Anniston’s ‘stylish lefty’ who took his talents to the Cubs and Reds

A 1955 baseball card of Fred Baczweski.

Fred Baczewski, the sports editor of The Anniston Star once wrote, “probably is the greatest left-hander in the history of the Anniston Rams.” Missing in that proclamation are the details.

Baczewski spent only nine weeks of the 1948 season in Anniston. He pitched in only 18 games for the Rams, who went 75-63 that year and made the Southeastern League playoffs. But he didn’t pitch in those postseason games, didn’t return to the Rams in either 1949 or 1950 and didn’t venture into the fan-favorite territory of Woody Rich or Dee Moore. His impact, though impressive as a 22-year-old pitcher with only his second professional club, was overwhelmingly succinct.

Fred Baczewski with the Anniston Rams.

Nevertheless, Baczewski’s brief Rams tenure earned him local accolades and served as one rung of the ladder he ascended to the Major Leagues. He went 11-2 that season as a Ram, posting their second-highest win total and third-best ERA (.352) and leading the pitching staff in winning percentage (.846). And then, he was gone.

By the time he retired during the 1961 season, Baczewski — who served in the U.S. Army during World War II — had played 15 professional seasons, played in 505 games, made four MLB stints with two teams, the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds, and posted a career MLB record of 17-10.

That may be why Fred Cox, Anniston’s newspaper sports editor at the time, pronounced Baczewski as one of the Rams’ greats, subjective as that opinion may be.

What’s undeniable is that Baczewski earned his way into the Major Leagues without the assistance of war-depleted rosters and didn’t earn his spot on the Rams’ list of MLB alums by playing in only a handful of late-season games. His service time was wholly legitimate, a trait not all of Anniston’s players who made The Show can claim.

For six seasons Baczewski bounced around the minor leagues, playing for six teams (including three stints with Shreveport and two with Los Angeles) before making a spring-training splash with the Cubs in 1953. That April, the Chicago Tribune wrote that Baczewski was “the stylish lefty who pitched virtually no base hits during spring training” and was due for significant mound time when the season began.

A 1953 clipping in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Except, that didn’t happen, an example of baseball’s unfairness. But in comments to the Associated Press, here’s how Baczewski explained it: “Bad weather was a good break for me. Last spring the weather was so bad that I didn’t get a chance to start with the Chicago Cubs.” Instead, all he got were nine relief appearances and a midseason trade to Cincinnati. He debuted April 26 in a 7-5 Cubs victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field, but his first MLB victory came in a Reds uniform when he scattered eight hits in a 5-3 win over Philadelphia at Crosley Field.

This was the left-hander Anniston’s newspaper wrote about — a pitcher with a surprisingly deadly curve and improved control. He went 11-4 in his rookie season with the Reds and entered the 1954 season penciled into their rotation.

“Two things helped me as a rookie, and they might help me this season,” Baczewski told the AP in the spring of ’54. “I wasn’t afraid to get the ball over the plate and I developed a good slow curve. It helped me quite a bit. It was my changeup.”

The former Ram started strong that season, winning his first start — against his old team, the Cubs — but never climbed more than one game above .500 the rest of the year. Hampered by a lingering arm ailment, Baczewski went 6-6 and rarely displayed the form of his rookie campaign.

A 1955 clipping from the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The following March, Baczewski entered spring training as one of the Reds’ questions: How good could he be? Was he healthy? When he retired all nine batters in three innings of a spring game against the Cardinals, optimism peaked through the doubts. “Fred Baczewski, who lost his fine 1953 form last season for the Cincinnati Redlegs, may have the stuff back in his pitching arm today,” the Associated Press reported.

In baseball, lingering arm ailments are devilishly potent. They make optimism risky. When the Reds broke camp in Florida, Baczewski was on the roster — but he didn’t pitch for days when the season began. So noticeable was his absence, and the reason for it, that the Cincinnati Enquirer seemingly wept on his behalf. “The most sorrowful player of the spring is Fred Baczewski, who hasn’t pitched an inning since the team left Florida 10 days ago. An ailing left arm — Fred’s money limb — has been aching since last summer.”

The Enquirer noted that Baczewski had given up six earned runs and 11 hits in 10 innings that spring. “Fred insists he’s ready to pitch, but his arm still isn’t free and loose,” Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts told the newspaper.

Fred Baczewski with the Cincinnati Reds.

A week later, on April 16, Tebbetts finally called Baczewski in from the bullpen in the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Braves. Facing the heart of the Braves’ lineup — Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Bobby Thomson — Baczewski refused to flinch. Three up, three down. There wouldn’t be a fourth.

Milwaukee’s Joe Adcock led off the seventh with a solo home run to left. The next hitter, Johnny Logan, homered to right.

Tebbetts had seen enough. He pulled Baczewski, who faced only five hitters and allowed two runs in his final MLB appearance. Wary of Baczewski’s sore arm, the Reds didn’t use him again and sent him out to Class AAA St. Paul on May 11. His entire final MLB season consisted of one inning of work.

Six more springs and summers Baczewski spent in the minors’s upper classifications — close to the Major Leagues but far from it — and his ankle blew up. More accurately, it was blown up by a line drive he took during batting practice in the spring of 1960 while pitching for Class AA Dallas. What happened next shook Baczewski and dissolved his affection for the game.

“You know, this is a cruel game. It can hurt you.”

– Fred Baczewski

That May, Baczewski described his injury and the aftermath to a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Baczewski had posted a 2.46 ERA in 106 innings for Dallas the year before, but the team discarded him when his damaged ankle wouldn’t allow him to pitch. Out of work and hurt, he returned home to Los Angeles and underwent several operations. He couldn’t pitch for 14 weeks. Plus, he had no team itching to hire him.

So he wrote to Vancouver’s general manager, Bob Freitas. The GM gave the left-hander a shot. While telling his tale, Baczewski showed the reporter his mangled ankle and the shin guard he wore in his sock. “It looked as if someone had scooped out a tablespoon of his ankle,” the reporter wrote.

Baczewski sounded morose.

“You know, this is a cruel game,” he said. “It can hurt you.”

Baczewski pitched only 31 innings over two partial seasons in Vancouver, and then he retired in 1961. He died in 1976 of cancer at the age of 50. He’s buried in Culver City, California.

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