McGrady seeks to duplicate DeBusschere’s hoops to hardball exploits

Basketball Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere played for the Detroit Pistons and Chicago White Sox at the same time briefly in his professional career.

Basketball Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere played for the Detroit Pistons and Chicago White Sox at the same time briefly in his professional career.

What Tracy McGrady is attempting to do is certainly not impossible, but it has been accomplished only a handful of times in history. In trying to make it to the major leagues as a pitcher, McGrady could become the 13th player to appear in both the big leagues and the National Basketball Association. The group of 12 includes no fewer than four former Detroit Pistons: Dave DeBusschere, Dick Groat, Ron Reed, and Howie Schultz. Add to that list: Danny Ainge, Frank Baumholtz, Gene Conley, Chuck Connors, Steve Hamilton, Mark Hendrickson, Cotton Nash, and Dick Ricketts.

If McGrady, now trying to catch on with the minor league Sugar Land Skeeters, can complete the double assault, he will match what DeBusschere did for the Pistons and the Chicago White Sox back in the early 1960s.

Yet, if McGrady, a former Piston himself, is successful at making the grade in the major leagues, he and DeBusschere will have done it in far different ways. The 34-year-old McGrady is now retired from the NBA, motivating him to fill the athletic gap as a pitcher, even though he hasn’t played baseball since his days in junior high school. In contrast, DeBusschere played baseball and basketball simultaneously in the 1960s.

DeBusschere’s professional career began in 1962. Graduating from the University of Detroit, the onetime Detroit schoolboy legend was taken by the hometown Pistons as a territorial draft selection, which was a common practice available to NBA teams at the time. That same summer, the White Sox signed DeBusschere and gave him a substantial bonus of $75,000. That left the Tigers on the outside looking in. “I was offered more money to pitch for Detroit,” DeBusschere explained to legendary sportswriter Dick Young, “but I picked the White Sox because Al Lopez was the manager at the time and I felt that he knew how to develop young pitchers.”

Since the NBA season was still several months off, DeBusschere launched his professional career in baseball, specifically as a right-handed pitcher. The Sox assigned him to their South Atlantic League affiliate, which switched in midseason from Savannah to Lynchburg because of racial violence. Seemingly unaffected by the racial unrest and the franchise upheaval, DeBusschere dominated as a hard-throwing starting pitcher. The six-foot, six-inch right-hander won 10 of 11 decisions, sported an ERA of 2.49, and struck out 93 batters in 94 innings.

That performance earned DeBusschere a late-season recall to Chicago. Used in relief, the rookie right-hander put up an ERA of 2.00, but he was extremely wild, walking 23 batters in 18 innings. Given such erratic control, DeBusschere did not appear ready to stay in the major leagues.

Yet, the White Sox regarded DeBusschere so highly that they protected him from being taken in the first-year player draft. Instead, the Sox lost a right-hander named Denny McLain to the Tigers. That’s how much the White Sox thought of DeBusschere.

Yet, he was clearly ready for the NBA. That fall, Pistons’ coach Dick McGuire made DeBusschere his starting small forward and watched him average 12.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Although the Pistons were no more than a sub-.500 team, they did make the NBA playoffs, where DeBusschere shined. He averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds a game in a first-round playoff loss to the old St. Louis Hawks.

As well as DeBusschere had played in his professional basketball debut, he wanted to continue his pursuits in baseball. So he reported to the White Sox, who had fully committed to him, for the 1963 season. Splitting his time between the bullpen and the rotation, DeBusschere did well. His control improved markedly (34 walks in 84 innings) while his strikeout rate fell (53 K’s in 84 innings). The tradeoff was welcome; he put up an ERA of 3.09, more than respectable. With an excellent fastball, an above-average curveball, and his imposing stature on the mound, his future in baseball looked promising.

After the baseball season, DeBusschere reported to Pistons training camp, where some observers expected his previous postseason explosion to carry over into his second season. It didn’t happen. He broke his leg in November, reducing his season to 15 games. When he did play, his scoring and rebound numbers both fell off from his rookie year. The season became a total flop as the Pistons won only 23 games and missed the playoffs by a mile.

As the NBA season ended, DeBusschere headed back to the White Sox. His 1963 performance should have earned him a spot on the 1964 roster, but the Sox thought otherwise. Perhaps punishing him for his decision to continue playing basketball in lieu of pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League, the Sox sent him to Triple-A Indianapolis of the Pacific Coast League, where he spent the entire summer. DeBusschere’s ERA rose to 3.93, but that was elevated by pitching in a hitter’s league like the PCL. Impressively, he made 30 starts, won 15 games, and struck out 126 batters. Strangely, the Sox did not reward him with a late-season summons to Chicago.

By now, both the White Sox and the Pistons were putting pressure on DeBusschere to make a decision and concentrate on one sport, preferably their sport. As the Pistons headed into the 1964-65 season, owner Fred Zollner made DeBusschere the team’s player coach. It was a remarkable decision, given that DeBusschere had only played two NBA seasons and was still only 24. More than a few Detroit onlookers speculated that Zollner made the move so as to convince DeBusschere to devote himself fully to basketball.

On the court, DeBusschere performed spectacularly. Giving himself more minutes while shifting himself to power forward, he averaged 16.7 rebounds and 11.1 rebounds and played ferocious man-to-man defense. He placed the game tenaciously, but also with an analytical, thinking man’s style. As a coach, he fared less impressively. The Pistons won only 29 games and again missed the postseason parade.

When DeBusschere prepared to make the transition back to baseball in 1965, expecting to be included on the White Sox’ roster, he received a jolt. “Lopez and I believe Dave can make it in the majors this year,” Sox general manager Ed Short told The Sporting News. “He improved so much at Indianapolis last season that it wouldn’t surprise us if he burst right into stardom. But it won’t happen if he continues to handicap himself by reporting late because of his basketball commitments.”

Once again, DeBusschere played out the NBA season and reported to spring training a full month late. So the Sox sent him back to Triple-A Indianapolis. Once again, he pitched well, even better than he had in 1964, lowering his ERA to 3.64 while logging roughly 70 additional innings.

In September, the White Sox told DeBusschere they wanted to promote him to Chicago. DeBusschere thought about the move, but turned down the promotion. He told the Sox he had made a decision to concentrate on basketball. Now that he had additional responsibility as a player, coach, and administrator, he felt the time was right to devote his efforts to the hardwood. Good-bye baseball.

Even if the Pistons had not given him coaching responsibilities, it’s likely that DeBusschere would have eventually needed to choose one sport or the other. The length of the respective seasons and the overlap between the NBA season and spring training — the NBA season typically ended in mid-March back then — would have taken an increasingly large toll on DeBusschere as he moved into his late twenties. The physical demands on an aging athlete would have damaged his performance in both sports while leaving him mentally exhausted. At some point, he would have needed to make a decision. The Pistons and White Sox simply expedited that decision.

In retrospect, there’s little doubt that DeBusschere made the right choice. Though his coaching tenure would prove to be short-lived, he remained an All-Star power forward and a defensive terror with a strong physical presence during his years with the Pistons. It was during the 1968-69 season, when the Pistons brought in a new coach in Paul Seymour, that DeBusschere‘s career path would change. Seymour was eager to alter the composition of a losing club and saw a chance to acquire a legitimate center in Walt Bellamy. So the Pistons did what was once unthinkable; Detroit sent “Big D” to the New York Knicks for Bellamy and point guard Howard “Butch” Komives.

DeBusschere would gain his greatest fame with the Knicks. Teaming with starters Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, and Earl Monroe, DeBusschere helped develop a special chemistry that culminated with the NBA championship in 1973, when the Knicks defeated Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers, four games to one.

After his playing days, the well-respected DeBusschere became an executive with the rival New York Nets of the ABA and later assumed the role of commissioner for the rival league. In fact, he was the last commissioner in ABA history, giving up the job when he and the league negotiated a successful merger with the NBA. He later returned to the Knicks as their general manager in 1982.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, DeBusschere was named one of the 50 greatest players in pro basketball history in 1996. Sadly, he died only seven years later, suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of 62.

While McGrady was a fine NBA player, it’s debatable whether he will make the Basketball Hall of Fame. Back and knee injuries limited his playing time in what should have been his prime, before finally ending his career. Still, he has a chance to match what DeBusschere did as a two-year pitcher for the White Sox. According to early spring training reports, McGrady is throwing a fastball in the 87 to 88 mile-per-hour range. That’s certainly not overpowering, but he is described as “sneaky fast,” with good movement on his fastball. His size also gives him the ability to pitch with a downward plane, which scouts love.

On the face of it, McGrady’s odds of making the major leagues remain long. But let’s also remember that with each of the 30 major league teams carrying 12 (or at least 11) pitchers, that translates into over 300 pitching jobs by Opening Day. More vacancies will come during the long regular season. If McGrady shows just some of the pitching ability of a DeBusschere, his chances of a midseason major league debut will become a little bit better.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.