Gage: Remembering former Tigers closer Fred ‘The Bear’ Gladding

 DETROIT — He wasn’t famous, not in the sense of lasting fame.

And I didn’t know him well.

But I never forgot him.

Fred Gladding died last week at 78. A Flat Rock native, he was a Tigers’ reliever from the 1960’s — their closer, in fact — whom I always got a kick out of as a player because of how he would huff and puff on the mound.

He was aptly nicknamed "The Bear" — often behaving in the way he once described himself: "Getting mad and stomping around like a bear in a berry patch."

If you are under the age of 55, you might not remember Gladding. But you can still learn to appreciate him.

Because someday you’ll look back at a colorful player of today, or a recent yesterday, the way I look back on Gladding.

As the Bear.

I haven’t always sat in a press box, you know.

And I haven’t always had the clubhouse access which allows one to understand players as individuals instead of as mere impressions.

Before he was a coach on the first Tigers’ team I covered, I knew Gladding as a pitcher and an impression, nothing more. But I liked him.

And I hope the Tigers are planning a moment of silence for him when they return to Comerica Park next week — because he was a major enough part of their past to warrant it.

His playing days were those in which I would attend as many home games as I could afford — smugly sitting in the first row of the grandstand that bordered the more expensive reserved seats at Tiger Stadium.

The glory of 1968 had not yet arrived, so those of us who hopped on board in the 1950’s hadn’t experienced much more than frustration.

But the Tigers were colorful in their mediocrity — and Gladding was part of their personality.

He was so active on the mound he’d sweat a lot — and to wipe the sweat away from his horn-rimmed glasses, he’d haul out a big bandana.

He wasn’t a pitcher who looked athletic, but still got the job done much of the time.

I found some of the best information about Gladding in a blog written by Bruce Markusen at detroitathletic.com.

For instance, I didn’t know the Bear was almost blind in his left eye, which meant he could never be a hitter.

And a hitter is precisely what he never was. In the majors, he went 1-for-63.

I also didn’t know that Bill Freehan once referred to him, out of respect, as the "little monster" — comparing him favorably to Boston’s Dick Radatz, who was "The Monster."

Gladding’s best year as a Tiger was 1967 when he had a 1.99 ERA along with a 6-4 record and 12 saves.

He pitched through May of that season with a 0.00 ERA, not allowing a run in his first 20 1/3 innings (13 appearances).

And down the stretch, with the Tigers ending up just one game out of first, he was outstanding as well — compiling a 0.98 ERA with a 2-0 record and two saves in his last seven appearances.

He was a vital part of that nearly-pennant-winning team, only to get traded to Houston after the season for Eddie Mathews, the future Hall of Famer the Tigers had acquired on Aug. 17.

So despite being the Tigers’ best relief pitcher in 1967, Gladding was a Houston Astro in 1968 while his former teammates were en route to winning the World Series.

As for his hitting, well, he went 0-for-40 as a Tiger and 1-for-23 with Houston. His only major-league hit came in a 16-3 victory against the Mets in 1969, a bases-loaded single to left for the Astros off Ron Taylor.

He eventually scored the only run of his career in the same inning on a home run by Jimmy Wynn.

Gladding was a closer for the Tigers before saves were an official statistic.

And as previously noted, he missed out on celebrating a championship with them by a year.

But he returned to Detroit as Ralph Houk’s pitching coach in 1976-78, meaning he was on hand for Mark Fidrych’s big year, which Gladding always included among his career highlights.

He was a Detroit area native who grew up hoping to pitch for the Tigers — and did.

Not only that, but his .703 winning percentage (26-11) is still the highest among any Tiger who pitched in at least 200 games for them.

Rest in peace, Bear.

You’re fondly remembered.