A Conversation with Phil “The Vulture” Regan

The New York Mets made an out-of-the-box move yesterday, hiring 82-year-old Phil Regan as their interim pitching coach. The former big-league hurler, and longtime coach, takes over for Dave Eiland, who along with understudy Chuck Hernandez, was relieved of his duties in the throes of what has been an underachieving season.

As you should be aware, Regan’s nickname is “The Vulture.” It was given to him by Sandy Koufax, in a year that Regan went 14-1 out of the Dodgers bullpen with 21 saves and a 1.62 ERA. Prior to that 1966 season, he’d pitched primarily as a starter for the Detroit Tigers, the team he grew up rooting for in rural Michigan. Overall, Regan appeared in 551 games, for four teams, from 1960-1972.

The excerpted interview that follows was conducted approximately five or six years ago and was intended for inclusion in a book project — conversations with Detroit Tigers players of yesteryear — that has remained on the back burner. Given the timeliness of Regan’s hiring, I am choosing to share highlights from the interview here.

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David Laurila: You were born in 1937, and grew up in southwest Michigan rooting for the Tigers.

Phil Regan: “Yes, I grew up in a town called Wayland. My earliest recollection of the Tigers was listening to Harry Heilmann call games on the radio. I recall players like George Kell, Johnny Lipon, Hoot Evers, Johnny Groth, and Vic Wertz. But my favorite of all was Hal Newhouser. He always seemed to be the one who pitched on Sundays, often against Bob Feller. He was my hero.

“During the week, I’d rush home from school, turn on the radio, and listen to Harry Heilmann and then, later on, Van Patrick. In those days we didn’t have a lot of television, but we always had the games on the radio. Of course, being from Michigan, I grew up wanting to play for the Tigers.”

Laurila: You ended up signing with them after graduating from high school.

Regan: “I did. As a kid, I never really got to play many games of baseball, because I lived out on a little farm, near a little town. Mostly I threw against a barn, with my brother, and stuff like that. But I had a good arm, and after graduating I was invited to Tiger Stadium to work out. They offered me a contract, but I decided that I wanted to go to Western Michigan [University]. After a year at Western, I decided to sign with the Tigers. From there I went into their minor league system.”

Laurila: How much did you sign for?

Regan: “At that point in time, if you got more than $4,000, you had to stay with the major league team for two years. That’ s a guy like Al Kaline. The year I signed, there were two players — an outfielder named Jim Small, and a left-handed pitcher named Jim Brady — who got those bonuses and had to stay with Detroit. My signing bonus was $2,700. Then I got $250 a month, playing in Jamestown, New York. This was in 1956.”

Laurila: I understand that you learned your slider from a Tigers pitcher who’d starred in the 1930s.

Regan:Schoolboy Rowe. This has always amazed me. I was a young high school kid, and I was down at a clinic in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He told me I had a good arm, but that it was too low; I needed to get it up, or big left-handed hitters would eat me up in pro ball. Being a high school kid, I didn’t listen.

“In the spring of 1958, I was with the Birmingham club. We trained in Ocala, Florida, and Schoolboy Rowe came down there. The first thing he said when he saw me throw was, ‘You have to get your arm up higher.’ Then he said, ‘We’re going to get you a different breaking ball.’ He taught me a slider — I picked it up really quick — and it became probably my best pitch. And I did change my motion. I used to have a low, smooth delivery. From that, I became kind of a short-arm, herky-jerk pitcher. I cut my walks in half that year. Two years later I was in the big leagues.”

Laurila: What do you remember about your debut?

Regan: “I came up from the [Triple-A] Denver Bears and pitched against the old Washington Senators [on July 19, 1960]. I relieved Jim Bunning. We got beat — Pedro Ramos shut us out; I think he pitched a one-hitter — and the one run I allowed was on a home run by Harmon Killebrew. I went five innings.

“The 25,000 people who were there [at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium] seemed like 100,000 to me. The town I was from is about 1,200 people, and you don’t see a lot of fans in the stands in the minor leagues, so that was quite the experience for me.”

Laurila: What other games from your career stand out?

Regan: “There are a lot of them, but one I remember is beating the Yankees, in Detroit, in June of 1961. It was a Friday night, there were something like 50,000 people there, and the game put us into first place. I actually beat the Yankees twice that year — once in New York and once in Detroit — with complete games. They were a great team at that time.

“Another game that stands out was against Cleveland, in 1963. I pitched a shutout, a three-hitter, and hit a home run. It was the only home run I ever hit.

“I had an interesting thing happen here the other day that kind of relates to [memorable games]. Back in 1962, we were playing the Yankees on a Sunday, and I think it was the longest-ever game in the American League at that time. I had started the day before, also against the Yankees, and gotten beat. I remember Yogi Berra hit a home run against me; it might have even been a grand slam. Anyway, that was on a Saturday, and on Sunday, Frank Lary was pitching for us. I’m coming down the tunnel to the dugout, in the first inning, and he’s coming back in. He’s been knocked out of the game already.

“The game had started at 1:00 or 1:30, and it went on and on. I think we played 22 innings. Finally, we ran out of pitchers. Bob Scheffing was the manager, and he comes to me and says, ‘Hey, can you pitch an inning?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can pitch an inning.’ So I warmed up and came into the game. A reserve outfielder for the Yankees named Jack Reed hit a home run against me. I lost two games in two days.

“About a year later, I’m watching television. It was a show called I’ve Got a Secret, and there was Jack Reed, who’d hit the home run against me — the only home run he hit in his career.

“Anyway, I was at a bank the other day, and I met the manager. She told me she was from Detroit. I told her I was from near Grand Rapids. Knowing that I’d played for the Tigers, she told me that her father used to take her to games. The one game she could remember was that one. It was amazing that she brought that game up.”

Laurila: What was it like getting traded to the Dodgers [in December 1965]?

Regan: “At that time, there was an inter-league trading period. For 30 days, you could trade between the American League and National League. It about a quarter to 12, on the last day I hadn’t been traded, so I figured I’d be staying with Detroit. Then the phone rang. It was Jim Campbell telling me I’d been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I was actually thrilled. They were the World Champions, plus they had a great history. It was exciting to go to the Dodgers. That first year, 1966, was pretty interesting, too. [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] Drysdale held out, so that spring I got to pitch a lot. So did a young pitcher named Don Sutton, who was just starting out. He pitched well, and I pitched well.

“When Koufax and Drysdale joined the team [near the end of spring training], they put me in the bullpen. I’d thought I was going to be a starter. They told me I was going to be the long man, and if Sutton didn’t pitch well, they’d send him down to Spokane, and I’ll get to start.

“My first game, I relieved Koufax early — again, he hadn’t had much of a spring training — and I pitched well for five innings. Walter Alston said to me, ‘Well, you did well in long relief; we’re going to try you in short relief.’ A few days later, I came in against the Cubs and got my first win as a relief pitcher. It was a good role for me. That’s the year I got the nickname.”

Laurila: Koufax gave it to you.

Regan: “Yes. Koufax had pitched a game against Jim Bunning. He went 11 innings, struck out something like 16 guys, and the score was 1-1 when he came out. I came in and pitched one inning, and got the win. Four days later we went to Pittsburgh, and he threw seven or eight innings, and struck out nine or 10. Gave up one run. They took him out for a pinch hitter, I came in and got the win.

“When I came into the clubhouse, Koufax said, ‘Regan, you’re a real vulture getting my wins like that.’ A reporter heard that, and it went from there. I must have gotten a thousand of these little rubber vultures that people would send me. A zoo was even going to put a vulture in the bullpen, but the Dodgers, or somebody, wouldn’t let them do it. But it’s amazing. Even today, that’s what a lot of people know me as. They know me as ‘The Vulture.’”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Syndergaardengnomes
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Member
Syndergaardengnomes

I’m always curious to see how memory correlates with the actual facts in interviews like this. I didn’t check everything, but the one thing I did check, May 10th, 1963, Phil did pitch a CG shutout, 3 hitter against Cleveland, and hit his only career HR. Nice memory…

Joser
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Joser

Well, he did indeed get the start the day before Jack Reed got his only HR off him, in the first game of a double-header (it was a Saturday as he said, June 23, 1962), and Yogi Berra did indeed hit a grand slam off him (in the first inning, no less — his line: 3IP, 8 H, 2 BB, 1 SO, 8 ER… that’s not a good day).