.WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By John Basil
December 17, 2011
The acquisition took nearly a decade to develop, but for Claude Osteen it was well worth the wait.
Signed by the Cincinnati Reds out of high school in 1957, Osteen toiled for seven major league seasons with perennial second-division clubs before the Los Angeles Dodgers – an organization that had been interested in his services since he was a teenager – acquired him via trade.
“It was such a joyous thing to go to a team that I knew wanted me all along, and one with a great pitching staff led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale,” said Osteen, whose high school coach in Reading, OH, was also a birddog scout for the Dodgers. “In one year I went from a last-place team in Washington with the Senators to one that won the World Series in Los Angeles. It’s hard to top that.”
Osteen made his major league debut at age 17 – just weeks after graduating from high school – but didn’t earn his first victory until shortly after his 22nd birthday. Over the next two seasons the hard-luck hurler’s fortunes began to turn, finally hitting pay dirt in 1964 when he and infielder John Kennedy were traded for Ken McMullen, Pete Richert, Dick Nen, Phil Ortega and power-hitting Frank Howard. The deal, however, did not go over well, at first, with the Los Angeles press.
“Jim Murray wrote a column re-telling his telephone conversation about the trade with Dodgers’ General Manager Buzzie Bavasi,” recalled Osteen. “Murray asked Bavasi, ‘Who’d you trade?’ Buzzie told him, ‘Frank Howard.’ Murray answered, ‘Oh, my God. You must have got a lot for him.’ Buzzie said, ‘Claude Osteen.’ Murray said, ‘You got who? I know you got more than that.’ Buzzie told him, ‘Oh, and we got John Kennedy.’ Murray said, ‘Now, we’re talking, we got the president on our side.’ But it was one of those trades that worked out well for both teams.”
The lefthander won 15 games his first season in Dodger blue and one more in the third game of the World Series versus the Minnesota Twins, on a five-hit shutout. In his nine years in L.A., Osteen recorded 147 of his 196 career victories; twice won 20 games; made three All Star appearances; and started 335 games (including 41 in 1969).
During that span, the 5’11” 160 lb. Osteen threw no fewer than 236 innings a year (topping out at 321 in 1969) – a string of incredible durability that belied his relatively slight frame.
“Except for a bout of tendonitis in the beginning of my career, I never had arm trouble,” said Osteen. “I think it’s because I had wiry strength from growing up on a farm, hauling hay bails and riding a combine. My hands and arms were strong. There wasn’t a nut or bolt that I couldn’t loosen.
“Learning how to pitch and then knowing how to throw to hitters’ tendencies, though, made the difference in my career. I had a 90-plus mph fastball when I got to the majors, but I was wild. So, I worked on my mechanics and sacrificed some of that velocity to gain greater control and movement on my pitches. From then on I never tried to overthrow, but instead pitched to contact. I think that saved my arm.
“Pitching now seems to be geared to putting up big numbers on the radar gun. I’m not sure if guys like me, Tom Glavine, Randy Jones and other finesse pitchers would even get signed today by a major league club.”
Traded to the Houston Astros after the 1973 season and swapped to the St. Louis Cardinals the following August, Osteen’s 18-year big league career ended with the Chicago White Sox in 1975. The following season, the 35-year-old transitioned into a role he’d spent years physically and mentally preparing for.
“Toward the end of my career I paid particular attention to my delivery and keeping my body in shape,” said Osteen. “I learned more about myself over the last five years of my career than at any other time. I was training myself to be a pitching coach and to relay the knowledge I gained from coaches like the Dodgers’ Red Adams and the Redlegs’ Tom Ferrick.”
Osteen started his second career in 1976 with the Philadelphia Phillies’ AA squad in Reading, PA. He spent the next four years back in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals, before moving to the Phillies for seven more seasons. After two two-year stints with both the Texas Rangers and Dodgers, Osteen retired from coaching following the 2000 season – leaving a trail of star pupils in his wake.
“I coached a few guys – Pete Vuckovich, Steve Carlton and John Denny – who won Cy Youngs and several others who were 20-game winners,” said Osteen. “I never tried to change the way someone threw, but focused instead on putting their mechanics just right so they’d have good deliveries.
“I especially enjoyed working with pitchers who didn’t have overpowering stuff. Having them thinking positively, by visualizing before they even threw a pitch, a batter grounding out, and encouraging them to study hitters’ strengths and pitch to their weaknesses. I never wanted my pitchers to stop learning.”
Today, the 72-year-old Tennessee native lives a quiet retirement with his wife, Jackie, in a Dallas, TX, suburb, where his pastimes include hunting and golfing with a circle of fellow ex-major leaguers, such as Leon Roberts, Doyle Alexander, Jack Lazorko and Eddie Robinson.
Osteen also lends his baseball expertise to oldest son, David, a former minor league pitcher in the Cardinals’ organization, who runs a nearby baseball academy, and enjoys spending time with remaining sons, Brian, Eric and Gavin (another ex-minor league pitcher), daughter, Jennifer, and seven grandchildren.
As a member of the Rangers’ Legacy alumni program, Osteen still keeps his hand in the game where he drew paychecks for 46 seasons, attending autograph signings and charity events. Osteen also makes appearances at card shows with ex-Dodgers and Senators teammates.
“I’m amazed that people continue to be interested in me,” said Osteen, who added that he receives about ten autograph requests a day through the mail. “Baseball was very good to me, so I never refuse to sign for a fan. I got to play in two World Series; was the winning pitcher in the 1970 All-Star game; threw 40 career shutouts – which just doesn’t happen anymore; and had the privilege of wearing a major league uniform in six decades as both a player and coach. I’ll always be a baseball fan.”
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