Libertyville's Panther recalls Rangers' start

 
By Marty Maciaszek
mmaciaszek@dailyherald.com
Updated 10/18/2011 4:57 PM
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  • Former Libertyville High School baseball coach Jim Panther played three seasons in Major League Baseball, including a memorable year pitching for the Texas Rangers in their inaugural season.

    Former Libertyville High School baseball coach Jim Panther played three seasons in Major League Baseball, including a memorable year pitching for the Texas Rangers in their inaugural season. Daily Herald file, 2002

  • Former Libertyville High School baseball coach Jim Panther was a member of the very first Texas Rangers team in 1972.

    Former Libertyville High School baseball coach Jim Panther was a member of the very first Texas Rangers team in 1972. File photo

  • Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams was the manager of the first Texas Rangers team, which lost 100 games in 1972. Jim Panther, who later became a high school coach at Libertyville, was a relief pitcher on that team.

    Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams was the manager of the first Texas Rangers team, which lost 100 games in 1972. Jim Panther, who later became a high school coach at Libertyville, was a relief pitcher on that team. Associated Press

Jim Panther can claim several brushes with fame during his three-year career as a big-league pitcher.

One of the biggest for the retired Libertyville High School baseball coach occurred April 23, 1972 when he was pitching for a new team called the Texas Rangers. He pitched 2⅔ innings of relief against the California Angels to pick up his first major league victory.

The starting and losing pitcher that Sunday afternoon at old Arlington Stadium? None other than Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame strikeout and no-hit king and current Rangers' team president.

"I happened to be in at the right time," Panther said with a laugh from Fort Myers, Fla., where he has lived with his wife Bonnie the last 10 years.

Panther knows as well as anyone how far the Rangers have come from a humbling 54-100 start in that first season to playing in their second straight World Series.

And it has been a thrill for the 66-year-old Panther to see how everything has evolved since he wore a Texas Rangers uniform nearly 40 years ago. Moving from a converted minor league park into a glittering new stadium was as special as the franchise's ascent to one of baseball's elite teams.

"I love it," Panther said. "I watch them closely and it's fun."

The Rangers came into existence in 1972 after a second try at big-league baseball in Washington, D.C., failed after 11 years. Panther pitched in 58 games in their inaugural season and had a 5-9 record and a 4.13 ERA.

Hitting just .217 with 56 homers as a team and committing a whopping 194 errors led to the team's last-place finish in the six-team American League West. They were 38 games behind the eventual world champion Oakland A's, and 20 in back of the fifth-place Angels in a season that started late and was shortened by 8 games because of a player's strike.

"It was a good place and the fans were great," said Panther, who had a 528-169 record at Libertyville from 1983-2002. "It was a lot of fun even though we weren't very good."

Panther had come up in the A's organization. Injuries gave him the chance to pitch in four games in April 1971 for a team with Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers that eventually would win three straight World Series titles from 1972-74.

But in March of 1972, he was traded with Don Stanhouse to the Rangers. Going to the A's was Denny McLain, who was in a steep decline from consecutive Cy Young Awards and a 31-win season with the Tigers in 1968.

"The trade was an opportunity for me to possibly play in the big leagues," Panther said. "If I had stayed with Oakland I probably wouldn't have had that chance. They were just loaded."

Panther also got a chance to beat recent Hall of Fame inductee Bert Blyleven. Two of his wins came against the three-time defending AL champion Baltimore Orioles.

He was managed in Texas by arguably the game's greatest hitter in Ted Williams. One of his coaches was former White Sox Hall of Fame second baseman Nellie Fox.

"I got along with (Williams) well and I liked him," Panther said. "It was tough for him to manage. We were behind in too many games."

Panther also remembers the brutal heat in Texas.

"Once we played the White Sox there and I'll never forget, at 7:30 (p.m.) it was 105 degrees," Panther said. "We would still do a lot of running no matter how hot it was."

On Oct. 27, 1972 Panther was traded to the Atlanta Braves for 1970 National League batting champion Rico Carty. As Hank Aaron took aim at passing Babe Ruth's record of 714 homers, Panther went 2-3 in 23 games before he suffered an arm injury that ended his pro career.

He finished with a 7-13 big-league record and fond memories of his part in the foundation of the Rangers' franchise.

"I played with a lot of good guys and I wish we would have stayed there," Panther said. "We really enjoyed ourselves down there."

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