One season in the big leagues is better than none. Even though Jon Warden never became a household name, he spent a year as a member of one of Detroit’s most beloved teams. He earned a World Series ring as a rookie in 1968, and after all these years he’s still smiling about it.
Warden was born in Columbus, Ohio where he starred in baseball, basketball, and football at Pleasant View High School in Grove City, just outside Columbus. He pitched well against inferior competition in college for Georgia, tossing a no-hitter. He caught the attention of a Tiger scout and Detroit selected Warden in the fourth round of the amateur draft in January 1966. A 6-foot, 205-pound hurler, Warden had an excellent fastball and good command.
Warden reported to Lakeland for spring training and was assigned to Daytona Beach of the Florida State League for his first professional season. A farm boy, Warden took advantage of the many attractions in Daytona Beach. At midseason, his manager asked him to try to “get a few hours of sleep” each night, recognizing that the rookie was having a good time in his first stretch away from home. In the second half, the lefty pitched much better. For the year, he went 9–12 with a 3.24 ERA in 30 games, 29 of them starts. Soon, his solid pitching helped him inch his way toward the big leagues.
The left-handed Warden was given a chance to make the Tigers roster in spring training in 1968. It was there that he earned the nickname “Warbler,” though only one person ever really called him that. The Tigers’ base-running instructor, Bernie DeViveiros, was notorious at butchering the names of players, and he called Warden “Warbler.” When the folks from Major League Baseball came around and asked if he had a nickname, teammates shouted “Warbler” and the nickname was entered into the official record.
Warden’s effectiveness in the spring earned the rookie a slot on the Detroit pitching staff, and early in the season he emerged with John Hiller as Mayo Smith’s primary southpaws out of the pen.
“Warden’s lack of wildness is what impressed me in spring training,” said Tigers catcher Bill Freehan.
Facing Yaz in his big league debut
After dropping their season opener to the Red Sox, the Tigers used a solid performance from Warden to capture their first victory of the 1968 season. “I didn’t think I could stand up I was so nervous. I think my knees were knocking just getting loose in the bullpen,” Warden said of his major league debut, which came in relief of Denny McLain in a 3–3 tie. “Then I was on the mound in the eighth inning. The first thing I knew, the bases were loaded. I got out of the inning without a run and the score stayed tied. In the ninth I remember striking out Carl Yastrzemski. That was my first major league strikeout. I’ll remember that all my life. I won the game when Gates Brown homered in the ninth.”
Six days later, Warden won in relief once again, and three nights later he became the first pitcher in the AL to win three games. In a trip to Baltimore in May, Warden earned his first save and gained another save the next night.
Pitching coach Johnny Sain, who called Warden “a power pitcher who can get away with a few mistakes.”
A spectator for the ’68 World Series
When the Tigers squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fall classic, Warden was the only player on either roster who did not get into the World Series, though he warmed up a few times in the bullpen. Still, he earned a World Series share of $10,936.66 and a ring in his first season in the big leagues.
But the euphoria of the world championship was interrupted on October 15, when Warden was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 12th pick in the expansion draft. The Royals and Seattle Pilots were joining the circuit for the 1969 season. Each big-league team could protect 30 players on their 40-man rosters. After an unforgettable season in Detroit, Warden was on his way to a new team. “I hated to see Warden go because we had him with us all year,” Sain said. “He had the potential.”
Unfortunately, a shoulder injury in spring training in 1969 shelved Warden, and over the next few years he tried but failed to get healthy. He never again pitched in the major leagues. But his career in baseball was not over.
With Omaha in 1969, Warden began to hone his skills as an entertainer and baseball personality. Blessed with a great sense of humor, Warden was popular with his teammates and fans.
“It makes me feel good to see people laugh and have a good time,” Warden said. “I’m hardly ever in a bad mood and when I am, the guys get on me and soon everything’s okay.” With Omaha, manager Steve Boros helped Warden pull off a stunt at Oklahoma City in which Warden shot a blank pistol after an opposing batter hit a homer, mocking the Oklahoma City practice of shooting off a cannon after their homers. The fans were delighted.
Warden’s natural sense of humor and good nature was perfect as a fan favorite in several situations. He became a regular at the Tigers’ fantasy camp, where he donned the robe and performed duties as judge in kangaroo court. In that role, his one season in the majors was of little importance to fantasy campers, who quickly grew to love Warden’s humor and affable manner. Many campers cited Warden as the reason they returned to camp year after year. In 2005, Warden reprised his role as kangaroo court judge for the Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp in Cooperstown, reaching the heights of fantasy camp status. Warden also stayed busy with speaking engagements through the Major League Baseball Alumni Association.
“Those guys on that team share a common bond,” Warden said of his 1968 teammates. “We made it to the top of our profession together, and we see each other a few times each year and are very close.”