Fifty years after signing his first professional contract, Darold Knowles is still going strong. Currently the pitching coach for the Blue Jays’ High-A affiliate, the Dunedin Blue Jays, the 68-year-old former southpaw had an outstanding, if not mostly unheralded, playing career. Primarily a reliever, Knowles appeared in 765 games over 16 big-league seasons (1965-80), logging 143 saves to go with a 3.12 ERA. He pitched for seven teams, most notably the Washington Senators and Oakland A’s, and is the only pitcher in history to appear in all seven games of a World Series.
David Laurila: How do you think most baseball fans remember you?
Darold Knowles: Well, I think they remember the Oakland A’s days. Obviously, and fortunately, we won three World Series and [there is] the fact that I still hold a record. I think that is what comes to mind first of all.
DL: That record having been set in the 1973 World Series.
DK: Yes, when I pitched in all seven games. And it came out this year that this is my 50th year in baseball. I don’t think many people realize that. I wasn’t even aware it was that many. I knew that I was getting close, but we started figuring it out and that’s what it is. But, I think the biggest thing is the Oakland A’s days.
DL: You signed in 1961. How different was baseball then than it is today?
DK: I think the game is the same. I mean, the intensity they played with then was probably a little bit different, and injuries weren’t as prevalent because people didn’t tell you when they got hurt. Small things like that.
Of course, the uniforms were a big difference, believe me. We talk now about how hot it is, and it really is hot, but back in the days when I first started we had to wear the old flannel uniforms. It really showed up a lot more. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky.
DL: Was it basically the same game on the field?
DK: Basically the same game. You didn’t have as many different pitches probably—pitchers didn't—back then. It was basically your fastball and your curveball, and everybody tried to change speeds. The cutter and split came into play, and there were a few guys trying to throw knuckleballs, but it wasn’t a real prevalent pitch at that time; it was basically your basic three.
The slider came along and I think that was the first big pitch. Then it went from the slider to everybody throwing the changeup. That was the biggest pitch in the game. Then here along came the split and everybody tried to throw a split. Now it’s back to the cutter, which is a form of a slider but it’s a flat slider. I think the game is going to evolve always; there are always going to be some new wrinkles. But, the way it’s played—three outs, throw the ball over the plate, three strikes and four balls—that’s always been the same.
DL: As a pitching coach, do you have to think differently now than you did as a player because of the extra pitches and different approaches?
DK: Yeah, basically you do. With the young guys, you have to be a little bit more careful. It’s not the fact that they throw these pitches and that they’re going to hurt their arm, it’s the fact that they throw them properly and that there’s a certain way to throw certain things, and if you throw it incorrectly, it puts more strain on your arm. Then you have to worry about “This guy is the No. 1 draft pick and he got a lot of money, so we’re going to protect him.” It’s kind of changed in that way.
When I first started, there wasn’t even a draft. Everybody was a free agent, so nobody worried about that. Nobody got a lot of money. If you got twenty grand in that day it was big bucks. I did not. You know what? I’ve been in this game a long time. I love the game and I don’t see from day to day, or year to year, that many changes. The game is still the same, but sometimes they don’t play it the same.
DL: How did you get guys out?
DK: When I first started, I was a straight over-the-top fastball with a good curveball. Along about my third year of pro ball—my second full year—I had just struck out 200 guys in the California State League and I had a guy tell me I didn’t throw hard enough and I’d never pitch in the big leagues like that. So I had to change. I made the adjustment; I dropped down and started throwing a sinker and went to a slider because from where I threw, the curveball wasn’t very effective. So there was an adjustment that I made, but my success came from being able to spot the ball and keep the ball down, and throw a good sinker and slider.
DL: When, in your eyes, did you truly become a good pitcher?
DK: That’s a good question. I thought I became a good pitcher about my third year in the big leagues. My first full year was with the Phillies. I pitched a lot, but I was just basically a thrower. Then my second full year, I went to Washington and kind of started pitching a lot and kind of figuring it out a little bit—what I thought was right. Then, the next year, it seemed like I kind of put things together and it became a bit easier and I had a plan. I think prior to that I didn’t really have a plan. Then the military came.
I was in the Air National Guard and I got activated when they captured the Pueblo, back in ‘68, which was my third year. So I was doing both the military and baseball, and then I got sent overseas. I got sent to Japan and spent a year over there. I came back in ‘69 and actually was lucky and made the All-Star team that year. That was the result of what I thought I had kind of put together those first couple years of baseball, and I started putting it together and was successful. That’s where it all came about.
DL: Where does pitching in the 1969 All-Star Game rank among your career highlights?
DK: I think just being selected ranks up there very high. Obviously, the biggest, most memorable thing I’ve ever done is not necessarily pitching in all seven games of the World Series, but that I got the last out. Right after that would probably be the All-Star Game.
DL: A lot of people might be surprised to learn that you came in to replace Rollie Fingers to get the last out of Game Seven in 1973.
DK: Hah! I think I was surprised. I really was. That was a weird series. Dick Williams that year had already told us that he was going to retire after the year—not necessarily retire, just quit managing the Oakland A’s. He kind of did everything by the book. If it was a left-hander, he brought me in. If it was a right-hander, he brought Rollie in. When you look back, it took some nerve for him to take a Rollie Fingers out and bring me in. And I’m forever grateful. You know, it’s just kind of the way that whole series went. He didn’t do that often during the season—a few times maybe, but not very many. Then, in the World Series, on a great big stage like that, it was very memorable for me.
DL: That’s the biggest out you ever got. What is the best game you ever pitched in the big leagues?
DK: Believe it or not, the best outing I felt I ever had was throwing 10 innings in relief one night in Minnesota, in an extra-inning ball game.
DL: That was a 20-inning game [in 1967] in which you threw 10 scoreless innings out of the bullpen.
DK: Yes. That’s probably the best I felt I ever pitched. I threw a 1-0 shutout in Boston as a starter, but I just had good stuff that night and made good pitches; I felt that, pitching-wise, the game in Minnesota was probably the best.
DL: A reliever throwing 10 innings in one game is something you’d never see in today’s game.
DK: They’d probably never let it happen now, you’re right. You know, I’d always been a starter in the minor leagues. Joe Pignatono was on that club as a coach, and Gil Hodges was the manager. He was aware that I could probably pitch more than just the relieving, and he gave me the opportunity. I had quick innings all the way, and if I remember, I think I struck out 10 guys in those 10 innings.
DL: When you threw the six-hit shutout as a starter [in 1973], you were already a proven reliever. Why were you starting?
DL: What was your best season from a personal standpoint?
DK: I think the best was probably the year I had a 2-14 record. I had 27 saves that year [1970, with the Senators] and didn’t give up that many runs, and I had a low ERA. The won-loss record obviously was not indicative of the year I had. Everything else was good, except it seemed like every time I gave up a run it cost us the ballgame.
DL: Going 2-14 despite pitching well says something about the relative importance of wins and losses when assessing a pitcher’s performance.
DK: It does a little bit, but I think it’s more so for starters. As far as a reliever, which I was, I was doing the job pretty regularly that year and it does make a difference as to whether or not you can handle the situation. If I was pitching bad and lost 14 games it would be one thing, but I wasn’t pitching bad. Aurelio Rodriguez was the third baseman that year.
DL: Best arm in the league.
DK: And a great player, but he used to come over and say “I don’t want to play when you’re pitching,” because it always seemed like he made an error with the potential winning run on, or something, where he’d throw the ball away. They weren’t all unearned, but a lot of those runs were unearned when I [went 2-14].
DL: In 1972, you had an ERA just over 1.30 pitching for the A‘s.
DK: Correct, but I don’t know… I didn’t really pitch that much, it seemed like. I was in 50 games, but it didn’t seem like that many innings. But, I had good results. It was a great year, even though I ended up breaking my thumb. But all my stints were short. [In 1970] with the Senators, I had longer stints and I think there was more pressure put on me, and I enjoyed that.
DL: What was it like for playing for Ted Williams?
DK: Hah! I’ve always said, and still say to this day, that he was probably the worst manager I ever played for when he first started managing. But, I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark every day. He was the most charismatic man I ever met, but he was a perfectionist and he got better. I think he realized that he didn’t really know everything about the game. He knew how to hit, and all that, but he had to learn about managing, and he did and he got much better.
DL: Did he understand pitching?
DK: He understood how to hit it. I don’t think he understood how you have to manipulate pitchers in the ballgame and how to run the ballgame. Those are the things I think he lacked in when he first started managing. He was obviously hired as a name, and he was great, because everyone liked to get around him and talk and listen to his stories. Like I said, he was the most charismatic man I ever met.
DL: What was it like to get traded from the Senators to the A’s [in 1971]?
DK: I was very disappointed at the time, because I was like “the guy,” the closer. Then I went to Oakland and I became… I like to say that I became a spoke in a big wheel. But it didn’t take me long to realize that “Hey, this club’s got a chance to go a long way,” and we did. I was there four years and we won four division titles. It was kind of nice, winning. I’d never had that feeling so much in Washington.
DL: Why couldn’t Carl Yastrzemski hit you?
DK: Hah! Well, other guys could! It’s always kind of interesting. Yaz was a great hitter, but it seemed like I never made any mistakes against him. There were other guys, like Rod Carew for example, who I couldn’t get out—I don’t care what I did. But Yaz, I had great success against. I’m kind of proud of that. He is a Hall of Famer. I think he got a few hits.
DL: According to retrosheet.org, he was 2-for-26.
DK: Is that what it was? Is that all? I knew there weren’t very many. I would like to think that he would think that I was one of his biggest nemeses. I just never worried about him. It seemed like I knew if I made my pitches I was going to be able to get him out, and I was lucky, and I did.
DL: If you were pitching today, how would you be used?
DK: I would have to be a reliever, and I would hope that I’d be a late reliever. There’s no more of a thrill in pitching than when the game is on the line. I can honestly say the only time I was ever, ever nervous in a game, pressure-wise, was the last out of that ’73 Series. I stood on the mound and remember thinking “Don’t mess up now, because it’s going to cost everything.” The tying runs were on base and the go-ahead run was hitting. It was a save situation and I was thinking “Don’t make a mistake here.”
DL: Are there any teammates, or other people in the game, that you want to talk about?
DK: You know, I don’t think I had a bad teammate. I honestly am proud of the fact that everybody I played with could still be considered a friend. I roomed with Catfish Hunter for a couple years in Oakland, and that was very memorable. We stayed friends until his death. I see Rollie every now and then. We were all friends. I don’t mean that we socialized every night with each other, but I don’t think there’s one guy that I can say, in my 15 years in the big leagues, that I don’t want to be around that guy.
DL: How many times over the years have you mentioned to Rollie that you came in for him to get the last out in 1973?
DK: Oh, every time I see him! Every time I see him. I laugh about it. We were at a golf tournament a couple years ago, and we had a cocktail and yeah, I brought it up. I always bring it up. And I always bring up to Gene Tenace that he made an error with two outs in the World Series, and every time I see Wayne Garrett, I remind him that he was the guy that I got for the last out. He’s also a very good friend.
DL: Do you have any final thoughts?
DK: I want people to know that I love the game. I’m proud to be in it. I’m 68 years old, and I’d like to be doing this until I’m about 75.
DL: Only seven more years?
DK: Yes, then I’ll let the young people handle it.