He defied the odds.
On June 24, 1958, a lanky rookie from Cherryfield made his first major league start for the Milwaukee Braves against the San Francisco Giants, who boasted a lineup that included Hall of Famer Willie Mays along with Orlando Cepeda and Leon Wagner.
Pitcher Carlton Willey, who died Tuesday at the age of 78, spun a six-hit shutout that day, striking out seven, including Mays, and walking just one as the Braves beat the Giants 7-0.
Willey went on to go 9-7 with a 2.70 earned run average and four shutouts that season and was named the National League’s Rookie Pitcher of the Year. He pitched a perfect inning in the ’58 World Series, but the New York Yankees beat the Braves four games to three.
He spent eight seasons in the major leagues, five with the Braves and three with the New York Mets, but his career was cut short by a broken jaw, courtesy of a line drive off the bat of Detroit’s Gates Brown in a 1964 spring training game, and shoulder problems.
He retired in 1965 after a 199-game major league career. He finished with a 38-58 record, a 3.76 ERA and 493 strikeouts and 326 walks in 875ª innings.
“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life,” said Willey in a 1980 story by then-Bangor Daily News sports editor Bill Warner.
But he had left a legacy, one that still lives today.
“He was very good. He had an awfully good fastball,” said Harold Sprague, who grew up with Willey and remained his friend until the end.
“I remember waking up the next morning after his first start against the Giants on the West Coast and I couldn’t wait to see how he did. He pitched a complete-game shutout,” recalled Brewer’s Joe Ferris, the College World Series Most Valuable Player for the University of Maine in 1964.
Ferris was one of several Maine youngsters influenced by Willey.
“I remember a lot about him. He was a hero. He was really good,” Ferris said. “He could throw hard and he had a great breaking ball. But he had tough luck.”
Hallf of Famer and Braves teammate Warren Spahn told longtime BDN outdoors columnist Bud Leavitt in 1983 that Willey was the “hardest luck guy I ever saw.”
“He came up to the big leagues in 1958 at Milwaukee. The man was a strong, raw-boned rookie from Cherryfield, Maine. He won nine games for us and I remember saying ‘This man will win big up here.’ But, like I said, bad luck constantly dogged Carl, a sore elbow, bumps and bruises. Just a whole mess of little things that can ruin a pitcher’s rhythm, motion and effectiveness.”
His former wife of 26 years and high school sweetheart, Nancy Willey, said Carlton was a “hometown boy.”
“He loved Cherryfield. He was always very happy after the season was over to get back home,” she said.
“He was low-key and very, very humble,” added the former Nancy Higgins and the mother of their two children, Richie and Jill. “One of the nicest things somebody ever said about him was that after he had been playing baseball, he still wore the same size hat.”
Carlton Willey was a gifted athlete.
He was not only a great pitcher, he was also a standout basketball player at Cherryfield Academy, from which he graduated in 1949.
“And he was an excellent ice skater, too,” said Nancy.
Willey had earned a shot at pro baseball by impressing Boston Braves scouts at a tryout camp in Bangor. That earned him a callback the next summer, and he was then offered a contract by the Braves.
“He was so passionate about baseball. That’s what he wanted to do,” said Nancy Willey.
They spent winters in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as he worked on his pitches. He also spent several years in the minor leagues before his call-up.
His career was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army during the Korean War, but Nancy said he was stationed in Germany and was able to play baseball for his base team.
The season that set the stage for his call-up occurred in 1957 when, according to Nancy, he went 21-7 for the Braves’ Class AAA team in Wichita, Kan.
“That was a wonderful year,” she said.
Willey had the opportunity to play with several greats. In addition to Spahn, his list of teammates included Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, Jimmy Piersall, Red Schoendienst and Lew Burdette.
He also pitched for legendary manager Casey Stengel and faced several of the game’s biggest stars like Mays and Mickey Mantle.
“He always had good luck against Willie Mays,” said Nancy. “But, sometimes, .200 hitters would get hits off him.”
Willey’s former minor league teammate and roommate, pitcher Charlie Gorin, called Willey “quiet and very polite.
“He was a peach of a guy. He was a great friend. It’s a big loss,” said Gorin who chose Willey as the best man at his wedding.
He also said Willey was a quality pitcher.
“He threw hard. He had a good fastball and a good curve,” said Gorin, a retired teacher and principal living in Austin, Texas.
Willey, who was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, also had the distinction of retiring the three Alou brothers, Jesus, Matty and Felipe, in the same inning in 1963, when he was pitching for the Mets against the Giants.
It was the first time in major league history that three brothers hit consecutively in the same inning.
When Willey retired, he wound up being a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies for several years. He served as a probation officer, was a plant manager for Wyman’s blueberry processing plant in Hancock, and he and his son, Richie, started a house painting business. Willey had also worked at his parents’ hardware store.
He never complained about his bad luck and always considered himself fortunate to have played in the major leagues.
“I feel as though I was lucky to make it at all,” said Willey in the 1980 BDN story. “There were a lot of kids who didn’t. I guess I was just one of the lucky ones. It still seems more like a dream.”
On Tuesday, Gov. John Baldacci called Willey a “class act” and said he was the type of guy who would “give you the shirt off his back.”
Baldacci recalled Willey giving him something even better several years ago.
Baldacci was a Democratic congressman and was going to pitch against the Republicans in their annual game in Washington, D.C.
He went to see Willey to seek some advice on how to prepare his arm.
“He had this award at his house that he had received from Prudential Insurance. There was a baseball in the top of the trophy and he unscrewed it, gave it to me and told me to use it. It was like a heavy lead ball,” Baldacci said. “He told me to stretch out my arm with it every morning and he was right. It helped. We wound up winning the game.”
Willey also showed him how to push against the door frame to stretch out his arm.
“He was such a nice, unassuming type of guy,” Baldacci said. “For a kid from Cherryfield, Maine, to be able to perform as well as he did and to be able to hold his own on the national stage made me very proud.”
He said there will be a Carlton Willey Day celebrated in Maine on Saturday, the day of his funeral.
Willey loved to watch sports, according to his ex-wife, and he was especially fond of boxing.
He was also an avid hunter and fisherman and he regularly hosted friends at his house in Cherryfield for coffee.
One of the members put a sign over the door that read “Old Men’s Club.”
“There would be six or seven of us and we’d talk for hours,” Sprague said. “He loved to talk about baseball.”
Nancy Willey and Sprague said he had a “dry sense of humor” and a laid-back demeanor.
“Everybody loved him. He was the same, natural guy to everybody,” Sprague said.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday at Bragdon-Kelley Funeral Home in Milbridge, but the graveside service Saturday is private.
Survivors include his companion, Maureen Mahan, son Richard and his wife, Susan, of Cherryfield; daughter Jill Escamilla and her husband, Patrick, of Austin, Texas; and grandchildren Philip Willey of Portland and Eryn Escamilla of Austin, Texas.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Cherryfield Academy, c/o Eleanor Hampton, P.O. Box 26, Cherryfield 04622.