Tony Lupien may not have been the best starting first baseman in Red Sox history but he certainly would be considered high on the list for the best educated. This guy, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, went to Harvard. He had some great seasons playing college ball for the Ivy League school and when he graduated in 1939, he signed with the Red Sox.
Boston still had Jimmy Foxx hammering the baseball and starting at first back then but the hard-living “Beast” was beginning to slow down. When the future Hall of Famer’s home run production fell to 19 in 1941, Boston manager Joe Cronin decided he would give Lupien a shot to win the veteran slugger’s job during the team’s ’42 spring training camp.
Foxx ended up winning that competition but then broke a toe in a late April game, opening the door for Lupien. The rookie stepped in and gave the Red Sox a solid first year performance, averaging .281 and driving in 70 runs in just 128 games of play.
His one real weakness was his lack of power. As a left-handed singles hitter, he could not provide the Boston lineup with the power it lost with Foxx’s departure. When Lupien’s average (.255) and run production (54 RBIs) dropped dramatically in 1943, even though he played in all 154 Red Sox games that season, he was placed on waivers and signed by the Phillies.
During his second year with the Phillies he was called into service and did an abbreviated 6-month hitch as World War II ended. It took him till 1948 before he got back to the big leagues as the Cubs starting first baseman but he was released at the end of that season. He ended up back in the Ivy League as the varsity baseball coach at Dartmouth. He passed away in 2004, at the age of 87.
The path to the Red Sox starting first baseman’s job went through a revolving door during the first eight years of the 1950′s. Six different players started at the right corner of Boston’s infield during that time.
Ironically, everyone thought the first of those six was destined to end up in Cooperstown. That would be Walt Dropo, who followed up one of the greatest rookie seasons in MLB history in 1950 with a big dud of a performance in 1951. Dick Gernert then took over the position the next two years and though he hit a combined 40 home runs during that time, Red Sox management was unhappy with his defense and his relatively low batting average.
That opened the door for “The Greek God,” Harry Agganis, a local boy who became a Boston area sports legend during his high school and collegiate (Boston U) baseball and football careers. He probably would have held the job for the next decade if a blood clot in the vein of his calf hadn’t broken loose, traveled to his lung and killed him in June of his second big league season, when he was just 26 years of age. A shocked Boston front office then handed the first baseman’s mitt to a big rookie named Norm Zauchin, who had been battling Agganis for starting time. When he finished the ’55 season with 27 home runs and 93 RBIs, everyone thought the job would be his again in 1956. Everyone was wrong.
That November, the Red Sox made a ten player deal with the Senators that landed Washington’s veteran first sacker, Mickey Vernon in Boston. Already 38 years-old at the time of the trade, conventional wisdom was that the native of Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania would be Zauchin’s backup at first and a left-handed pinch-hitting option for Boston skipper, Pinky Higgins. Instead, Vernon began the year with a hot bat that never cooled off and he ended up starting at first and averaging a very productive .310 with 15 home runs and 84 RBIs.
When he slumped at the plate the following season, Dick Gernert won back the starter’s job and the Red Sox placed Vernon on waivers in January of 1959. He would hang on as a player for three more seasons and was then named manager of the Washington Senators. This seven time All Star and two-time AL batting champion died in 2008 at the age of 90.
My wife and I just returned home to upstate New York from a road trip to Pittsburgh, where we spent the Easter weekend with our youngest daughter. We have to drive I-79 to get to the Steel City and about 40 miles north of the Pirates hometown, you pass by a city called Mercer. Back in the 1950′s Mercer High School had a basketball team and one of its best players was a 6’2″ forward by the name of Gary Peters.
As good as he was on the hard court, Peters was even better on the baseball diamond. His Dad was one of the area’s best semi-pro players and he had taught his son well. The younger Peters had evolved into a hard-hitting first baseman, but because his high school did not field a baseball team, his playing time was limited to American Legion and sandlot play. Thankfully, one of his coaches had connections to the White Sox organization and Peters was given a tryout by that club. He did well enough to get signed to a contract that permitted him to attend a local college on a basketball scholarship and play baseball when the college year ended.
Since his first minor league team was pretty well-stocked with first baseman, Peters, a southpaw who had done some pitching in his American Legion days was given a shot on the mound. He had one pitch at the time, a very impressive fastball and in the lower minors he was able to get outs with it consistently. That changed as he advanced up the ladder of Chicago’s farm system forcing him to develop more pitches. His slider came easy and his two-pitch repertoire enabled him to continue to win at both the double and triple A levels but was still not enough to get anything but brief late-season, cup-of-coffee trials with the parent club. It took him six years to master his curve and it was that third pitch that finallyearned him a permanent spot on the White Sox’ roster and when he did, he was more than ready.
He went 19-8 during his rookie season, led the League with a 2.33 ERA and in the process, captured the 1963 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was even better the following season, when he went 20-8 and earned the first of two All Star selections. A nagging groin injury resulted in a sub par season in 1965 but he won his second ERA title in ’66 and made his second All Star team the following season. Then he suffered what was later diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury, ruining his ’68 season. After a 10-15 season in ’69, Chicgao gave up on him and traded him to the Red Sox for next-to-nothing. It turned out to be a steal for Boston GM Dick O’Connell.
Ignoring the “southpaw’s can’t win in Fenway” suspicion, Peters went 16-11 during his first year in Beantown and 14-11 in his second. His was 12-8 during those two seasons pitching at Fenway and 20-14 during his career. He was also one of the best hitting pitchers in all of baseball at the time and during the 1971 season, he averaged .271 for the Red Sox, prompting Boston manager, Eddie Kasko to use Peters as one of his primary pinch-hitters off the bench.
The Boston front office had done an admirable job assembling a talented veteran rotation of double digit winners during the early seventies. In addition to Peters, it included the home-grown Jim Lonborg, along with Ray Culp and Sonny Seibert. But O’Connell decided to go with younger arms in ’72, bringing up both John Curtis and Lynn McGlothen from the minors and pushing Peters out of the mix. He retired the following year. His 15-season career record was 124-103.
A decade before Tony Conigliaro’s career was cut short by that fateful pitch from Jack Hamilton, the most tragic Boston Red Sox story was that of Harry Agganis. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, this son of Greek immigrants was a legendary high school athlete. He was such a great high school quarterback that more than 20,000 people would show up to watch his games. He could have played quarterback for any college team in the country, but Agganis chose to remain home and play for Boston University where he became a collegiate All American in both football and baseball and earned the nickname, “The Golden Greek.”
Agganis was as big a Boston-area sports legend as there ever had been. He signed with Boston in 1952 and when he made his big league debut two years later in 1954, Agganis was the most heralded first year player in the team’s history. He hit .251 during his rookie season with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs. His teammates loved him and everyone agreed he would evolve into a big league all star.
That prediction looked like it was coming true as the 1955 season opened. Agganis got off to a hot start that year and was averaging .313 in early May, when he complained of bad chest pains. Admitted to a local hospital, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, treated and released. But upon rejoining the team he had no energy and his persistent cough grew worse. Sent back to the hospital, his condition continued to deteriorate and it was also discovered that the very sick first baseman had a blood clot on his calf. On June 27, 1955, doctors wanted Agganis to sit upright in a chair. As nurses were positioning him to do so, the clot in his calf broke free and traveled to his lung. He was pronounced dead from the resulting pulmonary embolism, twenty minutes later. He was just 26-years-old.
You can learn more about Agganis’s life and career from this profile published by the Society for American Baseball Research.
After the 2013 postseason ended and fall turned to winter, it became apparent to most baseball observers that the new World Champion Red Sox were not going to re-sign their free-agent All Star center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Their biggest reason had to be his high price tag. Boston’s ownership just didn’t want to spend the $160 million or so it would have taken to keep Ellsbury’s uniform socks red for his entire big league career. The second biggest reason had to be today’s Beantown Baseball Birthday Celebrant.
The Red Sox front office thinks Jackie Bradley is going to be something special. They selected this native of Richmond, Virginia as the 40th overall selection in the first round of the 2011 draft. He had an outstanding collegiate career at South Carolina and thenput together two strong seasons in Boston’s farm system. He really got himself noticed with a stellar performance during the Red Sox 2013 exhibition system and made the Club’s Opening Day roster, starting in left field.
But the kid has yet to prove he can hit big league pitching. His weak bat (.189 batting average in 2013) got him sent back down to Pawtucket last year but with Ellsbury gone, you have to figure Boston will give him a lot longer leash than the 37 games and 107 plate appearances he got with the parent club in in 2013.
Bradley turns just 24-years-old today. His career is all ahead of him. But with Ellsbury off to a hot start in his first season in New York and Bradley again struggling through his second straight April against big league pitching, I am starting to wonder just how patient Red Sox fans will be with their new center fielder.
Duffy Lewis was a native of San Francisco who cut his baseball teeth in the Pacific Coast League. His real first name was George and he had made his big league debut with Boston in 1910, when he joined Tris Speaker and Harry Hopper to form one of the great outfields in Red Sox franchise history. Lewis helped Boston win World Series in 1912, ’15 and ’16 and he added lots of luster to his reputation as a clutch hitter when he averaged .444 against the Phillies in the 1915 Fall Classic and .353 the following fall against Brooklyn.
In actuality, Lewis was pretty much a singles hitter who was blessed to be part of one of baseball’s all-time best lineups. Back when Lewis patrolled left field in then brand new Fenway Park, steep inclines of dirt were used in big league parks place of warning tracks to help outfielders know they were getting close to bone-jarring fence collisions. Lewis became so proficient at scaling the left-field incline at Fenway, the area became known as “Duffy’s Cliff.”
Lewis became one of the first Boston players team owner Harry Frazee sold to the Yankees at the very end of the Dead Ball Era. He and the highly regarded Boston pitcher Ernie Shore had both joined the Navy in 1918 and missed an entire season. Before they returned from service in 1919, the duo had been traded to New York along with another very good veteran Boston pitcher named Dutch Leonard in exchange for four players and $15,000. When the deal was announced, Yankee Manager Miller Huggins told the press the trade would put the Yankees in the thick of the 1919 AL Pennant race.
As it turned out Huggins’ high hopes for both Lewis and Shore (Leonard was sold to the Tigers before he pitched a game as a Yankee) proved to be unfounded. Shore caught the mumps during his first New York spring training camp and would never amount to much of anything in pinstripes. Duffy started in left field for New York in 1919 and averaged just .272, which was 17 points below his career average with Boston. He did drive in 89 run but he was overly aggressive at the plate for a guy with little power and not a good base-runner.
A little over a year after the big trade Huggins pulled a perfect “if at first you don’t succeed try again” maneuver by convincing the Yankee owner Jake Ruppert to go back to Boston owner Harry Frazee and pay him whatever it takes to purchase Babe Ruth’s contract. The “Big Bang” then joined Lewis and Ping Bodie to form the starting outfield for a 1920 Yankee team that won 95 games, which was only good enough for a third place finish in the 1920 AL Pennant race. Lewis, however, had seen his playing time decrease during his second season in New York thanks to the emergence of a Yankee rookie outfielder by the name of Bob Meusel.
New York then traded Lewis, to Washington in December of 1920. He was out of the big leagues for good the following year but he did not hang up his spikes. Instead he returned to the Pacific Coast League, where he continued playing another six years, finally retiring as a player at the age of 39. Duffy would eventually become the long-time traveling secretary of the Boston Braves.
This Oregon native was a collegiate All American infielder at Stanford before being selected by the Red Sox in the first round of the 2005 amateur draft. After three year’s in Boston’s farm system, he made his big league debut in April of 2008. When Julio Lugo, the Red Sox starting shortstop suffered a season ending injury in July of that season, Lowrie and Alex Cora shared the position for the rest of the year, with the switch-hitting Lowrie getting more playing time. In 81 games, the rookie hit a productive .258, driving in 46 runs.
Going into the 2009 season, I thought this guy was definitely Boston’s new starting shortstop but he injured his wrist early in the season. After surgery to repair it, Lowrie never got healthy enough to contribute much to that year’s ball club. In 2010, he was felled by a bad case of mononucleosis but once again showed signs of his strong offensive potential when healthy, by hitting .287 with 9 home runs in just 171 at bats that year.
In 2011, Terry Francona platooned Lowrie at short with Marco Scutaro and then that December, they traded him to the Astros for Houston’s closer Mark Melancon. I was surprised Boston gave up on Lowrie’s upside at the time the deal was made but I did like Melancon’s potential as well and I knew the Red Sox had to replace Jon Papelbon, who was heading to Philadelphia as a free agent.
As it turned out, it appears as if I was right about both Lowrie and Melancon’s potential. Both players had stellar seasons in 2013. Unfortunately, neither was wearing a Red Sox uniform at the time.
I was thirteen years old at the time but remember vividly Jim Lonborg’s brilliance on the mound during Boston’s “Impossible Dream” season. The tall lean California-born right hander had graduated from Stanford with a degree in biology in 1963 and signed with the Red Sox. After just one season in the minors, Lonborg became part of the “baby Sox” youth movement that took place during the 1965 and ’66 seasons. That was when the team’s front office decided to rush their best young prospects to the big leagues and let them do their on-the-job training at Fenway.
Lonborg went a combined 19-27 during his first two big league seasons but it was evident to all who saw him that this kid had Major League stuff. He put it all together during Boston’s magical 1967 campaign. His 22-9 record that year included a victory in the pennant-clinching final regular season game against a very good Minnesota Twins team. Since he was called upon to pitch in that contest, he wasn’t rested enough to start in the World Series Opener’ against St. Louis. Instead, he put together one of the best back-to-back pitching performances in Fall Classic history with his complete game shutout victory in Game 2 followed up by a 3-hit, 1-run complete game victory in Game 5.
There was no doubt he would be called upon to start Game 7 on just two-days rest but his right arm had run out of gas. Still, when he left that game in the seventh inning, everyone including me thought he would be one of the best pitchers in baseball over the next decade. Instead, after becoming the first Boston Red Sox pitcher to win a Cy Young Award, Lonborg decided to go skiing. It turned out to be a disastrous decision on his part.
On what was to be his last downhill run of the day, he wiped out and tore two ligaments in his knee, requiring major surgery to repair. When he tried to rush back from that injury, the pain and weakness in his injured knee forced him to change his pitching motion to compensate. That change put undue stress on his pitching shoulder causing subsequent injuries. The short of it was that Lonborg was never again the pitcher he was in 1967. During the three seasons following his surgery, Lonborg’s cumulative record was 17-22 but he was learning to pitch again with a sore arm and weakened knee. By 1971, in his final season in Boston, he was able to fashion a 10-7 record and told reporters he was finally feeling good on the mound again.
That October, the Red Sox sent Lonborg and a bunch of other players to the Brewers to acquire Tommy Harper’s speed and put it at the top of their lineup. A healthier Lonborg went 14-12 during his one and only season in Milwaukee with an impressive 2.83 ERA. He then got traded to the Phillies, where he would win 67 games over the next five seasons pitching in the number two spot of a Philadelphia rotation, behind future Hall-of-Famer, Steve Carlton.
Lonborg retired after the ’79 season with 157 victories during his 15-year career and a 3.86 lifetime ERA. He then returned to Boston and became a dentist.
After winning 97 games as Red Sox manager in 1977 and 98 more the following season, Don Zimmer had nothing to show for it. Both those Boston teams lost AL East Division races to the Yankees, Zimmer’s 1979 Boston ball club had a ten game lead over the Bronx Bombers by mid August and would finally finish ahead of their hated rivals. The problem was however, that the Baltimore Orioles had a four game lead over Popeye’s ball club at the time and Red Sox starting second baseman, Jerry Remy and his talented backup, Jack Brohamer were both out of action with injuries.
Boston GM Haywood Sullivan made a deal with the Cubs to acquire veteran second baseman Ted Sizemore to fill the gigantic hole on the right side of his team’s infield. Sizemore, was born in Alabama but grew up in Detroit. He had been a catcher for the University of Michigan, who had been drafted by the Dodgers in 1966 and converted into a second baseman. He made his big league debut with Los Angeles in 1969 and captured the NL Rookie of the Year Award that season.
Two years later, when the Dodgers were looking for a home run hitter to add to their lineup, they traded Sizemore to the Cardinals for Dick Allen. He was a mainstay in the middle of St. Louis’s infield for the next five seasons. The Dodgers reacquired him in 1976 to fill in for an injured Davey Lopes. He then was traded to the Phillies before landing in Chicago with the Cubs.
He had a terrific debut in Fenway, going 3-3 against the White Sox and driving in 2 runs in a Boston victory. He also filled in admirably at second and hit a productive .261 down the stretch. He was certainly not the reason Boston ended up slumping as a team and finishing 11 games behind a very good Orioles squad. Invited back to the Red Sox 1980 spring training camp, Sizemore made the Opening Day roster as the team’s utility infielder, but ended up losing that job to a young rookie named Dave Stapleton and was released.
He was 35 years-old at the time and decided to retire as a player. He ended up going to work for Rawlings and became an executive with that company.
After their Splendid Splinter ended his Hall of Fame career with a home run on his last-ever at bat in 1960, Red Sox Nation quickly realized the players they had left offered few if any compelling reasons to travel to Fenway for a game. Truth was, those Red Sox teams of the early sixties were not very good.
That probably explains better than anything why Boston’s brain trust decided to rush young 19-year-old Tony Conigliaro to the big leagues in 1964. The hype was that the kid could hit like a young Williams, plus he was born and raised in nearby Revere, had Hollywood good looks and unlike “Teddy Ballgame,” he actually smiled at fans and even signed autographs.
So when young “Tony C” went on to belt 24 home runs during his expedited 1965 big league debut season, it convinced the Boston brass that a youth movement was the best path to both a pennant and lots of ticket sales. In the next few years, Red Sox fans were introduced to Rico Petrocelli, George Scott, Reggie Smith, Joe Foy and Mike Andrews. By 1967, the “Baby Sox” had pulled off the “Impossible Dream” pennant of 1967 and had Boston fans wondering who would be the next star flash-produced by the team’s incredible minor league system.
His name was Joe Lahoud, Ironically, his last name was pronounced la-Who, which was the exact reaction most Red Sox fans had when they heard this 20-year-old native of Danbury, Connecticut had made Boston’s Opening Day lineup against the Tigers in 1968. Batting sixth between Scott and Petrocelli, the young outfielder singled, walked three times and scored his first Major League run in that afternoon’s game, a 7-3 Boston victory.
The next day the kid hit his first big league home run against Detroit’s ace, Denny McLain and for a brief moment, it really did seem that Boston’s incredibly successful lightening quick youth movement had really struck again in the form of the young LaHoud. By the end of that April however, he was hitting just .206 and got sent down to Louisville for more grooming. He then spent the entire 1969 season with the parent club.
Since Lahoud’s ancestors were born in Lebanon, I guess we could call him the Lebanese God of Walks. Like Kevin Youklis a few generations later, Lahoud did not swing at bad pitches. It was his ability to earn frequent free passes to first base that kept him on that ’69 Red Sox roster because he hit just .188 in 257 plate appearances but his 43 walks pushed his on base percentage up to .317.
His good eye was not enough to keep him on the big league roster the following season but he did get a second chance with the parent club in 1971. Though he did hit 14 home runs that year, not an easy accomplishment for any left-handed hitter who plays half of his games in Fenway, his .215 batting average was his undoing. That October, he was one of ten players involved in a trade between Boston and the Brewers.
Lahoud would end up spending whole or parts of 11 seasons in the Major Leagues. He put together his best season as a fourth outfielder for the 1974 Caifornia Angels, when he hit a career high .271 and smacked 13 round-trippers. His final season was 1978 and when he quit he had a lifetime batting average of .223 with an on base percentage that was one hunted and ten points higher.