If the Detroit Tigers had only won their final game of the 1967 season, Lee Stange would have started the most important game in nearly 20 years for the Boston Red Sox.
After the Red Sox beat the Minnesota Twins on the last day of the magical season, manager Dick Williams told Stange to take it easy in the clubhouse. If the Tigers beat the California Angels in the second game of a doubleheader, Stange would start the one-game playoff against the Tigers the following day.
The Tigers went on to lose to the Angels in the second game of the doubleheader, which gave the American League pennant to the Sox and sparked a champagne- and shaving cream-filled party in the Sox clubhouse. Without a chance to start a playoff, Stange figured he would still start a World Series game, but that didn’t happen.
“I don’t understand why I was good enough to start a playoff game, but not a World Series game,” Stange said 40 years later.
The disappointment was nothing new to Lee Stange. In a time of tall, strapping hurlers like Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, Stange suffered from the unfortunate fact of being under 6 feet tall. His career was marked by managers and front-office people telling him he was too small to start games.
He now thinks back to those days and believes that being a starter is easier than coming out of the bullpen.
“I enjoyed short relief. I think the easiest job for a pitcher is starting pitcher,” said Stange, adding that one reason is that starters know when they are going to pitch.
Albert Lee Stange was born to Albert and Dorothy Stange on Oct. 27, 1936, in Chicago. Young Lee grew up with two brothers and a sister in suburban Broadview, a small industrial community 13 miles west of Chicago with less than 10,000 people. His father worked in the mailrooms for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Stange attended Proviso Township High School in Maywood.
At Proviso, he played three sports, including football and baseball with football legend Ray Nitschke, who was also a pitcher with control problems.
While Nitschke was listed at 6-feet-1 and 190 pounds in high school, Stange topped out at 5-feet-9. “It got to the point where everyone else grew and I didn’t,” said Stange.
Stange enjoyed an active sporting life in high school. Pitching for local coaching legend Doc Appleton, he led the 1953 Proviso Pirates to a state championship. The junior hurled a number of postseason masterpieces, including knocking off reigning state champ Morton. Finishing the year with a 7-1 record, Stange was one of five players from Proviso chosen on the Chicago Tribune’s Suburban League All-Star Team in 1953. As a senior, Stange beat Morton 8-1 in the state tournament, striking out 10 and surrendering eight hits. But the chance to repeat as state champs ended with a loss to York High School.
Professional scouts took notice of the Broadview pitcher. Washington Senators scout Ossie Bluege approached him about a contract, but Stange declined the offer, saying that he was headed to Drake University.
After a successful high school pitching career, Stange’s college time was not nearly as glorious. The freshman quarterback hurt his knee in a football game and later reinjured the knee in a scrimmage.
When the basketball season started, Stange hoped to play guard for the college team, but he twisted his leg and needed knee surgery. He missed the baseball season. “The only thing I didn’t play in college was baseball,” said Stange.
Stange left Drake with the hope of joining the military but was rejected because of his bad knee. There was only one other place to turn — pro baseball. He contacted Bluege, who sent him a $200-a-month contract with the Washington Senators. During his first year in professional baseball, Stange played for the Fort Walton Beach Jets in the Class-D Alabama-Florida League, where he struggled to a 5-6 record with a 5.40 ERA.
Stange did enjoy some success the following year with Fort Walton Beach as he won 13 games. But the following year saw him languishing in the bullpen for Appleton in the Three-I League. The young pitcher contemplated quitting baseball as he approached the end of the season with an ERA of nearly 6.00.
He talked to his manager, Jack McKeon, who asked Stange to give it another shot and the pitcher was promoted to the Wilson Tobs in the Class-B Carolina League for the 1960 season. Stange took his new league by storm. He finished 20-13 with a 3.59 ERA for the Tobs, who posted 73 wins. The young pitcher collected accolades that year, including being named the Topps Minor League Player of the Year for the Carolina League and being selected for the Carolina League All-Star Team.
“The Stinger” thought his 1960 season showed everyone that his height could no longer be used against him after he threw more than 250 innings and won 20 games. He went to the Florida Winter Instructional League, where the whole height issue returned and the Senators front office reaffirmed their view of him as a short reliever. “(The organization) always said I was too small to be a starting pitcher — even after I won 20 games,” recalled Stange.
In the November 30, 1960, Sporting News, Fred Lieb wrote how Stange was “possibly the most likely to succeed” in the instructional league’s rookie crop by displaying a curve, slider, low breaking balls, “and lots of moxie.”
Manager Del Wilber told The Sporting News, “Stange is one of the best boys here and I think he can help the parent club as a relief pitcher. While he was a starter last season in Wilson, where he pitched 251 innings, my instructions were to consider his development largely as a relief pitcher. He should be a good stopper. He has a lot of confidence, and runners on base don’t bother him. He is likely to make quite a name for himself.”
During the offseason, the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Minnesota Twins. Stange made the club out of spring training, as teams were allowed to carry 28 players. After two relief appearances, he spent the majority of the 1961 season with Syracuse (International League), where he finished 7-12, 3.78. Recalled by the club again in September, he won his first major-league game on September 15, pitching two scoreless innings against Cleveland.
“It was a new team, but most of those guys played in Washington,” Stange recalled about the Twins. “It wasn’t really an expansion team. … They had a nucleus of a pretty good team at that time.”
In 1962, Stange spent the whole season with the big club — and impressed his manager. In his first six appearances over 13 1/3 innings, Stange compiled a 1.35 ERA. Manager Sam Mele gave him a start on May 5 against Detroit, which he won 7-2 on a seven-hitter. “This was the first time I’ve gone nine innings since September 1960 at Wilson of the Carolina League,” Stange told the press after the game.
His starting career quickly ended in his next start when he gave up four runs in 1 1/3 innings against Kansas City. Stange was sent back to the pen and pitched well. He finished the season at 4-3 with a 4.45 ERA pitching for the upstart Twins, who finished second behind the Yankees.
During spring training of 1963, Stange set aside balls with seams for a day and picked up balls with three holes. He won The Sporting News‘ Major League Bowling Championship in Tampa, Florida, and Stange and bowling became synonymous for many in the baseball press. They photographed him on the pitcher’s mound with a bowling ball and The Sporting News didn’t let a mention pass without a line about his bowling expertise.
The Brunswick bowling company signed Stange to tour Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas during the winter on exhibition tours. One year, Stange said, he was offered a sponsorship to go on the pro tour, but he declined.
Forty years after his brush with bowling fame, Stange said hitting the lanes in the winter helped his arm. “I think it kept my arm stronger,” he said.
Stange once again found himself in the minors in 1963. This time, he pitched for the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers of the Pacific Coast League. Pitching as a starter, Stange went 7-1 with a 2.05 ERA. He completed five games and allowed 53 hits in 66 innings. In one start, he held San Diego to three hits and struck out 15 in a 4-0 win. All Stange needed was to gain confidence, in the view of Dallas-Fort Worth manager Jack McKeon.
After a little more than a month in the minors, Stange was recalled on June 15 and was in the majors for good. He enjoyed a strong second half, picking up 12 wins and collecting a 2.62 ERA for the year. After the season, Stange was honored by the Minneapolis Baseball Writers as the most improved player
The year 1964 saw its highs, lows, and changes for Stange. After a rough two months with the Twins in which he won only three games and compiled a 4.74 ERA for Minnesota, the team traded him to Cleveland with minor-leaguer George Banks for Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Many Cleveland fans spoke out about the trading of fan favorite Grant.
Stange went from a team on the rise to a mediocre club that at the time was rumored to be leaving Ohio. “It was kind of hard going to Cleveland,” he recalled. “It wasn’t everyone’s favorite place.”
But Stange pitched better for the Indians (finishing 7-14, 4.41 between the two clubs) and even tied a major league record in one game. In the seventh inning of a 9-0 win over the Senators on Sept. 2, 1964, he struck out four batters: Don Lock, Willie Kirkland, Don Zimmer, and John Kennedy.
The following season saw Stange back in the bullpen as Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, and Ralph Terry started in the rotation. Stange did occasionally start because of injuries. He had a fine season in the two roles, ending up 8-4, 3.34
In early June 1966, Stange was traded along with Don McMahon for Dick Radatz, whose once promising career had taken a decided turn for the worse. For the second time in three years, Stange was involved in a trade that was panned by fans of his new team. Though Sox fans had turned their venom on Radatz, the team could have surely gotten more for him than Stange and McMahon, said the experts. But Tribe manager Birdie Tebbetts predicted big things for Stange in Boston.
His Red Sox career didn’t start positively as he gave up five runs in three innings against the Yankees on June 3. But Stange found his groove during the second half of 1966, pitching seven complete game victories, including a two-hitter against the Yankees on September 23. After his 8-9 season, the Boston Baseball Writers gave Stange the Unsung Hero Award at their annual banquet.
Stange said the Sox players saw in 1966 that something special was happening. “I think everybody thought that after finishing ’66 so good that we could be a pretty good team,” he said.
The next season saw a new Red Sox skipper. Fiery Dick Williams took over leadership and served as an adversary for Stange during the pennant-winning season. “I think Dick was a very good baseball man. He wasn’t much fun to play for. He didn’t have much of a personality,” said Stange.
Though he didn’t get along with the manager, Stange was used mostly as a starter in ’67 and enjoyed some of his best stuff in his career. Stange remembers throwing the best game of his career on July 31 against the Twins. He threw 6 2/3 innings of perfect baseball before allowing a single to Harmon Killebrew and wound up tossing a three-hit shutout.
Though Stange won only eight games in 1967, he led the staff with a 2.77 ERA. After almost starting a playoff game against the Tigers, Stange was used once in relief in the World Series against the Cardinals, going two innings and giving up one unearned run in a 5-2 Cardinals’ win in Game Three.
After a successful season as a starter, Stange was back in the bullpen in 1968. Pitching alongside Sparky Lyle in short relief, he led the staff with 50 appearances and 12 saves. Stange came in fourth in The Sporting News‘ Fireman Award for the American League.
In the following season, the flexible Stange was called on to start 15 times among his 41 appearances. He was 4-8, 4.45 as a starter, but 2-1, 2.34 out of the bullpen.
In the middle of the 1970 season, with Stange struggling with an ERA well over 5.00, the Chicago White Sox picked him off waivers from the Red Sox. Stange told the press after the waiver deal that he enjoyed his time in Beantown, adding, “I hope I can help Chicago. If not, this may be my last year, we’ll have to wait and see.” He didn’t have to wait long. In his first start with the White Sox, Stange went 1 1/3 innings and gave up seven hits.
Stange retired as a player after the 1970 season and was named minor-league pitching instructor by the Red Sox in 1971. The following year, he took over the major-league pitching coach duties from Harvey Haddix. Stange became the 10th pitching coach in 13 years for the Sox. He told The Sporting News, “I’m thrilled and surprised with the appointment. I had no idea a chance to coach in the major leagues would come so quickly.”
Stange lasted as pitching coach through the 1974 season when he was fired, and coached with the Twins the following year. Stange later coached for Oakland before he went back to Boston in 1980 under manager Ralph Houk. Houk was Stange’s favorite manager. “He was just great to work for. He was a great old baseball man. I think everybody loved playing for him, working for him,” said Stange.
During his second tenure with the Red Sox, Stange helped the progression of eventual big-league winners Dennis Eckersley, Bob Ojeda, John Tudor, Bruce Hurst, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling.
Talking to The Sporting News in 1984, Hurst praised Houk and Stange. “They stuck with me, showed their confidence in me and gave me the chance to prove myself,” he said.
The Sox didn’t show the same confidence in Stange. He was replaced by Bill Fischer as pitching coach after the 1984 season, and again became minor-league pitching instructor, a job he held for the next 10 years.
While working as a minor-league pitching instructor, Stange helped Ken Ryan, who stands out in Stange’s mind as someone he helped get to the majors. At the time, Stange said, no manager wanted Ryan. The coach worked with Ryan in spring training at Winter Haven, Florida, and convinced him that the reliever’s job was a better role for him though the tall hurler wanted to start. “I said, ‘You sit with me and you throw and don’t ask me when you’re starting. You’re not starting,'” Stange recalled telling Ryan. Ryan found himself in the bullpen and wound up enjoying an eight-year career in the majors with the Sox and Phillies.
Looking back on his career, Stange said Gary Bell was a favorite teammate. The Stinger joked that he thought he was rid of Bell after Stange was traded from Cleveland, but Bell wound up with Boston, too. “Bell kept everybody loose. He’s the same way today. He hasn’t changed a bit in 40 years,” said Stange.
Stange still sees some of his former teammates at fantasy camps and autograph shows. Though he has been out of major-league baseball for more than two decades, he continues to help young pitchers as a coach with the Florida Tech Panthers in his current hometown of Melbourne, Florida.
He doesn’t remember who coined his nickname, Stinger. “I remember being called Stinger a long time,” said Stange. “I was called stinker a lot of times, too.”
Looking back at the 1967 season, Stange views the year as a highlight of his career, not only because of the pennant-winning team but the men he played alongside.
“I think we pretty much enjoyed it because we were winning and had a great bunch of guys. We got along well and hung out together all the time,” Stange said.