Sunday, July 27, 2014

Billy Williams (#315)

Billy Williams was one of the Cubs’ 3 key position players (along with Ernie Banks and Ron Santo) all through the 1960s.

Williams was signed by the Cubs in 1956, and played in the minors for all of 1956-58 and most of 1959 and 1960. Billy made his big-league debut in August 1959, and played in 18 games over the final 2 months of the season. He also appeared in 12 games for the Cubs during late-September 1960.

Billy made the Cubs for good at the start of the 1961 season, and took over the left field duties from the tandem of Ernie Banks (!) and Richie Ashburn. Beginning on June 26th, Williams started the final 100 games in left field. He clubbed 25 homers as a rookie, and won the NL Rookie of the Year award, with 10 of the 16 votes.

He made his first 3 all-star squads early in his career (’62, ’64, and ’65), another in ’68, then two more times late in his career (’72, ’73). Williams hit over .300 five times, including a career-high .333 in 1972, which led the National League. He also led the league in runs (137) and hits (205) in 1970.

Billy was the Cubs’ regular left fielder from 1961 to 1964, then after 2 seasons in right field he returned to his familiar left field post from 1967 to 1973, although he worked in 19 starts at 1st base in ’73. The following season (at age 36) he split his time 60/40 between 1st base and left field.

After the 1974 season, he was traded to the Athletics for pitchers Darold Knowles and Bob Locker, and 2nd base prospect Manny Trillo. Williams spent his final 2 seasons in Oakland as their designated hitter.

In ’75 he also started 5 games at 1st base, but was strictly the DH (and occasional pinch-hitter) in 1976. However, he did play 2 innings in left field that season (on August 27th, for old-times’ sake I guess). Billy played in the ALCS in 1975, but never made it to the World Series in his 18 seasons.

Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. The Cubs retired his #26 the same year.

Billy was well-known for playing almost every game for 8 to 10 years in the 1960s. I decided to research this to see if it was fact, folklore, or just an impression. From 1962 through 1973, Williams played in 1920 of the Cubs’ 1941 games, including 1117 consecutive games from 9/22/63 to 9/2/70.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Matty Alou (#10)

Matty Alou (the middle of the 3 Alou brothers) played the outfield for 15 seasons, mostly for the Giants and Pirates.

Alou was signed by the Giants in 1957, and played 4 seasons in the minors before making his major-league debut in the final week of the 1960 season, 2 ½ years after his brother Felipe joined the team.

Matty spent the next 4 seasons as the Giants’ 5th outfielder, behind Willie Mays, brother Felipe, whichever of Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey wasn’t playing 1st base, and the veteran Harvey Kuenn.

After Felipe was traded away following the 1963 season, it looked like things would open up for Matty, but his younger brother Jesus joined the team that year and jumped ahead of him in the outfield mix.

Not until 1965, when Cepeda missed most of the season to injuries and Kuenn moved on did Alou get a starting position. (Actually, he shared left field with Len Gabrielsen, but Matty’s time as a backup at the other 2 spots pushed him up to #3 in overall playing time.)

After the 1965 season, he was traded to the Pirates for pitcher Joe Gibbon and catcher Ozzie Virgil. Although Alou batted .310 and .292 in part-time duty in ’61 and ’62, it wasn’t until he got to Pittsburgh that his bat exploded (maybe due to the influence of manager Harry Walker?).

Alou was immediately installed as the Pirates’ center fielder, and collected over 575 plate appearances in each of his five seasons with the Pirates. His batting average soared, reaching .342 (NL best), .338 (2nd to Pete Rose), .332, .331, and .297 for those 5 seasons. Alou also made the all-star team in 1968 and 1969, and led the NL in hits (231), doubles (41), and plate appearances (746) in 1969.

Matty’s final games as a Pirate were in the 1970 NLCS. With young Al Oliver waiting in the wings, the Pirates dealt Alou while he was at the top of his game, sending him to the Cardinals (with pitcher George Brunet) for pitcher Nelson Briles and outfielder Vic Davalillo prior to the ’71 season.

Alou started 144 games for the Cardinals in 1971, dividing his time between center field and 1st base. The following season he was the primary first baseman (while also playing in right field) until his August trade to the Athletics. Matty finished out the rest of that season (including the ALCS and World Series) with Oakland, then was traded to the Yankees in the off-season.

Alou played most of 1973 with the Yankees, sharing the first base and right field starting assignments with his brother Felipe. In September Matty was sold back to the Cardinals, who flipped him to the Padres after the season.

Matty played 48 games for the Padres in 1974 before his release in mid-July. He then played in Japan from 1974 through 1976.

Alou passed away in November 2011 at age 72.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Orlando Pena (#449)

Orlando Pena (age 80) is the oldest living player from his era that I have not yet featured on my blogs. (This card has his birth year as 1935, but Baseball-Reference and Baseball-Almanac have it as 1933.)

He began his professional career in 1955, playing for the unaffiliated Daytona Beach Islanders in the class-D Florida State League for one year before he was acquired by the Cincinnati Reds. After a season in class-B ball, the Reds assigned him to their triple-A team in Havana, Cuba (his home country) for the next 2 years.

He made his major-league debut with 9 games in the final 5 weeks of the 1958 season. Pena played the entire 1959 season with the Reds, and was their #2 man in the bullpen in games and innings pitched, and 2nd in saves.

In 1960, Orlando was back in triple-A for most of 1960. He began the season in Havana, then the Reds moved the team to Jersey City, NJ due to the Cuban embargo. Pena also played 4 games with the Reds in the last half of September.

Pena began the 1961 season back in Jersey City, then was traded to the unaffiliated Toronto Maple Leafs in the triple-A International League in mid-July for pitcher Ken Johnson. After the season, Toronto (and Pena) became part of the Milwaukee Braves’ organization.

After spending all of 1961 and most of 1962 in the minors, Orlando was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in August for pitcher (and future umpire) Bill Kunkel.

Pena joined the Athletics and made 12 starts and 1 relief appearance over the final 2 months of the season. Pena was a starter for Kansas City during the '63 and '64 seasons, winning 12 games each season, but leading the AL with 20 losses in 1963.

After moving on to the Tigers in June 1965, Pena reverted back to his role as a reliever. With Detroit, he appeared in 30 games in 1965 and 54 games in 1966, all in relief.

After only 2 appearances, Orlando was sold to the Indians in May 1967 and was the Tribe's closer, pitching in 48 games and collecting a team-high 8 saves.

Pena spent the next 2 seasons in the minors, with the Indians', Pilots', and Royals' organizations. The Royals released him during spring training 1970, and it took until mid-June for him to catch on with another team. He worked out of the Pirates’ bullpen for 2 months, until getting his 2nd release of the year in late August.

Orlando played most of 1971 and all of 1972 in the Orioles’ farm system. He pitched 5 games for the O's in mid-season 1971, and another 11 games at the start of the 1973 season.

The Cardinals purchased his contract in June 1973, and he pitched 42 games for them in 1973 and another 42 games in 1974, until his trade to the Angels in September.

Pena wrapped up his career with 11 games in 1975. The Angels released him 4 days after his final game in early May.

In 1979 and at age 45, Pena pitched 1 game for the Miami Amigos in the short-lived Inter-American League.