Friday, January 22, 2016

History Lesson: Donn Clendenon

On this date in 1969 the Astros and Expos announced a trade that would send Rusty Staub to the brand new Montreal Expos in exchange for Donn Clendenon and Jesus Alou. Clendenon never played for the Astros. 

A little background, though. For eight seasons, Clendenon had been a stalwart in the Pirates lineup since getting nine games in 1961 and then batting mostly in the #3-spot. He only played in 80 games in 1962, but hit .302/.376/.477 and coming in 2nd for the NL Rookie of the Year, behind the Cubs’ Ken Hubbs. Hubbs, who was also the first rookie to ever win a Gold Glove that year, received 19 of the 20 1st Place votes despite hitting .260/.299/.346 in 160 games. Clendenon was the only other player to receive a vote. From 1963 to 1968 Clendenon played in 893 games, hitting .278/.329/.441, leading the league in strikeouts twice.

Four days before the 1968 season started Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. When Clendenon was attending Morehouse University in Atlanta, Dr. King – a Morehouse alum and a friend of the Clendenon family - served as a “big brother” to Clendenon, helping him adjust to life at Morehouse and inviting Clendenon and other freshmen to his house for dinner.

The 1968 Pirates had eleven black players on their Opening Day roster, and news of Dr. King’s assassination hit the team hard, not least of all Clendenon. The team held two meetings to plan a response, resulting in an effort to cancel the final Spring Training game on Sunday as well as postpone Monday’s Opening Day game and Tuesday, April 9.

“We feel we cannot play these games out of respect for Dr. King, since we have the largest representation of Negroes in baseball on the Pirates,” Clendenon told The Sporting News
Pirates GM Joe Brown cancelled the Spring Training game, but the first two games of the 1968 season were scheduled at the Astrodome, and the Astros – as the home team – had to agree to cancel the season opener. The Astros hesitated, which upset the Pirates players. They voted to not play the first two games.

Brown intervened and offered a compromise of postponing Monday’s and Tuesday’s games but playing one of those games on Wednesday, April 10, originally scheduled as a travel day. The players, influenced by Clendenon, agreed.

Clendenon would hit .257/.309/.399 in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. Considering the National League as a whole hit .243/.300/.341, it wasn’t a bad year. But he also struck out 163 times, leading to fans booing him repeatedly. The Pirates left the 32-year old unprotected in the Expansion Draft, and the Montreal Expos selected Clendenon with their 11th pick.

As the Hardball Times notes, the Expos really only wanted Clendenon in order to trade him, which they did on January 22, 1969, sending Clendenon and Jesus Alou to Houston for outfielder Rusty Staub. Staub, who had spent his entire career with the Colt .45s/Astros, hit .333 in 1967, led the league with 44 doubles, and earned the first of five consecutive All-Star awards. But in 1968 Staub took a step back, hitting .291/.373/.387.

The Astros would attempt to replace the 24-year old Staub with Clendenon’s power. They would also receive outfielder Jesus Alou, a 26-year old contact hitter who had struck out in only 23 of his 419 Plate Appearances in the 1968 season, but posted a 78 OPS+ in the Year of the Pitcher.
Clendenon attended a press conference, favorably noting the distance between Houston and his home in Atlanta. However, on February 28, five weeks before the start of the 1969 season, Clendenon announced his retirement from baseball and work as an executive for Scripto, Inc., a pen manufacturer.

Why? Hardball Times says he wasn’t happy in part with his contract and salary level; but he also did not want to play for Astros manager Harry Walker, “who had a bad reputation for dealing with black players.” Jimmy Wynn and Joe Morgan both wrote in their autobiographies that Walker was a racist. Morgan said Walker a “stupid people person,” and Wynn said he was either “the meanest man in the world or the most clueless baseball manager in baseball history.” Wynn would go on to say, “I had learned how to protect my soul from people who would despise me simply because of my skin color, but I had not yet learned how to keep my mind safe from people who wanted to make me over in their own image.” Having already played for Walker in Pittsburgh, Clendenon didn’t want a second stint.

In the past, a retiring player would void the trade, which is exactly the Astros desperately wanted. But the Expos had already started to market Staub, who had already learned how to speak French and whose red hair led to his nickname as “Le Grand Orange.”

Clendenon was summoned to meet with newly-elected commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Houston owner Roy Hofheinz, and Montreal owner Charles Bronfman. Arthur Harris, the president of Scripto was there, as well, but was not allowed to speak. Harris later told Clendenon that Hofheinz threatened to buy Scripto and then fire both Harris and Clendenon.

Kuhn ultimately allowed Staub to report to Montreal and Alou to report to Houston, but he told the Astros and Expos to restructure the deal without Clendenon. On April 8 the Expos sent two pitchers – Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn – and $100,000 to Houston to complete the deal.

Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who was working for Kuhn at the time, met with Clendenon at his family restaurant and helped change his mind about retirement, which included a $14,000 raise from the Expos.

But Clendenon had not reported to Spring Training and showed up for the 1969 season out of shape. He had only played in 38 games by the middle of June when Clendenon, hitting .240/.272/.395, was sent to the Mets, who were eight games behind the Cubs and struggling on offense.

A revitalized Clendenon took over the first base job for manager Gil Hodges, and he would hit .252/.321/.455, hitting 12 home runs in his final 72 games as the Miracle Mets chased down the Cubs and won the Pennant. Hodges sat Clendenon against the righty-heavy Braves and started him against the Orioles in the World Series. Clendenon hit three home runs on his way to help the Mets upset the Orioles and win the World Series MVP.

Jesus Alou would go on to play the next four seasons in Houston, hitting .280/.310/.363, drawing his customary low-strikeout (67) low-walk (56) rates in 1520 plate appearances. He would finish his career in 1978 and 1979 back with the Astros before retiring following the 1979 season.
In three seasons with the Astros, Jack Billingham went 29-32 with a 3.75 ERA/1.30 WHIP. After going 10-16 in 1971, the Astros shipped Billingham along with Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke, and Ed Armbrister to Cincinnati for three players in what has been called the worst trade in Astros history.

Skip Guinn only threw 31.2IP for the Astros in 1969 and 1971, spending the entire 1970 season in Double-A Oklahoma City. He never played in the majors again.

Clendenon’s actions showed other players that they had more leverage than previously thought, and a direct line can be drawn from Clendenon to Curt Flood’s refusal to report to Philadelphia, setting off one of the greatest court battles in baseball history and leading to free agency.

Sources/Essential Reading:
Hardball Times
SABR Bio Project
NY Times Obituary

This post has been updated to remove all traces of me being a ninny and trying to say the Pirates won the World Series in 1961. They won it in 1960, not 1961.