A Best Of Collection of Favorite Obscure Baseball Players
A year ago I started a project on my blog of asking people to name their favorite obscure baseball figure from the past: not exclusively players, but anyone employed by the game. The volume of responses (many came from the now-defunct Baseball-Reference blog) surprised me, and led me to start the project up again this February, on my blog and here on Seamheads, hoping for a new round of choices.
I’ve culled ten of the most interesting choices to present here, as examples of the surprising, funny, strange, and curious element in baseball history:
Great idea, Arne. My pick would be John “Lefty” Sullivan – the popular strikeout king of Chicago’s semipro leagues in the 1920s. Blazing fastball and a great spitball; his only weakness was a heart condition that made him dizzy when he bent over to field a ball, so he was bunted out of the American League after 4 games with the 1919 White Sox. I interviewed his grandsons and wrote about him for the BioProject.
Pat Lackey, who runs Pirates website Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?:
Louis Bierbauer played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1889 and defected to Brooklyn of the Player’s League in 1890. The Player’s League folded and the Athletics were supposed to retain his rights in 1891, but he signed with the Pittsburg Allegheneys instead. In the common parlance of the time, it was said that Pittsburg “pirated” Bierbauer from Philadelphia. Eventually, the name stuck.
Rob Nelson, former Portland Maverick and proprietor of Big League Chew:
Steve Collette. He was the manager of the 1977 Beavers. A magical guy, brilliant manager; hugely talented. He died way too young. Without him, Big League Chew never would have happened. He had me as his pitching coach in 1977, when we had the idea for the gum. He was the reason the Mavs had a magical last season: we had the best winning percentage in baseball in 1977: 44-22. Several ball fields are named after him in and around Salem, where he was from.
Blue Jays CF Rick Bosetti. When the fans in the $2.00 seats in the Upper CF Bleachers at Tiger Stadium would treat him like any other visiting CF and yell “Bosetti Sucks”, as he warmed up his arm between innings. he would turn to the crowd and direct them like a maestro.
Using hand gestures, he was able to turn the simple chant where he was build the chant up to a crescendo and then get us to stop at his cue. He would then applaud the crowd.
Bruce Baskin, who runs a blog on Mexican baseball:
I’ll go with a fascinating but obscure player from South of the Border: Hector Espino.
Espino is a God among baseball fans in Mexico, a terrific combination of power and average who dominated two leagues around the calendar for over 20 years. In 24 Mexican League seasons, he batted 335 with 453 homers and 1,573 RBIs and collected five batting titles, four home run crowns and two RBI championships. In as many winters in the Mexican Pacific League, he hit .329 (only player in MexPac history with a career BA over .289) with 299 homers and 947 RBIs playing a much shorter schedule. Titles in the LMP? How about 13 in batting, 7 in homers and 8 in RBIs? For his year-round pro career, Espino topped 4,500 hits, 750 homers and 2,600 RBIs.
But apart from the statistical orgy, Espino was considered a giant as a man. He spent part of one season playing minor league ball in the USA, batting .300 with 3 homers in 32 games for the Cardinals’ Jacksonville affiliate in 1964 before leaving for home. There’ve been a number of reasons as to why, but I’ve been quoted elsewhere as saying it was his revulsion over racism in Civil Rights era Florida was the primary motivating factor and I’ll stick with it. He was a very proud man who did not need to play in the States to be fulfilled and he rejected a number of overtures from MLB organizations to play at home, and he’s revered as much for that in Mexico as for his playing skills. Nobody is as beloved in Mexican baseball history as Hector Espino, but few fans outside that country have ever heard of him.
Larry Yount. Announced into a game as a reliever for the Houston Astros, injured himself warming up and never “pitched” in the major leagues again. I hear his younger brother was pretty good too.
Wonderful Willie Smith, one of the last truly 2-way players.
With the Angels in 1964, Willie Smith:
- Played 87 games in the outfield, LF, batting .301 with 11 HRs in 373 PAs and a 125 OPS+; in the field, he made just 2 errors and had a positive dWAR.
- Pitched 31.2 innings in 15 games (including 1 start), with a 2.84 ERA / 116 ERA+.
For his career, Smith pitched 61 innings over 29 games, with a 3.10 ERA / 113 ERA+. As a hitter, his OPS+ was over 100 in 4 out of 5 seasons in which he had 200+ PAs.
Smith’s 46 career HRs ranks 7th among all players with at least 20 games pitched.
On Opening Day 1969, Willie Smith pinch-hit for Jim Hickman in the bottom of the 11th with the Cubs down by a run, and smacked a 2-run HR off Barry Lersch for the walk-off win.
Smith came up with Detroit. In his last minor-league season before his MLB debut, Smith went 14-2 in 17 starts at AAA, with a 2.11 ERA in 145 IP, and batted .380 in 50 games (31 of them as a nonpitcher).
Cliff Mapes, who had three numbers retired. First he wore number 3, which was retired a few days before Babe Ruth’s death. Then he was assigned number 7. Later on Mickey Mantle wore that number.
Mapes was eventually traded to the Detroit Tigers, and wore number 6. Shortly after he left the Tigers, number 6 was assigned to Al Kaline.
Ron Wright. One game, 3 at bats in MLB career. Strikeout, grounded into double play, grounded into triple play. If there were a stat for outs created per plate appearance, his career average of 2.0 would definitely be difficult to beat.
Al Benton, who pitched mainly for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s through the early 1950s. On August 6, 1941 against the Cleveland Indians in the third inning he had two sacrifice hits in the inning. Detroit won the game 11-2, when all the runs were scored in the same inning.
Once I heard a baseball announcer say Benton was the only person to strike out both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. As a young pitcher with Cleveland he struck out Ruth in his last season with the Yankees. In Benton’s last year with Boston he struck out a young Mickey Mantle.