By Anthony McClean, MLBbro Contributor
While baseball and all other sports have become so saturated with analytics, some of the specialists of the games, and their specialties, have been almost forgotten. One is the art of pinch-hitting. Historically, several brothers have carved out a unique niche coming off the bench to make a mark on a game or a season.
This tribute is to some of the best of their generation, who not only performed in the clutch but were also key contributors to winning ball clubs. These brothers were just as valuable as the bullpen closers. They also performed prior to and after the formation of the designated hitter.
In fact, some of them were able to extend their careers because of the DH.
From 1963 through 1975, William James “Gates” Brown was one of the MLB’s top pinch hitters. At 18, he was arrested, convicted of burglary, and sentenced to prison for 22 months, from 1958 to 1959, at the Ohio State Reformatory. He was encouraged by a prison guard who also coached the reformatory’s baseball team to join the squad.
As a catcher, Brown impressed the powers that be so much that they contacted several major-league teams regarding his hitting prowess.
Brown signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1960 and was given a modest contract bonus of $7,000.00. After spending nearly four years in the team’s farm system, Brown was called up from AAA Syracuse on June 17, 1963. Two days later, on June 19, Brown hit a pinch-hit home run deep into the right field seats at Fenway Park in Boston, becoming the 11th American League batter to hit a home run in his first at-bat. He was the third player in AL history to do so, and it set the tone for the Ohio native’s career.
Brown still ranks as one of the best pinch-hitters in Major League Baseball history and was never better than in 1968, when he led the eventual World Champion Tigers with a .370 batting average and lofty 1.127 OPS while picking up six homers, 15 RBIs and 12 walks. In 92 official at-bats, Brown struck out just four times. Brown pinch-hit 39 times in 1968 and had a .450 batting average in those situations, belting three home runs among nine extra-base hits. He struck out just one time while pinch-hitting.
In his career, Brown still holds the American League record for pinch hits (107) and pinch-hit home runs (16), according to the Baseball Almanac, which lists his 414-career pinch-hit at-bats as an MLB record.
In a career that spanned nearly a decade, Harris is best known for holding the record for the most pinch hits in a Major League career, with 212. A fifth-round draft pick in 1983 with the Cincinnati Reds, Harris would make his major league debut in 1988 as a September call-up.
Harris credits then-manager Pete Rose with his approach as a hitter. Quoted by author Paul Votano from his book, Stand and Deliver: A History of Pinch-Hitting, Harris said, “After one particular at-bat, he came to me and said, ‘Did you know what the pitcher was going to throw you?’ And I didn’t. I realized then what I wanted to be like.”
Harris added, “I want to be the guy who watches the game, learns from it, sees what the pitchers are throwing to other guys, then be able to know a little about what might be coming, and what I can do with that pitch.”
During his career, Harris toiled for the Dodgers, Mets, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Cubs, and Marlins. In his second stint with the Mets, Harris broke MLB’s career pinch hits record, previously held by Manny Mota. Harris was also a member of the Marlins’ 2003 World Championship squad.
Nicknamed “Heathcliff”, Johnson was a member of the Yankees’ 1977 and 1978 World Championship teams after beginning his career with the Houston Astros in 1972. After getting into a very publicized locker room fight with teammate Goose Gossage in 1979, Johnson would be traded to Cleveland months later. Johnson would toil for several teams throughout his career.
He also brought his dangerous bat with him, hitting for power playing with the Cubs, A’s, Rangers, and Blue Jays. In 1983 he had the best season of his career, hitting 22 home runs for Toronto and reaching career highs in games, at-bats, doubles, and RBIs.
During his last three years for the Blue Jays, Johnson would rotate time as a designated hitter and pinch hitter. On August 5, 1984, Johnson set a new Major League record for pinch-hit home runs as he picked up the 19th of his career. He hit his 20th in 1986 and held onto the record until 2010 when it was broken by Matt Stairs.
JERRY HAIRSTON SR.
A 14-year veteran of MLB, Hairston is part of one of only three families to have had three generations of major league players. Hairston’s father Sam, a former Negro Leaguer, was the first Black player signed by the White Sox and his brother Johnny, played one season for the Cubs.
Jerry is also the father of former Major Leaguers Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston. Jerry’s career, which he played the majority of in Second City as well, is the White Sox’s all-time leader in pinch hits with 90, hitting .258 in 349 plate appearances as a pinch hitter with eight home runs.
A member of the White Sox’s 1983 AL Western Division championship team, Hairston broke up a perfect game bid by Detroit’s Milt Wilcox on April 15 with a ninth-inning pinch hit. At the time, it was just the fifth time in MLB history that a perfect game was lost on the last batter.
He also played three seasons for Durango of the Mexican League. While playing in Mexico, Hairston won a batting title and twice represented Mexican League teams at the Caribbean Series.
Anthony McClean is the Editor-In-Chief Emeritus for BASN Newsroom (www.basnnewsroom.com). He can be reached via email at email@example.com