By Bill Pruden
Recently, as part of the National Basketball Association’s 75th anniversary, the NBA released its list of the 75 greatest basketball players of all time. The selections included countless names familiar to all sports fans. But there was one particular name that might have rung a bell with baseball fans of the 1960s. Before he was an NBA star, the youngest coach in NBA history, or an iconic member of the New York Knicks’ 1970 and 1973 championship teams, Dave DeBusschere was a highly regarded Major League pitching prospect.
A Detroit native, the athletically gifted DeBusschere became a schoolboy legend in the Motor City, leading both the basketball and baseball teams at Austin Catholic High School to championships. In basketball he led the team to a state title, and the 6-foot-6, hard-throwing right-hander also pitched the Austin Catholic baseball team to the city title. DeBusschere also led a local baseball team to a national junior crown.
Although highly recruited by colleges across the country, he opted to attend the University of Detroit, where he led both the basketball and baseball teams to unprecedented heights. DeBusschere led the hoops squad to berths in the National Invitational Tournament in his sophomore and junior years while finishing his career with an appearance in the 1962 NCAA tournament. The basketball All-American was also a force on the baseball diamond, where he earned All-American recognition for his pitching and led his team to three NCAA appearances.
DeBusschere was then pursued by both Major League Baseball and the NBA. After the hometown Detroit Tigers refused his request to be allowed to also play basketball, DeBusschere signed with the Chicago White Sox. The Pale Hose not only allowed him to pursue an NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, who had happily used a territorial draft pick to snag the local hero, but also indicated their belief in his future by giving him a $75,000 signing bonus.
To no one’s surprise, DeBusschere’s professional athletic career started strong. While he made his Major League debut on April 22, 1962, pitching one inning against the Kansas City Athletics, he spent most of the season toiling for the Single-A Savannah/Lynchburg White Sox in the South Atlantic League. There, the 21-year-old right-hander compiled a sterling 10-1 record. He started 14 games and completed seven, posting a 2.49 ERA while striking out 93 in 94 innings.
Impressing the White Sox brass, he earned a late-season callup, ending the season with a 2.00 ERA as he pitched 18 innings in 12 games. After the baseball season ended, DeBusschere headed to the NBA, where the rookie forward averaged 12.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while helping the Pistons make the NBA playoffs. His playoff performance was even better, as he averaged 20.0 points and 15.8 rebounds in a first-round loss to the St. Louis Hawks. To cap things off, DeBusschere was named to the league’s all-rookie team.
With no time to reflect on his accomplishments, the versatile DeBusschere quickly switched gears, returning to the White Sox with whom he spent all of 1963. He pitched in 24 games (10 starts) and finished with a 3-4 record and a 3.09 ERA in 84 1/3 innings.
The highlight of the season, indeed, of his career, was his effort on Aug. 13. In one of the irregular starting opportunities that characterized his year, the tall right-hander threw a complete game shutout, limiting the Cleveland Indians to six hits in a 3-0 win in what proved to be his next-to-last Major League start.
Unhappily, basketball did not provide an antidote to the frustrations that he had felt with his usage by the White Sox. Instead, injuries limited DeBusschere to just 15 games with the Pistons, a difficult fate for someone whose durability and status as the team workhorse were central to his athletic reputation.
During the 1964 baseball season, DeBusschere got regular work, though it was as a member of the White Sox Triple-A club in Indianapolis. His 15 wins tied for third in the league and he seemed to be coming into his own, fulfilling the promise foreseen in a 1963 scouting report that described him as “big and strong” with a “fireball and better than average curve,” adding, “Once he gets control he will be a real good pitcher. An all-sports star with lots of poise.”
Meanwhile, the better DeBusschere played, the more both the Pistons and the White Sox ratcheted up the pressure to have the multi-sport competitor end his double duty and concentrate on one sport. When he returned to the Pistons in the fall of 1964, healthy and injury free, he exceeded his rookie marks, leading the team in minutes played while finishing second in both scoring and rebounding. Both teams believed that his potential would never be fully realized if he continued to divide his time.
Things reached a different level in Nov. 1964. Seeking – or so some speculated – to get DeBusschere to commit full-time to basketball, Pistons owner Fred Zollner named him player/coach, making the 24-year-old the youngest coach in NBA history. Yet DeBusschere remained determined to pursue dual careers. But while ready for a return to the White Sox after his stellar 1964 season, he was instead sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis. He had another strong year in 1965, replicating his 15 wins while lowering his ERA to 3.65.
But with the basketball season looming and the added responsibilities of coaching now part of the equation, in Sept. 1965 he turned down a late-season callup by the White Sox, a decision that, while not immediately recognized, ended the debate. The 1965 season with Indianapolis was his last in professional baseball.
Devoting himself exclusively to basketball, DeBusschere crafted a Hall of Fame career highlighted by his integral role on the New York Knicks teams of the early 1970s.
And yet, while his accomplishments in the NBA certainly validated his choice, DeBusschere’s brief baseball career still leaves open the question of what might have been. Admittedly, his Major League record of 3-4 with a 2.90 ERA in 36 games and 102 1/3 innings offers no definitive evidence, but his performances at all levels demonstrated his potential.
Once can only assume that was what the White Sox thought back in 1963 when they made one of the more consequential roster decisions of the decade. That year, Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that because of his status as a bonus baby, DeBusschere could not be optioned to the Minors. The Sox had to keep him on the Major League roster or risk losing him.
While concerned about his control, White Sox officials believed that his fastball and curve made him a more preferable prospect than the other pitcher vying for that spot – a hard throwing right-hander named Denny McLain – who, when left unprotected, was quickly signed by the Tigers. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Or alternatively, as the poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote,
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'
Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.