January 11, 2011
Don Mincher, Part I
Don Mincher is a proud man, and a true baseball lifer. Currently the president of the Double-A Southern League, the 72-year-old Mincher signed his first professional contract in 1956 and went on to spend 13 seasons as a big-league first baseman before turning his attention to front-office duties.
A left-handed slugger during his playing days, Mincher made two All-Star teams and bashed 200 home runs while hitting .249/.348/.450 from 1960-1972. A member of the world champion Oakland A’s in his final season, he spent over half of his career with the Washington/Minnesota franchise and also saw time with the Angels, Rangers, and Seattle Pilots. According to baseball-reference.com [per the New York Times], he is the only player to play for both the original Washington Senators, the expansion Washington Senators, and both teams that they moved to become, the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers.
A member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Mincher was the president and general manager of the Double-A Huntsville Stars before assuming his current position in 2000.
David Laurila: What was baseball like in your era?
Don Mincher: You know, David, the big thing that’s different today, from my era, is first of all—of course—the money. You know, you just can’t get away from talking about the money and the lifestyles. Another one is the designated hitter and the difference it has made. It’s a different ballgame. There is also the closer and the set-up man, and what have you. I can’t imagine back in my day, in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, any pitcher that went out with a notion of going seven innings. Everybody that I played with or against walked out there with the intention of going nine innings. They weren’t looking for a set-up man or a closer; they were looking to finish games. It didn’t always happen, but it was a mindset.
Regarding the DH, in 1972, I retired after our Oakland team won the first of three World Series; I retired after the season. During the holidays Charlie Finley called and asked me to come back for another couple of years. I asked why, because we had already had that conversation. He told me that he had just passed the designated hitter rule. I said, “Charlie, what is that?” He said, “This is a term that is used for a guy that all he does is hit; he doesn’t have to play a position and I want you to come back and be the designated hitter for the Oakland A’s in 1973.” I said no, and it is the only decision I ever made in baseball that I regretted, not going back for the ’73 season as the DH. I couldn’t believe it. I could not envision a guy playing in the game and not playing a position—all you do is hit—so I didn’t do that. I went ahead and retired. Of course, Oakland won the World Series in ’73 and ’74.
There is also the way the game was played. I mean, I played my whole career adoring Mickey Mantle. He was just… I played against him for 13 years, but he was still my hero. I don’t find that much anymore.
Our teams in Minnesota and Oakland were very close-knit, not only in the clubhouse and on the playing field, but our families were very close. We did things together; we had family events. I suspect that’s not the way it is today.
Baseball is still primarily the same, you know. Ninety feet between the bases, three outs in an inning—that all remains the same. It’s a game that’s played with a bat and a ball, and speed, but today, now you’ve got miles per hour, now you’ve got all these percentages that are figured. And what a difference it makes, David, to have ESPN showing every move you may or may not have made every night. We didn’t have that during my era. If you had a bad game or did something stupid on the field, it wasn’t shown all over the nation that night. That was a big difference. It was just a different time and a different way.
But, you know, the money is the biggest difference. I just cannot, in my mind, envision playing the game of baseball for even $1 million a year, and they’re making up to $27 million a year now. It just doesn’t correlate in my mind, when the best of our era—the very best—the Mantles, the Williams, the Mays… $100 to $125 [thousand] was their top. It doesn’t compute in my mind, the money that’s going around. And of course, the higher the salaries, the higher the ticket prices, and unbelievably, the higher the attendance. It doesn’t equate in my mind, but it’s a fact.
DL: In 1956, you were an 18-year-old kid starting your professional career in Duluth, Minnesota. What was that experience like?
DM: David, there was no such thing as a draft in those days. The scouts came to scout you and you signed with who you chose to sign with. I signed with the Chicago White Sox. They’re the one that pursued me the most as a club; they’re the organization that impressed me the most. My last high school game, I had 17 scouts from 17 different organizations scouting me on that day. The draft wasn’t even thought of back in those days and I had offers from the Giants, and different clubs, but I chose the White Sox.
To be sent from Huntsville, Alabama, where I had never gone further south than 100 miles to Birmingham, or further north to Nashville, Tennessee, in my entire life, and find myself in Duluth, Minnesota by myself, without my mama and without my daddy, I was scared to death. I wanted to come home; I was frightened. I didn’t know a thing about you guys. I wanted to come home, and I called my father and I said, “I don’t like this, I want to come home and get a job.” Being a southern gentleman, he put it to me very bluntly. He said, “You signed to play at least one year with these guys, so you’re going to fulfill your contract and you’re going to do what they ask you to do.”
I stayed there in ’56 and ’57, in Duluth, and then, my goodness, all of a sudden I realized there were good people all over the world. I got to start meeting people, and I became more outgoing, and before you know it I was there in ’58, in Davenport Iowa, and ’59, in Charleston, and I discovered that people are good all over this world. And I finally realized that I could play this game. When I went to the big leagues in 1960, for just a cup of coffee, and I hit a couple home runs, it started to dawn on me: “Hey, I might be able to play this game at the big level, sooner or later,” and I did. I’m so thankful for many things that my father did for me, but that’s one thing I’ll never forget. He would not let me quit when I went up to Duluth, Minnesota.
DL: The White Sox subsequently traded you to the Senators [on April 4, 1960]. How did that impact your career?
DM: Well, at the time the Chicago White Sox… throughout [my] early years, they traded Norm Cash, Johnny Callison, and myself. When I went to the Senators, along with Earl Battey—we were traded for Roy Sievers—I had no idea what that meant. What it meant was that I was not going to the big leagues with the White Sox; there was no way I was going to be on the big-league club at all.
When I went to the Senators, I found myself playing in the big leagues for a little while—Opening Day at Griffith Stadium. Of course, I was scared to death. It was really unexpected. I didn’t stay there very long—I didn’t do very well and was sent down to Triple-A—but just to get a flavor of the big leagues was career-changing. It was good for me, even though I would have loved to have played for the White Sox; it just wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t long after I was in Washington that they moved to Minnesota, and then good things really started happening. I met a bunch of guys, we stayed together, we loved Minneapolis, we won a championship in ’65. It was a good career for me.
DL: Ted Williams homered in the first game you played in the major leagues, and later he became your manager in Washington.
DM: Yes, he did. Of course, watching Ted Williams play was one of the highlights of my career. As a young boy, and then watching him coming up there… and you may double-check me on this, but I think his batting average that year was .316, and he hit 20-some home runs and drove in 80 or 90 runs. And he was so unhappy. That was his last year. Most of us would have killed for those kind of stats. No doubt he was the best hitter that ever lived. I say best hitter. I saw him, that day, hit a home run, and I was just enthralled by this guy, watching him and the way he hit and did things like that. You know, it made me realize that the guys that I’ve read about all my life, and idolized all my life, now I’m actually playing against.
As far as his tenure as a manager, when I played for him… I liked Ted Williams OK, but he was not a good manager. I say this, and I’ve said it over and over again, it’s very hard for a superstar, a guy who could play the game with ease, and do the things that nobody else could do… they do not make good managers. You can check me on that. They just do not make good managers, because the game was so easy for them.
Ted Williams could not understand why anybody could not pick up a bat and go out and hit .300, or .320, with their eyes closed. To him it was a simple thing to do, but he just could not accept any player not being able to hit .300, Therefore, he was very impatient as a manager, hitting-wise. He couldn’t care less about defense. He really, really didn’t strive to try to save runs like an Earl Weaver would, or a Dick Williams would. Those guys figured that if they could figure out a way to save 15-20 games on defense by hitting cutoff men, turning double plays… Ted Williams didn’t think like that. He thought all your players should hit .320 and you should win 115 games by offense alone.
I really liked Ted Williams, but I don’t think he was a very good manager. He had some pretty good coaches with him, Nellie Fox and so forth, but you look to your manager for guidance and he just wasn’t a very good manager. But what a hitter, and what a player, and what a personality. He was just outstanding. If I had a product that I needed to sell, and had gotten the patent on the product, I would have asked Ted Williams to sell it for me, because his personality was outstanding.
DL: In your big-league debut, you started at first base and Harmon Killebrew played third base. Can you talk a little about Killebrew?
DM: Oh my gosh, Harmon. I just read that Harmon is pretty sick. Esophageal cancer or something like that? He remains, today, the one close friend I see two, three times a year. I just saw him recently in Birmingham at an affair. We had some great moments together. What a Hall of Fame guy, and 570-something home runs.
When I played with Harmon, if I wasn’t going good, or if a tough left-hander was out there, Harmon played first base. In normal circumstances, I played first and Harmon played third; he even played a little left field. Harmon, as big of a guy as he was… he wasn’t a good defensive player, but he was good enough to play a couple of positions. But, when he walked in the batter’s box, and he was hot… all hitters, David, are streak hitters. I don’t care what anybody says. When a hitter gets in that groove, to where the baseball is like a basketball, for that certain period of time, whether it be 10 days, 15 days, 20 days, it’s something else. And Harmon was the best hitter I’ve ever seen when he was in that mode. You couldn’t pitch to him. And he didn’t hit singles. If you threw him—when he was hot—a fastball out over the plate, up, he’d hit a home run every single time. He was a good hitter. His record bears me out on that.
After I was traded, I played a year with George Brunet, with the LA Angels. He would not pitch to Harmon. He said he did not care what the circumstance was, he was going to walk him, and he did. He refused to pitch to him, because he knew that Harmon was that good of a hitter.
What a personality, and I just love the guy. I’m very sorry to hear he’s sick. He was quite a player. He wasn’t the best player that I ever played with, but he was among the top hitters I ever played with. He was a joy.
DL: Who is the best player you played with?
DM: The best player I played with… you know, it’s hard to say. There are so many players that get overlooked. Tony Oliva was an unbelievable player. Of course, Reggie [Jackson]; I played with Reggie, and Reggie has the records. I’d have to classify Reggie as probably the best, because he could hit the ball so far so often, he could run like a deer, he could throw hard. Fundamentally, he had his problems, but I would say probably Reggie.
The best player I ever saw—that I played against—was Frank Robinson. Frank Robinson is the best baseball player I ever saw, period. Even though I idolized Mickey Mantle—and who didn’t when you were a young kid back in those days—to play against Frank Robinson, and knowing that this guy—and people will wonder what I’m talking about when I say this—he never made a mistake after the fifth inning of any game I ever saw. He always… if you needed somebody to get on base, he did. If you needed a home run, he’d hit it. He’d steal a base. That’s the reason Baltimore won all those pennants during those years. They had Brooks [Robinson] and Boog [Powell] and they had [Jim] Palmer, and all that stuff, but Frank Robinson was the guy that drove that team. Then you have Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski]—Yaz was outstanding—but to me, nobody could play the game like Frank Robinson.
To be continued on Wednesday. In Part Two, Mincher talks about the toughest pitcher he ever faced, getting hit in the face by a Sam McDowell fastball, how the 1965 Twins compare to the 1972 Oakland A’s, and more.