Paul Foytack: the Detroit Tigers’ Ace in August 1959

The exterior of Briggs Stadium in Detroit is the subject of this c.1950 color postcard. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
The exterior of Briggs Stadium in Detroit is the subject of this c.1950 color postcard. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

Paul Foytack was a mainstay of the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation for the better part of seven seasons, from 1956 to 1962. Two of the right-hander’s best starts took place in August 1959.

(In remembrance of former Detroit Tigers pitcher Paul Foytack, who died on January 23 at the age of 90.)

Prior to making his professional baseball debut in the Tigers organization in 1949, it’s possible that the most memorable moment in Foytack’s life, to that point, happened six years earlier. In February 1943, 12-year-old Foytack and his buddy were lost for approximately 24 hours in an abandoned mine in their hometown of East Scranton, Pennsylvania. They had gone in to search for a half dollar coin that rolled into the opening of the mine. After going further than expected, the exploration went awry when the battery in their flashlight eventually died. The cold, weary, damp, and hungry boys finally made it out on their own after following a current of cool, fresh air that they luckily encountered.

Foytack was first called up to Detroit in 1953. He came up to stay in 1955 and joined the Tigers starting rotation the next year. In each of Foytack’s first three years as a starter, he finished second in bWAR on the Tigers pitching staff. He ranked second in wins in 1957 and 1958, even though he was fourth and third, respectively, in number of starts made.

Once you’ve survived something harrowing like being lost in a mine as a kid, getting racky-tacked by big league hitters may not seem so bad, but Foytack struggled for the first two months in 1959. He averaged just under five innings through his first 10 starts, with no complete games. Opponents hit .284/.335/.521 against him in that span, and his ERA was a bloated 8.06 at the end of May.  An adjustment was in order, and Tigers manager Jimmie Dykes thought Foytack just needed to focus on throwing hard. Dykes later explained,

"“There’s no sense in a guy like Foytack worrying about slow curves and changeups. He has a good, live arm and an exceptionally good fastball. Why not use it? Go to the other stuff later on, when the fastball loses some of its zip”."

The pitcher was able to turn things around in June and July. Foytack averaged just a hair under seven innings in 14 starts and completed six of them. He got knocked out in the first inning once in June, but otherwise opponents hit .258/.301/.384 against Foytack in those two months. He was able to whittle the ERA down to 5.07 by the time August rolled around.

August 6, 1959

The Tigers were in New York for the rubber match of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium. Foytack began his day with a clean first inning. He struck out Bobby Richardson. Tony Kubek flew out to Al Kaline in center, and Mickey Mantle flew out to Charlie Maxwell in left. In the second inning, Foytack got Yogi Berra and Elston Howard out on flies to Maxwell. Hank Bauer grounded to Tigers shortstop Coot Veal for the third out. Gil McDougald singled off Foytack to lead off the third, but was caught stealing. By striking out the next two hitters, Clete Boyer and Art Ditmar, Foytack faced only the minimum that inning.

Foytack got into a jam in the bottom of the fourth. Leading off, Richardson beat out a grounder to short for an infield hit. Kubek forced him at second on a grounder to Frank Bolling, the Tigers’ dependable second baseman. Mantle walked. If Foytack was pitching carefully to Mantle, it was understandable. The Yankees slugger was fully capable of clobbering him – and often did. In 1956, Mantle cleared the right field roof in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium with a homerun off Foytack. He would do the same thing to another pitch from Foytack in 1960.

The inning continued on. With Berra at the plate, Foytack balked, moving both runners into scoring position. Berra wasn’t able to capitalize. Instead, he grounded to first baseman Gail Harris, who made the play unassisted. Neither runner was able to advance. Foytack worked his way out of trouble by striking out Howard to end the Yankees’ threat.

Tigers catcher Red Wilson broke a scoreless tie with a leadoff homer in the top of the fifth. With a 1-0 lead, Foytack threw a 1-2-3 inning with one strikeout in the bottom half. Ditmar, Foytack’s counterpart on the mound, singled to lead off the bottom of the sixth. Richardson sacrificed him to second. Ditmar advanced to third when Kubek grounded out. Mantle, representing the potential go-ahead run, stepped up. Foytack vanquished his notorious foe by inducing a fly ball to right fielder Neil Chrisley.

Detroit had a chance to blow the game wide open in the top of the seventh. Wilson singled and went to second on a groundout. With first base open, Bolling was intentionally walked. Veal singled to load the bases. Foytack was due up, but he had been cruising on the mound, so Dykes opted against sending in a pinch-hitter. Foytack grounded out to second. The inning was over, and the Tigers had to settle for holding onto their 1-0 lead.

After the seventh inning stretch, Foytack faced a tough part of the New York lineup. Berra led off by grounding out to Detroit first baseman Bobo Osbourne, who had taken over for Harris earlier in the game. Howard drove a ball to deep center, but Kaline was able to track it down and make the catch. Foytack struck out Bauer to end the inning.

Tigers third baseman Eddie Yost led off the eighth with a solo home run to boost the lead to 2-0. In the bottom half, Foytack got McDougald out on a deep fly to Maxwell in left field. Needing a big hit from somebody, Yankees manager Casey Stengel sent in pinch-hitters Johnny Blanchard and Hector Lopez. Foytack got them both out. The former popped out in foul territory on the first-base side, and the latter flew out to Kaline in deep center. It was the sixth time in the game that Foytack only pitched to only three batters in an inning.

In the top of the ninth, the Tigers seemed determined to make up for the missed opportunity in the seventh. Duke Maas, a former Tiger, was now on the mound for the Yankees. Wilson beat out a bunt back to the mound, then stole second. After Osbourne struck out, Bolling was intentionally walked again. Veal reached safely on an error by New York third baseman Hector Lopez. The bases were loaded, and Foytack was again due up. Once more, Dykes let his pitcher hit. This time, he rewarded his manager’s faith. Foytack, facing his former teammate, laid down a nice “Baltimore chop”. The ball bounced so high in front of the plate that Wilson scored easily before any Yankees defender could field it. The Tigers added another run later in the inning.

Foytack was back on the mound for the bottom of the ninth to face the top of the Yankees lineup. Richardson flew out to right. Kubek struck out looking. That was Foytack’s seventh K of the day. With two outs, Mantle drew his second walk of the game. His were the only free passes that Foytack issued all day. Berra, who once famously said “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”, popped out to Yost in foul territory. It was indeed over, and the Tigers won it 4-0. The game took an hour and 58 minutes to complete.

With the victory, Foytack evened his record at 10-10, and he dropped his ERA below 5.00 for the first time since early April. It was his seventh complete game and first shutout of the season. The two future Hall of Famers in the famous Yankees pinstripes, Berra and Mantle, went a combined 0-for-6 in the game. One observer who was impressed with the Tigers’ righty was none other than Casey Stengel. Foytack was an arm that the New York skipper already had an eye on. Earlier in the season, Stengel said,

"“I like the way that boy throws out there. He always throws hard, and that’s the kind of pitcher I like.”"

Foytack followed up his sterling performance in the Big Apple with a one-batter, game-ending  relief appearance in a 7-3 Tigers win over the Red Sox on August 9. He had a no-decision against the White Sox in an 11-6 loss on August 12. He went the distance and was credited with the W as the Tigers edged the Indians 5-4 on August 17.

August 21, 1959

The Red Sox were in Detroit for a Friday night game at Briggs Stadium. It had been a rough day for Foytack, unfortunately. He was fighting off a stomach ache that was so unpleasant, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to pitch or not as game time drew closer. A determined Tiger decided to suck it up and not tell his manager, Jimmie Dykes, that he was sick. Foytack reasoned,

"“I had a tough enough time getting into the major leagues. I’m not going to miss a pitching turn if I can get out to the mound.”"

After leadoff hitter Marty Keough grounded out, Foytack gave up a single to Pete Runnels and walked Gene Stephens. Luckily, former Tiger Vic Wertz grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. Jackie Jensen singled to lead off the second, but Frank Malzone grounded into a 5-4-3 double play. That turned out to be a big play when Sammy White singled. Don Buddin grounded out to second baseman Frank Bolling to end the inning.

The third inning was when Foytack got into a groove. He sailed through the inning by striking out the side. In the bottom half, the Tigers got on the board after Harvey Kuenn walked and Al Kaline hit his 22nd home run of the season. Bolstered by the lead, Foytack had a smooth inning in the fourth. He got Stephens to ground out to Bolling. Wertz flew out to Kaline in center, and Jensen flew out to Kuenn in right. The fifth inning was an easy one. Malzone grounded back to Foytack, who then struck out the next two Red Sox hitters.

Foytack notched another strikeout when he got Boston pitcher Bill Monboquette, a future Tiger, to begin the sixth inning. He had retired 11 in a row when Keough doubled to snap the string. Undaunted, Foytack got a couple fly outs to put another zero on the scoreboard. He kept rolling in the seventh. Wertz lined out to Bolling. Jensen and Malzone each flew out to Tigers left fielder Charlie Maxwell. Dykes made a defensive change behind Foytack for the eighth inning. Coot Veal took over at short for Rocky Bridges. After White led off with a fly out to right, Foytack struck out Gary Geiger.

Down to his last four outs, Boston manager Billy Jurges still had an ace in the hole, and he decided it was time to play it. Ted Williams was called on as a pinch-hitter for Monboquette. The legendary “Teddy Ballgame” was nine days away from his 41st birthday. Williams was in the penultimate season of his Hall of Fame career and the only bad season he ever had at the plate (.254/.372/.419). He was still a dangerous pinch-hitter, though (11-for-24 in 1959). Foytack stared the great Williams down, and he struck him out. It was the Tigers starter’s season-high eighth strikeout.

Foytack faced the top of the Red Sox lineup in the ninth. His first two pitches to Keough were strikes. Keough then decided to defy conventional wisdom and dropped a two-strike bunt down toward third base. Foytack scrambled off the mound to field it. His throw reportedly missed the runner by a step, but umpire Frank Umont called Keough out. Jurges chewed Umont out after the game and later vented to reporters about the evening’s umpiring crew. He grumbled,

"“All that guy (Umont) wanted was a fast game. They saw a chance to leave the park with an early game and took advantage of it. They’re always looking to get away, those guys. Here a fellow (Keough) makes a good play – two strikes on him and he bunts. If Mickey Mantle did it, he would have been given a hit.”"

Pumpsie Green, who debuted as Boston’s first Black player exactly one month earlier, grounded out to Foytack. Stephens grounded to first baseman Gail Harris, who made the toss to Foytack at the bag for the last out of the game. The final frame was Foytack’s sixth 1-2-3 inning of the game. Kaline’s homer was all the offense the Tigers needed in a nice 2-0 win that took an hour and 52 minutes to play. A jovial and efficient Foytack said,

"“I either lose ’em quick or or win ’em quick. You know, sometimes I’m not out there long enough to work up a decent sweat.”"

It was the 12th win of season for Foytack, who finished 14-14. His two shutouts in August turned out to be the only ones he threw in 1959. The success he experienced in those two games against the Yankees and Red Sox had to feel especially good. Those two teams beat up on Foytack more than any other in his career.

August was Foytack’s best month that season. In his seven starts, he led his fellow Detroit starters; Jim Bunning, Frank Lary, and Don Mossi; in innings pitched (54.1), complete games (4), ERA (2.65), and WHIP (0.920). All but Mossi won four games. Foytack and Bunning tied for the strikeout lead that month with 39 apiece. Opponents hit .199/.242/.311 against Foytack in August 1959, a 31-day period in which he stepped up and performed like an ace for the Tigers.