Remembering the Detroit Tigers’ “Durango Kid”

We heard today from a former Tiger and were promptly jerked back the better part of half a century – to a time when rookie ballplayers, even ones who’d made it all the way to the big show, were approachable and often were fan favorites more for being personable than for anything they did between the foul lines. Some of the most popular were obscure enough that they made minimal to no impression on the record books, eventually dropping completely from sight, their names turning up only in trivia competition and nostalgic conversation.

Johnnie Seale photoToday’s caller was one such: Johnnie Seale, moved by a mislabeled photo in a baseball publication to pick up the phone and call Detroit.

Cowboy Johnnie Seale, AKA the Durango Kid, was a promising left-handed relief pitcher in the early 1960s, until he was more or less done in by a combination of allergies and Benadryl. One of the Boys from Syracuse – the crew who eventually became the ’68 World Champions, Johnnie was long gone before that magical club had even begun to gel.

No matter, he’d already thoroughly endeared himself to Detroit fans, being perhaps the most affable of Tigers until Tommy Brookens came along to claim the title.

Acquired from the Cubs, Johnnie pitched ten innings in 1964 and looked darn good in relief. For a little while, it appeared as if the Tigers had a double-whammy on their hands with two relief specialists with similar motions and similar stuff, coming at batters from opposite sides of the plate. But 1965 brought reality and a tendency to nod off in the bullpen in a Benadryl-induced dreamland. And, unfortunately, Johnnie wasn’t really in Terry Fox’s league anyway (Fox was his opposite number in relief), and the Kid eventually ended up back home in Durango, Colorado.

For years he worked in construction, but his first love was his ranch. He and wife Peppy (a passable catcher and a card-carrying Cubs fan) raised goats in their own private canyon and were active in such non-baseball venues as the local 4H club. They also raised a son, Marvin, who used his base-running speed to turn more than a few heads in the Mets minor league organization and make the Seales into a two-generation baseball family.

As for Johnnie?  His only real contribution to Tiger history was to have functioned as a relief specialist in an era when the genre was just being discovered – that and maybe just to have been part of the game when it still belonged more to the fans than the financiers.