He was the unsung part of one of the best relief pitching staffs in big league history when he played for the White Sox in the mid-late 1960’s.
On Monday, news broke that Bob Locker, a big righthander with a devastating sinker, passed away on August 15 in Bozeman, Mont. He was 84.
Locker grew up in Iowa and pitched at Iowa State. In fact, perhaps he was destined to have a White Sox future, as he hooked up against future Sox teammate Joe Horlen in a memorable college game.
Horlen remembered that matchup when I interviewed him in 2005: “Bob pitched for Iowa State and he beat me 1-0 in a game that was probably over in less than an hour and a half. It was the last conference game I ever pitched for Oklahoma State.”
Three teams were interested in Locker by the time he was a senior: the Yankees, Orioles and White Sox. Even though the Yankees offered $12,000 to sign, Bob took $10,000 from the White Sox instead. His reasoning was that by the time he got to the major leagues, Sox starters like Early Wynn would have retired or moved on, and he’d have a better opportunity to stick.
Locker pitched in the minor leagues starting in 1960, but in 1962-63 he served in the military, fulfilling his Army ROTC commitment. He returned to baseball in 1964 and was assigned to Indianapolis, where he led the team in innings pitched, ERA and wins. He struck out 178 hitters, walking only 57.
That got the attention of the White Sox, and he attended his first big-league camp in February 1965.
Locker also practiced something different for the time. He kept detailed notes on not only batters but umpires, as he once explained: “I keep tabs on just how umpires call pitches on me. I want to remember if they will give you that low strike or whether they’re high-ball umps, whether they are good on inside or outside pitches. Someday, in a tight situation, it may be important.”
When Bob got to camp in 1965 White Sox manager Al Lopez and pitching coach Ray Berres got one look at Locker’s wipeout sinker and told him to forget about starting — he was joining guys like Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher (and later, Wilbur Wood) in the Sox bullpen. And to basically forget about all the other pitches he threw.
“There are two kinds of sinker,” Locker explained. “One is a roll-over sinker — Tommy John had one of those — a predictable pitch. I had a smothered sinker, which is a lot like a knuckleball. It’s hard to predict. I had to fight it every day, every pitch. But when everything was right, the ball had some pretty wicked downward movement. It offset my liabilities. You know that if you throw it and the guys get a couple of singles off it, you keep throwing it and they’ll eventually hit it at someone and you’ll get a double play.”
Lopez protected the rookie Locker, avoiding stressful situations as much as possible, and the righty finished 1965 with 5-2 record and 3.15 ERA in a little more than 90 innings. He also had two saves — on the same day, in a doubleheader that took place exactly 57 years ago today.
Locker’s teammate Eddie Fisher told Jerome Holtzman how valuable Locker was, “It was Locker,” Fisher said, “who went in to pitch the middle innings and keep the Sox in the game.”
In 1966, pitching under new manager Eddie Stanky (who threatened to fine Locker $200 for every hit he gave up on a pitch that wasn’t a sinker) Bob threw 95 innings, saved 12 games, had a 2.46 ERA and struck out 70 hitters despite suffering through a sore elbow in August and September, .
Locker also had an unusual situation happen on August 7 of that year, playing against the Angels in Anaheim; he scored the winning run and got the win in extra innings, as the Sox won 9-8 in 10 innings. He led off the 10th with a single, and came around to score on a triple by Wayne Causey. It would be 50 years before that happened again to a Sox relief pitcher, as Matt Albers did it against the Mets on June 1, 2016 at Shea Stadium.
By 1967 Locker was established out of the bullpen, as the Sox and three other teams staged the greatest pennant race in baseball history. Going into the final week four clubs (White Sox, Red Sox, Tigers, Twins) all were within a few games of first place, and there was a small possibility of a four-way tie for the pennant. Locker had his finest season that year, leading all American League relief pitchers with 77 appearances, along with 20 saves, a 2.09 ERA and almost 125 innings.
The 1968 season saw things change dramatically for the team and also for Locker, who battled elbow soreness and scar tissue for years. The Sox fell apart, finishing with their first losing season since 1950. Because of the soreness Locker wasn’t his usual self until June. When Lopez returned as Sox manager in July, Locker found his old self again, as from June through the end of the year he held hitters to .213 batting average, and his second-half ERA of 1.38 was the best half-season of his career. Overall, Locker finished 1968 with 10 saves, 90 innings pitched and an ERA of 2.29.
The start of the 1969 season was the worst in Locker’s career; as he put it, “it was the worst 45 days of my career. I lost the sinker.” By June his ERA was more than seven, and the Sox shipped him off to Seattle for starting pitcher Gary Bell, one of a series of moves by GM Ed Short that would eventually lead to his firing in early September 1970.
In Seattle, Locker’s sinker returned, and so did his effectiveness. Locker went to Milwaukee with the Pilots move and found himself traded to the A’s in June 1970 — just in time to participate in their emerging dynasty. Between June 1970 and the end of the 1972 season, Locker never posted an ERA higher than 2.88, and recorded 16 saves and 16 wins. He pitched in both the 1971 and 1972 ALCS and made an appearance in the 1972 World Series.
Bob finished his career with the Cubs in 1973 and 1975, dealt to Chicago with Manny Trillo and Darold Knowles for Billy Williams. In 1973, Locker picked up 18 more saves in 106 innings, to go along with 10 wins and an ERA of 2.54.
In 10 seasons Locker recorded 95 saves (174th all-time), 879 innings pitched, 57 wins and an ERA of 2.75. He finished 288 games in his career, ranking him 140th in major league history.
With the White Sox specifically, his 48 saves rank 15th all-time, .560 winning percentage ranks 31st and 137 games finished ties him with Fisher for 11th. Locker’s 20 saves in 1967 is the 39th-most in White Sox history for a single season, his 47 games finished tied for 31st.
To add a slightly more contemporary angle to his career, the fifth-most similar player to Locker in his career is former White Sox closer David Robertson (93.5% similar). And the most similar player to Locker’s latter career, season after season, is Kent Tekulve.
One final, little detail about Bob: He loved honey and ate it to give him energy during games.