The new Hardball Times Baseball Annual is coming out, and should be hitting stores near you soon. In it, there’s an article from me titled Birthday Bonanzas about player who most under/overachieved on their birthdays.
A ton of research went into that article (I looked up birthday performances for every batter born from April 1 to Oct. 4 with at least 1,000 career games played, and every pitcher from those six-plus months with either 200 starts or 400 total appearances). As a result, not everything I found of note could fit into the article. But since I have this weekly column space here, I may as well share some of the more interesting items from the flotsam and jetsam of my research.
1. Birthday debuts
I looked up career birthday performances for more than 1,000 players—and every time I was on the lookout for guys who debuted on their birthday. As it happens, there were three. In a bit of an upset, all three were pitchers.
In a tremendous upset, two of them shared a birthday: Sept. 9. That’s the birthday for reliever Dan Miceli and starter Edwin Jackson. The most prominent birthday debuter was the other guy, though, Sept 16 baby turned starting Astros pitcher (and later Astros manager) Larry Dierker. One of the youngest debuts ever, Dierker was just 18 on Sept. 22, 1964 when he pitched in his first game.
While no position player with 1,000 career games debuted on his birthday, I did stumble upon one notable player who did. Though he played in “only” 982 games, former Braves catcher Bruce Benedict was good enough to be an two-time All-Star. And he made his big league debut on his 23rd birthday in 1978.
2. Birthday swan songs
I was also looking for guys whose last games came on their birthday. Two players had that happen. Jim Russell, a 1940s NL outfielder, celebrated his 33rd birthday on Oct. 1, 1951 by appearing in just his 16th game of the year. He was playing out his string, so it couldn’t have been too surprising that he was let go in the offseason, ending his career.
Former star reliever Jim Gott had a midseason birthday (Aug. 3) but he was nearing the end of the line in 1995. After he allowed three runs in two-thirds of an inning on his 36th birthday, baseball was done with him.
3. Birthday injuries
Several players have been injured on their birthday, perhaps none more painfully than Mike Greenwell. On his 30th birthday, he came to the plate in the first inning only to get drilled by a pitch by Randy Johnson. That had to have hurt. No wonder he left the game right away.
Well, at least Greenwell soon recovered. He played the very next day, in fact. Tony Gwynn wasn’t nearly so lucky. After leaving in the fifth inning of the game on his 41st birthday on May 9, 2001, he didn’t return to action until July.
Gwynn isn’t the only Hall of Famer to have such an unhappy birthday. Rollie Fingers‘ last appearance in 1979 came on his late August birthday. Willie Mays missed 30 days after leaving in mid-game on his 42nd birthday in 1973. Eddie Collins got off lighter. He dinged himself on his birthday in 1918, and had just one plate appearance over the next week.
4. Birthday hitting streaks
Well, that was depressing. How about something positive? What are the longest birthday hitting streaks?
The winner is 12 games. Brooks Robinson got a hit in each of the dozen birthdays he played in. That’s pretty impressive. He has a two-game lead over his nearest competitors. Three players—Joe Judge, John Olerud and Hall of Famer Earl Averill—had 10-game hitting streaks on their birthdays. Averill, like Robinson, got a hit in every birthday he ever played.
There is a contender on the horizon. This year infielder Jhonny Peralta got a hit on his birthday, giving him an eight-game birthday hitting streak. He’s gotten a hit in every birthday he’s ever played in, but only once has he had a multi-hit birthday game. That’s odd. There is one other player like that: Andres Galarraga. He had 10 hits in his nine-game birthday batting streak.
5. Birthday multi-hit games
As impressive as Brooks Robinson’s birthday batting streak is, it pales in comparison to what longtime Astros star Jose Cruz did over the course of nine birthdays. No, he didn’t get a hit in all of them. In the fifth one, smack in the middle, Cruz went hitless. But in each of the other eight, he had multiple hits. That’s neat—eight multi-hit birthdays in nine tries. Cruz was all feast or famine. He had a half-dozen hitless birthdays, but eight multi-hit birthdays is among the highest.
But it’s not quite the highest. One athlete had nine career birthday multi-hit games: Gywnn. It makes sense that one of the game’s greatest pure hitters would be the man with the most birthday multi-hit games.
A bit more unexpected is Robby Thompson, who had a six-birthday-game streak with multiple hits. Bonus: he had an extra base hit in five of those six games.
6. Birthday five-hit games
In looking up all this birthday info, I came across 5,343 times a position player appeared on his birthday. In all those games, just two times a player bashed five birthday hits.
The first was Fernando Vina, who went 5-for-7 on his 29th birthday on April 16, 1998.
The second was also Fernando Vina, when he went 5-for-5 on his 31st birthday on April 16, 2000.
That’s right—though a five-hit birthday game happens only once every 2,500-plus games, Vina did it twice! That’s impressive. Vina got left on the cutting room floor of the article in the Annual because he played in just nine birthday games and the book article focused on batters with at least 10 games played, but he may very be the greatest birthday batter of all time.
In those nine b-day games, he went 21-for-40—which means even if you throw out his pair of five-hit games, he still batted .392 (11-for-28) on April 16. He also drew four walks and was hit twice.
Vina also has one more claim to birthday fame: most caught steals. He was nabbed three times in three attempts. I can’t blame him for running so much. Given his success on the plate on his day, he probably felt he could do no wrong.
7. Birthday pinch hitters
I came across slightly over 300 pinch-hit birthday appearances—and five of those guys walked away with pinch-hit home runs. Former Yankees great Charlie Keller had the biggest blast, a three-run shot on his birthday in 1948. Until 1997, he was the only one on file. Since then, Greg Vaughn, Gary Mathews Jr., Greg Norton and Willie Harris have joined him.
Check that. The above isn’t fully true. There have been a few other pinch hit homers hit by guys who stayed in the game after belting their big shot. Mark McGwire hit a pinch-hit homer on his birthday in 1991, and then stuck around to strike out.
Kirk Gibson had the best day of them all, though. On May 28, 1994, the man celebrating his 37th birthday belted a pinch-hit homer to tie up a Tigers-Twins game in the seventh inning. Then, in the ninth inning, he tied it again on another home run. Unfortunately for Gibson, his heroics were for naught as Detroit lost in 10 frames. Lucky for Minnesota, the Twins could score another run before Gibson came back to the plate again.
8. Birthday grand slams
Here’s another question: How many guys belted a birthday grand slam? Answer: a 1ucky 13 did that.
In one case, that arguably wasn’t even the highlight of the game. In the third frame of his 29th birthday, Nomar Garciaparra became one of the few players to hit two homers in one inning. Then he smacked a grand slam in the fourth inning. His three homers, and eight RBIs are birthday-bests for anyone—and his slam-less third inning was more impressive than his fourth inning shot.
The first player I know of to do this also did it in the context of a great game. Frank Thomas, the 1950s slugger, celebrated his 29th birthday in 1958 by driving in seven RBIs on a bases-loaded walk, a two-run homer, and a grand slam.
In 1995, aging speedster Vince Coleman hit his one and only career grand slam on his birthday. The Cubs had two players do it in back-to-back years. Derrek Lee did it in 2005 and teammate Aramis Ramirez did it in 2006.
But maybe the most impressive birthday grand slam of all came from—fittingly—the all-time grand slam king, Alex Rodriguez. He hit the only walk-off birthday grand slam on July 27, 2002. Bonus: it came in the 10th inning, making it the only extra-inning, walk-off birthday grand slam. Say what you will about A-Rod, but that’s a cool way to spend a birthday.
9. Birthday pitching doubleheaders
When it comes to doubleheaders, almost all hitters have appeared in both ends of one on the same day. Aside from recent players, and people born in April, it’s essentially everyone.
But, for obvious reasons, it’s quite a bit rarer for a pitcher to work both ends of a doubleheader on his birthday. But I did find two times it happened. Todd Worrell did it in 1985. On his 26th birthday on Sept. 28, he pitched a scoreless inning in the first game, and then got the win thanks to two scoreless frames in the nightcap.
Old Folks Ellis Kinder wasn’t quite so successful on his 39th birthday in 1953. Kinder didn’t have a bad day necessarily, but he didn’t get a win, and he did give up a run in two innings (he pitched 0.2 innings in the first game and 1.1 in the second).
10. Assorted birthday odds and ends
There are a few other irregularities I found in this process that I wanted to share.
Randy Myers was a long-time star reliever, but he also had a handful of starts. His only complete game came on his birthday.
One of the strangest birthdays ever happened to Babe Dahlgren. On his 29th birthday, he went 1-for-4 for the Braves—who then traded him that same day.
Earlier I noted pinch-hitters. There are also pinch runners. The most interesting pinch runner was Davey Lopes, who was inserted as a runner on his 41st birthday. He always had good wheels and was great at reading a pitcher. So his birthday present was the ultimate sign of respect for his ability to handle himself on the bases, age be damned. Tim Raines might be the king of birthday pinch runners. He did that three times—his first three birthday games, in fact.
Jorge Posada has one of the worst birthday records. He had seven multiple-strikeout games on his birthday, including five in a row at one point. Sounds like someone pressed too hard.
Posada’s fellow former Yankees catcher Rick Cerone has his own claim to fame: longest gap between birthday performances for a position player. He appeared on his birthday in 1980, but not again until 1990.
References & Resources
Research comes from the Gamelogs at Baseball-Reference.com.