Gammons: Music connects Trucks family
Former Tigers great, kin share love of the game
Virgil Trucks had just turned 91 two years ago when this boyish kid who looked as if he were 20 showed up at his door. The kid introduced himself as Derek Trucks, Virgil's nephew's son, and they spent the day tying together the frayed generations of Trucks, of baseball stories Derek loved hearing, and music that Virgil says he didn't fully understand.
For years, Derek had Virgil "Fire" Trucks' baseball card on the back of his guitar, with the Allman Brothers or The Derek Trucks Band, with his wife Susan Tedeschi, playing lead on the Eric Clapton tour, backing Buddy Guy. That he told Virgil, and that Derek's uncle Butch, who has been the Allman's drummer since they formed in 1969, has often had another baseball card on his drums. "I haven't listened to the Allman Brothers too much," says Virgil. "They don't play them much on the Birmingham station."
When Virgil was told that Derek has a 1952 Tiger uniform with Virgil's 23 hanging in a trophy case, he said, "maybe I should start listening to the Allmans a little more."
Derek was more interested in Virgil and never did much on his biography, how he was the youngest of the Rolling Stone Top 100 Guitarists of all time published in 2003, how the Wall Street Journal called him the "most awe-inspiring slide guitar players" ever, and how peers have put him in the class of the half-dozen guitarists who ever lived. He proudly got a copy of Virgil's book, and listened to stories about the two no-hitters he threw in 1952 for the Tigers and how he went right from World War II to the World Series, about the day he matched zeroes against Satchel Paige in a game the Hall of Famer won in the 12th.
Virgil says he has never met Butch, but he was thrilled to "meet so fine a young man as Derek. I don't know where the musical part of the family came from, but I'm proud of him."
He was told that when Derek, Susan and their son Charlie went to a Red Sox Spring Training game last March, Susan -- whose family have had season tickets at Fenway Park, where Susan has many times sung the National Anthem -- sat next to Johnny Pesky. She introduced Derek, that he is Virgil's great-nephew. "That coot is still alive?" Pesky replied. "No one wanted to hit off that [guy] he threw so hard." Pesky failed to mention that his candor and character preserved one of those 1952 no-hitters.
Virgil Oliver Trucks was born on April 26, 1917. He won 177 Major League games from 1941 until he retired in 1958. Ted Williams once said he might have been "the hardest throwing right-hander I ever faced."
He is one of four pitchers who threw two no-nos in a single season and he finished fifth in the American league MVP race in 1953 for the White Sox (he started that season with the Browns). And back when the Tigers won the 1945 World Series, Detroit's great staff was called "TNT" -- Dizzy Trout, (MVP) Hal Newhouser and Trucks were three of the best in the game. In the mid-Seventies, Bernie Carbo asked Pesky "did they have anyone who threw hard when you played?"
"You couldn't have hit a fair ball off [Bob] Feller, Trout or Trucks," Pesky shot back.
Go back to the beginning. Andalusia of the Alabama-Florida League. 1938. Including the playoffs struck out 448 batters.
448. That, Sweet Melissa, is the most strikeouts ever recorded in an organized professional baseball season.
And for the full season, he was 25-6, with a 1.25 ERA and two no-hitters.
After a strong 1939 split between Alexandria and Beaumont, in 1940 he pitched for Beaumont in the Texas League and threw another no-hitter, in 1941 threw another no-no for Buffalo in the International League and by the time he made his debut on Sept. 27, 1941, he had four Minor League no-hitters on his resume.
Somewhere along the way, they tried to figure out how hard he threw. "They found an old Army gun," says Trucks. "It read 105 miles an hour."
Just 71 days after his Major League debut, Pearl Harbor was hit, and by the end of the 1943 season, Trucks enlisted. When the war in Europe ended in April 1945, Trucks was sent to a base in Norman, Okla., to await his discharge papers. Fortunately, there was a former Minor League catcher on the base, so the two would work out, run and throw every day. Problem is, the papers didn't come.
Finally, in September, he pushed his case, got the papers and got released a week before the end of the season. The Tigers were in a pennant race, so Trucks got his release and called the Tigers. "They were ending the season in St. Louis the coming weekend," Trucks recalls. "So I got a bus to Oklahoma City, took a train to St. Louis and arrived in time for the final series."
The final day of the season was Sunday. If the Tigers won, they clinched the pennant. If they lost, they had to take a train back to Detroit to play a one game playoff with Washington. To Trucks' surprise, manager Steve O'Neill told him he was starting that final game. After two years off and six months in Norman, Okla., Fire Trucks was asked to start the game to get the Tigers to the World Series.
So much for the notion that pitchers need a seven-week Spring Training.
Trucks gave the Tigers 5 1/3 innings, allowing one run and leaving with a big lead. Unfortunately, Newhouser came in and blew the lead, but Hank Greenberg hit a grand slam in the eighth inning and the Tigers were in the World Series. In the first live game action in two years, Virgil Trucks had his quality start.
As Trucks remembers, trains were hard to come by "because they were transporting the troops home, so for the only time in World Series history, we agreed to play the first three games in Detroit and the last four in Chicago against the Cubs." Trucks pitched a complete-game, 4-1 victory in Game Two -- his second start in two years -- and started Game Six. The Tigers won the Series, and three weeks after getting his discharge papers, Trucks had earned his first World Series ring.
In that miserable 1952, the Tigers were dreadful, Trucks went 5-19, but two of those wins were no-hitters and one was a one-hitter that could have been a third no-no. "The second one was controversial," says Virgil. "In the third or fourth inning, there was a ball hit in to short. Now, the umpire blew the call. The runner was out. But the umpire called him safe, and it was ruled a hit.
"The official scorer was John Drebinger of the New York Times, and a lot of the other writers insisted it was an error because Johnny Pesky had problems getting the ball out of his glove. Around the seventh inning, Drebinger called Pesky in the dugout, and Johnny told him, 'I should have made the play. It was an error.' One of the finest people I've ever known.
"I should have had the third no-hitter, though. The Washington leadoff hitter never swung the bat. He always looked to walk. So I started off the first inning with a fastball down the middle, and the guy we called 'The Walking Man' swung snd hit a single." Trucks did not allow another hit, and Eddie Yost had ruined Virgil's shot at being the only pitcher ever to throw three no-hitters in a single season.
Trucks, who was dealt to the Browns after the 1952 season, was traded to the White Sox in June 1953 and won a combined 20 games and finished fifth in the MVP balloting. He eventually became a reliever, and was in the bullpen in his last season, in 1958.
"Casey Stengel left me off the World Series roster because he said Murray Dickson knew the National League hitters," says Trucks. "Now, the National League hitters knew him and not me, but while I was pretty mad, when we beat the Braves, the Yankees gave me a World Series ring."
In 1960, Trucks got his third Series ring when he was the bullpen coach for the Pirates.
Fire Trucks worked for the Pirates, the Braves and the Tigers in different capacities, then eventually retired and moved back to Birmingham. Ted Williams made him one of two pitchers in his Hall of Fame. Two years ago, the Tigers flew him back to Detroit to honor Justin Verlander for his no-hitter.
Derek has been practicing with the Allmans for their March shows in New York. He went to Europe. He's helping Susan prepare for a Jimi Hendrix tour; he has the list of Hendrix's album collection at the time of his death. Derek is re-designing his band so that he and Susan -- one of the great R&B singers on the planet -- will be in the same band.
Next week, Derek, Susan and the kids will drive down from Jacksonville to Ft. Myers to see the Red Sox. "Baseball is in Charlie's blood, he loves it," says Derek of his oldest son Charles (for Charlie Parker) Khalil (as in Gibran) Trucks.
In the blood. Derek and Susan will meet a Red Sox rookie named Lars Anderson, who this spring told me, "I was downloading some Little Feat videos off You Tube and found two with you playing with Paul Barrere. That's gotta be better than being in the Hall of Fame."
Hear that, and you understand why he can't wait to meet Susan Tedsechi and Derek Trucks, the great nephew of the man who struck out more batters in one season than any man in organize baseball history.
Then we have to hope that the process gets sped up so that Derek Trucks goes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Virgil "Fire" Trucks can get to Cleveland to be there. And if he does, there's a story he can tell about a ruckus in a Cleveland hotel.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.