Ralph Garr might be the most anonymous batting average champion of post-World War Two big league baseball. He won the N.L. title by hitting .353 for the Atlanta Braves in 1974, after hitting .343 in 1971. He made the All-Star team only once, in ’74, but finished first or second in the N.L. in batting three times in four years, 1971-1974.
On May 10, 1971, Sports Illustrated profiled Garr, who was hitting .400 after 23 games. Some excerpts:
On his first time at bat against Gaylord Perry of the Giants last week, Garr bluffed a bunt on the first pitch, drawing Third Baseman Hal Lanier halfway to home. The next pitch he bunted hard right at the charging Lanier, who overran the ball for Garr’s first of four hits that night, the third game this year he has collected that many. The next time up, Garr singled off Perry’s leg on a two-strike count, and seconds later he was doing a hop, skip and jump around the bases when Henry Aaron hit his 600th career homer.
Ever since Garr, a 5’11″, 185-pound left-handed batter, hit “.500 and change” at Grambling College (it was .568, which is a lot of breakage), his hitting and running—if not his fielding—have had the Atlanta organization drooling. Says Aaron, “They claim Mantle had speed. But Ralph gets down to first as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Garr’s speed has become something of a problem for Aaron. “I like to concentrate when I’m batting,” he says, “but the pitchers throw over to first five and six times to keep Ralph close. That breaks my concentration.” Aaron also sees more outside pitches than usual, since catchers want to be in throwing position if Garr tries to steal.
The Braves have taken advantage of Garr’s speed, entering into an agreement with Warner Brothers Inc., and its agent, the Licensing Corporation of America, for exclusive rights to nickname their new star Road Runner II. “Our contract with the Braves makes Ralph the first licensed nickname to our knowledge anywhere in the world,” says LCA chairman Jay Eminent. Urged on by the management, Atlanta fans squeak “Beep! Beep!” when Garr reaches base.
Garr was supposed to challenge converted Shortstop Sonny Jackson for the center-field job, but he became the regular leftfielder when Rico Carty, last year’s National League batting champion, broke his leg playing in the Dominican League. Garr played in the same league and finished with the best average ever recorded there, .457. According to Paul Richards, vice-president of the Braves, Carty may not return as a regular this season. “We can’t risk it if he isn’t fully recovered,” Richards says. “When Carty is ready we will decide on a new lineup. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Garr lead the world in hitting. We knew last year he was a big-league hitter. Even without his speed he would be good. But the speed gives him a chance to be a superstar. His fielding kept him at Richmond.” Garr’s fielding is not all that bad. Third Base Coach Jim Busby and Aaron have worked with him. He is not as aggressive in the field as he is at bat and he still makes mental errors, but these should be eliminated in time.
One of eight children from a Ruston, La. family, Garr is supporting his mother, his father and three of his brothers as well as his wife, Ruby, a senior at Grambling, and their 2-year-old daughter, Shorta. “When it comes time to sign,” Garr says, “they act like I batted .100. I look at my average and I think I’m Superman.”
Remarkably, Garr is a bad-ball hitter, but he always seems to make contact—just three strikeouts in 95 at bats. No power swinger, he has been peppering infields and outfields with every kind of single imaginable, including a 130-foot drag bunt to right. “Nothing is impossible,” he says when people ask him if he is going to hit .400 forever. “I’ll just wait for my ability to show what I can do. Sometimes I even surprise myself.”
A few weeks later, in July 1971, Time wrote its own profile of Garr. Then in September 1985, the Toronto Globe and Mail caught up with the retired Garr:
He hit .325 and .386 (a modern league record) in the International League and .343 his first full year with the Braves. He “slumped” to .299 in 1973 but won the batting title the next year at .353. (He was hitting .382 in mid-June and had collected more than 200 hits before the end of August). His salary that season was $55,000, the Braves offered $85,000 for 1975, he asked for $114,500 and won in arbitration, becoming the highest-paid player with Atlanta, (Hank Aaron having taken his $200,000 salary to the Milwaukee Brewers).
Garr had an unusual batting style, almost standing on top of home plate, and when he swung, his momentum carried him down the first-base line. “I felt I never got the recognition I deserved,” he said recently. “I was a batting champion, never got caught up in the dope stuff, but I was never on a winner either and not too many people remember me.” He was traded to the White Sox in 1976 and on April 7, ’77, he was the lead-off batter on opening day in Toronto. Thus he became the first American League player to come to bat in Canada. (He collected three hits that day). “What I remember more than the snow was the enthusiasm of the fans,” he said. “The people in Toronto were so excited, so happy to see baseball, they were almost crazy. It may seem like a long time ago, but a lot of guys have been in baseball for more than nine years without doing what Toronto has accomplished.”
Now 39, he served as the first base coach at Richmond, Atlanta’s International League farm team this summer and makes his winter home in Houston. “My godfather owns a pastry shop there,” he said. “And I help him run it.”
In May 1985, Garr talked about scouting and teaching base-running to Braves prospects: “Basically the facilities (at the black colleges) are not as strong. Baseball is at the low end of the totem pole behind football and basketball. The talent is there. So I’m just trying to find the best all-around athletes.”
“You can’t teach players how to run. So I work more on teaching them when to run and how to get a quick start. You can learn to be quick without being fast.”
Some more from that May 1985 article: During the 1974 season, Garr became the first player since 1930 to reach 200 hits by August, finishing with 214 after a knee injury sidelined him for three weeks in September.
In 1976, he was traded to the White Sox, lasting three years before joining the Angels in 1979.
Released at 34 by the Angels with a .306 career average in 1980, Garr was bitter.
“I can’t understand it. I never complained,” Garr, whose top salary was $160,000, said at the time. “They weren’t fair with me. They’re giving guys $1 million a year today that couldn’t hold my jock.”
The anger has dissipated over the years, with Garr saying he may have overreacted after his release.
“I was happy for playing so long,” he said. “I gave (baseball) a lot for what I got back. They got me for almost nothing.”
After leaving baseball, Garr went into business at the doughnut shop with his godfather.
“I’m still involved,” he said. “But I used to have to get in there every morning and make the doughnuts and serve them, even when business got real slow.”
And: “The Roadrunner idea was something (Ted Turner) thought of. But it was fun, I enjoyed all of that. And say what you want about Mr. Turner, but he gave me the chance. He realized I had the ability.”
Garr is still a scout with the Braves. Offhand, without having seen him bat once, his style sounds more than a little like Ichiro’s. Actually, in May 2001, Lou Piniella said: “He’s like Garr. Gator was a contact hitter. He used the whole field. He ran a little out of the box. He didn’t strike out much. He didn’t walk much. He hit an occasional home run but he had good gap power.”