A Winning Groove

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Jerry Grote

In the prime of his 16-season big league career, Jerry Grote was recognized as one of the best defensive catchers in the National League. He was also a winner, a heady player who knew how to get the best out of his pitchers. Plus he had the leadership qualities to help inspire those playing behind his pitchers.

Jerry Grote’s best season came in 1969, when he batted .252 with six home runs and 40 RBIs. He also guided young pitching staff that carried the Mets to a World Series championship.

A Texas native, Grote was signed in 1962 by the majors’ first Texas team, the expansion Houston Colt .45s. He made his debut with the Colts in 1963 and split the catching duties with John Bateman in 1964, but hit only .181. He spent the entire 1965 season in the minors, and then was traded to the New York Mets at the end of the 1965 season.

In 1966, Grote was named the Mets’ starting catcher. He caught more than 120 games in five of the next six seasons. He had his best season at the plate in 1969, batting .252 with six home runs and 40 RBIs. He was named to the National League All-Star team, and he was the guiding presence behind the plate for a young Mets pitching staff that led the league in shutouts and earned run average.

Grote played for 12 years with the Mets, hitting a combined .256 with 994 hits. In 1977, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and spent the next four seasons as a backup catcher for the Dodgers and Kansas City Royals. He retired after the 1981 season with a .252 career batting average. He was a two-time National League All-Star.

 

 

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Cuban Clout

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Roman Mejias

A native of Cuba, outfielder Roman Mejias was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953. He hit over .300 in his first two seasons in the Pirates’ farm system, and made his debut in Pittsburgh in 1955, batting .216 in 71 games with three home runs and 21 RBIs.

Roman Mejias showed flashes of power in the minor leagues (21 home runs in AAA in 1961), but couldn’t win a spot in the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup.

Mejias spent the next six seasons up and down from Pittsburgh to the minors, batting a combined .253 and showing flashes of power, especially during his minor league tours at Columbus in the International League.

But there was no place for Mejias in the Pirates outfield of the early 1960s. In October of 1961, he became the eleventh pick of the Houston Colt .45s in the 1961 expansion draft.

In Houston, Mejias (now age 31) finally had the opportunity to show what kind of full-time player he could be at the major league level. In 1962, he batted .286 with 24 home runs and 76 RBIs, leading the team in all three hitting categories.

His career in Houston (and as an everyday player) was short-lived. In November of 1962, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman and reigning American League batting champion Pete Runnels. In Boston, Mejias was relegated to a back-up role in the outfield, playing behind Gary Geiger and Lou Clinton (as well as future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski).

In his nine-year career, Roman Mejias was an everyday player only in 1962, batting .286, hitting 24 home runs, and driving in 76 runs for the Houston Colt .45s.

He batted .227 for the Red Sox as a part-timer in 1963, with only 11 home runs and 39 RBIs. In 1964 he appeared in only 62 games for the Red Sox, batting .238 with two home runs and four RBIs. It was his last season in the major leagues (though he did spend one year playing in Japan).

In nine major league seasons, Mejias batted .254 for his career with 54 home runs and 202 RBIs.

 

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Braving the Knuckler

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Phil Niekro

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro pitched for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves for 21 years, winning all but 50 of his 318 career victories in a Braves’ uniform. He is the winningest knuckleball pitcher in major league history, and amassed the third most wins of any Braves pitcher (after Warren Spahn and Kid Nichols).

Phil Niekro was a 20-game winner three times. His best season came in 1969, when he was 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA for the Atlanta Braves.

Niekro was signed by the Braves in 1958. He made his major league debut in 1964, and he was 6-6 over the next two years as a member of the Braves’ bullpen. In 1967, Niekro went 11-9 with a league best ERA of 1.87. More importantly, he made the transition during the season from the Braves’ relief corps to the team’s starting rotation, pitching 10 complete games in 20 starts. He would be used as a starter almost exclusively for the rest of his career.

Niekro went 14-12 with a 2.59 ERA in 1968. In 1969, at the age of 30, he posted his first 20-victory season, going 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA.

Over the next 18 seasons, Niekro would win 264 games, 214 of those games with the Braves. He would win 10 or more games 17 times, and pitched more than 300 innings in a season four times. Between 1977 and 1979, Niekro led the National League each year in starts, complete games, innings pitched and losses. In fact, he lost an average of 19 games between 1977 and 1980, a testament to his durability and to the teams playing behind him as he averaged 18 wins per season and posted a combined 3.48 ERA for that period. He led the National League with an .810 winning percentage (17-4) in 1982.

Phil Niekro won 268 games in 21 seasons with the Braves. Over the last five years of his career, he won 50 games playing for three teams.

Niekro was released by the Braves after the 1983 season and signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees. He won 16 games in each of his two seasons with the Yankees, including career victory number 300. He went 11-11 for the Cleveland Indians in 1986 and was 7-13 for the Indians and Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. He pitched in one game for the Braves in 1987 before retiring.

Niekro’s 24 years in the major leagues produced a 318-274 record with a career earned run average of 3.35. In 716 career starts, he pitched 5,404 innings and 45 shutouts. He won five Gold Gloves and was a member of the National League All-Star team five times. He pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1973.

Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

 

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Graceful Glider

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Ed Charles

Ed Charles was a graceful, even acrobatic, third baseman who hit with some sting in his bat. Charles paid his dues with nine years in the minor leagues, and for his effort was rewarded with a major league career that was spent mostly with two of the worst teams of the 1960s, only to be rescued at the end of his career by a “miracle.”

From 1962-1964, his first three seasons with the Kansas City Athletics (and his first three seasons in the major leagues), Ed Charles batted a combined .265 and averaged 16 home runs and 72 RBIs.

Charles was signed by the Boston Braves in 1952. He would still be a minor league infielder in the Braves farm system at the end of the 1950s, blocked partly by the presence of Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews at third base for the Braves, and partly because the Braves always seemed to find other alternatives at second base and shortstop, leaving Charles in the minors despite several solid seasons.

Nearly 30 and still without a big league at-bat, Charles got his break when both major leagues expanded. The expansion to 20 teams created a flurry of trades following the 1961 season.

In December of 1961, Charles was traded with Joe Azcue and Manny Jimenez to the Kansas City Athletics for Lou Klimchock and Bob Shaw. Charles took over everyday duties at third base from Wayne Causey, and responded with an outstanding rookie season in 1962, batting .288 with 24 doubles, 17 home runs and 74 RBIs, third best on the team after Norm Siebern (117) and Jerry Lumpe (83). It would be his best season statistically at the plate.

Charles hit .267 with 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 1963. He also established career bests that season in doubles (28) and runs batted in (79). In 1964, his batting average slipped to .241, with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs.

In 1965 and 1966, his hitting rebounded, as he batted .269 and .286 respectively. But Kansas City owner Charles Finley had moved the outfield fences back, so that Charles smacked only 17 home runs combined over those two seasons, the same as his rookie season total. In 1967, with the arrival of rookie slugger Sal Bando, Charles was traded to the New York Mets for Larry Elliot and $50,000.

Ed Charles’ only post season appearance came in 1969 as a member of the New York Mets. He scored the winning run in Game Two, the first of four straight games the Mets would win to take the 1969 World Series.

At 34, Charles was the oldest member of the Mets roster. He hit .238 for the Mets over the rest of the 1967 season, and batted .276 in 1968, when he led the team with 15 home runs.

In 1969, he had his poorest season at the plate, batting .207 with three home runs and 18 RBIs as the Mets’ part-time third baseman. But his steady play at third base, and his steadying influence in the clubhouse, were integral to the Mets winning the National League’s first Eastern Division title. In the 1969 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles – Charles’ only postseason appearance of his career – he hit a critical double in Game Two and scored the game’s winning run. He was released by the Mets the following winter.

After eight big league seasons with a career batting average of .263, Ed Charles went out a winner.

 

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The Art of the Out

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Art Ditmar

Pitcher Art Ditmar was well acquainted with the A’s-Yankees shuttle. He split his entire nine-season major league career between those two franchises.

In 1956, pitching for the Kansas City Athletics, Art Ditmar led the American League in losses at 12-22. Five years later …

During the 1950s, the Yankees repeatedly turned to the Athletics for strategic trades that brought needed talent to New York. Ditmar was one of those acquisitions. He was signed by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1948 and, following four seasons in the minors and two in military service, he made his way to the A’s staff at the end of the 1954 season, going 1-4 with a 6.41 ERA in 14 appearances.

In 1955, with the Athletics now located in Kansas City, Ditmar gradually moved into a starting role, ending the season at 12-12 with a 5.03 ERA. In 1956, he led the American League in losses at 12-22, but he was also fourth in the league in games started (34) and sixth in innings pitched (254.1). His performance earned him a trip to New York, as the A’s traded Ditmar (with Bobby Shantz and Clete Boyer) to the New York Yankees.

As a member of the Yankees’ staff, Ditmar got fewer starts (and fewer innings) but consistently better results. Used primarily as a reliever in 1957, Ditmar went 8-3 with a 3.25 ERA and six saves. He went 9-8 in 1958, and moved into New York’s starting rotation in 1959, producing a 13-9 record with a 2.90 ERA.

Pitching for the New York Yankees, Art Ditmar was fourth in the American League in victories at 15-9.

Ditmar’s best season was 1960, when he led the Yankees staff in wins with a 15-9 record. However, his role as Yankees ace was short-lived. He was 2-3 for the Yankees in 1961 when he was traded with Deron Johnson back to the Athletics for pitcher Bud Daley, a 16-game winner for the A’s in each of the previous two seasons. Despite his success as a starter in New York, Ditmar found himself assigned to the Kansas City bullpen, and going winless for the rest of the 1961 campaign. He appeared in six games for the Athletics in 1962, and was released. He never pitched in the majors again.

Ditmar was 72-77 in nine major league seasons. He was 47-32 in his five seasons with the Yankees. His career earned run average was 3.98.

 

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The Value of Versatility

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Denis Menke

Denis Menke could – and did – play any position other than the battery at the major league level. He was a shortstop who could hit with authority and occasional power. And he was a utility player who, for most of his career, was too good to be a backup.

Versatility kept Denis Menke on the Milwaukee Braves roster for the 1963 season. He played all four infield positions and the outfield. Though he was the starter in less than half of the Braves’ games, Menke still managed to play enough to accumulate 518 at-bats, hitting .239.

Menke was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and made the club for 50 games in 1962. By 1963, he had 518 at-bats while starting only 71 games in the field. His versatility earned him plenty of innings and at-bats throughout the season, even though he batted just .234 in his first full season.

He opened the 1964 season as the Braves’ starting shortstop, hitting .283 with 20 home runs and 65 RBIs. Over the next three seasons, he averaged .240 with nine home runs and 39 runs batted in.

In 1967, Menke was traded with Denny Lemaster to the Houston Astros for Chuck Harrison and Sonny Jackson. He took over as the Astros’ shortstop and batted .249 in 1968 with six home runs and 56 RBIs. But he came back with a strong 1969 season, batting .269 with 10 home runs and 90 runs batted in. And he had the best season of his career in 1970, batting .304 and scoring 86 runs with 26 doubles. He also hit 13 home runs with 92 RBIs.

Denis Menke’s best seasons as a hitter came in 1969 and 1970 with the Houston Astros. In 1970, he batted .304 with 13 home runs and led the Astros with 92 runs batted in.

Menke somehow misplaced his home run stroke after the 1970 season, hitting only one home run in 1971 with 43 RBIs and a .246 batting average. He was part of a blockbuster trade with the Cincinnati Reds at the end of the 1971 season. Houston traded Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo and Joe Morgan to the Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart.

Menke played for two seasons in Cincinnati, hitting a combined .218 and averaging six home runs and 38 RBIs. In 1973 he was traded back to Houston for pitcher Pat Darcy, and appeared in 30 games before retiring.

Menke played for 13 major league seasons, collecting 1,207 hits and batting .250 for his career. He was a member of the National League All-Star team in 1969 and in 1970.

Going Goo Goo

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Gary Geiger

Gary Geiger was a speedy outfielder who managed to string together a 12-season major league career despite several injuries and physical ailments that limited his performance on the field. Nevertheless, he was a talented athlete with speed on the base paths, and a fan favorite wherever he played.

Gary Geiger led the Boston Red Sox with 18 home runs in 1961. His 64 RBIs that season were a career high.

Geiger was signed as a pitcher and as an outfielder by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954. In 1957, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians (as an outfielder) and made his major league debut in a Tribe uniform in 1958, batting .231 in 91 games during his rookie season.

There was little room for Geiger in a Cleveland outfield that already featured Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris, Carroll Hardy and the recently acquired Minnie Minoso, so the Indians dealt Geiger and Vic Wertz to the Boston Red Sox for Jim Piersall. Geiger hit .245 for the Red Sox in 1959 and .302 in 1960. However, both of those seasons were abbreviated by health problems. He appeared in only 77 games in 1960 due to a collapsed lung.

Geiger managed to play a full season in 1961, batting .232 and leading the Red Sox with 18 home runs. He batted .249 in 1962 and .263 in 1963, but those would be his last seasons as a full-time player. On- and off-the-field health problems limited his playing time for the rest of his career. He played for two seasons with the Atlanta Braves and one season with the Houston Astros before retiring after five games in the 1970 season.

Geiger finished his career with a .246 lifetime batting average.

Keystone Consistent

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bernie Allen

For a dozen big league seasons, Bernie was a dependable second baseman for four different teams.

Bernie Allen’s best season was his rookie year in 1962. Allen batted ,269 and had career highs with 27 doubles, 12 home runs and 64 RBIs.

An All-American shortstop at Purdue University, Allen signed with the Minnesota Twins in 1961 and opened the 1962 season as the team’s everyday second baseman. He batted .269 his rookie year, with 12 home runs and 64 RBIs. He finished third in the voting for Rookie of the Year to Tom Tresh and Bob Rodgers.

Allen played five years in the Twin Cities, batting a combined .246. After the 1966 season, he was traded with Camilo Pascual to the Washington Senators for pitcher Ron Kline. He spent another five seasons with the Senators, batting .237 over that period. His best season offensively in Washington was 1969, when his .247 batting average came with nine home runs and 45 RBIs.

Following the 1971 season, Allen was dealt to the New York Yankees and batted .227 in a backup  role for the 1972 season. He was purchased by the Montreal Expos midway through the 1973 season, playing in a total of just 33 games for both teams and batting a combined .206. He retired after the 1973 season.

Allen collected 815 hits with a career batting average of .239.

 

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No Idle Hands Here

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bill Hands

Bill Hands was a workhorse for the Chicago Cubs pitching staff in the late 1960s. From 1968 through 1971, he averaged 266 innings and 16 victories per season, with a combined 3.10 ERA over those four seasons.

Bill Hands was a workhorse in the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation. He averaged 16 victories and 266 innings pitched from 1968-1971.

Hands was originally signed by the San Francisco Giants in 1959 and spent the next seven years progressing through the Giants’ farm system, winning 17 games for AAA Tacoma in 1965 to earn a trip to a big league debut with the Giants at the end of that season. In December of 1965, the Giants traded Hands with Randy Hundley to the Chicago Cubs for Don Landrum and Lindy McDaniel.

Hands went 8-13 in his first season in Chicago, and was 7-8 in 1967. He was used primarily as a reliever in both of those seasons, and was promoted to the starting rotation for the 1968 season. Hands blossomed as a starter, going 16-10 in 1968 with a 2.89 ERA. He pitched 258.2 innings in 1968, with four shutouts and 11 complete games.

In 1969, Hands produced a 20-14 season with a 2.49 ERA. He pitched 300 innings with 18 complete games in 41 starts. It would be his best season in the major leagues. He followed up in 1970 with an 18-15 record, and slipped to 12-18 in 1971, though pitching with a still-respectable 3.42 ERA.

With each passing season, his number of starts and innings pitched declined. He went 11-8 in 1972, his last season in Chicago, and was traded to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Dave LaRoche. He was a combined 11-15 in a season and a half for the Twins. He was acquired by the Texas Rangers at the end of the 1974, and retired at age 35 after posting a 6-7 record with the Rangers in 1975.

Hands was 111-110 in 11 major league seasons. His career ERA was 3.35.

 

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Jump Ball, Fastball

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Gene Conley

Gene Conley was the first athlete to play for World Champions in two different major sports: for the Milwaukee Braves as a pitcher in 1957, and as a member of the NBA’s Boston Celtics from 1959 to 1962.

A talented athlete, Gene Conley played professionally in both baseball and basketball.

A two-sport All-American at Washington State University, the six-foot-eight-inch Conley was signed by the Boston Braves in 1951. He was outstanding from the start of his professional baseball career, winning 20 games his first minor league season, and then going 11-4 for Milwaukee in the American Association before being called up to Boston at the end of the 1952 season … and promptly losing his first three major league starts.  He spent the 1953 season in the minors, winning 23 games at the AAA level.

In 1954, he stepped right into the Braves’ starting rotation and was 14-9 in his rookie season, with a 2.96 ERA, fifth best in the National League. Conley was named to the All-Star team, and finished third in the voting for Rookie of the Year, won in 1954 by Wally Moon (Ernie Banks finished second … and Hank Aaron fourth).

Gene Conley was a National League All-Star in his 1954 rookie campaign. He was 14-9 with a 2.96 ERA.

Conley was 11-7 in 1955, and then didn’t win more than nine games in a season until 1959 when, as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, he went 12-7 with a 3.00 earned run average. He was 8-14 for the Phillies in 1960, and then was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Frank Sullivan. He was 11-14 for the Red Sox in 1961, finishing third on the team in victories behind Don Schwall and Bill Monbouquette. In 1962, his 15-14 record tied him with Monbouquette for the team lead in wins.

Conley appeared in nine games for Boston in 1963, going 3-4 with an ERA of 6.64. He was released by the Red Sox and signed the next day with the Cleveland Indians, but never pitched in an Indians’ uniform, retiring in June at age 32.

Gene Conley’s best season with the Boston Red Sox came in 1962. He was 15-14 with a 3.95 ERA.

In 11 major league seasons, Conley posted a 91-96 record with a career ERA of 3.82. He struck out 888 batters and pitched 13 shutouts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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