Thursday, October 29th, 2020

Lou Piniella: The Early Years

July 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Baseball History, Baseball Writing

To be with his ailing mother, Lou Piniella has announced his retirement, effective immediately.  He’s been involved in Major League Baseball for nearly 50 years and has done it all: long minor league career; even longer Major League career; player/coach; manager; general manager; manager again; broadcaster; manager again.  He won the World Series on his first try, but has had a remarkable lack of playoff success over the last decade.  His name is synonymous with baseball terms like “professional hitter”, “firebrand”, “argumentative” and “gutsy”.

The eulogies that have been written by top sportswriters mostly reflect on Lou’s managerial career, such as this one by Yahoo! Sport’s Jeff Passan.  Others, such as this one by Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago,  focus on the disappointment in his final tenure in Chicago.  His recent and bizarre public spat with broadcaster Steve Stone made Lou look out of his element, past his prime.

What impresses me the most, however, is that when you go back to the words written about Lou in the 1960s, before made his name, how much all of his baseball acumen and physical talent shines through.

Well, not in every source.   The April 1963 issue of Baseball Digest , in a feature on “How Big Leaguers Pronounce Names”, proudly informs us that it’s pronounced  “pin-YELLA”.  Not a great opening act.

But check out the scouting report on Lou in the March 1964 Baseball Digest  That is, check it out if you’re not too busy checking out the fabulous early ’60s team logos, or the then-fascination with the ethnic origin of each rookie prospect (Scotch-Irish, Spanish, French-German, and “Negro”… and that’s just on page 107 alone!).

Second in total bases with 255 in the Car[olina Class] A loop.  Hit .310-143g for Peninsula.  77-RB[I].  Second pro year.  Drafted from Cleveland crop [a] year ago.  […] Has everything — arm, bat, running.  Best prospect in Carolina League.  Got good bonus.  A comer.

What gets me most about this is not how well the scout nailed Piniella’s talent even at 19.  No… what gets me is that this scouting report, written during the 1963-1964 offseason, was for the Washington Senators.  But by the time the 1964 season was in the books, Lou was no longer a Senator — he was an Oriole.  The “best prospect” in Class A who had “everything” couldn’t even stay in the Senators farm system.  Washington traded him to Baltimore for the immortal Buster Narum, who lost 15 games in ’64 and whose own MLB career was over long before Lou debuted in the Show.

Actually the Senators’ outfield in 1964 was pretty solid by league standards: Chuck Hinton, Don Lock, Jim King, who hit 57 homers between them.  But the fourth outfielder that year was Fred Valentine (.226 BA), about whom the same issue of Baseball Digest said: “On the way down.  Only a [Triple-A] player”.  Lou couldn’t beat him out for a job?

These are Lou’s career minor league stats.  His minor league career was longer than the major league careers of some All-Stars.  After the glowing review in early ’64 he played only 20 games for Baltimore’s single-A affiliate, likely due to some sort of injury.  But he made Double-A in ’65 and then spent three full years in the Indians’ AAA system.  In 1967 he hit .308 with a .424 slugging percentage for Portland in the Pacific Coast League.  In March 1968, Baseball Digest  said that Lou “Needs at least a year’s experience but his power at bat is worth looking into.”

By March ’69, the scouts said “Can put wood to the ball” but “Must improve fielding”.  This was written with Lou as a Seattle Pilot — his fourth franchise before even getting his first big league hit (he was hitless in very brief cups of coffee with the O’s in ’64 and the Tribe in ’68).

As we know from Jim Bouton’s seminal Ball Four, however, Lou didn’t remain with the Pilots very long.  He made too much noise in spring training, but he made a definite impression on Bouton, no shrinking violet himself.

In a passage about his reluctance to join in a potential players’ strike in the ’69 preseason, Bouton wrote:

I reached Lou in Florida and he said that his impulse was to report, that he was scared it would count against him if he didn’t, that he was just a rookie looking to make the big leagues and didn’t want anybody to get angry at him.  But also that he’d thought it over carefully and decided that he should support the other players and the strike.  So he was not reporting.

That impressed the hell out of me.  Here’s a kid with a lot more at stake than I, a kid risking a once-in-a-lifetime shot.  And suddenly I felt a moral obligation to the players.  I decided not to go down.

Here we see Piniella here as a still-young minor league lifer, whose sense of intelligence and clarity had a real effect on Bouton, a 30 year-old big league vet who was fighting to come back after injuries derailed his own stardom.

Later in Ball Four we get a hint of how Lou’s temper perhaps kept him in the minor leagues longer than he should have been, when the Fred Valentines of the world were taking up valuable roster space.

I overheard Lou Piniella having a heated discussion with [Pilots manager] Joe Schultz and, nosy as I am, I asked him what it was about.  Piniella said that a couple of players had heard Joe tell a sportswriter yesterday that if Piniella couldn’t throw any better than he was throwing he wouldn’t make the club.  Lou said his arm had bothered him last year and he just wanted to nurse it this spring.  I can understand why he was upset.  He’s only been here two weeks and that’s not enough time to get your arm ready or for them to decide that someone could make the club or not make it.  It’s ridiculous, particularly since Lou hit .300 last year with a Triple-A club and he was one of their $175,000 draftees.  Sounds like somebody up there wants to unload Lou Piniella.

Bouton for one knew it was a mistake for the Pilots to unload Piniella, and he was right as Piniella wound up American League Rookie of the Year that year.  Seattle, without Lou, wound up moving to Milwaukee.

Like we all knew Piniella would be canned and it happened today.  He was traded to Kansas City for Steve Whitaker and John Gelnar, a pitcher.  It was a giveaway.  Bound to happen, though.  Lou wasn’t their style.

Seattle was wrong.  For another 40 years after the Pilots dumped him, Lou was pretty much everybody’s style.

Books on Pinella

Sweet Lou: Lou Piniella a Life in Baseball by Melissa Isaacson — Chicago Tribune reporter Melissa Isaacson explores Piniella’s background, his parents, friends, and roots in Tampa that explain his famous hot-headedness and reveal a down-to-earth family man. Along the way, she chronicles Piniella’s ascension to become the beloved skipper of the Chicago Cubs who immediately set his sights on his sixth pennant and the possibility of leading the Cubs to a world championship. Isaacson also examines Piniella’s life outside of baseball, revealing a multifaceted and highly active businessman. A chapter devoted to the famous temper relives some of the stories that have made him the bane of umpires around both leagues. Sweet Lou is a riveting and enjoyable portrayal of a consummate competitor and controversial larger-than-life baseball personality whose full impact on the game has yet to be measured.

Sweet Lou and the Cubs: A Year Inside the Dugout by George Castle — [Amazon Book Review] “Sweet Lou and the Cubs: A Year Inside the Dugout” is a great way to greet the new 2009 baseball season. George Castle goes back in history and follows Lou Piniella from his playing days up to the end of the 2008 Cubs season, and along the way we get an insight into both the man and the sport he loves. There are also some great stories that feature several Cubs players, and a look at a season that had so much promise but ended with so much heartache. This is a great read for those of us who love baseball, love the Cubbies, and love the characters that make it great, like Piniella.

Living the Dream: An Inside Account of the 2008 Cubs Season by Jim McArdel — [Amazon Book Review] wrote this book from a unique point of view–he worked for the Cubs for 12 years, and quit his job in order to write this book–yet he remained friends with many players and staffers at the Cubs, and had great access behind the scenes. However, where the book really shines is not behind the scenes, but out in the bleachers, in the neighborhood, and on the rooftops. McArdle tells the stories of many Cubs fans, including himself, one by one, making human characters out of many of the bleacher regulars and other faithful fans. In addition, this is one of the best books about the Wrigleyville neighborhood, telling the recent history of each building on Waveland and Sheffield. It’s great stuff. Tim Wiles, Cooperstown, NY


2 Responses to “Lou Piniella: The Early Years”
  1. Phil Tobin says:

    Did Lou play for the Portland Beavers in the late 50’s early 60’s……I remember my father taking me to a Beavers game when I was a kid and I remember the fans screaming LOU LOU LOU??????

  2. Jason Miller says:

    Yes, he played for them (as a Cleveland Indians affiliate) from 1966 through 1968.

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