Bring Back the Bullpen Cart

I spent yesterday at the “Brewers On-Deck” festivities, the annual fan-fest here in town. It was a good time (though I do think there could’ve been more free activities/presentations considering the $20/ticket I paid). The absolute coolest part of the day, though, is shown above. Sitting in the middle of the showroom, and with no ropes or anything around it, inviting fans to sit in it and take pictures, was the Brewers’ bullpen cart from the 1970s. I mean, look how awesome that is.

I shared this picture via Twitter yesterday, and the illustrious Maury Brown of the Business of Sports immediately replied: “I declare — nay, demand — that the return of the bullpen cart return to the majors! Give me bullpen cart, or give me death!”

There is something weirdly appealing about a bullpen cart. I mean, how can you not want to see that giant, motorized baseball every game? I was all set to write about the history of the bullpen cart, but I ran across two problems: 1) there doesn’t seem to have been a lot written about bullpen carts when they first started showing up (or, if there was, it’s hard to find online), and 2) what is written was already covered pretty well by Paul Lukas a couple of years back. Among the notable findings in Lukas’ article:

1951: White Sox reliever Marv Rotblatt becomes the first pitcher to ride into a game in Comiskey Park’s new bullpen car, prompting an unimpressed New York beat writer to remark, “Chicago is going bush. Just like Cleveland.” The car is only for White Sox pitchers, but the team later provides a black Cadillac, supplied by a local funeral home, for the visiting bullpen.

1982: The Mariners introduce a nautically themed bullpen conveyance called the Tugboat. It gets off to a rocky start on Opening Day when pitcher Bill Caudill steals the keys during pregame festivities, leaving the Tugboat stranded on the left-field line and delaying the start of the game. Things don’t exactly improve over the next few days, as fan Lyle Huber later recalls: “The Mariners’ pitchers refused to ride in the thing. I remember laughing hysterically as I watched Ed Vande Berg sprint in from the bullpen with the Tugboat racing along behind him. This lasted for about a week before they gave up.”

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1995: The Brewers’ bullpen motorcycle — a Harley-Davidson equipped with a sidecar for the pitcher to sit in — is MLB’s last remaining bullpen vehicle. It’s retired at the close of the season.

Lukas cites increasing insurance concerns as the main reason for the retirement of bullpen carts. I would’ve guessed that it was because relievers felt utterly ridiculous for not being allowed to run the 200 feet between the bullpen and the mound. Or that Tony La Russa was wearing out engines throughout the league, and that owners felt it was cheaper to just ditch the carts altogether rather than continue to fix them.

But Lukas didn’t cover everything in his piece. I was able to find a couple of interesting articles that I bet haven’t been seen in a few years. Take this article from the St. Petersburg, Florida, Evening Independent, from March 1977:

[Commissioner Bowie] Kuhn had ordered [A’s owner Charles] Finley not to sell the bullpen car because he had heard Finley was shopping around for a less expensive replacement. But Finley told the baseball commissioner to “blow it out your tailpipe” and made the transacation at Honest Henry’s anyway.

When Kuhn heard of the trade-in, he refused to approve it and ordered Finley, Honest Henry, and all of Oakland’s relief pitchers to a hearing in Fargo, ND.

After taking the matter of the bullpen vehicle under advisement for nearly three weeks, Kuhn called a press conference yesterday and announced he was canceling the trade-in with Honest Henry’s “for the good of baseball.”

Elaborating, Kuhn said, “As you know, I have been concerned for some time that Mr. Finley has embarked upon a plan to completely dismantle the splendid world championship baseball club in Oakland…I cannot stand idly by and see Mr. Finley make a mockery of the great American pastime. The American people have been shocked by Mr. Finley’s callousness and I regret that he made it necessary for the commissioner to take this action to protect the great game of baseball.”

And then there’s this fabulous story from Newsday in July 1987:

Next came an extraordinary interview with the kind of offbeat character who occasionally pops up on Lowenfish’s rounds. This was LaMarr Purdue, the president of the Bullpen Car Operators of America. This is the little-known association of persons who drive pitchers to the mound from bullpens. I hadn’t known about this group, and I found Purdue a fascinating gent.

Purdue blamed the Mets’ pitching problems on the absence of a car taking Met pitchers in from the bullpen. He said the walking in and out from the bullpen was taking its toll on them. “I told {general manager Frank} Cashen, `Forget what it means to the live- lihood of the bullpen car drivers, but think of the need to help your pitchers.’ “

He said he has had only one accident in his work. “It was on Astroturf and I was going for a speed record bringing in a pitcher. But I hit a seam and went flying into the stands and hit a hot dog man. The same thing once happened to Jimmy Doolap with the Carson City Crullers. He’s retired now, designing those signs that say, `No radio in car’ “

Ok, so it turns out both of these stories are fake. The first was a columnist’s satire on the relationship between Bowie Kuhn and Charles Finley, and Kuhn’s refusal to allow the sale of Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi by the A’s in the 1976-77 offseason. The second was an act by a New York-area DJ for his radio listeners. Both, however, were believable enough to me 25-35 years later. Maybe I’m a gullible schmuck. Or maybe I’m just too far removed from the context of the times to easily recognize the silliness in these stories.

Or maybe it’s just the nature of the bullpen cart – it’s such a strange construct to begin with that any story involving it is just that much more believable. Who knows. But in today’s world, with all the sanctimony and self-importance we see from writers and players, maybe something as strange as a giant baseball – or Harley or tugboat – driving a reliever from the bullpen to the mound is what we need. I know I’d love to see it – how about you?

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.