in a 6-0 win in Washington. It was one of the highest single-game strikeout marks in franchise history.
Pizarro held out in 1965 and that led to arm trouble, specifically a torn triceps tendon in his pitching arm diagnosed later in June. He made it back by late July and pitched much better. In fact, one of his best games of Pizarro’s White Sox career came on August 11 at Comiskey Park. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Senators, Pizarro threw a one-hitter, winning 7-0. The only hit came in the fifth inning, a single to right, off the bat of future White Sox player Woodie Held.
Earlier that year, Pizarro was part of another milestone, again versus Washington. On June 11 in the first game of a twin-bill, he won 5-2, giving the franchise its 5,000th victory.
The 1966 season was Pizarro’s last in Chicago with the White Sox, as he won eight games, saved three others and had an ERA of 3.76.
On November 28 of that year, he was traded to Pittsburgh for pitcher Wilbur Wood, who would go on to become one of the top relief pitchers in baseball before turning into a starter, winning 20 or more games four times in a season and making three All-Star Games.
In six years with the Sox, Pizarro went 75-47 with 793 strikeouts in 1,037 innings pitched. He threw 10 shutouts and appeared in 192 games. He, along with pitchers like Peters, Ray Herbert, Joe Horlen and Johnny Buzhardt, gave nightmares to opposing hitters during that time period and enabled the Sox to have successful years until 1968.