By Ron La Point
This is the sixth installment of baseball in Oshkosh, continued from October:
“Harry Gauger was an exceptional all-around athlete, the best high school athlete I ever saw,” Howie Koplitz said. “He was a high scorer and playmaker in basketball and quarterbacked the football team. But his best sport was baseball. Upon graduation Harry signed a professional baseball contract with the Detroit Tigers and was slated to join the team during spring training the following year.
Then tragedy struck.
Gauger was involved in a two car head-on collision west of town on old Highway 110. He was sitting on someone’s lap in the back seat and was thrown from the car. Of the eight people in the car, Harry was the only fatality.The entire town and surrounding area was in shock. It ended the life of a young man with such a bright future.
“When I graduated from high school there were about a dozen baseball scouts who actively pursued a few members of our team,” added Koplitz. “Back then they wined and dined a good prospect and invited the prospect to work out at their baseball park and, of course, provided anything else that might impress you. Today that’s changed.”
Howie signed with Detroit, as did Gauger and Billy Hoeft before him. He chose Detroit partly because of Harlan Quandt, his high school and legion baseball coach. Snitz Schneider, former OHS baseball coach, now employed as a “Bird Dog” scout for the Detroit organization, and Billy Hoeft who was one of the top pitchers for the Detroit club, each suggested that Detroit would be a good fit for him.
Detroit sent him to Jamestown, New York, their farm club in the Pony League. The league drew its name from the first letters of the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York.
“I didn’t realize my first big disappointment would come so soon,” Koplitz said. “I joined the rotation at Jamestown and lost my first seven games. The thought of this high school ‘phenom’ pitching in the lowest class of professional baseball not only not finding success but being embarrassed prompted a lot of questions from friends when I returned home. I was determined to change.”
“The biggest reason for success the following year was that I went through Spring Training in Tigertown, Florida and worked with the former major league pitcher, ‘Schoolboy’ Rowe who was the pitching coach for the parent club.”
“I was sent to Idaho Falls in the Class C Pioneer League. My pitching vastly improved and I ended up the year with a record of 14 wins and 4 losses. It was one of the most enjoyable years for me in professional baseball. I didn’t mind the long road trips riding the Greyhound bus as this was my first experience seeing the beauty of the west.”
Koplitz worked his way up the Detroit’s farm system stopping at every level from Class D through A, AA, and Triple A. He also played winter ball in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
The summer of 1961 was the high point of Koplitz’s career. He was assigned to Birmingham, Alabama, a Triple A team in the Southern Association. At the conclusion of their season he was picked up by the parent Detroit club.
According to Major League Baseball.com, “Howie Koplitz, an unassuming right-hander from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, dazzled the Southern Association that season becoming the league’s final 20-game winner. He registered one of the most talked about minor league campaigns of the early ‘60s. Koplitz posted a remarkable 23 and 3 record with a 2.11ERA for Birmingham of the Southern Association and was named The Minor League Player of the Year by the Sporting News.”
Koplitz fanned 177 batters in 230 innings, walked only 75 and recorded an eye-popping 19 complete games. His .885 winning percentage was the sixth highest in league history and he also tossed the final Southern Association no-hitter, shutting down Mobile in July. It was the first no-hitter at historic Rickwood Stadium since 1917.
When he no-hit Mobile, Koplitz called the game ‘icing on the cake. What made the outing even more special for him was that fellow Oshkosh native, Larry “Dutch” Rennert, a future long-time Major League umpire, was working the bases.
“My professional career peaked in 1961 at Birmingham,” added Koplitz. “It was about as close as one could come to a perfect year. Everything I tried worked. I went 2 and 0 when I got called up by Detroit during the final month of the season. I was named Minor League Player of the year and invited to the Topps Banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. On January 3, 1962 the Sporting News ran my picture on the front page along with Ralph Houk, Roger Maris and Warren Spahn.”
After the 1961 season Howie received an official greeting from Uncle Sam. The military draft was still in effect in the ‘60s. He said he didn’t care to spend two years away from baseball so when Harlan Quandt found out about the letter, he suggested that Howie accept a program of 6 months active duty and five and one-half years active duty standby that the military was offering.
When Howie joined the Detroit team in June of 1962 following his six-month deployment, he felt ready to pitch although he said his arm was not major league strong. He strained his arm pitching that year and it was never the same.
Howie was not brought up to the parent club in 1963. Instead he was assigned to their Triple A team in Syracuse. In December of that year, the Washington Senators claimed Koplitz under Rule 5 when his options for staying with Detroit were not picked up by management.
Howie looked at this as a good opportunity to grow with a young team. His goal was to pitch five years so he would be eligible for a Major League pension. Unfortunately, his shoulder had other ideas. The two seasons spent with the Senators were frustrating for this once promising Major League pitcher. He was on and off the disabled list. At times his arm felt strong but most often it did not. And he received conflicting advice from a variety of sources. Some of the veteran pitchers told him that if he wanted to stay in baseball he would have to pitch through the pain. A few in the medical profession told him to go on the disabled list and give the arm complete rest. Others said he had tendinitis and could be treated with cortisone shots. A torn rotator cuff had not yet been introduced as part of baseball’s vernacular. He now believes that’s what he had.
Howie would appear in sixteen more games over the course of the next two years and gained some distinction by going 7 and 0 before losing his first career decision in 1965 with the Washington Senators. Howie would “blow out” his shoulder in Spring Training the following year and would only pitch in one more Major League game before retiring.
“It was Spring Training and I was the mop-up guy in the bullpen. I wasn’t supposed to pitch unless one of the other pitchers got in trouble. Sure enough, I heard, ‘Koplitz get ready’.”
“I got up to start my warm-up pitches. It was cold and windy and the wind blew me off the mound. That was hardly a good sign. I should have told someone right there that I couldn’t get loose but I figured for one inning I could get by. It was a bad decision on my part. I knew right away there was no repairing it.”
He was released, went back to Oshkosh, bought a house and worked at the local post office for the next thirty-seven years. Although he did not reach his goal to qualify for a baseball pension there were no regrets.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would gladly do it,” shared Koplitz. “It was an experience of a lifetime.”
Ron LaPoint is a former high school history teacher who now resides in both Oshkosh and Arizona. Elements of this story can be found in his books, Oshkosh: A South Sider Remembers and Oshkosh: The Way We Were.