Dan Quisenberry, Willie Wilson and the odd tale of the 1976 Jacksonville Suns
There are six championship teams in Jacksonville’s 50-season Southern League history (1970-present). While they say flags fly forever, perhaps it is two other clubs, neither of which fulfilled their title aspirations, that might have put together the most illustrious seasons in the team’s Double-A history.
The 1998 Jacksonville Suns lost in the Southern League Championship but set six different club hitting marks, five of which still stand as records in the Southern League, over the course of the season. They were mashers who are still all over the record books in the Jumbo Shrimp’s 2020 Media Guide. But while 1998 Suns were a good team that came up just a little bit short, the 1976 Suns are an incredible oddball: a dominant club that did not even finish above .500, let alone make the playoffs.
The 1976 Jacksonville Suns boasted a devastating pitching staff. They used just 19 hurlers throughout the entirety of their 138-game season, half the number of the club-record 38 the 2016 Jacksonville Suns churned through. The 1976 Suns still hold a Southern League record with just 949 hits allowed in 1155.0 innings (7.4 H/9). They also are still etched into the team history books for ERA in a season (2.70), fewest runs allowed in a season (442) and fewest earned runs allowed in a season (347).
Yet, the 1976 Suns finished only 66–72, mainly because they were an utterly atrocious offensive club. While they set several records on the pitching side, they also did the same on the offensive side, only with records that no club aims for. Interestingly, the then-Royals affiliate played with a similar style to the Royals of the 2010s: put the ball in play at virtually any cost. The 1976 Suns finished with the fewest strikeouts in team history (584), but also the fewest doubles (152), home runs (45) and extra-base hits (221) in any of the 50 seasons of Jacksonville baseball.
To put it another way, as a team, the 1976 Suns posted a batting line of .245/.308/.322 (.630 OPS). For comparison’s sake, Zack Greinke is a career .225/.263/.337 (.600 OPS) hitter during his 16-year MLB pitching tenure. In other words, the 1976 Suns barely hit better by OPS standards than a pitcher.
There was some distinct talent on the position player side for the Suns, just not enough of it. Willie Wilson, who was the Royals’ first-round pick in 1974, batted .253/.309/.325, still growing his game as a 20-year-old talent. He would make his major league debut the following year for Kansas City and go on to play 19 seasons for the Royals. Wilson did virtually everything during his big league career; he was a two-time All-Star, earned two Silver Slugger Awards and one Gold Glove Award, won the 1982 American League batting title (.332), set a league and club record in 1979 with 83 stolen bases and set all-time Royals records with 612 steals and a preposterous 13 inside-the-park home runs. Simply put, he was a dazzling player, finishing with 46.1 career bWAR and earning induction into the Royals Hall of Fame.
Mark Ballinger, Charlie Beamon, Roy Branch, Randy McGilberry, Pat Osburn, Bill Paschall and Dan Quisenberry were all members of the 1976 Suns pitching staff who enjoyed at least some period of time in The Show. And it’s Quisenberry who ties everything together for the 1976 Suns.
Quisenberry pitched collegiately at the University of La Verne (Calif.) and frankly, was not a pro prospect. He went undrafted, but was recommended by his college coach to Kansas City, which signed Quisenberry for “$500 and a bag of chewing tobacco.” The 1976 season was actually his second of four consecutive campaigns in Jacksonville, because it seemed like no one believed this sidearming soft-tosser could continue to pitch so effectively over and over and over again.
Finally, after a 2.00 ERA across 176 appearances over five minor league seasons, the Royals were essentially forced to call up Quisenberry in 1979. The very next season, he rewarded the club by leading the league with 33 saves and helping pitch the Royals to their first World Series appearance. Quisenberry wound up totaling 12 seasons in the majors, leading the circuit in saves five times, finishing in Top-3 in Cy Young balloting four times and compiling a sparkling 2.76 ERA. He, like Wilson, was a critical component of Kansas City’s 1985 World Series title.
In The New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James wrote, “There has never been a pitcher who made fewer mistakes than Dan Quisenberry.”
Willie Wilson was close to a sure-thing for the Royals, a former first-round pick with so many different abilities that he wound up displaying for nearly two decades in the major leagues. But what makes the 1976 Suns special is Quisenberry; No, he did not throw hard. But he also never hurt himself.
In 1043.1 innings over 674 major league games, Quisenberry totaled only four wild pitches and seven hit batters. He surrendered just 59 home runs. Quisenberry issued only 162 walks during his career, 70 of which were intentional; there are only seven hurlers who issued fewer in at least 1,000 innings, and all seven of them pitched in the 1800s.
“Have I told you about my agreement with the ball?” Quisenberry once asked the legendary writer Roger Angell. “Our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate. Because I want you back.”
Sure, the 1976 Jacksonville Suns did not finish with a winning record or make the postseason. For good or bad, they have several records that still stand today. And they helped launch two illustrious careers, one of which simply did not seem possible.