Vada Pinson spent most of the ’60s starring for the Cincinnati Reds as one of the great center fielders in the game. He was also one of the earliest members of the class of great black players that emerged from Oakland starting in the ’50s and continuing on until today. Here’s his longtime friend Curt Flood talking about Vada: “I always remember Vada Pinson’s smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice.”
Pinson died on October 21, 1995, not quite three weeks after suffering a stroke at 59 and being admitted to the Summit Medical Center in Oakland. He’d returned to Oakland after his baseball coaching career ended, and was scheduled to be inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame early in 1996. At the time, his agent, Ken Solomon said: “He’s showing remarkable strength and determination right now. He’s a fighter and it shows.”
After Pinson’s death, Flood, who was getting chemotheraphy for throat cancer, talked to a reporter, Gordon Edes, about being in Los Angeles and unable to make the funeral in Oakland. Flood: “I still have a message from Vada on my answering machine. Vada Pinson was lying on the floor of his home in Oakland for three days before somebody found him. Perhaps in those first few minutes or hours, if only someone had known he was there, they might have saved his life. We don’t leave messages. We don’t answer messages. Damn.” (But please read the eighth comment below, from a Pinson family member who says Flood was deeply misinformed about this.)
His former Red teammates remembered Pinson’s abilities. Pitcher Jim Brosnan: “I had a shutout going in the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs. There were two outs and Ernie Banks hit a ball to what was the deepest part of old Crosley Field, out there in right-center field where the flag pole was next to the light tower.
“I remember Vada running from left-center where he’d been playing Banks. He just seemed to glide across that terrace that ran around the outfield. He caught that ball with almost no effort and he didn’t even have to leap. That’s how fast he was.”
Jerry Lynch, who played left to Pinson’s center for the Reds in the ’60s: “What bothers me is how could a guy have over 2,700 hits and not be in the Hall of Fame? He was a fine gentleman and the neatest person I have ever known.”
Former Reds second baseman Tommy Helms: “His game and practice shoes were shined brighter than my dress shoes. Vada had speed you could not teach. Even two or three years ago, he was in super shape. He did not drink or smoke.”
Earl Lawson, a Reds reporter for the Cincinnati Post: “I always felt Vada had more talent in his little finger than most guys have in their whole body. Vada could run and he had surprising power. I don’t recall anybody getting to 1,500 hits faster than Vada did.
“I voted for Vada for the Hall of Fame. He had Mickey Mantle’s speed. He missed being named rookie of the year in 1960 because he had just a few at-bats over the limit.”
At the time of his death, Pinson ranked among the Reds’ all-time leaders in a stack of offensive categories: hits (fifth, 1,881), doubles (fourth, 342), triples (third, 96), runs (fifth, 978), stolen bases (fifth, 221) at-bats (fifth, 6,335) and games (fifth, 1,565).
As for his cleanliness, Reds pitcher Brooks Lawrence, Pinson’s first roommate in Cincinnati, said: “I never saw a man so clean. He often took five or six showers a day.”
Former Reds manager Sparky Anderson, recalling his hitting coach with the Detroit Tigers from 1985 to 1991: “He’s one of those guys who came up in the deal of the cards from the bottom of the deck. Vada never got the recognition, he never got any recognition at all. But not one time did I ever hear Vada badmouth anybody about it. He never said a bad word about it. . . . He would spit shine those shoes of his every day. And he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. I never heard Vada Pinson bad-mouth anyone.
“He looked like his feet never touched the ground. He was so fast, had so many doubles, all his numbers, 2,800 hits, he was such a player. And a gentleman. If there is one word I’d use to describe him, it’s that: He was a gentleman.
“Vada never got near the recognition he deserved. Whether it was from being on the same team as Robby and Big Klu (Ted Kluszewski), I don’t know.
“But when it comes to retiring numbers, you have to now look at him. It’s too bad we wait until after he’s gone to do these things. But when you talk about what a player does for a city, for a franchise, he’s a Red. He obviously didn’t have the power of a guy like Mantle, but in every other way he was like Mantle. He was idolized by a generation (of kids) in Cincinnati.”
Curt Flood, who was a year ahead of Pinson at McClymonds High School in West Oakland: “Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost.”
Pinson’s Reds teammate, Frank Robinson, also attended McClymonds High and was almost exactly three years older than Pinson. Robby said: “The numbers don’t tell the true story. Vada was underrated and underappreciated as a player. He brought a whole lot more to the game than just cold numbers.
“He was the first guy I saw who consistently put pressure on outfielders with his speed. Not just with balls he hit into the gaps. He’d hit ground balls to straightaway center and turn them into doubles.
“Same thing with a two-hopper to the first baseman. He’d beat it out. The pitcher couldn’t get over there fast enough to cover.”
Vada Pinson’s 2,757 hits, coupled with 256 home runs and 305 stolen bases, made him, as of 1995, one of only four players to amass at least 2,500 hits, 250 home runs and 250 stolen bases. The others: Joe Morgan, who came out of West Oakland a few years after Pinson, Willie Mays, and Andre Dawson. Morgan: “You know what was great about Vada? He was content with his accomplishments, with who he was. He was happy with his niche. He knew where he fit in.”