Sometimes Size Counts

 

Homer Happy: Frank Howard

Frank Howard made opposing pitchers cringe. At six-foot-seven and 255 pounds, he was an imposing presence at the plate. Not even the higher mound (15 inches high until 1969) gave pitchers as much of an advantage. At his height, he could still nearly look them in the eye.

With his strength, every pitch was a potential souvenir. His last manager with the Washington Senators, the legendary Ted Williams, called Howard the strongest man in baseball. No one questioned Williams’ hitting acumen, and no one could argue his point about Howard.

In 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher” when most of major league hitting was in a coma, Howard hit home runs as if the regular season were simply extended batting practice. He launched 44 homers that season – ten of them within a single week – eight more than Willie Horton and the rest of the American League’s sluggers. He hit 136 home runs from 1968-1970, none of them cheap.

While known primarily for his size and strength, Frank Howard was also a fine all-around athlete. At Ohio State, he was an All-American in basketball as well as baseball.

What Howard brought to the batter’s box wasn’t fair. He was more than just another lumbering slugger. Matching his strength was an athletic ability practically unheard of in a hitter his size. He had been an All-American in basketball (as well as baseball) at Ohio State before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958.

His minor league career lasted only two seasons, when he butchered minor league pitchers for 37 home runs in 1958 and 43 in 1959. He was ready for the big time.

In 1960, Howard walked away with National League Rookie of the Year honors by batting .268 with 23 home runs and 77 RBIs. A thumb injury limited him to only 15 home runs in 1961, but a healthy season in 1962 produced 31 home runs with 119 runs batted in.

After hitting 23 home runs as a rookie in 1960, Frank Howard led the Los Angeles Dodgers with 31 home runs and 119 RBIs in 1962.

Despite that kind of productivity at the plate, the Dodgers – and in particular, manager Walt Alston – saw Howard primarily as a platoon player. And pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium seemed more conducive to slashing hitters like Tommy Davis and to the base path speed of Maury Wills and Willie Davis. Howard just didn’t seem to fit in with the Dodgers’ offensive strategy. Plus Howard’s power output appeared to be declining: to 28 home runs in 1963 and 24 in 1964, and he drove in less than 70 runs both seasons.

So in December of 1964, the Dodgers sent Howard to the Washington Senators as part of a seven-player swap that brought Washington’s ace pitcher, Claude Osteen, to the West Coast.  Playing for the worst team in the American League and battling injuries season-long, Howard batted .289 for the Senators in 1965 and led the team with 21 home runs and 84 RBIs. After hitting only 18 home runs in 1966, he doubled that total in 1967.

The 1968 season was when Howard lifted his slugging to elite status. While the rest of the American League was hitting for a combined .230 average, Howard batted .274 and led the league with 44 home runs, 330 total bases and a .552 slugging percentage. His 106 RBIs were second best in the league (to Ken Harrelson‘s 109).

For six days in May of 1968, Frank Howard was a home run machine – hitting 10 homers in six games and only 20 at-bats. He finished the 1968 season with 44 home runs and 106 runs batted in.

This was also the season when Howard went on a home run tear in May, blasting ten home runs in six games and doing it in only 20 at-bats. Howard did even better in 1969, batting .296 with 48 home runs and 111 RBIs. Harmon Killebrew led the league in both home runs and RBIs that season, but Howard was the league leader with 340 total bases and was fourth with a .574 slugging percentage. In 1970, he would lead the league in home runs (44) and RBIs (126).

Howard retired in 1973 with 382 home runs and 1,119 RBIs. He posted a career batting average of .273 and a .499 career slugging average. At his peak as a slugger, from 1967 through 1970, Howard averaged 43 home runs and 108 RBIs per season.

 

 

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Johnny, Take Us Home!

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(July 7, 1964) The National League today won the All-Star game 7-4 on a walk-off home run by Phillies right fielder Johnny Callison.

Johnny Callison’s three-run homer off Dick Radatz was the game winner for the National League All-Stars.

Johnny Callison’s three-run homer off Dick Radatz was the game winner for the National League All-Stars.

Callison, who entered the game in the fifth inning as a pinch hitter for pitcher Jim Bunning, flied out in his two previous at-bats. His ninth-inning home run off Boston Red Sox reliever Dick Radatz was his only hit of the day.

The American League opened the scoring in the first inning on Harmon Killebrew’s RBI single off NL starter Don Drysdale. The NL took the lead in the fourth inning on solo home runs from Billy Williams and Ken Boyer. The Nationals added another run in the fifth inning when Dick Groat doubled off Camilo Pascual, bringing home Roberto Clemente.

The American League tied the game when Brooks Robinson tripled home two runs in the sixth inning, then took the lead on Jim Fregosi’s sacrifice fly in the seventh inning. The AL led 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth, with Radatz on the pitching mound.

Juan Marichal pitched a scoreless ninth inning to pick up the victory. Marichal was also the winning pitcher in the first 1962 All-Star Game, and had a career ERA of 0.50 in eight All-Star apearances.

Juan Marichal pitched a scoreless ninth inning to pick up the victory. Marichal was also the winning pitcher in the first 1962 All-Star Game, and had a career ERA of 0.50 in eight All-Star appearances.

Willie Mays walked to open the ninth inning, stole second base, and then scored on Orlando Cepeda’s single, tying the game. With runners at first and second base, Radatz struck out Hank Aaron for the inning’s second out. But Callison ended the All-Star thriller with one stroke.

It would be Callison’s last All-Star appearance.

Base Sweeper

 

Homer Happy: Don Mincher

When the Minnesota Twins of the early 1960s were loaded with slugging bats, the unsung slugger in the Twins lineup belonged to a left-handed-hitting outfielder and first baseman named Don Mincher. In seven seasons with the Twins, Mincher had more than 400 at-bats only once, yet averaged 19 home runs and 56 RBIs per season from 1963 through 1966.

Don Mincher was part of the devastating lineup that propelled the Minnesota Twins to the American League pennant in 1965. Mincher batted .251 with 22 home runs and 65 RBIs.

Don Mincher was part of the devastating lineup that propelled the Minnesota Twins to the American League pennant in 1965. Mincher batted .251 with 22 home runs and 65 RBIs.

Mincher was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1956. Just before the start of the 1960 season, he was traded with Earl Battey to the Washington Senators for first baseman Roy Sievers. He made his major league debut with the Senators in 1960, appearing in 27 games with two home runs and five RBIs.

He split the 1961 season between the Minnesota Twins and their AAA affiliate in Buffalo, hitting 24 home runs in Buffalo and five homers in 35 games for the Twins. He appeared in 86 games for the Twins in 1962, hitting nine home runs with 29 RBIs. In 1963, appearing in only 82 games (half the Twins’ schedule), Mincher still managed to club 17 home runs with 42 RBIs … heavy numbers for a half season of production.

During the Twins’ pennant-winning 1965 season, Mincher combined with Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Tony Oliva, Jimmie Hall and American League MVP Zoilo Versalles for one of the most dangerous slugging lineups of the 1960s. Mincher contributed 22 home runs and 65 runs batted in from only 346 at-bats.

Don Mincher’s best season came with the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He led the team with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs.

Don Mincher’s best season came with the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He led the team with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs.

Following the 1966 seasons, the Twins traded Mincher and Hall to the California Angels in the deal that brought pitcher Dean Chance to Minnesota. Mincher got 487 at-bats as the Angels’ everyday first baseman, and responded by batting .273 with 25 home runs and 76 RBIs. After a “down” year in 1968 (shared by most batters in the American League that season), Mincher was the second pick in the 1968 expansion draft, being the first player selected by the Seattle Pilots. Mincher had one of his best seasons for the Pilots, hitting .246 with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs.

In January of 1970, Mincher was traded again, with Ron Clark, to the Oakland Athletics for Mike Hershberger, Lew Krausse, Phil Roof and Ken Sanders. He hit .246 for the A’s in 1970 with 27 home runs and 74 RBIs, and the next spring was dealt to the Washington Senators in a swap that brought Mike Epstein and Darold Knowles to Oakland. He batted .280 combined for Oakland and Washington in 1971, with 12 home runs and 53 RBIs. He split the 1972 season, his last as a player, between the Texas Rangers and Oakland, hitting six home runs with 44 RBIs.

Over his 13-season career, Mincher batted .249 with 200 home runs and 643 RBIs. He was a member of the American League All-Star team twice, in 1967 and in 1969.

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Feigner Fans ‘Em

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(February 18, 1967) He was one of the top strikeout pitchers of the 1960s … though he never pitched in the major leagues.

And on this day he put on a pitching exhibition that supported any claim that he was the best strikeout artist ever.

“The King” Eddie Feigner

“The King” Eddie Feigner

Eddie Feigner could pitch a softball (underhanded, of course) clocked at speeds up to 104 mph (though some claimed it was more like 114 mph). Feigner barnstormed America for more than 50 years with a four-player team known as “The King and His Court.”

Just prior to spring training in 1967, Feigner pitched an exhibition at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, striking out six consecutive major league hitters.

But not just any major league hitters. Feigner fanned (in order) Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks RobinsonWillie McCoveyMaury Wills, and Harmon Killebrew. All six won the Most Valuable Player Award during the 1960s. All but Wills have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

If hitters of their stature couldn’t touch a fat Feigner-launched softball, how would they have fared against a baseball?

Harmon’s Fastball Insurance

 

Homer Happy: Bob Allison

For the better part of his career, it was Bob Alison’s misfortune to find himself batting after Harmon Killebrew, the most prolific home run hitter of the 1960s.

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From 1961-1964, Bob Allison averaged 31 home runs and 96 RBIs per season.

Allison’s power statistics were regularly overshadowed by the beastly home run numbers that Killebrew consistently posted. Killebrew’s bat too often cleared the bases of runners who could have been Allison’s RBIs.

But Allison’s abilities were not overlooked by the American League pitchers who faced him, and who fed fastballs to Killebrew to avoid putting on base another potential run for Allison to bring home. The fact was, during the early 1960s, there were just too many lethal bats in the Minnesota Twins’ lineup for pitchers to issue free passes or make a mistake.

The Twins were the highest-scoring American League team of the 1960s, and Bob Allison was one reason why.

The Washington Senators signed Allison out of the University of Kansas in 1955. In four minor league seasons, Allison hit a total of only 28 home runs. But his .307 batting average in 1958 with Chattanooga in the AA Southern Association earned him a look with the Senators, and a spot on the Washington roster for 1959.

In his rookie season, Allison surprised everyone with his power. For 1959, he batted .261 with 30 home runs and 85 runs batted in, third on the team in both categories (behind Killebrew and Jim Lemon). Allison led the league with nine triples and was selected as American League Rookie of the Year.

In 1960 – the team’s last season in Washington, D.C. — Allison slipped to 15 home runs and 69 RBIs, though his 30 doubles were eighth best in the American League. His hitting rebounded when the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961 to play as the Twins. Allison hit 29 home runs and drove in 105 runs, a performance he nearly duplicated in 1962 when he again hit 29 home runs and drove in 102 runs. He also scored 102 runs in 1962, third most in the league.

Bob Allison had his best season in 1963, hitting 35 home runs with 91 runs batted in. He also led the league in scoring with 99 runs.

Bob Allison had his best season in 1963, hitting 35 home runs with 91 runs batted in. He also led the league in scoring with 99 runs.

All this was accomplished while hitting behind Killebrew, who led the league in home runs (46) and RBIs (126).

Allison led the America League with 99 runs scored in 1963, hitting .271 with 35 home runs and 91 RBIs. It would be his highest single-season home run total, but Allison came close the following year with 32 home runs (and 86 RBIs).

Yet Allison’s productivity in the batter’s box was beginning a steady decline. In the Twins’ pennant-winning season of 1965, Allison (now 30) managed only 23 home runs with 78 RBIs on a .233 batting average. In 1966 he missed more than half the season with a broken left hand that limited him to eight home runs and 19 RBIs. He played full seasons in 1967 and 1968, hitting 24 and 22 home runs. He was a part-time player over his last two seasons, retiring in 1970.

In 13 major league seasons, he batted .255 with 256 home runs and 796 RBIs. Allison finished in the top ten in home runs among American Leaguers eight times during his career, and teamed with Killebrew in 1962 to become the first pair of sluggers to hit grand slam home runs in the same inning.

Allison was a member of the American League All-Star team three times.

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Twin Grand Slams … in the Same Inning

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(July 18, 1962) At Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Twins today pulled into a virtual tie for third place with the Cleveland Indians by blasting the Tribe 14-3.

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Bob Allison’s first inning grand slam was his eleventh home run of the 1963 season. He would hit a career-best 35 home runs in 1963, while leading the American League by scoring 99 runs.

The game was over by the end of the first inning. The Twins pounded Cleveland starter Barry Latman and reliever Jim Perry for 11 runs. Included among those runs were grand slam home runs by Bob Allison and Harmon Killebrew.

Allison’s bases-loaded blast came off Latman, and followed an RBI single from third baseman Rich Rollins. Catcher Earl Battey followed Allison’s slam with a solo homer. With the score 6-0, Perry replaced Latman and gave up a single to second baseman Bernie Allen before retiring Zoilo Versalles and Twins pitcher Dick Stigman. But then Bob Tuttle walked and Vic Power’s single drove in Allen. A walk to Rollins loaded the bases for Killebrew, who hit the inning’s second grand slam, putting the Twins in front 11-0.

It marked the first time since 1890 that two grand slams had been hit by the same team in one inning. It’s been done five times since.

Stigman (4-2) allowed three runs on six hits to pick up the complete game victory. He struck out 11 Indians batters.

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In addition to his grand slam, Killebrew hit a solo home run in the third inning, his 24th of the season.

He would finish the 1963 season with 45 home runs, the most in the American League.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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The Year Yaz and Boston Would Not Be Denied

 

Career Year: Carl Yastrzemski – 1967

In his first six seasons (1961-1966), Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski was well on his way to building the kind of credentials that can land a player on a plaque in Cooperstown. He already had won a batting title (1963), had led the American League in doubles three times, and had won his first two Gold Gloves (with five more to come).

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Ted Williams in left field, Carl Yastrzemski had put together a solid six seasons unfazed by the Splendid Splinter’s shadow. But his best was yet to come.

He had weathered intense  and uncompromising media and fan pressure by replacing Ted Williams in left field, and had even had an occasion when Carroll Hardy pinch hit for him (just as Hardy had once pinch hit for Williams – the only player ever to do so).

But Williams had brought an American League pennant to Boston two decades earlier, something Yastrzemski had not yet accomplished. With a Red Sox team that had been able to finish no higher than sixth in his career, it would take a super-human effort on Yastrzemski’s part to bring a World Series to Boston in 1967.

And that’s what he delivered.

He turned the 1967 season into his personal showcase, just as Frank Robinson had done the season before in winning the Triple Crown. Yastrzemski played like a man possessed, unfazed by the weight of the team on his back.

In the last 12 games of the 1967 season, Carl Yastrzemski hit five home runs, scored 14 runs and drove in 16. He had seven hits and six RBIs in the final two pennant-clinching games against the Minnesota Twins.

In the last 12 games of the 1967 season, Carl Yastrzemski hit five home runs, scored 14 runs and drove in 16. He had seven hits and six RBIs in the final two pennant-clinching games against the Minnesota Twins.

At the All-Star break, Yastrzemski was batting .324 with 19 home runs and 56 runs batted in. By the end of August, he was batting .308 with 35 home runs and 95 RBIs (already a new career high). And incredibly, the Red Sox – who had finished ninth in 1966 – were still in contention. In fact, Boston was locked in a four-team pennant race that wouldn’t be decided until the final day of the season.

Yastrzemski had a magnificent September, batting .417 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs in 27 games, almost single-handedly propelling the Red Sox to the pennant. In the last 12 games of the season, he hit five home runs, scored 14 runs and drove in 16. In the last two “must win” games against the Minnesota Twins, Yastrzemski went seven for eight with six RBIs.

During the 1967 World Series, which the St. Louis Cardinals won in seven games, Yastrzemski continued his offensive onslaught, batting .400 with three home runs.

In the last 12 games of the 1967 season, Carl Yastrzemski hit five home runs, scored 14 runs and drove in 16. He had seven hits and six RBIs in the final two pennant-clinching games against the Minnesota Twins.

Carl Yastrzemski’s performance in 1967 earned him a Triple Crown and the Most Valuable Player award.

When the regular season had ended, Yastrzemski was at the top of the league in nearly every offensive category: hits (189), runs (112), home runs (44, tied with Minnesota’s Harmon Killebrew), RBIs (121), total bases (360), slugging percentage (.622) and batting average (.326). His Triple Crown leadership in home runs, RBIs and batting average earned Yaz the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Most Valuable Muscles

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball …

(November 12, 1969) Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew, who led the American League in home runs for the sixth time in his career, today was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

Killebrew hit more home runs during the 1960s than any other player in baseball.

Killebrew hit more home runs during the 1960s than any other player in baseball.

Killebrew claimed 16 of the 24 first-place votes to finish ahead of Boog Powell and Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles.

After missing nearly half of the 1968 season due to a hamstring injury, Killebrew appeared in all 162 games of the 1969 season and had the most productive season of his career. Batting .276, Killebrew scored 106 runs and led the league with both 49 home runs and 140 runs batted in. He also led the league with 145t bases on balls and a .427 on-base percentage. Killebrew’s .584 slugging average was third in the league to Reggie Jackson’s .607 and Rico Petrocelli’s .589.

Killebrew hit his 400th career home run in April. He would retire after the 1975 season with 573 home runs.

 

 

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So Many Home Runs, and So Much More

Homer Happy: Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron had so many ways to beat National League pitchers that his prowess as a home run hitter was nearly overlooked until he passed Babe Ruth in career home runs in 1973. But he was the second most productive home run hitter in the 1960s, and of course, he was the most productive home run hitter in the Twentieth Century.

Twice in the 1960s, Hank Aaron led the National League in home runs and runs batted in: in 1963 (44, 130) and in 1966 (44, 127). He also led the league in slugging percentage in 1963 (.586) and in 1967 (.573).

Twice in the 1960s, Hank Aaron led the National League in home runs and runs batted in: in 1963 (44, 130) and in 1966 (44, 127). He also led the league in slugging percentage in 1963 (.586) and in 1967 (.573).

The fact that he was so skilled in so many facets of the game, so complete a hitter, and so quietly consistent throughout most of his 23-year major league career, probably contributed to his lack of promotion by the sports press as a home run hitter in the class of Mays and Mantle and Killebrew. But NL pitchers knew better.

The numbers don’t lie.

Aaron averaged 37.5 home runs per season during the 1960s. He led the National League three times both in home runs and in runs batted in during that decade. Altogether, he drove in more runs during the 1960s than any other major league player.

After showcasing his talent briefly in the Negro League, the 18-year-old Aaron was signed by the Boston Braves in 1952. He was nothing short of spectacular during his two seasons in the minor leagues, and made his debut with the now Milwaukee Braves in 1954, batting .280 with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs. He led the National League in hitting with a .328 average in 1956, and would win a second batting title in 1959 with a .355 batting average.

Entering the 1960s, Hank Aaron already had hit 179 home runs … and he was only 25.

Entering the 1960s, Hank Aaron already had hit 179 home runs … and he was only 25.

Aaron led the National League with 44 home runs and 132 runs batted in to win the Most Valuable Player award in 1957. Surprisingly, it would be the only MVP of his career. At the close of the 1950s, he had already accumulated 179 home runs, and he was only 25 years old. As a slugger, he was just getting warmed up.

Aaron hit 40 or more home runs five times during the 1960s. He drove in more than 100 runs six times, his lowest total during the decade coming in 1968 when he managed “only” 86 RBIs. His most productive season during the 1960s – amid so much productivity at the plate – came in 1963. He batted .319 and led the National League in home runs (44), RBIs (130), runs scored (121), total bases (370) and slugging percentage (.586). Despite those “Ruthian” statistics, Aaron finished third in the MVP voting behind Sandy Koufax and Dick Groat.

As talented and productive as he was, Aaron was under-appreciated (and even under-rated) by the press. He was too quiet, too polite and too lacking in controversy to garner sustained media attention. And he played for a Braves team that finished middle-of-the-pack for most of the 1960s. He was so good, so consistently, that it was easy to take him for granted. Aaron was simply a gentle man, with a brutal bat.

Of course, by the end of his career, Aaron had racked up career records for home runs, RBIs and total bases, and ranked in the top ten in nearly every hitting category. His numbers define his legacy.

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Excerpt from Legends of Swing: The Home Run Hitters of the 1960s. Available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.