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The Ill-Fated Rookie Class of 1964

Published in The Baseball Research Journal
SABR, Volume 27, c1998

 
 
 

The 1964 season featured two of the most exciting pennant races in baseball history. In the National League, the surprising Philadelphia Phillies led by 6 games with only 12 to go when their overworked pitching staff collapsed. The last week of the season saw four teams still in the race and when the dust settled the St. Louis Cardinals were in first place with only five games separating the top five teams. In the American League, the New York Yankees languished in third place most of the season, but woke up after the infamous Yogi Berra-Phil Linz harmonica episode to capture their final pennant of the "Mantle Era." Only two games separated the top three teams at the end of the season.

An outstanding group of rookie stars had a dramatic impact. Slugging third baseman Richie Allen, the National League Rookie of the Year, kept the youthful Phillies in the lead most of the season with his sensational hitting. Right fielder Mike Shannon helped spark the Cardinals to the pennant and World Championship after a mid-season call-up. The Cincinnati Reds tied for second place with rookie aces Sammy Ellis and Billy McCool in the bullpen. Jim Ray Hart of San Francisco led NL rookies with 31 homers as the Giants finished in fourth place and outfielder Rico Carty hit .330 for the fifth place Milwaukee Braves.

In the American League, Rookie of the Year, Tony Oliva enjoyed one of the greatest freshman seasons of all time for the Minnesota Twins. Mel Stottlemyre was a major contributor to the Yankees September surge after joining the Bombers in August. The third place Baltimore Orioles won 97 games with rifle-armed Sam Bowens patrolling right field and a pitching staff led by nineteen-year-old Wally Bunker. In Boston nineteen-year-old Tony Conigliaro set a teenage home run record and became the idol of Red Sox fans. The Cleveland Indians' future looked solid with youngsters Luis Tiant on the mound and Bob Chance at first base, while first year man Bob Lee took over as the Los Angeles Angels' bullpen stopper.

Based on their freshman performances, the Rookie Class of '64 promised several future Hall of Famers, but the group was destined for disappointment. A staggering number of career- altering injuries, as well as unusual illnesses, emotional problems, personal tragedies, and scandals took their toll. The result is an incredible story of shattered careers and premature retirements. Many of the rookie stars of 1964 enjoyed successful careers, but none fully realized their potential.

Richie Allen - In 1972, at the age of thirty, Allen was named the American League Most Valuable Player. Richie (Dick, later in his career) was one of the most controversial players in his era - constantly at odds with management, feuding with fans and the press, and fighting with teammates. He quit the team in mid-season several times, suffered injuries that some managers and teammates considered suspicious, and was frequently fined or suspended. Following his sensational MVP campaign he missed half of the next season with a mysterious injury and then quit with a month to go the following year. He returned to play parts of three more seasons for various teams before retiring for good. Over a fifteen-year career he posted a .292 average and belted 351 homers, but missed more than 400 games due to holdouts, retirements, suspensions, and injuries.

Tony Oliva - This wonderful young hitter is a classic example of the injury jinx that plagued the Class of '64. At the age of thirty-one he suffered a severe knee injury which robbed him of his speed and power and ended his outfield career. He is the only player to win the batting title his first two years, and he captured a third title in 1971, the year he was injured. He missed most of the 1972 campaign but returned as a designated hitter and hung on for four more years, while his lifetime average dropped to .304.

Tony Conigliaro - The greatest tragedy of the class of '64 was Conigliaro's. At twenty-two, he was the youngest home run champ in major league history. He had already slammed 104 homers when he was hit in the face by a wild pitch, which destroyed his vision. After sitting out a year, his eyesight miraculously improved and he returned to win the Comeback of the Year award in 1969. However, his vision began to deteriorate again and he was forced to retire midway through the 1971 campaign, still only twenty-six years old. Subsequent comeback attempts failed and at the age of thirty-seven he suffered a serious heart attack that left him severely incapacitated. Tony C died in 1990 at the age of 45. His teenage home run record still stands.

Rico Carty - At the age of 29, Carty had just won the National League batting title and his career average stood at .322 when he shattered his leg playing winter ball. He missed the entire 1971 season and was never the same player. As a rookie in 1964, he out-hit everyone in the majors except Roberto Clemente, and after missing half of 1965 with injuries, he finished third in the league in 1966. Tuberculosis hampered him in 1967 and forced him to sit out all of 1968, but he rebounded to hit .342 in 1969 despite seven shoulder dislocations. He led the league with a .366 average in 1970. However, his comeback from the broken leg was less successful. After limping through two part-time seasons he drifted down to the Mexican League in 1974, then came back for five years in the American League as a designated hitter. He closed out his career with a solid .299 average, but what kind of numbers would a healthy Rico Carty have put up?

Jim Ray Hart - A shoulder injury reduced Hart to a part timer at age twenty-seven after he had averaged 28 homers a year over his first five seasons. He hit only 31 more over the next six seasons and was through by the age of thirty-two. Hart's misfortune actually started before his outstanding rookie year. In his first game after being called up in 1963, Bob Gibson initiated him into the big leagues by breaking his shoulder blade with a fastball. He played only six more games upon his return before he was beaned by Curt Simmons and missed the rest of the season.

Sam Bowens - Poor Bowens didn't even make it out of spring training his sophomore year before suffering a leg injury that ruined his second season and his career. He lost his spot in the Orioles outfield to 1965 Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary, and never regained a regular job. Bowens was back in the minors at the age of thirty.

Bunker and McCool - The rookie pitching stars were just as unlucky. The Sporting News selected teenagers Wally Bunker of Baltimore and Billy McCool of Cincinnati the top rookie pitchers of their respective leagues. Only five years later both were attempting comebacks with expansion teams. Bunker set the twentieth-century major league record for wins by a teenage pitcher with 19, but was out of the majors at the age of twenty-six. McCool didn't turn twenty until late in the 1964 season and is credited with the National League record for most games in a single season by a teenage hurler. But after two years as the Reds bullpen ace his arm went bad. Like Bunker, he was through at the age of twenty-six.

Sammy Ellis - McCool's partner in the Cincinnati bullpen, Ellis suffered a similar fate. Following a brilliant rookie season he was converted to a starter and recorded 22 wins in 1965. Arm trouble soon ruined his effectiveness and he was out of the majors at the age of twenty-eight.

Wade Blasingame - Blasingame was still another young pitching star from the Class of '64 whose career was over before he turned thirty. The southpaw posted a promising 9-5 record as a twenty-year-old rookie for the Braves and won 16 games in 1965. A sore arm reduced his effectiveness and he never had another winning season. His major league career ended when he was twenty-eight.

Mel Stottlemyre - Stottlemyre was only thirty-two years old and the ace of the Yankee staff when his career came to a premature end. In midsummer 1964, Stottlemyre was called up from Richmond and quickly established himself as a star. He won 20 games in 1965, but the Yankee dynasty was crumbling around him and in the ensuing years the hard luck workhorse led the league in losses twice despite excellent pitching. A torn rotator cuff ended his career just as the Yanks were re-emerging as contenders. The unfortunate injury and poor support cost Mel a place among Yankee legends.

Luis Tiant - An arm injury may have cost "El Tiante" a spot in the Hall of Fame. He burst on the major league scene in mid-season 1964 with a 10-4 record and won 21 games with a 1.60 ERA in 1968. But he was back in the minors after fracturing his pitching arm in 1970. His career appeared over at the age of thirty when he was released by the Braves' Richmond farm club, but he fought his way back to the majors with the Boston Red Sox. In 1972 he went 15-6 with a league leading 1.91 ERA and captured the Comeback Player of the Year award. Tiant registered three more twenty-win seasons and continued pitching into his forties before finishing his major league career with 229 major league victories, 147 of them after returning from the minors.

Mike Shannon - A kidney disorder forced Mike Shannon's premature retirement during the 1970 season at the age of 31. The mid-season acquisition of Lou Brock received most of the credit for the Cardinals 1964 championship season, but the emergence of Shannon as a solid everyday right fielder was also a critical element of the Cards' success. He moved to third base before the 1967 season to make room for Roger Maris in right and was a major factor in the Cardinals' pennant winning 1967 and 1968 seasons.

Rich Reichardt - Oddly enough, a kidney ailment also tragically affected the career of another promising young player who made his debut in 1964. The California Angels' signing of Reichardt for the biggest bonus in baseball history at the time was the story of the year. The young outfielder was rushed to the majors, but batted only 37 times. By 1966 Reichardt was showing signs of developing into a superstar when illness felled him and necessitated the removal of a kidney. Reichardt returned the following year, but never lived up to expectations. Over the next seven seasons he bounced from team to team and was barely thirty-one years old when released.

Bob Chance - Chance's appetite cost him a successful career. He hit .279 with power as Cleveland's regular first baseman in 1964, but the Indians worried about his tendency to gain weight. In a rare display of good judgment, they shipped him to the Senators in the off-season where he ate his way back to the minors before the season ended. Big Bob received several more big league opportunities but never regained his rookie form.

Bob Lee - At 6'3" and about 240 pounds, Lee had already gained nicknames such as Horse and Moose as well as a reputation as a troublemaker in eight minor league seasons. When given a chance by the 1964 Angels he became the ace of their bullpen, ranked among the league leaders in saves, and racked up impressive strikeout totals. However, his off-field behavior soon proved to be his undoing. His performance deteriorated and he was hustled out of the big time by the end of the 1968 season at the age of thirty.

Late bloomers - The stars of the Rookie Class of 1964 weren't the only ones to experience career disappointments. The class included many late bloomers who suffered similar fates.

Tommy John of the Indians endured a disappointing rookie season, but wound up the most successful of the 1964 rookies. However, his career was not without adversity. John flourished after a trade to the White Sox and was eventually swapped to the Dodgers for fellow Class of '64 alumnus, Richie Allen. In 1974 the 31 year-old starter was off to a 13-3 start when his elbow blew out, ending his season and apparently his career. However, after revolutionary surgery in which a tendon was transplanted to his damaged elbow, he returned to the mound in 1976 and earned the Comeback Player of the year award. He went on to record three 20-win seasons and retired with 288 lifetime victories. The year and a half he missed for surgery and rehab certainly cost him a spot in the exclusive 300- victory club.

One of the more mysterious psychological afflictions in baseball history involved a member of the 1964 rookie class. Despite a modest start, Steve Blass gradually developed into one of the top hurlers in the game with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he developed a debilitating mental block after enjoying a career best 19-8 record in 1972 and totally lost control of his pitches. Although he still looked great on the sidelines he simply couldn't get the ball over the plate during the game. Blass tried psychotherapy, hypnosis, transcendental meditation, and various mechanical experiments without success. His 1973 season was a disaster and he pitched only once in 1974 before leaving the majors for good at the age of thirty-one.

Tony Horton, who broke in with the Red Sox in 1964, was another whose career was ruined by psychological problems. After being traded to the Indians, Horton developed into a solid power hitting first baseman slamming 27 homers in 1969. But in 1970, he was institutionalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in a late-season game. He never took the field again, his promising career over at the age of twenty-five.

Outfielder Alex Johnson, who hit .303 as a rookie part-timer for the 1964 Phillies, actually went to court later in his career to prove his strange behavior was due to an emotional disorder. Early in his career, the dangerous right-handed hitter earned a reputation as clubhouse dissident and habitual loafer. After three trades he captured the 1970 AL batting championship at the age of twenty-seven with the California Angels. But he played only 65 games in a turbulent 1971 season despite perfect health. He was benched four times, fined twenty-nine times, and finally suspended without pay "for failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games." However, Alex and his psychiatrist convinced an arbitration board that his problems were psychological and he was reinstated. After playing for four more teams over the next five seasons he was cut loose at the age of thirty-three despite a .288 lifetime batting mark. His admitted refusal to give 100% kept him from taking full advantage of his tremendous talent.

One of the more bizarre incidents in Johnson's troubled 1971 season was his assertion that former rookie classmate, Chico Ruiz, had pulled a gun on him (twice) in the Angels locker room. Ruiz was another victim of the 1964 rookie hex. After winning the Cincinnati third base job and enjoying a productive rookie season, he missed most of 1965 with injuries, and spent the rest of his career as a utility infielder - a career that ended at age thirty-two when he was killed in an automobile crash.

No discussion of wasted baseball careers would be complete without mention of Denny McLain, baseball's last 30-game winner, who was a Detroit Tiger rookie in 1964. After winning the Cy Young award in 1968 with 31 victories and sharing the award with Mike Cuellar in 1969, the twenty-five-year-old hurler's career quickly fizzled out when he was implicated in a gambling scandal.

Denny infuriated the baseball establishment. He was an accomplished organ player with a lounge act in Vegas, who flew his own plane, promoted rock concerts, hustled golf, and stayed in shape by partying constantly. He spent a quiet first year working his way into the starting rotation, but blossomed in 1965. Denny suffered a mysterious foot injury in the closing weeks of the 1967 pennant race which probably cost the Tigers the pennant and a February 1970 Sports Illustrated article tied the injury to gambling activities. After serving a suspension he returned to action in July, but was soon suspended again for the rest of the 1970 season. He was traded to the Washington Senators in the off season and led the league with 22 losses in 1971. A year later, after trials with Oakland and Atlanta, he was out of the majors for good at the age of twenty-eight.

McLain's problems were just beginning, however. He declared bankruptcy and suffered a heart attack after his weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds. In 1984, he was found guilty of racketeering, extortion, and possession of cocaine, and sentenced to twenty-three years in prison. The conviction was overturned on a technicality in 1987 and he managed to plea-bargain for his freedom. However, Denny was recently in the news again when he was sentenced to eight years in prison for stealing from the pension plan of a company that went bankrupt shortly after he bought it.

Not all of the 1964 rookies were victims of injuries, psychological disorders, or other calamities. Bert Campaneris and Dick Green of the Kansas City Athletics both broke in with modest rookie efforts in '64 and enjoyed long successful careers, although they did suffer the misfortune of playing for Charlie O. Finley. In fact, Campy ended his career as a utility infielder for George Steinbrenner's Yankees so he could justifiably be added to the "bad luck" list despite his nineteen years as a star shortstop and base stealer.

Other 1964 rookies who went on to successful major league careers after unremarkable rookie seasons were Gene Alley, Don Buford, Jerry Grote, Jesus Alou, Willie Smith, Sonny Siebert, Wes Parker, Hal Lanier, Bobby Knoop, Mike Cuellar, Rick Wise, and Woody Woodward.

In the final analysis, the Class of '64 was far from a flop. Collectively they won five batting titles (Oliva [3], Carty, and Johnson) and three home run crowns (Allen [2] and Conigliaro); led the league in slugging four times (Allen [3] and Oliva), wins twice (McLain), ERA twice (Tiant), and winning percentage five times (Bunker, Blass, John, McLain, and Siebert). Allen was named MVP and McLain captured the Cy Young award two years in a row. However, the four Comeback Player of the Year awards (Conigliaro, Johnson, Tiant, and John) might be the most telling statistic.

With the exception of Oliva, whose best showing was 202 out of 321 required votes in 1988, none of the 1964 rookies have received more than token support for the Hall of Fame.

In contrast the 1965 class featured two of the weakest Rookie of the Year award winners in history. In the American League, the aforementioned Curt Blefary's award winning stats (.260, 22 HR, 70 RBI) were almost identical to his predecessor Sam Bowens' 1964 rookie marks (.263, 22 HR, 71 RBI) although Sam didn't receive a single vote for Rookie of the Year. In the National League, Jim Lefebvre hit only .250 with 12 homers as the Los Angeles Dodgers second basemen. Yet, the 1965 class eventually sent four of its members to the Hall of Fame; Catfish Hunter, Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer, and Phil Niekro.

 
 
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