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Bob Sprout didn't know better back in 1960. Oh, sure, he knew what he did that season in general -- and on one night in August in particular -- was special.
But the hard-throwing left-hander didn't come to truly appreciate that year, and the night of Aug. 18, until he was a bit older, a bit wiser and far removed from baseball. Sprout was one of the hottest tickets in Minor League Baseball in 1960, particularly on that late summer evening in which he set a Midwest League record he still owns today.
Sprout was an 18-year-old Tigers farmhand pitching in his first year of professional ball when he went 15-7 for the Decatur Commodores in 1960. He posted a 2.61 ERA and allowed only 113 hits in 190 innings, but the real dazzling number that stands out from that year are the 264 strikeouts he collected. That was a league mark that stood for five years, until Danny Morris struck out 274 for the Wisconsin Rapids in 1965.
En route to setting that record, Sprout recorded yet another when he struck out 22 Waterloo Hawks on Aug. 18, an accomplishment that remains the league standard to this day. He also tossed a no-hitter that night, carving out yet another place for himself in the MWL record book.
"At the time, I didn't realize what an accomplishment that particular game was," Sprout said. "I appreciate that game more now than when I pitched in it. I was getting a lot of strikeouts that year, but strikeouts weren't a big thing for me. I liked to get them, but it wasn't a big thing. The no-hitter was a bigger thing for me at the time."
Sprout walked eight batters that night, including twice issuing free passes to the first two batters in an inning. But he also struck out the side four times and went into the ninth inning needing two strikeouts to break the league record set by Paris' Harvey Branch in 1953.
He got the first batter to pop up, then struck out Knute Westergren to equal the record. The final batter in the inning was Rich Johnson, and he hit a pop-up to the catcher, Owen Johnson. But Owen Johnson let the ball drop, and on the next pitch, Rich Johnson struck out, giving Sprout the record.
Decatur manager Al Federoff told The Sporting News that Owen Johnson let the ball fall on purpose.
"He was sure Sprout could fan the batter," Federoff said.
It turned out Owen Johnson was right, and that fact is what Sprout remembers most about the game.
"I can still visualize the last pitch of that game," said Sprout, who got only one of his 22 victims looking. "He dropped the ball. It was a little pop between home and first, and they yelled to drop it. He knew. I reached back to center field and threw that last pitch in there. It was going to be a fastball with everything I possibly had behind it.
"My fastball was rising, and I tended to throw it high to right-handed hitters, and they would swing right through it. I remember my fastball was really zipping that night. I threw it overhand; I always thought it was rising. It felt really good, and they seemed to be swinging right through it. I play it and replay that last pitch in my mind all the time."
Sprout completed his dream season two weeks later when he fanned 14 against Quad Cities in his final start, allowing him to lay claim to the league record by one strikeout. Lafayette's Charlie Smith had struck out 263 in 1956 but needed 242 innings to do it. Sprout earned Midwest League Rookie of the Year honors for his effort that season.
He was also added to the Tigers' 40-man roster shortly thereafter and appeared headed for a nice career in Detroit. But the Tigers didn't protect him in the expansion draft. The Angels claimed him and sent him to Dallas/Fort Worth of the American Association, where he went 5-11 with a 4.75 ERA in 36 games (26 starts) in 1961.
Los Angeles promoted Sprout at the end of the season, and he made what would be his only Major League start. He went four innings against Washington on Sept. 27, allowing two earned runs while striking out a pair.
"We had some pretty good company on that team when I got called up," Sprout said. "Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance and I were all called up from Dallas/Fort Worth. But I got hurt during Spring Training of 1962. I was throwing too hard, too quick, and I pulled a muscle in the back of my shoulder.
"I went to a doctor in L.A., and he told me a muscle was like a spring, and once you stretch it out, it may never go back to its shape. So I pitched the last few years in pain. I had some cortisone shots, but that didn't help a lot. They didn't have the knowledge they have now, where you could fix most things with an operation or proper exercise."
Sprout went 10-11 with a 4.01 ERA in 29 Northwest League games in 1962. He split 1963 between the Northwest and South Atlantic Leagues but was no more effective, going 3-13 with a 4.77 ERA in 24 games. Sprout appeared in only 14 games during the '64 and '65 seasons, the latter of which came after he had re-signed with Detroit.
He left baseball after the '65 season with 41 career victories in the Minor Leagues and a great many "what ifs" based on what he did in Decatur.
"I never felt cheated," Sprout said. "I felt lucky to have been able to play as long as I did. It was a great way to spend my time, and it was an education. I saw the whole country, and I got paid pretty well. I wish they had the medical approach they have these days, but I'm not bitter or upset about it."
Sprout went to work for a company that made electrical connectors after leaving baseball and remained there until he retired. It certainly wasn't what anyone who saw him pitch in 1960 would have expected, but he has no regrets, only good memories.
"That year and that game, I reflect on it all the time," Sprout said. "I sit here, think about it and a smile will come across my face. I get a lot of satisfaction out of reliving that game."