Jay Ritchie, Rowan County baseball legend, dies at 80

Published 11:50 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2016

By Mike London


In the last regular-season game he pitched for Granite Quarry High’s Dragons in 1955, Jay Seay Ritchie struck out 20 Rockwell batters and allowed one hit in a 7-1 victory.
That set the bar high, but Ritchie topped himself in his next outing. That was the opener of a best-of-three playoff series — Rowan County champ Granite Quarry against Cabarrus County champ Hartsell, for the Granite Belt Conference title. Ritchie fired a no-hitter, struck out 19 and walked none.
When Hartsell beat Granite Quarry at Concord’s Webb Field in Game 2 of that series, it stopped the Dragons’ 29-game winning streak, but coach Bob Fink sent Ritchie to the mound for the decisive Game 3. Ritchie struck out 15, and the Dragons, who also featured catcher Virgil Bernhardt and shortstop Doug Lingle, won the championship easily.
Ritchie batted .392 as a senior and was undefeated on the mound for the second straight year.
Ritchie, who died on Tuesday at 80, left a lot of people with a lot of memories. The humble, 6-foot-4 farm boy, youngest of seven children, tossed back-to-back no-hitters for Granite Quarry when he was a junior in 1954.
Ritchie was an athletic guy who accomplished just as much in high school on the basketball court. The stats from his senior year are eye-popping. He scored 553 points in a 20-game season. He was held under 20 points only twice and he scored 30 or more seven times. When he graduated, he was acknowledged as Rowan County’s all-time scoring leader with 1,325 points.
Ritchie had plans to turn his athletic ability into a college education at East Carolina, where he was going to play both sports.
Baseball scouts — there were a lot of them at his games when he was a senior — talked him into forgetting about East Carolina and taking a shot at pro baseball.
Major League Baseball didn’t begin drafting players until 1965. Prior to that, scouts searched everywhere for talent and they could sign players who had finished high school. Ritchie got offers from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
He liked scout Mace Brown and picked the Red Sox. He got a little money, and he was pitching professionally in 1956 in Lafayette, Ind. He married his high-school sweetheart, Shelby Jean Burwell, after that season.
Lafayette was the start of Ritchie’s long minor league journey. There were only 16 major league teams then, and each of those 16 had a massive number of farm teams. There also were more levels to fight through in those days — Class D, C, B, A, AA and AAA — to make the majors.
Ritchie did fine in his debut at Lafayette (9-6, 3.15 ERA), but all it got him was a lateral move to another Red Sox Class D team in Corning, N.Y., for the 1957 season.
He excelled at Corning (11-10, 2.52 ERA) and jumped to Class B Raleigh for 1958. He was really good there — 8-2. 2.62 — and reached Class A ball in Allentown, Pa., by the end of the season.
From 1959-63, Ritchie’s results were positive, but progress was slow. There was debate in the Boston organization as to whether he should be used as a starter or reliever. He was used in both roles as he hurled for Red Sox triple A teams in Minneapolis and Seattle.
He got his first real break in 1964, when Boston general manager Mike “Pinky” Higgins happened to be in the stadium when Ritchie made a long relief appearance in Seattle and struck out 16 batters. That led to his call-up by the Red Sox on July 31. He was 28 years old.
He debuted on Aug. 4, 1964. That was a Tuesday against the Twins at Minnesota’s Metroplitan Stadium. The Twins had rudely treated Boston starter Bill Monbouquette in the first two innings. Ritchie was sent out to start the third against slugger Harmon Killebrew.
Killebrew singled through the box, but Ritchie was mostly brilliant — four innings, two hits, no runs — and the Red Sox had found themselves a relief pitcher.
Ritchie was a fixture in the Boston bullpen for the final two months of the 1964 season and he pitched in 44 games in relief for Boston in 1965.
The Red Sox made a deal with the Braves, who were moving to Atlanta from Milwaukee, on Jan. 11, 1966. The Red Sox sent a player to be named later, Arnold Earley and Lee Thomas to the Braves for Dan Osinski and Bob Sadowski.
That player to be named later turned out to be Ritchie. The joke among sportswriters was that Ritchie had been traded for “a pair of Skis,” Dan and Bob.
Ritchie was thrilled to be playing in Atlanta, a lot closer to home, but the Braves sent him to Triple A Richmond to start the season.
He dominated at Richmond (1.73 ERA). In July, he was called up to Atlanta, and he did the same things for the Braves that he’d been doing for the Red Sox. Long relief. Middle relief. Short relief. His best pitch was his curveball. His slider wasn’t bad, and his sinking fastball produced groundballs.
He was a natural relief pitcher. He could warm up quickly, he could pitch effectively on consecutive days, and he could come out of the bullpen throwing strikes. The Braves Yearbook published in 1967 said Ritchie had the two C’s going for him — control and courage.
His biggest claim to fame in 1966 was walking San Francisco’s Willie Mays — and then picking him off first base.
The 1967 season would produce Ritchie’s lasting baseball legacy, a remarkable run of success in May.
Pitching in the fifth inning on May 5 against the Cincinnati Reds, Ritchie allowed a one-out double to Pete Rose. He retired the next two hitters to strand Rose. Then he had a 1-2-3 sixth inning.
His next appearance came in Philadelphia against the Phillies on May 10. He faced four batters — retiring them all. He was actually credited with five outs, because a Phillie who was on base when he entered the game was caught stealing.
On May 12, Ritchie entered a game in the eighth inning at Pittsburgh against the Pirates. The Pirates went down 1-2-3, and Ritchie had retired 12 straight batters.
May 16 in Atlanta was Ritchie’s finest day in pro baseball. For one thing, he hit his only MLB triple. He also set down 16 straight New York Mets. He came into the game in the fourth inning and got a strikeout to strand runners at the corners. Then he rolled through 15 straight batters to finish the game. He struck out four.
That made it 28 straight batters retired by Ritchie — a perfect game — plus one — albeit a perfect game stretched over a period of 12 days.
He always was proud of that accomplishment and recalled that when his run of consecutive batters retired finally ended on May 20 against the Pirates — it was an error that stopped the string. He didn’t get hit that day either. He faced seven batters. He got five outs. He intentionally walked a No. 8 hitter to get to the pitcher.
Ritchie’s last big league games were as a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 1968. The Reds had a rookie catcher named Johnny Bench, so those were memorable days as well.
Ritchie’s ERA for 167 MLB appearances — 165 of them in relief — was 3.49. He was 8-13 and struck out 212 batters. If he pitched today, he’d be making a few million dollars a year.
Ritchie also pitched in 504 games in the minors and won 94 times.
Ritchie finished up his career pitching triple A ball in 1969 and 1970, trying to get one more shot at the majors.
When the Braves offered him a scouting job in 1971, he accepted. He scouted the Carolinas for them for three years, but when the Braves wanted to expand his territory, he declined because he wanted to be with his family.
He became a salesman and sold a lot of cars in Rowan County. No doubt, he made a lot more money than he ever did in baseball where his most lucrative annual salary was less than $30,000.
His teammates included Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Rose and Bench, and he’ll be remembered by many for his role on the Braves in their debut season in Atlanta.
He always said Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente was the best hitter he faced and that Pittsburg’s Willie Stargell was the scariest.
Ritchie said he didn’t have any trouble with Mickey Mantle, and when you look at his record, he didn’t have any trouble with a lot of people.
Ritchie entered the Salisbury-Rowan Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.