The Favorite Obscure Baseball Figure Project, Part Two

When the initial post on this subject went over the 5,000-word mark, I figured I’d better start a new post to handle all the input I was getting. The project is described in more depth in the predecessor post, but it’s about asking various baseball fans to pick their favorite obscure baseball figure from the past. As the word “figure” indicates, the person doesn’t have to be a player; it can be anyone employed within the game itself, by a team or by a league, including umpires, coaches, scouts, and front office personnel (but not the media).

The idea is that time and a focus on sabermetrics and efforts to determine who should be in the Hall of Fame have left many uniquely interesting and/or appealing retired/deceased baseball people by the wayside. So, I’m asking for help in bringing to light some old baseball people who are worth remembering.

If you’ve come by this post and have someone in mind, just put his name in the comments. I’m only asking for a name, but if you’ve already written something online about the person (it can be either a man or a woman, of course), I’ll link to that; and if you want to write a few sentences talking about your favorite obscure baseball figure, that would be fine. Most of the links go to the Wikipedia pages for the figures chosen. (I’ve also posed this question to people on the Baseball Fever website, and you can read that message board thread too.)

Here are some from people who responded to a posting on the Seamheads Facebook page:
Jacob Pomrenke:
Great idea, Arne. My pick would be John “Lefty” Sullivan – the popular strikeout king of Chicago’s semipro leagues in the 1920s. Blazing fastball and a great spitball; his only weakness was a heart condition that made him dizzy when he bent over to field a ball, so he was bunted out of the American League after 4 games with the 1919 White Sox. I interviewed his grandsons and wrote about him for the BioProject.

Stephen Keane:
Coco Laboy had an amazing rookie year with the Montreal Expos in their first ever season in 1969 hitting 18 HR and knocking in 83 runs. He never came close to a season like that in the next four seasons of his career. I also like the Mets announcer Bob Murphy used always tell fans how Coco got his nickname from his grandmother for his love of chocolate milk.

Joe Williams:
Boots Day. Love the name. My childhood best friend and I used to joke about him. “He is no Boots Day” we used to say. We discovered him via a Topps baseball card.

Rj Lesch
When I was a kid I liked Horacio Pina (because of his unusual pitching motion) and Dick McAuliffe (unusual batting stance).

Ron Pacak
Doug Ault, who was the first matinee idol of the Toronto Blue Jays. On Apr. 7, 1977 he swatted two home runs on a snowy afternoon at Exhibition Stadium. The Jays won their first ever game 9-5. After a good opening month, reality set in for both Ault and the Blue Jays, and the home runs became rarer, and the struggles with his swing had him finished as a major leaguer by 1980. He wound up with 17 career home runs. Later he became a coach and manager in the Blue Jays farm system. Much beloved by Jays fans for that glorious opening day, he would show up occasionally whenever the old timers were saluted. Tragically, Ault died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2004 at the age of 54.

Steve Timberlake
Moose Stubing. 5 career ABs,, no hits, all pinch-hit appearances with the Angels in 1967. Managed in the PCL for years, wining the title with the Edmonton Trappers once. He’s now a scout, if Wikipedia can be believed. I remember him from the times he brought his teams into Hawai’i to play the Islanders in the early 1980s.

Sean Agranov
not necessarily rare but always liked red ruffings name and bump wills too. wonder what would possess someone to call their kid bump?

Tom Zocco
I was always a fan of Coot Veal.

Here are some from people I’ve emailed:

From Mike Lynch, who runs Seamheads: Smead Jolley, who spent only four years in the majors despite hitting .305 with a 112 OPS+ because he was one of the worst fielders in MLB history.  Jolley committed 44 errors in only 413 games; Andruw Jones has committed 48 in 1,926 games.  So you can see how bad he was, especially when compared to one of the best ever.  But the guy could hit: in 16 minor league seasons, Jolley batted .367 with a .584 SLG and racked up 3,043 hits, 640 doubles and 336 homers.  In 1928, he batted .404 with 52 doubles, 10 triples and 45 homers for San Francisco.  If there had been a DH back then, Jolley might have been one of the great sluggers of his era.  Instead he spent most of his career in the minors.

(Mike adds: “He’s not my favorite but from 1907-1921 Ed Konetchy accumulated 3,080 total bases.  Only Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had more during that span, yet you never hear of Konetchy.  I thought I knew every significant ballplayer until I discovered Konetchy while writing my Black Sox book.  Somehow he landed in the minors after the ’21 season even though he was only 35 and had hit .299 with a career-high 11 home runs.  He hit .345 with 41 dingers for Ft. Worth in 1925 at the age of 39.”)

From Jim Margalus, formerly of Sox Machine, now writing at South Side Sox:
1 – Wilbur Wood, especially with the way Chuck Tanner rode him like a deadball-era pitcher in the ’70s.

2 – Warren Newson, who was probably born 10 years too late.

3 – Joe Horlen, who had the lowest ERA in the AL from 1963-1968. When you look at the ERA leaderboard from that time, he sticks out:

Sandy Koufax
Juan Marichal
Joe Horlen
Luis Tiant
Bob Gibson
Whitey Ford
Don Drysdale

Mario Lanza, Mariners fan:
Mike Schooler. Total representation of the Mariners in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

Erik Lundegaard:
The first one that comes to mind is Cesar Tovar, a utility player and leadoff hitter for that great late ’60s Twins team that would’ve gone to the World Series if not for that great, late ’60s Orioles team.

Ted Leavengood, managing editor at Seamheads:
Joe Cambria is a great curiosity figure.

Michael Clair, who runs Old Time Family Baseball:
There are just so many to choose from–I’m pretty fond of Kevin Rhomberg (I wrote a short piece about him here) and Toad Ramsey, but my personal favorite may be Dave ‘Lefty’ Brown. He was a Negro Leagues pitcher who was signed off of a chain gang, played for a few years, was accused of murder, and had to go on the lam. He ended up playing baseball across the country under a variety of aliases while the FBI searched for him and no one is really sure when he died. That’s an extremely truncated life story, but lot of the info I’ve found on Lefty is here if you’re interested.

Chris Donnelly, author of Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History (read an interview about it, or buy the book):
Randy Velarde. All allegations aside, he endured through some of the worst Yankee clubs ever and was a major part of the team’s comeback in the mid 90s. He never put up big numbers with the Yankees, but you could always expect a good average, an occasional home run and pretty solid defense, whether it was at third, short, second, or somewhere in the outfield. He also hit Randy Johnson like no one else could. Just an all around solid player who nearly got the Yankees to the ALCS in 95.

Duane Harris, who runs the 90 feet of Perfection website:
My pick is Buck O’Neil. His place in Baseball history is forever solidified due to the following:

-1st Baseman of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

-Manager of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

-1st Black coach in MLB history as a member of the Chicago Cubs.

-A Scout for both the Cubs & Royals.

-A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000 (played a role in inducting 6 Negro League players from 1995–2001 when the HOF previously had a policy of inducting 1 Negro League player per year)

-Helped get the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City up and rolling.

-His interview segments in Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary brought recognition of the Negro Leagues to another generation of Baseball fans who in most cases knew very little of the League and it’s stars. As a 13 year old when the documentary came out, he sparked interest in the Negro Leagues that I did not have before therefore setting a life long love affair with learning more….so in a way that’s a personal reason however I have read similar stories more than once like this.

O’Neil fell short of the HOF in 2006 unfortunately and I still have hope that he can make it posthumously. I have written/posted photos of Buck many times on my blog, but back in December I had a post dedicated to just O’Neil.

Paul Francis Sullivan of Sully Baseball:

Jeff Polman, who has two retro baseball simulation experiments:
Mike De la Hoz.

Shawn Anderson, who runs the Hall of Very Good blog:
It’s Ross Grimsley. I sponsor his page on baseball-reference, use his likeness as my site’s logo (t-shirts are available) and will be dedicating a week in May to him. Did you know that May 16 is the 40th anniversary of his big league debut? I’ve already got some good support…trying to track down Grimsley himself for an interview.

Pat Lackey, who runs Pirates website Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?:
Louis Bierbauer played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1889 and defected to Brooklyn of the Player’s League in 1890. The Player’s League folded and the Athletics were supposed to retain his rights in 1891, but he signed with the Pittsburg Allegheneys instead. In the common parlance of the time, it was said that Pittsburg “pirated” Bierbauer from Philadelphia. Eventually, the name stuck.

Mark Sherrard, who runs the Cubs Billy Goat Blog:
Eddie Gaedel.

Steve Keane of The Eddie Kranepool Society and This Call To The Bullpen Podcast:
How about Effa Manley first female owner of a professional baseball team when she owned the Brooklyn/Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues

(Another good name is John Montgomery Ward who played and managed in the late 1880’s and was voted in to the Hall of Fame went to Columbia Law School and started the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players the first pro sports union.)

Joe Tetrault, whose baseball site is Tetrault Vision:  
My favorite obscure baseball figure is not particularly obscure. No one with as striking a biography as he has can qualify. But he’s not famous. Moe Berg. The Catcher Was a Spy told his story of his duel life as a baseball player and military intelligence gatherer prior to the Second World War. His is just a damn fascinating story.

John Cappello, who runs the Baseball Engineer site:
I hope I don’t break any rules by giving you four names:
Oscar Gamble, because of his hair.

Dave Cash, because he taught a young Phillies team how to win.

Ken Brett, George’s brother, because it was fun seeing a pitcher hit that well.

Willie Montanez, because of his entertaining catches of easy popups and fly balls (okay, coulda used some mustard, but still fun…).

Jason Rosenberg, who runs It’s About The Money:
Despite growing up a Yanks fan, I remember the guys they played, and the oddballs stick out.  Here are a few:

  • John Wockenfuss, because of that odd batting stance, name and facial hair
  • Chet Lemon, because of the batting stance, bat pointed high in the sky
  • Amos Otis, only because when I was just a few years old, I named my stuffed dog “Amos Otis”

Mark Ahrens, who runs Books on Baseball:
Ossie Bluege from the Washington Senators.

Jeff Engels, who runs Jeff’s Mariners Fan Blog:
My Grandfather Gordon “Dusty” Rhodes

Danny Tully:
Vada Pinson

Herman Gilman:
I grew up in Milwaukee during the golden era of the Milwaukee Braves and would like to submit the name of Billy Bruton, who played center field for 7 years alongside Henry Aaron. Aaron makes many mentions of Bruton in his book, “the Hammer”. Bruton was an instrumental player in the Braves success from 1956-59, when they came within a game or two of winning four straight National league pennants (Brooklyn barely beat them out in 1956 and the LA Dodgers won a playoff from them in 1959). Bruton was active in the local NAACP in Milwaukee during that time and was a big social influence on Aaron.

Another player from that era was a teammate of Frank Robinson on the Reds, an outfielder named Vada Pinson. I don’t believe Pinson is in the Hall of Fame, though he was a premier base stealer during that era and hit for high average. Pinson also later coached for many teams, including my now home town Seattle Mariners. Both these players began their careers in the last stages of the Negro Leagues and were part of the large influx of African-American players who played prominent roles on good National League baseball teams of the mid-1950’s to mid-1960’s era.

From freelance writer Kevin Glew, who runs the Cooperstowners in Canada blog:

My favorite obscure player would be James “Tip” O’Neill, who hails from Woodstock, Ontario. Here is a bio I wrote about him for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame:

“Tip” O’Neill honed his baseball skills in the ballroom of his parents’ hotel in Woodstock during his youth. After starring locally, nationally and internationally with barnstorming teams, the gifted youngster was signed by the American Association’s New York Metropolitans.

Sometimes dubbed Canada’s Babe Ruth, the talented Canadian made his major league debut as a pitcher on May 5, 1883. A formidable moundsman (his career ERA was 3.39), O’Neill was hampered by arm problems early in his career. Fortunately, his bat was potent enough to convince the St. Louis Browns to employ him in their outfield.

It was in the Gateway City that O’Neill would become major league baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 1887. In that magical campaign, he set big league marks in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases. His batting average was an astounding .492 (walks were included as hits that season, but even without the walks, his average was .435, the second highest in big league history). Largely due to his hitting heroics, the Browns would capture four consecutive American Association championships from 1885 to 1888.

When his playing days were over, he moved to Montreal where he helped secure an Eastern League franchise for the city. One of the greatest Canadians to play in the big leagues, O’Neill’s legacy lives on. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame hands out the Tip O’Neill Award annually to the player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to baseball’s highest ideals.

Rob Nelson, former Portland Maverick and proprietor of Big League Chew:

Steve Collette He was the manager of the 1977 Beavers. A magical guy, brilliant manager; hugely talented. He died way too young. Without him, Big League Chew never would have happened. He had me as his pitching coach in 1977, when we had the idea for the gum. He was the reason the Mavs had a magical last season: we had the best winning percentage in baseball in 1977: 44-22. Several ball fields are named after him in and around Salem, where he was from.

[Collette was a member of Linfield College’s 1966 national championship baseball team]

Former Jeopardy champion Rich Lerner, via Ted Leavengood’s Facebook page:

I have three – Julio Becquer, Jackie Reed and Chet Trail.
Julio Becquer was a back-up first baseman for the Senators in
the 50s. Family lore has it that I heard my brothers trying to
trade his baseball card so often that my first words were
“Julio Becquer.”

Jackie Reed was a defensive replacement for Mickey Mantle from
1961-63, getting 129 AB in 222 games. In 1962, he replaced
Mantle in a game that went 24 innings and at the time was (and
may still be) the longest game ever played (in minutes). Reed
ended the game with his only major-league home run.

Chet Trail is the only player that has been on a WS roster
that never played a game in the major leagues. A late-season
call-up by the Yanks in 1964 he never saw any action. With
Tony Kubek injured and unavailable for the World Series, the
Yankees needed someone to back up Bobby Richardson and Phil
Linz (Kubek’s replacement), so they included Trail on the


Ernie Banks’ Early Life and Baseball Career

In 1987, the Chicago Tribune’s Jerome Holtzman wrote a long article about Ernie Banks. It was seemingly a reminiscence of Banks’ 500th homer, hit at Wrigley Field on May 12, 1970, but Holtzman was really intent on writing a kind of profile and appreciation of Banks. Holtzman noted Banks’ ebullience at the ceremonies after his 500th homer, and wrote that

Such emotion seldom was displayed by Banks during his early years with the Cubs. Stan Hack, who was Banks’ second manager (Phil Cavarretta was the first), once made the statement, which became widely quoted, “After he hits a home run, he comes back to the bench looking as if he did something wrong.” What Hack and some of the Cubs coaches didn’t realize was that Banks was unusually shy.

The second oldest of 11 children, Banks was raised in modest circumstances in Dallas in what was then the segregated South. Eddie Banks, his father, had been a semipro ballplayer with the Dallas Black Giants, Houston Buffaloes and also played with teams in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and in his native town of Marshall, Tex.

“My father tried everything,” Banks recalled. “We didn’t have much money, but I can remember him buying me a finger-mitt. Cost two dollars and ninety-five cents. Sometimes he’d give me a nickel or dime to play catch with him.”

The elder Banks picked cotton and also worked as a laborer on a WPA construction gang-the Works Progress Administration funded by the federal government at the height of the Depression in an effort to relieve the poor. For a time, Mrs. Banks was employed as a bank janitor. Perhaps it was mostly nostalgia but Banks’ mother, in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, described her son as an almost model boy.

She said he never “prowled” at night and was a “regular” at Sunday school and church. “He liked to stretch out on on top of his bed and read for hours,” she said. “He was an an average student in school.”

After he became a baseball star, Banks always had an ample fund of poor-boy stories, which he enjoyed telling: How he shined shoes and mowed lawns, cut wood for Dad, did the dishes for Mom and helped take care of the younger children. Eddie Banks couldn’t remember the boy shining shoes or cutting grass but did recall that Ernie had a brief fling at cotton picking. “Ernie never learned how,” said Papa Banks. “The only work he ever did”-the elder Banks didn’t consider baseball work-“was at a hotel. Ernie was to carry out garbage but the cans were too heavy. After three days, he quit and didn’t even go back to collect his money.”

Like fellow Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Banks jumped to the big leagues from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Tom Baird, the owner of the Monarchs, sold Banks to the Cubs in tandem with a little-known pitcher, Bill Dickey, for $20,000-$15,000 for Banks, $5,000 for Dickey. The deal was made on a Monday, the day after Banks appeared in the Negro American League’s East-West All-Star game that was played at Comiskey Park. Several White Sox scouts were in attendance but were unimpressed.

The next day, Wendell Smith, a Chicago sportswriter, picked up Banks and John “Buck” O’Neil, the manager of the Monarchs, at their hotel and drove them to Wrigley Field, where Cub officials gave Banks a final look.

When the Monarchs folded three years later, O’Neil was added to the Cubs’ scouting staff and subsequently helped in the signing of dozens of black players, including Lou Brock. More than a scout, the courtly O’Neil, persuasive and with impeccable manners, was an organizational troubleshooter. When Billy Williams was in the minors and threatening to quit baseball-he was homesick-O’Neil was dispatched to Williams’ home in Whistler, Ala., and convinced him he had a bright future in baseball. Now 75, O’Neil is still on the Cub payroll as a consultant.

“We knew Ernie was a good prospect,” O’Neil said in a telephone interview from his home in Kansas City. “But we didn’t know he would develop that fast.”

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 5:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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