Friday, September 26, 2008

Doctor Strangeglove

When I was just beginning to flip baseball cards in the schoolyard, the first Pirate bomber that I followed was Frank Thomas, back in the day when everyone rooted for the home team. The slugging third baseman went yard 35 times in 1958 with 109 RBI.

I was seven years old then, hoping to earn a spot in Baldwin‘s Little League at Lafferty Field, and used to sneak a transistor radio to bed to listen to the night games. Local kids were all Pirate fans and experts before ESPN and cable TV nationalized the sport, and could rattle off every Bucco stat by heart.

But in what was to become a key trade for the Pirates, they moved Thomas to the Cincy Redlegs late that winter for Smoky "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" Burgess, Harvey “the Kitten” Haddix, and Don “the Tiger” Hoak.

I was disappointed, but not for long. A new muscleman showed up at Forbes Field to take his place. It was Dick Stuart.

He was a cocky and flamboyant first baseman from California who hit baseballs vast distances but fielded so poorly that he earned the nickname Dr. Strangeglove. And he didn’t care a whit about his inability to flag down a baseball. In fact, he once drove around with the license plate number E3.

Stuart's ying and yang was crystal clear from the start of his career.

He had hit 66 long balls in 1956 for Lincoln of the Class A Western League and modestly started signing autographs ''Dick Stuart 66,'' a habit he’d continue his entire life. But the Pirates were still wary because, as then manager Bobby Bragan said, "Dick Stuart is the worst outfielder I ever saw in my life."

Thanks to his one way play, Bill James rated him as the worst "percentage player" in baseball history for his inability to draw walks, run the bases or field. However, he twice had an OPS of 140, and in a third year he led the league in total bases. He did his thing pretty well, Sabremetric friendly or not.

After a year and a half in Hollywood and Salt Lake City, where he became a first baseman in name if not in spirit, he got the call to the bigs in 1958. His first major league hit was a home run. His second was a grand slam. Stu blasted 16 homers in 67 games - and booted 16 balls.

No matter how well he hit, he could never shake his well-deserved rep as a bad fielder. He botched 90 balls during his five year Pirate career, and set the modern-day record of 29 miscues in 1963 with Boston.

When the PA announcer at spring training told the fans before the game that "Anyone who interferes with the ball in play will be ejected from the ballpark," Danny Murtaugh, the Pirates' manager, quipped "I hope Stuart doesn't think he means him."

In his first full season of 1959, he hit .297 with 27 HRs and 78 RBI in fewer than 400 at-bats. Stu had 23 homers and 83 RBI in 1960. On June 30th, he ripped 3 consecutive HRs and drove in in 7 runs against the Giants to join Ralph Kiner as the only Pirate to hit 3 HRs in a game at Forbes Field.

He still had trouble with that glove, though. "One night in Pittsburgh, thirty-thousand fans gave me a standing ovation when I caught a hot dog wrapper on the fly," as he recalled.

When Bill Mazeroski hit his unforgettable shot to win the Series, Stuart was due up next. "I was kneeling in the on-deck circle, thinking I was going to be the hero. And all of a sudden, I was out on the field jumping around," Stuart said in an interview with AP.

No lack of confidence for our boy Stu, who up to that point had 3 singles in 20 trips against the Yankee staff, but still couldn‘t wait for that next redemptive at-bat.

1961 was his best NL campaign. He made the All-Star team, hitting .301 with 35 home runs and 117 RBI. In 1962, his usually trusty bat deserted him. When the Forbes Field faithful would get on him, the Gunner, Bob Prince, would come to his rescue with his memorable defense of “Don’t boo Stu in ‘62 - he’ll come through.”

That’s the year my most unforgettable memory of Stuart was formed, when my dad and I were at Forbes Field. We went pretty often, as my father was a born and bred Oaklander and knew all the ticket takers from childhood, which usually guaranteed us free entry to the old park. You could call us season ticket holders of a sort, hehe.

A guy singled into right, and Stu turned his back on the play by the bag, assuming the throw would go into second. It didn’t. Roberto Clemente fired a bullet to first, behind the runner, and nailed Stuart squarely in the back.

He wouldn’t admit he was hurt, or even acknowledge anything untoward had happened - the catcher had to run down the ball. Stuart just stood there, hands on hips, eyes straight ahead, while Clemente slowly shook his head.

As Dick Schofield said "Everybody liked Dick - but he did have trouble with that leather thing." Stuart’s take? “I know I'm the world's worst fielder, but who gets paid for fielding? There isn't a great fielder in baseball getting the kind of dough I get paid for hitting.”

But he didn’t come through in 1962, batting just .228 with 16 homers and 64 RBI. The Pirates shipped him to the Red Sox with Jack Lamabe for Jim Pagliaroni and Don Schwall. He had a couple of great years in Boston, pounding 75 taters and driving home 232 runs while becoming 1963‘s “Comeback Player of the Year.”

He spent five seasons in all with Pittsburgh, mostly alternating with Rocky Nelson. He would get more than 438 at-bats just once in that span. But he made the most of them. In 559 games as a Bucco, he hit 117 dingers, good for 13th place on the all-time list.

He never lost his sense of humor. With his career winding down, Stuart had a two-homer game for the Dodgers, and the crowd went wild. He appreciated that, he said, because "I've had standing boos a lot of times."

He played 1,112 major league games for the Pirates (1958-62), the Boston Red Sox (1963-64), the Philadelphia Phillies (1965), the New York Mets & Los Angeles Dodgers (1966) and the California Angels (1969), plus a couple of seasons spent in Japan (1967-68).

His career batting average was .264, and his lifetime stat line was 228 home runs, 743 runs batted in and a .489 slugging average. He also struck out 957 times in 3,997 at-bats. In 1963, he led the American League in runs batted in with 118.

I can only wonder what those numbers would have looked like if he played in the era of the DH. As Dick Groat said of his old teammate: "Dick just wanted to hit the ball. He didn't want to be catching it or fighting ground balls. To Dick, fielding was a necessary evil. He had to do it to get to the plate."

Richard Lee Stuart, who was born Nov. 7, 1932, in San Francisco and grew up in nearby San Carlos, died from cancer on December 12, 2002 at his home in Redwood City. He was 70.

As for me, well, I wore number 7 on my back every sandlot season that I played. And I never booed Stu.

No comments: