In 1972, Mike Kilkenny became the answer to a trivia question by wearing the uniform of four different major-league baseball teams in a single season.
He began the 1972 campaign, his fourth, with the Detroit Tigers. On May 10, he was sold to the Oakland Athletics. Six days later, he was traded to the San Diego Padres. Less than a month later, after having pitched just four innings for his new employer, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians.
A beanpole, left-handed pitcher from a small town in Ontario, Mr. Kilkenny was one of only a handful of Canadians in the late 1960s to earn a roster spot at baseball’s highest level. He was a baseball character, urging sports writers to call him by his nickname – The Killer – and asserting his hometown was so isolated and hockey-mad he only learned about the summer sport from baseball cards.
Mr. Kilkenny, who has died at 73, was known for a wicked curve ball, which he unfailingly executed with a delivery so smooth it was compared to a golf swing, another sport at which he excelled.
“It took me a long time to learn it’s concentrated relaxation out there,” he once said. “I was told to use a lesson I had learned in golf, namely pausing for a split-second at the top of my backswing. That pause injected a wealth of control.”
The hurler’s success at baseball was the more unlikely for the lack of coaching and opportunity he had as a young person. His high school did not field a team, so at the age of 15, he travelled on weekends to Toronto to pitch in sandlot games, where he caught the attention of scouts, notably former minor-league infielder Bob Prentice of Toronto, who worked for the Tigers. Detroit signed the young man for a reported $15,000 bonus.
Michael David Kilkenny was born in Bradford, now known as Bradford West Gwillimbury, on April 11, 1945, a second son for the former Gwendoline Madge (née Fowles) Ward and Keith Neilly Kilkenny. His mother, born in Runcorn, England, lost her father, a bombardier with the artillery, when he was killed in action in France in 1917. Her mother remarried and the family immigrated to Canada in 1922, when the girl was 9. She married into one of Bradford’s best-known families in 1940. Two years earlier, the Kilkennys celebrated a centennial of operating such businesses as a furniture store and a funeral parlour in the town south of Lake Simcoe. She would be named Bradford’s citizen of the year for her volunteer work in 1975.
After signing with the Tigers, the young pitcher added weight to his frame, which gave more zip to his fastball. He would later add a slider to his repertoire. He threw a no-hitter against the Tampa Tarpons in 1965 while pitching for the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Florida State League, a single-A circuit for prospects.
The lefty spent parts of three seasons in Alabama with the Montgomery Rebels of the Southern League. On a lark, he once left tickets at the box office for the governor, George Wallace, and his wife, and was astonished to see them in the stands.
After five seasons in the minors, Mr. Kilkenny made his major-league debut with a relief appearance for the Tigers on his 24th birthday. He had a more monumental day four months later. On Aug. 12, 1969, he rushed his wife, Carolyn, to the hospital, where she gave birth to a five-pound boy who arrived six weeks before his due date. At 4 p.m., the new father left the hospital just hours before he was scheduled to be on the mound at Tiger Stadium in his first major-league start.
“I sent my wife some roses,” he told The New York Times later that day, “let the dog out – he hadn’t been out all day – took a shower, grabbed a sandwich and came to the ball park.”
As it turned out, he pitched a three-hit, complete-game victory, as Detroit defeated the California Angels, 7-1. The pitcher also recorded his first major-league base hit and run batted in with a single off Andy Messersmith in the fourth inning.
In the 1969 campaign, he threw a two-hitter against Boston and a three-hitter with 13 strikeouts against Cleveland on his way to being named his team’s rookie of the year.
In 1971, he suffered from an ulcer and mononucleosis, which was only diagnosed when he had a checkup before embarking on a goodwill tour of Vietnam with fellow players Dock Ellis, Bobby Bonds and Mike Hedlund. He was struck by the poverty of the civilians he saw, including naked children playing in a garbage dump, where he spotted live ammunition.
He retired from pro baseball after the 1973 season. In his major-league career, he pitched in 139 games with a 23-18 record and 301 strikeouts in 410 innings with a 4.43 earned-run average.
He worked as a golf instructor, a golf pro at clubs in Ontario, and operated a golf repair business, as well as serving as a swing coach for Ted Potter Jr., a two-time winner on the PGA Tour. Mr. Kilkenny was also a salesman for a chemical company. Over the years, he owned trotters used in harness racing.
He returned to baseball in 1975, pitching for the amateur London Majors, going 9-0 in the regular season and 5-0 in the playoffs as the team won the championship of what is now known as the Intercounty Baseball League. He was named the circuit’s most valuable player. Eight years later, he once again returned to the mound for the Majors, again going 9-0.
The Majors retired his No. 17 uniform in a ceremony in 2011. The next year, a baseball diamond in his hometown was named after him.
Mr. Kilkenny, a resident of Belmont, Ont., died of colorectal cancer in London, Ont., on June 28. He leaves his second wife, Edie (née Steinman), whom he married in 1984, as well as a son, a daughter, a stepson and eight grandchildren. He also leaves his older brother.
Among his eccentricities as a player was the fact that he always carried with him his current baseball card. In 1972, the cards issued by the Topps Chewing Gum Company in the United States and by O-Pee-Chee in Canada included a trivia question. The Kilkenny card asked which two pitchers threw for four different American League clubs in a single season. (The answer: Willis Hudlin in 1940 and Ted Gray in 1955.) The card was prepared before the start of the season. After he was traded to his fourth team, the pitcher pulled his bubble-gum card from his duffle bag to show reporters.
“This is so ironic I can’t believe it,” he said of the bizarre coincidence.
Special to The Globe and Mail