Remembering Vada Pinson

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.”

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 8:43 am  Comments (52)  
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Edd Roush, Oldest Survivor of the Black Sox World Series and the Federal League

Late in the 1980s, when he was in his mid-nineties, Edd Roush stood as the last surviving player of the Black Sox World Series of 1919. He was still full of opinions, full of curmudgeonly charm, full of thoughts about the long-distant past. Speaking in the last year of his life (he died in 1988), Roush was adamant that the White Sox “threw the first ballgame. But they didn’t get their money after the first ballgame, so they went out and tried to win.” He said lots of players threw games in the ’10s, including some of his teammates.

Still, he said this about would-be fixers: “They knew better than to ask me. I would have knocked the hell out of them. And they knew that, too.”

At 94, Roush was also the last surviving Federal League ballplayer. He’d suffered two mild strokes and a heart attack, and he had this to say about modern baseball:

“Two-thirds of them playing today, if they had played back in my day, we’d have killed every one of them. They threw at you in those days, and they didn’t throw over the top of your head, either.

“Back when I played, if the three outfielders, the third baseman and first baseman didn’t hit .300, they didn’t last very long. Today if one of them hits .300, they’re lucky. Anybody who wants to see them play today is nuts.”

Roush summered in Oakland City, Indiana, and wintered in Bradenton, Florida. He had high blood pressure and a partial loss of hearing. He acknowledged: “I’m 94. So what? Something has to happen.”

And he had this to say about baseball: “That thing was a business with me. It wasn’t no fun. I’ll tell you that right quick. I played that game to win, and when you play to win, you don’t play for fun.

“When I was a kid, yeah, it was a lot of fun playing. It was a lot of fun playing in the minor leagues. But when you got in the major leagues, the damn thing was a business. It was then. I don’t know what the hell it is now.”

He told this anecdote from his final season: “The last year I played, we were so far in last place, you couldn’t even see the top. We were playing the Cubs. I come up with two men out. The pitcher kept shaking his head. I said, ‘Here comes the duster,’ so down I went.

“I said to the catcher, ‘You’re going to get somebody hurt with those dusters.’ He didn’t say anything. The pitcher shook his head again, and down I went. I walked halfway out there and said, ‘You won’t have enough ballplayers to finish this game if I get to them.’

“I hit the ball on the ground and got to first base the same time the ball did. (Charlie) Grimm was playing first base. I didn’t step on the base; I stepped right on Grimm’s ankle. I intended to break his leg. So, here they come. Finally (Cubs manager Rogers) Hornsby says, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘I think Roush broke my leg,’ Grimm said. I said, ‘I’ll break all your legs if your pitcher keeps throwing at me.’

Then Hornsby said, “‘I’ve played against him for years, and I played with him one year. You guys get back on the bench and quit throwing at this guy. He’ll take us all out of here.’”

“You know, we beat them five straight and beat them out of the pennant, just because that pitcher wanted to go home and say, ‘I knocked Roush down twice.'”

Roush had this to say about spring training too: “Why would I want to go down there and run around every day? It only took me one day to get in shape, and it didn’t even take that. A few swings of the bat and I was ready to start. It was a waste of time to go down there. For what?”

And this to say about Jim Thorpe: “Jim Thorpe was the fastest running man I ever saw. I think he’s the fastest anybody else ever saw. I was pretty fast myself. I’d go out and run with him. I’d run as fast as I could, and he’d just be trotting along. I said, ‘Jim, anybody ever make you run your best?’ He said, ‘I never saw anybody I couldn’t look back at.’ “

And this to say about hitting the dead ball: “I always tried to hit the ball on the line. You couldn’t hit the dead ball anyplace. I caught many of ‘em out there in center field that were lopsided. You’d just push it back together and throw it back in.”

And he said this about the Hall of Fame: “What in the hell is it after you get in there? You got all these guys in there who can’t play ball to start with. It didn’t mean nothing to me. I played ball to win and make money, the hell with the rest of it.”

The reporter interviewing him noticed this, though: “But then you look at his left hand, and there’s that ring.” There was the toughness and the hard-edged attitude, but Roush was clearly at least sentimental about being a Hall of Famer.