Originally posted March 24, 2017
By Scott Langdon
Canadian Baseball Network
The Baseball Gods talk about the legendary Steve “Whitey” Breitner
Steve “Whitey” Breitner won 10 championships as a pitching ace from peewee to senior and 10 league, provincial and national championships as manager of the Etobicoke Rangers seniors over a 25-year span leading the club. It is no wonder his players, rivals and friends refer to him as legendary.
His playing skills, deft touch managing people and knowledge and strategy as field manager – to say nothing of his often-cordial relationships with umpires – have resulted in induction into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the legendary Windsor Chiefs. He is a mentor and friend for life to many of his players.
With such a record and reputation, the Canadian Baseball Network thought it appropriate to consult with a higher power – The Baseball Gods – to learn more about this seemingly mythic figure in Ontario amateur baseball.
The Baseball Gods, who are often invoked to explain a bad play, a sudden turn of events or other inexplicable happenings on a baseball field, don’t make public appearances often. They were pleased to go public for the first time to tell CBN readers the Breitner story in this exclusive interview.
CBN: It seems as if Whitey is one of those guys born to play ball. Is this accurate?
DaHeeta, God of the Fastball – Yes, that’s true. We Baseball Gods have watched over Whitey’s playing career since he started as a youngster. Bill Thompson, or Bounce as he is called by many, has known Whitey since they were kids.
Bill can describe it better than I could: “Whitey and I attended the same high school and played together at Queensway Park in Toronto’s west end. We played on the same team from peewee when we won the city championship, all the way through to Junior. We also won the Leaside midget tournament together when playing for Queensway. Steve was an outfielder. He actually didn’t start pitching until his second year of Midget.”
Henry Andrulis is another talented player who knows Whitey since they were kids. Here’s what he would tell you: “Whitey and I grew up playing wall-ball at Grand Avenue school and eating fluffernutters (peanut butter and marshmallow fluff) all day long. He learned how to pitch and I learned how to hit lefties. Unfortunately, Whitey never learned how to hit, but man could he pitch! “
Howie Birnie, a name linked forever to baseball in Leaside and long-time keeper of The Shrine at the corner of Bayview and Eglinton in Toronto’s east end, watched Whitey pitch in the Leaside Junior loop. “I have a lot of memories of him going back to when I first saw him pitching for Queensway Midgets. Then with their Junior team he had one of the best seasons in Junior league history winning 11 games and a league record 149 strikeouts before being signed by the Detroit Tigers.”
Bobby Prentice of the Tigers signed Whitey.
Later, he pitched for the Leaside Maple Leafs seniors and manager Ric Fleury for several years and was one of Ontario’s premier pitchers. He was a thorn in the side of some good Etobicoke Rangers teams with all their left-handed hitters. It used to rankle Bobby Smyth of the Rangers because Whitey was an Etobicoke kid, but didn’t pitch for the local team.
Of course, “Nifty Ned”, as Smyth is known, eventually got Whitey over to the Rangers to pitch his final year in senior ball. He went on to be an outstanding manager and coach for the Rangers Junior and Senior teams for a quarter century.
Ross McDonnell was an infielder on many of those championship Leaside Maple Leafs teams. He has some clear memories:
“Whitey threw a heavy ball. He would throw it in on your hands. If you did hit it, it hurt. We had a great pitching staff with the likes of Dave Peyman, Ben Kawa, Remo Cardinale and Bill Reade, but Whitey was the ace. He dominated the Halton County, Niagara District and Labatt’s Metro Major League for all those years. We had a lot of fun … and we won a lot.”
Duce, God of the Curveball: I want to add that Whitey is a true baseball man. He knows the game. John Cottrell has an interesting take on Whitey. He coached him and played against him. John’s thoughts:
“I coached Whitey when he pitched for the Queensway Juniors and then played against him in many Leaside/Etobicoke battles in senior ball. Whitey was a strong left handed pitcher with good control and an amazing fastball. He also possessed a wicked curve ball which was untouchable for lefties. He was always a bright kid, but everything he did came natural to him. As an opposing player with Etobicoke, his ability to work both sides of the plate and then drop the curveball over for strike three was intimidating. That would be after he had moved you off the plate with an inside fastball. We dreaded seeing him on the mound when we played Leaside.”
CBN: So, he is an Etobicoke boy, yet his senior career was mostly with Leaside, the arch enemy. How did he end up managing the Etobicoke Rangers?
K, God of the Strikeout: I can answer this one. Nifty Ned Smyth got him over to Etobicoke to pitch one last year at the Senior level with the agreement Whitey would take over as the field manager the next season.
“We always had really good senior teams with the old Etobicoke Indians, but we couldn’t beat Whitey. So, we got him over to pitch his final season before he moved into the manager role. He did a marvellous job. Everybody likes Whitey. He’s fun-loving, positive and he always puts his heart into it. He is as competitive as hell. He wants to win. But when the game is over, it’s over. Whitey is a guy you would really like to play for.”
Whitey and wife Karen have three children: Kevin, 35; Kelly, 32; and Kyle, 25. Kevin and Kyle, both righthanders, continue to pitch for the Rangers in the COBA loop. As K, God of the Strikeout, I always assumed the three kids were named after me, especially since Whitey had 107 wins and more than 1,000 strikeouts in his senior pitching career. But Kevin, an accomplished Senior pitcher for the Rangers for 14 seasons, isn’t quite sure about this.
“You know what? I’ve never heard that from my Dad. I’ll have to ask him or my Mom. Her name is Karen so maybe that’s where the Ks come from.
“My Dad is known for his years as a dominating pitcher, but he is so humble about his achievements. I only found out about all his records in junior and senior ball just recently. But I did see him pitch a bit near the end as a big belly, smart and crafty pitcher. He knew how to get guys out even then.”
Sean Conlin was a mainstay on the mound during many of Whitey’s years at the helm of the Rangers and echoes Kevin’s thoughts.
“I watched Whitey warming up in the bullpen and pitching in his last game in senior. He hadn’t thrown in a game for a couple of years. I never saw him pitch in a game before, but he was known as one of the best ever - a legitimate legend! Funny thing is that the closer that I got to the bullpen, the louder his grunts and groans were. I honestly thought he was never going to make it out of the pen alive! He was taking at least 20 seconds between every warm up pitch and he was sweating profusely.
“I could tell that his shoulder -- which was operated on, a couple of times I believe -- was hurting every time he threw the ball. But I could see the glimpses of greatness and his fastball had a great tail on it. It was really a sight to see - Whitey lighting up the glove. I think he won the game. Damn, I wish I had a chance to see him throw in his prime. “
CBN: Obviously, Whitey was one heck of a pitcher. How was he at the plate?
Jack, God of the Dinger: Naturally, you are all talking about Whitey’s pitching excellence, but I’m the God of the Long Ball and, like Andrulis said earlier, Whitey was … well let’s just say a better pitcher than a hitter.
It was appropriate he followed Nifty Ned Smyth as manager of the Rangers seniors. He was a pitcher in his day and he couldn’t hit either. But Whitey did hit a home run when he married wife, Karen. Their whole family has lived a baseball life and a lot of people are better for it. We consider her one of us - Karen, The Goddess of Baseball. Listen to her story and you will understand why:
“Steve and I were married in 1977. We went to middle school and high school together. I started watching him play at Queensway Park when I was 13 years old. And now I see the children of former players at our park and their dads played with Steve somewhere along the way. Kevin and Kyle still pitch for the Rangers and Kelly, our daughter, still plays slow pitch.
"Most of our summer nights over the years have been spent at a ball park somewhere. Our baseball family is a year around family. You played in the summer and partied together in the winter. Today, we might see one of Steve’s players decide to hang them up and it is sad to see because it has been such a big part of everyone’s life. Baseball has been Steve’s life. When one season ends, he can’t wait to get the next one started.”
Jack – God of the Dinger: The Rangers family has had many great players. Perhaps none greater than National League MVP, Joey Votto.
Now, here’s a guy who can hit. He played for Whitey’s senior team as a Junior before the Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the second round in 2002. Here are his thoughts about Whitey:
“Whitey is one of my favorite people in baseball. Not in Canadian baseball, or Etobicoke baseball, but baseball period. Whitey has always been very kind and friendly to me. He makes me laugh and reminds of why I got involved in baseball in the first place. He reminds me of home. Everyone that I’ve ever spoken to that knows Whitey knows of him as a wonderful man.”
It’s clear that Whitey, Karen and their family have had a positive impact on many baseball people across Ontario and especially in west end Toronto. One of those people is Jonathan Kielb who has been with Whitey for 22 years as player and coach.
“Whitey is loyal to all who come up through the Etobicoke Rangers program and he also looks out for players who haven’t been part of it. Every single player gets his share of playing time and an opportunity to earn more.
“This team has been an amazing group of people from all kinds of backgrounds including guys who played Major League Baseball or for the Canadian National Team to guys who only played AA as a kid, teachers, students, welders, electricians, doctors, lawyers, realtors, sales guys and everything in between.
“The team is more than just the players on it. Whitey has made it a point to involve all the wives, girlfriends, parents and friends. Some great friendships have developed over the years among people who aren’t even players, but who have been brought together by Whitey and his philosophy of being inclusive of everyone.”
The family atmosphere has impacted many former Rangers players for life such as Roman Kula. He played for the Rangers from 1992-2006.
“I quit playing in 2006 to coach my seven-year-old son .I patterned my coaching style around what I learned from Whitey. He was like a father figure for me, not having an active father myself. Whitey and the Rangers gave me a family to identify with. The experiences and stories he created for all of us will be with us for a lifetime. Everyone wanted to win for Whitey.”
Everyone also wanted to have fun, including Whitey. Former Rangers’ pitcher, Joe Jurus, who says:
“Bill “Bounce” Thompson and Curt “Banger” Duggan are two great friends of Whitey. Bounce and Whitey once coached hockey together well after their own kids were finished playing. I called Whitey once pretending to be a parent interested in playing for their team. Whitey said: ”Well, of course you do. Where else would you play?”
There are other Whitey-isms that Juras recalls. Among them are:
* Always order two Carlsberg Lites at a time
* Skip the salad and go straight to the prime rib at all-you-can-eat buffets
* And this Whitey classic: “Put together a good team of the guys you hate and you will have a pretty good team. Nobody hates bad players.”
There have been many wins and championships, the odd run in with umpires, and memorable trips to tournaments and the Eliminations under the Breitner reign at Etobicoke’s Connorvale Park. But most important are the friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
Mike Gauthier, known to Rangers teammates as The General, sums it up well.
“Speaking on behalf of the core players who have played for Whitey over the past 25 years, I can say without hesitation he is the head of what we consider our baseball family. Through three generations of teams he has been at the forefront of the greatest years of our lives both on and off the field. We are forever indebted to him for his tireless efforts bringing a group of guys together, playing a sport we all love, creating a family atmosphere resulting in friendships and memories that will last a lifetime.
“He has influenced and changed our lives for the better. For that we tip our caps and simply say, “Thank you, Skip.”
To quote Whitey: “Gentlemen, how often do we get a chance to get together? Not often enough!”
It is still cold outside, but spring training is winding down and yet another season of Etobicoke Rangers baseball is about to begin for the Breitners and their baseball family.