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June 2, 2009
You Could Look It Up
The Matt Wieters of 1947
As of last Friday, the Orioles are beginning to find out if Matt Wieters, one of the most hotly anticipated prospects in recent memory, is the real deal. In his case, there is reason to believe that the anticipation is justified. In other cases, a more skeptical approach would have been warranted. Such was the case with Clint Hartung, one of the most hyped prospects of the postwar period.
In 1942, Hartung, a 19-year-old pitcher/outfielder from Hondo, Texas spent most of his season with Eau Claire in the Class C Northern League. In 66 games he hit .339 and slugged .564 on 17 doubles and 12 home runs in only 280 at-bats. On the mound he hit 3-1 with an ERA of 3.58, showing a lively fastball. A "big Texas farm boy" at 6'4" and 215 pounds, he was good enough to get a call from the American Association's Minneapolis Millers at the end of the season, but before they could figure out what their new phenom was all about, the War Department called Hartung into the service. He would remain in uniform for the next four years, the impression of that wonderful half-season hanging in the air like intoxicating smoke.
Three years later, with World War II ended, the New York Giants inhaled. They bought Hartung's rights in December, 1945 for $35,000 and four players, then waited for him to get out of the Army. Despite the small military action that had been going on, Sergeant Hartung found a good deal of time for baseball, participating in the baseball program that entertained troops and fanned inter-service rivalries during the war years. The Giants had heard how he had impressed even the big-leaguers in the service with his power bat and arm.
To those expressions of power, add a power play. Mustered out in 1946, Hartung tried to extract a promise from the Giants that he would not be sent to the minors. When this was not forthcoming, he reenlisted for another year. In 1946, he played for an Army Air Force team that went 67-4. As reported in the 1947 edition of the Green Book, "Clint pitched 25 games and won them all... He averaged fifteen strikeouts a game and, in the twenty-five games he pitched, only twenty runs were scored against him... When not pitching, he played the outfield and had a batting average of .567 and hit thirty home runs."
The Giants were drooling now, and the press coverage was intense. Sure, these were just exhibitions in the military, but hadn't there been real major leaguers playing against Hartung during the war? It all had to translate somehow, hadn't it? Observing the hype, sportswriter Tom Meany (in a line also credited to Giants publicist Gerry Shumacher), wrote, "Hartung's a sucker if he reports to the Giants. All he has to do is sit at home‚ wait till he's eligible‚ and he's a cinch to make the Hall of Fame." Hartung was aware of the noise surrounding him. "I'm getting used to it," he said in the spring of 1947. "All this publicity doesn't bother me any, but I am afraid that it will make the fans expect too much of me."
When spring training 1947 finally arrived, Hartung looked great in batting practice hitting the ball, but not so good in the field except for his excellent arm. "I see now how he struck out all those men in those Army games," his manager Mel Ott said. "He has tremendous power." Unfortunately, he couldn't catch the ball. He was fooled by line drives and wouldn't get in front of grounders. "He's no outfielder," pronounced Rogers Hornsby, observing him from the coaching lines that spring. Hornsby recommended that Hartung be made a pitcher, because his arm was that good. "It doesn't matter much if he doesn't develop a good curve with an arm like that." Hypnotized by the batting power Hartung showed in exhibition play, he cast him as an outfielder despite his defensive problems, starting him in right field on opening day.
Hartung the starting outfielder lasted approximately a week, his defensive problems so pronounced that Ott pulled the plug after seven games. Now, Ott said, Hartung was a pitcher. At first, this looked brilliant. He made his pitching debut in relief against the Braves in early May, throwing six shutout innings, allowing just two hits, and striking out five. Five days later, the tyro made his starting debut, pitching 5
Results after that were inconsistent but encouraging. On August 21, he pitched seven no-hit innings against the Pirates, walking four, until Jimmy Bloodworth reached with a single in the eighth. In the ninth, he gave up a solo shot to Frankie Gustine. He also went 2-for-3 with a home run at the plate. When the season had finished, Hartung had gone 9-7 in 23 games, 20 of them starts, albeit with a below-average 4.57 ERA (league average was 4.07), and below-average strikeout and walk rates. In 97 plate appearances, the "Hondo Hurricane" batted .309/.330/.543 with four home runs.
If this wasn't the projected second coming of Babe Ruth, pitcher and hitter extraordinaire, at least it looked good. Unfortunately, Hartung's was one of those cases where exposure to the actual ballplayer showed the truths that the stats concealed. As a hitter, he lacked plate judgment and had trouble with breaking balls. On the mound, the reason for his poor pitching rates was that Hornsby's assessment was wrong-Hartung couldn't get by without off-speed stuff. As Leo Durocher, who became Hartung's manager midway through the 1948 season, observed during 1949's spring training, "Hartung can become a very effective pitcher if we can teach him one new delivery such as a change of pace, a curve, or some kind of trick pitch to mix up with his regular fast ball. There were days last summer when Hartung looked almost unbeatable. That was when his fast ball and control were working together. But he doesn't always have those kinds of days."
That wasn't a new thought; the Giants had recognized the problem right away, and during the 1948 training season, former big-league starter Dutch Ruether, who thrived on his curveball, was brought into camp to tutor Hartung on his secondary offerings. He failed. Hartung opened the season in the bullpen, then was shifted to the starting rotation in May. Though he had some solid starts, shutting out the Reds in late July and blanking the Phillies in early September, the overall results were mediocre, with another high ERA and a decaying strikeout rate. Worse, with no secondary pitches to fall back on, batters were timing his fastball and launching it, blasting 15 home runs in 153
Durocher, who made more extensive use of his full pitching staff than did most managers of his day, struggled to find a role for the expensive acquisition. Hartung made 25 starts in 1949 as The Lip tried to establish the back end of his ration, but his control suffered further decay, his walk rate now reaching five per nine innings in a league that averaged 4.6, and though he opened the season by going 4-1 in his first five decisions, he slipped to 5-10 the rest of the way as batters again caught up to him. His hitting was again negligible, with .190/.239/.381 rates in 67 PAs, though he did manage to hit four home runs.
That power intrigued Durocher, especially since Hartung's pitching career was going down the drain. In 1950 he started just eight games and relieved in 12 more, walking 44 in 65
After the 1951 season, Hartung was sent down to Minneapolis. He hit .334 with 23 home runs, and the Giants called him back up for the '52 stretch drive as they tried to win a close race with the Dodgers. They had an outfield problem, the draft having claimed Willie Mays 34 games into the season. Given the most plate appearances he would receive outside of his rookie year, Hartung didn't hit, and the Giants faded. He was returned to the minors the next year, and though he played through 1955, and starred in semi-pro ball thereafter, he never returned to the bigs.
Hartung is little remembered today, brought up only in the context of busted prospects. In 1947, he had told Time magazine, "I've made no promises and I've got nothing to live up to. Those sport writers will probably forget about me after I strike out a few times." How right he was.