Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vada Pinson's First Five Seasons: As Good as Anybody's


It's sad how some extremely good players can be forgotten by the younger generation; their memory reduced to a line in a book, their extraordinary achievements not given their fair due. Such a man is Vada Pinson.



I can remember attending a baseball game as a kid at Cincinnati's new Riverfront Stadium in 1971 and being amazed by the fact that one name was either at or within one or two spots of the top of virtually every career offensive category for the team, which at that time had been playing professionally for over 100 years. Hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, you name it, on a team that had possessed it's fair share of Hall of Famers, one man dominated the team's all-time list--it was Vada Pinson. 

And when Vada Pinson died in 1995 at the age of 57 due to complications of a stroke, he had more career hits (2757) than any man not in baseball's Hall of Fame. This may have surprised some, who only remembered Pinson’s last five or six seasons of injury-plaqued mediocrity, but he was once one of the brightest young stars in baseball. In fact, his first five seasons in the majors compare favorably with any man in history.

Vada Pinson was a native of Oakland and had attended the same high school that produced teammate Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and basketball great Bill Russell. Pinson was three years younger than Robinson and they had scarcely known each other in high school, but once on the Reds they became roommates, best friends and inseparable.



Unlike the fiery Robinson, Pinson was easygoing and quiet. Only nineteen years old during his first spring training with the Reds in 1958, he was so quiet that coach Jimmy Dykes spoke to him in broken Spanish for two weeks, assuming that he was Cuban because of the unusual first name and the fact that he didn’t seem to understand how to reply in any language. Pinson finally gathered the courage to tell the startled coach, “I’m from California. I speak English you know.”

Pinson was a remarkable athlete. Silky smooth and graceful in all things, he was as fast as anyone in the game. The 5'11, 170 pound Pinson possessed surprising power. All phases of baseball seemed to come easy for him. He hit a grand slam in his second major league game. And he could fill up a box score like few players: his first full season, 1959, he hit .316, with 205 hits, 47 doubles, 9 triples, 20 home runs, 84 RBIs and scored 131 runs. Only the fact that he had been up with the Reds a few days over the limit which governed rookie status in 1958 kept him from being the overwhelming choice as Rookie of the Year. He was proclaimed a “sure-thing Hall of Famer” as a 21 year old.

Pinson proceeded to play in every single Reds game in four of his first five complete seasons, from 1959-63 (he played in 155 of 162 in 1962). He led the National League in hits with 208 in 1961 and 204 in 1963. Over those years, he had 985 hits (197 per year), more than Musial (975), Mays (954), Aaron (917) and Rose (899) had in their first five seasons.

He averaged 26 stolen bases, 20 home runs, 108 runs scored and 87 RBIs over that period.

Pinson was a legitimate five-tool player. He was generally acknowledge to be the best centerfielder in the National League not named Willie Mays. But whereas Mays played with a bugged-eyed, vein-popping, hat-flying electricity, Pinson smoothly and gracefully ranged across the field, gliding so smoothly that his feet seemed to barely touch the ground--often making great plays without seeming to break a sweat. 

Pinson was perhaps cursed with having too much “natural” appearing talent. Everyone always expected more. The great feats he performed appeared to come effortlessly. The term “effortless” would come to haunt him. Front office types, writers and fans began to question his effort.
The Dodgers Clem Labine voiced the thought shared by many around the league in 1960 when he said, “What’s wrong with Pinson? The day he becomes aggressive he will be better than Willie Mays.”



While Pinson was laid back and easy-going, it was impossible to question his desire when one looked at the results listed on the back of his baseball card. Still, improbably, some did. Some of the questions of his effort was undoubtedly the result of racist attitudes of the day and others came from his run-ins with a key reporter, which influenced printed opinion.

Pinson famously had two fights with ubiquitous Reds beat writer Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post. The first came in 1962 after a Lawson-column that questioned Pinson’s heart. Pinson confronted Lawson in the clubhouse the next day with, “What made you an expert? What the hell did you ever hit in the majors?” Lawson responded by firing back a few choice words and the argument concluded with Pinson slugging Lawson in the face.

The next day, Lawson wrote in the Post, “When I write that he’s squandered much of his God-gifted talent, I’m expressing an honest opinion, one I share with many, including, if the truth were known, many of his teammates.”

In 1963, as the entire Reds’ team struggled, Lawson again picked out Pinson and repeatedly wrote that Pinson was selfish in his refusal to bunt for base hits more often. After being teased by teammates about the article, Pinson confronted Lawson in the clubhouse. Pinson unleashed what Lawson wrote was a “steady stream of profanity,” then grabbed Lawson by the wrist, then grabbed his shirt collar and ripped it.

The diminutive Lawson made his way to the Cincinnati police station and signed a warrant for Pinson’s arrest. Reds owner Bill DeWitt intervened to keep Pinson out of jail, but a legal hearing was held and the issue went to trial in December. Feeling that the incident had run its course and had produced enough embarrassment for all involved, Lawson soon dropped the charges.

Other than the two incidents with Lawson, by all accounts, Pinson was a decent guy; he was quiet and rarely had troubles with anyone.

I talked to a number of former Reds players from the early 1960s for my first book and they all were impressed with Pinson's physical abilities and most mentioned his laid-back, easy-to-get-along-with personality also.

One of the batboys for the team, then 15 years old, mentioned that Pinson was one of the nicest players when it came to the batboys and that he frequently gave him used equipment because they were both lefthanded.

Dan Neville, a minor league pitcher who was in the Reds spring camp several years, related a story of a spring team road trip to Mexico in which Neville's roommate locked him out of the room for the night after the roommate had procured female company. Neville was lounging in the hotel lobby around midnight, wondering where he might sleep, when Pinson spotted him. Since the veterans had private rooms, Pinson had an extra bed in his room and invited Neville to seek refuge there. "We had a very interesting conversation that night," said Neville. "He was a very bright, interesting guy. And that always struck me as such a great thing to do, because I was just a nobody, a guy trying to make the team."

Interestingly, Pete Rose told a similar story in one of his autobiographies--of being chased out by his older roommate and allowed to crash in Pinson's room. Of course, Pinson and Robinson were the only Reds who would have anything to do with the brash Rose during his rookie season.




After being on the short list of stars of the National League for five seasons, Pinson slumped to .266 in 1964. He rebounded to hit .305 for 1965, but never again topped .290 in his career. Injuries cut into his production. After 1967 he never again played in more than 148 games in a season, often being relegated to 124-138 games by various ailments. He was traded to the Cardinals in October, 1968.    

So began the rest of his career as a journeyman: one year with St. Louis, two with Cleveland, two with California and two with Kansas City.      

He retired after the 1975 season with the above-mentioned 2757 hits and a .286 career batting average. Close to Hall-worthy numbers, but not quite. But as of 2015, Pinson is one of only 15 men who have had more than 125 triples and 250 home runs in a career (he had 127 and 256). The other 14 are in the Hall of Fame. One can't help but think that if Pinson had only had two or three more years without injuries, he would certainly have been elected.

Vada Pinson is one of the forgotten stars of the early 1960s; a man with Hall of Fame talent who showed it for five glorious seasons and then fell just short.



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