Steve Zalusky: White Sox pitcher Joel Horlen -- hard-luck and delayed gratification

  • Starting pitcher Joel Horlen -- here in February 1962 -- pitched for the White Sox from 1961 to 1971.

    Starting pitcher Joel Horlen -- here in February 1962 -- pitched for the White Sox from 1961 to 1971. Associated Press

 
Updated 5/7/2022 6:43 PM

By the time I had a chance to watch Joel Horlen pitch, I was too young to appreciate him.

Watching the White Sox in 1969 and 1970 wasn't easy in more ways than one -- the difficulties of viewing the team on UHF Channel 32 with the ring antenna were almost as frustrating as streaming today's games on Apple TV+ with frequent picture freezing.

 

Horlen, who died April 10 at 84 in his native San Antonio, Texas, belonged to an impressive stable of starters in the 1960s that included Gary Peters, Tommy John and Juan Pizarro.

Relying mainly on pitching and defense, the Sox were in the thick of the American League pennant race for much of that decade, in one stretch finishing second three consecutive seasons, 1963-65.

Horlen played a big role in that success. The numbers, particularly those from 1964-68, tell the story.

Consider these earned-run averages, all with more than 200 innings pitched in each year: 1.88 in 1964, 2.88 in 1965, 2.43 in 1966, a league-leading 2.06 in 1967 and 2.37 in 1968.

Often, he was virtually unhittable. In 1964, a year he finished second in the league in ERA, and 1967, he led the league in WHIP with 0.935 and 0.953, respectively.

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In 1964, he led AL pitchers by giving up only 6.1 hits per nine innings.

An All-Star in 1967, his 19 wins were only three behind the league leaders, Boston's Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg and Detroit's Earl Wilson. His six shutouts tied him for the league lead.

And yet, when all was said and done, even though his career 3.11 ERA was anything but mediocre, during his Sox career from 1961 to 1971, Horlen finished 113-113.

He often fell victim to a lack of offensive support.

Exhibit A was a July 29, 1963 game in Washington, in which Horlen took a no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth. With one out and the Sox clinging to a 1-0 lead thanks to a Dave Nicholson single that scored Nellie Fox, the Senators' Chuck Hinton broke up the blossoming masterpiece with a single. Then with two out, Don Lock's homer sent the Senators home with a win.

Horlen would finally earn his no-hitter with a 6-0 win on Sept. 10, 1967 against Detroit at Comiskey Park.

The offense did its job in the first inning, spotting Horlen -- who had already struck out Al Kaline and Norm Cash -- a five-run cushion, with Wayne Causey's two-run triple the key blow. Horlen even helped his cause that inning by driving in Causey with a single.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Only two Tigers reached base. In the third, Horlen hit Bill Freehan with a pitch, and in the fifth, Eddie Mathews reached on an error.

Associated Press reporter F. Richard Ciccone captured Horlen's mood. "Horlen, his blond hair still moist with the exertion and anxiety of his pitching brilliance, stood in the midst of gathering newsmen and happy teammates clutching the game baseball. 'I'm going to save it,' he said, 'and I think I'll put this uniform up, too.' "

Earlier that year, Horlen flirted with no-hit glory, holding Washington (again, the Senators) hitless into the eighth, before emerging with a 1-0, two-hit victory April 22.

The newspapers noted Horlen's attempt to placate the baseball gods. During the game, he moved to the opposite end of the dugout after two outs of each inning, did not drink water, and made sure he stepped across the foul line with his left foot each time he walked to the mound.

Clips from the final inning of Horlen's no-hitter at Comiskey provide virtually the only video remaining from his career, a tragedy of preservation. Other clips include Horlen giving up Tony Conigliaro's first career homer at Fenway Park in 1964, and pitching for Oakland in Game 4 of the 1972 ALCS, in which he was tagged with the loss.

To get a better idea of Horlen as a pitcher, I spoke with catcher Jerry McNertney, who caught him in the minors and with the Sox.

He said, "Our pitching coach there in Chicago, Ray Berres, was an old catcher. And his biggest thing was to get pitchers on their fastball to have movement, not just straight and hard. And I think he really helped Joe in that he threw a fastball that didn't have the same rotation on it that most pitchers do when they hold the ball. It kind of had a backup slider spin to it, but it would sink.

"And to me, it was a tough pitch, because a hitter would see that rotation like it was a little slider, and the bottom would fall out of it.

"He ended up developing that and keeping the ball down, and he had a good curveball. With that pitch and his good curveball, he was really successful with the Sox."

If Horlen's no-hitter was a case of delayed gratification, so was earning his World Series ring with Oakland. And yet 1972 was a typical season. A 3-4 record, with a 3.00 ERA.

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