Ex-Tigers pitcher Fred Gladding, Flat Rock native, dies at 78

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Fred Gladding, who starred on the baseball diamonds at Flat Rock High School before making his mark in the majors with the Tigers and later the Houston Astros, passed away last week.

He died in Columbia, South Carolina, at the age of 78.

"'The Bear,' they called him," said Tigers radio analyst Jim Price, a teammate of Gladding's for one year in Detroit. "A good guy. He loved life, like all of us when you're young and in the big leagues."

Gladding was born and grew up Downriver, in Flat Rock, before signing with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1956.

A big, tall right-hander, he debuted in the major leagues five years later, and spent seven years with Detroit, almost exclusively as a relief pitcher.

He was 26-11 with a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves in 217 games as a Tiger. His winning percentage (.743) remains the franchise record for pitchers with at least 200 games pitched.

After a spectacular season in 1967, in which he posted a 1.99 ERA and 1.052 WHIP, over 77 innings, Gladding was traded in November from his hometown team to the Astros as the player to be named in the trade that, during the summer, had brought future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews to the Tigers.

By one year, Gladding missed out on winning a World Series championship with his hometown team.

Injuries hampered him in Houston in 1968, but in 1969, the first year saves were officially recognized by Major League Baseball, Gladding led the league with 29 of them.

Gladding pitched for the Astros for six seasons before being released in 1973. He signed with the Indians, but never made it back to the major leagues.

For his career, he was 48-34 with a 3.13 ERA in 450 games. In 601 innings, he struck out 394 and walked 223.

"He threw hard, and had very heavy sink," said Price, Gladding's teammate in 1967. "He'd break your bat in a hurry."

One thing Gladding never did very well was hit. As a reliever, he didn't get regular turns at-bat -- and that was a good thing for his team. In 63 career at-bats, he had one hit, a single, for a lifetime batting average of .016.

After his career, Gladding coached in the minor leagues and also was the Tigers pitching coach under Ralph Houk from 1976-78. The first year of his stint was highlighted, of course, by "Bird Mania" and the emergence of Mark Fidrych.

Gladding's funeral was Sunday in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is survived by his wife, Margie Clotfelter Gladding; daughter Brenda Findlay; and three grandchildren.