This annotated week in baseball history: July 15-July 21, 1963

On July 17, 1963, Bobby Thigpen was born. Sure, we all know he once saved 57 game in a season, but there has to be more to the man than that, right?

Bill Wambsganss once turned an unassisted triple play in a World Series game, the only man to have done that. If you know Wambsganss’ name, it is because of that play. He once said—I’m paraphrasing here—that he might as well have been born the day before and died the day after turning the play, so little was the interest in the rest of his life and career.

Bobby Thigpen at least has a whole season of note, but just like Wambsganss his entire existence has been more or less reduced to a trivia question, or maybe two at best: Who holds the single-season save record? Bobby Thigpen. How many? 57.

A couple of people have come close to Thigpen’s record, John Smoltz and Eric Gagne both had 55, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman both had 53, but the record has held since Thigpen set it in 1990.

In the sprit of not reducing players to mere trivia questions, this week’s column is dedicated to the life and times of Bobby Thigpen. Still, we must touch on the portion of his life that took place between April 9, 1990 (save number one) and Sept. 30, 1990 (save number 57),

Thigpen was born in Tallahassee, Fla. and grew up there. He developed into a two-way star, earning first a scholarship to Seminole College (a junior college), then moving on to play at Mississippi State University. He starred there as both a pitcher and right fielder, playing for coach Ron Polk. (Polk has coached at MSU forever but is probably best known for once declaring that “the NCAA is the enemy of college baseball!”)

Thigpen tied the single-season school record with seven saves and hit .305, helping the team to a third place finish in the College World Series in 1985. Thigpen was one of many talented players on the 1985 team which also featured Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Brantley. He was drafted in the fourth round by the White Sox in 1985,

Thigpen wasted little time in the minor leagues, debuting in the majors in August 1986. He saved seven games that year but ran into a tough patch at the end of the season, blowing saves in his final four appearances. He nonetheless finished the season with a sparkling 1.77 ERA in just over 35 innings. Thigpen’s ERA rose to 2.73 in 1987 but he also led the team with 16 saves and pitched 89 innings out of the pen.

Unlike many closers who relied on one or two key pitches, Thigpen used the standard starter’s deployment of fastball, slider, curveball and change to record his saves. Those saves continued to come in 1988 as Thigpen racked up 34, good for fourth in the league. He matched that total in 1989, this time finishing second to Texas’ Jeff Russell, who had 38.

Then, Thigpen had his notable season, recording his 57 saves. Although Thigpen deserves all the credit for his saves, and his 1.83 ERA was the best of his career for a full season, his other stats weren’t overly impressive.

It did make for an ERA+ of 210, which is high, but it is also a figure bettered by Mariano Rivera each of the last four years. Thigpen’s K/9 was just over seven, the highest of his career but not especially high. Thigpen also blew eight saves that year, including—somewhat improbably given the context—his final save opportunity and two when he had a three run lead.

In 1991, Thigpen saw his ERA jump to 3.49 and dropped to 30 saves. Some blamed his use in 1990 (and his manager that year, Jeff Torborg) but Thigpen claims he injured his back on a postseason tour of Japan.

Whatever the cause, his ERA rose again to 4.75 in 1992, the first time in his career that his ERA had been worse than league average since his major league debut. Injuries began to take their toll, robbing Thigpen of a fastball that had once approached the high 90s.

By 1993, he was replaced by a new hard-throwing phenomenon, Roberto Hernandez, as the White Sox closer and was traded to the Phillies for Jose DeLeon. Thigpen was disastrous in Philly, posting an ERA over six, but he did appear in both the NLCS and World Series for the Phillies. It was the only postseason action of Thigpen’s career.

After a short but brutal stint in Seattle (eight earned runs in less than eight innings) Thigpen was released and finished as a major leaguer. He moved to Japan, where he pitched well for the Daiei Hawks as their closer, but he continued to be plagued by injuries.

Thigpen made a brief comeback in 1996 but during an appearance in the minor leagues, he displaced a vertebra in his back. As Thigpen described it, his “back just started burning. Like if you put Red Hot on it.” He pitched one more inning, was removed from the game and had career-ending surgery within a fortnight.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Luckily for Thigpen, his days in the major leagues had earned him more than $10 million, so he was set for life, despite being finished with his chosen profession before the age of 35.

Thigpen retired to St. Petersburg, Fla. (about 200 miles as the crow flies from his original home in Tallahassee). In addition to the typical post-career-athlete pastimes of golf tournaments and White Sox fantasy camps, Thigpen also helps coach a high school baseball team.

So in a column that is around a thousand words, and a thousand words in which I set out to discuss Thigpen’s life and career besides 1990, I could not avoid dedicating nearly 15 percent of my words to his record-setting season. That might be far less than what the season usually commands when telling his story, but perhaps it is the least that can be done when providing a picture of the man.

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