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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No Compromise

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Andy Messersmith

Andy Messersmith will always be remembered primarily for his role in helping bring down baseball’s “reserve clause” that effectively bound a player to a particular team for life … or until the team decided to trade or release him. When Messersmith took the Los Angeles Dodgers to arbitration and won free agent status, it created the free agent opportunity that every major league player can enjoy today. It culminated in the final dismantling of teams’ stranglehold on players, a dismantling that began with Curt Flood in 1969.

Andy Messersmith won 130 games in the major leagues. He was also the first player to test the reserve clause successfully and win the right to negotiate as a free agent.

Andy Messersmith won 130 games in the major leagues. He was also the first player to test the reserve clause successfully and win the right to negotiate as a free agent.

Part of the reason that Messersmith’s case was so high profile was that, as a starting pitcher, Messersmith himself was high profile. He was one of the best right-handers of his generation, and at his best was one of the game’s most dominant pitchers.

Messersmith was selected by the California Angels with the twelfth overall pick in the 1966 amateur draft. The hard-throwing Messersmith was pitching out of the Angels’ bullpen four years later, and was a member of the team’s starting rotation by 1969, when he went 16-11 and posted a 2.52 ERA. He went 11-10 in 1970, and won 20 games for the Angels in 1972, with four shutouts and 14 complete games in 38 starts.

Messersmith slipped to 8-11 in 1973, and was traded with Ken McMullen to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Billy Grabarkewitz, Frank Robinson, Bill Singer, Mike Strahler and Bobby Valentine. He went 14-10 in his first season with the Dodgers, and followed that with a 20-6 season in 1974, posting a 2.59 ERA.

Messersmith had requested a no-trade clause be included in his 1975 contract, which the Dodgers refused. Messersmith in turn refused to sign a new contract, and played the 1975 season without a contract under the reserve clause. He went 19-14 with a 2.29 ERA. He led the National League in games started (40), innings pitched (321.2), complete games (19) and shutouts (7). He also won his second consecutive Gold Glove that season.

Messersmith was granted his free agency and signed with the Atlanta Braves. But he was never the same pitcher again. He was 11-11 with the Braves in 1976, and went 7-11 over the next three seasons with the Braves, the New York Yankees and the Dodgers. He retired after being released by the Dodgers in 1979.

Messersmith was an All-Star four times during his 12-year career. His career record was 130-99 with a 2.86 ERA. He had 27 shutouts in 295 starts.

 

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Quiet Production

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Norm Siebern

Tall, athletic and bespectacled, Norm Siebern was a solid hitter who “grew up” professionally in the New York Yankees organization and blossomed into an All-Star outfielder and first baseman with the Kansas City Athletics. The New York papers – and even Yankees manager Casey Stengel – occasionally made sport of his quiet demeanor, but there was no question about the quality of his production, at bat and in the field.

Norm Siebern’s best season came with the Kansas City Athletcs in 1962, batting .308 with 25 home runs and 117 RBIs.

Norm Siebern’s best season came with the Kansas City Athletcs in 1962, batting .308 with 25 home runs and 117 RBIs.

Siebern was signed by the Yankees in 1951 and, after two years in the minors and a military tour, Siebern made his debut with the Yankees in 1956, hitting .204 in 54 games. The well-stocked Yankees outfield left no room for Siebern, so he returned to the minors in 1957, hitting .349 for Denver in the American Association, with 45 doubles, 15 triples, 24 home runs and 118 RBIs. He was named Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year for 1957.

That performance earned Siebern a permanent place on the Yankees roster in 1958, and he responded with 14 home runs, 55 RBIs and a .300 batting average. Siebern won the Gold Glove for his left field play, but ironically, it was pair of errors in the 1958 World Series that sent him to the bench for most of that Series.

Siebern hit .271 in 1959, and after the season was traded with Hank Bauer, Don Larsen and Marv Throneberry to the Kansas City Athletics for Joe DeMaestri, Kent Hadley and Roger Maris. He hit .279 for the A’s in 1960 with 19 home runs and 69 RBIs. His performance was overshadowed by the MVP season that Maris had for the Yankees.

Siebern’s hitting kept improving, especially as he spent more time at first base for the A’s. He batted .296 in 1961 with 36 doubles, 18 home runs and 98 RBIs. In 1962, Siebern hit .308 (fifth highest in the American League) with 25 doubles, 25 home runs and 117 RBIs (second in the AL to Harmon Killebrew‘s 126).

Norm Siebern had an outstanding rookie season for the New York Yankees in 1958, batting .300 and winning the Gold Glove in left field.

Norm Siebern had an outstanding rookie season for the New York Yankees in 1958, batting .300 and winning the Gold Glove in left field.

Siebern’s production fell off slightly in 1963, batting .272 with 16 home runs and 83 RBIs, and after that season he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for first baseman Jim Gentile. He hit .245 for the Orioles in 1964 with 12 home runs and 56 RBIs, and he led the majors with 106 walks. In 1965, the O’s, to make room for Curt Blefary and Paul Blair, moved Boog Powell from the outfield to first base, limiting Siebern’s playing time. After that season he was traded to the California Angels for Dick Simpson, whom the Orioles later packaged in the trade for Frank Robinson.

Siebern hit .247 in 1966, his only season with the Angels. He was traded to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder Len Gabrielson, and in July of 1967 was purchased by the Boston Red Sox. A part-time player for Boston, Siebern was released by the Red Sox in August of 1968 and retired.

Siebern finished his 12-season major league career with a .272 batting average. He had 1,217 hits and 132 home runs. He was an All-Star from 1962 through 1964.

Hittin’ Like Hinton

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Chuck Hinton

For more than a decade, Chuck Hinton was a dependable hitter and outfielder for three different American League teams. He remains the last Washington Senators player to hit .300 in a season.

Chuck Hinton was fourth in the American League in 1962 with a .310 average.

Chuck Hinton was fourth in the American League in 1962 with a .310 average.

Hinton was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1956. He was selected by the Washington Senators in the 1960 expansion draft, and hit .260 as a rookie for the Senators in 1961.

He had one of the most productive bats in the American League in 1962. Hinton hit .310 to finish fourth in batting, with 17 home runs and 75 RBIs, both career bests. He also stole 28 bases, second in the league to Luis Aparicio. His offensive numbers slipped over the next two season, though Hinton remained Washington’s best overall offensive threat. He batted .269 with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs in 1963. He was an All-Star in 1964, batting .274 with 11 home runs and 53 RBIs.

After the 1964 season, Washington traded Hinton to the Cleveland Indians for first baseman Bob Chance and infielder Woodie Held. Hinton batted .255 for the Tribe in 1965, with 18 home runs and 55 RBIs. He would never match those hitting statistics again in a single season.

A career .264 hitter, Chuck Hinton batted .318 with the Cleveland Indians in 1970.

A career .264 hitter, Chuck Hinton batted .318 with the Cleveland Indians in 1970.

After two more years with Cleveland, Hinton was traded to the California Angels for outfielder Jose Cardenal. After one season with the Angels (when he batted .195 in a part-time role), Hinton returned to Cleveland in exchange for outfielder Lou Johnson. He played three more seasons for Cleveland before retiring after the 1971 season. He hit a career-best .318 for the Indians in 1970.

Hinton retired after 11 major league seasons with a .264 career batting average.

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Hall-ing in a Bunch of Runs

 

Career Year: Jimmie Hall – 1963

After seven years in the minor leagues, a 25-year-old outfielder named Jimmie Hall was pleasantly surprised to find himself accompanying the Minnesota Twins north following 1963 spring training.

When outfielder Jimmie Hall went to spring training in 1963, he wasn’t expected to make the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day roster. Seven months later, he finished third in the balloting for 1963 American League Rookie of the Year.

When outfielder Jimmie Hall went to spring training in 1963, he wasn’t expected to make the Minnesota Twins’ Opening Day roster. Seven months later, he finished third in the balloting for 1963 American League Rookie of the Year.

Despite his happiness at sticking with the big league club, Hall’s expectations for significant playing time during the 1963 season had to be modest. The Twins’ outfield line-up was set with Lenny Green in center field flanked by two All-Stars, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison.

At the end of May, Hall was hitting only .188 after seeing limited action. Then an injury to Green opened up the job in center field. Hall batted .322 in June with five home runs and 16 runs batted in. He hit seven more home runs in July, and then had a huge August: a .333 batting average, 13 home runs, 27 RBIs. A healthy Green didn’t have a chance of displacing Hall the way he was hitting.

Jimmie Hall batted .260 with 33 home runs and 80 RBIs in 1963 – not bad for a player who spent the first two months of the season on the bench.

Jimmie Hall batted .260 with 33 home runs and 80 RBIs in 1963 – not bad for a player who spent the first two months of the season on the bench.

Hall closed out the season strong, hitting six more home runs in September. He finished the 1963 season with a .260 batting average, 33 home runs and 80 RBIs. He placed third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Gary Peters and Pete Ward.

Hall opened the 1964 season as the team’s starting center fielder, but he couldn’t match the hitting productivity of his rookie campaign. Hall hit 25 home runs in 1964 and 20 homers in both 1965 and 1966. He was traded to the California Angels in 1967, and played for a total of six major league teams before retiring after the 1970 season.

 

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Moose Muscle

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bill Skowron

Throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, as the New York Yankees were capturing one American League Championship after another, Bill “Moose” Skowron was a major run-producer and a middle lineup threat who presence allowed sluggers such Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris to see consistently better pitches.

Bill Skowron’s best season in the major leagues came in 1960, batting .309 with 26 home runs and 91 RBIs.

Bill Skowron’s best season in the major leagues came in 1960, batting .309 with 26 home runs and 91 RBIs.

Skowron was signed by the Yankees off the campus of Purdue University in 1950. He was called up to the big league club in mid-season 1954, batting .340 with seven home runs and 41 RBIs in 87 games. Skowron hit .319 as the Yankees’ part-time first baseman in 1955, and batted .308 as the team’s everyday first baseman in 1956, hitting 23 home runs and driving in 90 runs.

Skowron’s offensive number declined slightly in each of the next three seasons, though he was named to the American League All-Star team each year from 1957 through 1961. After missing nearly half the 1959 season due to injuries, Skowron had a big comeback year in 1960, hitting .309 with 26 home runs and a career-best 91 RBIs. He followed up in 1961 with another strong season, batting .267 with 28 homers and 89 RBIs. After the 1962 season, when Skowron hit 23 home runs with 80 RBIs, the Yankees traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Stan Williams.

The Dodgers already had the National League RBI leader in Tommy Davis (with a franchise record 153 RBIs in 1962). Skowron’s bat was expected to produce more runs while protecting Davis in the batting order.

But Skowron struggled against National League pitching. He appeared in only 89 games for the Dodgers, hitting .203 with four home runs and 19 RBIs. He did hit .385 against his former team in the 1963 World Series, including a three-run homer in Game Two.

Bill Skowron had eight career home runs in the World Series, including seven with the New York Yankees.

Bill Skowron had eight career home runs in the World Series, including seven with the New York Yankees.

Skowron would play in Los Angeles only in 1963. He was purchased by the Washington Senators in December, and then traded in mid-season to the Chicago White Sox. He had one productive season in Chicago, hitting .274 in 1965 with 18 home runs and 78 RBIs. But after that, the hits and runs seemed to be gone from his bat, and he retired after spending part of the 1967 season with the California Angels.

While a good hitter against all kinds of pitching during his prime, Skowron was one of those players who raised his game a notch in the post season. In addition to his accomplishments for the Dodgers in the 1963 World Series, Skowron had several good series for the Yankees. In 35 World Series games in Yankee pinstripes, Skowron hit .283 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs.

Man of Many Positions

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bert Campaneris

The Kansas City (and later, Oakland) Athletics had few bright spots during the 1960s. Six times during that decade, the A’s lost at least 90 games, and three times lost more than 100. Prior to the introduction of divisional play in 1969, the Athletics’ best finish was sixth in 1968, the first time in the 1960s that the A’s finished above .500.

In 1965, Bert Campaneris became the first major league player to play all nine field positions in a single game.

In 1965, Bert Campaneris became the first major league player to play all nine field positions in a single game.

The only real bright spot for the franchise during the 1960s was the acquisition and development of a stable of young, talented players who would jell at the end of the 1960s and spur the Oakland Athletics’ championship years in the early 1970s. One of the first of those foundation players was a fleet Cuban native named Dagoberto Campaneris.

“Bert” Campaneris came up with the A’s as their shortstop in 1964, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and two homers in his first game. As an indication of things to come, that performance was misleading, as Campaneris’ primary offensive weapon was speed, not power. Starting in 1965, Campaneris led the league in stolen bases in each of his first four seasons and in six out of his first eight years with the A’s. When Campaneris led the American League with 51 stolen bases in 1965, he ended Luis Aparicio’s nine-year reign as AL base-stealing champ (1956-1964).

Campaneris led the league in triples in 1965 (12) and in hits in 1968 (177). During the 1960s, he batted a combined .264 with 292 stolen bases.

Starting in 1965, Bert Campaneris led the American League in stolen bases in each of his first four seasons.

Starting in 1965, Bert Campaneris led the American League in stolen bases in each of his first four seasons.

Campaneris was the A’s shortstop and lead-off for a dozen years. However, he was talented enough to play every position and, on September 8, 1965, Campaneris did just that. In a night game against the California Angels, he became the first major league player to field every position, giving up one run in the inning he pitched in a 5-3 loss. (Campaneris did not figure in the decision). His only error in that nine-position game occurred in right field. He was error-free in six chances at other positions and, ironically, had no fielding chances during the inning he played his everyday position, shortstop.

A five-time All-Star, Campaneris is still the Athletics’ career leader in games (1,795), at-bats (7,180) and hits (1,882).

Fast in Philly

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Tony Gonzalez

With Willie Mays collecting one Gold Glove after another in center field, it was nearly impossible for any other National League center fielder to earn significant recognition, much less a Gold Glove, during the 1960s. That’s one of the reasons why Tony Gonzalez was one of the league’s under-rated outfielders when he patrolled center field for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1961 through 1968.

Tony Gonzalez’ best season came in 1963 when he batted .306 with 36 doubles, 12 triples (second in the National League) and 66 runs batted in.

And while Gonzalez couldn’t match the offensive capabilities of his center field counterpart in San Francisco, he brought to the Phillies’ lineup enough pop in his bat to make his defense all that much more valuable.

A Cuban native, Gonzalez was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1957. During his rookie season in 1960, he was traded with Lee Walls to the Philadelphia Phillies for Fred Hopke, Harry Anderson and Wally Post. He hit .299 in 78 games for the Phillies in his initial season.

From 1961 through 1968, Gonzalez hit for a combined average of .295, including a career-best .339 in 1967. That average was second best in the major leagues, trailing only Roberto Clemente’s .357. Gonzalez hit .302 in 1962 with 20 home runs and 63 RBIs. He drove in 66 runs in 1963, his career high.

Tony Gonzalez batted .274 as a rookie in 1960, a season divided between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. He would be the Phillies’ starting center fielder for the next eight years.

Tony Gonzalez batted .274 as a rookie in 1960, a season divided between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. He would be the Phillies’ starting center fielder for the next eight years.

But Gonzalez’s real prowess showed up in the field, where his outstanding range and excellent throwing accuracy made his hitting a plus.

Right after the 1968 season, the San Diego Padres made Gonzalez their thirty-seventh selection in the expansion draft. He started the season with San Diego, and then was traded to the Atlanta Braves in June, hitting .294 in 89 games with the Braves (with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs). He batted .265 as the Braves’ starting center fielder in 1970 until he was purchased by the California Angels. He hit .245 for the Angels in 1971, his final season in the majors.

He retired after 12 major league seasons with 1,485 hits and a .286 career batting average. Surprisingly, he was never selected for the National League All-Star team.

Slugger Down

 

Homer Happy: Tony Conigliaro

In Boston, the 1967 season will always be remembered as one of triumph and tragedy. The triumph was derived from the incredible four-team race that culminated in the Boston Red Sox winning the pennant on the last day of the regular season.

In 1965, Tony Conigliaro hit 32 home runs, making him (at age 20) the youngest player ever to win the home run crown.

In 1965, Tony Conigliaro hit 32 home runs, making him (at age 20) the youngest player ever to win the home run crown.

The tragedy was the season-ending – and career-altering – injury to Boston’s phenomenal young slugger, Tony Conigliaro.

Conigliaro was seemingly born to become a Red Sox icon. Good looking and oh so talented, he burst on the baseball scene ready-made for stardom.

Tony C was signed in 1962 by the Red Sox at age 17. Two years later, he was the starting right fielder for Boston. He hit .290 with 54 RBIs that season. He also set major league records for a teenager with 24 home runs and a .530 slugging average.

Conigliaro was even better the next year. His 32 home runs were tops in the American League in 1965, making Conigliaro the youngest player (at age 20) ever to win the home run crown. He followed in 1966 with 28 home runs and 93 RBIs. In three seasons, Conigliaro had already established himself as one of the league’s most feared sluggers by the age of 21.

In 1967, Conigliaro picked up where he left off the previous year. By mid-August, only 95 games into the season, he already had 20 home runs and 67 RBIs (with a .287 batting average and .519 slugging average) when he was struck in the face by a pitched ball. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, sustaining a broken cheekbone and severe damage to his left eye. Largely as a result of his injuries, the major leagues adopted the style of batting helmet with the protective ear flap that is standard today.

Struck in the face by a pitched ball in 1967, Tony Conigliaro missed more than a full season after sustaining a broken cheekbone and severe damage to his left eye.

Struck in the face by a pitched ball in 1967, Tony Conigliaro missed more than a full season after sustaining a broken cheekbone and severe damage to his left eye.

Because of persistent problems with his vision, Conigliaro didn’t play again until 1969. He hit 20 home runs with 82 RBIs during his “Comeback Player of the Year” season in 1969, and actually recorded his career-best power numbers in 1970 with 36 home runs and 116 RBIs. But permanent damage to his eyesight limited his playing ability thereafter. He was traded to the California Angels prior to the 1971 season, when he hit only four home runs in 74 games. He attempted another comeback with the Red Sox in 1975, but his career was over by age 30.

Conigliaro’s abbreviated career produced 166 home runs and 516 runs batted in on a .264 batting average. His only All-Star appearance occurred in 1967.

A Star Is Born

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Chuck Estrada

He was a shooting star of a pitcher, bursting upon the American League as its winningest pitcher and then fading away almost as quickly. But in his first two major league seasons, Chuck Estrada showed a Hall of Fame promise that injury and wildness would never allow to become fulfilled.

In his 1960 rookie season, Chuck Estrada won 18 games, tied for the American League lead in victories with Cleveland’s Jim Perry.

In his 1960 rookie season, Chuck Estrada won 18 games, tied for the American League lead in victories with Cleveland’s Jim Perry.

Estrada was signed out of high school by the Milwaukee Braves in 1956. He had an outstanding first professional season, winning 17 games for Salinas in the California League.

Acquired by the Baltimore Orioles, Estrada spent two seasons in the Orioles’ farm system before making his major league debut with two innings of one-hit relief (and five strikeouts) on April 21, 1960. He quickly worked his way from the Orioles’ bullpen to the starting rotation, and finished the 1960 season tied for the American League lead in wins (18, tied with Cleveland’s Jim Perry). In 25 starts, he pitched 12 complete games and finished with a 3.58 ERA. He also led the league with the fewest hits per nine innings (7.0)

Estrada followed up in 1961 with a 15-9 season and a 3.69 ERA. Again he led the league with the fewest hits per nine innings (6.8) but also led the league in bases on balls (132). Teamed with left-hander Steve Barber (18-12 in 1961), Estrada anchored one of the best young pitching staffs in the league, one expected to allow the Orioles to challenge the New York Yankees for years to come.

It wasn’t to be.

Two problems would plague Estrada for the rest of his abbreviated career: elbow miseries, and the inability to consistently throw strikes in crucial situations. Estrada’s record slipped to 9-17 in 1962, as he led the league in losses though his ERA rose only to 3.83. However, in 1963 and 1964, Estrada appeared in only 25 games, going 6-4 with a combined ERA of 5.02.

He spent a year in the minors trying to recover his pitching magic. Then Baltimore sent him to the California Angels, who promptly returned him to Baltimore two months later, without having thrown a pitch for the Angels. He spent part of the next two seasons with the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets, and then retired as a player in 1967 with a record of 50-44.

 

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