September 21, 1975. The Red Sox are in Detroit, marching toward their first division title in eight years. They are facing lefty Vern Ruhle, a name soon to become as famous (or perhaps infamous) as Bucky Dent, Enos Slaughter or Aaron Boone in the annals of Sox history. Jim Rice is coming up for his first at-bat of the night, in the top of the second inning. Older fans will be able to picture what happens in that at-bat. Ruhle comes inside with a fastball that Rice cannot avoid. The pitch hits him on the left hand. It does not appear too serious. Rice stays in the game. He comes up two more times in the game, leaving for a pinch runner in the 7th. Though the Sox manage to pull the game out late, the important part of this win is Rice’s broken hand. He is lost for the season.
At the time, Rice was second in the league in RBI with 102. The resilient Sox took the 108-win Cincinnati Reds to the seventh game of the World Series (after sweeping the three time defending champion Oakland A’s out of the playoffs), before Joe Morgan dropped a single into center field off rookie lefty Jim Burton to drive in the winning run. To say the Sox lineup was hurt by it is an understatement. Juan Beniquez and Bernie Carbo (inexplicably batting leadoff in Game 7 after his monumental tying home run in Game 6) started three of the seven games. Yaz started the other four.
The majority of Red Sox Nation knows the story of Jim Rice. 1978 MVP. 382 career home runs. Hall of Famer in his last year of eligibility. One of Rice’s greatest moments happened when he was in the dugout. On August 7, 1982, Rice went into the stands near the Sox dugout to rush a two year old boy to get medical attention who had been hit in the head with a screaming Dave Stapleton foul ball. He was generally credited with saving the little boy’s life through his quick action.
What happened to the bringer of such sorrow on the Nation, Vern Ruhle?
Ruhle’s story is more about overcoming adversity. Rice always had the physical tools to succeed. Ruhle always had to work extra hard for whatever he accomplished in his career. Ruhle’s last game was actually in Game 4 of the 1986 ALCS against the Red Sox in which he faced four batters and only managed to retire two of them. (An aside: As Sox fans, you are better off not going back to look at box scores pre-2004. In that game, Calvin Schiraldi blew the save with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when he hit Brian Downing with a pitch to force in the tying run. Schiraldi was then left in to allow the winning run in the 11th. Was John McNamara even awake for that?)
Vern Ruhle’s personal highlight reel would likely focus on his successes with the Houston Astros. 1975 had been Ruhle’s first full year in the majors and he had held down a spot in Detroit’s rotation through the end of 1976, but 1977 saw the bottom drop out. He posted an ERA of 5.70 in only 66 innings. In 1978, the Tigers released him on March 27 and the Astros signed him the very next day. He posted a 2.12 ERA in limited time that year, but in 1980 he reached the peak of his career.
For anyone who might remember J.R. Richard, he was an absolute monster of a starting pitcher. Teamed with Nolan Ryan in the Astros rotation, he was 6 feet 8 inches tall and threw absolute gas with a tremendous slider. He was a second overall pick for the Astros and had 3 top ten Cy Young finishes by 1980, when tragedy struck. He was cruising through another fantastic campaign (10-4, 1.90 ERA, four shutouts), when the inexplicable happened. A stroke incapacitated him out of the blue. He would never pitch again in the majors. He was 30 years old.
Ruhle stepped into Richard’s spot in the rotation and went 6-2 down the stretch, leading the Astros to their first playoff spot in team history. His stats for that year, 10-4, 2.37 ERA (ERA plus of 137 for all you sabermatricians.) Certainly, they would not have made the playoffs if not for Ruhle’s effectiveness and veteran presence down the stretch.
While Ruhle went on to a distinguished career in coaching (sadly passing away to cancer in 2007), Rice went on to a broadcasting career at everyone’s favorite TV station, NESN. Rice can be seen at Fort Myers in the Spring, counseling young players with Luis Tiant (another star of that 1975 team) in an informal fashion.
The last decade of Sox glory (and time), has dulled the pain of the Sox near misses of the late 20th century. Jim Rice and Vern Ruhle will always be two names that go together for older Sox fans. Two accomplished players who crossed paths one night in 1975 that helped continue Red Sox Nation’s agony. When things are as good as they are now, some might forget that things weren’t always so rosy, so it is good to remember a different time.