Catch, Play, Laugh

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bob Uecker

Before he was a play-by-play announcer, hilarious talk show guest, and beer commercial icon, Bob Uecker really was a professional catcher, playing at a level that relatively few ever achieve: the major leagues. Continue reading

Prince of Promise

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Alex Johnson

Throughout most of his career, the incredible hitting instincts of Alex Johnson – and how easily and extensively those instincts could impress baseball people observing him – meant that he carried with him the baggage of potential that could never really be realized. When you watched the young Alex Johnson, it was not enough to be impressed simply with what he could do with a bat … which was impressive enough. Johnson’s skills made you wonder how good he could be – how good anyone could be. His potential was that great.

Alex Johnson was the American League batting champion in 1970, batting .329 for the California Angels.

Johnson was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961. Over the next three years, he progressed steadily through the Phillies’ farm system, joining the parent club for 43 games at the end of the 1964 season. Johnson hit .303 in limited action, and he was slated to start the 1965 season in left field, platooning with Wes Covington. Johnson hit .294 in 1965, and was traded with Art Mahaffey and Pat Corrales to the St. Louis Cardinals for Dick Groat, Bill White and Bob Uecker.

A dreadful hitting drought to open the 1966 season sent Johnson back to the minors, where he hit .355 over the rest of that season. He spent the 1967 season platooning in right field with Roger Maris, and didn’t make an appearance in the 1967 World Series.

Despite his potential as a hitter, Johnson also brought with him serious liabilities in the field (three times he would lead his league’s outfielders in errors committed). He would also drive managers crazy with spells of concentration problems and a lack of consistent commitment to running out every batted ball with maximum effort. He could also be contentious and even nasty, with teammates in the clubhouse just as much as with the pitchers he faced.

Alex Johnson batted .288 in 13 major league seasons.

Alex Johnson batted .288 in 13 major league seasons.

It was Johnson’s hitting that kept him in the major leagues, and he was just beginning to realize his potential at the plate. The Cardinals traded Johnson to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Dick Simpson, and he responded to playing every day by hitting .312 for the Reds in 1968, the fourth highest batting average in the National League that season. Johnson hit .315 in 1969 with 17 home runs and 88 RBIs, and then was traded to the California Angels.

With the Angels in 1970, Johnson won the American league batting title with a .329 average. He also had 26 doubles, 14 home runs and 86 RBIs. But he would never reach quite that level again, his average slipping to .260 in 1971. He was traded with Jerry Moses to the Cleveland Indians for Frank Baker, Alan Foster and Vada Pinson. He hit .239 for Cleveland in 1972, and was dealt to the Texas Rangers. He hit .287 for Texas in 1973 and hit .287 again in a 1974 season split between the Rangers and the New York Yankees. He hit .261 for the Yankees in 1975, and then hit .268 for the Detroit Tigers in 1976, his last season in the major leagues.

Johnson played 13 seasons for eight different major league clubs. He ended his career with 1,331 hits and a .288 batting average. He was a member of the American League All-Star team in 1970.

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Holding Down First

 

The Glove Club: Bill White

For a dozen seasons, Bill White matched All-Star talent with relentless consistency as a first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies. He was a heads-up player who was a solid runs producer and Gold Glove defender at first.

In eight seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bill White averaged 20 home runs and 90 RBIs per season. He was an All-Star five times.

In eight seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bill White averaged 20 home runs and 90 RBIs per season. He was an All-Star five times.

White was signed by the New York Giants in 1953. His rookie season came in 1956, when he hit .256 with 22 home runs and 59 RBIs for the Giants. Military service put his baseball career on hold in 1957 and 1958, and just before the 1959 season he was traded with Ray Jablonski to the St. Louis Cardinals for Don Choate and Sam Jones.

It was in St. Louis where White blossomed into one of the league’s most accomplished first basemen. He hit .302 in his first season in St. Louis, with 12 home runs and 72 RBIs. He hit .324 in 1962, with 20 homers and 102 RBIs. In 1963, he drove in a career-best 109 RBIs on 27 home runs and a .304 batting average. In eight seasons in St. Louis, White hit .300 or better four times. He averaged 20 home runs and 90 RBIs per season as a Cardinal.

Following the 1965 season, White was traded with Dick Groat and Bob Uecker to the Philadelphia Phillies for Pat Corrales, Alex Johnson and Art Mahaffey.  He had a strong season for the Phillies in 1966, with 23 home runs and 103 RBIs while collecting his seventh consecutive Gold Glove award. However his batting average slipped to .276, the lowest since his rookie season but the highest it would be for the rest of his career. His numbers declined dramatically over the next two years, and the Phillies shipped him back to St. Louis, where White played one more season before retiring in 1969.

Bill White won seven consecutive Gold Gloves from 1960 to 1966.

Bill White won seven consecutive Gold Gloves from 1960 to 1966.

Following his playing career, White was a sportscaster calling New York Yankees games on both radio and television. From 1989 to 1994, he served as President of the National League.

In 13 big league seasons, White hit for a career average of .286 with 202 home runs and 870 RBIs. And no other National League first baseman could match his glove work. While he doesn’t have Hall of Fame numbers for his career, White nonetheless may be the best first baseman not in the Hall of Fame.

 

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Half of Cardinals’ Infield Disappears

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball …

(October 27, 1965) The St. Louis Cardinals today traded two of their mainstays, sending first baseman Bill White and shortstop Dick Groat to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Alex Johnson, pitcher Art Mahaffey and catcher Pat Corrales. St. Louis also threw in catcher Bob Uecker.

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(Left to right) Dick Groat, Bill White and Bob Uecker went to the Philadelphia Phillies in a 1965 trade that broke up the St. Louis Cardinals’ All-Star infield.

Only a year earlier, this was the Cardinals infield that led the team to its first World Series championship since 1946.

The Cardinals traded for White prior to the 1959 season. He hit a combined .299 during his seven seasons in St. Louis, averaging 20 home runs and 90 RBIs per season. As a member of the Cardinals, White was named to the All-Star team five times and won six Gold Gloves. (He would claim his seventh Gold Glove in his first season with the Phillies.)

Groat was acquired by the Cardinals prior to the 1963 season in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates for Don Cardwell and Julio Gotay. The National League batting champion and Most Valuable Player in 1960, Groat brought a solid glove and bat to the Cardinals, hitting a combined .289 during his three years with the Cardinals and leading the National League in doubles with 43 in 1963.

(Left to right) Pitcher Art Mahaffey, outfielder Alex Johnson and catcher Pat Corrales went to St. Louis in the deal that brought Dick Groat and Bill White to Philadelphia.

The trade not only eliminated half of the Cardinals’ starting infield, but also broke up what had been the starting infield for the National League in the 1963 All-Star game. The NL’s All-Star starters that season included third baseman Ken Boyer and second baseman Julian Javier as well as Groat and White.

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A Flash in the Philly

 

Career Year: Art Mahaffey – 1962

Art Mahaffey was a good starting pitcher who, in 1962, was mostly dominant for the Philadelphia Phillies. In that one season, he looked to be the pitching ace who would lead the Phillies into becoming legitimate contenders.

Phillies right-hander Art Mahaffey went from 19-game loser in 1961 to 19-14 in 1962 with a 3.94 ERA.

Phillies right-hander Art Mahaffey went from 19-game loser in 1961 to 19-14 in 1962 with a 3.94 ERA.

Mahaffey was signed by the Phillies in 1956 and spent five seasons moving steadily through the Phillies’ minor league system. He won 16 games in both Double-A and Triple-A in 1959, and won 11 games in 1960 before being called up to Philadelphia.

The Phillies of 1960 were the National League’s worst team. They would finish that season with a 59-95 record, with Mahaffey in only 14 appearances, finishing third on the team in victories with a 7-3 record and a team-best 2.31 ERA. (Robin Roberts, at 12-16, was the Phillies’ best pitcher in 1960.)

The Phillies of 1961 were even worse, finishing the season at 47-107 including a league-record 23-game losing streak. Mahaffey struggled to an 11-19 season with a 4.10 ERA.

The 1962 season saw a dramatic turn-around for the Phillies, as the team improved its record by 34 victories to 81-80. That turn-around was spearheaded by the hitting of Don Demeter, Tony Gonzalez and Johnny Callison, and by the pitching of Mahaffey. He went from 19-game loser to 19-14 in 1962 with a 3.94 ERA. He had career-best totals in starts (39), complete games (20) and innings pitched (274). He finished fifth in the National League in wins, fourth in innings pitched, and eighth with 177 strikeouts.

During an 11-start streak starting in mid-June, Mahaffey was 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA. He was named to the 1962 National League All-Star team.

Mahaffey was known for having one of the best pick-off moves to first base of any right-handed pitcher of his era. In his major league debut in 1960, Mahaffey allowed eighth-inning singles to both Bill White and Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals, but pitched a scoreless inning where he faced only three batters. He picked off both White and Flood in the same inning.

Mahaffey’s 19 victories in 1962 would match his total over the next two seasons. In fact, he would win only 22 games over the next four seasons, the rest of his major league career. Mahaffey was traded to the Cardinals after the 1965 season, and was 2-5 for St. Louis in 1966, his final season in the majors. Mahaffey closed his seven-year major league career at 59-64 with a 4.17 earned run average.

 

 

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Mahaffey Mows Down 17

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(April 23, 1961) Striking out at least one batter in each inning, Philadelphia Phillies hurler Art Mahaffey today set a new club record with 17 strikeouts.

Art Mahafey set a Phillies team record by striking out 17 batters in a 9-inning game.

Art Mahafey set a Phillies team record by striking out 17 batters in a 9-inning game.

Mahaffey (1-1) and the Phillies beat the Chicago Cubs 6-0. Mahaffey allowed only four hits and a walk. Mahaffey struck out the side in the second inning and the sixth inning. Four Cubs batters – Don Zimmer, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and Frank Thomas – struck out three times each.

The hitting star for the Phillies was outfielder Johnny Callison. Callison drove in four runs with a sacrifice fly in the first inning and a three-run home run in the fifth inning off Cubs starter Bob Anderson (0-2). Mahaffey would finish the 1961 season at 11-19 with a 4.10 ERA.