GUSTINE — In the early 1960s, Jim Willoughby stood ready to throw his pitch to the batter in their baseball game that was taking place in an empty lot near the railroad tracks that ran through Gustine. He laid back and threw the granite rock. The batter hit a shot right back at Willoughby, who recalled: "I took a line drive on my chin that should have had stitches. I put a Band-Aid on it and started working on my defense!"
Within a few years, Willoughby would become a multisport star at Gustine High School and, eventually, a Major League pitcher.
Gustine football coach Bob Adams looked forward to the 1966 season with Dennis Davenport at quarterback and Willoughby at tight end. Willoughby, who scored eight touchdowns the previous season, was "the finest end in this area," Adams told The Bee that September.
The team went 8-1 and won the Trans Valley League title, with Willoughby scoring 11 TDs and being named the league's Player of the Year. Once basketball was over and spring arrived, it was time for his best sport baseball.
Willoughby was the returning TVL baseball Player of the Year after recording a 7-2 record and hitting .481 in 1966. His strengths were his fastball that reached 90 mph and his pinpoint control.
In March, during the four-day Atwater Baseball Tournament, Willoughby helped Gustine win its first three games by throwing 17 innings and earning the victory in each contest. A Bee reporter talked to a Major League scout "who prefers to remain anonymous" who said Willoughby had pro potential.
In the championship game, the heavily favored Fresno High Patriots took an early 1-0 lead on Gustine. The Redskins, however, came back in the fourth and scored three runs to take the lead. Coming in from right field, Willoughby took the mound with a right arm that he remembered "hurt like hell." Even though he was "bouncing a lot of curves, everyone swung" and he shut down Fresno to win his and the team's fourth game and the championship.
He was the first and still the only pitcher to win four games in the tournament. In 21 innings, he struck out 41 batters.
It was after that performance that he began to think that he might have a chance at playing baseball professionally. "I was told by many scouts that I had a chance, but I didn't really believe it until I signed," he said.
On May 2 against Patterson, he hit two home runs and drove in four runs while striking out 13 batters and getting the win in a 15-1 victory. By the end of the season, the team had won the TVL title and Willoughby again was named the league's Player of the Year.
Though he had a baseball scholarship at the University of California at Berkeley, he instead signed with the San Francisco Giants. While he had been a star at Gustine High, he still had plenty to learn about pitching and conditioning. "A pitcher couldn't start every four days if you weren't in shape," he said.
Along with the professional side of the game, there was the personal. After he signed with the Giants, he was sent to their Salt Lake City rookie ball team. He recalls the shock of his "first flight, first time more than 100 miles from home and first time on my own. I loved it all!"
On Sept. 5, 1971, he made his Major League debut. He pitched for the next eight years in the majors, including making three appearances for the Boston Red Sox in the 1975 World Series. After his final season in 1978, an attempted comeback ended in Venezuela when he lapsed into a coma and was diagnosed with type I diabetes.
He worked in sports radio in Boston and he felt he "had a good radio voice but wasn't very good at it," then moved on to coaching in college baseball and finally, in 1985, he "got a job building a house."
He earned his contractor's license and built custom homes in the Placerville area. When the housing market slowed, he retired to a home he built in Eufaula, Okla. Now 63, he has two adult sons who live in Modesto.
Sources: Modesto Bee, Sept. 8, 1966; March 23, 1967; and Oct. 8, 1972.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.