Walt Masterson, 87; Pitcher Spent 10 Years With Senators

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Walt Masterson, 87, a hard-throwing right-hander and fierce competitor on a succession of mediocre Washington Senators teams, died of a stroke April 5 at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C. He pitched in the major leagues for 14 years, 10 with the Senators.

He pitched the best game of his career on a June afternoon in 1947 in Chicago, when he held the White Sox scoreless for 16 innings. In the 17th inning, he gave way to reliever Early Wynn, who got credit for the victory when the Senators -- also known as the Nats or Nationals back then -- pushed across the game's only run in the 18th.

"Masterson was something out of this world," The Washington Post said the next day. In the 16 innings he was on the mound, he gave up only six hits -- all of them singles -- struck out seven batters and walked six, two on purpose.

Tall and rangy, with one of the better fastballs in the American League, Mr. Masterson was a better pitcher than his record indicated. He made the all-star team twice, in 1947 and 1948, and was the starting pitcher in the 1948 game.

He could be wild, Post sportswriter Shirley Povich noted in 1949. "There is no question, though, of his stomach for the battle," Povich said. "Too many times he has nursed slender leads all the way to get [the Senators] home, and rarely did he miss a turn against the tough clubs, New York, Boston and Cleveland."

Walter Edward Masterson III was born June 22, 1920, in Philadelphia, where he was a standout basketball player at Northeast Catholic High School. He tried out for baseball as a shortstop but didn't make the team. Later, when the baseball coach rounded up a scrub team to scrimmage with his varsity nine, he put Mr. Masterson on the mound, and the hard-throwing youngster tossed a no-hitter. He made the team, played one season and was signed by the Senators when he was 17.

He started the 1939 season with the club's farm team in Charlotte and won two games after being called up to the majors later that year. He struggled in 1940, in his first full season with the Senators, winning three games and losing 13. Hoping to improve his control, he started wearing glasses.

During spring training in Orlando the next year, Clark Griffith, the team's 71-year-old owner, had some advice for his young hurler, as recounted in The Post.

"The first thing I want you to do is junk that slow curve you were throwing last year," said Griffith, draping a paternal arm across the young man's shoulder. "It's no good. You can't get it across the plate and when you do, it's so slow that the batter can take a hitch in his swing and murder it."

Mr. Masterson won four games and lost three that year and then spent the next three seasons aboard Navy submarines in the Pacific. In his first game back, in September 1945, he out-dueled Cleveland Indians great Bob Feller in a 1-0 shutout.

He toiled for the struggling Senators for the next three seasons. He was always hoping, his son said, that maybe one day he would be traded to a team capable of giving him healthier offensive support. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were interested. They were impressed "with his ability to beat them both and envisioned him as a big winner on a better club," Povich wrote.

The Red Sox acquired him in June 1949, and he promptly learned to throw a slider from an unlikely teacher, slugger Ted Williams. The future Hall of Famer was Mr. Masterson's close friend and Boston neighbor.

Mr. Masterson stayed with the Red Sox until 1953, when he was traded back to the Senators. He retired at the end of the season, although he came back briefly with the Detroit Tigers in 1956. In his 14 seasons, he won 78 games and lost 100, with a 4.15 earned run average.

Like most major leaguers of his era, long before multimillion-dollar contracts, Mr. Masterson had a second job in the offseason. He was a national sales manager for a golf shoe manufacturer and later a national sales manager for a Kansas-based company that sold flour in bulk to bakeries.

In 1972, his friend Williams, then managing the Texas Rangers, hired him as the pitching coach; in 1980-81, he was the baseball coach at George Mason University. He was a longtime member of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and was involved with developing baseball's pension plan.

In retirement, he lived on a farm in Rappahannock County until moving to North Carolina about 15 years ago.

Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Virginia Alice Masterson of Durham; two children, Walter E. "Skip" Masterson IV of Vienna and Patricia Masterson Elliott of Oriental, N.C.; five grandchildren; and five great-grandsons.

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