.WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By Benjamin Pomerance
January 14, 2011
Ron Hunt is mad. People are trampling on the sport and the profession that he loves – a whole lot of people, he says – and the former major league second baseman is sick of it. The entire game of baseball has changed since the days when he patrolled big league diamonds. Changed for the worse, if you ask him. And if you do ask him, Ron Hunt isn’t afraid to spell out what he thinks needs to be done with all the bluntness of a spikes-high slide into home.
First, get rid of the drug users. “I’m tired of all the dirty business – the steroids and all that crap,” Hunt says. “I played 12 years in the major leagues, and to this day, I never did anything with dope or pot or steroids or any of it. I consider that cheating. Put it this way: If you had a father or a brother or a relative or a friend going up against the people doing the dope and the pot and the steroids and whatever else, what chance did they have against them?”
Next, rip out all socializing between opposing players during games. Nothing makes Hunt sicker than seeing players with different uniforms chumming around during the heat of battle. “We had a no-fraternizing rule when I played,” he snaps. “If you fraternized with players on the other team, you got fined. But now, they walk around laughing and patting each other on the fanny. And when they make an error, they smile for the cameras. That wouldn’t have cut it in my day.”
Finally, remove from the sport any player unwilling to hustle – not just on occasion, but on every play. Charge every ground ball. Slide hard. Bowl over the catcher if he’s blocking the plate. Get your uniform dirty. Sacrifice everything, even your body, for the team. Go out there ready, as Hunt puts it, “to bust your ass every time and all the time. It’s all about the superstars now,” he states in a tone that suggests he’d like to teach a few lessons to some of those celebrities. “In today’s game, I might not have gotten a chance to play at all. Without a team with a front office that appreciated little ball, I never would have made what money I did.”
For Hunt, “little ball” was more than a phrase. It was a way of life. A big man with a bigger heart, he approached every at bat with one goal in mind: getting on base. Even if that meant being drilled by a 90 miles-per-hour fastball. Hunt got more than his share of hits with his bat, but he remains most famous today for those hits he took with his body.
Altogether, pitchers hit Hunt 243 times over the course of his career, with a major league record 50 balls glancing off his sturdy frame in 1971 alone. Absorbing the blows earned him the nickname “Mr. Black and Blue” and the acclaim of fans who admired the toughness of a ballplayer earning his paycheck the hard way. “Some people donate their body to science,” he once told a reporter. “I donated mine to baseball.”
So when Hunt retired in 1975, the man with John Wayne’s grittiness couldn’t bear to sit by and watch a bunch of spoiled savants trample on the game as he knew it. Something had to be done. In 1986, he found a way to do it. Using his own money – "nothing from the government,” he proudly points out – he founded the Ron Hunt Eagles Baseball Association in his home state of Missouri, a non-profit group dedicated to preparing young baseball players for college.
Not just college ball. College. “We taught them that grades are important, because you only play baseball for part of your life, but you use your head for all of your life,” Hunt says. “And we did not tolerate any bullshit. If you didn’t hustle, you were benched. If you didn’t show up on time, you were benched. No excuses.”
Yet Hunt stresses that his program was more than a boot camp. Everyone got a chance to play, as long as they followed the rules, and no player was ever used in a way that would hurt their career. “Every kid was on a pitch count,” he says. “I never ruined an arm. And whoever was next in the rotation got to pitch, no matter how important the next game was or how talented the kid was. I didn’t care how physically gifted these kids were. What I wanted were kids who had a passion for baseball, wanted to play all the time, and would play the right way.”
In other words, kids who reminded him of Ron Hunt. Kids who reminded him of a lowly bullpen catcher with the guts to tell arguably the most famous manager in the game that he deserved a chance to play. Kids who reminded him of a second baseman who would do anything to keep his job, even if it meant becoming Mr. Black and Blue.
Hunt has plenty of stories from those days on the field, tales he tells with mixed emotions running through his voice. At times, he sounds like Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, gruff and blustery and seemingly fed up with the changing world and its troubles. Occasionally, though, his voice grows softer, more contemplative. Almost wistful, as if he wishes he could rewind the film, go back and live some of those moments one last time.
The film begins in northern St. Louis, where Hunt was born. His grandparents adopted much of the responsibility for raising him. “I came from a split home,” he explains, “and my mother was working a lot to pay the bills.” It was his grandfather who first taught him about baseball, instilled him with those values about playing the game “the right way.”
In high school, he met a girl named Jackie. When he was 16 years old, they started dating. Today, the high school sweethearts are man and wife, married to each other for 50 years. Their wedding day, Hunt says, was the best day of his life. That’s what my wife always tells me,” he quickly adds. “So now you’ve been told.”
Their wedding day came when Hunt was still toiling in the minor leagues, an emerging infielder in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I hit .198 my first year there,” Hunt remembers. “I was just horseshit.” Then his manager suggested that Hunt “choke up” further on the bat, moving his hands higher above the knob. The next year, Hunt hit .295. He choked up further, and hit over .300 the following season with a farm team in Austin, Texas.
By the time the New York Mets promoted him to the majors for the 1963 season, Hunt was placing his hands a good six inches above the knob of his bat. The shortened, punching swing that resulted made him one of the most reliable leadoff hitters in the majors for most of his career.
At first, though, Hunt wasn’t playing anywhere. Manager Casey Stengel already had installed Larry Burright at second by the time Hunt was promoted, leaving Hunt without a position. Every day, Hunt would dutifully perform his role as the team’s bullpen catcher, warming up the starting pitcher before the start of the game. “Then I’d sit on the bench,” he remembers, “and watch Larry Burright make bad plays at second base.”
After watching Burright struggle for a while, Hunt finally had enough. After a game in a Philadelphia, he sought out Stengel for a conference. “I said ‘This is Ron Hunt, number 33. I’m not a bullpen catcher. I’m a second baseman. Why don’t you give me chance to play there?’” He laughs. “I guess Casey must have liked something about me, because he said ‘You really want to play that badly, son? Okay. You’re in the lineup tomorrow.’”
Once in the Mets’ lineup, Hunt never left. He finished the season with a .272 batting average in 143 games, numbers that stood out on a lousy Mets team. The following season, playing full-time for the first time in his career, he hit .303 and was named to the National League All-Star team, the first Met given the honor of being a starting player in the Midsummer Classic. Yet for Hunt, that All-Star Game – played at brand-new Shea Stadium in Queens – was more memorable for what happened one night earlier.
“My grandpa, who was the first person to really get me into baseball, came out to Shea Stadium to watch me in the game,” Hunt says, “and the night before the game, he and I went over to the clubhouse. The people there allowed him to go in and walk on the field with me. And then, while we were standing there, on the field at Shea Stadium, they turned the stadium lights on for him, just so he could see what it was like. He loved that.” Hunt pauses. “And so did I.”
Unlike today, Hunt says, an All-Star Game appearance didn’t come with a pay raise and a package of endorsements. By now, he had proven himself as one of the best players on the Mets roster, yet was only making a salary of around $7,500 per year. Unable to afford the cost of living in New York, he and Jackie moved into a basement apartment in New Jersey. In the offseason, he drove an 18-wheel tractor trailer to supplement his income. “Most of us had to take offseason jobs,” Hunt says. “We weren’t going back to any mansions in the winter, I can tell you that.”
After injuries limited his play in 1965, Hunt returned with a vengeance in 1966, playing well enough to make the All-Star team again. Then came a shock. That winter, Hunt picked up the phone one day to hear the voice of sportswriter Dick Young asking him how he felt about being traded to the Dodgers. “That was how I found out I was no longer a member of the Mets,” Hunt says. “It was tough. I was crying on the phone. I didn’t want to leave New York. The fans were good to me on and off the field, and I liked the team. Being traded that first time – that's when you realize this is all nothing but a business.”
Business wasn’t great in Los Angeles, where Hunt’s batting average dipped to .263 in a year that he now calls “pretty mediocre.” The following season, he was traded again, this time to the rival San Francisco Giants, where Hunt began being hit by pitches with alarming regularity. “Why would you hit me to go after Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Jim Ray Hart?” he asks. “Makes no sense.”
In part, the hits were by Hunt’s own design. He remembers practicing his batting stance in front of a mirror, looking to stand as close to the plate as he could to prevent pitchers from throwing him strikes on the inside corner. "Gil Hodges told me his philosophy that the outside two inches of the plate belonged to the pitcher, and the rest belonged to him,” Hunt explains. “In San Francisco, I began thinking of that in reverse. If the pitchers came too far inside, they hit me. If they put it over the plate, I hit them. One way or the other, I was on first base.”
The hits continued in Montreal. In 1971, Hunt struck out fewer times (41) than he was hit by pitches (50). Two years later, he duplicated that feat in a season where he hit a career-high .309. Yet after proving himself as one of the Expos’ most reliable players, Hunt’s hitting stroke suddenly vanished in 1974. His average plummeted, leading to a September trade to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The next year, St. Louis released him during spring training, and Hunt decided to call it a career. Oakland owner Charlie Finley came calling, asking Hunt to sign a minor league contract with a chance that he’d make the major league roster, but Hunt’s days of scrambling for a roster spot were over. He was ready to move on.
Initially, he moved on by running a liquor store and then a sporting goods store in Wentzville, Missouri, the town where he still lives today. Then baseball called him back with the creation of the Ron Hunt Eagles Baseball Association. By the year 2000, Hunt’s program was filled with players from 20 states, Canada, and even a few from overseas. The numbers, Hunt says, speak for themselves about the program’s success. “In the 18 years we ran it,” he states, “we got close to 98 percent of those young players into college.”
In 2003, however, Hunt decided he had seen enough. Too many bad apples were threatening to spoil the barrel. “We were getting kids that I didn’t want to babysit,” Hunt explains of his decision to shut it down. “They were coming in here on corporate jets, thinking they were special. They were going from camp to camp, and I was just another camp." One young player filed a lawsuit because he had acquired poison ivy while playing for Hunt. “That’s bullshit," Hunt says. “He didn’t get any money out of me, but I wasn’t going to put up with that.”
So Hunt “retired” to his favorite hobbies: hunting, fishing, and raising cattle. Currently, he has a herd of Angus cows on the small farm he owns in Wentzville, the continuation of an interest he developed while helping his three children with 4-H Club projects. “I’ve got good- looking cows,” Hunt says. “They’re all registered stock. And farming keeps me out of trouble and keeps me moving around. At least that’s what my wife tells me.”
And then there is the baseball, the part of his life Hunt just can’t give up. Several times a year, he travels around the country to give instructional baseball clinics to a wide array of clients, from a senior men’s league fundraiser he runs annually at KeySpan Park in New York City to a 9-year-old boy from Ohio whose parents brought him to work with Hunt for a couple of days in Missouri. The price tag for all of these events: gratis. “It’s not a charity,” Hunt says. “I do it because I want to. I do it for organizations I feel are worthwhile. I want to help the Mom and Pop organizations. We need more of them.”
There is another motivator, too. By traveling at an age when he’d prefer to stay at home, Hunt feels as if he’s helping retain a piece of baseball’s past, teaching the next generation to play like…well, like himself. “I hope people remember me as a player who played the game right,” Hunt says. “I hope they remember me as someone who was a decent human being, who respected the game of baseball and gave it his best effort every day for as long as he could.”
Now, in an age when he feels those values are on life support, he finds ways to resuscitate them by teaching the game he loves. Teaching it the right way. His way. Long after his retirement, Ron Hunt still knows how to get his hits.
Benjamin Pomerance has written more than 350 published articles, including profiles of Johnny Podres, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Mike Marshall. His article on Jackie Robinson’s time with the Montreal Royals, including interviews with Rachel Robinson and George “Shotgun” Shuba, can be read at http://www.apnmag.com/fall_2009/pomerance_JackieRobinson.php. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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