Twenty-five years ago, Bob Tewksbury was a soft-tossing pitcher with a history of elbow and shoulder ailments. When the Cardinals signed him to a minor-league contract as a free agent in December 1988, they had no idea they were acquiring an ace.
After stints with the Yankees and Cubs, Tewksbury had arthroscopic surgery in July 1988 to repair damaged cartilage in his right shoulder. Still aching, Tewksbury, 28, said he had considered retiring from baseball that winter. His wife convinced him to continue playing.
His signing by the Cardinals received little mention outside of a line of agate type in the transactions listings. He was assigned to Class AAA Louisville and placed in the starting rotation.
Displaying sharp control and an array of breaking pitches, Tewksbury was 5-1 in his first 10 starts for Louisville. At the end of May 1989, Ted Simmons, the Cardinals’ director of player development, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Tewksbury was the minor-league pitcher most ready to join the Cardinals.
Unfortunately, others in the Cardinals organization didn’t agree. Tewksbury remained at Louisville. By mid-August, he was 11-4 with a 2.47 ERA in 24 starts.
Surprised by the Cardinals’ lack of interest, Vahe Gregorian of the Post-Dispatch wrote, “Maybe it’s because his fastball would bounce off a thin plane of glass. Maybe it’s because no one is certain he’s recovered from having the goop scooped out of his right shoulder last year.”
Tewksbury’s fastball usually was recorded at no better than 85 mph.
“I don’t know if he can make some kind of difference here (in St. Louis),” Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill told Gregorian. “He’s performed decently down there, but I don’t know that he could come here and replace somebody in our rotation. He’s not a velocity guy, so it’s difficult to project what he’d do here.”
Said Tewksbury: “I’m the type of pitcher you have to see more than once to appreciate. I’m not going to impress you the first time you see me because I don’t throw hard. But I know how to pitch and now I just need to get over that hump.”
Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog never had seen Tewksbury pitch, but seemed unenthused when asked by Gregorian about Tewksbury in mid-August. “My people tell me he would have to be perfect to come up here,” Herzog said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m down on the guy, but no other teams have expressed an interest in him either. There’s just such a big difference between Triple A and the big leagues.”
Tewksbury finished the minor-league season at Louisville with a 13-5 record and 2.43 ERA in 28 starts. He was promoted to the Cardinals in September. Said Herzog to Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch: “I don’t know if Tewksbury can pitch up here … but we ought to take a look.”
Take that, Whitey
On Sept. 5, 1989, Tewksbury made his Cardinals debut, pitching an inning of scoreless relief against the Expos at St. Louis. “He was exactly what we’d heard about him,” Herzog said. “He throws a lot of breaking balls.” Boxscore
After two more relief appearances, Tewksbury was given a start against the Pirates in a game that had been rescheduled because of a rainout. “I don’t really expect too much out of him,” Herzog said to Gregorian. “But that’s the only guy that I can pitch.”
Undeterred, Tewksbury limited the Pirates to a run in 4.2 innings before he was lifted with the score tied at 1-1. The Pirates won, 4-3, but Tewksbury impressed.
“Tewksbury did his job,” Herzog said.
Said Tewksbury: ” I was satisfied. I wanted to keep us in the game and I did that.” Boxscore
Five days later, Tewksbury pitched a four-hit shutout, earning his first Cardinals win, in a 5-0 St. Louis victory over the Expos at Montreal. Tewksbury also produced his first big-league hit and RBI with a sixth-inning single off Andy McGaffigan that scored Todd Zeile from third.
“Tewksbury befuddled the Expos with a variety of off-speed pitches,” reported the Post-Dispatch.
Said Herzog: “He did a hell of a job tonight. He got his breaking ball over all the time. He throws a curve and a slider and not too many guys do that.” Boxscore
In seven games for the 1989 Cardinals, Tewksbury was 1-0 with a 3.30 ERA.
Less than a year after contemplating retirement, Tewksbury had established he was a big-league talent. “The one thing that’s gotten me this far is perseverance,” he told Gregorian.
Tewksbury posted double-digit wins in each of the next five seasons for St. Louis. He was named an all-star in 1992 and led the National League in winning percentage that season at .762 with a 16-5 record.
In the six seasons he pitched for the Cardinals (1989-94), Tewksbury was 67-46 with a 3.48 ERA in 154 games.
Previously: How Bob Tewksbury outfoxed Mark McGwire