For 10 seasons, Billy Muffett served as pitching coach on Sparky Anderson’s staff in Detroit – an eyewitness to great baseball on many occasions. But Muffett witnessed his most memorable baseball moment from his perch atop the pitching mound at the tail end of the 1957 season. It wasn’t a joyous occasion for him, but it was one of the most important home runs in baseball history.
Muffett pitched 15 seasons in professional baseball, most of it in the minor leagues. He was a hard-throwing 18-year old when he was signed by the Helena Seaporters of the Cotton States League in 1949. the quality of ball in that league was not very good, and with his blazing fastball, Muffett intimidated opposing batters. Unfortunately, it was often due to the fact that he had no idea where his pitches were headed. In his first pro season, the wide-eyed teenager walked 154 batters in 164 innings! It was that lack of control that kept Billy in the bush leagues for a long time.
But after he served in the Korean War, missing two full seasons, Muffett returned to pro ball and settled down on the hill, taming his heater somewhat. He was signed by the Chicago Cubs and assigned to the Macon Peaches in the Sally League. He moved up the farm ladder, was traded to the Cardinals organization, and finally, in 1957 after seven seasons in the minors, the 26-year old was called up by St. Louis after he went 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA in the Texas League. The Redbirds were in need of bullpen help for the stretch run. For the first time in more than a decade the Cards were in a pennant race in August, and when Muffett was called up the team was in a tight battle with the Braves for first place.
Muffett joined the club and found himself a teammate of Stan Musial and Hoyt Wilhelm, two future Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, just after Muffett arrived, the team suffered a nine-game losing streak that allowed the Braves to open a lead. In September, with a week left in the season, Milwaukee was five games ahead of the Cardinals and needed one victory over St. Louis to clinch their first NL flag in Milwaukee.
On September 23, Muffett entered a 2-2 game in the 9th inning to pitch in relief. He held off the powerful Braves lineup for two innings, but in the bottom of the 11th he surrendered a single to Johnny Logan, and with two outs he found himself facing Hank Aaron, one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. The rookie hurler tried to overpower Aaron, but with his quick wrists, The Hammer sent a fly deep over the center field wall for a two-run homer. Aaron had clinched the pennant, fans in County Stadium went crazy, and Muffett walked from the mound dejected.
As Aaron’s teammate Joe Adcock famously once said: “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
The home run was the only one that Muffett allowed in his rookie season. He actually pitched well for the Cards in his first seven weeks as a major leaguer: a 2.25 ERA and eight saves in 23 games. He went on to pitch for St. Louis again in 1958 and then spent one year with the Giants and three with the Red Sox, who tried to make him a starting pitcher.
Muffett served as Tigers’ pitching coach from 1985 to 1994, replacing Roger Craig. He was a respected coach, having worked for the Cardinals in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the Angels. He worked with Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan, as well as Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and Frank Tanana during his tenure in Detroit.
Muffett retired with Sparky after the ’94 season and then lived in Louisiana until his death in 2008 at the age of 77.