Candid Interview with Detroit Tigers Legend Virgil Trucks

With Justin Verlander’s second no-hitter this past Saturday, former Tiger Virgil “Fire” Trucks is being remembered since he was the first Detroit pitcher to throw two no-hitters. Both of his gems occurred in 1952 and he is one of only four pitchers to throw two in one season.

Virgil Trucks pictured at his home in 2007.

When I first interviewed Trucks nine years ago for the Detroit Free Press and Baseball Digest magazine he provided so many interesting anecdotes that one could have written a book. He actually did two years later with his wonderful autobiography, Throwing Heat: The Life and Times of Virgil Fire Trucks.(Pepperpot Productions, 2004.)

Here are just a few of the stories he shared with me.

Although Virgil was best known for his fastball, he now admits to throwing the occasional spit ball.

“The only cheating I ever did was thrown’ the spitter sometimes. Everybody else was doin’ it, so I thought I’d try it just for the heck of it. If the count was 0-2 my next pitch would be a brush back which was a signal to my catcher that the next one would be a spitter. As I would release the ball on the brushback, I spit on my fingers on my follow through. Nobody saw me do it because at that point everybody is watch’n the ball and the batter. I never did get caught. It’s not easy to control, but if thrown properly, the ball drops right at the plate. I probably didn’t throw a150 spitters. Darn, it worked out pretty good. I should have thrown it all the time.”

On the back of his baseball cards and in the baseball encyclopedia Total Baseball, his birth date is listed as April 26, 1919. In his final season of 1958 with the Yankees, everyone thought Trucks was a 40 year old veteran when actually he was 42. “In my first year in the minors, my manager told me when I give my birth date just take off two years, you might last longer in baseball that way,” Trucks said. “I was really born in 1917 and Alabama didn’t keep birth records until after 1920. Hey, for me it paid off.”

Of the many friends Virgil Trucks made in his 17 year major league career, two of his closest were Ted Williams and Satchel Paige.

Ted Williams: “Right when Ted came back from the War I went up to him at Fenway Park and congratulated him and he never forgot it. We became friends after that. Years later he told me I was practically the only opponent who welcomed him back after the service. When I lived in Florida, I talked with him often and saw him at least once a month. He was the greatest hitter I ever saw, nobody could have been better. He never swung at a bad pitch. Ted knew so much about every pitcher and was always trying to get information. He would even ask the Red Sox pitchers how they would pitch to him. Ike Delock finally told him,‘ I won’t tell you’, and Williams asked ‘why?’. Ike said, ‘you’ll never be traded but I probably will.”

When I faced him, it was power against power. I figured why should I give him anything different, he’s going to hit me well enough as it is.”

In his 1969 autobiography, My Turn At Bat, Williams identified Trucks as one of the outstanding pitchers he faced, but wrote that he had better success against him because he was a fastball hitter and Trucks, along with some other fireballers, “were a little stubborn with their fastballs.” Williams wrote, “Trucks was my all time favorite. I hit twelve home runs off Trucks.”

At William’s final public appearance Trucks became the 15th pitcher inducted into the “Wall of Great Achievement” at the Ted Williams Museum and Hitter’s Hall of Fame. He has also been enshrined in the Michigan and Alabama Sports Hall of Fames.

Satchel Paige: “I first saw him play when I was a kid growing up in Alabama and he was playing for the Birmingham Black Barons. He had three or four great pitches with pinpoint control.
Although I pitched against him when he first joined the major leagues I didn’t meet him until we became teammates with the St. Louis Browns in 1953. We used to fish with each other all the time and we always sat together on the bus or train. I couldn’t have had a better friend in my whole life. He was all business on the mound, but we had a thousand laughs together.

You know Satch told me he didn’t mind not being in the big leagues sooner because he made more money barnstorming and playing in the Negro Leagues before he joined the Indians. After I retired, he asked me to go barnstorming with him and a team of Cuban ballplayers owned by the Washington Senators. We each would pitch an inning and play about four games a week for $600 a week. The trip broke up though after Castro told the Cuban players that if they wanted to get back they better do it right away. The tour ended and we didn’t get all the money we were supposed to.”

At 94, his memory and great sense of humor is fully intact. Virgil is now the 16th oldest former major league player and is the second oldest living Tiger just behind Benny McCoy who is 95.