04/07/16 / Padres360.com / @Padres360
by Wayne McBrayer
I really don’t know what ever inspired me to start collecting autographs, but I do remember the very first autograph I ever acquired, and where I got it from. The Padres were giving away a plastic ball that held round cards inside of it. After being handed the ball and cards, I walked down to the field seats my grandpa paid for that night and wanted to get my ball signed. I walked up to a Padres player and asked him to please sign my ball. “I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to sign those balls,” and he walked away. I do not remember who declined to sign for me.
Another player was standing there and he was very tall and sported a moustache. I walked up and asked him if he would please sign my ball. He took the ball out of my small hands and using my grandpa’s red Bic ball point pen, started signing the ball. The surface of the ball is hard plastic and has many little bumps on it, so signing it was no easy chore, but this tall player stood there for a couple of minutes and patiently signed the ball to the best of his ability and handed it back to me and walked away.
That player was #27 Bill Greif, and he would always be a part of my baseball journey. It took 4 weeks of McDonald’s visits to complete the set and my grandparents made a point to makes sure I had all the cards for the set. Through the years, the autograph faded on the side of the ball, but I remembered that moment in time and how tall Bill was and how he stood there signing it to the best of his ability for me.
With the creation of Padres360.com, my co-author Rebecca Herman encouraged me to reach out to my former Padres heroes, and it is something I have done over these last few years. From Dave Freisleben to Dave Hilton to Gene Locklear, I have reached out to them and now these men are my friends and are now a part of my life. However, on my desk this ball has sat with the Bill Greif signature on it and whenever I have looked at it, I have flashed back to that memory of so many years ago.
I made a decision that I wanted to find Bill and thank him for the autograph he signed for me when I was 8 years old. 6 months ago, I located Bill and gave him a call, not knowing what to expect on the other end of the phone. An answering machine picked up and said, “Hi, this is Bill Greif.” I was excited that I had called the right person. I left a message saying who I was and that I wanted to interview him for Padres360.com and relayed the story about the autograph and thanked him and hung up.
For days, weeks and months, I never heard back from him. I began to wonder if I had left my phone number for him to call back, so once again I decided to call him back and one more time open up my heart. The answering machine picked up and I made a point to leave my number and say I would love to interview him for Padres360. As a I hung up, I knew I had given it my best shot and was content regardless of whether or not I heard from him. 2 days later, my phone rang and I picked it up and heard, “Hi, my name is Bill Greif and I would love to talk to you about my Padres days.” I told Bill about him signing for me so many years ago and he said, “I am so glad to know I did something for someone that meant so much to them.” The following week, I called Bill back and we talked about his career.
Bill Greif was an athlete that excelled at track, basketball, football and baseball. Bill signed a letter of intent to play college football for the University of Texas until another Texas team in a different sport, the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball drafted Bill in the 3rd round of the 1968 draft. With the opportunity to head toward the Major Leagues with a Texas team at Bill’s fingertips, he retracted his letter of intent to play football and signed with Houston and started on his professional baseball career. He did assure his parents that he would continue his education, which he did in the off-season, a decision that would pay off when his playing career ended.
Bill was assigned to the Astros rookie league team, the Covington Astros and pitched well in his first season of pro ball. The Astros were developing some promising young arms like Ken Forsch, J.R.Richard, and Larry Yount (Robin’s older brother) and Bill was right up there with them on the talent scale. “We had a lot of power pitchers at that time, so we were pretty deep.”
Bill was placed on the Astros 40-man roster after the 1969 season and was called up for the first time on July 19, 1971 to pitch against the Phillies. He lasted 6 1/3 innings, striking out 6 and giving up 2 runs in a no-decision in his Major League debut. He would later earn his first win against the San Diego Padres coming out of the bullpen in a 21 inning game.
On December 3, 1971 Bill’s career took a huge turn when the Astros dealt him to San Diego, along with Derrel Thomas and Mark Schaeffer, in exchange for lefty Dave Roberts. “I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting to be dealt to San Diego” but what it gave Bill was an opportunity to pitch on a regular basis and a chance to become a starter. Bill won a starting role out of spring training in 1972, but a combination of bad luck and the Padres lack of offense led to less than impressive 5-16 record. He did spend time working with Roger Craig, who himself had pitched with a poor Mets club that didn’t give him run support, and he helped keep Bill focused and confident.
1973 was a very difficult year for the San Diego Padres. Their owner C. Arnholdt Smith was going bankrupt and he was looking to get out of baseball, but with all of the chaos going on, Bill Greif stood tall and would have his best season as a player on the mound for the Padres. With little run support, Bill posted a 10-17 record with a 3.21 ERA. In 199 1/3 innings, he walked 62 and struck out 120 while pitching 9 complete games, 4 shutouts and even posted 1 save out of the bullpen.
As the season ended, it looked like the Padres were going to move; “We thought the team was going to Washington D.C. and then Ray Kroc bought the team.” The starting staff for 1974 would be different from 1973. Fred Norman had been dealt to the Reds during the 1973 season so the Padres could afford to pay for #1 draft pick Dave Winfield. Clay Kirby, the Padres ace since it’s founding in 1969, would also be dealt in the off-season to the Reds, which now made Bill the veteran on a staff that included Randy Jones, Dave Freisleben, and Dan Spillner. Expanding on his repertoire of pitches, Bill started working on a knuckleball with catchers Fred Kendall and Bob Davis. “We had to call it a knuckle curve rather than a knuckleball,” Bill explained.
Bill also developed an excellent pick-off move to second base, “He was the first guy I saw to use the leg kick on a pick off move to second base” said teammate Randy Jones. “Bob Gibson hit a double off of me and was dancing off second base, when I kicked my leg and threw to second and picked him off. Pitchers tend to not be the best base runners.” While Bill worked harder on his pitching, the team struggled to score runs to support their young pitching staff. Bill would finish the 1974 season with a 9-19 record with a 4.66 ERA hurling 226 innings. “We struggled, but we had a lot great guys on the team; Dave Winfield, Johnny Grubb, Cito Gaston, and Randy Jones. It was a great group of guys to play with.”
The 1975 season brought change for Bill Greif as the organization decided to put him in the bullpen. “I preferred starting, almost any pitcher does,” but Bill took the move in stride and had a solid season coming out of the bullpen notching 9 saves over 56 games with a 3.88 ERA, sharing the closing duties with teammate Danny Frisella. Bill returned to the bullpen for the 1976 season but struggled and he ended the year with a 2-8 record with 6 saves but his ERA had climbed to 5.26.
Manager John McNamara decided to give Bill a shot at once again being a starter in the spring of 1977 and Bill responded with a solid spring that included a 13 inning scoreless streak. His return to the starting rotation lasted for only 5 starts and he only pitched 22 1/3 innings with a ERA of 8.06. In spite of Bill’s struggles on the mound, the Cardinals were interested in acquiring Greif to be the setup man for their closer Al Hrabosky, “The Mad Hungarian,” and on May 19th, the Padres traded Bill to St. Louis for outfielder Luis Melendez. Bill was inserted in the bullpen and finished the season pitching more games than any other Cardinal pitcher except Hrabosky. In spite of a good season, St. Louis dealt Bill to Montreal, and he was released before the start of the 1977 season.
Bill took a year off and made a comeback with the Mets, but after 3 games at AAA Tidewater, he decided to hang up the spikes for good and concentrate on his career as a real estate agent and broker. In 2004, Bill and his wife Karen started a non-profit called Cancer Connection helping those with cancer either physically or emotionally. Bill has used his education in psychology to help cancer survivors deal with the emotional trauma has brought to their lives as well as encourage survivors to help other cancer patients by telling their stories of survival.
After all of these years, Bill is proud that he had the opportunity to play baseball and put on the uniform. He has enjoyed every part of his life and career. I was happy to have talked to Bill, or as he called it, “visit” I hope someday to meet him in person.