A cynic is probably right in saying we only care about these people when they produce for us: hit home runs etc. I'm not quite that cynical.
It has been my pleasure to write posts about several of the early Minnesota Twins ballplayers. I hope these posts get noticed by kindred souls, around age 60 like me, for whom the memories are priceless. The Minnesota Twins came into being to accommodate the "baby boom." That's me. We came to take the team for granted, unfortunately. From 1961 through 1967, I can safely say we fully appreciated this asset.
Life on an even keel
Earl Battey was a pillar of those heady early days. In contrast to the athletes who have those drastic ups and downs, or who have to overcome personal shortcomings, Mr. Battey was a model citizen. We might consider his life boring, and that's a compliment from yours truly. Eventually the years of playing catcher took a toll on his body - quite unavoidable. But he really was a durable man. He was also held back at the end by a thyroid condition. He put on weight because of that health issue. It wasn't because of a lapse in self-discipline.
So he exited from the game, leaving behind a tapestry of memories for us boomers. He was a rock behind the plate. He was a fully established major leaguer when the Twins came to Minnesota. While youngsters developed around him, he was the hardened, proven, guaranteed-not-to-tarnish backstop, feared by opposing baserunners and capable of wielding a potent bat. He caught those curve balls thrown by Camilo Pascual. In the batting order he complemented the likes of Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva.
Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington was the showcase. I still remember the Frosty Malts there. I remember the look on Battey's face when he came right toward me once, trying to catch a foul pop behind home plate. He was a big part of our pennant-winning team in 1965.
It has been written that Battey "took it personally" when runners took long leads. His arm was like a gun when he picked off 13 runners from first and third bases in 1963. Our nation was still in "Camelot" for the summer of '63. JFK was still president, destined to meet his tragic fate in November of that year.
A famous photo of Battey has him shaking hands with JFK before the start of an all-star game. It's symbolic in a way, this photo showing this very obvious African-American being honored with a handshake from the nation's most powerful man, a man sort of like a Greek god, actually. The '60s were a time of steady civil rights strides - let's not pretend it happened suddenly. A sense of racial separation still pervaded around many parts of the U.S. in 1963.
Earl Battey grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles CA. Remember the Watts riots?
I feel a bond with the iconic Twins catcher as I realize he considered a career in journalism as a teen. He learned to speak Spanish. The Senators-turned-Twins had several Latin pitchers, so the Spanish fluency was quite helpful. His mother was an accomplished fastpitch softball player.
Adjusting to the climate: no problem
Battey became starting catcher for the Senators who were destined to come to the cold reaches of Minnesota. The Los Angeles native had no problem becoming a year-round resident of the Twin Cities. The Senators were transformed into the Twins in 1961, the year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.
Battey worked in public relations for General Mills in the off-season. He experienced two broken cheekbones due to getting hit by pitch. In Jimmie Hall's case, this type of injury led to speculation that he went into decline, but it's purely speculation. The lefthanded-batting Jimmie never did hit lefthanders well. No speculation of this type is heard about the resilient Battey, who wore a special batting helmet starting in 1962. Such helmets are common today.
Battey also suffered from mangled fingers which can be attributed to the physical punishment of playing catcher. Considering this adversity, Battey hit remarkably well, especially in 1963. He batted .285, hit 26 home runs and drove in 84 runs in '63, when "Camelot" still enveloped us. The mid-1960s would bring the tragedy of the Viet Nam War to the forefront. Still we "escaped" to enjoying baseball, and Battey continued as a high-profile part of it.
Kids my age didn't have power to get the U.S. out of Viet Nam, even though we spoke loudly about it, and we came to be known as rabble-rousing ingrates. "America, love it or leave it." Balderdash. Turns out we were right!
The Twins excelled but we couldn't catch up to the dynastic New York Yankees. Those were the days of no divisional playoffs. You either won the pennant or you went home. We won 91 games in '63 but we were 15 1/2 games behind Mickey Mantle's Yankees. Sigh. The '64 season was a mystery because many of the iconic Twins turned in fine numbers, but we finished in a lowly tie for sixth place. Battey hit .272 in '64 with 12 home runs and 51 RBIs in 131 games.
Remember his backup in those days? There's a trivia challenge, but I'm sure many of you do remember: It was the famously weak-hitting Jerry Zimmerman, a likable guy who handled the glove just fine but had trouble hitting his weight. Kids like me were rather uncharitable in describing these backup players, calling them "scrubs" etc. We realize now all those players were superb athletes.
Battey catches for pennant-winner
Bring on 1965! Battey received the most all-star votes by an American League player for the 1965 All-Star Game. That '65 showcase was played here at "the Met." He was one of six Twins to appear in the All-Star Game. The others: Zoilo Versalles, Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Hall, "Mudcat" Grant and Tony Oliva.
We won the pennant in that fabled summer. Pinocchio was a real boy! Battey struggled some in the '65 World Series but he was up against the likes of Sandy Koufax and Claude Osteen. He batted .120 in that Series which we lost in seven games. That Game 7 loss still haunts me. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Walt Alston had to adjust his pitching rotation so Koufax could observe a Jewish holiday!
Time marches on. The 1966 season was bittersweet for the Twins. We arguably did fine, finishing second in the ten-team league. Still, we weren't in a confetti-throwing mood. Many Twins had dropoffs in their stats. Battey's average was a most mortal .255. He played in just 115 games. Still he was voted to the all-star team - a testament to his well-earned reputation. We finished nine games behind the Baltimore Orioles who had acquired Frank Robinson. Robinson won the triple crown.
The 1967 season was Battey's last, as he was beginning to deal with that unfortunate thyroid condition. I remember watching the venerable catcher step up to bat looking quite burly. I wasn't aware of the health issue. The 1967 season was the absolute definition of heartbreak for us Twins fans. We were edged out for the pennant by Boston at the very end. Perhaps I developed an attitude of defeatism, due to both this and the Game 7 loss in 1965. "What's the use?"
Truth be told, many fans my age had an unhealthy emotional attachment to our favorite big league team. For me, this malady reached an end with the '94 big league season and the players' strike. I have never viewed baseball the same since. Lest there be any doubt, the PED scandals have pretty well wiped out my residual baseball interest.
The seasons just come and go now. No longer do I embrace Twins players in anything like the amazement I felt as an adolescent fan.
I still cherish those memories. It's true that players weren't treated as well or paid as well as they should have been, in those old days. Still, they seem mostly to have "landed on their feet" in their post-playing days.
More than a baseball player
Battey spent 12 years working in New York City as a recreation specialist with young disturbed boys. He took classes at Bethune-Cookman University and got his undergraduate degree in education. This fulfilled a promise he had made to his mother. He even coached the men's basketball team at the school! What a committed life. Compare all this to the course that Mickey Mantle's life took.
Battey became a high school teacher and baseball coach in Ocala FL. He became part of a charity program sponsored by Consolidated Edison whereby children were given free bleacher tickets to New York Yankees games.
Battey put on that headgear in that big baseball diamond in the sky in 2003. He died of cancer at age 68. What a career and what a life for this lad from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles! He played in 1,141 games in his 13-year career, playing the most physically punishing position. He had 969 hits, 104 home runs and 449 RBIs. He led the American League four times in assists and putouts, three times in baserunners caught stealing, and twice in caught-stealing percentage. His career fielding percentage was .990.
He was a four-time All-Star. He won three Gold Gloves. He threw out 43.44 percent of the baserunners who tried to steal a base on him - 15th on the all-time list. In 1961, the famed and fleet Luis Aparicio said Battey was the toughest catcher on which to try to steal a base. That really says it all.
Battey was named to the Twins' 40th Anniversary Team in 2000. In 2010 he was voted one of the 50 greatest Twins players.
But I remember him in that obscure moment when he had ripped off his mask and was going after that foul pop behind home plate. His face showed the kind of resolve and professionalism that marked his whole career. Frosty Malts are woven in with those memories.
Earl Battey, RIP.
A song I wrote about Tony Oliva has Earl Battey's name in the lyrics. Here's that line: "They called us baby boomers and we crowded through the gate, cheering Earl Battey crouched behind the plate." I invite you to listen to this song, from YouTube, by clicking on the link below. And, thanks so much for visiting my sites. - B.W.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org