Weeds: Statistics don’t tell Bruckbauer’s story

Fred Bruckbauer

By Randy Krzmarzick

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Last summer an engraved plaque was installed on the grandstand at Sleepy Eye Ballpark commemorating Fred Bruckbauer. Dean Brinkman spearheaded the project, aided by the Sleepy Eye Baseball Association, Borth Memorials, and the City of Sleepy Eye. This Saturday morning at 10:30, there will be a gathering at the ballpark to dedicate the plaque. Fred and Kathy’s four children are in town for their aunt Lois and Steve Hillesheim’s anniversary, and they will be part of the gathering. The public is invited.

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It is often said that baseball is a game of failure as much as success. Anyone who has played has cringe-worthy memories of striking out at a key moment. It is also a game that can be reduced to numbers that often don’t tell whole stories.

Fred and Kathy Bruckbauer are pictured above in front. In back are their children: Amy Ziegler, Sandy Andrews, Debbie Jacobson and Terry Bruckbauer.

Sleepy Eye’s greatest baseball player pitched brilliantly at higher and higher levels in the Fifties. At the end of it came these numbers: 0-3-3-1-0. Zero innings, three hits, three runs, one walk, and zero strikeouts. There is so much more to Fred Bruckbauer’s amazing baseball career and successful life. But in the small, yet exaggerated world of Major League Baseball, there is 0-3-3-1-0.

On April 25, 1961, Fred pitched one time for the Minnesota Twins in Kansas City. This was in the team’s first season here after moving from Washington. It was one of the first ever televised Twins games. My older brother Dale had played ball with Fred. He and some of their teammates gathered at our house to watch that night, excited to see their buddy on the black and white set.

Fred came in to pitch in the fourth inning with the Twins behind 7 to 2. A double by Dick Howser, single by Jay Hankins, a walk to Jerry Lumpe, and double to Lou Klimchok. And Bruckbauer was replaced by Chuck Stobbs. That was it.

Let’s back the story up. Frederick John Bruckbauer was born to Wendelin and Delores on May 27, 1938 in New Ulm. My dusty old Baseball Encyclopedia lists birthplaces of every Major League player. Unfortunately, there is no mention of Sleepy Eye where Fred grew up.

Fred was an extraordinary athlete at St. Mary’s High School, All-Conference in football and basketball. It was on the baseball diamond where Fred truly excelled. Under coach Moe Moran, the Knights went to the Catholic State Tournament in ’54, ’55, and ’56. Fred was good enough as a teenager to pitch summers for the Sleepy Eye Indians town team and later for the New Ulm Brewers.

Bruckbauer received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. At the time, the Gophers were one of the elite baseball programs in the nation under coach Dick “Chief” Siebert. When Fred took the mound for the U, he immediately became their ace. With a 15 and 3 record, Bruckbauer led the Gophers to Big Ten titles in 1958 and 1959. His winning percentage is still among the best ever for the Gophers.

Fred’s parents, Wendy and Delores, would drive up to Minneapolis to see their son pitch those years. Sometimes Delores stayed in the car listening to the game on the radio, too nervous to watch her boy pitch.

Fred was All-American in 1959. Pro scouts were attending his every game. This was before Major League Baseball had a draft, and scouts competed to sign talent. Fred had interest from St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, and Detroit. Coach Siebert hated to lose Bruckbauer for his senior year, but he knew Fred had to take one of the offers.

With his father advising him (this was before agents), Fred was drawn to Angelo Giuliani who worked for the Washington Senators. In June of 1959, Fred and his dad flew to Washington. There Fred pitched well in a practice game against minor leaguers. The next day Fred signed the largest bonus contract that Senators’ owner Calvin Griffith had ever given: $30,000 paid out over three years.

The Senators sent Bruckbauer to Appleton, Wisconsin to pitch in the Three I League. Despite his late arrival, he led the league in shutouts (4) and posted a 12 and 5 record with 2.89 ERA. He made the All-Star team and won Rookie of the Year honors. That winter Fred returned to Sleepy Eye to marry his high school sweetheart Kathy Olson. Life was good.

Going into the 1960 season, Fred was one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He reported to spring training among a corps of young pitchers considered the future of the Senators. The group included Jim Kaat and Jack Kralick, names that Twins fans would come to know. Manager Cookie Lavagetto was “smitten with Bruckbauer’s potential.”

After successful outings against the Braves and White Sox, Griffith and Lavagetto came to the clubhouse to inform Fred he would be in the Senator’s starting rotation. Unfortunately, the Baseball Gods had other plans. That very day, Fred had felt a tug in that highly valued arm. He didn’t think much of it. No one knew it then, but his arm would never be the same. Fred said later, “I don’t remember doing anything, but my fastball was more or less gone.”

There are no Baseball Gods. You’re excused for thinking there are if you ever played the game. It was likely that Bruckbauer had a torn or frayed rotator cuff. Today, surgery quite possibly would have allowed Fred to have a long major league career. We are left to imagine him pitching many seasons at Met Stadium.

While there were not modern surgical techniques 58 years ago, there was cortisone. Cortisone was new and considered a wonder. Its limitations were yet to be discovered. Over the next two years, Fred was given many injections. He had so many cortisone shots that Fred carried a welt on his shoulder the rest of his life. It allowed him to fight through pain and keep pitching, but never at the level of before.

The Senators/Twins were desperate to get a return on their investment. I talked to Fred once, and he told about the extreme measures the team went through to get that arm healthy. They even had his tonsils removed based on one doctor’s questionable advice.

Instead of going to Washington, Fred was sent to Charlotte in the South Atlantic League. Now Fred and Kathy were a team, and she went, too. Their son Terry was born that summer in North Carolina. Kathy would be the rock that Fred leaned on as he struggled to right his career, and really the 48 years of their marriage.

Although the fast ball was never as fast and the curve ball never as sharp, Fred had some success. When in October it was announced that the Senators were moving to Minnesota, there was a lot of buzz in Brown County about the local boy being part of that team. At a banquet that winter at the DelRoy in Sleepy Eye, Fred signed a ceremonial contract with team officials in front a big crowd.

Bruckbauer was still considered a top prospect in 1961. He was listed with Carl Yastrzemski and Billy Williams as “players to watch” by The Sporting News. Fred knew things were not right, though. “I was just saying a few prayers hoping it would get well. So was the team.”

Throwing with guile and smarts, Bruckbauer had a smattering of success that spring, enough to make the roster for the first Twins team. Fred got his one and only chance that April evening. He faced four batters, and 0-3-3-1-0 later he left the game. The Twins would go on to lose 20 to 2 to the A’s, a game none of us would remember otherwise.

Fred called Kathy that night. All the Twin City newspapers had contacted her to get her reaction. Kathy told her husband, “Things will get better.” And their life would, but not his baseball career.

In May, the Twins sent Fred to Syracuse. Again, there were flashes of success. Finally, the next spring, Fred told the club, “I need to quit and get on with my life. This isn’t going to work.” Calvin Griffith tried to convince him to stay. But Fred returned to his young family in Sleepy Eye, ready for life after baseball.

Fred finished his degree at Mankato State, then taught a year in Mankato. Then came a job offer from the John Deere Company. He would work for John Deere for almost 40 years. Eighteen of those were spent in Great Falls, Montana, the rest in Holmen, Wisconsin. Later the Bruckbauers retired to Naples, Florida. Fred passed away in 2007, Kathy in 2016.

Fred and Kathy raised four children who are scattered across the country now. I talked to Sandy in Orlando and Terry in Seattle. They had wonderful things to say about their parents. Sandy said all the kids played a little ball, but no one stuck with it. “They just encouraged us in whatever we wanted to do. Our parents were always there for us.”

Fred loved the outdoors. Huntin0g and fishing became his passions. Terry has great memories of his dad taking him out of school for ventures throughout Montana. Terry said Fred never expressed any regrets about baseball. “Dad never let things bother him much. That’s probably what made him such a good pitcher; he could always move on.”

Fred Bruckbauer was Sleepy Eye’s star, and his baseball career was a shooting star that blazed across the sky. But it is Fred’s effort and dedication as husband to Kathy and father to Terry, Debbie, Sandy, and Amy that is the constellation that continues to shine.

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