Western Hills High School in Cincinnati was, for a time, a school like Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles is now, a school that produced good big leaguers for an extended period of time. In the 1950s and 1960s, Don Zimmer, Russ Nixon, Art Mahaffey, Ed Brinkman and Pete Rose came from Western Hills to the big leagues.
And then there was Dick Drott, who was supposed to be the best of all of them.
Signed by the Cubs just after his graduation in 1954, Drott didn’t pitch all that well in the Cubs’ minor league system — he had a 4.39 ERA for Los Angeles in the PCL in 1956 — but he opened the 1957 season in the Cubs’ rotation at age 20. It was a time when the Cubs were desperate for any hope for the future.
And Drott gave it to them. After a few shaky starts early in the season, he struck out 15 Braves in the first game of a doubleheader May 26, setting a franchise record. At the time no Cubs pitcher had struck out more than 13 in a nine-inning game. The 15 Ks stood as the franchise record for 41 years, until Kerry Wood’s 20-K game in 1998.
Drott remained in the rotation after that, but still was getting hit fairly hard. In 12 appearances (11 starts) from May 30 through July 20 he posted a 4.54 ERA and 1.603 WHIP.
Just three days after his July 20 outing — a relief appearance — he started against the Giants at Wrigley Field.
And that was the game that put Drott on the map as a phenom. He struck out nine in the first four innings, settling for 14 total in a four-hit, 4-0 shutout win. He walked just one, and that seemed to be the key for him, as his walk totals had been alarmingly high up to that time. From his next outing through the end of the 1957 season, Drott posted a 2.99 ERA and 1.433 WHIP and became a mainstay in a rotation that, apart from another young teammate in Moe Drabowsky, was pretty bad.
Overall for 1957, Drott posted a 3.58 ERA and 1.437 WHIP in 38 appearances (32 starts), going 15-11 for a team that lost 92 games, back when individual pitcher wins still meant something. It was a 3.3 bWAR season that got him third place in Rookie of the Year voting and 21st place in N.L. MVP balloting. He led the N.L. in walks with an alarming total of 129, but his 170 strikeouts were tied with Drabowsky for second in the league.
The numbers weren’t all that dissimilar to Wood’s rookie season with the Cubs (13-6, 3.40 ERA, 1.212 WHIP, 233 strikeouts).
What happened? Arm trouble. Drott’s performance declined in 1958, he spent much of the following three years on the disabled list and then was selected by Houston in the 1962 expansion draft. After two mediocre years there he was done with baseball at age 26. Modern procedures would likely have had Drott miss a year with Tommy John surgery, then come back and be effective for years to come. But in 1957, that was two decades away.
After his playing career, Drott worked for a number of years coaching and teaching baseball for the Chicago Park District, but he passed away in 1985 from stomach cancer, far too young at just 49.