Sunday, December 21, 2014

Gus Triandos: Slowest Man in Baseball or Record-Holding Base Stealer?




One of the fun things about researching a player's history is coming across interesting teammates who unfortunately have been forgotten by modern fans. Such a man is Gus Triandos. He was one of the
best power-hitting catchers in the American League in the late 50s and early 60s. If newspapers and magazines of the era are to believed, he also laid claim to the title "slowest man in baseball."

Signed out of high school by the Yankees in 1948, Triandos labored years in their farm system. Despite good hitting numbers in the minors and a strong arm, Casey Stengel held very little regard for him. In addition to the Yankees having Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, there was little place on Stengel's team for a man who couldn't run, bunt or hit the ball the other way.

After seven years with only a handful of major league games to show for his efforts, Triandos was liberated in 1955 when new Oriole manager and general manager Paul Richards, eager to get some decent talent on the field for his team, engineered the biggest two-team trade in baseball history, a nine-for-eight swap. The major players involved were young pitchers Don Larsen and Bullet Bob Turley going to the Yankees and Triandos, Gene Woodling and slick-fielding shortstop Willie Miranda going to Baltimore. In addition to making real estate agents happy with the sudden influx of customers, the trade allowed the Yankees to add to their formidable pitching staff and the Orioles to put several legitimate major league players on the field.

Triandos was the Orioles’ regular catcher for the next seven years and he flourished. He had seasons of 21, 30 and 25 home runs, and made the All-Star team in 1957, 1958 and 1959. His home run total was particularly impressive for a righthanded hitter in view of the voluminous left field at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium at the time which was only slightly smaller than the Grand Canyon. Triandos often supplied the only power for the perennially weak Orioles offense in those years.

Triandos had the misfortune of being a catcher in Baltimore at the same time Hoyt Wilhelm was a pitcher. Wilhelm had perfected the most baffling knuckleball in history—a hard-thrown ball that danced and dove in unpredictable fashion—making it nearly impossible to either hit or catch. Even with the pizza-plate-sized catchers mitt that Richards invented, Triandos spent a large part of his time lumbering around behind home plate waiting for Wilhelm’s pitches to stop rolling so he could pick them up.

Triandos’ slowness afoot became legendary and spawned many stories, some of which were even true. Others, while not standing up to sleuth work in old hitting logs and box scores, certainly are worth repeating because they are part of the lore of the game. I confirmed one of the stories I had heard with Fred Valentine. Valentine was a speedy young outfielder who was brought up to the Orioles late in the 1959 season. “One of my first games, Triandos was hitting in front of me,” Valentine said. “He was on first and I hit one in the gap. Anxious to show off my speed, I flew around the bases and pulled into third with a triple. I expected the third base coach to be happy, but he was just looking at me kind of funny. Then I looked back and Triandos was just trotting in to second.” Watching the ball rolling in the outfield while looking over his shoulder as he raced around the bases, Valentine had apparently passed the lead-footed catcher somewhere between first and second. “After the game Richards told me he learned something. He would never bat me behind Triandos again.”

Since Triandos was one of the Orioles' stars when Brooks Robinson broke into the majors, I was eager to speak with him for Brooks. I had an address but not a phone number. I wrote him a letter explaining the book and soon received a nice note with his phone number, saying that he would be happy to talk to me. I later learned that he had been battling several heart ailments during this time and the fact that he took the time to return my letter and talk to me illustrates the affection he had for his old teammate and perhaps his love of the game. I spoke to Triandos for Brooks in August of 2012. I enjoyed talking to him and the 81-year-old former player apologized that his memory wasn’t what it used to be (the things we were talking about had only happened 60 years earlier).  

While Triandos joked about his reputation for foot-speed, he mentioned that he held one major league baserunning record. “I never got thrown out stealing in my career," he said. "Not many guys can say that. I only tried once and I made it.” Indeed, on September 28, 1958, in the last inning of the last game of the year, with the sixth place Orioles (17 games back), playing the first place Yankees, Triandos reached first base with a single with no outs and his team trailing 6-3. He promptly (promptly is perhaps a stretch) stole second base off catcher Darrell Johnson, a journeyman who was giving the regulars a rest. Johnson, who would later manage the Red Sox to the 1975 pennant, apparently was caught off-guard by the stealth of Triandos. “I think he was laughing so hard, he couldn’t throw. He never made a throw to second.”

Look up Gus Triandos’ career stats on-line and it lists: 1206 games, 1 stolen base, 0 caught stealing. “That’s a record nobody can ever break,” he said proudly. “They might tie it, but nobody can break it.” Gus Triandos, ever-maligned for his slowness, had the last laugh.




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