When you look back on the career of David Eckstein, one word comes to mind: scrappy. Every sport has them, players that you cheer for when they are on your team but quickly get under your skin when they are on the opposition. In hockey, there was Pat Verbeek. Basketball had John Stockton. Baseball had, well lots of these characters.
So what makes a player scrappy ?
Perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was thinking about this when he wrote his famous decision on obscenity, back in 1964. Paraphrasing, he could not define what it was, but he could recognize it when he sees it. I feel that way about scrappiness on the baseball diamond, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with some guidelines.
Characteristics of a scrappy baseball player include
- Overachieving – playing bigger than their size or overcoming some sort of limitation
- Versatility – ability to play lots of positions, and do so well
- Charisma – they have to be noticed, on your team or as an opponent
- Longevity – you never remember the splinter that was easily removed
- Winner – all of this scrappiness needs to lead to something positive
The term scrappy has been thrown around quite frequently in the last few years (Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, Daniel Descalso), leaving you to believe that this is a recent phenomenon. It is not – we’ve always enjoyed (or hated) scrappy ballplayers, as long as I can remember. And yes, we even called them scrappy back then, just not quite so repetitively.
Without any further delay, here is my Cardinals Scrappy Hall of Fame
On the surface, Shannon might seem to be an odd selection here, but let me assure you, there was nobody more scrappy than the Moon Man when he played the game. Shannon was a big man and a gifted athlete, but when he put on a Cardinals uniform, he was much larger than his 6ft 3in frame suggested.
It didn’t always look pretty when balls were hit to him in the outfield, especially when he played alongside one of the best in the game, Curt Flood. Through some genuinely hilarious bumbling and stumbling came a maximum effort, and he made some of the most dazzling plays you’ve ever seen. He also possessed a cannon of an arm, which was an asset from right field, but maybe not so much from third base (unless you were a fan sitting thirty rows behind Orlando Cepeda).
The most surprising thing about Shannon was they he was only a .250 hitter. I have so many memories of him getting a clutch hit, or part of a running game at a critical point in a game, that just doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it was the fact you could count on him to hit a dozen or so home runs, and rely on 50 RBIs per year – from the bottom of the batting order.
Shannon earns a versatility award when he made the move from right field to third base in 1967, making room for Roger Maris. It was tough at first, but he eventually learned to play the position confidently.
Sadly, kidney disease ended his career in 1970 at age 30. It was far too early to say goodbye to a fan favorite. Fortunately we didn’t have to as he join Jack Buck in the Cardinals radio booth two years later. The two would call Cardinals games together for the better part of three decades. His broadcasting career mimicked his playing days, mumbling and stumbling at first, but eventually winning fans over with his unique charm. Like Harry Caray, Mike Shannon would never be called a technically skilled broadcaster, but nobody can tell a story or convey their love of the game and the team quite like Mike Shannon. Like with Jack and Harry, it will be a very sad day in Cardinals nation when Mike Shannon hangs up the headset.
Gagliano was one of Harry Caray’s favorites, probably because it was one of the few names that didn’t trip him up in the late innings of a broadcast. That’s good, because that’s when you would see Gagliano the most, as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement. In the field, Gagliano’s size would allow him to play all four infield positions, including first base. He would also see time at both corner outfield positions, but his biggest contributions would come as a pinch hitter.
Gagliano was one of the three utility players that played for all three NL Pennant teams (1964, 1967 and 1968). The other two were Ed Spiezio and Dal Maxvill. Ironically, Gagliano would not play in the 1964 World Series as he was sent down to the minors in July to give Ed Spiezio an opportunity.
The thing to remember about Gagliano, besides his versatility in the field, was his uncanny ability to be in the middle of a big offensive moment, not unlike Skip Schumaker. Just when you think the game is over, Gagliano will come up with a big hit, beat out a grounder or lay down a perfect bunt.
When Julian Javier went on the disabled list in 1965, courtesy of a Vern Law fastball, it was Phil Gagliano that eventually took over second base duties. Perhaps the grind of playing every day took it’s toll, but Gagliano turned in a fine offensive season, hitting close to .300 before tailing off to .240 at seasons end. He would also display a bit of unexpected power, hitting 8 home runs and driving in 53 runs.
After a rough start to the 1970 season, Gagliano was traded to the Chicago Cubs for Ted Abernathy, a right handed submariner that most players called “Abernasty” because he was brutally effective against right handed hitters. He would bounce around, eventually ending up in Cincinnati where he was a very effective pinch hitter for their champtionship team in 1973.
What, you didn’t think a pitcher could be scrappy ? After reading this, you might think differently. The tall and somewhat slender, and that’s an important part of this story, right hander was hit by a shattered bat during an exhibition game in 1961. Jackson would be sent to the hospital where it was learned that his jaw was broken, and would have to be wired shut. That would also force him into a liquid diet where it would be hard to get the proper nourishment to support a professional baseball player’s activities.
We learned a lot about Jackson’s toughness as he returned exactly one month after the incident. Still not quite healed, and losing a tremendous amount of weight from his liquid diet, Jackson struggled for the first two months of the season. But here’s what you need to remember about Jackson, other than his toughness. Once he got his weight back up and his stamina returned, he pitched some of the best baseball of his career. He would go 13-3 from July 1 to the end of the season, and by August the complete games and shutouts we had come to expect from Jackson returned like the prodigal son.
Sadly for Cardinals fans, Jackson’s career year would come in 1964, not as a member of the Cardinals, but with the rival Chicago Cubs. His 24-11 record and 3.14 ERA was exactly what Cardinals fans saw during the second half of 1961, and it was good enough for second place in the Cy Young voting, behind Dean Chance of the Angels, and ahead of another pitcher you might have heard of, Sandy Koufax.
The career of Larry Jackson should be remembered as one of greatness and incredible toughness. He was one of the best pitchers who had the misfortune of playing for some of the worst teams, the 1950s Cardinals included.
The St. Louis native only played 12 games for the Cardinals, so we tend to remember him more as pesky than scrappy, but if there was ever a player that deserved to be on this list, it is Ron Hunt.
Originally drafted by the Milwaukee Braves, Hunt would find himself part of the expansion New York Mets. In 1963, the 22 year old infielder became the every day second baseman for the Mets. Unfortunately, that was also the same year that Pete Rose broke into the major leagues, so Hunt had to settle for a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Ron Hunt went from a good hitting second baseman to the King of Scrappy when he was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1968. When your batting average falls to .250 and you are hitting in front of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Jim Ray Hart, you find any way to get on base. And Hunt did exactly that. He would choke way up on the bat, and stand on the far inside part of the batters box, daring pitchers to hit him. And they did, 25 times that season, 25 the next and 26 the season after that. If they didn’t hit him, he would just poke the ball into the outfield, driving opposing fans crazy.
His most insane season was 1971, his first year with the Montreal Expos. He would be hit 50 times that year – that’s once every 12 times he stepped into the batters box. For seven consecutive season, including his last, Hunt would lead the National League in hit by pitches. Amazingly, he would be hit 243 times over his 12 year career, turning a career .273 batting average into a whopping .368 on base percentage. Scrappy indeed.
If you need any more convincing, if you look up Ron Hunt at baseball-reference.com, you will see the name David Eckstein in his “similar by hitters” list. I think that says it all.
One look at Rex Hudler’s 1990 season with the Cardinals will tell you all you need to know about the “Wonder Dog”. In 89 games, Hudler would spend time at first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left right and center field. That’s right, all the positions except for the battery. Where most players have a single position listed as most frequent in their baseball-reference entry, Hudler had three (the two corner outfield spots and second base).
Hudler played hard and brought an enthusiasm to the game that quickly made him a fan favorite. Unfortunately, it also brought more than his share of injuries, and he would find himself on the disabled list, some times for more than a month.
After the Cardinals released him in 1992, he spent a season in Japan before returning to finish out his career with the California Angels and Philadelphia Phillies.
Whitey Herzog has his share of scrappy players, and one of the best was Tito Landrum. Landrum could play all three outfield positions, but constant battles with injuries and inconsistency at the plate left him in a platoon role as the fourth outfielder. His big moment came in the 1985 post-season when Vince Coleman was injured by the automatic tarp machine. Landrum took Coleman’s place in left field and hit .429 with 4 RBIs in the NLCS, and .360 with a home run in the World Series.
The other thing we will remember about Tito Landrum was an uncomfortable platoon situation with Andy van Slyke in 1985 and 86. Whitey Herzog was convinced that van Slyke, a left handed hitter, could not hit left handed pitching, so he opted to use Landrum in those situations. That led to a most unpopular trade before the start of the 1987 season, when the Cardinals sent Andy van Slyke to the Pirates. While Landum’s offensive production declined sharply, van Slyke became a star, winning multiple Gold Gloves and All Star Game invitations.
Whether it was the big hair sticking out from under his cap, the gigantic smile he always seemed to have, or how he helped pick up the Cardinals when Vince Coleman went down, Tito Landrum will always have a special place in the hearts of Cardinals fans.
The secret weapon. With Albert Pujols running through Oquendo’s stop signs at third base (hey Angels fans, get used to that), it is easy to forget how important Jose Oquendo was to the Cardinals 1987 NL Championship team. Before taking a look at that, I would like to ask one simple question.
What were the New York Mets thinking when they let Oquendo get away ? Didn’t they know what they had ?
The Cardinals certainly did, and just before the start of the 1985 season, the Cardinals acquired the young Mets infielder in a minor league deal that flew under the radar. The Cardinals wanted Oquendo as an insurance policy, in case they were unable to resign Ozzie Smith to a long term contract. If they could not sign Smith, he would be traded before reaching free agency and Ivan de Jesus would take over at first, eventually giving way to Oquendo.
But Ozzie did sign, and that seemed to leave Oquendo without a position. Or did it ? Oquendo made the club when the Cardinals broke camp in 1986, and he was used sparingly as a pinch hitter. Who knew the kid could hit ? He hit, and hit, and hit and hit. He would carry a .300 batting average until late in the season. He was also a very good defender with an amazing arm and that allowed Whitey Herzog to play Oquendo anywhere on the field. And he did. At first it was middle infield and occasionally in the outfield, but he would play 8 different positions in 1987 and finally all 9 in 1988. Oquendo can’t quite match Aaron Miles career numbers, but there was a 19 inning game against Atlanta where Oquendo pitched three scoreless innings before finally giving up a pair of runs and taking the loss. It was a gutsy performance that only added to his scrappy resume.
Know primarily as a singles hitter, one of Oquendo’s greatest moments came by way of the long ball in Game Seven of the NLCS. Trailing the Giants three games to two, the Cardinals returned home needing to win the last two games to advance to the World Series. John Tudor pitched a gem in Game Six, shutting out the Giants 1-0, with a little help from the bullpen. In the decisive Game Seven, Jose Oquendo steps up to the plate with one out in the second inning. The bases are loaded, courtesy of one well hit single and two grounders that just found a gap between the Giants infielders. A double play and the Giants are out of the jam. Atlee Hammaker, the Giants starter, was suddenly struggling. A passed ball allowed the first run to score. Perhaps still thinking about that, Hammaker grooves a pitch to Oquendo and he turns on it, hitting a three run homer. That would make the score 4-0, and the Giants would never threaten again in the series. They went quietly as Danny Cox threw a complete game shutout.
After the departure of Tommy Herr, Oquendo took over at second base and he lost something of his scrappiness. He was still the same feisty player, slapping the ball over the infielders heads and getting in the face of Will Clark, but seeing him play just one position seemed a little strange.
This is my inaugural list, and there will be more over time. Later we will take up the case of So Taguchi, Skip Schumaker and a father/son pair – Ed and Scott Spiezio.