A true hometown hero, Don Cardwell, passed away on Monday, Jan. 14. Cardwell was a major league pitcher for about 13 years, playing for 5 teams in the NL.
Cardwell was born and raised in Winston-Salem and attended Gray High School on the south side of town. He raised his own family in the suberb of Clemmons, where I grew up. His son, Gary, and I were friends, as were all kids the same age in Clemmons. We all were in the same class at Clemmons Elementary, as there was only one class per grade. We played together, at recess and on the Little League field, although Gary was a much better ball player than I. Imagine that! Of course, Don himself was hardly ever around, but I didn't notice that. None of our dads were very visible. The mothers pretty much handled everything that had to do with the kids.
Gary's mother, Don's wife, was a Den Mother for our Cub Scout pack one year. I'm pretty sure it was the "Bear Cub" year, which would have been about 3rd grade. That was when I first realized that Gary's dad was the real deal. Gary was very humble about it, and did not talk about his dad much. It was when I saw the pictures and cool stuff at their home that I really connected his dad to "real" baseball, and I started paying attention. Then, lo and behold, there he was on one of my Topps baseball cards! Oh, the excitement! Of course, he played for Pittsburgh, who I hated, but I still rooted for him to do well. I soon learned that not only was he a "real" pitcher, but he had thrown a no-hitter even! It was back in 1960, when I was barely 2. Then he got traded to the Mets, which was like baseball purgatory, but at least I knew I could pull for him and it wouldn't be affecting my Red Sox negatively.
Imagine our surprise when, in 1969, the Mets won the NL pennant. They came from way back to take the NL East in the 1st year of divisional play when the Cubs went into a massive late-season slump. Then they surprised everyone by sweeping the Braves in the 1st NLCS. Cardwell did not get to pitch in that series, but the Mets won despite the great Hank Aaron who hit home runs in each of the games. We were at school during game 3 and came home to get the news that night. Mr. Cardwell's Mets (that's how we thought of them by then) were going to the World Series. And now they were going to be on the Big Stage. And we might get to see Gary's dad, the Major League pitcher, on the TV - WOW! Still, nobody really gave them much of a chance against the powerful Orioles, with the Robinsons, Frank & Brooks, and big Boog Powell. After all, they only made the postseason because of this funky new division system and the Cubs meltdown, but weren't they just special for getting that far!
In Game 1 it happened. Tom Seaver started, and then Don Cardwell got called in to pitch! Now I must admit that I needed Retrosheet's help with some of the details that follow, but I distinctly remember the emotions. I remember the excitement of seeing him take the mound, and I remember the disappointment when he only got to pitch 1 inning, which we were greatly upset about. Seaver had pitched the first 5 innings. He gave up 4 runs before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the 6th. Cardwell pitched the bottom of the 6th, sitting down 3 straight. We felt surely he would be back out, but in the top of the 7th, New York loaded the bases, then scored a run on a sac fly. With 2 on, 2 outs, and down by 3, Cardwell was replaced by a pinch-hitter, who promptly grounded out. Boy, were we mad! The O's held on to win with Seaver taking the loss.
On Sunday Jerry Koosman pitched. I have always thought Koosman pitched the whole game, but the Box Score shows the fraility of the human memory. He actually went 8 2/3 before walking Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. Ron Taylor came in and got Brooks Robinson to ground out for the save and a tied series.
On Tuesday, with one of our classmate's father in the big game, we got to go to the auditorium and watch the game on a TV that someone had brought in and set up on the stage. That afternoon we stayed at the school and watched together, even though school ended before the game did. The Mets starter was Gary Gentry, a rookie - surely we would get to see Cardwell in this game. But when he was pulled another youngster, some guy named Nolan Ryan, was put in. That was in the 7th inning. Well that couldn't last long, we thought. Ryan proved us wrong, finishing the game out for the save and a 2 games to 1 lead.
We got to watch the next 2 games as well, but Cardwell never got another chance. First Seaver, then Koosman threw complete game gems to end it in 5 games. Seaver had to go 10 innings after giving up 2 hits and a tying sac fly in the top of the 9th, but held on for the win. In game 5 Koosman gave up 2 homers in the 3rd inning and fell behind 3 - 0. We thought this is it, we would get to see Gary's dad for sure, which would be even cooler than game 1 since it might be for the series win. Koosman came back strong, though, and only allowed 1 hit and 1 walk after that to finish out the game. Although we (most of us, anyway) wanted the Mets to win, we also secretly hoped that maybe Koosman would falter, or the Mets wouldn't come back and there would be a 6th game, giving our local hero another shot in the spotlight, but it wasn't to be. The Mets scored 2 in the 6th, 1 to tie in the 7th, and 2 in the 8th. Koosman gave up his first walk of the game to lead off the top of the 9th, but then sat down the next 3 to end it and complete the upset. Cardwell only made the 1 appearance, but it was a huge moment for us all, and he got a hero's welcome when he returned home, even though he played for "one of those yankee teams"!
Of course, Cardwell's career was much more than that 1 inning in 1969. He started in pro ball straight out of high school in 1954, and made his ML debut with the Phillies in 1957. He never broke the .500 mark with Philly and was traded to the Cubs in May of 1960. Imagine, someone I knew had played on the same team with the immortal Ernie Banks! Just two days after that trade he pitched his no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. In that game he walked the second batter in the 1st inning, but that was it. He faced just one batter over the minimum. He struck out 7, with 2 of those K's coming against the tough Clete Boyer, and he struck out the great Stan Musial when Stan pinch-hit for Curt Flood in the 8th.
In 1961 Cardwell had what was probably his best year. He went 15 - 14 for the Cubs, with an ERA of 3.82 and 156 strikeouts, which was 9th in the league. His 38 games started was the most in the NL. In October of '62 the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals for Lindy McDaniel, who was his opponent the day he threw the no-hitter. But the Cards traded him in November and he pitched the next 4 years for the Pirates. He was a starter his first 3 years there, but in 1966 spent most of his time in relief. He was then traded to the young Mets club, where he was predominately a starter again. He posted respectable ERA's with the Mets, but never had a winning season with them. This was surely at least partly due to the fact that, prior to that second half of '69, the Mets were just awful.
After the World Series year Cardwell didn't see much action in 1970, and was traded to the Braves that summer. He pitched in 16 games for Atlanta, mostly in relief. When the Braves released him that winter he retired and returned to North Carolina and his family.
For his career he was 102 - 138, with a 3.92 ERA and 1211 strikeouts.
He went to work, as so many former ball players seem to, for a local car dealership. He was their top salesman several years. He was also well known as a very good golfer, playing in a lot of the local pro-am events. Every so often he would pop up in the news, commenting for the local station on things like the strike in '94 or speaking at local events. Mostly, though, he shied away from attention and the spotlight.
He stayed active and only retired this past year, in the spring of 2007. He was still married to Sylvia, Gary's mother, at the time of his death, after 53 years. He was 72 years old.
Don Cardwell has left us, but I still have those memories of watching a local boy who made it to the show.