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He walked through the majors - in a hurry

The Baltimore Sun

The details are a little fuzzy.

It has been a long time, after all.

A long time since a promising career turned into an unceremonious blip in Orioles history.

Gordon Sundin was just 18 when he took the Briggs Stadium mound in relief on Sept. 19, 1956, 50 years ago today.

He started the eighth inning, facing three Detroit Tigers batters.

Sundin, a hard thrower who had signed with the Orioles a year earlier for an eye-popping $50,000, walked his first batter. And his second. One on four pitches; one on five.

"I got a strike in there somewhere," Sundin recalled.

He then threw two balls to leadoff hitter Harvey Kuenn, who led the league in hits that season. That's when Orioles coach Luman Harris rushed from the dugout.

Understand, Sundin had been injured for most of 1956. He had traveled with the team, eating countless hot dogs in press boxes and rehabilitating, showering and watching game after game without ever throwing a meaningful pitch. It was killing him.

He finally had his chance that chilly afternoon in Detroit. He didn't want it to end in the middle of an at-bat.

So he pleaded with his coach, though he wasn't particularly sure where his pitches were going. Though he had thrown 10 balls in 11 tries.

"Let me take care of Kuenn," he said with an 18-year-old's bravado.

"That's what we're afraid of, son," Harris responded.

"He took the ball from me, and that was my whole career," Sundin said with a laugh from his Naples, Fla., home recently. "Of course, no one knew it at the time."

Briefest of careers

Sundin is one of 961 players since the 1870s to have played in just one major league game heading into this season, according to The vast majority debuted before 1950.

In modern Orioles history, six players from 1954 to 2005 have appeared in one career game. Two, Sundin and fellow 18-year-old pitcher George Werley, accomplished it within 10 days of each other. Werley, whose lone outing was Sept. 29, was the third-youngest player in the majors in 1956; Sundin was the fourth-youngest. Neither made it to the show again.

According to the club, the four others who have debuted and ended their careers in one day were: outfielder Roger Marquis (1955), catcher Tom Patton (1957) pitcher Jeff Rineer (1979) and pitcher Radhames Dykhoff (1998).

But Sundin's ignominy reaches deeper than the rest. Because his is two-fold.

After he left the mound that day in the 9-1 loss to the Tigers, Orioles reliever Billy O'Dell allowed a sacrifice fly to future Hall of Famer and Baltimore native Al Kaline. The run was charged to Sundin, making him one of only three pitchers since 1950 to allow a run without getting at least one out in their lone big league outing.

In perpetuity, Sundin's career ERA is infinity.

"There's nothing I can do about it," he said. "I might as well grin and bear it."

Big signing

Technically, Sundin wasn't a bonus baby. There were league limitations and contractual specifications back then.

Still, Sundin was an important signing for the fledgling Orioles and the man they called "The Boss," manager-general manager Paul Richards.

At 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, Sundin was all-Minnesota in baseball, basketball and football. A powerful halfback, he had narrowed his football scholarship offers to Minnesota, Notre Dame and Wisconsin.

"You couldn't open the Minneapolis Star Tribune in those days without seeing a picture of him in some sport," said his wife, Mary Ann Sundin.

But the Orioles came calling. In 1955, the summer after his high school graduation, Sundin boarded his first airplane for a trip to Baltimore. He worked out with the team, stayed in a fancy hotel and ate steak and lobster.

A few weeks later, the Orioles were in Chicago, and they invited Sundin and his parents as guests, giving the kid his own hotel suite at the Hilton. Richards also had a Chicago restaurant open early so he could dine with the Sundins before a night game.

"It was just a huge, big deal for us," Sundin said.

The serious recruiting effort included a two-page letter written by Richards to Sundin's mother detailing the dangers of playing football - a letter Sundin still has but didn't know existed until years after it was written.

The real kicker, though, was the money: $50,000 over five years. Sundin signed, and the Orioles were ecstatic. They had a kid whose fastball was nearly incomparable.

"It was between me and [the Cleveland Indians'] Herb Score on who threw the hardest," Sundin said. "They didn't have all the [radar] guns they have now, but Score was approaching 100 mph and I was approaching Score. So you can take it from there."

Up to the majors

Sundin, then 17, pitched 14 innings for the York (Pa.) White Roses in the Class B Piedmont League before being recalled to the big league club in September 1955 along with another teenager, York second baseman Brooks Robinson.

Since Sundin was experiencing some numbness in his right hand, he didn't pitch in a game, spending the final month in the bullpen "eating peanuts and looking at the girls in the bleachers."

He went to spring camp the next March, but continued to have arm pain. On March 9, he had surgery to remove ulnar nerve irritation in his right elbow. Today, it would have been an arthroscopic procedure that would have sidelined him a few weeks.

In 1956, the arm was put in a cast and he had to rehab almost all year while making all the trips with the big league club.

"I was a glorified ballboy," he said.

He waited all season for that one shot in September. And when it died after 11 pitches, he trudged into the clubhouse deflated. Orioles third baseman George Kell, an eventual Hall of Famer, put his arm around the kid.

"I was so disgusted being taken out, and George Kell consoled me," Sundin said. "I didn't know it was anything special at that age, that stage. I was going along, singing songs. I thought I was going to play ball forever."

More arm pain

The most important occurrence in Sundin's life came a month later, when he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Dorsey, an alternate on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team that participated in the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy.

On their wedding night, they left Minneapolis for Mexico, where Sundin had to play winter ball. His arm felt good there, but the pain returned in 1957.

And again in 1958, when he had bone chips and spurs removed after a brief spell leading the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in ERA. He juggled effectiveness and injury for a few more seasons before attempting a final, unsuccessful comeback in 1961. At age 24, he was done, returning to Minneapolis to become a salesman for Campbell's Soup.

"He tried so hard, but the pain was so intense and he figured he had to give it up," Mary Ann Sundin said. "You work through things, you get through what you can and you go in a different direction."

Sundin held various sales jobs in Minnesota while raising a family before he and his wife moved to Florida more than 20 years ago.

Now semi-retired and almost 69, Sundin plays a lot of golf. The days of throwing fastballs are decades behind him.

A trace of longing for what might have been remains, since he never fulfilled his vast potential. But his athletic talents took him further than most. And, every now and then, he'll be asked to participate in an old-timers' event.

"I give the old ballplayers I played with a lot of credit. They accepted me as one of them, and I have pride in that, although I didn't do a lot," Sundin said.

"The only record I have is that I didn't get anyone out."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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