Thursday, July 31, 2014

Card #84: Rennie Stennett

Who Can It Be Now?
Rennie Antonio (Porte) Stennett was born on April 5, 1951, in Colon, Panama.  Stennett said in an interview last fall (and if you have the time, watch this video -- Stennett is an engaging guy) that he did not get to play all that much baseball in Panama because it was always raining.  Indeed, Stennett said he was a better basketball player than he was a baseball player and, further, that he had a scholarship offer to play basketball at Cal-Berkeley.  

But, Stennett recognized that basketball was unlikely to provide him with a professional sports career because, after all, he was not even 6 feet tall.  As a result, when the Pittsburgh Pirates made him an offer to play baseball, he grabbed it and signed with the Pirates at the age of 18 in 1969. 

Pittsburgh assigned Stennett to Gastonia in the Western Carolinas League.  At the age of 18 and playing against guys who averaged being three years older than him, Stennett hit .288/.320/.389 with 9 steals.  The next year, Pittsburgh sent him to the Carolina League at Salem, again in Single-A, where he hit even better against even older talent -- .327/.359/.426.  Yes, he did not walk all that much, but he went up there and made good contact.  That year earned him a single game with Triple-A Columbus at the end of the year.

The next season in spring training, Stennett was hitting against the big league club and just tearing the cover off the ball.  The way Stennett tells the story, the GM or player personnel director was watching him hit and asked someone standing nearby what league Stennett played in.  When the answer was "A ball", the response was, "not any more.  He's going to Triple-A." He went to Charleston in 1971 and hit even better than he did in Single-A -- .344/.395/.486 with 10 triples, 6 steals, and 26 walks in 353 plate appearances.

Prior to being assigned to Triple-A, Stennett was playing outfield.  When he got to Triple-A, however, he was working with Pablo Cruz, a lifetime minor leaguer from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.  Cruz had seen Stennett play infield before, and told Stennett in Spanish that Stennett should go to the manager and ask to play second base.  He did that, and suddenly Stennett became a middle infielder.

His work in Triple-A in the first three months of the season earned him a call-up to Pittsburgh in July of 1971.  Stennett recalls that the reason he got his opportunity was that the team's regular keystone combination both had National Guard duty during that time of the Vietnam War, so the Pirates needed someone to fill in.  During that first season, Stennett started out pinch hitting a fair amount but then earned a regular spot at second base.  His batting average got as high as .413 on September 6 before a late season slump pushed him back down to .353/.377/.458 (he walked just 7 times) in 165 plate appearances.  While Stennett did not get to play in the 1971 World Series that the Pirates won, he was around a great team at the age of just 20 years old.

And that great team continued winning games and championships -- though usually failing in the NLCS.  The team won the NL East in 1972, 1974, and 1975, and each time the Pirates lost in the NLCS -- to Cincinnati, the Dodgers, and Cincinnati respectively.  Stennett frankly did not play all that well in those NLCS games -- just .196/.226/.196 in 54 plate appearances.  However, Stennett's emergence led the team to trade up-and-coming second base prospect Willie Randolph to the Yankees in 1975 in the big Doc Medich trade.

Things changed for the worse for Stennett in 1977, however.  He predicted in April of that year that he had not had his best year, and manager Chuck Tanner was pegging Stennett to be more of a team leader at the age of 26.  He was enjoying his best season in the major leagues -- .336/.376/.430, 28 SB (18 CS), 5 HR, 51 RBI -- until a fateful night on August 21, 1977 in Pittsburgh.  Stennett slid into second to break up a double play against the San Francisco Giants and came out of it with a dislocated ankle.

After the ankle injury, Stennett simply was never the same player again.  Multiple articles in 1978 and in 1979 about his ankle appeared.  He started getting upset about being asked about the ankle -- as anyone would -- but it hindered him.  He had an operation to set the ankle in 1977 and a second operation after the 1978 season to remove a pin (and a bone spur) from the ankle.  He still played most of 1979, but the Pirates tipped their hands as to what they planned to do moving forward in the 1979 post-season -- giving Stennett one at-bat against the Orioles and none against Cincinnati while Phil Garner played second base.

After the 1979 season, Stennett filed for free agency when the Pirates did not re-sign him. In stepped the San Francisco Giants, who made Stennett a Godfather offer -- a 5-year, $3-million contract ($650,000 a year when taking the $1-million bonus and deferred money into account).  But when he got to San Francisco, he was still the same flawed player that had emerged after the ankle surgeries in Pittsburgh -- no power, no speed, no average, and no walks make for a very bad baseball player.  

As a result, after spring training in 1982 and less than halfway in to the big contract, the Giants decided that they would rather pay Stennett not to play for them instead of paying him to take up a roster spot.  Stennett was released.  

He played for Reynosa in the Mexican League in 1982 after a brief tryout back in Pittsburgh, and then hooked on with the Montreal Expos for 1983.  He played in Triple-A for three months but quit when the Expos did not call him up to the big club after two months as they had promised.  The Expos offered him a player-coach role, but he refused that and moved to Florida (where his wife is from) to retire.

In 1989 at the age of 38, Stennett tried out with the Pirates in spring training.  He claimed in his interview with that he hit .500 that spring -- I can't find stats for spring training from 25 years ago, so I can't verify that -- but that the Pirates still cut him.  He played in the senior league after that, but his MLB career was over after his appearance in 1981 with the Giants.

Mustache Check: It's there, it's real, and it's wonderful.

Nanu Nanu
This card is Stennett's last regular issue Topps card.  Stennett made it into all four major sets that year -- Donruss, Fleer, Topps, and O-Pee-Chee.  I qualified the statement about this being his last regular issue Topps card, however, because he appeared in the Premier (and perhaps only) Edition of Topps's Senior Baseball set as a member of the Gold Coast Suns in 1990.

I can't say that I have that card.  Maybe someone should blog it too.

Trivial Pursuit
Fans of 1970s baseball and 1970s baseball cards may recall his 1976 "Highlights" card, which relays a record that Stennett still holds to this day.  Indeed, he was the only player in the 20th century to collect 7 hits in a nine-inning game -- a 22-0 shellacking of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 16, 1975 in front of less than 5000 of the Cubs closest friends and relatives.  Stennett had 4 singles, two doubles, and a triple as the Pirates racked up 24 hits off the brothers Reuschel, Tom Dettore, Oscar Zamora, and Buddy Schultz.

In his next game, Stennett racked up 3 more hits to set a modern major league record of 10 hits over two games.  The last National League player to hit 9 before Stennett broke the record was none other than Stan Musial in 1948.

A lesser-known record -- but one that is unbreakable -- is one of which Stennett was only one part in nine.  On September 1, 1971, Manager Danny Murtaugh had Stennett hit leadoff. After Stennett, the rest of the lineup was Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Jackie Hernandez, and Dock Ellis.  It was the first time in major league baseball history that a team started an all-minority lineup.  And the Pirates won, 10-7.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Rennie Stennett to me has always been Mr. 7-for-7.  Early in my card-collecting life, I obtained one of his Topps 1976 Record Breaker cards, so he was always that guy for the rest of my childhood.  

To others in baseball -- at least in the early years of free agency -- Rennie Stennett was considered the biggest flop in free-agent history.  Indeed, that is exactly the headline on this story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in July of 1983.  The story mentions that Stennett thought that his contract and its duration was big enough and long enough such that San Francisco recognized that it would take more time for him to get back to being the player he was in the 1970s.

In that story, Baltimore Orioles GM Hank Peters is quoted as saying:
There have been four or five free-agent signings that quickly come to mind when you think of the bad ones.  There was [Wayne] Garland. And, of course, [Don] Stanhouse and [Dave] Goltz. And [Bill] Travers has never done it again.  But Rennie Stennett was the very, very worst.  He'd had a broken ankle. He couldn't move as he once had. His range was gone. No one else wanted him.  The Giants were bidding against no one. Stennett's agent [Tom Reich] did a very, very good job of selling.
On one level, you see where the Giants are coming from.  They were sold a bill of goods, and that bill of goods was totally wrong.  

On the other hand, you also feel a bit for Stennett.  He really believed he would be given time to heal and regain his old self -- if it was there.  In that same story, Stennett is quoted at length about this issue:
I didn't realize the money business. I didn't realize everyone would be so conscious of it. The fans look at you through a telescope. I was a whipping boy. I needed a chance to play myself back. I needed time to learn how to do different things because of my ankle. But the managers [Dave Bristol and Frank Robinson] resented the money I got. I never did anything to them, but they resented me, especially Robinson. I wanted to prove I was worth it, but you can't do it in one year.  It was the worst experience of my life. I don't regret it, because it gave security to my family. I'm just sorry it turned out the way it did because of jealous people. The money, it changes a lot of people. They look at you different, and you can't say anything.  My name was in the papers every day, even when I didn't play.  Once I didn't play for a whole month.  It didn't matter.  Always it was Rennie, Rennie, Rennie.
Yeah, he got paid, but his peace of mind was shot.

Since he retired, he has been working with the Brazilian baseball team.  He also has held baseball camps for kids.  These days, though, he has three grandchildren and spends his days in complete retirement.  He's earned it.


  1. Thank you. Growing up in West Virginia, anyone who played in Charleston was my "PC", but my baseball news only came from the NBC Game of the Week, and my baseball cards. I always wondered what happened to Stennett.

  2. Stennett was one of a record 3 Panamanians to play on the same MLB team during the '70s along with M.Sanguillen and O.Moreno on the Pirates.

    1. One of the stories that didn't make the cut here that I read was that when Stennett was 16 years old, he was a pitcher in Panama. His catcher was Sanguillen. Stennett said that having Manny around in Pittsburgh helped him to settle in much more quickly than he might have otherwise.

  3. Great post! Pirate broadcasts mention Stennett often for his 7 for 7 game. Seems like anytime someone has three or four hits they will play highlights from that game.