Thursday, October 9, 2008

Little California's Big Man

Former Pittsburgh pitcher Bruce Dal Canton, 67, of Carnegie, died from cancer Tuesday, in St. Clair Hospital. He pitched in the major leagues for 11 years, beginning as a pitcher with the Pirates in 1967.

He spent many years as a teacher, and like a pitching professor, he was quiet, dignified, and forgot more about the art of throwing a baseball than most of us will ever hope to know.

Dal Canton was born in 1942 and grew up in the Mon River town of California in Washington County, where attended his home high school and college, starring in baseball. He was the ace of the 1962 Cal team that won the NAIA District 30 regionals.

But being from a small school, he didn't attract much attention from the MLB. He became a teacher of general science and biology and coached at Burgettstown HS after hanging up his Vulcan uniform for the last time. But he wouldn't be off the hill for long.

Desperately seeking pitching (sound familiar?), the 1965 Pirates brought in several semi-pro guys who had been around the block for a look-see. One that made it was Dal Canton, then 24, and the ace of his beer-league nine. Another pitcher the Bucs turned up via the same route was ol' lefty Woody Fryman.

In his first pro season in 1966, Dal Canton had a 3.66 ERA in 67 innings between AA Asheville and AAA Columbus. After posting a 3.10 ERA in 93 innings in AA Macon the next season, the Pirates called him up in September. Dal Canton ended the month with a 1.88 ERA.

He began 1968 in the minors, dominating AA York (yah, they really ran thru the AA teams back in the day!) with a 1.01 ERA before being promoted to Columbus. He got clocked there, running up an 8.25 ERA. Still, Dal Canton got the call and spent another September in Pittsburgh.

In 1969, Dal Canton was in the majors for good, posting an 8-2 record and 3.34 ERA in 86 innings from the pen for a Pirates team that was on its way to becoming a powerhouse in the 1970s.

He went 9-4 in 1970 for the NL East champs, but his ERA jumped to 4.54 as control problems plagued him. Still, he pitched well over a year without a loss, recording a 7-0 mark from June 29, 1969 to July 20, 1970.

Control wasn't an entirely unexpected issue for Dal Canton. His bread-and-butter pitch was a knuckle ball (although he did throw a variety of other pitches, too). In fact, before the Braves faced the Pirates Tim Wakefield in the 1992 NLCS, they brought in the 50-year-old Dal Canton to throw BP.

That December, the Pirates dealt the wild Dal Canton, catcher Jerry May, and infielder Freddy Patek to Kansas City for pitcher Bob Johnson, shortstop Jackie Hernandez, and catcher Jim Campanis. And no, that was way before Dave Littlefield, even if it does sound like one of his moves.

Patek became a Royal mainstay, and Dal Canton spent four productive seasons in Kansas City as a swingman for the Royals.

He was a starter for KC in 1971, and had a bounce-back season. Dal Canton rang up eight wins and a 3.44 ERA in 141 innings, despite enduring shoulder problems late in the year.

In 1972 he flopped between the rotation and the bullpen, but still cobbled together a solid 3.40 ERA in 132 innings. On Aug. 14, Dal Canton set a then-Kansas City record by retiring 23 consecutive Yankees batters. And to show you what salaries were then, he still considered baseball his summer job and spent his off-seasons teaching high school.

Dal Canton's baseball days looked to be about done in 1973 when he had a 4.81 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 38-46. That's bad even by 2008 Pirate standards. But like 1971, he roared back in 1974 with his finest season, going 8-10 with a 3.13 ERA in 175 innings with nine complete games and his only two shutouts.

But 1975 got off on a terrible foot, and by May he had compiled an astronomical 15.88 ERA.

The Royals shipped Dal Canton to Atlanta in a mystery deal of sorts. He was packaged with two players to be named later, in exchange for a Brave to be named later and cash. (In September, the Royals sent pitchers Norm Angelini and Al Autry to Atlanta in exchange for pitcher Ray Sadecki to complete the deal.)

Dal Canton finished his career pitching with the Braves and the White Sox before retiring in 1977 at the age of 35. Not a bad job for a high school coach, putting together an 11-year MLB career. Dal Canton got into 316 games, and finished with a 51-49 mark, 19 saves, and an ERA of 3.67. He allowed less than a hit an inning, giving up 894 knocks in 931-1/3 innings.

For the last twenty-five years, Dal Canton has been a pitching coach in the Atlanta organization, even working in the NL from 1987-1990. (In June 1990, when Bobby Cox took over as manager of the Braves, Leo Mazzone replaced him as their pitching coach. Can't really second guess that decision.)

Since 1999, DC, as he was called by the Brave family, had been the pitching guru for the Carolina A League Myrtle Beach Pelicans. He was the only one they ever had until his health made him take leave in May. And he was a darn good one, too. 30 kids that he tutored made it to the show.

“There’s a reason why the light seems to come on for so many of our guys at Myrtle Beach, and it doesn’t have much to do with the ballpark,” Brave scouting director Roy Clark told Baseball America while braggin' on Dal Canton.

And he was, despite a modest record as a big leaguer, quite a home town hero. Dal Canton was honored with numerous sports and community awards during his career, including selection to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. He was also one of the charter inductees to California University's Hall of Fame.

Dal Canton was always a Pittsburgh boy at heart. If you ever stopped at Coastal Field to catch a Pelican game and had a Pirate cap or shirt on, he'd be sure to come by and strike up a conversation with you, yinzer to yinzer.

A true gentleman, a thinking man's pitcher, and one of the long time foundation blocks of the Brave's rock-solid minor league factory. Bruce Dal Canton was all of that and more, and one of the good guys of the sport. His presence will be missed.


WilliamJPellas said...

This is very sad news. I well remember my junior high school phys ed teacher talking about Bruce Dal Canton. I didn't realize he had come from the small college ranks. Very interesting path he took to the bigs, too. Back in his day, there were still plenty of adult amateur leagues around (many of them sanctioned by the NABF), far more than there are currently. There must have been some serious scouting going on for the Pirates to have kept tabs on two guys like Dal Canton and Woody Fryman. Fryman was a heckuva pitcher; I remember watching him as a lefthanded specialist for the Expos at the end of his career, and he was STILL good in his mid 40s!

Today, Dal Canton's alma mater plays on the NCAA Division II level as part of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC). While there have been some notable football players who have been successful pros from that league, I don't know of any other baseball players who made it, at least not off the top of my head. We had some guys at IUP who got as far as double A after they graduated, but that's about it. Anyway, back when Dal Canton was in college, California (PA) was more like a Division III school would be today. So it's all the more impressive that he made it to the bigs and pitched as long and as well as he did.

His post-playing career as a teacher of the game is very noteworthy, too.

God rest your soul, Bruce. You will be missed.

Ron Ieraci said...

It is a heckuva small college conference, Will. You might remember Buc flop Ryan Vogelsong - he came out of Kutztown. Another ex-Pirate that's still floating around AAA and had a couple of cups of coffee in the MLB as a reliever was Edinboro's Mark Corey.
Tom Brookens from Mansfield played 3B in the AL for 12 years, and won a World Series ring with the Tigers in '84.
And yah, Dal Canton was from another era. The Bucs picked him up, I'd wager, because he caught the eye of some local birddog back before scouting became such a big business.

WilliamJPellas said...

Hmmm, thanks for the info, Ron! I've kept up on the PSAC---being a loyal IUP alum---but mostly in terms of the football players who have actually made it to the NFL. There's been more than a few over the years, believe it or not, from Rob Riddick and Andre Reed (Bills) to Lee Evans (Eagles and 49ers) to Chris Villarial, Dave Smith, LeRon McCoy, Leander Jordan, Mike Jemison, Kris Griffin, and Jim Haslett (IUP).

I had no idea a northern conference like the PSAC had produced as many major leaguers as you listed. No doubt there are many others, as well. Very cool!

I love Division II, by the way. The biggest football games had about 10-12,000 people in attendance, and there wasn't a bad seat in the house. The caliber of play in a good D-2 game is comparable to a I-AA contest, and there are a few guys who will go on to the pros, whether it's arena ball or, occasionally, the NFL.

I used to do the public address announcing at IUP baseball home games. When I was there in the late 80s we had 2 players who made it as high as double-A, both outfielders and both on the football team, as well. Kevin McMullen, later the baseball coach at his alma mater, was one of them. The other guy's name escapes me at the moment, but he was the punter on the football team and an outfielder on the baseball team.

WilliamJPellas said...

Woops, I didn't list the NFL teams for all of the IUP guys who made it. Guess there's just too many of us to keep it all straight, heh heh heh.

Ron Ieraci said...

A couple of the great woman basketball coaches came from the PSAC, too, Will - C. Vivian Stringer (Slippery Rock) head coach for Rutgers, and Geno Auriemma (West Chester) head coach for UConn.
Clarion's Kurt Angle took home a gold in wrestling, too.
If you wanna keep up, here's the PSAC web site: