Tireless reliever Mike Marshall, 1974 Cy Young winner with three MSU degrees, dies at 78

Mike Marshall, a workhorse relief pitcher if there ever was one who won the National League Cy Young Award in 1974 while he was starting work on a doctorate from Michigan State, has died.

Marshall, an Adrian, Michigan, native, who held three degrees from Michigan State, died Tuesday at his Florida home, the Dodgers announced. He was 78, and had recently entered hospice care.

Marshall is the owner of two amazing major-league records, both set in his best season, 1974. That year, he pitched in 106 games, still a record for relievers. He also pitched in 13 consecutive games, another first and only for relievers.

Mike Marshall, an Adrian native and Michigan State alum, pitched in the majors for 14 seasons. (Photo: Detroit News)

“I had a deal with (manager) Walter Alston,” Marshall told MLB.com in a 2003 interview. “If I warmed up, I was getting into the game.”

In 1974, Marshall, a right-hander, recorded a 2.42 ERA and had an NL-best 21 saves, while finishing 83 games. He also pitched in all five World Series games (a 4-1 loss to the Oakland A’s; his highlight that series was picking off notorious pinch-runner Herb Washington, another Michigan State alum), and ran away with the Cy Young award, besting out teammates Andy Messersmith and Don Sutton, as well as Phil Niekro. Marshall was the first reliever to claim the Cy Young Award in either league.

Equipped with an impressive screwball — the same pitch that 10 years after Marshall’s banner year would help earn Detroit reliever Willie Hernandez Cy Young and MVP honors — Marshall pitched 14 seasons in the big leagues, starting with the Tigers in 1967 and ending with the New York Mets in 1981. He also pitched for the Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins. For the Twins in 1979, he pitched in 90 games, an American League relief record. In the most recent full MLB season, Milwaukee’s Alex Claudio led the majors in relief appearances, with 83.

For his career, Marshall was 97-112 with a 3.14 ERA and made two All-Star teams, with the Dodgers in 1974 and 1975.

During his career, players marveled at how Marshall took on such an extreme workload without getting hurt or even tired. He always credited that to understanding how the body works. He earned his doctorate in kinesiology from Michigan State in 1978, after having earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the school while taking classes during offseasons after signing as a 17-year-old with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1960.

“I watched a lot of genetically gifted baseball pitchers who had no idea what they were doing,” Marshall once said in an interview with TwinsTrivia.com.

Marshall was a standout shortstop growing up in Adrian, southwest of Ann Arbor, and that’s what the Phillies drafted, a hitter. He had promising early returns in the minor leagues, one year in A-ball hitting .304 with 14 homers and 76 RBIs.

But he soon told the Phillies he wanted to pitch. Because of a lower-back injury suffered in a car accident when he was 11, he couldn’t bend over to field grounders or swing the bat comfortably, he told TwinsTrivia.com.

He began pitching in 1965, and the Tigers bought him from the Phillies in 1966. As a rookie in 1967, he had a 1.98 ERA in 37 relief appearances, but the Tigers sent him to Triple-A Toledo for the 1968 and 1969 seasons so he could transition to a starter. In 1969, the Seattle Pilots took him in the expansion draft, and he eventually became a reliever again. Of his 724 major-league appearances, all but 24 were in relief.

Marshall finished in the top seven of Cy Young voting five times, and the top 10 of MVP voting three times. He led the league in saves three times, including 31 for the Expos in 1973. He figured to become a mainstay north of the border, until he gave a blunt assessment of some Expos teammates in an interview for Michigan State’s alumni magazine (the author was future Detroit News sportswriter Lynn Henning). When those quotes made their way back to Montreal, he was hastily traded to the Dodgers. He gave the interview in November and was traded in December, despite apologizing directly to teammates Ron Hunt (second base) and Bob Bailey (third base).

Marshall already had been contemplating retirement at age 30, to focus on education. He grew up wanting to be a teacher.

“My real value is in education,” he told the Associated Press at the time.

But he stuck with baseball, and less than a year later, he made baseball history.

Marshall never played baseball at Michigan State, because he signed the free-agent deal with the Phillies out of high school. He needed the money for college, and when he wasn’t playing professional baseball, that $20,000 signing bonus went toward classes at Michigan State, where he earned the three degrees, later taught (Steve Garvey once had him as an instructor) and even occasionally displayed some of his epic athleticism as an intramural football quarterback — at least until school officials wouldn’t allow him to play, because he was pro in another sport. The latter incident led to a lawsuit, in which he represented himself. He also once sued The State News, Michigan State’s student newspaper, and once allegedly threw a baseball at a dogcatcher’s truck over a trespassing dispute. Marshall could have a hard exterior and a reputation for speaking his mind. Those traits earned him many enemies over the years, but also made him a valuable player rep for the union, with multiple teams.

He was traded three times, never spent four full seasons with any team, and after being released by the Mets in October 1981, he never held another job in organized baseball. Fangraphs in a 2010 article called it, “The unofficial ban of Mike Marshall.” His exodus came despite his vast knowledge of pitching mechanics. In 1974, he helped convince Dodgers teammate Tommy John to undergo the experimental elbow surgery that would eventually bear the left-handed pitcher’s name and save countless careers.

According to a 1979 Sports Illustrated piece, Marshall also declined to sign autographs because he didn’t believe kids should be worshiping athletes. In that TwinsTrivia.com piece, he was asked which players he idolized growing up, and he said none.

“But then,” said Marshall, “I have never wanted to be like anybody else.”

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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Wednesday November 2, 2022