Saturday, February 6, 2016

The last .400 hitter

No, I'm not writing about Ted Williams. Everyone who loves baseball knows that he batted more than .400 in 1941 and capped it all off by getting six hits on the last day of the season. I don't know if there's anything more to say about Teddy Ballgame. His life and career have been dissected like a frog in a high school bio class. He was one of the rare humans whose fondest wish came true, that one day he would walk down the street and people would point at him and say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Today I'm going to tell you the story of another kind of major league ballplayer, the kind of guy who walks down the street and people say, "Isn't that the night clerk at that motel by the interstate?" His name is Bob Hazle ...

... Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, the last .400 hitter, who is seen below in his one and only baseball card, from the 1958 Topps series.

For, you see, there are many ways to define "the last .400 hitter." It may be the last major leaguer to hit .400 or more in a full single season in which he qualified for a batting championship (Williams in 1941), or perhaps the last man to hit .400 or better over a stretch of 162 games, whether in a single season or not (Tony Gwynn, from career game #1551 on Jul 27, 1993 to game #1712 on May 13, 1995), or perhaps the last man to hit .400 in a single season with 150 or more plate appearances (Bob Hazle, 1957).

Hazle not only did that, but did it during the pressure of a pennant race when his performance was critical.

Let's back up to the beginning of the 1957 season.

The Milwaukee Braves were coming off a near-miss in 1956, when they had finished in the middle of a three-way pennant race (right) which was decided on the last day of the season.

The Braves were actually up a half-game with two left to play. At that point the second-place Dodgers had three more games to complete. The Braves won one and lost one, while the defending champion Dodgers won all three, to give them their last pennant in Brooklyn.

The Braves felt that things were going to change in 1957, because the Dodgers, who had been virtually perennial champs since Jackie Robinson had come up in 1947, were obviously fading. As the 1957 season began, the core members of the Bums' great six-time pennant-winning team had all passed their primes. Robinson, Cox and Reiser were gone. Pee Wee Reese was 38, Campy 35, Furillo 35, Hodges 33, Newcombe 31, Snider and Erskine 30. The Braves, in contrast, were loaded with young guns. Superstars Ed Mathews and Henry Aaron were 25 and 23, while hard-hitting catcher Del Crandall and slugging first baseman Joe Adcock were still in their 20s. They had bolstered their team significantly by filling their only real weak spot with a future Hall of Famer, switch-hitting second baseman Red Schoendienst. They were loaded for bear.

But a lot of things went wrong. Left field was supposed to be handled by a capable platoon of old-timers, Andy Pafko and Bobby Thomson, each of whom entered the season with more than 200 lifetime homers. Centerfield was considered one of the team's strengths when manned by speedy Bill Bruton, who had led the league in either triples or stolen bases in every year of his career. But Bruton and Pafko were plagued by injuries, and Thomson had to be surrendered in the Schoendienst trade, so the team found itself short of outfielders. Their only option was to reach down to their AAA club at Wichita. First they brought up Wes Covington to play left and then, when Bruton was injured, brought up Bob Hazle to play right, allowing Hank Aaron to move over to center in Bruton's stead. That didn't seem like a positive situation at the time, but it certainly turned out to be. Covington had an OPS of .875 for the season, with 21 homers in only 328 at-bats, while Hazle turned out to be the second coming of Ted Williams, at least for two months, with an OPS of 1.126 (Williams' corresponding figure was 1.116 lifetime.) The combined OPS of the two left-handed Wichita call-ups was higher than that of the club's big sluggers, Mathews and Aaron. As you might imagine, adding the equivalent of a second Mathews-Aaron combination gave the team a turbo boost.

Hazle became the club's regular right fielder on August 4th. Here is what the standings looked like at the close of the previous day:

The Braves were ahead of the aging Dodgers at that point, but found themselves a game and half behind the Cardinals. And then they were blown forward by a powerful force, a young man who arrived in Milwaukee as Bob or Bobby, but who soon became known as Hurricane Hazle.

His namesake was a notorious tropical storm that had devastated the coast of South Carolina in 1954 and had moved from there through the eastern United States with such force and eccentricity that it had eventually meandered all the way to Toronto where it became, and may still be, the worst natural disaster ever to hit that city. As you might imagine, Toronto is not designed to be hurricane-proof and the people of that inland city have no idea how to prepare for a hurricane or what to do during one, so the storm left an unprecedented trail of destruction and death there in October of 1954. Hurricane Hazel became as notorious in its time as Katrina would be two generations later. Like Katrina, any mention of it was universally understood as a symbol for devastation.

Bob Hazle, also originating in South Carolina, had a metaphorically similar impact on the other teams in the National League. He made a Milwaukee debut that was unlike anything in baseball history. The Braves won the first eleven games Hazle appeared in, while outscoring their opponents 99-34. In eight of those eleven games they scored eight or more runs. Hazle himself had a four-hit game and three three-hit games in that streak, and ended that run with a batting average of .545. In less than two weeks, from August 3th until August 15th, his team had climbed out of their game-and-a-half deficit, all the way up to an eight-game lead, and it was the Hurricane who had blazed the upward trail.

And Hazle was barely getting started. He still had two more four-hit games and two more three-hit games in him before the season would end. On August 25th, he won a game almost by himself by smacking a pair of three-run homers in a 7-1 victory, raising his batting average back up to .526, and causing the AP to feature him in both their game narrative and a sidebar, thus making the whole country aware of his phenomenal hot streak. (You can click the story below to enlarge it.)

His final dramatic moment came in the September 22nd game, a come-from-behind victory over the Cubs in which Ed Mathews tied the game with a ninth inning homer, setting the stage for the Hurricane to blow the Cubs down with his own four-bagger in the tenth, his fourth hit of the game. (Once again the story below can be enlarged.)

The team had been averaging 4.65 runs per game through August 3rd, which was barely above the league average of 4.4, but that figure soared to 5.75 after Hazle became a starter. He finished the season with a .403 batting average, a .477 OBP and a .649 slugging average, easily besting Mathews, Aaron and Adcock in all three categories.

Some years later, a sportswriter asked Eddie Mathews why the team had voted Hazle only a partial World Series share. Without hesitation, Mathews replied, "We were really that cheap? Damn, that's awful. We couldn't have won without him."

Hazle's shining season essentially came out of nowhere. He had started playing pro ball in 1950 and, before he arrived to salvage the Braves' 1957 season, had spent one season in military service and six seasons in the minors, five of which could not be deemed much better than mediocre. As recently as 1955 he had been demoted from AAA to AA ball in the Reds' system. His lifetime AAA batting average was only .265, and he had shown just moderate power (13 homers per 550 at bats). Even his great 1957 season, which was to fulfill every dream of major league stardom he might have had, didn't begin auspiciously. After a knee injury halfway through the 1956 season, Hazle was slated to spend a second consecutive year at Wichita. The bad knee hampered his exercise program and he was struggling with his weight. He was depressed enough about his baseball career that he was resigned to the possibility of a demotion to the Braves' AA affiliate in Atlanta, and was almost hoping for it because the fishing was better there than in AAA Wichita. Back in South Carolina, where they still called him Bobby, the Greenville Index Journal reported the following on April 8th:

Later that year Hazle said, "I thought I had had it. I decided if I didn't make the majors in '57. I would call it quits and go sell insurance or something. I got to camp this spring and the knee still bothered me. I was ready to take the first bus back home."

The coveted promotion to the big show wasn't looking very good as the season progressed. Hazle was batting only .279 with mid-range power at Wichita when Bruton went on the DL, while one of his outfield teammates (Ray Shearer) was hitting .330 with a lot of homers. But Lady Luck was on the side of the Hurricane. The major league club wanted some additional lefties in the line-up, and the left-handed Hazle happened to be streaking at the time of Bruton's injury - he batted .364 in July - so the Braves by-passed the right-handed Shearer to get Hazle on the major league roster. (Shearer would be called up later in the season for his only three major league plate appearances, in which he singled and walked, for a lifetime OBP of .667!)

Hazle's baseball career after that season turned out to be no better than his efforts before that point. In April and May of 1958, he suffered from two beanings as well as an ankle injury, which kept his appearances infrequent and his performances weak. He was sold to Detroit for about five bucks and a set of Ginsu knives (actually $50,000, according to reports at the time). Detroit used him sparingly in 1958, sent him down to AAA in 1959, and when he showed no sign of the old pop in his bat, demoted him to AA in 1960. He retired after that season. In Lee Heiman's 1990 book "When the Cheering Stops," Hazle is quoted as saying, "My confidence was shot. In the majors, you have it all built up inside you. But when you end up back in the minors there’s the small ballparks again with no one coming out. It’s very discouraging. And even though I was hitting well (in 1960), I just didn’t feel I would ever get another chance. And as it turned out, I was right." As McGuire and Gormley pointed out in their profile of Hazle in "Moments in the Sun: Baseball's Briefly Famous," he retired without losing the conviction that he still had major league talent, but at 29, lacked "the vinegar, the intensity" to fight his way back upward. He had first played AA ball in 1951, at the age of 20, and it was disheartening to find himself back there nine years later, especially after having tasted major league stardom, however briefly.

He retired as the answer to a puzzling trivia question which should win many a bar bet: "Among all the position players who have ever played major league ball, who is the only lifetime .300 hitter who never had a season in the .300s?" Hazle finished with an impressive .310 lifetime average, based on one season in the .400s and two in the .200s. That .310 figure is higher than the lifetime averages of Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron - and pretty much anyone else who played the game. If Hazle had enough at-bats to make the list, he'd be just outside the top one hundred of all time.

Hazle was not forgotten by those who love the game. Blogger Bob Lemke has recounted his entertaining encounter with the Hurricane at a card show in the late 80s. That blog post also includes a rare photo of Hazle in his late 50s. Lemke has actually gone to the trouble of creating some custom baseball cards for the one-year wonder. The following mock-ups picture Hazle in the style of the Topps cards from (top to bottom) 1955, 1956 and 1959.

The Hurricane was especially well remembered and loved in Milwaukee for having led the Braves to their one and only World Championship in that city. One of his young fans in that triumphant year, David Lamb, grew up to author a book called "A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans." That book really has little to do with baseball, but Bob Hazle became the subject of one of its most poignant chapters, a tale of how Lamb's boyhood favorite became just another survivor, his nose to the grindstone alongside the rest of us, after his glory days had been all but forgotten. After the baseball years, Hazle returned to the small towns of South Carolina whence he sprang. There he became a salesman, trying his hand at insurance and tombstones before finding his niche as the sales rep for a liquor distributor that serviced every local hole-in-the-wall selling booze. Lamb wrote, "His '82 Buick Regal, air conditioner purring, windows rolled up to keep out the heavy, damp, noontime heat, speeds on toward the one-room whiskey stores ahead, carrying a man in pursuit of his livelihood, if not his dreams."

Or as John Mellencamp summed it up in a famous song lyric, "Oh, yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone."

Hazle had a heart attack in 1981, followed by open-heart surgery, after which his wife declared “The Hurricane, these days … is really just a gentle breeze.” In 1992 he suffered a second heart attack, and the winds were forever becalmed.

Whatever hard times and ordinary times befell him in his last thirty-five years, the fact remains that he was right there in the national spotlight in 1957, laughing and winning alongside Eddie, Hammerin' Hank, Spahnie and the rest, as the boys from Bushville won a pennant and then defeated the mighty Yankees in the World Series.

In fact, I just misspoke. The Hurricane wasn't really "alongside" those stars. He led the charge.