Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Card #93: Larry Hisle

Who Can It Be Now?
Larry Eugene Hisle was born on May 5, 1947, in Portsmouth, Ohio. Hisle's story as a youth is one told often for what he had to overcome to succeed. His SABR biography lays out the story in complete detail; I'm borrowing some of the highlights from there.  

Hisle was an only child and was named for Larry Doby by his mother. Hisle's father Hubert suffered a brain hemorrhage when Larry was 10 years old. Hubert never again recognized Larry as his son.  Shortly after his father's hemorrhage, Larry's mother Claudine passed away at the age of 32.  Larry's father passed away in 1962, but for all intents and purposes, from the age of 10 onward, Larry was an orphan. He was lucky, though, in that his aunt took him in at first.   

That lasted only 2 years, though, because the financial burden for his aunt was great. A wealthy couple, Orville and Kathleen Ferguson, took him in first as a foster child and then as their own adopted son. They gave him a good family life, but Hisle credited his birth mother with instilling in him "a will to settle for nothing less than the absolute best that life had to offer." Hisle worked his butt off both as a student and as an athlete. He was an honor student and a high school All-American in both baseball and basketball. Both the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University offered him scholarships in basketball, and he signed a national letter of intent to attend Ohio State.

While his basketball prowess gave him opportunities for scholarships, his baseball abilities earned him immediately money. In the first ever June Draft in 1965, the Philadelphia Phillies drafted Hisle in the second round with the 38th pick overall -- two picks behind Johnny Bench. Up until the time Hisle signed his contract, he swore to the Phillies that they were wasting their time in trying to sign him -- he was going to go to Ohio State.  But dollars mattered, and Hisle recalled in 1978 that he received a signing bonus of $50,000 (roughly the equivalent of about $375,000 today). He was assigned to a low-A club at Huron in the Northern League for his short debut in 1966.

Hisle moved up to the Carolina League in 1967 and had an excellent year there -- .302/.368/.499, 23 HR, 31 SB (only 1 CS!), 43 BB and 119 Ks in 563 plate appearances. Strikingly, he earned a spot on the opening day roster in 1968 with the Phillies directly out of Single-A ball.  That promotion lasted just two weeks in early 1968, but it certainly gave the impression that the Phillies believed that they had a potential star in the making.

Hisle ended up back at Triple-A for much of 1968, however, and suffered from some injuries as well.  But, in 1969, he made the roster once again out of spring training and this time started the whole year in centerfield.  He hit reasonably well -- .266/.338/.459, 20 HR, 18 SB (8 CS) -- but he struck out a lot too: 152 times.  Then again he was a 22-year-old playing his first season in the majors.  

His next year went poorly, however, as he struggled to keep his spot in the lineup. Hisle was quoted later in his career as saying that his 1970 season was the result of his pressing -- that he "started to question" himself and asked himself "if [he] even had the talent to play in the major leagues."  

His SABR biography mentions another issue that arose in Philadelphia: race. If you've seen the movie "42," the villain in the movie in many respects is Phillies manager Ben Chapman. It seems germane to discussing Hisle as well. When Hisle debuted in 1968, it had been just eleven years since the Phillies had employed their first African-American player, John Kennedy. Kennedy lasted just 2 at bats in 1957, and the Phillies did not develop an African-American star until perhaps the 2000s with Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, among others. In an article in The Sporting News to which the SABR biography cites, Hisle -- known as polite, modest, unassuming, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered -- opened up and criticized the Phillies' treatment of its African-American players such as Richie (Dick) Allen and its lack of patience with Canadian black man Ferguson Jenkins.

Hisle said these things on the way out of Philadelphia. The Phillies gave up on the 24-year-old outfielder and sent him to the Dodgers at the end of the 1971 season for Tommy Hutton. Hisle never got the chance to play in the majors for the Dodgers, however, as the Dodgers were loaded with veterans in the outfield. As a result, after the 1972 season, Hisle was traded again.  The Dodgers sent him to St. Louis for a minor leaguer and pitcher Rudy Arroyo; St. Louis wasted no time in trading Hisle a month later and sent him to the Minnesota Twins with pitcher John Cumberland for pitcher Wayne Granger.

The Twins gave Hisle his first chance at regular playing time in the majors in three seasons, and the move paid off. Hisle started hitting again and getting on base. Yes, he still struck out over 100 times, but he put up a .351 OBP and 15 HR/11 SB in 618 plate appearances. He played for five total seasons in Minnesota, and he turned into an excellent speed-power option by the time those years ended in 1977.  He was named to the American League All-Star team for the first time at the age of 30 in 1977, and he led the American League in RBI that year as well.  Aaron Gleeman named Hisle the 27th best Twin of all time a few years ago, and Hisle's numbers support that.

The 1977 season was an odd one businesswise in baseball. A lot of players were technically without contracts and were playing out their "option" year, as the Andy Messersmith arbitration decision called it. Hisle was one of them. After that season, players who had played out their options were eligible for what was called the Free agent reentry draft. Teams were limited in how many different players they could sign, and players could only be selected in the "draft" by a maximum number of teams.  This system went by the wayside after the 1981 strike.

Hisle was selected by the maximum number of teams. He was offered $3 million over 6 years by the Texas Rangers, but turned down that offer to join the Milwaukee Brewers. In that offseason, the Brewers were a major player in free agency because Bud Selig knew that he needed a winning team to draw fans. The Brewers signed Hisle, Don Money, and Sal Bando that offseason. The news story about Hisle's signing noted that the Brewers had Bando and first baseman Cecil Cooper meet with Hisle to try to convince Hisle that Milwaukee was the right place for him. Hisle was quoted as saying that his treatment by Brewers officials and players, the community atmosphere, and the potential to improve all mattered to him -- along with the contract of course.

His 1978 season was one for the ages for Hisle. He had a career year in many respects. The Brewers finished last (sixth place) in 1976 with a 67-95 record under Alex Grammas. After that season, Bud Selig cleaned house -- firing GM Jim Baumer and hiring Angels GM Harry Dalton, giving him a big purse full of money to make improvements. Dalton hired long-time Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger, and it was as if a different team had showed up. The 1978 team finished 93-69, 3rd in AL East behind ESPN's favorite teams (that's the Yankees and Red Sox, in case you don't have cable...they broke their tie for the AL East with the Bucky Dent game).  

Hisle received much of the credit for that change in fortunes. While he did not receive any first place votes for MVP -- those went to winner Jim Rice and second place finisher Ron Guidry -- Hisle did finish third in the voting and a long way ahead of the fourth place finisher Amos Otis. His stats supported it: 34 HR, 115 RBI, 10 steals, 67 BB, .290/.374/.533 slash line. In short, Hisle was a star.

Then, in 1979, it all came crashing down and, for all intents and purposes, Hisle's career went with it. On April 20, 1979, Hisle was in left field for the Brewers and made a throw in to the infield. With that throw, his rotator cuff tore.  He tried to play through it some as a designated hitter, but he was advised to let the shoulder rest. As a result, he sat out after May 4 all but two games.

He came back the next spring, hoping that he would be able to play without surgery. But, on May 19, 1980, he hurt the shoulder again on a slide into second base. Two months later, he had surgery. The Brewers were counting on Hisle in 1981 to be their designated hitter. That worked for a while. Then, Paul Molitor was injured in a game in Anaheim, and Hisle thought the team would need him in the outfield. As Daniel Okrent's Nine Innings detailed, Hisle picked up the ball and began to stretch out his arm by throwing against a wall.  Hisle could not lift his arm for two days after that, and his season was over.

Thus, in 1982, the Brewers no longer were counting on Hisle, figuring that anything he could give the team that season would be a bonus. He played some -- only 9 games -- before that same pain came back and Hisle hit the disabled list for the fourth and final time in his career. His last at bat was a strikeout by Brad Havens.

Mustache Check: I was too taken with Larry's story to notice his full beard and mustache here.

The Message
I have used this heading sparingly, but if anyone got The Message, it was Larry Hisle. This Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article from 2011 is simply inspiring. Hisle is still on the Brewers payroll as a community outreach person, but to call him that does him no justice. Hisle makes himself available to teachers, charities, ministers, and others in need. 

For instance, John Boche, the principal at St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, said that Hisle helps out the kids there that are their "toughest nuts to crack."

Chuck Jones of Hope Worldwide in Milwaukee was quoted as saying, "Larry Hisle has been a pure joy to work with because of his passion, the way that he loves, the way that he cares. A celebrity is like currency, and Larry has given over $1 million of himself to others."

A teen that Hisle mentored, Jason Dashner II, said, "He came to my house, he ate dinner with us, he took me to Brewers games, and I got to go on the field. He would pick me up in the morning and take me to Concordia College and I would work out with him. I always though of him as a big brother. He made it a goal for me to do better in school and I started getting Bs and Cs. I have my ups and downs, but I'm doing better."

One day, he'll be speaking to an organization that deals with teens caught with guns. The next, he is at the Boys and Girls Club. Or, he's at the youth detention center. 

Or, he's at Children's Hospital visiting children with cancer. One child he met there had the following story:
Eric McLean of Whitefish Bay has an acute form of leukemia and has been in and out of treatment for several years. During one of his hospitalizations, his brother contacted the Brewers to see if a player could stop by and say hello. McLean was hoping for Ryan Braun. The Brewers sent Hisle, who spent hours with him and returned the next day. And the day after that.
"Larry, to me . . . gosh, it's so hard to describe," McLean said. "there's no one else like him that I've ever met in my life. Every time I'm in the hospital, he motivates me to want to get up and do that little bit extra. The cancer I have, the odds are less than 20% to live five years if you have it once. It's come back three times and I think Larry is a big part of the reason why I'm still here. 
"I can honestly say I love him."
McLean lost his battle with cancer in 2012.

Hisle apparently is trying to form his own foundation, though I can't find much else to support that other than this Facebook group.

Family Ties
Larry's son, Larry Hisle, Jr., was a basketball and baseball player of some renown when I was growing up in Wisconsin. In fact, Larry Jr. is around my age.  Larry Jr. is a big kid -- 6'6", 240 lbs. -- and he played independent league baseball in the mid-1990s.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
While hope always sprung eternal during his time in Milwaukee, Hisle's injury plagued the Brewers of my youth.  Hisle's salary -- guaranteed for $3.155 million in 1977 -- was the largest in baseball history at the time that Hisle signed it. Hisle was signed just before Harry Dalton came on board, and his first season gave hope for the future. Once his shoulder went, though, Hisle's salary became an albatross to the Brewers' bottom line.  Then again, it's not like the team got significantly better or signed players after Hisle's contract came off the books after the 1983 season -- the team had its worst year of the 1980s in 1984.

That said, everything I have ever read about Larry Hisle is entirely consistent with my limited interactions with him. After his final injury in 1982, Hisle did not come to the ballpark much, I believe, due to the pain it gave him not to be contributing.  But, when I did meet him, Hisle was patient and made sure to sign everything he could for all the kids. He talked to everyone who had questions, answered everyone honestly and completely, and tried desperately to make sure everyone knew that he cared about them.  

I can still see him in my mind's eye after the first Brewers' game I recall attending -- baseball card day in May of 1982. He signed autographs for at least 20 minutes or so, though I am certain that his family in Mequon would have loved for him to be home sooner after that Saturday afternoon game. But, as I said, Hisle made sure everyone was satisfied before he left.

Hisle spent time as a minor league coach and roving instructor in the Milwaukee system starting in 1983 -- I suppose, after all, that he was still under contract for that season as a player. He spent time as an instructor in the Phillies, Astros, and Blue Jays minor league systems before joining the Toronto Blue Jays as its major league hitting instructor. 

In his first two seasons with the Blue Jays, the team won the World Series -- including one in which his old Brewers teammate, Paul Molitor, was named MVP. As his SABR biography points out, Hisle's emphasis on patience and discipline at the plate was a key to improving the Blue Jays' hitting. In fact, under his watch, the Blue Jays were the first team since 1893 to have teammates finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in batting average -- John Olerud, Paul Molitor, and Roberto Alomar pulling the feat. After his time with the Jays ended, he went back to the Brewers system for a year before calling time on being a baseball coach.  

It was then that he threw himself headlong into his work with children in Milwaukee. That community is a far better place for his efforts.


  1. This may be my favorite entry so far. Interesting guy.

    1. I totally agree, and not because he's a Brewer. I mean, Jerry Augustine was boring. Hisle, though -- this guy is someone who should be emulated, trumpeted as a hero, and raised up to all of America. But, to be fair, I don't think he'd want that.