Saturday, July 4, 2015

199. Bill Faul: Rise and Fall of the Loony Tune


Last month I was honored to be a guest on the C-Dot Show here in Cincinnati (you can listen HERE). The all-baseball show is hosted by Reds beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans and pro comedian Josh Sneed. The two have Reds players, front office guys and sports writers on there and it's recorded live on stage at a bar called MOTR in the Over the Rhine section of town. MOTR's owner, Chris Varias, not only runs a great joint to drink and eat in, but also brings in live bands from all over the country to play every night. Varias is also a big baseball fan and the place is decorated with many pieces of baseball history. When I met Chris he asked me if I had heard of Bill Faul. I said I hadn't and he proceeded to tell me about this local baseball hero. This one's for Trent, Josh and Chris - thanks for having me on your great show and introducing me to this week's addition to The Infinite Baseball Card Set...

Indianapolis, 1969.

Everybody was staring at him, including the green-headed parakeet he had clutched in his hand. He was the oldest guy in the room - The Old Man. He was 28. Seven years earlier he was the best collegiate pitcher in the country, even made the front cover of the official college baseball guide. He'd played in the big leagues, been a Tiger and a Cub, had feature stories written about him in Life Magazine and the Chicago Tribune, yet now he was in the low end of the farm system of a lousy expansion team. The parakeet suddenly bobbed its head and took a bite out of his hand.

"That's it!" he yelled and bit the head off the bird, the feathers exploding into a cloud of bright green, temporarily separating him from the rest of the world.

Bill Faul was the best pitcher to ever come out of the University of Cincinnati. Since the university is known more for their basketball program and architecture school that might not seem like much, but you need to consider that Sandy Koufax pitched there, too. And Bill Faul was better. So good that the Cincinnati native became UC's first All-American and in 1961, his junior year, he was named the best college pitcher in the nation by the American Association of College Baseball Coaches. His side arm motion set baseball records at UC that still stand, including 24 strike outs in a game and lowest season season ERA - a microscopic 0.82 in '62.

But Faul was a flake. He was on a whole different planet than everyone else. There was the one time when he told UC's trainer he had a sore arm. The trainer had him position the ailing arm under an ordinary reading lamp. Fifteen minutes later Faul's sore arm was magically gone. Or take that 24 strike out game. The night before Faul's teammates informed hm that he'd be dropped into the ball park via parachute. Terrified, Faul couldn't sleep all night. Maybe it was the sudden release of his anxiety that made him loose enough to strike out those 24 batters.

Flake or no flake, when the official guide to collegiate baseball hit the newsstands in 1962 it featured Bill Faul of the University of Cincinnati on its cover.

The Detroit Tigers won the bidding war for Faul's services and after graduation he was sent to the Knoxville Smokies of the South Atlantic League to finish out the 1962 season. The college kid went 6 and 2 with an ERA just over 2 and next thing he knew he was up to the Detroit Tigers. The team was in Metropolitan Stadium on September  19, 1962 playing the Minnesota Twins, a measly 6,000 in attendance for the Wednesday day game. When starter Hank Aguirre started hemorrhaging runs in the fourth inning, manager Bob Scheffing took him out for a pinch hitter and sent Bill Faul to the bullpen to warm up. 

As the bottom of the fifth started, Faul took the mound. The Twins were up 4 to 2. He was welcomed to the big leagues by Bernie Allen lining a single to right field, then walked Zoilo Versalles. Faul caught his breath and struck out Dick Stigman and Lenny Green in quick succession, then got Vic Power to ground out to second. Inning over, score still 4-2 Twins.

Bill Bruton opened up the Tigers' 6th with a tremendous home run but no one else could follow that up and Detroit still trailed by a run when Faul took the mound again. Richie Rollins hit an easy grounder to short and was tossed out, but that brought up Harmon Killebrew, the Twins slugger. Wielding one of the most powerful bats in the American League, The Killer knocked the next ball into the bleachers. 5-3 Twins. Faul began wavering. He beaned Bobby Allison who then wound up on third when Earl Battey singled to center. He retired Bobby Allen on a fly ball but Allison crossed the plate on a single by Versalles. A walk to Stigman loaded them up and another free pass scored Battey. Scheffing called Bob Humphreys in from the bullpen and sent Faul to the showers. Minutes later Vic Power knocked in all the runners with a grand slam.

It wasn't he greatest debut, but the Tigers were excited by Faul's potential. The pitcher spent the off-season teaching elementary school in Cincinnati and practicing karate, mastering the latter so well that he registered his hands and feet with the local cops as lethal weapons before reporting to spring training in 1963. He easily made the team.

The 1963 Tigers were a sluggish team going nowhere so Faul's 5-6 record doesn't look too bad when you put it in perspective. While he wasn't making waves with his fastball, he was causing ripples with his eccentricities. He showed up at spring training wearing a cowboy suit and riding a bicycle. When he was issued a Tigers uniform he insisted he wear number 13. New manager Charlie Dressen, a rough hewn, no-nonsense and all-business kind of guy, was perplexed by Faul. "You watch him for a while, watch how he acts, talk to him, spend some time with him, and you figure either he's the dumbest guy in the world or the smartest you've ever met." 

The Tigers coaches tried to work with Faul. He had the pure ability but needed polishing. His delivery was all screwy - he'd flail around in a wind up and by the time he released the ball he was spread out like an octopus on the mound - somebody likened him to an impatient marionette. The coaches warned him over and over again that he'd be unable to field his position and sure enough, one game Faul was beaned in the keister by a screaming line drive. He also had a tendency to lose concentration and get wild, his fast ball rising up to the sweet spot where hitters love to see it. When old-school coaching methods didn't help, the college-educated pitcher turned to a more modern solution - Faul visited a psychiatrist.

Now in 1963 going to a psychiatrist - still referred to as a shrink or even head-shrinker in newspapers of the day - was pretty wild. The psychiatrist's prescription was even more out there: self hypnosis. The pitcher immersed himself in the theory behind hypnosis and began using it on himself, believing through the power of suggestion he could make his right arm keep his pitches low. Faul studied hypnotism throughout the off season and when the 1964 season started he spooked his manager Charlie Dressen and his teammates by putting himself in a trance before his first start. This unorthodox training regimen coupled with six earned runs in 5 innings got him a ticket to the minors. Faul struggled to a 4-7 record with Salt Lake City and in the winter doubled-down on the hypnosis. He'd just received his diploma from the Scientific Suggestion Institute when he found out the Chicago Cubs bought his contract.

While his hypnosis met with static on the stodgy Tigers, the Cubs club house was a bit more open. That's not to say his teammates weren't a bit spooked when Faul set up a record player on which he played a 45 that repeated "You're going to keep the baaaalllll dowwwwwn. You're going to pitch loooowwwww and awwwwaaaayyyy" over and over as he slipped into a hypnotic state. When the record ended he declared himself ready to pitch.

At first it seemed to work. In July and August Faul tossed three complete game shutouts. The other Cubs players soon warmed to Faul's hypnosis routine and even played along, snapping their fingers in his face after an inning as if the release him from a trance. It scarred the heck out of the opposing players and even manager Leo Durocher put up with it as long as he won.  Opposing players tried teasing him, hollaring things and dangling swinging pocket watches at him from the dugout. Somewhere along the line he was given the nickname "Loony Tune", but still Faul had a respectable year, going 6 and 6 with a 3.54 ERA. The '65 Cubs were another in a long line of mediocre to bad teams, but they did make history by turning three triple plays in one season - and if that wasn't odd enough, they all happened when Faul was on the mound.

In the off season Faul practiced his karate, honed his hypnosis technique and earned a degree as a doctor of divinity in the Universal Church. When he joined the Cubs for 1966 he was a minor celebrity as the press fixated on him for lack of anything else interesting on the Cubs that spring. The Chicago Tribune wrote a long Sunday Magazine section on him and he figured prominently in a Life magazine feature where he shared his thoughts on the power of suggestion. But something was missing in 1966 and after a 1-4 record he was shipped to Tacoma. 

It was in the minors that Bill Faul's eccentricities really went into over drive. Whether it was to scare or impress his younger teammates is not known, but the veteran pitcher began telling stories how he'd killed guys and liked to bite the heads off of cats and dogs as a kid. He also began eating live frogs because he claimed they put more hop on his fastball. The other bullpen pitchers would catch and rinse off the little green things and Faul would eat 'em with a glass of water, spitting out the tiny bones. As he slid further and further into the depths of the minor leagues, Faul's increasingly younger teammates were both scared and fascinated by him. It was while playing in the new expansion Kansas City Royals farm team out in Omaha that he made the big leagues of baseball lore by biting the head off that parakeet.

Bill Faul made it back to the majors for seven relief appearances with the San Francisco Giants in 1970 before he was sent back down for good. He returned to Cincinnati where he led a comparatively quiet life, passing away in 2002. 

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