By Glen Sparks
Clay Kirby deserved better. Circumstance played some cruel tricks on the right-hander from Washington, D.C. That final one was tragic.
The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Kirby in the third round of the 1966 draft. He only pitched a few years for one of the most storied organizations in baseball history, all of them in the minors. Back then, the Cardinals had pitching prospects like Jerry Reuss and Mike Torrez on the farm. Maybe not surprisingly, St. Louis left Kirby unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft. The San Diego Padres picked him up.
Kirby progressed through the bare San Diego system. He debuted as a 20-year-old on April 11, 1969. The San Francisco Giants clobbered the Padres 8-0. Kirby gave up three earned runs in four innings. The bullpen took a hit, too.
San Diego finished its season 52-110, firmly in the cellar in the National League West. Kirby went 7-20 with a 3.80 ERA (93 ERA+) in 215.2 innings.
Kirby saved his best game, or at least his most famous, for July 21, 1970. He gave up a first-inning run against the New York Mets on a walk, two stolen bases and a fielder’s choice. But, he didn’t give up a hit. He didn’t give up a hit for the next seven innings, either. The problem was, Mets starter Jim McAndrew was tossing a shutout.
In the bottom of the eighth, his team down 1-0, San Diego Manager Preston Gomez sent in Cito Gaston to pinch hit for Kirby. The small crowd at San Diego Stadium booed with the announcement and booed even louder after Gaston struck out.
Gomez said he simply wanted to win the game and that putting in a pinch-hitter made sense. Afterward, Kirby said only that he was “surprised.”
“I don’t care if we were 160 games behind. I’d do the same thing,” Gomez said in a 2010 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The commissioner (Bowie Kuhn) called me and so did several managers, and they all said it was the only way to play the game.”
Looking back on it, Kirby said, “We were 20 or 30 games behind, and we needed something to drum up interest in the ballclub. A no-hitter would have given the franchise a much bigger boost than one more victory.”
Kirby went 10-16 that season with a 4.53 ERA (88 ERA+) for a San Diego that ended up 63-99. He pitched a total of eight seasons in the majors and retired with a 75-104 won-loss mark. He enjoyed his best season in 1971, going 15-13 with a 2.83 ERA (117 ERA+) 231 strikeouts and 13 complete games. The following year, he went 12-14 with a 3.13 ERA (105 ERA+).
San Diego traded Kirby to the Cincinnati Reds in November of 1973. These were the Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench. Kirby was finally catching a break. He responded with a 12-9 mark and a 3.28 ERA (107 ERA+) in 1974 and then went 10-6 in 1975 but with a disappointing 4.72 ERA (77 ERA+). The Reds won the World Series, but Kirby didn’t even get into one game in the postseason.
Cincinnati banished Kirby to Montreal. There, he struggled to go 1-8 with a 5.72 ERA (65 ERA+). The pitcher was one and done as an Expo and retired as a player at age 28 in 1976.
Some time afterward, Kirby took over as acting chairman of the Washington, D.C., area Major League Baseball Players Alumni golf tournament. The event benefited the American Lung Association. “Former players are pretty good guys and know how to get everyone to have a good time,” Kirby said before the start of the tournament one year.
On Oct. 11, 1991, the former pitcher died of a heart attack in Arlington, Va. He was just 43 years old.
Yes, Clayton Laws Kirby Jr. deserved better.