Today’s Game: Lou Piniella

All this week we’re taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

On April 16, 1970, Lou Piniella made an out at every base. This doesn’t have anything to do with his Hall of Fame case. This really doesn’t have anything to do with anything. But, hey, 10 essays on 10 players in just a few days -- we don’t have time to turn back now.

In 1970, Piniella was 26 years old, and had finally established himself as a big league player. It had been a wild ride. You might know this: Piniella was a basketball star in high school. He averaged 32 points a game in his senior year.

And he was already a hothead.

“Piniella is a student of the game,” his high school basketball coach, Paul Straub, said after Sweet Lou scored a Tampa high school-record 57 points in a game. “He has a great amount of desire. A lot of heart. Yes, he is temperamental. But usually if you have a temperamental boy, you’ve got a good athlete.”

The next game, Piniella got a technical foul for stomping his feet. The next game he got another technical foul. “Terrible-tempered Lou Piniella’s rebounding and shooting … sparked the Jesuit Tigers to a 57-53 basketball victory,” The Tampa Tribune wrote the game after that.

Piniella was such a hothead that he didn’t even play baseball his senior year — something to do with a dispute over his role. He signed to play basketball at the University of Tampa.*

*Rabbit hole alert! While Piniella did not play baseball in his senior year in high school, he did play on the West Tampa American Legion Team, along with a guy you might have heard of, named Tony La Russa. The pair led the team to the state semifinals in Miami, when — this is crazy — West Tampa had a 4-2 lead with two outs in the ninth and West Palm’s Dick Jaeschke lifted a pop-up to left field.

Piniella dropped it. Well, he and the centerfielder hesitated, and Piniella raced in at the last second and the ball popped out of his glove. A run scored.

Then Piniella fired the ball home. The relay throw was dropped. The tying run scored. Then someone named Emile Anthony hit the game-winning single.

“Oddest play I’ve ever seen,” West Palm coach Sonny Jaudon said. “That’s really a tough way to lose a game.”

Anyway, Piniella hurt his knee playing basketball, and moved instead to baseball at the University of Tampa, where in his freshman year he hit .337 and led the team in homers, RBIs, stolen bases and slugging. In June of 1962, he was signed by Cleveland Indians scout (and MVP of the American League in 1943) Spud Chandler for a few grand. It was a big deal in Tampa, but it wasn’t quite as a big deal as when the Kansas City A’s spent a reported $50K for Piniella’s old teammate Tony La Russa.

[caption id="attachment_23759" align="aligncenter" width="432"] The Yankees acquired Piniella in '73, and he played 11 seasons in New York.[/caption]

Anyway, that began Piniella’s baseball odyssey. The Washington Senators drafted Piniella a bit later that year, and it seemed like he might actually get a chance to play centerfield for them. “[Washington manager] Mickey Vernon likes Lou’s reactions in center,” Piniella’s uncle Mac Magadan told the paper. I believe Mac Magadan was also the uncle of future major leaguer Dave Magadan.

This essay is really going in circles, isn’t it?

OK, Piniella did not play in Washington; he was instead sent to Hampton, Va., where he hit .310 with a little bit of power. The Senators soon sent him to Baltimore as the player to be named later in the Buster Narum deal. He went to Elmira, where he played for Earl Weaver — the first person to scare the hell out of him — and he appeared in four big league games for the Orioles, and then he was traded to Cleveland for Cam Carreon. In 1968, after he hit well in Portland, he was drafted by the new Seattle Pilots, who promptly dealt him to the new Kansas City Royals.

And in 1969, finally, at age 25 and after a whole lot of frustration, he got his chance to play in the big leagues -- and he hit .282 and was named Rookie of the Year. There was even a push to get him on the All-Star team, though Piniella told reporters, “They want to see Carl Yastrzemski. They don’t want to see Lou Piniella.”

So, back to that game in 1970, Kansas City at Milwaukee, first inning: Piniella reached on an error and tried to score from first on Luis Alcaraz’s double. He was nailed at the plate, Danny Walton to Ted Kubiak to Jerry McNertney.

That’s the out at home.

Third inning, Piniella smashed a three-run homer, which is the part that everyone talked about after the game, though it's by far the least interesting part of his day.

Fifth inning, Piniella singled to right and was later forced on a ground ball by Alcaraz.

That’s the out at second.

Seventh inning, Piniella singled again, and this time he advanced to third on Alcaraz’s single. So, you’re saying: Wait, he made it to third? That’s right. And then he got picked off; McNertney caught him leaning and fired to third to get the pickoff.

That’s the out at third.

All that was left was the out at first, and Piniella did that in the ninth, with a groundout to second off Milwaukee pitcher Bob Locker.

It had never been done before. I don’t believe it has ever been done since, though please let me know if that’s wrong.

Piniella was the sort of player that doesn’t really exist much anymore -- a player who can hit, but not really for power, can’t run and doesn’t really play a position well; sort of a one-tool player, but the tool has to be “hitting for average.” You can probably brand these as “Lou Piniella” type players. I think there have been several Lou Piniella types in the last 50 years. For example:

  1. Piniella, of course

  2. Alex Johnson

  3. Bruce Bochte

  4. Kevin Seitzer

  5. James Loney, though he almost had too much power

  6. Greg Gross

  7. Pat Tabler — really, Tabler is the PERFECT Piniella type player

  8. Mickey Hatcher

Manny Sanguillen and Paul Lo Duca would fit into this group, but they were both catchers, and good ones.

All of which is to say — Lou Piniella is fascinating. Funny, to me, the least fascinating part of his baseball career is his managing. His Hall of Fame case is that he’s 16th all-time in wins, has a World Series, won in multiple places and managed the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games. It’s a good case. But it’s basically the same case as Dusty Baker's, with having won the World Series instead of lost it. I tend to think Davey Johnson’s case is better — he had a higher winning percentage — but really it seems clear to me that Jim Leyland has a stronger case than either of them. I don’t know how this one goes. I think too many managers get into the Hall of Fame.