By TRIBUNE SPORTS STAFF
Kokomo — Kokomo has lost one of its favorite sons.
Tom Underwood, who pitched in the major leagues in 1974-84, died around midnight on Monday in West Palm Beach, Fla., following an 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 56.
Underwood’s older brother, Mark, said a memorial service is planned in Florida. The family is considering plans for a local service at a later date.
Underwood was the first local player to reach the majors and with 86 career wins, he set the standard for those who have followed. He was selected by the Tribune as Howard County’s greatest athlete of the 20th century.
In a 1999 interview, Underwood said he had no disappointments about his baseball career.
“For 10 years I saw the entire U.S. for free and had five months vacation. I just wish I could have played the game longer,” he said.
Underwood noted in the same interview that he owed, in part, his success to his neighborhood, family and the city as a whole.
“The competition in Kokomo during that time was incredible,” he said. “Just in our neighborhood we must have had 20 or 30 kids to play football, basketball and baseball against and with an older brother and younger brother [Pat], we had a wide range of kids. I think I learned to be competitive at a very early age.
“I had good coaching, too,” he added. “Andy Fernung and Bill Cooper were a big help at UCT [Little League] and I remember Bob Dyer helping me work on a pickoff move in Babe Ruth. Dick Mugg and Carl McNulty worked with me in high school and of course, Bob Ronk and Jim Heathcoat were great in Legion ball. I owe a lot to my dad [John], too. My brothers and I always had a glove on his hand to play catch the moment he walked in the door after work. He never said ‘no.’ I was very lucky.”
The Underwood family gave Kokomo one of its proudest sports moments. On May 30, 1979, Pat made his major league debut for the Detroit Tigers, pitching against Tom and the Toronto Blue Jays. The southpaws hooked up in a duel with the Tigers winning 1-0 on an eighth-inning home run.
Former Tribune sports editor Dave Kitchell covered the game. He raved about the brothers’ brilliant pitching and wrote that “For the Kokomoans who were there … they'll remember two standing ovations and Tom and Pat embracing on the field after the game while the organist played “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
Underwood first began to turn heads at UCT, and he went on to great things at Kokomo High where the three-sport athlete quarterbacked the football team. In his final two seasons with the Red and Blue baseball program, he amassed a 17-3 won-lost record with an ERA of around 0.40.
In addition, Underwood had a 25-1 record over his final two seasons with Ronk’s American Legion team, helping Post 6 win the 1972 state championship.
After being drafted by Philadelphia with the 27th overall pick in the 1972 draft, Underwood spent 1973 and part of ’74 in the minor leagues before receiving word he was going to join the Phillies. He called that the greatest moment of his baseball career.
“We were playing in Waterbury [Conn.] and I remember my manager asking me after the game if I had a suitcase … he said I was going to the majors,” Underwood said in the 1999 interview. “It was like my feet were off the ground — it was a feeling that never went away. My goal had always been to play in the majors and to know I’d finally gotten there was just unbelievable.”
Underwood pitched for six teams over parts of 11 seasons, finishing with an 86-87 record. He had strong seasons in 1976 (10-5 record, 3.52 ERA with the Phillies) and in 1980 (13-9, 3.66 with the Yankees), but his best season might have come in 1982 when he worked as a starter and reliever for the Oakland A’s, appearing in 56 games, posting a 10-6 record with seven saves and finishing with a 3.29 ERA that ranked among the top 10 in the American League.
Underwood pitched in the postseason in 1976 with the Phillies, in 1980 with the Yankees and in 1981 with the A’s.