May 18, 2024

By Kevin Glew 

Cooperstowners in Canada 

Mike Wegener, a pitcher on the original Montreal Expos team, passed away on December 6 at the age of 77. 

Authors Danny Gallagher and Alain Usereau were the first to share the news of his death last week. 

Wegener died in Fort Collins, Colo., after a 32-year battle with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

“Before I was diagnosed, I thought I was invincible,” Wegener told the Denver Post in 2009. 

And there were times on the mound during his rookie season with the Expos that he looked that way.  

On June 14, 1969, Wegener became the second pitcher in Expos’ history to throw a shutout when he limited the San Francisco Giants to four hits at Candlestick Park. Just under three months later, he struck out 15 New York Mets batters in an 11-inning start at Shea Stadium. 

Growing up in Colorado 

Starring for a major league team north of the border wasn’t something Wegener could’ve dreamed of when he was growing up.  

Born on October 8, 1946 in Denver, Colo., he was a basketball and baseball star at Englewood High School. The 6-foot-4 Wegener helped Englewood to back-to-back Northern Conference basketball championships in 1963 and 1964, and in his senior year, he averaged 26.8 points per game which was the most in the state.  

He also dominated on the mound. In his final high school start as a senior, the hard-throwing right-hander struck out 18 Greeley Wildcats batters in a 1-0 loss in the league championship game.  

Wegener (seated) signing his first pro contract with the Baltimore Orioles in 1964. Photo: Denver Post

Signs with Orioles 

Wegener would pass on a basketball scholarship to the University of Denver to sign with the Baltimore Orioles. He appeared in only five games for the O’s Rookie Ball affiliate in Bluefield before he was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the first-year draft following the season. 

His finest of his four seasons in the Phillies’ organization was his first. In 1965, with the class-A Miami Marlins, he went 10-13 with a 2.51 ERA in 28 games (27 starts), spanning 176 innings. He fanned 169 batters, but also walked 117. 

Arm troubles would limit him to eight and 19 games in the ensuing two campaigns, before he posted a 3.51 ERA in 141 innings in 23 starts with the Phillies’ triple-A San Diego Padres in 1968. 

Chosen in expansion draft by Expos 

Following that season, the Expos selected him in the MLB Expansion Draft. 

“I was ecstatic when the Expos took me,” Wegener told the Denver Post in 2009. “I knew it was my chance to pitch in the major leagues.” 

And he was right.  

Wegener cracked the Expos’ Opening Day roster and pitched five innings in relief in the club’s second regular season game, a 9-5 loss to the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. 

The 22-year-old Wegener would join the Expos’ rotation and on April 30 he faced off against Mets’ ace Tom Seaver. The Colorado native tossed a complete game and allowed just two runs on five hits in the Expos’ 2-1 loss. 

“Mike Wegener outpitched one of the best pitchers in baseball, we hit the ball better than they did, but still we didn’t win,” Expos manager Gene Mauch lamented to the Montreal Star after the game. 

A month-and-a-half later, coming off his four-hit shutout against the Giants on June 14, Wegener held the St. Louis Cardinals scoreless until the ninth inning in his following start when Tim McCarver socked a solo home run off him. The Expos still won 5-1. 

“I threw more fastballs than in San Francisco because it was a better pitch tonight,” Wegener told the Montreal Gazette after the game. “You’ve got to give McCarver credit for hitting a good pitch. Ya, I was disappointed losing the shutout but I had a four-run lead and all I was concerned with was winning. They pay you more for wins than shutouts.” 

Swinging a big bat 

Less than a month later, Wegener enjoyed his best performance as a big league hitter. He not only tossed 7 2/3 innings for the Expos in their 11-4 win over the Mets. He also had three hits and four RBIs in the contest. 

“I always used to hit well in high school and American Legion Ball,” Wegener told the Montreal Star after the game. “There is no secret to my success at the plate. All I try to do is make contact.” 

Wegener saved one of his best performances for the season’s final month. Starting against the eventual World Series champion Mets on September 10, he struck out 15 batters and went 11 innings before the Expos lost 3-2 in the 12th. 

The hard-throwing righty completed his rookie season with a 5-14 record and a 4.40 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 165 2/3 innings. The wildness that hampered him in the minors followed him to the majors. He finished fifth in the National League in walks (96) and wild pitches (13).  

Elbow surgery 

Wegener also pitched through significant pain and following the season he underwent surgery to remove a bone chip from his right elbow. 

“I kept saying to myself in the face of the pain; ‘There’s no way a human being can go out there and put up with this day after day,’” Wagner told the Montreal Star after the surgery. “I took so many cortisone shots, I looked like a human pin cushion.” 

But at 23, Wegener was still considered one of the organization’s most promising pitchers heading into the 1970 season. Unfortunately, his arm never really recovered. He posted a 3-6 record and a 5.26 ERA in 25 games (16 starts) for the Expos in 1970 but he had more walks (56) than strikeouts (35).  

On July 18 that season, Wegener had his name etched in the history books when he allowed a single to Willie Mays in the third inning. It was the legend’s 3,000th hit. 

Wegener spent the 1971 season with the Expos’ triple-A Winnipeg Whips and then two more years in the organization prior to completing his professional pitching career with triple-A tenures in the Mets’ and Giants’ organizations. 

He hung up his playing spikes after the 1977 season and returned to Denver. Wegener went back to school and became a nuclear energy quality engineer. He worked for several years at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant near Denver. 

Following his lymphoma diagnosis in 1991, he battled through several recurrences. 

“Though Mike experienced many challenges in his life, he always remained positive,” reads his official obituary. “He was a good man, with a good heart. He will be missed.” 

Wegener was preceded in death by his second wife Marcia and is survived by his brothers Fred and Ray, as well as several nieces and nephews. 

There was no funeral service. Wegener asked that his body be donated to medical science. 

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