- Doug Williams
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When Bill Singer walked off the mound at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, he didn’t know he’d just made history.
It was April 7, 1969, and the Dodger had just pitched three scoreless innings to protect a 3-2 Los Angeles victory over the Reds on Opening Day.
One of the most unlikely of pitchers had just recorded the major leagues’ first official save, and he had no idea. All he knew was he’d locked down a win for starter Don Drysdale.
“On the bus on the way to the ballpark, (manager) Walt Alston says, ‘I’m thinking about pitching Drysdale six. Can you go the last three?’ I said sure,” says Singer, 68, now the director of pro scouting for the Washington Nationals. “We went out and Drysdale pitched six, I went the last three and got the save and didn’t know anything about that ’til maybe 20 years later.”
He didn’t save the ball, didn’t grab the scorecard for posterity and didn’t pose for pictures with Drysdale, Alston or catcher Tom Haller.
Singer says he hadn’t paid attention to the fact the new save rule would be implemented that season -- he was a starting pitcher, after all. Soon after, he turned his attention to preparing for his first start of the season five days later in Houston (in which he’d go eight innings in a 5-1 win).
He swears it wasn’t until years later that it dawned on him that he had been the first closing pitcher ever to have an ‘S’ listed next to his name in the box score.
And, for almost 24 hours, he could claim to be baseball’s all-time saves king – until Juan Pizarro of the Red Sox, Jack Aker of the Pilots, Carroll Sembera of the Expos and Chuck Hartenstein of the Pirates tied him the next day.
Even now, Singer’s not exactly sure why Alston tabbed him to come on in relief instead of the team’s regular bullpen corps. All he knew was Alston told him his plan on the bus, and it was fine with him.
It was his only appearance in relief in a season in which he started 40 games, won 20 with a 2.38 ERA, had 16 complete games and pitched 315 2/3 innings. Though he’d made 10 relief appearances from 1964-68, he’d make only four more the rest of his 14-year career while starting 322 games.
At the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., there is the ball from the no-hitter Singer threw in 1970, along with his Dodgers cap and jersey. But there’s nothing from the first-save game in ’69.
Where’s the ball?
“I have no idea,” he says. “I saved complete-game victory balls, but I never saved that one. I didn’t really realize that was the rule.”
Drysdale, in the final season of his Hall of Fame career, left after six innings with a 3-2 lead.
In the seventh, Singer retired Johnny Bench, Tommy Helms and Woody Woodward in order. In the eighth, he retired pinch hitter Fred Whitfield, Bobby Tolan and Alex Johnson around a walk to Pete Rose. And in the ninth, he sat down Tony Perez, Lee May and Bench to end the game.
Singer doesn’t remember the particulars, only that, “In those days, I had great stuff.”
It was a much different time, when bullpen roles were less specialized. The major league leader in saves that season would be Ron Perranoski of the Twins (with 31); Jim Brewer led the Dodgers with 20, but four other L.A. relievers also had saves that season. There were no ninth-inning specialists.
“We had Jim Brewer from the left side. We had Pete Mikkelson from the right side,” Singer says. “We had two main guys who were closers. They’d go two or three days in a row max, for up to three innings. We used them from the seventh inning on. The bell could ring for them and they could be out for the duration.”
Singer remembers when he first came up to the big leagues, relievers pitched in the shadows of starting pitchers.
“I’ll never forget when I first came onto the scene as an up-and-down guy, young guy, guys like Ron Perranoski (then with the Dodgers) would complain -- with good reason -- that the relievers never made the All-Star team,” he says.
“It was always starting pitching and there should be some relievers on the All-Star team. They were really never given full credit.”
Once the save came along, however, more focus was placed on the closing role and relievers such as Rich Gossage and Rollie Fingers became stars, sometimes gong two and three innings. Later, managers such as Tony La Russa changed the game by going to setup men, one-inning specialists and even more defined roles.
Though he preferred pitching when he did, Singer says the way baseball has evolved makes sense.
“It seems to be an era of specialty, and it’s working,” he says. “It’s just different.”
In his capacity as a major league scout, Singer says it’s been a privilege to watch some of the best closers of all time. Countless times he’s watched Mariano Rivera shut the door on the way to the all-time saves record.
Though Rivera will have more than 600 saves when he retires after this season, he won’t have save No. 1. That belongs to Singer.
His historic performance at Crosley Field is part of a pitching career that included both excellence and oddity for the pitcher dubbed “The Singer Throwing Machine.” Aside from 118 major league victories, two 20-win seasons, a no-hitter and two All-Star Games, he’s the answer to two other trivia questions:
• Who threw the first pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays?
• What two pitchers combined to have the most strikeouts in a season on the same team?
Singer (241) and Nolan Ryan (383) combined for 624 strikeouts in 1973, which later was surpassed by the 665 of Randy Johnson (372) and Curt Schilling (293) with Arizona in 2001.
Singer did get one more save, for the Angels in 1975. He pitched two-thirds of an inning to save a 7-6 win over the Royals in Kansas City on April 30.
He also got a laugh out of it when he was asked on the postgame show about his two career saves.
“One of the announcers for the Angels was Don Drysdale, and he asked me about the save, and says, ‘Where’d you get the other save? How’d that happen?’ ” recalls Singer. “I said, ‘I saved the game for you.’ He didn’t even remember.”