Big league Brunet
NEW ALLOUEZ – Many people believe the late George Brunet was arguably the best athlete ever produced in the Copper Country.
Brunet, a New Allouez native, had a long career pitching in the major leagues, appearing for nine teams.
And while his 69-93 lifetime record and 3.62 earned run average may not be overwhelming, one must consider that Brunet pitched primarily for losing teams in his career.
“I think if he (Brunet) had been on better clubs, his record would have been much better,” longtime northend observer Bob Erkkila says. “He really had a lot of talent and he was very durable. I’d rank him right up there with the best from around here.”
Brunet’s durability was legend. He still holds the minor league record for strikeouts (3,175) in a career. And he pitched in the Mexican League until he was 54.
The southpaw hurler first attracted the attention of big league scouts when he starred for the Mohawk American Legion teams in the early 1950s.
The Detroit Tigers brought him to Briggs Stadium in 1953, where he was signed by scout Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe, who was himself a great pitcher.
His arm impressed the Tigers enough for them to offer him a contract.
But he spent the next three seasons in the Tigers farm system before being traded to the Kansas City Athletics in 1956.
It was a move the Tigers would later regret. But more on that later.
In only his second major league appearance, Brunet was brought in to face the Boston Red Sox in a relief role. At the plate stood Ted Williams.
“I didn’t notice who was batting next while I was warming up.” Brunet recalled. “Then I saw him (Williams) standing there.”
He induced the future Hall of Famer to ground into a double play.
Williams told Brunet a couple of years later if he “kept his fastball down low, he had a long career ahead of him.”
George kept his suitcase packed the next few years as he moved from one team after another.
He ended up with the Los Angeles Angels in 1965 and enjoyed some of his finest seasons in the next three years.
On a team with such colorful characters as Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance, Brunet fit right into the Hollywood party scene.
“George never saw a party he didn’t like,” longtime friend Glenn Pyhtila once said. “Hollywood was right down his alley.”
Brunet compiled a respectable 9-11 record and 2.92 ERA in 1965 and followed that up with two more decent, albeit, losing seasons for an Angels team that was annually in the bottom of the standings.
In 1967, he beat the Tigers and Denny McLain on opening night by a 4-2 score. He said pitching against the team was extra incentive.
“You always get a little more fired up for the team that signed you,” he said.”And released you.”
While he posted a 4-0 record versus the Tigers in 1967, perhaps the most telling victory came on the final weekend of the regular season.
Detroit was in a virtual tie with Chicago, Boston and Minnesota for first place when they played the Angels in two back-to-back doubleheaders at Tigers Stadium.
Brunet defeated his old team in the opening game of the first twinbill – and the Tigers ended up losing the pennant to the Red Sox by a single game.
“I always rooted for him (Brunet) whenever he pitched,” Erkkila noted. “But not on that particular weekend.”
Brunet finished out his career with short stints with Pittsburgh, Washington and the new franchise Seattle Pilots.
In Washington, his manager was, ironically enough, Ted Williams.
Pitcher Jim Bouton, the controversial author of the famous book “Ball Four” talked about Brunet in the book.
“He’ll fit right in with this team because he’s crazy,” Bouton noted.
After finishing his major league career in 1973, Brunet signed with a team in the Mexican league.
He went on to have great success south of the border, finishing up with a league record 55 shutouts. That earned him the nickname of “El Viejo” (old man in Spanish).
Sports Illustrated did a feature story on him in 1980 in which a big league scout was quoted as saying he still had the stuff to help a major league team.
Brunet was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Brunet, who died at the age of 56, pitched in 37 seasons and three countries in all.
A long career, indeed.