Farewell To Astros' First Closer

added 5/28/2015 by Bob Hulsey

Not a lot of relief pitchers can say they were once traded for a Hall-of-Famer. We hope Larry Andersen can soon be one of those but the Astros' family recently lost someone who could legitimately make that claim. Reliever Fred Gladding passed away on May 21st at age 78.

Gladding was born in Flat Rock, MI, not far south from Detroit and starred for his town's high school team. He lived the dream of many a teen by signing with his favorite big league club straight out of high school and worked his way up through the minors. Always large for his age, Fred's nickname in high school was "Bear".

Sticking with the hometown Detroit Tigers, however, was a frustrating road. It wasn't until major league expansion that Fred got his first chance, just after his 25th birthday, on July 1st, 1961. He saw action in eight games then six more with the Tigers in 1962.

Fred split time between Detroit and AAA before finally sticking for a full season in 1965. By 1967, Gladding had his best season to date - a 6-4 record with a sparkling 1.99 ERA over 77 innings as the Tigers stayed in the pennant race until the last day, losing out to the Boston Red Sox.

Fred Gladding
(c) Houston Astros

That year, the Astros acquired star third baseman Eddie Mathews from the Atlanta Braves. It was clear that the soft-spoken slugger was in the waning years of his career and the Astros had milked what they could out of his box-office appeal. He had thrilled Houston fans with his 500th home run in July and now the front office wanted to send the respected Texan to a contender for one last chance at glory.

Detroit turned out to be that place. On August 17th, 1967, the Astros sent 35-year-old Mathews to the Tigers for that "player to be named later". Mathews batted .231 with six homers down the stretch as Detroit fell just short.

On November 22, 1967, 31-year-old Fred Gladding found out he was that player to be named later. It seemed a crushing blow to a fellow who grew up as a Tigers fan.

Injuries took out Fred's first year with the Astros and he could only watch as Houston sunk to a last-place finish for the first time. Seeing the Tigers win it all in 1968 must have been bittersweet.

At 6-1 and 225 pounds, the pudgy righthander with thick glasses looked more like a hot dog vendor than a major league athlete and he took some ribbing about his weight, particularly from new teammate Jack Billingham whose locker was next to Fred's.

"Jack was quick-witted and ruthless," remembered teammate Larry Dierker. "Fred was not debate team material. As a result, Fred got the worst of it every time. Billy (Billingham) was especially hard on him about his weight and his birthmarks. But Fred was good-natured about it. Good thing. He could have broken Billy in half if he had wanted to."

For the first time, Major League Baseball was officially recognizing a statistic for relief pitchers. It was called the "save" and cited pitchers who either closed out a tight win or pitched at least an inning to finish any other victory. The roles of relief pitchers were still evolving during the 1960s and teams often did not have one go-to guy to finish games.

Houston skipper Harry Walker had one of the best when he managed Elroy Face in Pittsburgh so he knew, better than most, how to use Gladding. Despite his size, Fred was not the dominating door-slammer we see so often in the ninth today. Gladding used guts and guile to get outs as much as fastballs and curves.

A revamped 1969 Astros squad that now played in the two-division, 12-team National League, got off to an awful start with a 4-20 record in April but Don Wilson's no-hitter on May 1st, set the tone for a 20-6 revival in which Gladding was credited with 10 saves. Among them was a milestone on May 4th where the Astros tied a major league mark by notching seven double plays in a nine-inning game.

The Astros climbed into the division race with winning months in June, July and August. A highlight for Fred came on July 30th during a double-header with the Mets. As a hitter, Gladding was 0-for-44 in eight years until he blooped a single over the third baseman's head against Ron Taylor for the only hit of his career, driving in a run.

(Fred wasn't totally helpless with a bat. In 1972, he twice plated Doug Rader for RBIs, once on a bunt and the other with a sacrifice fly to right).

Gladding sizzled through August 17th, compiling a 2-3 record, 26 saves and a 2.93 ERA. However, he gave up 10 runs in a pair of weekend losses at Wrigley Field and was far less effective down the stretch as Houston faltered to a fifth-place finish in the Western Division. Fred's season record in 1969 was 4-8, a 4.21 ERA and a league-best 29 saves, two better than Cincinnati's Wayne Granger and Atlanta's Cecil Upshaw.

There were no ceremonies for Fred. There was no Rolaids trophy. Corporate America and the baseball media had yet to embrace the save as a statistic worthy of respect. It's not clear anyone cared to win the saves title or bothered to know who was leading it.

For the rest of Gladding's tenure in Houston, his role as closer was a shared one with other pitchers, mostly George Culver and Jim Ray. He notched 18, 12 and 14 saves respectively over the next three seasons while finishing 44, 32 and 32 games.

In 1973, at age 36, Fred was sent back to the minors and released at the end of the year. In six seasons, he had a 22-23 mark with a 3.68 ERA and 76 saves in 233 appearances. For his full career, Gladding had a 48-34 record, with a 3.13 ERA and 109 saves in 601 innings pitched (saves prior to 1969 were calculated retroactively by baseball historians).

Gladding spent many of his remaining productive years as a coach for 22 seasons with the Tigers, Astros and Indians organizations. The first National League saves champion lived a full baseball life although his brushes with fame seemed more by fate than design. His passing seemed to go almost unnoticed by the baseball media. We at Astros Daily feel he deserved better.