The argument that Rich Gossage's career began to flourish when Chuck Tanner made him a full-time closer in 1975 is certainly a valid one. After all, he was a dominant figure that season, leading the Majors in saves as a member of the White Sox.
The fact, however, that Chicago's brain trust, sans Tanner, put him back in the rotation for the '76 season suggests they weren't entirely sold on his value out of the bullpen, despite his 26 saves and 1.84 ERA the previous year. So, a more accurate turning point in Gossage's career -- and one to which he readily points -- may have occurred back in the spring of 1971 when Tanner and then-White Sox pitching coach Johnny Sain taught him the merits of adding a breaking ball to his repertoire.
The results proved to be devastating. Gossage, whose election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame was announced Tuesday, dominated the Midwest League in 1971 thanks largely to his work that spring with Tanner and Sain. Gossage, who was clearly more gosling than Goose at the time, went 18-2 with a 1.83 ERA in 25 games for the Appleton Foxes with only one of those appearances coming in relief.
Gossage tossed 15 complete games, including seven shutouts, led the league in ERA, wins and winning percentage and was named the circuit's Most Valuable Player. Based on that season and his work with Tanner and Sain, Gossage earned an invitation to Major League Spring Training in 1972. Though it would take several more seasons before he'd become known as one of the game's most feared relievers, it was in 1971 in a tiny Wisconsin town that he began his journey down one of the most dominating paths in baseball history.
"It was just one of those seasons," Gossage said. "Johnny had shown Chuck Tanner a few things to show me, and Chuck came down and worked with me one day on the side early in the year. It was the first time I had an off-speed pitch to go with my fastball.
"I picked it up immediately and that's where my career took off. I had certainly thought about a breaking ball before that, but I had never been taught one. He [Sain via Tanner] taught that slurve that was bigger than a slider and not as big as a curve, and it was just a nasty, nasty pitch. That changeup got me to the big leagues. I could not have gone to the big leagues had I not picked it up."
Gossage, however, was anything but dominant through his first seven starts in '71, even though he went 3-1 with a 3.81 ERA. He allowed at least three earned runs in five of those games, including three starts in which he allowed at least four earned runs. But his season slowly began to turn into something special after he shut out Clinton on May 23.
That victory began a run in which Gossage went 15-0 over a 17-start period. He wouldn't lose another game until Aug. 23 when Waterloo snapped his streak. In between, he pitched a pair of scoreless innings in the Midwest League All-Star Game and tossed a scoreless inning for the White Sox in a June 24 exhibition game against the Cubs.
Gossage, Quincy's Tom Lundstedt (who caught Gossage in the All-Star Game) and Gorman Thomas (who would go on to have a fabulous Major League career) all have some interesting memories of that midsummer classic. Thomas, for example, claims to have hit a homer off Gossage in the game, though Gossage denies it happened.
"He and I are long-time friends," Thomas said. "I was a dead-pull hitter, but his fastball was so hard that I hit a home run off him in that game that went the other way to right center. He was very tough on me."
Gossage, however, laughs and points out that he doesn't remember any Thomas homer, which is backed up by the box score provided by the Associated Press.
"I think he's dreaming," Gossage said.
"It was dusk and you couldn't see the ball the way he was whipping it in there," Lundstedt said. "It was 100 miles an hour. Gorman may have hit a homer, but I don't know if he hit it off Goose or not. I could barely catch him, so those guys couldn't hit him. He was as hard to catch as he was to hit. I think my hand is still throbbing from that game."
At one point through the end of July and into August, Gossage had thrown 37 consecutive scoreless innings, a streak that also saw 3 2/3 scoreless innings get wiped off the books when a game against Clinton was rained out on Aug. 14.
"I don't remember thinking I was having a special year," said Gossage, a ninth-round pick in 1970 after going 17-7 over his final two years of high school. "When you're in the midst of a season, you don't dare start thinking that this is easy. You have to always be on your toes and remain aggressive. You win a game and you build on it.
"You focus on the task at hand and let the bad games go. Now, I didn't have many bad games that year. I don't even remember the losses. It was just a phenomenal season."
Gossage would win his last start of the season against Cedar Rapids on Aug. 27. He went 5-0 against both the Cardinals and the Clinton Pilots. But in the playoffs against Quad Cities, Gossage ran out of magic. He lost the series opener and though he came back to pitch two scoreless relief innings in Game 3, the Angels won the clincher and the league title.
The following year proved to be just as interesting for Gossage. Though he was on the Major League roster in 1972 -- he was 7-1 with a 4.28 ERA in 36 games -- and happy to be there, his mind was still on starting, not coming out of the 'pen.
"When I came to the big leagues in 1972, I would've cleaned toilets to stay there," he said. "I'd do anything they wanted me to. But you didn't want to be a relief pitcher at that time. The bullpen in the big leagues was a junk pile where starters went because they couldn't start any more. It wasn't an important part of the team; it was like a demotion at the time.
"So I didn't have my sights set on being a relief pitcher. But in hindsight, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to my career. I came to love the opportunity to pitch every night. It was exciting, and there was no down time. It was more like being a regular player. You came into big situations and I was doing what it takes three guys to do now."
Gossage admits he took a few steps backward early on in his career while honing his skills. He was sent down to Triple-A Iowa for 12 games in 1973 and returned to Appleton for two games the year after that. He also believes he used that newfound breaking ball a bit too much in the early years, so much so that Tanner was actually concerned about his velocity.
But by 1977, his career had begun to soar. He played his lone season in Pittsburgh that year, going 11-9 with 26 saves and a 1.62 ERA in 133 innings of relief. Gossage, who did not start another game after 1976, signed with the Yankees in 1978, and that's when the legend of the Goose really took hold. Gossage finally retired after the 1994 season, the owner of 310 career saves and soon a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
And it all started in Appleton.
"It was 1971 when they taught me that pitch," he said. "Johnny had such a simple method and I teach it to kids today. It's amazing how quickly they pick up on it and I was no different. It really sent me upward."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.