September 23, 2008

Iron Man on the Mound

Still pitching, Dick Fitzgerald ’57 has won more than 600 baseball games

His constant companion has been with Dick Fitzgerald ’57 throughout the years and across many miles. For the past six decades plus, he has tossed this companion away well over one million times; every time it has come back to him. Baseball has a funny way of getting into the blood and then staying there.

Fitzgerald’s days as a pitcher have included a five-year stint in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He played as high as Class AAA ball as his minor-league tour took him to such baseball outposts as York, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Georgia; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Seattle, Washington.

During his time in the minors, Fitzgerald had brushes with some of the game’s all-time greats. He pitched to sluggers Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew, and shared a house with slick-fielding Brooks Robinson.

Now 73, Fitzgerald continues to pitch in the Puget Sound Senior Baseball League, where his teammates include two of his sons.

In 2005, Fitzgerald played on an international baseball tour that took him to Japan, China, the Philippines, Australia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, and France. The same year, in a nod to his longevity and prolonged success in the game, the Seattle Mariners asked Fitzgerald to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the team faced the Philadelphia Phillies in an inter-league tilt.

“[The Mariners] asked me to throw out the first pitch because I was 70 and had won more than 600 games in my career,” Fitzgerald says. “They scheduled it when the Phillies were in town because Philly is my hometown.”

How was the pitch? It was about a foot outside, according to a newspaper account of the event. When asked about the delivery, Fitzgerald deadpanned that he could have thrown a strike if he had gotten to throw a few warm-up tosses, as he had been promised.

But as he knows, things rarely go as intended and on schedule. Take Fitzgerald’s career path, for instance.

“When I was 17 years old, I came home one day and told my Dad that after I finished high school I was signing with the St. Louis Browns for $200 a month,” he recalls. “My Dad quickly responded by saying, ‘The hell you are! You’re going to college for at least two years before you play any professional ball. That way, at least you will get a good start on your education. If you sign now, you’ll never get a college degree.’”

Lafayette gave Fitzgerald a baseball scholarship. After his sophomore year, he signed with Baltimore and at the urging of his father, Fitzgerald “paid back” Lafayette by providing a four-year baseball scholarship for a future player.

He returned to Lafayette for three more years, taking courses during off-season winter months to get his B.S. in business administration.

“A lot of colleges wouldn’t have allowed me to do that,” Fitzgerald points out. “While I was playing professional baseball for five years, I only met four other guys who had ever gone to college and only one of them who had actually graduated. In those days, if you didn’t sign right out of high school, you were pretty much doomed in pro baseball. I will always be grateful to Lafayette College for being flexible and allowing me to finish up on a part-time basis to get my degree—the only one I ever got.”

After giving up on baseball as a profession, Fitzgerald worked first in banking and then insurance. While working in the latter field, he teamed up with Phillies great Robin Roberts and others in a business venture. When the company opened an office in Seattle, Fitzgerald headed west to run it.

As for baseball, Fitzgerald continued to lace ’em up each spring, year after year, decade after decade. His fastball still tops out at 75-plus m.p.h. and, after full knee replacement surgery several years ago, his body still holds up to the rigors of the season. Baseball is still a fun game for Fitzgerald, although each time this rubber-armed marvel takes the mound now, it means just a little bit more.

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