He was the youngest starting pitcher in Dodgers history, which led to some difficult moments for a fresh-faced kid with high ideals who learned to measure success God’s way.
|Joe with Sandy Koufax, 1966|
“I was drawn to God,” says Joe Moeller, who played for the Dodgers between 1962 and 1971 and now is an advance scout for the Florida Marlins.
He felt God’s tug on the heart from his earliest days. At only 8-years-old, he snuck out of his house in Manhattan Beach on Sunday mornings to attend a small church down the street. “My parents had no idea I did that,” he says.
While his mother was a Christian Scientist, his hardworking parents slept late on Sunday mornings and showed little interest in church. “My dad didn’t believe in anything,” he says.
Young Moeller walked himself into the back row pew each Sunday but couldn’t comprehend very much of what was happening. “We had a King James Bible at home but I didn’t understand a thing in it.” Still, the Lord continued to draw his heart.
One day a local youth pastor, Jim White, pulled up to Moeller on a motorcycle. “Want a ride?” he asked. It was a divine appointment on wheels.
Moeller accepted and they sped off. After a brief spin, White pulled over and asked Joe a serious question: “Do you know who Jesus Christ is? Moeller wasn’t sure how to respond.
“He’s the Son of God and he died for you,” White told the nine-year-old. “Do you want to accept Him?”
“Yes I do.” Joe said. From that moment, the course of his life was fundamentally different, with important ramifications for his athletic career.
Before Joe picked up a baseball glove, his father pushed him into archery. At six, he won the state championship in Illinois, where he spent his earliest years. The family – dressed in Western attire — performed a vaudeville routine in rodeos and sports shows, with Papa Joe firing at balloons William Tell-style, and the rest of the family shooting bows and arrows.
Joe was forced to practice archery every afternoon until dark under his father’s watchful eye starting at a young age. “I hated archery,” Joe admits.
One day he got up the courage to ask his father an audacious question. “If I win the national championship, can I stop shooting archery?”
Dad thought about it and finally agreed, so young Moeller practiced intensely every day. “There was a focus and a concentration that helped me later on,” he notes. He won the national junior title at the U.S. Nationals held in Sacramento and never touched a bow and arrow again.
Not letting Joe rest on his laurels, dad wanted to know what his son’s next challenge would be. “I want to play in the major leagues some day,” he replied confidently, not knowing what might lie ahead.
With German roots, both parents were old-school disciplinarians. Dad was driven — he expected a 100 percent effort for everything. “Dad would tell me he never wanted me to look back and wish I’d worked a little harder. That will haunt you the rest of your life, he said.”
“He was not abusive, but if I looked at him wrong I’d get decked.”
Ultimately, Joe realizes his father gave him the tools to succeed at a very high level. “It was a coach-son relationship,” Joe says. “I give him credit for building into me what it takes to become a professional athlete. Other guys didn’t understand what it takes to get to that next level.”
Joe also possessed some natural gifts. At 12, the six-foot-tall youngster was throwing shutouts in his first year of Little League. “God blessed me with an arm,” he concedes. The Boston Red Sox gave the family $5,000 for “first rights” to his future career while Joe was still in Little League, an illegal practice today.
When Joe graduated from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, five cars were parked outside the family’s modest home, with reps from various teams prepared to make lofty offers.
Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers owner vilified by some for moving the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, also had his eye on Joe, and called Papa Joe a few weeks before the graduation. He invited the senior Moeller to sit with him behind home plate at a game, and extracted an important concession. “Promise me you talk to us last,” he said.
Detroit offered a $90,000 signing bonus. The Chicago Cubs offered $95,000. These were astronomical numbers for a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. “We weren’t really poor, but we ate eggplant for a week at a time,” Joe recalls.
Ultimately, the Dodgers won the bidding war through O’Malley’s shrewd style. “Walter was a brilliant man,” Joe says. “I was a Dodgers fan going back to Brooklyn,” which sealed the deal. Joe received $65,000; his brother Gary got $15,000, and Papa Joe got $10,000, in a deal structured to please everyone in the family and lighten the tax burden.
“I couldn’t turn it down,” Joe says. “It was my dream. Out of a half million kids who plays Little League, only one makes it to the Major Leagues.”
In his first season, Joe played in the minors for Reno, Greenville, and Spokane, where he won 20 games and struck out 295 batters. It was said that his curve ball was “as wicked as Sandy Koufax’s.”
During his time in Greenville, South Carolina, he fell in love with Lee, who
was just 16-years-old, and persuaded her parents they should get married. Moeller admits it was partly an effort on his part to assert his independence from his father. “My dad controlled everything I did,” he says. “I wanted to get out of his control and his clutches.”
Then at 19-years-old and two months, he became the youngest starting pitcher in Dodgers history, a record he still holds. But when he advanced to the majors, the unthinkable happened – his most formidable pitch disappeared.