Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Grave Digger: Richie Hebner

It's been awhile since ol' GW has made a trip in the Pirate way back machine. Today we're going to take a little journey back to celebrate November 26th, 1947, and its Thanksgiving birthday boy, old Bucco third sacker Richie Hebner.

Born Richard Joseph Hebner in Norwood, Massachusetts, he carved out an 18-year career in the show from 1968 to 1985, eleven spent in a Pirate uniform. He was a first round (15th overall) pick in the 1966 amateur draft as an 18 year-old high school player, signing for $40K in the pre-Scott Boras era.

Pittsburgh assigned him to Salem in the Appalachian League in 1966, then to Raleigh in the Carolina League in 1967, where he broke his hand punching the dugout roof, and jumped him to AAA Columbus the next season, temper and all.

Besides honing his craft, Hebner was on a time-share with Uncle Sam. Fearful of losing him to the Vietnam War, the Pirates arranged for Hebner to enter the Marine Reserves, grabbing one of the last two openings available. The teen was assigned to Parris Island, South Carolina for six weeks of boot camp.

At any rate, he came up for a cup of coffee in September of 1968, after the Clipper season was done, and never left the show.

He collected his first hit in 1969, off Bob Gibson ("I wanted the ball, but I didn't dare ask for it because Gibson looked so vicious," he recalled) and had the highest rookie batting average that year, .301.

Along with Al Oliver, he formed a much-heralded rookie duo for the team. Hebner was a left-handed line-drive hitter with decent power, and played an adequate third base, starting for five Pirates' division-winning teams in the early 1970s and the 1971 World Series champs. He roped the first hit ever to drop at Three Rivers Stadium, and drove home its first run.

Hebner was a lead-footed, station-to-station runner, and his value as an every-day starter was largely gone by his late twenties. He stayed in the majors as a platoon first baseman who could pinch-hit and play some third and outfield, notably for the 1977-1978 division champion Phillies and the 1984 Cubs.

A couple of public shouting matches with manager Bill Virdon didn't help endear him with the Pirate Nation. He flipped from a loveable rook that used to get marriage proposals in his fan mail to a guy the crowd loved to heckle, and that's probably the genesis of his team-hopping, along with the search for greener, as in bucks, pastures.

He made his debut on September 23, 1968 for the Pirates (and didn't even get an at-bat; he pinch hit with two outs and Freddy Patek was caught stealing), and took his final swing on October 3, 1985 for the Cubbies (and homered). In between, he played for Pittsburgh (1968-76, 82-83), Philadelphia (77-78), the New York Mets (1979), Detroit (80-82), and the Chicago Cubs (84-85) before he hung up the spikes.

He didn't exactly retire. The story goes that Cubs manager Dallas Green called Hebner into his office during spring training in 1986 and told him "It's time to go home and dig graves in the summer too, not just in the winter." Subtle, hey?

Hebner was famous for working as a gravedigger at a cemetery run by his father in Norwood at a time when major league ballplayers often held other jobs during the off season, earning $35 per grave. Heck, he didn't make six figures until he went to the Phils as a free agent in 1977, and topped out at $310K, less than today's MLB minimum wage.

Hebner compiled a lifetime batting average of .276 with 203 home runs and 890 runs batted in in 1,908 career games, having been a part of eight division winners. He had 97 three-hit games, 16 four-hit games, and 1 five-hit game during his MLB stay.

It's true that he never made an All-Star team during his long MLB tenure; in fact, eighteen seasons is thought to be the longest career never recognized by that honor. But Hebner was as dependable as an old pick-up.

His line was .276/17/76 over 162 games, and he only hit under .265 four times, reaching .300 twice. Hebner hit double-figure dingers eleven of his first dozen seasons. While he never had a season for the ages, he was as steady as a pro could be. That may not garner a bushelful of love, but it sure guarantees a long shelf life in the show.

And baseball might not have even been his best sport.

During his years at Norwood High, Hebner was one of the top scholastic hockey players in the United States. Many people in Massachusetts still consider him among the ten greatest players in state schoolboy hockey history, and he was offered a contract by both the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.

In fact, then-GM Joe Brown went to visit him, and he was minus his two front teeth thanks to the rink. So the relative safety of baseball - and the fact that he wouldn't have netted more than $10K to sign with the NHL - made his decision to play for Pittsburgh pretty easy. Still, it would have been something to see him and Nyjer Morgan share the ice and trade slap shots.

But he learned to appreciate baseball, and he had played it the right way. So he kept on after his playing days were done. Hebner now has decades of coaching experience in affiliated and major league baseball, including six years as a manager and nine years as a hitting coach.

Hebner was hired as the manager of the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays, the single A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, where he led the team to a playoff berth in 1988. The following year, he was hired by the Red Sox, where he served as the team's hitting coach for three years ultimately helping the Red Sox capture the AL East in 1990.

In 1995, Hebner rejoined the Toronto Blue Jays organization as the manager of the AAA affiliate Syracuse Chiefs. He served two years as manager of the Chiefs before moving on to manage the Nashville Sounds, the AAA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Pacific Coast League in 2000. Hebner spent the 2001 season as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies coaching staff.

From 2002 through 2006, the former Pittsburgh third baseman served as the hitting coach for the Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2007, Hebner was hired by the Birmingham Barons, the AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, to be the team's hitting coach.

Hebner was the hitting coach for the Nashua Pride of the Independent Can-Am League in 2008 before the Orioles called him to their Frederick Keys club in the Carolina League as skipper, and that's where he's at now.

(Will and I wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving!)


marklandson said...

Hebner was one of my favorite players was I was a tiny tot growing up in the Burgh in the early-mid 70s.

I remember seeing him hit his 20th HR one year at Three Rivers, which must have been Aug 21, 1973, since that's the only year he hit at least 20.

I was very excited about HR totals then.

marklandson said...

Oh yeah, Hebner's 40K signing bonus would have been worth $264K today. Not quite mid 1st round bonus money of today, but not chopped liver, either.

Ron Ieraci said...

Hey Mark - Happy Thanksgiving! Richie was a pretty dependable bat. Over his 18 year career, his average line was .276/17/76 over 162 games, and he only hit under .265 four times. Hebner hit double-figure dingers eleven of his first dozen seasons.

As for the money, you're right about different eras. This year's 16th round overall pick was a high school third baseman, Bobby Borchering, taken by the D-Backs. He signed for $1.8M - that's a lot more chopped liver than $246K, lol.

WilliamJPellas said...

Yes indeed, those were different times. Hebner still made much better money---especially when adjusted for inflation---than most of us will make, at least over the second half of his career. If he was like many of his peers in that era, he probably parlayed his earnings into other income from investments and what have you. In any case, he was a notable 70s-era Pirate and while definitely not Cooperstown material, he had a long career as a professional hitter, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Anonymous said...

Hebner was one of my favorite Pirates growing up. Unfortunately, like they say...never meet your heros. I was 7 yrs. old dressed in my Richie Hebner uniform at Forbes Field. My dad took me down to field level to meet Hebner and he wouldn't sign an autograph. When we got home, I took the #20 off the uniform and got my mom to put a #8 on it. Go Pops!!!

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, Will, he was a pro with the bat and probably did get paid the going rate; I like throwing in those figures just to show how the biz of baseball has evolved over the years.

And anon, I don't know the exact circumstances, but it is fair to say Hebner had a rocky relationship with the fans, and quite a bit of the troubles he had here were of the self-inflicted variety.

Anonymous said...

What a great time that was in Pittsburgh when Richie Hebner and Freddie Patek were Pirates. The 1971 World Series...such grand times.