Results tagged ‘ Shortstops ’
Three shortstops from the 1970s continue to stick in my
mind. None of them were standout players–in fact, two of them had little
tangible impact during their major league careers–but they all had nicknames
that were more memorable than their playing ability. Their careers also
happened to coincide with my formative years as a baseball fan.
Larvell “Sugar Bear”
Blanks: I had always assumed that the former Braves and Indians shortstop
derived his nickname from the cartoon character “Sugar Bear,” who was featured
on the Sugar Crisp cereal commercials of that era. I learned differently when I
read John Skipper’s comprehensive book, Baseball
Nicknames. Blanks informed Skipper that he received the moniker in either
August or September of 1970, while playing for the Braves’ entry in the Arizona
Instructional League. At the same time, The Archies happened to release their
song, “Sugar, Sugar,” which promptly became a hit single on the radio airwaves.
Two of Blanks’ Instructional League teammates, Darrell Evans and Ralph Garr,
took note of the young shortstop’s aggressive batting style and began
serenading him as “Sugar Bear.” The name stuck with Blanks, remaining with him
even after the Braves traded him to the Indians. Perhaps the most memorable
incident of Blanks’ career occurred in Cleveland.
Furious with manager Frank Robinson, Sugar Bear ripped off his Indians uniform,
threw it into a barrel of trash, and then set it on fire.
Gene “Stick” Michael:
The most accomplished of the three shortstops profiled here, Michael epitomized
the good-field, no-hit shortstops that populated the game in the late sixties
and early seventies. Before he began a major league career that included stints
with the Pirates, Dodgers, Yankees, and Tigers, Michael starred as a college
basketball player at Kent
At six-feet, two inches and a rail-like 180 pounds, Michael had a sticklike
appearance on the basketball court, hence the nickname became a natural fit.
The label stuck with him in baseball, where he established a reputation as one
of the game’s smartest players. “Stick” became the master of the hidden ball
trick, pulling it off at least five times in his career. After his retirement,
Michael became a coach, manager, scout, and general manager, and continues to work
as an advisor in the front office of the Yankees.
Lee “Bee Bee” Richard:
This former White Sox’ shortstop also influenced a wrong assumption on the part
of this author. For years, I had thought that Richard, a very fast runner and
prolific basestealer in the minor leagues, was called “Bee Bee” because of his
blazing footspeed. Not so. Richard’s nickname originated in high school, where
he starred as a pitcher. Richard threw so hard as an amateur that his fastball
had the imaginary appearance of a BB pellet, released from a gun. Perhaps the
switch-hitting Richard should have remained a pitcher; he hit only .209 and
made far too many errors over five seasons, frustrating a White Sox front
office that considered him the shortstop of the future. According to White Sox
legend, Richard often beat the catcher’s throw to second base on stolen base
attempts, only to be tagged out for sliding past the bag!
Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have
to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable
defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also
seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX
sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered
on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he
blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My
father and I chuckled over that crack for days.
For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees
to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner
shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on
a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day,
while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp–yes, I spent summers at a place
called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it–we exchanged some
conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact
names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting
pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas
for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry,
Figueroa, or Hunter.
I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as
a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man
could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually
hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a
ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the
time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977,
largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could
make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably
well–you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did–I was going to be satisfied.
So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe
Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal
Why did I like Harrah so much? In the mid-1970s, Harrah
represented a rare breed: an American League shortstop who could hit. Keep in
mind that Robin Yount had not yet entered his prime, Alan Trammell wouldn’t
arrive in Detroit until 1978 (and even then he was only 20), and Cal Ripken,
Jr.s’ debut remained several years away.
Most American League shortstops fell into the one-dimensional category
of all-field and little-hit, including the likes of Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Dave
Chalk, Frank Duffy, and Tom Veryzer. Compared to those noodle bats, Harrah
looked like an Adonis in the batter’s box.
The plan to bring in Harrah sounded good. Considering the
depth of the Yankees’ pitching staff, giving up a second-tier pitcher in
addition to Dent seemed doable. There was just one problem. The Rangers had to
agree to the deal, too. They negotiated with the Yankees off and on, with
Harrah’s name periodically being mentioned in rumors, but the two sides could not
reach the appropriate compromise. After the 1978 season, the Rangers finally
received an offer they couldn’t refuse. Only it didn’t come from the Yankees.
Instead, the Rangers found a trading partner in the Indians, who agreed to give
up All-Star third baseman Buddy Bell.
Harrah spent five mostly productive seasons with the Tribe. By
the early 1980s, I had forgotten about Harrah, who had entrenched himself as a
durable and productive player in Cleveland.
It was time to move on. The dream had ended.
In February of 1984, with the Yankees collecting infielders
the way I once collected postage stamps, the team announced a surprising trade.
The deal sent reliever George Frazier and minor league speedster Otis Nixon to
the Indians–for Harrah, of course. By then, Harrah was no longer a shortstop;
he had long since been converted to third base. He was no longer an All-Star
either, with his home run production falling off from 25 to nine in his final season with the Tribe.
At 34, Harrah looked well past his prime.
Lots of folks didn’t understand the trade, including me. The
Yankees already had Graig Nettles and Roy Smalley available to play third.
Nettles eventually vacated the premises, mostly because he ticked off The Boss
with the contents of his tell-all book, Balls.
Harrah ended up splitting time with Smalley, hit all of one home run in
pinstripes, and slugged an ungodly .296. Clearly not the player he once was, Harrah
became trade bait after the season, sent to the Rangers for outfielder Billy
Sample. Harrah would play better in Texas,
but that only made me feel worse.
In the meantime, the Yankees continued their search for a
new shortstop, some of whom could hit, some of whom could field, and some who
could barely stand up. Smalley tried and failed, as did Andre Robertson, Bobby
Meacham, Paul Zuvella, Wayne Tolleson (another personal favorite), Rafael
Santana, Alvaro Espinoza, Spike Owen, and even a fading Tony Fernandez.
The Yankees’ quagmire of shortstop mediocrity continued until
1995. That’s when Toby Harrah finally arrived. Not the actual Toby Harrah, but a newer, better version of Toby Harrah.
Like Harrah, he would receive his fair share of criticism for his defensive
failures, but he would do wondrous things offensively and help spearhead the
next Yankee dynasty.
Yes, Toby Harrah finally did arrive–in the form of a
21-year-old phenom named Derek Jeter.