March 7, 2012
The BP Wayback Machine
Don Mincher, Part 2
While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.
First baseman Don Mincher died on Sunday at age 73. In his memory, we're re-running David Laurila's two-part interview with him, which originally ran as a two-part "Prospectus Q&A" column on January and 11th and 12th, 2011.
In Part II, Don 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. You can view Part I here.
David Laurila: Who was the toughest pitcher you faced?
Don Mincher: Mickey Lolich. Left-hander with the Detroit Tigers. He was a star and a great pitcher. Not too many guys would answer Mickey Lolich when you asked them, but to me personally… he just had a delivery that was three-quarters, and I don’t know if I ever got a hit off him.
DL: According to Retrosheet, you got four [in 34 at-bats, with 17 strikeouts].
DM: He knew it and I knew it. He was really tough on me. The first guy that understood that sort of thing as a manager was Dick Williams. Every time I played for Dick Williams, and we’d go into Detroit, and Denny McLain was pitching—whoever was pitching—I was playing. But when Mickey Lolich’s turn came, he called me into the office, Dick Williams did. He said, “Have you ever thought about your career against Mickey Lolich?” I said, “Well, of course I have.” He said, “Well I’m going tell you about your career” and he pulls out all these stats, and what have you, and he says “You can’t hit this guy so you’re not playing today.”
That’s the reason Oakland won all these games, because he’s the first manager I ever knew to keep those kind of stats, where he knew what every player did against every pitcher. It was just amazing. He was the first guy to really do that, and this was before computers. He did it all by hand. He knew what was going on long before these guys had figured it all out with computers. He did it back in those days and that is why he was so successful.
So, Mickey Lolich was the toughest pitcher I ever faced on an ongoing basis. My goodness, I faced him for 13 years. Toward the end of my career I didn’t play much against him, but he was tough.
DL: What was it like facing Sam McDowell?
DM: I had no problem with Sam McDowell, although, of course, he hit me one time and it cost me quite a few English days in the year of 1968. Sam McDowell was tough; he was hard. He threw hard. He had the best slider I ever saw. I had some success off of him, but he was very tough.
When he hit me… let me go through the scenario. We were in Cleveland for the opening series of the 1968 season, and I faced Sam McDowell for the first time with the bases loaded. He went to 3-2 on me and I’m thinking that on 3-2, with the bases loaded and Jim Fregosi hitting behind me—I think it was Jim, but I might be remembering wrong—he’s going to have to throw me a fastball strike. But he threw me a breaking ball that was unbelievable and I took it for strike three. My very next time up, in the same game, same scenario. It was bases loaded with two outs, and the count was 3-2. Sam McDowell was out there and I figured that if he did it once, he’s going to do it again. So I looked for the breaking ball and he hit me right in the face with a fastball. It just splattered my 1968 season.
But I have to tell you this: Sam felt a whole lot worse about it than I did. He was really sad about that. He came to see me in the hospital.
But as far as a pitcher, I know that all of our hitters dreaded Sam McDowell, because he had such a great slider. He threw hard, of course. But all the guys that threw hard—Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Sam McDowell; all of them, back in those days—they had their best days when they were able to throw their breaking balls over. And those guys had such great breaking balls. Nolan Ryan had a curveball that would go from top to bottom, and when he had that thing working, that’s when he pitched his no-hitters. When you’re throwing that thing up there 97 mph with a wicked breaking ball, you’re unhittable. But they couldn’t get it over at certain times, and when they didn’t, they weren’t as good.
I didn’t mind facing hard throwers at all. I mean, I’d rather have somebody throwing the ball 95, 96, 97 than have a little left-hander out there throwing breaking balls, screwballs, and be sneaky fast, and what have you. Most average-to-good hitters—today as well as in the old days—would much prefer somebody throwing hard, if they don’t have a good breaking ball, to someone that can just wear the corners out. A Greg Maddux type will just wear you out doing that. Catfish Hunter. Most guys would much rather face Nolan Ryan when he wasn’t getting his breaking ball over than a Greg Maddux. When you’re facing a Maddux or a Catfish Hunter, or some of the pitchers that I see on TV today, it just looks like you can never reach the ball. They’re always on the outside corner. Give me a guy who is throwing 97, but he’s throwing it over the middle of the plate, and I’m going to catch up to him sooner or later. That’s a reason that a lot of these guys nowadays are converted into closers. Through one turn at-bat, throwing the thing up there that fast, they’re successful. But you don’t want those guys to be seen for a third time at bat, because decent hitters will catch up to them sooner or later. I’ll guarantee you.
DL: In his Baseball Abstract, Bill James wrote, “Over a four-year period, I don’t know that any platoon player was ever more effective than Mincher from 1962 through 1965.” That said, did being platooned actually hurt your career?
DM: I think that it hurt me only in the sense that platooning [is] a different thing. Take Dick Williams for instance. He knew when to platoon. He knew the guys that were tough on left-handed hitters. He knew the Loliches and those kinds of guys. He would platoon against them. Now, on the other hand, Ted Williams would platoon just for the sake of platooning. That did hurt me, because there were certain left-handed pitchers that I could hit real well. I knew who they were, and not playing against those guys hurt my career. A good manager knows what certain hitters can do against certain pitchers, and therefore he platoons selectively. That’s what Dick Williams did. He knew when to platoon.
And sometimes hitters get into slumps; they just can’t do anything. So if you’ve got a tough pitcher out there, and he’s left-handed, it’s time to platoon. But you also need to know when a hitter is hot. A good manager knows; he can tell when a hitter is in that groove, and he knows that now isn’t the time to platoon a guy, you’ve got to play him. There were managers like that in my day. Today, most all of them have those stats in the back of their minds. They know what’s going on. A guy like Ted, he just platooned. He just figured that you couldn’t hit left-handers, so he sat you down against all of them. So in that aspect, yes, it did hurt my career somewhat.
Of course, it’s not too bad when you’re platooning with a Harmon Killebrew. I mean, I can’t blame a manager for that. I would, too.
DL: In 1963, you split time at first base with Vic Power, and despite having half as many plate appearances, you drew more walks and hit more than twice as many home runs. Did you feel that you should have been playing more?
DL: Well, yes I did. I felt that I should have been playing more. But I have to say this: if it wasn’t for Vic Power, I never would have been the defensive first baseman that I finally became. He taught me how to play first base. He played it very unusual—he had a very unusual style—but if you ask any of the old-timers who the best first baseman was that they ever saw, most of them would say it was Vic Power. He taught me how to play first base like no other guy ever taught me how.
Vic Power played because he could do a lot of things. First of all, he could play defense. He even played a few games at second base during that time; he and I played on the same side of the infield together. Second of all, he was a terrific hit-and-run hitter. In a hit-and-run situation, he never swung and missed. He either fouled it off or hit the ball where it was supposed to be hit. He was a good player. Yeah, he didn’t hit a whole lot of home runs, but he was an asset in a lot of ways.
Even so, there were certain times that [Twins manager] Sam Mele should have left me in the ballgame. I think that I should have been playing more, but that’s just a difference of opinion. I benefited from Vic Power being on my team, even though I think I should have been playing more, with Vic playing somewhere else. He could have played anywhere. He could have played second, he could have played third, he could have played wherever. From that aspect, yeah, I’d say it hurt me that year. At that time of my career, I was at the peak of my physical abilities to do things. I never could run, but I could run my best during those years. I certainly never got any stronger than I was in those years. But Vic Power was a pleasure to play with.
DL: What was your best season in the big leagues?
DM: Oh, gosh. You’d have to tell me that, David. Maybe it was 1965; I’m not sure. Actually, maybe it would be 1967 with the Angels. Probably. I had close to 30 home runs, and I had a lot of RBI. I played most all of the games. We had a good ball club and almost won the pennant with Jim Fregosi and Bobby Knoop, and those guys. PhilRigney was our manager. We had a good team the following year as well, when I got hit by McDowell and didn‘t play as much. But ’67, stat-wise, was probably the best year for me individually.
Of course, 1965 is a year I’ll never forget. We won the American League pennant; I was with Minnesota. I had a good year, although I can’t remember my stats off-hand. We took the Dodgers to seven games, and they beat us in the seventh game. Sandy Koufax was on the mound. With my career, if you ask me which one stands out, it would be 1965.
DL: In Game One of the 1965 World Series, you homered off of Don Drysdale. Where does that rate among your career highlights?
DM: High, and what I remember about that is the fact that Koufax was supposed to pitch. It just so happened that Yom Kippur fell on that day, and he wouldn’t pitch, so Drysdale pitched. My first time up, I was lucky enough to hit a home run. If there is one moment that I’m going to remember in my career, that was it. It was a home run in my first time up in the World Series.
The entire 1965 season was just a magical year. We won the first two games in the World Series, and it probably looked like we were going to blow the Dodgers away, but we went out to LA and they beat us three games in a row. We came back home and won Game Six, but they beat us in Game Seven. Regardless, even though I was with the world championship club in 1972, ‘65 is still the year I remember.
DL: Which was the better team, the 1965 Twins or the 1972 A’s?
DM: I would hate to try to put anybody above the ‘72 A’s. The ‘72 A’s had more talent, more speed, more pitching, more power, the best manager. That was probably the best club I ever saw, then or now. They were just outstanding. And in ‘73 and ‘74 they kept those guys together. Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Dick Green, KennyHoltzman, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue. It’s just very hard to imagine a club that’s any better. Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, Joe Rudi.
But as far as enjoyment and being close-knit, team-wise, ‘65 was very close. The ‘72 A’s, they fought among themselves. But when they walked between those lines, they were better than anybody I ever saw. They were the best club I ever saw.
DL: In the 1972 World Series, you had a pinch-hit single in what was to be the last at-bat of your career.
DM: Yeah, wasn’t that something? I’ll never forget it. We were trailing in the game and got something like three pinch-hits in a row, in the ninth inning, and mine was the one that tied the game. Of course, I was promptly pinch-run for, but my run is the one that won the game. What an exciting time that was. We were ecstatic and then we came back and won the whole thing against the Big Red Machine. We were all so happy. It was a glorious time.
I had some good friends on that team. Sal Bando was my roommate; my outstanding friend. Catfish Hunter, bless his heart; he was such a great friend. It was a good club, it really was. Dick Williams, like I said, was just an outstanding manager. He’s in the Hall of Fame for it, and he deserves to be. He was a great manager.
DL: Can you talk a little about the 1967 All-Star Game?
DM: I was in two All-Star Games, in ‘67 and in ‘69, and both times I pinch hit against [Bob] Gibson. In ‘67, I got a hit off of him. And if I’m not mistaken, Richie Allen hit a home run to win it in extra innings. [Editor’s note: Allen homered in the second inning; Tony Perez won the game with a home run in the 15thinning.]
Being selected to play in that game was unbelievable. All of a sudden you find yourself in a locker room with a clubhouse atmosphere that includes guys like [Carl] Yastrzemski and [Mickey] Mantle. Just to be with them and hear all of the camaraderie that was going on… and we were very serious about trying to win the game, too.
I didn’t start the game—I believe that Harmon started at first base—but I knew that sooner or later I’d get a chance to hit. Sure enough, it ended up being against Gibson and I got a base hit into left-center field. That was quite a thrill; it really was. It’s just one of those things that you never forget.
There are a lot of things I have forgotten from all of the years I played up there, but the two All-Star Games, and the World Series, and the opening days… there were certain days of watching Mantle play, and the grace of [Hank] Aaron. Watching Willie Mays play, for goodness sake. Sometimes I have to sit back and think, “Did that really happen to me?” It was so many years ago, but the records are there to prove it. I’ve got the write-ups; I’ve got the pictures to prove it. I was actually there, and to tell that to my grandkids now, to tell them what it was like… my life is wonderful. To be able to share those things is wonderful.
In 2005, my whole family—14 of us—went to a reunion in Minnesota for the ‘65 team. To relive those years, and have them see where I played, and enjoy the reunion with all those players coming back… it was just unbelievable. My grandkids, and my kids, got to see what I experienced. Of course, it was in a different stadium. I liked the old [Metropolitan] stadium where we played, rather than enclosed thing they had up there then. But the atmosphere was great. People remembered the ‘65 Twins, and our kids just had a great time.
DL: Objectively, how good of a player were you?
DM: I was above average. I was a semi star. I think that anybody who hits 200 home runs in the big leagues can consider himself successful, because there are a lot of guys who did not do that. My reputation was good. I never had a teammate—to my knowledge—that ever had anything bad to say about me. I got along well with people. I was a player rep on most of the teams I played with.
I generally loved my career, and think that I was a good player. I think that for any club that I played with, I was a positive influence, both on the field and off the field. For that I am very proud. I have guys today—and there are fewer and fewer of them, by the way; I had three close ones die last year—but our memories are positive ones. Every one of them. I look back and those are my glory days, David. Like I said, sometimes I ask myself, ‘Did that really happen to me?” and I am glad to say, “Yes.”
Of course, I’ll never be in the Hall of Fame. I know that. Most guys who played the game won’t be, either, but I think that most guys I played with would say that I was a good player. I’m very proud of that.
DL: Any final thoughts?
DM: I’d just like to mention that I’m still in the game of baseball. I’m president of the class Double-A Southern League. This is my 11th year in this job. So I’m still close to the game, and I get to see a lot of these young kids playing our game. Even at 72 years old, and chasing 73, I’m still in touch with the game. That’s the good part.
The sad part is that I’m always reading about guys that I played against, and absolutely adored—I thought they were the kings of the world—passing along. Like Mickey [Mantle] passed on. Everybody is going to leave this earth. But all of these guys that I played against… the more and more I see them leaving us… that’s the sad part.
I choose to enjoy the memories. And not to congratulate myself—I wouldn’t use that word—but I’m proud to have been in the major leagues for all those years. I am a proud human being. Baseball is all I’ve ever done, David. It has been my life ever since I was 17 years old. Now I’m 72. It’s all I’ve ever done, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and it’s been quite a run for me. I’m proud of it.