“Don’t forget to swing hard, in case you hit the ball.”
That was the theory of hitting espoused by Woodie Held, one of those rare major leaguers more famous for a great quote than any on-field accomplishments.
When Joseph McBride cited Held’s quote in his book High and Inside, he surmised that the line would cause people to remember Held long after they’d forgotten his .240 career batting average.
True enough. During an otherwise forgettable Braves telecast in the mid-’80s, announcer John Sterling suddenly cited Held’s theory of hitting out of the clear blue. Truly, that’s all I remember from that telecast. And I had to think hard to recall Held.
Most of Held’s career was equally forgettable. While he did have his moments on the field, his career was actually more interesting due to events that occurred off it.
Held came to mind last Thursday, with news of his passing. He was 77, and the cause was brain cancer. He died on his ranch in Dubois, Wyo.
Held played from ‘57 through ‘69, though he did have a three at-bat “look-see” with the Yankees in 1954. He managed to pack service with seven teams into his 13-year career. He won a World Series ring with the Orioles in 1966, though he didn’t see any Series action.
He achieved his greatest notoriety with the Indians. Playing shortstop primarily, he hit 29 home runs in 1959, and followed that with seasons of 21, 23, 19, 17 and 18. No other Indians shortstop ever hit 20 home runs in a season until the incumbent, Jhonny Peralta, came along. Peralta also broke Held’s club record of 85 career home runs while playing shortstop.
In fact, Held’s aversion to ground balls eventually resulted in his relocation to the outfield. Still, he played more career games at short than any other position.
It would be a stretch to proclaim Held the prototype for the modern, power-hitting shortstop in the mold of Cal Ripken, Jr,, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, or Miguel Tejada.
But Held played in an era when shortstops were quick little guys who hit leadoff and stole bases. Think Luis Aparicio, Zoilo Versalles, Maury Wills, Leo Cardenas, or Chico Carrasquel.
When Held hit those 29 homers in ‘59, the rest of the starting American League shortstops combined for 35. Don Buddin of the Red Sox was second with 10.
Held also went against the grain with his lack of speed. He stole 14 bases in his career, an average of one per season.
And he paid the price for his 179 career home runs. He amassed 944 career strikeouts. In 4,019 career at bats, Held struck out once every 4.26 at bats. Swing hard, you bet.
Those strikeouts often ignited Held’s temper. He once hurled a batting helmet, hitting Indians manager Joe Gordon. But off the field, he was a likeable guy.
“Woodie never made an enemy,” Indians legend Bob Feller told Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“What a great guy,” added teammate Rocky Colavito. “He never said a bad word about anyone.”
Teammate Terry Francona, Sr. told Russell Schneider of the Plain Dealer, “Woodie was one of the nicest guys I ever played with.”
Another teammate, Minnie Minoso, added this to a blog at cleveland.com: “Woodie, you were a great teammate, a man of the community and a wonderful role model for the kids, back when players were just working stiffs who had to have a passion for the game. Rest in peace, amigo.”
Current Indians vice-president Bob DiBiasio told Schneider that Held was “a fun-loving man who really looked forward to fantasy camp, not only to have fun back on the diamond, but rekindle his relationships with his old teammates.”
Small wonder that Held was named one of the Indians top 100 players of all time in 2001. Not so much for being a great player, but for being a great teammate.
Similarly, Held made most of his news off the field. On June 15, 1957, he was traded by the Yankees to the A’s, along with Billy Martin, Ralph Terry and Bob Martyn, for Ryne Duren, Jim Pisoni, Milt Graff and Harry Simpson.
Martin had to be dealt after the famous brawl at the Copacabana night club in New York. Martin was expendable; two other combatants, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, were not.
Duren, famous for his terrible eyesight, would delight manager Casey Stengel by strolling in from the bullpen and hurling his first warm-up pitch over the backstop. Terry would go back to the Yankees and serve up Bill Mazeroski’s home run to end the 1960 World Series.
Simpson was the famous “Suitcase” Simpson, a native of Dalton, who played for no fewer than 17 teams during his professional career. Stengel once called him the best defensive right fielder in the American League.
Exactly one year later, Held was traded to Cleveland, along with Vic Power, for Preston Ward, Dick Tomanek and Roger Maris.
Power was Held’s opposite. He played a power position, first base, with minimal power. He often hit leadoff, and once stole home twice in a single game. Power was also a flashy fielder who seldom struck out.
According to an oft-told story, while playing for Syracuse in 1951, Power entered a restaurant only to be told, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.”
“That’s OK,” replied Power, “I don’t eat colored people. I just want rice and beans.”
And you might recall Roger Maris. A power hitter.
Just like Woodie Held.