George Brunet: one-time Senator, all-time record holder

Jan. 2, 2021:

Left-hander George Brunet pitched for the expansion Senators in 1970, near the end of his MLB career, but he went on to pitch in Mexico well into the 1980s. When it was over, he had pitched professionally in a record 33 consecutive seasons, eventually setting the minor league record for strikeouts and earning a place in the Mexican League’s hall of fame.

As a starer for the 1970 Senators, Brunet went 8-6 with a 4.42 ERA before he was traded to Pittsburgh at the end of August, so he had no part in team’s season-ending 14-game losing streak. Out of the bullpen, Brunet helped the Pirates win their division.

Early in his career. Brunet gained a reputation for drinking and carousing. His disdain for underwear, a jockstrap and a cup on the field earned him a part in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. One writer called Brunet “the most interesting player you never heard of.”

George Stuart Brunnette, the family’s spelling of his name, was born in 1935 in the far northwest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – a narrow jut of land known as the Keweenaw Peninsula. In answering a 1965 baseball questionnaire for minor league statistician William J. Weiss, Brunet wrote that he played football and baseball for Calumet High School, where he graduated in 1953. He was a running back on the football team. Notre Dame football star George Gipp (made famous by Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” quote) was a Calumet alumnus.

In the fall of his senior year in high school, Brunet, by then a stocky six-footer, earned a tryout at Briggs Stadium with the Tigers. In the 1965 questionnaire, Brunet wrote that he was signed by Cy Williams, although Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated and other sources credit Schoolboy Rowe and Muddy Ruel with having signed him. “They gave me $500,” Brunet told Wulf. “I bought a dining room set, a coat for my mother, and a night on the town.”

The Tigers sent Brunet to Shelby, North Carolina, in the Class D Tar Heel League at the end of the season, but his results over his first two years were unimpressive. The Tigers released him before the end of the 1955 season. He soon signed with the Philadelphia Athletics and was assigned to Class C Hot Springs.

With Class C Crowley in the Evangeline League in 1956, Brunet began to show what he could do with an above-average fastball and decent curve. His 7-2 record in 11 starts included a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts. The June 25 no-hitter was his third straight shutout. His ERA was 2.17 when he was promoted to Abilene in the Class B Big State League and soon after the now Kansas City A’s moved him up to Columbia in the Class A South Atlantic League His ERA was 3.86 over 56 innings but more troubling were his 53 base on balls. For the season, he walked 123 batters in 172 innings.

He spent the 1957 season at Little Rock in AA Southern Association, established himself as legitimate prospect and earned another September call-up. In four September games with the A’s – two of them starts — over 11 and 1/3 innings, he gave up seven runs, but he walked just four batters. After spending spring training with the A’s in 1958, Brunet optioned to the minors.

After a strong spring training in 1959 found him in line to be in the starting rotation for Kansas City, Brunet supposedly went out for a night of partying near the end of camp. Well after midnight, if the story is true, an intoxicated Brunet was out in the street near the team’s hotel, directing traffic.

“Every time there was a song to be sung, a beer to be opened, a card to be turned over, or a fight to be started, George was your man. Have temper, will travel, columnist Jim Murray wrote of Brunet in 1965..” The pitcher did not dispute Murray’s characterization. “You have a hard time living down a youthful reputation,” Brunet told him.

On April 29, 1959, Brunet was on the mound for the A’s jn what has to be one of the most brutal innings any pitcher have ever endured. Brought into a game against the White Sox that already was getting out of hand, Brunet proceeded to walk five batters with the bases loaded, while hitting a batter in between, also with the bases jammed, before recording the third out. Down 6-1 when the inning began, Chicago scored 11 runs with just one hit.

Brunet began the 1960 season with Kansas City, where he lost two games of the three games in which he appeared, walking 10 batters in 10 innings. On May 11, 1960, the A’s traded him to the Braves. Milwaukee immediately sent Brunet to AAA Louisville. His 4-1 record and 0.78 ERA there earned him a recall in early June.

After earning a spot in the Braves bullpen during spring training in 1961, he appeared in just one game before he had to have his appendix removed. He went on the 30-day disabled list on May 9. When he recovered, he pitched four times in relief before being optioned to AAA Vancouver at the end of June. Although he pitched well enough there, he didn’t get a September recall.

At end of spring training in 1962, the Braves optioned several players to help fill out the roster of the still new Hawaii franchise in the Pacific Coast League in 1962. Brunet began the season with the Islanders, but after seven games, he was traded to Oklahoma City in the American Association, Houston’s top farm club. The Braves agreed to the deal as partial compensation for the $75,000 Houston paid for a draft choice who turned out to have a bad arm. Overall with the two AAA teams, Brunet struck out 133 batters in 143 innings with a 3.21 ERA. He was called up by Houston in late July.

Brunet was hit hard in his first two starts but on August 18, he beat the Cubs, 2-1, on a three-hitter. The lone run he yielded was unearned. He gave up three runs over seven innings in his next start, fanning nine, as the Pirates shut out Houston, 3-0. On August 26, he stopped the Reds on five hits, 2-1.

Although he started the season with Houston in 1963, he couldn’t replicate his brief ’62 success. After five games and a 6.93 ERA, Brunet was back at Oklahoma City. Rather than give up, however, he turned his game up a notch. His 96 strikeouts in 87 innings and a 2.07 ERA attracted the attention of the Baltimore Orioles, in a pennant race and in need of a lefty reliever. On July 14, the Orioles purchased his contract from Houston.

Brunet earned his first big-league save in his third appearance with Baltimore, but he gave up 25 hits and nine walks over 20 innings. He failed to win a spot in the Orioles bullpen in the spring of 1964. Sent out to AAA Rochester, he was reacquired by Houston on May 12 and once more sent to Oklahoma City, now in the PCL. Again, he pitched well – a 3.00 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 123 innings.

This time, another player’s troubles gave Brunet a new opportunity. After pitcher Bo Belinsky punched Los Angeles Times beat writer Braven Dyer in a hotel altercation, he was sent to the minors by the Angels. On August 18, Los Angeles filled his spot by acquiring Brunet from Houston. After a dozen seasons with five organizations, Brunet made the most of his chance. Over seven starts, he was 2–2 with a 3.61 ERA for the remainder of 1964. On September 5, he went seven innings in a 1-0 victory that knocked the Orioles out of his first place.

“George Brunet showed he can do the job,” Marv Grissom Angels pitching coach, said as the season ended, “and he promised me that he’ll report next spring in much better shape.” In December, Angels manager Bill Rigney echoed those comments. “Brunet … generally ran out of gas after about five rounds,” Rigney said. “We think this was due to overweight.”

For the first time since the end of the 1956 season, Brunet didn’t head south to play winter ball. He stayed in southern California and helped the Angels sell season tickets for their new home in Anaheim. Reflecting on his vagabond career at that point, “I know what they said:  ‘I’m a has-been, I have a great arm but … I don’t know how to apply it or myself,’ ” Brunet said.

Arriving in camp nearly 30 pounds lighter in 1965, Brunet won a job in the Angels starting rotation. “In his trim form, he should be a nine-inning pitcher,” Rigney predicted.  Indeed, Brunet completed eight games while posting a team-low 2.56 ERA for the season. The .209 batting average against him was the fourth lowest in the A.L. He ranked in the top 10 in a number of metrics either unknown or unused at the time, including walks and hits per innings pitched, fielding-independent pitching, and wins above replacement among pitchers.

Brunet had a solid season as an Angels’ starter, winning 13 games in 1966, the first of three years in a row that he made 32 or more starts and threw at least 212 innings. “I’m just learning to pitch,” he conceded, despite 14 seasons of pro ball. “My fastball is as good as ever, and now I’ve got some off-speed stuff to go along with it,” he said in June.In 1967, Brunet was the Angels’ opening day starter and winner, going the distance. Although he threw a career-high 250 innings, by far tops on the team, and matched his ’66 ERA of 3.31, a lack of run support left him with a league-leading 19 losses.

At one point, he lost nine straight. By mid-season, sounding a bit frustrated, he again bemoaned his reputation. “It was always, ‘Here comes George. Hide the bottle…. It was either that or my weight.”

In the second game of a season-ending doubleheader in 1967, Brunet came on in relief against the Tigers, who needed a win to tie the Red Sox for first place. With runners on first and second, nobody out and the Angels up, 8-5, Brunet got the first batter to fly out and then induced a double-play grounder. Brunet’s save, his only one of the season, assured a pennant for Boston, which earlier in the day had knocked out the Twins.   

After another workhorse season in 1968 – even though he again led the league in losses – Brunet’s conditioning became an issue the next spring. He showed up at camp in 1969 way over his previous playing weight and lost favor with Angels general manager Dick Walsh by showing little interest in getting in shape. Despite pitching back-to-back shutouts in his last two starts, the Angels sold the soon-to-be 34-year-old’s contract to the Seattle Pilots on July 31, 1969.

The Pilots — by then the Milwaukee Brewers — traded Brunet to the Senators in early December for  Dave Baldwin. The lefty earned a spot in the Nats’ starting rotation in the spring of 1970, although he missed two weeks of training camp when his wife fell ill in California.

Even though he got off to a slow start, Brunet won four games in a row in July, including a complete game shutout on July 18 of the Angels. He started 20 of the 24 games in which he appeared before being traded at the end of August. With Washington unable to repeat its success of 1969, the Senators shipped Brunet, by then 35, to the Pirates for a much younger pitcher, Denny Riddleberger. Brunet joined the Pirates too late to be eligible for the post-season roster, so he missed out on a chance to pitch in a playoff series.

That fall, Brunet was part of multi-player trade that sent him to the Cardinals, His time in St. Louis did not go well. He gave up six runs in seven relief outings before being released on May 10, 1971. Soon, he signed a minor-league deal with the Padres to pitch for Hawaii in the PCL, where he had pitched in 1962. This time, he remained through the 1972 season. At age 38, he signed on with the Phillies to play for their AAA team in Eugene, Oregon, in 1973, but didn’t last long. After five games – his last professional appearances in the United States – he was released.

Rather than call it quits, he took the advice of a friend from winter ball in Venezuela, Chico Carrasquel, to join several other former big-leaguers playing in the Mexican League. His first team late in the ’73 season was Petroleros de Poza Rica in the Mexican state of Veracruz. He pitched for Poza Rica through the 1978 season, establishing himself as one of the Mexican League’s top starters. In 1977, he briefly took over as manager of the team, but soon decided he’d rather keep pitching. Just as well: On June 20, 1977, he threw a no-hitter, at age 42 – 21 seasons after his no-hitter in Class C Crowley.

Brunet made his year-round home in Poza Rica, continuing to pitch in winter ball, while his wife and children remained in California. “After his marriage broke up, coming back to his one-time home in Anaheim was too painful for him,” John Hall, a sports writer who had covered the Angels and befriended the lefty, wrote in October 1991. Brunet became known in Mexico as El Viejo – “The Old Man” – as he strung together eight seasons of double-digit wins, five times topping 200 innings. His 55 Mexican League shutouts were a record when he finally stopped pitching.

On his 45th birthday in 1980 – the day he qualified to start receiving his major-league pension – he threw a three-hit shutout for Aguila. His manager, former Dodger Willie Davis, and teammates gave a post-game party. Brunet, clearly touched, thanked them in Spanish.

After suffering a heart attack in 1981, he recovered quickly enough to win 14 games for Veracruz in 1982. While he was still an active player in Mexico, the Angels hired him to do some scouting.  Although some of the Mexicans to whom he was pitching were making no more than $400 a month, Brunet was earning $3,500 a month by 1980. He got back to the States to see his children for just three or four weeks a year.

“If the owners would quit worrying about my age, I could pitch two or three more years,” Brunet said in June 1984, underestimating how long he would last. “I’m throwing as good as I was five or six years ago,” he told The Sporting News.

Brunet split time between pitching and coaching his fellow hurlers with the Mexico City Tigers in the mid-1980s. The two games in which he appeared in 1985 stretched his record of consecutive seasons pitching to 33. He continued to make occasional appearances on the mound through 1989, when he was 54 years old. When finally retired, he remained in Mexico, conducting baseball camps for young players and running a charter fishing business. On October 25, 1991, in Poza Rica, a second heart attack claimed his life at age 56.

“Perhaps Brunet’s heart gave out after too many years of partying, drinking, and overeating,” baseball author Bruce Markusen wrote in 2013. “Or perhaps his life just wasn’t the same once he had to give up his first and foremost love: pitching.” 

“To be honest with you, it’s the only thing I know,” Brunet said in 1980. “I can’t think of anything that has made me happier than pitching.”

“Nobody ever had more courage on the pitching mound,” Rigney, his former manager, said on hearing of Brunet’s death. “He gave you everything he had until his arm fell off. The miraculous thing, though, is that his arm never fell off.”

This is a shorter version of my BioProject essay on Brunet, posted at SABR.org

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