May 26, 2011
Earl Jesse Battey Jr. | C | 1961-1967 | Career Stats
Signed by the White Sox in 1953 out of a Los Angeles high school, Earl Battey made his MLB debut in 1955 at age 20. He collected a pair of hits in a five-game cup of coffee, but didn't see his first extended action in the majors until 1957. Battey then spent the next three seasons serving as Sherm Lollar's backup in Chicago, playing sparingly behind the seven-time All-Star while batting just .209/.301/.377 in 413 total plate appearances.
In the last of those three seasons backing up Lollar a 24-year-old Battey lost playing time to another 24-year-old catcher, rookie Johnny Romano. Romano hit .294/.407/.468 in 53 games to overtake Battey for the second spot on the depth chart during Chicago's run to the World Series. Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Lollar was showing no signs of slowing down, turning in his second straight 20-homer, 80-RBI season while batting .265/.345/.451 in 140 games.
Lollar had been one of the AL's best catchers for a decade, so the White Sox decided to stick with him. That offseason owner Bill Veeck dealt Romano and 24-year-old first baseman Norm Cash to the Indians for a four-player package that included Minnie Minoso. Then two weeks before Opening Day the White Sox sent Battey, 22-year-old first baseman Don Mincher, and $150,000 to the Senators for Roy Sievers.
The trades paid immediate dividends, as both the 33-year-old Minoso and 34-year-old Sievers gave Chicago two strong seasons before leaving, but the moves were long-term disasters. Cash batted .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs for Detroit in 1961 and went on to make five All-Star teams. While not quite the hitter that Cash became, Mincher made two All-Star teams and hit .249/.348/.450 with 200 homers.
Romano, who went on to make a pair of All-Star teams while batting .255/.354/.443 during his 10-year career, immediately took over as the Indians' starting catcher, hitting .272/.349/.475 in 1960 while the 35-year-old Lollar hit just .252/.326/.356 for the White Sox. Similarly, 1960 also saw Battey become an instant starter for the Senators, winning the AL Gold Glove award while batting .270/.346/.406 with 15 homers during the team's final season in Washington.
They moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961 and Harmon Killebrew starred by hitting .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 122 RBIs. While he was putting together the first of what would be seven 40-homer seasons, Battey was quickly establishing himself as one of the premier all-around catchers. Battey, now 26, won his second straight Gold Glove award and hit .302/.377/.470 with 17 homers while starting 127 games and catching over 1,100 innings.
Battey declined in 1962, hitting .280/.348/.393, but won his third straight Gold Glove and made the first of four All-Star teams. He bounced back to have the best season of his career in 1963, hitting .285/.369/.476 with 26 homers while catching an AL-leading 1,237 innings in an AL-high 142 starts and finishing seventh in the MVP voting. Yankees catcher Elston Howard won the MVP, but Battey produced similar numbers while batting 55 more times in 12 more games:
G PA AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RBI Howard 135 531 .287 .342 .528 .870 28 85 Battey 147 586 .285 .369 .476 .845 26 84
Battey declined in 1964, hitting a still-solid .272/.348/.407, but bounced back in 1965 to finish 10th in the MVP voting. Twins teammates Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva finished one-two in the balloting and Mudcat Grant placed sixth, with Battey hitting .297/.375/.409 as the team won 102 games and the AL crown before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. He caught all seven games despite running neck-first into a railing chasing a foul ball in Game 3.
Despite being just 30 years old 1965 proved to be his final great season as weight problems, injuries, and big workloads caught up to Battey. He hit .255/.337/.327 in 1966, but split time with Russ Nixon and Jerry Zimmerman in 1966, batting .165. After retiring he worked with inner-city kids in New York before going to college at age 45, graduating Summa Cum Laude. He then became a high-school teacher and coach in Florida before dying from cancer in 2003.
Battey's relatively brief career ended shortly after his 30th birthday and one of his best years came in Washington for the Senators, yet for four decades he ranked as the best catcher in Twins history. His raw offensive numbers during seven seasons in Minnesota (.278/.356/.409 with 76 homers) look solid and the multiple Gold Gloves awards tell the story of his defensive reputation, but without a closer look at Battey's career it's easy to undersell his impact.
His entire career was spent in one of the lowest-scoring eras ever and he played a position that was the most physically demanding and often home to no-hit defensive specialists. Battey was a stud on both sides of the ball, logging a huge number of innings, frequently catching one of the league's best pitching staffs, throwing out a high percentage of steal attempts, and putting up numbers offensively that were far more impressive than they initially appear.
For instance, when Battey hit .285/.369/.476 with 26 homers in 1963 the AL as a whole hit just .247/.312/.380. Go forward 40 years to 2003 and the AL hit .267/.333/.428, which means Battey's line in 1963 was the equivalent of batting .315/.400/.530 in 2003 and he would have cleared 30 homers with ease. As it stands, he ranked among the AL's top five catchers in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) in each of his six full seasons with the Twins:
1961 VORP 1962 VORP 1963 VORP Elston Howard 52.6 Johnny Romano 33.8 Elston Howard 44.0 Johnny Romano 41.5 Elston Howard 26.1 EARL BATTEY 41.1 Johnny Blanchard 32.6 EARL BATTEY 17.2 John Orsino 28.0 EARL BATTEY 32.0 Jim Pagliaroni 13.4 Joe Azcue 17.6 Earl Averill 21.6 Ken Retzer 11.9 Yogi Berra 14.0 1964 VORP 1965 VORP 1966 VORP Elston Howard 43.1 EARL BATTEY 29.8 Johnny Romano 16.7 Bill Freehan 37.0 Johnny Romano 24.1 Joe Azcue 10.4 Bob Tillman 24.7 Billy Bryan 18.4 Elston Howard 7.9 Johnny Romano 21.1 Charlie Lau 10.4 Paul Casanova 7.8 EARL BATTEY 19.0 John Orsino 9.7 EARL BATTEY 5.8
No other catcher cracked the top five in each of those six seasons and the only guys to make it five times were Howard and Battey's old competition, Romano (see what I mean about those trades not working out especially well for the White Sox long term?). And VORP only accounts for hitting. As outstanding as Battey was offensively, it's his defense--and specifically his great arm behind the plate--that actually may have been the strongest part of his game.
Battey was never especially mobile to begin with and became perhaps MLB's slowest player once age, the rigors of five straight 1,000-inning seasons defensively, and excess weight from a goiter problem sapped him of whatever limited quickness he once had. Despite that, Battey never lost his amazing arm and remained the league's best-throwing catcher throughout his career. Battey allowed just 226 stolen bases in over 6,700 innings at catcher for the Twins.
Allowing one steal for every 30 innings during the run-heavy 1960s is amazing enough, but he also gunned down nearly 40 percent of steal attempts. Teams rarely tested him despite the huge steal totals being posted throughout baseball, yet Battey still managed a league-leading caught-stealing total three times. He also led the AL in pickoffs four times, including 15 in 1962. That season Battey allowed 34 steals and picked off or threw out 42 runners.
TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS On-Base Percentage .356 18th Walks 328 19th Adjusted OPS+ 109 21st Games 853 22nd Hits 768 22nd Times On Base 1113 22nd Runs Created 399 22nd Plate Appearances 3161 24th Homers 76 24th Total Bases 1131 24th Batting Average .278 25th RBIs 350 25th