Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Alley Oop

Gene Alley
Gene Alley's card from Baseball Dugout

When people talk about Pirate shortstops, Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan and Dick Groat are always on the tip of their tongues. But for pure artistry in the field, Gene Alley rates among them. Over his career, he played more games at short (977) for the Bucs than anyone except Wagner, Vaughan, Groat, and Jay Bell (Jack Wilson is breathing down his neck with 974 games at SS and should pass him in April.)

Born in Richmond, Va., Leonard Eugene Alley spent his entire pro career in the Pittsburgh system. Signed in 1959, he buttoned up his Bucco flannels five years later when he was called up in 1964. Alley played in 81 games that year for the Pirates and hit .211. The next season Alley settled in at the plate, batting .252.

In the majors, Alley wasn’t counted on to be a stick man. The Pirates had Stargell, Clemente and the rest of the Lumber Company to provide the ooomph. His value to the team was with his glove. But Alley found a way to be productive at the plate with the help of manager Harry Walker, who managed the Pirates from 1965 to ’67.

“I wasn’t the greatest hitter,” Alley admitted. “When Harry Walker took over the Pirates, he worked with me a lot on trying to hit the ball to right field and waiting on the pitch. We worked on the hit-and-run and he liked to get the runners over."

In 1966, Alley had perhaps his finest all around season. He hit a career-high .299 with seven home runs, 43 RBI, 88 runs scored, and 173 hits in 147 games. He drilled a career-high 28 doubles. Alley added 10 triples to the mix, and his 20 sacrifice bunts were second in the National League.

More importantly, he teamed with second baseman Bill Mazeroski to turn a NL record 215 double plays. The pair joined a select list of eight shortstop-second baseman to each win a Gold Glove the same season while playing together twice, in 1967 and '68.

“I knew after playing with (Mazeroski) for a while and watching other second baseman around the league that he was the best in making the double play,” said Alley, who himself had a then-club record 128 double plays in ’66 (just beaten by Jack Wilson last season, when he turned 129). “He was great and he could turn the double play better than anyone I ever saw. You just tried to give him a good throw and that was it - he was going to turn it. You left the rest to him.”

Alley had play he and Maz cooked up for balls hit up the middle. If Maz snagged a grounder going away from first base, he'd flip to Alley to relay to first. Twice Alley had the runners thrown out on that play, but the first baseman dropped the ball. Maz and Alley finally got a runner out in Atlanta with that tactic. The third time's the charm. (Story from Glenn's Pirate Near Greats.)

Alley won first of his two Gold Glove awards in 1966. He finished 11th in voting for the MVP award, thanks to his leather.

In 1967 Alley made his first trip to the All Star game, hitting .287 with six homers, 55 RBI, 25 doubles, 59 runs scored, and 158 hits in 152 games. He also earned his second straight Gold Glove.

He started at shortstop for the NL. But Alley played with a sore right arm in that game, an injury that would bother him the rest of his career. He first felt the ache before a game at Cincinnati while warming up in the outfield.

“It happened a few days before the All-Star Game,“ Alley said. “I was shagging balls during batting practice in the outfield. I caught one and threw it in and felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. I got another one and threw it and it was the same thing. The pain just wouldn’t go away. It stayed like that for a while.”

He thinks the cumulative effect of thousands of throws in practice and during games over the course of his career finally took their toll. "I just made too many throws, I guess. It was just wear and tear.”

Alley played through the pain. In 1968, he was named to his second straight All-Star squad while hitting .245. In ‘69, he hit .246 with eight homers in 82 games and spent 29 days on the disabled list. Despite limited playing time, Alley continued to shine with his glove. He also had a 21-game hitting streak.

It began on Aug. 13 at San Francisco, when he went 2-for-5 with a home run off the Giants’ Mike McCormick during a 10-5 win. The balls kept falling until Sept. 9 when he went hitless in four at-bats against Montreal’s Steve Renko.

Alley hit .366 during the streak (30-for-82) with eight homers, 21 RBI, and 15 runs scored. When it began, he was hitting .218. By the time it had ended, Alley had raised his average to .266.

In 1970, Alley smacked an inside-the-park grand slam home run against the Montreal Expos on Sept. 2 at Jarry Park. With the bases loaded and one out against pitcher Carl Morton, Alley sent a line drive toward center fielder Boots Day. Boots let it get by him, (aptly named OF'er, hey?) and was off to the races.

Alley helped the Pirates win the National League East in 1970, hitting .244 and gloving everything in sight. In 1971, Alley hit .227 during the Bucs’ world championship season. In 1972, the Pirates won their third consecutive division title as Alley hit .248 in 119 games.

But Alley hit just .203 in 76 games the next season and called it quits. His knee was shot along with his shoulder, and he didn't have enough moving parts left to be effective anymore. There were no steroids or HGH then to cure your aches and pains. We can only wonder what kind of career he'd have had if there was a good ortho doc to scope him back in the day.

For his 11-year career, Alley hit .254 with 55 homers, 342 RBI, 442 runs scored, 140 doubles, and 44 triples in 1,195 games. He had 999 lifetime hits. His fielding percentage was a sterling .970 at shortstop.

When Alley was playing, he found work as a sales rep during the off season and stepped into the job full time before retiring a few years ago. Now he spends his time playing golf or hanging out with his buddies. He rarely misses a chance to get together with his old teammates. Laissez les bon temps roulez.

(Many thanks to Todd Newville who wrote up "Dead End Alley" in Baseball Dugout. I took a lot of the info and quotes from his story.)

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