Right-hander Tom Phoebus, the little guy with the big curveball who won Game 2 of the 1970 World Series and also pitched a no-hitter during his five-year career with the Orioles, has died at 77.
Phoebus, at 5 feet 8 and 185 pounds, was nicknamed “Fireplug” by his Orioles teammates. He was a grinder who won 14 or more games for the Orioles in three straight seasons from 1967 to 1969 and played an important role on some of the best teams in franchise history.
“He had to be pretty good to be on our team,” Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said Saturday. “Phoeby was kind of quiet. He didn’t say a lot. He was all business. He threw strikes and he got people out and he had a terrific career. He gave us his best every time.”
Born in Baltimore on April 7, 1942, not far from the football stadium that would later be converted into the home ballpark of the relocated St. Louis Browns, Phoebus attended high school at Mount Saint Joseph, where he played both football and baseball before signing with the Orioles for a $10,000 bonus in 1960.
He was called up to the major leagues in September of the Orioles’ 1966 world championship season and pitched complete-game shutouts in each of his first two big league appearances.
It was in 1968 that he enjoyed his greatest career highlight, pitching a no-hitter against the defending American League champion Boston Red Sox — with a little help from the greatest defensive third baseman in the history of baseball.
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Robinson made one of his signature diving plays to snag a line drive off the bat of Rico Petrocelli in the eighth inning and drove in three runs in the 6-0 victory. Phoebus also helped his own cause with two hits and an RBI.
“What a great thrill it was to throw a no-hitter in my hometown,” Phoebus told The Sun in 2009. “My dream was to play for the Orioles. As kids [in the 1950s], we would go to games, sit in the bleachers for 50 cents and ride the right fielder of the opposing team.”
It also was quite a thrill for Robinson to help make it happen for a local fan favorite who grew up in the Hampden neighborhood.
“I had followed him in high school. ... He was from around here,” Robinson said. “He did a great job and it was nice to see someone from the city get a chance to pitch a no-hitter and also get a chance to win a World Series game.”
Phoebus appeared in 134 regular-season games for the Orioles, all but eight in a starting rotation that — at different times — included Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Jim Hardin, Wally Bunker and Steve Barber. He led the Orioles staff with 14 victories in 1967.
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In his final season in Baltimore (1970), he pitched at the end of the rotation that featured two 24-game winners in McNally and Cuellar. That was also the year that Palmer won 20 games for the first time and led the AL in innings pitched with 305.
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He was not in the World Series rotation in 1970, but entered Game 2 in relief of Cuellar in the third inning and pitched through the fourth, which set him up for the victory when the Orioles scored five times in the fifth.
First baseman Boog Powell marveled at the arc of Phoebus’ curveball, which he compared with that of Camilo Pascual, who won 20-plus games twice for the Minnesota Twins earlier in the 1960s.
“We found out — we had heard from other guys — [Phoebus] was tipping his pitches, every time he threw his curveball,” Powell said with a nostalgic chuckle Saturday, “and he had a heck of a curveball. Somebody said he would go up on his tiptoes when he threw his curveball and they could see it. It didn’t matter because they couldn’t hit it anyway.”
Powell, the bigger-than-life slugger who now feeds and entertains fans at his famous barbecue stand behind the right-center-field bleachers at Camden Yards, might have been the one who tagged Phoebus with his descriptive nickname.
“We had a pretty good name for him,” Powell said. "We called him ‘Fireplug.’ He wasn’t very tall and he was built like a fireplug. We had a lot of fun together. We had a lot of fun with him.”
Phoebus moved to Florida after his baseball career, where he earned an education degree and spent two decades as a physical education instructor. He was inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1991.