Thursday, August 23, 2007

I Had No Idea: The Hitters (Pt. 4)

A few quick notes before we start:

  • The Astros recently fired manager Phil Garner and GM Tim Purpura both on the same day. I was going to devote an entire entry to this, but Jayson Stark's excellent article makes most the same points I would have made. Although I wasn't particularly a fan of Garner or Purpura, the problem here (as Stark points out) goes much deeper than the manager and GM, and the new hires will face most of the same problems as before. And a lot of the blame goes to owner Drayton McLane.
  • As to the Rangers' 30-3 victory over the Orioles: according to, the NFL's Baltimore Ravens haven't allowed 30 points in a game since 2005.
Reggie Smith (1966-1982)
(Career 287/366/489; 2,020 H; 314 HR; 1 Gold Glove; 7 All-Star teams)
This would be the second-most famous Reggie of his era, and unfortunately, that's about all he's remembered for. Reggie was a good all-around player for a number of winning teams, but he doesn't have one memorable moment or any flashy counting stats. What he was was a darn good player for quite some time, and that's well worth remembering.

Reggie's the first player on our list who entered baseball before the adoption of the amateur draft. Reggie was a multi-spot star coming out of high school and was a 5-tool baseball player playing shortstop. The Twins signed him to a contract but left him unprotected, so the Red Sox drafted him away.
Reggie would come up through the Boston system as one of the first African-Americans to star with the Red Sox. The Sox were the last MLB team to integrate in 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson's first game. They had an abysmal record on integration and had been run by overt racists in the years leading up to Pumpsie Green's debut in 1959. Boston's reputation as a racist baseball town would last for years, but the front office at least was getting with the program, and the results showed as Smith neared the majors.
We don't have any record of walks for Smith's time in the minors. But he advanced quickly for a player right out of high school. After a promising season with Low Class-A Pittsfield in 1965, Smith got promoted all the way to Triple-A to begin 1966. Amazingly, at age 21, He thoroughly bashed the International League. He hit .320 with 18 HR and 30 doubles in 143 games. It earned him a September call-up to the big leagues. The Sox had moved Smith to center field in the minors, and he filled a hole with the big club. The Sox had the veteran Carl Yastrzemski in left and another hot prospect, Tony Conigliaro, in right. But the team had struggled for a solution in center, filling the position with stop-gaps such as Don Demeter and Jose Tartabull (to be fair, Demeter could still hit).
Smith played in 6 games in '66 and hit poorly (154/154/192). The Sox finished 9th in the AL that year, at 72-90. But -- for the first time in a couple decades -- there was hope.
The Sox in '66 were an amazingly young team. Their lineup was the youngest in the league, while their pitching was in the middle of the pack. This may not seem surprising, but for most of the 50's and early 60's, the Sox had consisted of Ted Williams and his band of mediocrities. The mediocrities were either veterans past their prime or guys who never even had a prime. So '66 was a promising year for the organization; not because they had a lot of young players, but that they had a lot of good young players coming from their own system.
Only three players over 30 got more than 100 at bats for the '66 Sox. The one with the most at bats was Don Demeter (age 31), who was effectively replaced by Smith. 34-year-old Eddie Kasko backed up second base (and didn't hit) and 33-year-old Lenny Green backed up the outfield (and didn't hit either). That was the extent of the over-30 hitters who played for the Red Sox in '66.
As for the young guns, they were a pretty impressive lot. 22-year-old first baseman George Scott hit 245/324/433 and would star in the majors for 13 more seasons. 23-year-old third baseman Joe Foy showed a lot of promise and had some good seasons, but ended up going to the Royals in the expansion draft, and his career never really took off. 23-year-old shortstop Rico Petrocelli would spend his entire career with the Sox, an impressive 13-year run of good baseball. The aforementioned Conigliaro looked like a budding superstar hitter (he debuted with the Sox at age 19 and hit 290/354/530 in 111 games), but an errant beanball to the head would compromise his eyesight and end what should have been a Hall-of-Fame career much too early. I haven't even mentioned Carl Yastrzemski (who was a veteran at 26), who would go on to a sure-fire Hall-of-Fame career. Or pitcher Jim Lonborg, then just 24. Then there's Smith, and of course all the other fine players the Red Sox would produce in the late 60's and early 70's. After the stagnation of the 50's and the handicap of maintaining an all-white team, the Red Sox were actually putting together a winning team by themselves.
I say this to illustrate what a great turning point this was for the Sox. They were about to enter their longest period of sustained success since they sold away the Babe, and Reggie Smith was right in the center of everything.

The year 1967 will forever live in Red Sox history as the year of the "Impossible Dream." Indeed, that 72-90 record gave the Sox quite a hill to climb. Sure, maybe they had the talent to move into the first division (the top 5 of the then-1o team league). But could they move past the defending champion Baltimore Orioles, who had both fine young hitting and superb pitching? Could they get past the previous year's pennant-winners, the Minnesota Twins, with an All-Star roster of Killebrew, Carew, Oliva, Kaat, Bob Allison, Dean Chance, Mudcat Grant, and Jim Perry? Along with the Tigers (McLain, Lolich, Kalin, Horton, Freehan, Cash, etc.), these three teams were the best bets to win the AL pennant in 1967. And the White Sox and Indians weren't too bad either.
However, the 1967 American League provided one of the greatest pennant races ever. The Orioles faltered and were never really a factor, but the White Sox, Twins, Tigers, and Red Sox were evenly matched at the top of the standings. The White Sox led the division for most of the summer and actually spent more days in first (92) than any other team. Even in an era that favored pitchers, the Sox hitters weren't too good, but they were led by an excellent pitching staff anchored by Gary Peters, Tommy John, and Joe Horlen.
As late as July 15, the Red Sox were in 5th place, behind all the contenders plus the Angels. The offense was doing well, but the Sox had a heck of a time filling out the back of their starting rotation. The Sox were also getting terrible production from catcher Mike Ryan. (It wouldn't be until 1972 that the Sox filled their catcher hole -- and how -- with Carlton Fisk). The Sox played well to finish out July, and on the first of August had moved up to 2nd place, 2.5 games behind the White Sox. But at this point, there were still 5 teams within 6 games of first.
When the White Sox gave up 1st place, it wasn't to Boston -- it was to the Twins. The Twins were led by an MVP-caliber season from Killebrew, plus a pitching staff with four well-above average pitchers (Chance, Kaat, Dave Boswell, and Jim Merritt). This was on August 13. At this point, the Sox were still 2.5 games out of first, but now they were in 5th place. As the season entered its final six weeks, it looked like we might be seeing the first-ever 5-team pennant race.
The first team to drop out was the Angels. They went 5-10 over their next 15 games to fade out of contention. Just 7 seasons old, the Angels had become competitive much quicker than any of the other 1961-62 expansion teams. They had some legitimate stars in '67, such as Jim Fregosi and Don Mincher, but they were still a thin team that hadn't yet filled out its roster.
The Red Sox claimed their share of first place for the first time with a win on August 25, as they leap-frogged the Twins and White Sox (who both lost), to take a 1/2 game lead over Minnesota in 1st place. All four teams, Boston, Minnesota, Chicago, and Detroit, were within a game of first. About four weeks later, on September 19, little had changed. The Sox and Twins were tied for 1st (86-66), with Chicago 1/2 game back and Detroit one game back.
It looked like the Sox might blow it, and considering their history, few Fenway faithful would have been surprised. The race stayed tight, as all the teams kept winning, but with a loss to Cleveland on September 26, the Red Sox fell a full game out of first, tied with Chicago in 2nd behind the Twins. The Sox had one more game against the Tribe at home, before the Twins came to Fenway for the last two games of the season. Even with ace Lonborg on the mound, the Sox lost to Cleveland, 6-0. Luckily for them, the Twins lost too, falling to the Angels 5-1 at home. The White Sox lost, too, but the Tigers won. Detroit was a game back, but they were even with the Twins in the loss column, as they had played two fewer games. So while the Twins were going to Fenway to play two against the Sox, the Tigers would be at home for a four-game set against the Angels. The White Sox, even though they were 1.5 back, had the easiest schedule, with three games at home against the Senators. So on September 27, this is how the standings looked:
1. Minnesota (91-69)
2. Detroit (89-69) 1 GB
3. Boston (90-70) 1 GB
4. Chicago (89-70) 1.5 GB

On September 29, the Sox were shocked with a 1-0 loss to the lowly Senators. As unlikely as it may seem, Tommy John was outduelled by Phil Ortega. Now the Sox were 2 games back with three teams in front of them, and those odds were just too much. The Senators completed the three-game sweep of the Sox at Comiskey, and the Sox finished the season in 4th place.
At Fenway, Twins starter Jim Kaat was lifted after 2.1 innings, and the Sox hammered his relievers. Jose Santiago pitched seven strong innings as the Sox won, 6-4. They were now tied for first place with one game left.
The Tigers won the first game of their double-header as Mickey Lolich shutout the Angels. For a while, at least, the Tigers were in first place by percentage points (their 90-69 record better than the 91-70 mark of Boston and Minnesota). They had a chance to move into first place by themselves in Game 2 of the twin bill, but the Angels hung 6 runs on the Tiger bullpen in the 8th inning to complete an 8-6 comeback. The Tigers were 1/2 game out, with another double-header the next day. They would have to win both games just to foce a playoff game with the winner of the Twins-Red Sox game.
Hopes were high after the Tigers won Game 1, 6-4. Joe Sparma pitched well for Detroit while the Tiger offense clobbered Clyde Wright. For the moment, there was a three-team tie for first place. All three teams were 91-70. A three-way tie was impossible, since two of the teams were facing each other. But things were getting very interesting none the less.
Alas for Detroit fans, it was not to be. Future star Denny McLain was knocked out in the third, and the Tigers sent out 7 relief pitchers to try and save the game (it was closed out by Lolich, pitching on zero days' rest). The final score was 8-5 Angels, and the Tigers fell to 91-71, guaranteed 2nd place.
At Fenway it was aces high, as the Red Sox sent out Lonborg to face Minnesota's Dean Chance. The Twins scored two early runs off of Lonborg, and Chance shut out the Red Sox through 5 innings. But in the bottom of the 6th, Boston struck.
Three singles loaded the bases, and then Carl Yastrzemski came through with another single to tie the game. Ken Harrelson hit an RBI groundout to give the Sox the lead. At this point, Chance was relieved by veteran reliever Al Worthington. It was just 3-2; the game was still in reach for Minnesota. So Worthington threw a wild pitch (the runners advanced). Then he threw another (Yaz scored to make it 4-2). After a strikeout and a walk, the fifth run of the inning scored on an error by erstwhile MVP Killebrew.
The damage was done. Lonborg went the distance, allowing just one more run in the 8th. The Red Sox won, taking home their first pennant since 1946.
It was the "Impossible Dream" season, where a young Boston team passed four competitors that were far more experienced and (on paper) much better. But the Sox stuck around and won the pennant. They took a tough loss in the World Series, a 7-game affair against the Cardinals, who finished 101-60, 10.5 games ahead of the 2nd-place Giants.

Okay, that only tangentially relates to Reggie Smith, but I very enjoy talking about the '67 pennant race. Special thanks to:, The Baseball Cube,,, and the new BP book It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over.
And now, back to our story. Reggie Smith wasn't a star on the '67 Red Sox, but he did fill a key hole and play good defense. He hit 246/315/389, which looks awful today, but was actually pretty decent in 1967. Smith finished a distant 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting to Minnesota's Rod Carew.
It was 1968, though, when Reggie broke out. He hit 265/342/430, pretty darn impressive for the Year of the Pitcher, when the entire AL hit 230/297/339. Unfortunately for Reggie, the Sox did not match his improvement. They fell to 4th place, finishing at 86-76, 17 games back of the Tigers. The Sox offense was good; they had most of the same players back again, and only the Tigers (who led the league in runs) outscored them. The problem was that the Tigers also led the league in fewest runs allowed, whereas the Sox weren't even close. As it turned out, the Sox weren't as successful in bringing along young pitching. They had decent seasons from several guys, but Lonborg struggled (4.29 ERA in just 17 starts), and the Sox had trouble assembling a group of replacements. Another problem was that the Sox used Lee Stange (3.93 ERA in 103 IP)as their ace reliever out of the bullpen, when young Sparky Lyle (2.74 ERA) had already established himself as a capable fireman.
In 1969, baseball took several measures to tilt the game back in favor of the hitters. Everyone benefited, but even in context, Smith took another step forward to hit 309/368/527. He hit 25 HR, drew 54 walks, and made his first All-Star team. Reggie had already established himself as the best-hitting center fielder in the league. Baltimore's Paul Blair was a wizard with the glove, but Fenway alone didn't account for Smith's hitting prowess. But again, Reggie's success was not reflected in the team's record. The split into two divisions meant little to the Red Sox; they finished 22 games back of the Orioles in the AL East.
That would be the story for Smith in the coming years; consistently excellent production as a center fielder with no postseason appearances to show for it. But the Sox came awfully close in 1972, finishing 1/2 game behind the Tigers in the AL East.
You're probably thinking, "How, in modern baseball, can a team lose a division title because they happened to play one less game than another?" The answer is that 1972 was a strike year, with the season starting late due to the showdown. The Lords of baseball could have determined a way to make up all the games, but instead they decided to just join the season in progress, knowing full well that that meant not all teams would play the same number of games. And so the Red Sox finished 85-70 and missed the playoffs because the Tigers finished 86-70.
For shaaaaaame.
Reggie responded in '73 with one of his best seasons yet. He hit 303/398/515 despite playing in just 131 games. Reggie had shifted to right field in '71 to make room for Tommy Harper. But in '73, the only better right fielders in the league were the other Reggie, and Jeff Burroughs, who was just having a career year, anyway.
With Reggie missing some time in '73, the Sox called up a youngster named Dwight Evans to play in right (he would stay through 1990). Harper was in left, with Yastrzemski moving to first to compensate. This put young Rick Miller, another product of Boston's minor league system, in center. Miller was a good defender and could take a walk, but he had no power and hit .261 in '73. While that's a useful player, it's not the guy to install as your center fielder of the future, especially at age 25 (Miller was eventually displaced by Fred Lynn and never did learn to hit).
And so the Sox had a full outfield, not to mention a farm system with even more prospects on the way (notably the aforementioned Lynn). And so the odd man out was Smith. In October, the team traded him (and Ken Tatum) to the Cardinals for Rick Wise and Bernie Carbo.
Tatum had two great seasons with the Angels as a reliever, but his three seasons in Boston had been thoroughly disappointing; the Cards probably took him just to see if he had anything left (he didn't). This trade didn't turn out as much of a winner for Boston, but knowing what they knew at the time, it wasn't bad. Wise was just 27, and had been pitching good baseball for a while. And he did give the Sox what they wanted: another reliable starter. Granted, injuries limited him to 9 starts in 1974, but he came back with a really good year in '75 when the Sox won the pennant. And by then, the Sox had an outfield of Rice-Lynn-Evans, with Yaz at first and Cecil Cooper DHing, so there was no room for Smith and noplace he would represent a clear upgrade.
As for Carbo, he was a professional hitter with a strong resume but with a reputation for being somewhat difficult. He too starred with the '75 team as a jack of all trades, hitting 257/409/483. He would bounce around for a few more years of solid hitting.
So while Smith is a tough player to lose, the deal ended up working out fine for Boston. What about St. Louis? The Cardinals were famous for their pitching, and for good reason; their offense had been near the bottom of the league the past couple seasons. The ultimate frustration was their 81-81 finish in 1973, which was never the less just 1.5 games behind the Mets.
The '73 Cardinals had gotten poor production from their outfield, and they saw Smith as a good solution to that problem. Lou Brock would be 35 in 1974, and the previous year the Cards had gotten poor production from Jose Cruz and Luis Melendez in center and right. Smith took over the starting right field job in '74, and Cruz got played out of a job by rookie Bake McBride. The Cards sold Cruz to the Astros after '74 and lived to regret it; McBride flamed out quickly whereas Cruz proved to be a late bloomer and did all of that blooming in Houston.
With Reggie in the fold, the '74 Cards improved their offense and their record, finishing 86-75. But again they were 1.5 games out, this time behind Pittsburgh. Smith was the team's MVP, though, hitting 309/389/528 with 23 HR and a career-high 100 RBI. Reggie finished 11th in the NL MVP voting, which is about right. One year in the league, and he had already taken his spot next to Rusty Staub and Ken Singleton as one of the best right fielders in the NL.
Reggie had another fine year in '75 (the Cards finished 3rd), but he started off 1976 in a pretty big slump. Smith was having injury trouble, and hit 218/281/412 in 47 games with the Cardinals. This made him available when the Dodgers came calling. L.A. was desperate for some offense to help them pass the Big Red Machine, and Smith helped them complete a formidable outfield, with Bill Buckner in left and Dusty Baker in right. The Dodgers ended up finishing a distant 2nd to the Reds, but Reggie hit more like his old self in L.A., going 280/335/484 in 65 games.
Despite playing in an NL pitcher's park, Reggie put up an MVP-caliber season in 1977, hitting 307/427/576 and finishing 4th in the NL MVP voting as the Dodgers won the division. Reggie struggled as the Dodgers beat the Phillies in the NLCS, but his bat awoke in the World Series, as he hit 273/385/727 with 3 HR in the 6-game loss to the Yankees.
Reggie wasn't quite as good in '78 (295/382/559), but he still managed to hit 29 HR in just 128 games and again finished 4th in the NL MVP voting. But a mini-controversy broke out during the season between Don Sutton and Steve Garvey, with Smith in the middle. Garvey had matinee-idol looks, was a star on and off the diamond, and was considered to be the team MVP. But Sutton told a reporter during the season that Smith -- not the overhyped Garvey -- was the real team MVP. Garvey confronted Sutton about his comments, and it resulted in a clubhouse brawl. If it's any consolation, Sutton was right; Garvey was good, but he was like the failed attempt to clone Pete Rose. He wasn't that good, but his style of play made people think he was an MVP (and a Hall-of-Famer). In '78, Garvey hit 316/353/499 as a defensively limited first baseman. And that was actually a better-than-average year for Garvey, who hit 294/329/446 for his career. But he wasn't even among the top 5 first basemen of his era.
The '78 Dodgers repeated the previous year's postseason exactly: 4-game NLCS win over the Phillies, 6-games World Series loss against the Yankees. Smith struggled throughout, managing just 8 hits and one homer for the whole postseason.
Unfortunately, 1978 would be Reggie Smith's last full season in the big leagues. He managed 92 games and a 322/392/508 batting line in 1980, but in 1981 two serious injuries, one to his shoulder, prematurely ended his season. He was around for pinch-hitting duty in the postseason, though, as the Dodgers avenged themselves against the Yankees with a 6-game victory. It was Smith's only World Series ring.
Smith was a free agent after the '81 season. His shoulder injury had forced him to first base, and it looked for a while like he might play in Japan. But he couldn't come to terms and instead signed with the Giants. The '82 squad was actually much better than the other Giant teams of the period; they finished 87-75, in 3rd place. Smith hit well (284/364/470), sharing first base duties with Dave Bergman and Darrell Evans. It was actually a fine lineup, with a 38-year-old Joe Morgan as well as promising youngsters Jack Clark, Jeff Leonard, and Chili Davis. But it wasn't that great, and neither was their pitching; the only starter with an ERA better than the adjusted league-average was Bill Laskey, who went 13-12 in 189.1 IP. The key to their success was likely an improbably strong bullpen, with closer Greg Minton having the best year of his career, and relief aces Gary Lavelle, Al Holland, and Jim Barr also on the staff.

After '82, Smith did go to Japan. But it didn't really work out for anyone involved. Now 38, Smith wasn't the all-around athlete he once was, and his injuries caused many fans to consider him a "million-dollar bench-warmer." Smith also feuded with the coaching staff and the umpires, insisting that there was a double-standard for gaijin, or Americans. For their part, the team and the media felt that Smith was disrespectful of the way the game was played in Japan. After one more season, Smith left Japanese ball and was vocal in his criticisms.
Since then, Smith has worked as a coach with the Dodgers and also served as the hitting coach for the USA's entry in the World Baseball Classic.

Looking back over Reggie's career, it's clear that he maintained a high standard of play in an era that was notoriously tough on hitters. Consistently overshadowed, either by Reggie Jackson or Steve Garvey, Smith was never really considered one of the greatest right fielders of his era. Even with his truncated career, here's how Reggie's career ranks among other right fielders (* indicates stats are through 2006 season; DT indicates Clay Davenport's translations):
Win Shares:
19. Willie Keeler (333)
20. Sam Rice & Dave Parker (327)
22. Reggie Smith (325)
23. Enos Slaughter (323)
24. Harry Hooper (321)
WS/162 G*:
15. Paul Waner (26.88)
16. Harry Heilmann (26.84)
16. Reggie Smith (26.49)
17. Bobby Bonds (26.45)
EQA: .301 (Not among top 20 RF)

WARP3: 89.5 (Not among top 20 RF)

dt Batting Line: 286/367/548 (None rank among top 20 RF)

I'm not trying to build a Hall-of-Fame case here, obviously. Reggie was quite good at his peak (note the EQA), but FRAA takes a dim view of his fielding, ranking him as poor in center field if competent in right. And more importantly, he wasn't around long enough to pad out his counting stats, like hits, homers, or Win Shares.
I wouldn't vote to put Reggie Smith in the Hall-of-Fame. But if there were a Hall-of-Fame B-team for right fielders, he'd be on it, along with Jack Clark, Rusty Staub, Dwight Evans, Andre Dawson, Dave Parker, Larry Walker, Ken Singleton, and Bobby Bonds. And their team captain would be King Kelly.

Bobby Murcer (1965-1983)
(Career 277/357/445; 1,862 H; 252 HR; 1 Gold Glove; 5-Time All Star)
There are a number of cases in baseball of a player who has to follow the act of a legendary player. Lou Gehrig was replaced by Babe Dahlgren wasn't much of a ballplayer. There have been hundreds like him who have been forgotten. But because he took over first base on the Yankees from Lou Gehrig, he'll forever be remembered as coming up short. When the Cardinals traded for Royce Clayton to take over shortstop from Ozzie Smith, Clayton was booed around the league. My guess is that the story will be the same for the next left fielder on the Giants.
The problem is that the fans get mad at someone for not being the person they replaced. It's stupid and illogical, of course, and we're usually aware of the stupidity, but we do it anyways because we don't like to think when we can boo. And it's not George Weiss or Walt Jocketty that runs out on the field everyday; we much prefer booing whoever happens to be nearby.
Bobby Murcer got a double dose of all of that. Because not only did he take over center field from Mickey Mantle, he was part of the post-dynastic Yankees who are always remembered with distaste. Otherwise great players like Murcer were looked upon at the time (and to a lesser extent, even today) as disappointing not because of their baseball talent, but because of the downfall of the team surrounding him. These players toil in obscurity, and it's no coincidence that I've chosen two of them for this list (the next one is Murcer's teammate, Roy White).
Sometimes there will be a backlash to underrating someone. It's happened for Murcer somewhat, but not because of an honest reassessment, it's just that his visibility as a Yankees announcer has kept him in people's minds more than White. And there actually is a campaign to get Mel Stottlemyre into the Hall, which is a violent overreaction to someone being underrated, if you ask me. No one's pushing Fritz Peterson's Cooperstown case, but then Fritz Peterson was never the pitching coach for a 114-win team.
So it's up to the rest of us to try and take an accurate look at Murcer. And when we do, we see a genuinely great player who still hasn't gotten the respect he deserves.

Just like Mantle, Murcer was from Oklahoma. He also started out as a shortstop, just like Mantle. He grew up as a big Yankee fan, and even though he was offered a football scholarship to play for the Sooners, Murcer signed with the Yankees.
Murcer's time in the minor leagues was incidental. At age 18, he killed the Appy League in 32 games of rookie ball (.365 average) before a knee injury ended his season. The next season he moved up to the high-Class A Carolina League and sustained his production over a full season (.322 AVG, 16 HR, 30 doubles). It was good enough to earn him a September call-up to the big club. Just 19, Murcer struggled against big-league pitching in 11 games (243/333/378), but was promising enough that he made the team in Spring Training in '66. Incumbent shortstop Tony Kubek retired after the '65 season, and Murcer looked like the heir apparent to replace him. Murcer struggled right off and was sent down to Triple-A Toledo. Murcer hit well in Triple-A (.266 with 15 HR), but not as well as he'd done in the low minors. He came back to the bigs in September and did somewhat better, but his final batting line (174/217/219) was still disappointing and seemed to indicate another year at Triple-A.
Murcer was headed for Spring Training 1967 confident that he could win the starting shortstop's job when he was drafted into the military. He was out of organized baseball for all of 1967 and 1968.

When Murcer came back, it was to a very different Yankee team. Mantle, his idol, had retired after the 1968 season, and the team had degenerated into a group of also-rans for the first time in half a century. Although Murcer's bat was ready for the majors, his defense at shortstop had been so erratic that he started out 1969 as the Yankees' third baseman. With 14 errors in 31 games, it was clear his future lay elsewhere, and so he shifted to center field, the position manned by Mantle for so many years.
Murcer hit well in '69, finishing with 26 HR and 50 walks on the season, for a 259/319/454 batting line. Center field suited him much better, and at 23, he still looked like a good bet for the future.
Murcer had an even better year in 1970, hitting 251/348/420 with a team-leading 23 HR (and 100 strikeouts). He helped drive the team back to respectability, as they went 93-69 and finished 2nd in the AL East. Granted, it was a distant 15 games behind the 108-win Orioles, but it was still a very good sign. Along with Murcer, the offense was driven by Roy White, a veteran of the poor late 60's squad, and a young catcher named Thurman Munson. The team also had a fine starting rotation led by Fritz Peterson and Mel Stottlemyre, and got an excellent season from relief ace Lindy McDaniel.
The Yankees fell to 82-80 in 1971, but Murcer broke through for an MVP-caliber season (331/427/543). He made his first AL All-Star team and finished 7th in MVP voting. I would argue that Murcer was the most valuable player in 1971. His only strong competition is from pitchers, and to be fair, both Vida Blue (who won the award) and Wilbur Wood were probably better, both of them having fantastic seasons.
Murcer wasn't quite as good in '72, but he did hit 292/361/537 and set a career high with 33 homers. He was still among the league's elite; only Gaylord Perry and Dick Allen were better, in my opinion. And once again, the Yankees were a part of the postseason race. As late as September 1st, they were just 1.5 games out. But they went 12-17 the rest of the way to finish 79-76, 6 games out of first place.
Murcer had another good year in '73, but struggled in '74. A lot of things changed in '74. Murcer got a raise to $120,000, making him the highest-paid Yankee in history. Ralph Houk, a player's manager, resigned and was replaced by Bill Virdon, who showed an unusual fascination with calisthenics. '74 also marked the first year (along with '75) where the Yankees played their home games at Shea Stadium, due to extensive renovations at Yankee Stadium. As if all that weren't enough, new manager Virdon decided to install Elliott Maddox in center field and shift Murcer to right.
It's hard to say which of these changes affected him most, but something was wrong, as Murcer finished the season hitting 274/332/378 with just 10 HR, awful by his standards. In spite of his struggles, the Yankees stayed in the pennant race all season long, finishing a bare 2 games behind the first-place Orioles. It was a sign of things to come for the franchise.

Unfortunately, Bobby wouldn't be around to see them. The Yankees had just been bought by George Steinbrenner, and one of the first moves made by Steinbrenner was to trade Murcer straight-up to the Giants for Bobby Bonds.
By all accounts, Murcer was devastated by the trade. The Yankees had been a part of his life since he was a child. Worse, he had to go to the National League to player for an awful team in a wind tunnel of a stadium. Murcer hit well his two years with the Giants ('75 and '76), but he was never really happy there and must have felt terrible as the Yankees won three straights pennants (1976-78) soon after he left.
Murcer had led the '76 Giants in homers (23), walks (84), and OBP (.362). But despite the presence of good talents like Darrell Evans and Gary Matthews, the Giants finished 74-88. The Giants apparently didn't think so highly of his efforts, even though he was just 30 years old and a good right fielder. They also were determined to get two-time batting champion Bill Madlock from the Cubs. So the Giants traded Murcer, Steve Ontiveros, and a minor leaguer to Chicago for Madlock and Rob Sperring.
Did the trade work out for the Giants? Well, they never got close enough to first place for the trade to matter much either way. Madlock did hit quite well for them, although he was (as was well known) a defensive challenge. The Giants actually moved him to second base in his second year there, a move which can best be described as puzzling, although to be fair, he wasn't nearly as bad as he had been at third. The Giants eventually sent him to the Pirates in a pretty dismal trade that brought back Ed Whitson and Al Holland for Madlock, Dave Roberts, and Len Randle.
Murcer spent two and a half seasons with the Cubs and continued to hit well. Wrigley Field was a much friendlier hitting environment, to be sure, and his 1977 season was vintage Bobby (265/355/455). His power dropped off dramatically in '78, although he kept up the rest of his game (281/376/403). His odd power outage continued to start out 1979 (258/374/400), but on June 26 Bobby got what must have been fantastic news: he was going back to the Yankees. The Yankees were fighting to stay in the pennant race, as the Orioles had once again risen to the top of the AL East. Bobby didn't hit too well, and the Yankees finished in 4th place.
Murcer was limited to part-time duty in 1980 (269/339/438). Spending most of the season as a left fielder/DH, Murcer apparently felt that he would be better suited as a full-time starter. But the Yankees were flush with outfielders and first basemen in 1980, with old standards Reggie Jackson and Lou Pineilla joined by youngsters Bobby Brown and Ruppert Jones, not to mention veterans Eric Soderholm (who was the primary DH and hit 287/353/462), Oscar Gamble, and even former Oriole Paul Blair, who ended his career with 12 games in pinstripes. At first was Bob Watson (307/368/456), and the Yanks also had a 32-year-old Jim Spencer (236/313/421). And so it was difficult to find a place to get Murcer regular playing time. As it was, the team won 103 games and finished 2nd in the AL in runs scored, but got swept out of the ALCS by the Royals in an interesting reversal of fortune.
In 1981, Murcer only played in 50 games but still hit well (265/331/470). The signing of Dave Winfield to a big contract meant playing time was going to be even harder to come by. But with Murcer in the fold, the Yankees won a spot in the playoffs by winning the AL East in the first "half" of the strike-abbreviated season. They won a close division series against Milwaukee (3-2) before sweeping the A's in the ALCS to win their fourth pennant in six years. Their World Series opponents were the Dodgers, who avenged the '77 and '78 losses with a 6-game defeat of the Bombers.
The Yankees brought Murcer back as a free agent in 1982, and he played 65 games as a pinch-hitter and DH. Murcer's age really started to show itself, though, and he hit just 227/288/418. The Yankees finished 5th. He came back in '83 but only got in 9 games and didn't hit well at all. After the season he was offered a job with the Yankees broadcast team, a job he has held through thick and thin to this day. A malignant brain tumor forced him from the job late last year, but his recovery has gone well, and he's received a great deal of respect and support from Yankee fans and baseball fans.
If Bobby Murcer had been able to hit as well in the second half of his career as he did in the first half, he would probably be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. And to be fair, it wasn't until his mid-30's that his hitting declined from All-Star levels to just pretty good. Either way, though, Murcer was one of the great Yankees and a fine ballplayer. From 1971-1973, there wasn't anybody better, and even if Murcer wasn't the next Mickey Mantle, he did pretty good for himself anyhow.
Roy White (1965-1979)
(Career 271/360/404; 1,803 H; 934 BB; 2 All-Star teams)
Like Bobby Murcer, a great deal of Roy White's fine career was lost in the disappointment of the late-60's Yankees. But unlike Murcer, White hasn't been able to reconnect to the fans via broadcasting. But it must be said that White was excellent, and while he may not have been as good as Murcer at his peak, he was still a fine player for a number of years.
A Los Angeles native, White was signed by the Yankees out of Centennial High School in Compton. After a slow start in 1962 at age 18, White had a good year in '63 with Greensboro of the Carolina League, hitting .309 with 9 HR and 10 triples. Again, we don't have any data on walks for White, so we're left to just assume that the plate discipline he showed in the majors was also there in the minors.
White had a rough year with Double-A Columbus in 1964 (at age 20), but he did much better when he repeated the level in '65, hitting .300 wit 19 HR and 14 triples in 139 games. White's great season with Columbus got him a September call-up with the big club in '65, and he hit well in 14 games (333/404/381).
White spent 1966 splitting time in left field with Tom Tresh. Tresh hit well (233/341/421), whereas White really struggled (225/308/345), posting a batting line that was poor even in 1966.
Perhaps because of this, White started out 1967 with Triple-A Spokane, hitting .343, but with little power in games. Still, the Yankees called him up in July to stay. Mickey Mantle had moved to first base, and the New York outfield was being manned by Tresh (219/301/377), Joe Pepitone (251/301/377), and Steve Whitaker (243/283/358). Tresh and Pepitone were both essentially done by '67, and Whitaker was never much good to begin with. All of a sudden, there was plenty of room for Roy White. Unfortunately, he wasn't much of an upgrade, hitting 224/287/290 in 70 games. After finishing dead last in '66, the '67 Yankees managed to move all the way up to 9th (of 10 AL teams).
In 1968, though, White finally broke through at age 24, hitting 267/350/414 with 17 HR and 73 BB. The Yankees finally got back to the first division, ending up in 5th place at 83-79. Part of their problem was still power; White's 17 HR were second only to Mantle, who hit 18. 1968 or not, that's disappointing.
The league-wide adjustments to favor the hitters helped White post even better number in '69, as he hit 290/392/426 with 81 walks. The Yankees again finished fifth, as Mantle's retirement left a big hole in the team's offense. White was the best-hitting Yankee in '69, although a young Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson gave the team some future stars.
The 1970 Yankees shot all the way up to 2nd place at 93-69. Unfortunately, they were 15 games back of the dynastic Orioles in the AL East, but it was still a big year for the franchise. White had one of his best years (296/387/473, 22 HR, 96 BB), and he got strong support from Munson and Murcer, as well as hurlers Fritz Peterson, Mel Stottlemyre and Lindy McDaniel. White was just as good in '71 (292/388/469), but the Yanks fell back to 4th place.
White suffered a power outage in '72, hitting just 270/384/376, with 10 HR. The Yankees were stifled, too, finishing 4th in the AL East again. The problem was that apart from Munson, White, and Murcer, the Yanks hadn't found (or kept) any consistently productive hitters in the last 10 years. Their pitching staff was strong, but as it turned out, hurlers like Stottlemyre and Peterson didn't have a long shelf life, and they would be gone by the time the Bombers returned to the World Series. One guy who was still around was ace reliever Sparky Lyle, obtained in a lopsided deal from Boston.
White's power returned in '73 (18 HR), but his batting average fell to .246, giving him a dismal .329 OBP even with his 78 walks. The Yankees finished 4th again and it was starting to look pretty hopeless for the Yankees to get a winner out of their current roster.
All that changed in 1974. The Yankees returned to the top of the league as contenders, and would stay there for nearly ten years. The Yankees kept up in an exciting three-team race for the AL East. New York was there to the end, getting eliminated on the next-to-last day of the season. They ended up just 2 games back of the Orioles.
There were a lot of new Yankees in '74 that contributed to the resurgence. Former bench player Ron Blomberg now had a regular spot as the team's DH (311/375/481). Lou Pineilla was acquired from the Royals (305/341/407) to complete an outfield that also included White, Bobby Murcer, and Elliott Maddox (303/395/386), all of whom switched out and managed to get in at least 130 games.
Graig Nettles had come to the Yankees the previous season, but he would prove a fixture at the hot corner for the next decade. The Yanks had a strong bullpen anchored by Lyle and a transitional rotation with some old faces (Stottlemyre, Sam McDowell, Pat Dobson) and some new ones (Doc Medich, Dick Tidrow, Rudy May).
White had his best season in a while in 1975 (290/372/430), but the Yanks stumbled and finished 3rd.
In 1976, however, the same core group went 97-62 and won the AL East. The Yankees were back in the postseason for the first time since 1964.
New players that pushed the Yanks to the pennant (they beat the Royals in the ALCS) were young second baseman Willie Randolph, free agent pitcher Catfish Hunter, trade acquisitions Ed Figueroa and Dock Ellis, and a deep outfield consisting of White, Mickey Rivers, Oscar Gamble, Carlos May, and Pineilla. Unfortunately for the Yankees, their return to the World Series would end in humiliation: a sweep at the hands of the Big Red Machine.
But the Yankees of 1977 and 1978 went on a rampage that resulted in back-to-back World Championships. The word "rampage" describes not only their dominance, but the amazing behind-the-scenes turmoil that came to be known as the "Bronx Zoo." At the center of it were owner George Steinbrenner, sometimes-manager Billy Martin, and new free agent Reggie Jackson.
Roy White was not a headline-grabber like Jackson or a controversial player at all, really. He just held down the left field job. However, as he entered his mid-30's, it became clear that his skills were starting to slip. In '77 things were all right, as White hit 268/358/405. But in '78, he slipped to 269/349/393 in 103 games. As the Yankee outfield grew more crowded, White was forced to share time in left with Pineilla.
In 1979, the 35-year-old White played in just 81 games and hit 215/290/288, the worst baseball he'd played in a decade. On a roster that was still overstocked with outfield/DH types, White was finding it more and more difficult to get playing time.
Despite his fading status, White probably could have found work in the big leagues in 1980. But he signed with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan and ended his active career there.

White's career numbers aren't overwhelming. He got a relatively late start and made an early exit, so his counting stats aren't very impressive. But for about a decade in the late 60's and early 70's, White was one of the most consistently productive left fielders in the game. He's not a Hall-of-Famer; he just chose the wrong time to be a Yankee. He was overshadowed first by the team's mediocrity and then by the controversy that always centered on players other than himself.
So let's give some "props" to Roy White, as the kids would say. He was a heck of a ballplayer.

Jim Fregosi (1961-1978)
(Career 265/338/398; 1,726 H; 151 HR; 1 Gold Glove; 6-time All-Star)
Jim Fregosi was the Derek Jeter of the 1960's. As outrageous as that statement sounds, I intend to prove it by the end of this entry.
Now, Fregosi didn't have Jeter's October heroics to his credit, but due to his teammates more than anything. Fregosi never made it to the postseason in an 18-year career. He did play for the 1973 Mets (who won the pennant), but he was sold to the Rangers in July and thus missed all of the excitement.
But Fregosi was, in fact, Derek Jeter; he was the best-hitting shortstop of his time, and while his defense wasn't much, it was good enough for him to hold down the position. And any shortstop who hits like Jim Fregosi is headed to the Hall of Fame. And if it weren't for injuries, that's exactly where Fregosi would be.
A San Francisco native, Fregosi was signed by the Red Sox out of high school in late 1959. Fregosi, just 18, spent the 1960 season playing for the Alpine (?) team. He hit 267/384/389, showing very good patience if little power. That December, the American League conducted the first-ever expansion draft. The Red Sox left Fregosi unprotected, and he was drafted by the new Los Angeles Angels. The Angels actually got a pretty good haul out of the draft, taking Fregosi, Dean Chance, Ted Kluszewski, Albie Pearson, Ken McBride, Eddie Yost, Earl Averill, Bob Cerv, and Ken Hunt. Not a team of All-Stars, but it's one of the best any team's managed in an expansion draft.
Incidentally, while Fregosi was starring with the Angels, the Red Sox filled the shortstop hole with a washed-up Luis Aparicio and Mario Guerrero before finally settling on Rick Burleson in 1975.
Still just 19, Fregosi started 1961 with the Angels' Triple-A affilliate in Dallas. He still showed good plate discipline (50 walks against just 70 K's), but he hit just .254 with very little power. He still got a September call-up with the big club, where he played 11 forgettable games at shortstop (222/250/222).
Fregosi went back to Dallas to start 1962, and this time his offense got better. He hit 238/378/365 in 64 games before getting called up to the majors. The Angels had 31-year-old Joe Koppe playing shortstop, so they had very little to lose by going with young Fregosi. Fregosi played in just 58 games in 1962, but established himself as a major-leaguer by hitting 291/356/406. In just their second season of existence, the Angels went 86-76 and finished in 3rd place, a huge surprise to everyone. Unfortunately, their early success began a cycle where the team looked for instant gratification and neglected the farm system.
None the less, Fregosi was already looking like one of the best young shortstops in the game. His defense was adequate, and he was a good hitter for the position. He hit 287/325/422 in 1963, at age 21. Taking into account the era he was playing in and the ballpark (Dodger Stadium; the Angels didn't get their own stadium until 1966). But the Angels' success in '62 did prove to be temporary, as they fell to 9th place in '63.
In 1964, however, the team finished a respectable 82-80, in 5th place. The team MVPs were Fregosi, who broke out with a 277/369/463 season, and Cy Young Award-winner Dean Chance (1.65 ERA in 278.1 IP). Unfortunately, the only support these two stars had were some over-the-hill veterans and raw rookies. The best hitters in the lineup after Fregosi were Joe Adcock (36 years old) and Jimmy Piersall (34). They did get some good work from outfielders Willie Smith (25) and Lou Clinton(26), but they would be traded away within a few years.
On the pitching staff, Chance got good support from 22-year-old Fred Newman (2.75 ERA in 190 IP), but after an even better 1965, the overworked Newman flamed out and was out of the majors by 1968. Bo Belinsky actually pitched well, but '64 was his last year with the team, as his party-all-night lifestyle was considered a bad influence. Ace closer Bob Lee had an excellent year, but after a couple more good years in the bullpen, his career was basically over in 1967.
This typified the Angels teams of the era; they might have had a couple good players either on their way up or on their way out, but they rarely developed (and held on to) the sort of player you could build a winning team around. And for the first 10-15 years of their existence, the only player like that they managed to keep was Fregosi.
If there was any optimism surrounding the team's 5th-place finish in '64, it disappeared when they fell to 7th in 1965. Fregosi's production dropped (277/337/407), but he was still the team MVP, although the Halos got some good work from their starters (Newman, Chance, George Brunet, and Marcelino Lopez). 1966 was more of the same, as Fregosi's numbers fell to 252/325/391 (granted, batting numbers were falling all over baseball).
The Angels had probably their best season yet in 1967. See the above entry on Reggie Smith for more information about the '67 AL pennant race, but in short, the Angels stayed in a close 5-team race and finished 84-77. Stars included Fregosi (290/349/395), first baseman Don Mincher (273/367/487) and an outfield of Rick Reichardt, Jimmie Hall, and Jose Cardenal. The Angels got good work from several different starters, but once again, none of them would win long enough to become household names.
The Angels' tenuous relationship with winning baseball was proven in 1968, when they went 67-95 and finished 8th. Fregosi's numbers weren't nearly as bad as they appear (244/315/365) considering the context, but the rest of the team really was that bad. This was the Angels in a nutshell: Jim Fregosi surrounded by players that were either a) past their prime (Don Mincher, Woodie Held, Minnie Rojas, Larry Sherry), b) mediocre at best (Bobby Knoop, Rick Reichardt, Jim McGothlin) or c) players who would go on to star with other teams (Aurelio Rodriguez, Jim Spencer, Marty Pattin, Andy Messersmith). The names would change, but the basic makeup of the team wouldn't change until the onset of free agency. The front office didn't have the patience to invest in a farm system and they (apparently) didn't have the know-how to assemble a winner by themselves.
The story was the same in 1969 (3rd in the new AL West), but in 1970, at least, the team moved to 86-76, a much stronger 3rd place. This was thanks mainly to Fregosi, Alex Johnson, Roger Repoz, Clyde Wright, and Messersmith. Unfortunately, these players would all be gone within a couple years: Messersmith was traded to the Dodgers after the '72 season for a 37-year-old Frank Robinson; Clyde Wright was traded to Milwaukee for Ellie Rodriguez and friends (his career was nearly over, anyway); Alex Johnson went to the Indians after the '71 season for an aging Vada Pinson; closer Ken Tatum was part of a post-1970 trade with Boston that got the Angels semi-blind Tony Conigliaro; reliver Dave LaRoche was traded to the Twins straight-up for Leo Cardenas after '71; Roger Repoz stayed with the team but was done by age 31; 3B Ken McMullen went to the Dodgers with Messersmith; 1B Jim Spencer was traded to Texas in mid-'73 for Mike Epstein; Aurelio Rodriguez (and Rick Reichardt) went to the Senators in the deal that got McMullen in the first place; future star Rudy May was simply sold to the Yankees in June of '74; young Mickey Rivers at least stuck around through 1975 before going to the Yankees with Ed Figueroa in a trade for Bobby Bonds.
So imagine all of those trades that involve sending away useful talent in exchange for (mostly) junk, and then consider that their farm system was mostly fallow, and you can understand why club owner Gene Autry was so eager to jump into the free agent market in the future.
But what happened to Jim Fregosi, the face of the franchise? Unfortunately, that story is even sadder than the desolate state of the Angels . . .
The '71 Angels slipped back into mediocrity (76-86), and one of the main reasons was an injury to Fregosi that limited him to 107 games and a 233/317/326 batting line. According to Total Ballclubs, the front office (specifically GM Dick Walsh) were unsympathetic in their reaction to Fregosi's injury; they refused to give him clearance to leave the team, despite the fact that the injury (a foot tumor) would only get worse if he kept playing, and it was severely limited his on-field performance, as well. Finally, Fregosi went against the front office's wishes and checked himself into a hospital for operation on his ailing foot.
The following December, the Angels traded Fregosi to the Mets. Fregosi's declining play and "insubordination" likely made him a target for Walsh's fury, but it should be said that the Angels' front office had already made a name for itself over the years for its horrific record on player relations. The only exception was Autry himself, who had grown close to Fregosi in the ten years he'd spent with the franchise. It was that parting, apparently, that was most painful for both men. Walsh justified the move by pointing to the players the Angels got in return: outfielder Leroy Stanton and a young fireballer named . . . Nolan Ryan.
In retrospect, the trade that became infamous as "Ryan-for-Fregosi" was a blunder by the Mets. Unfortunately, Fregosi never did regain his former level of play with the Mets, and all Ryan did in California was throw some no-hitters and set a new single-season record for strikeouts.
But how much of a blunder was it at the time? Fregosi hadn't even turned 30 when the trade was made. His 1971 struggles aside, there was no reason to believe that he wouldn't continue on as one of the game's best shortstop for some years yet.
And keep in mind that the New York Mets version of Nolan Ryan isn't the same as the strikeout king he would become in California. Ryan was just 25 at the time of the trade, but in that time, he'd allowed 344 walks in 510 IP, a historically high rate of wildness. Granted, he did strike out 493 batters in the same time frame, but put the two together, and Ryan just wasn't nearly as good as he would become with the Angels. His best single-season ERA mark in New York was 3.42 (117 ERA+), which is good, but is a far cry from Cy Young contention. It should also be said that in that season, Ryan threw just 131.2 innings, and his career-high at the time of the trade was 152.
The other point is that the Mets had a lot of good young pitchers, and Ryan was considered -- by many observers -- not one of the best. In 1971, the year before the trade, Ryan was the fifth-best starting pitcher on the team. The Mets had one of the best pitchers of all time (Tom Seaver, age 26), an incredible #2 (Jerry Koosman, 28), not to mention Gary Gentry (a 24-year-old whose career unfortunately peaked with his 3.23 ERA in '71) and a promising young pitcher named Jon Matlack (21 years old). Even without Ryan, the Mets would have a starting staff of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, and either Gary Gentry and Ray Sadecki (who was 30 years old in '71 and still better than Ryan).
What the Mets didn't have was an All-Star caliber hitter at a key defensive position. They did have solid glove man Bud Harrelson at shortstop (and a 20-year-old Tim Foli), but Fregosi could have shifted to third base (replacing 33-year-old stopgap Bob Aspromonte).
So should we really be surprised that the Mets traded away a historically wild young pitcher who was, by most accounts, no better than the third of fourth best pitcher on the staff?
Of course, what did happen is that Ryan learned to succeed in spite of his wildness, while Fregosi struggled in New York. The Mets really should have paid more attention to Ryan's strikeouts, but really, how many pitchers just like Nolan Ryan don't learn to succeed with his style? How many pitchers in history have been able to compete for Cy Young Awards despite regularly walking more than 100 (and sometimes 200) batters per season? Ryan, Bob Feller, and Randy Johnson come to mind, though Johnson's control improved significantly when he reached his 30s. And for those three, there are thousands of talented-but-wild pitchers throughout major league history who don't succeed. Yes, the Mets should have looked a little closer at Ryan before they traded him. But this move was not the blunder that it's come to be viewed as in hindsight. Because who would have predicted what happened to Ryan in California?
And for that matter, who would have predicted what happened to Fregosi in New York . . .
Fregosi still wasn't entirely healthy in 1972, his first season with the Mets (232/311/344). It's hard for me to pin down how much of this is due to the lingering effects of his foot problems and how much of it is additional injuries. Either way, he only played in 101 games. Over in California, Nolan Ryan went 19-16, threw 9 shutouts, and struck out 329 batters (against "just" 157 walks) in 284 innings, sporting a 2.28 ERA (128 ERA+).
And oh yeah -- Met fans noticed.
Things improved for New York as they won the pennant in 1973, but Fregosi wasn't around to see it. In his first 45 games, he hit 234/340/282, and in July the Texas Rangers purchased his contract. While the Mets won the pennant and went to Game 7 in the Series before losing, the Rangers finished 57-105. The only good news was that Fregosi hit much better with his new team, 268/318/446 in 45 games.
Fregosi hit well again in 1974 (261/324/439), but injuries limited him to just 78 games. The Angels were the first team to try him at third as his defense deteriorated from adequate to poor. He'd been a third baseman primarily while with the Mets, and the Rangers used him there as well, splitting time at first base. Fregosi's greatest strength -- offensive production from a key defensive position -- was gone, as was his ability to stay healthy. He played 77 games in 1975 (262/329/398) and never played more than that in a season again.
After an equally dismal 1976, the Rangers traded Fregosi to the Pirates in mid-1977 for corner infielder Ed Kirkpatrick, in the last year of his career. The Pirates used Fregosi almost exclusively as a backup first baseman, and he hit well in his 36 games with them (286/408/500).
But any hopes that the 35-year-old Fregosi had some good baseball left in him dimmed in 1978, when Fregosi started out hitting 200/385/350 with the Pirates in 20 games. Pittsburgh released him on June 1. Unable to catch on with another team, Fregosi's playing career was over.
However, the clever Fregosi started his managerial career right away, coming home to a much-improved Angels team in 1978. The team won the AL West for the first time under Fregosi in 1979, but after dismal play in 1980 and 1981, Fregosi was let go. After three forgettable seasons with the White Sox in the mid-80's, Fregosi caught on with the Phillies in 1991. He inherited a promising but problematic team that fell to last place in 1992. Amazingly, though, the Phillies roared back to win the pennant 1993, with Fregosi at the helm of a true ship of fools, a ragtag bunch of rough blue-collar types that somehow managed to upset the Braves in the NLCS and take the favored Blue Jays to 6 games in the World Series before falling.
1993 would prove to be the highlight of Fregosi's managerial career. He stayed with the team through 1996, but they didn't manage any more miracles like in '93. After that, Fregosi managed the Blue Jays to back-to-back 3rd-place finishes in 1999 and 2000, and hasn't worked as a major-league manager since. But although he hasn't run a big-league club in 7 years, his name does sometimes come up as a candidate for a team looking to hire someone other than the usual suspects. And at age 65, Fregosi is still relatively young.
Many players who suffered traumatic injuries look back at their careers and wonder what they would have done if they'd stayed healthy? What about Fregosi? Would he have made the Hall of Fame if he had played as well after 30 as he did before?
I think so. To quote Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups:
Jim Fregosi and Derek Jeter both became everyday shortstops in the majors when they were twenty-one. In Fregosi's first eight seasons, he earned 207 Win Shares. In Jeter's first eight seasons, he totaled 192 Win Shares. This is not a knock on Jeter. Cal Ripken also was twenty-one when he won a regular job; in his first eight seasons, he earned 219 Win Shares. The point is that Fregosi obviously had Hall of Fame talent and, for eight seasons, he also had Hall of Fame performance. Fregosi was a good hitter and -- because he played a decent shortstop -- a great player.
So this is our verdict on Jim Fregosi: yet another in a long list of "almosts." But for a while, he was great.
Special thanks to, Retrosheet, The Baseball Cube, Baseball Prospectus DT Cards, Baseball Race, Rob Neyer, Total Ballclubs and especially to the SABR Bio Project for info on Bobby Murcer.
NEXT UP: Bill Freehan, Vada Pinson, Frank Howard, Johnny Callison, Curt Flood, Vern Stephens, Charlie Keller and more . . .

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