Only fifth fireman, Goose a rare bird in Cooperstown

For most of Rich “Goose” Gossage’s 22-year major league career, when the phone rang, it meant trouble and he was ready for it. But this past January when the phone rang, the news was great, and it stopped the one-time dominating bullpen ace right in his tracks.

After nine tries, the right-handed reliever with the trademark Fu Manchu mustache was finally elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, one of only five bullpen dwellers ever to make it to Cooperstown. His fellow relievers elected to the Hall are Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm.

Perhaps best remembered for his six dazzling seasons with the New York Yankees (1978–83), Gossage, who grew up in Colorado as a Yankees fan, called putting on the pinstripes for the first time in the spring of 1978 “an out-of-body experience.”

Gossage wanted to make a name for himself in the major leagues as a starting pitcher. As a kid coming up to the bigs with the Chicago White Sox in 1972, Gossage had a deep dislike of bullpen duty. In those days, the bullpen didn’t house breathtaking closers who buckled hitters at the knees with blazing fastballs with the game on the line.

“At that time, it was looked upon as a junk pile for starters who could no longer start. And I was still a kid and I felt I could still be a starter,” said Gossage, who was 20 at the time.

But Gossage admits that he would have done anything to stay in the majors, so when White Sox manager Chuck Tanner suggested that the young flamethrower take up residence in the bullpen in 1972, a skeptical Goose agreed to give it a try. As it turned out, Gossage thrived on coming to the ballpark every day with a chance of getting into the game.
“I didn’t like the days off between starts,” he said.

Even though he didn’t realize it at the time, when Gossage accepted his new role as a reliever, it marked the beginning of the evolution of the bullpen.

“When I first went to the bullpen in 1972, they didn’t even use the term closer,” he said.

Back in the early ’70s, relievers were called into the game with runners on base, usually in scoring position. The relief pitchers worked out of jams and stayed in the game to pitch several more innings. If a reliever came into the game in the seventh or eighth inning, he usually finished the game, Gossage said. By contrast, today’s closers generally work only one inning and come into the game at the start of the ninth inning, even if the game isn’t necessarily on the line. “It takes three guys today to do what we used to do,” Gossage said.

Of his 310 saves, Gossage got 52 by retiring at least seven batters in a game, pitching more than two innings. “You came in with men on base, and if you got them out, you stayed in the game,” the 57-year-old Gossage said. He said he looked forward to coming in the game with men on base and getting the team out of a tough situation. “I was brought into situations God couldn’t get out of, and I got out of them,” Goose said with a grin.

During his tenure in the bullpen, Gossage held down all the big jobs – long-relief man, setup man and of course, closer. He notched more than 100 innings pitched in a season as a reliever five times in his career, a milestone setup men and closers hardly ever reach anymore because of how they are used. But Gossage was durable. “Guys in the bullpen were workhorses when I played,” he recalled.

Big-league beginning
The 6-foot-3 hurler was the ninth-round choice of the Chicago White Sox in the 1970 amateur baseball draft. By 1972, he was up with the Pale Hose and went 7–1 in relief for manager Chuck Tanner’s club, with two saves. He spent the next couple of seasons fine-tuning his skills, and in 1975, he was chosen as Fireman of the Year with an American League–leading 26 saves.

Besides crediting Tanner with putting him in the bullpen, the relief ace says his first major league manager also “taught me the game from A to Z.” Johnny Sain, the White Sox pitching coach at the time, also taught Gossage a change-up and the slurve. “I really didn’t have any breaking pitches until then,” noted the only Colorado native in the Cooperstown’s shrine.
The Goose has White Sox roommate Tom Bradley to thank for helping him gain name recognition in the major leagues. It was Bradley who noticed that Gossage stuck his neck way out when he was getting ready to pitch. “He said one day, ‘Hey you look like a goose out there,’ and the name just stuck,” said the intimidating hurler who in his prime often struck out three batters with just nine pitches.

When the White Sox got a new manager in 1976, Gossage was moved to the starting rotation. The Goose went 9–17 for a dismal White Sox team, and he wasn’t happy in his starting role. During the offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates named Tanner as their manager and one of the first things he did was trade for Gossage. The dominating moundsman said, “He (Tanner) called me up and said, ‘You’re back in the bullpen.’ ”

Goose had a great season with the Pirates in 1976, racking up 26 saves and recording a 1.62 ERA, good enough to grab George Steinbrenner’s attention in the Bronx. The Yankees signed the elite reliever as a free agent in 1978, and Gossage’s dream of playing for the New York Yankees finally became a reality.

But things got off to a rocky start for Gossage in pinstripes. “I struggled mightily in the first part of the season,” he said. Gossage remembers that he was responsible, at least in part, for the Yankees falling so far behind the Boston Red Sox early on in 1978.

“On our 1978 World Series rings, Mr. Steinbrenner had the words ‘Greatest Comeback’ inscribed. We wouldn’t have had to make the greatest comeback if I hadn’t dug such a big hole for us. Early on in the season, catcher Thurman Munson would come to the mound when they called me into a game and say, ‘OK, how are you going to blow this one?’ That’s just how Thurman was.”

The hard-throwing right-hander eventually settled into his new home in New York and saved 27 games in 1978 with his 98-mile-per-hour fastball, helping the Yankees come back from a 14-1/2-game deficit in July to win the American League East title. The team went on to win the American League pennant and the World Series that year. Gossage was named Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year in the American League in 1978.

The newest Hall of Famer still believes that the biggest save of his career was the 2-2/3 innings he pitched against the Boston Red Sox in the one-game playoff between the Bronx Bombers and their Boston rivals for the American League East Championship at the end of the 1978 season. The two teams ended the regular season tied for first place, setting the stage for the dramatic playoff game at Fenway Park, which the Yankees won with Gossage toeing the rubber in relief. Gossage was also on the mound in 1978, when the Yankees clinched the American League pennant against the Kansas City Royals, and when they won the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Seeking a change of scenery, Gossage left the Yankees after the 1983 season and signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres, who also picked up the Yankees’ third baseman, Graig Nettles.

“We were the final pieces of the puzzle,” the reliever said. The Padres went on to win the National League pennant in 1984, under the leadership of manager Dick Williams. Interestingly, Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Gossage on July 27. The long-time manager was elected to the Cooperstown shrine by the Veterans Committee.

Gossage always said that his two best managers were Chuck Tanner and Dick Williams. And during his 22-year career (1972–94) he had many managers. Besides playing for the White Sox, the Pirates, the Yankees and the Padres, Goose also took up residence in the bullpens of the Cubs, the Giants, the Rangers, the A’s and the Mariners. In 1990, he played in Japan for a short time.

Williams and Gossage were already linked in history because of the fifth game of the 1984 World Series. The Padres were playing the Detroit Tigers for the World Championship. In the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 5 – with the Padres trailing, 5–4 and Tigers runners on second and third – Gossage was on the mound when Kirk Gibson came to bat. There were two outs, but Williams wanted Gossage to walk Gibson. So Williams waved four fingers from the dugout to his relief pitcher. Gossage was shocked.

“I really owned Gibson. If he came up against me 50 times, I must have struck him out 49,” Goose recalled. “The catcher, Terry Kennedy, came to the mound and I told him I didn’t want to walk him. I wanted to go after him.”

Williams ran out to the mound, as well, and after a brief discussion he agreed to let Gossage pitch to Gibson. The manager had barely made it back to the dugout when Gibson launched a Gossage fastball into the right-field upper deck at old Tiger Stadium. Williams now said, “He didn’t hit it hard. It just broke three seats.”

The Padres went on to lose the game by a final score of 8–4. They lost the series as well, four games to one.

So when Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame, Gossage naturally picked up the phone to call and congratulate his former skipper. Williams’ wife, Norma, answered the phone, and all Gossage said was, “This is the guy who should have walked Kirk Gibson.” Norma responded, “Oh, hi, Goose.”

In 22 seasons, Gossage appeared in 1,002 games and had 115 victories in relief to go along with his 310 saves. He compiled a lifetime ERA of 3.01. The reliever with the blistering pitches went into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.

“There’s no one who wants to win more than George Steinbrenner, and I owe a lot to him and playing on the big stage in New York,” Goose said.

Gossage called Yankee Stadium, a “great stadium,” a “museum” and a “shrine.” “There’s no place like it anywhere else.”

*  *  *  *  *

A bit of trivia: Gossage is the second Goose in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know if you can refer to them as “Geese,” but the other Goose is Leon “Goose” Goslin, an outfielder between 1921-38 who played most of his career with the Washington Senators, but spent some time with the St. Louis Browns and the Detroit Tigers. Goslin batted .316 and collected 2,735 hits during his major league career.

Baseball has seen several hawks (Andre Dawson, not yet in the Hall of Fame, and Ken Harrelson).
And then there’s the unforgettable Mark Fidrych, the legendary Detroit Tigers hurler who was known simply as “The Bird.”
Robert Grayson is a regular contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.

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