Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pitch count killed Von Hoff's no-hitter

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too. 

There's nothing unique about this story of a pitcher who was pulled from the mound late in his no-hitter bid. I'm just publishing it because I can.

On July 26, 1965 Bruce Von Hoff of the Cocoa Astros (Class A Florida State League) had a no-hitter going into the ninth inning against the Miami Marlins when he was taken out by manager Billy Goodman, leading 3-0.

Per the policy set by general manager Paul Richards of the parent Houston Astros, Von Hoff had reached the maximum pitch count of 110 set for minor league pitchers in the organization.

Joe Clement was brought on in relief, gave up a hit, then retired the side.

Perhaps as a make-good, Von Hoff was brought up to the Astrodome in the September call-ups. I don't know that his pitching record that season (6-13) qualified him as a prospect worth looking at at the major league level.

Von Hoff had been signed as a 20-year-old bonus free agent by the Giants in 1964, out of Northern Illinois University. Groomed as a reliever, he was 1-1 with a 3.44 ERA in Class A and AA ball.

In November, 1964, the Astros picked Von Hoff under the old first-year-player draft system then in operation in yet another futile attempt by the owners to hold down bonuses.

The Houston chain moved Von Hoff out of the bullpen and put him in the rotation.

While his minor-league record in 1965 wasn't stellar, realistically he had little support. Von Hoff had an ERA of just 2.53 for Cocoa. The C-Astros, however, were arguably the worst team in the league. They finished the season in last place, 32-1/2 games out. As a team they batted only .192 for the season, and their 1,199 strikeouts were nearly 20% worse than the runner-up.

For whatever reason, Von Hoff did get the call to Houston when the rosters expanded. The Astros had been firmly in ninth place for two months, ahead only of the Mets.

Von Hoff appeared in three games in the 'Dome, trotted out to the mound for an inning's work each in 1-7, 8-19 and 2-5 losses.

In truth, he did OK in two of those games. Retiring the Braves and Cardinals with no hits or walks in closing out those games. He was, however, shelled by St. Louis in between. He was called on in the seventh with the Cards ahead 13-2. He gave up three singles and walked two for three earned runs before getting out of the inning. His rookie year in the majors showed him 0-0 with an ERA of 9.00.

Von Hoff went to the Florida Instructional League in the off-season where he was 0-5. He spent the entire 1966 season in the minors -- where he got his no-hitter! On Aug. 10, pitching for the Durham Bulls in the Carolina League, Von Hoff no-hit Rocky Mount and won 5-0. He was 9-4 with a 2.85 ERA in Class A, but was 0-4 with an ERA well over 9.00 at AA and AAA that season.

Splitting time again between AAA Oklahoma City and AA Amarillo in 1967, Von Hoff was 4-6 with an ERA of 4.32 when he was again brought up to Houston in mid-August, with the Astros in last place in the NL.

This time the big club used him as a starter and he opened 10 games. He figured in only three decisions, all losses, with an ERA of 5.19.

By the time Von Hoff's only mainstream baseball card came out in the 1968 Topps set, his major-league career was behind him.

He played three more years in the minors. He was 0-5 for Dallas-Ft. Worth (AA Houston) in 1968, 6-3 with Asheville (AA Cincinnati) in 1969 and 4-8 in 1970 with St. Petersburg and Arkansas (A, AA St. Louis). He left pro ball then at the age of 26.

Overall, in his seven minor league seasons, Von Hoff had a 30-44 record and 3.96 ERA.

He died in Florida in 2012 at the age of 68. In retirement in Gulfport, Fla., he had founded an after-school program for kids at his church, coached youth sports teams and worked with the elderly. 

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