He was portrayed as “Jim Hart” on most of his Topps cards, but we always referred to him as “Jim Ray Hart.” Hey, it was cool to have a player with three names. Just saying the name Jim Ray Hart made us feel as if we were part of baseball’s in crowd. While most guys were just “Jim,” this guy was “Jimmy Ray.” We loved it.
It also helped us distinguish between Jim Ray Hart, the baseball player, and Jim Hart, the quarterback of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. They were two different guys, clearly. Our Jim Hart was black, while football’s Jim Hart was white. We cared a lot more about the former than the latter.
His 1973 Topps card lists him as “Jim Hart,” but it is still the best of all the cards portraying him. It’s a wonderful action shot, shown from the off side of home plate at Candlestick Park. We can see Hart from his hitting position and an unknown catcher for the Padres (Bob Barton perhaps?) simultaneously reacting to the arrival of the pitch.
Hart’s bat is beginning to bend as he moves his wrist forward—the bending of the bat is something commonly seen with hard-hitting sluggers—while the Padres catcher is trying to snare the pitch before the massive Hart can unleash one of his thunderous swings. If the catcher isn’t careful, his mitt might come into contact with Hart’s bat, perhaps resulting in the rare call of catcher’s interference.
At times, grabbing onto Hart’s bat might have been the best way to defend him. In his prime, he was a feared slugger, a perfect complement to stars like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda in a stacked San Francisco lineup. He used a looping swing to generate power; despite the loop, he did not strike out often, reaching the 100-K mark only once in his career.
Hart’s professional career began in 1960, when the Giants signed him as an amateur free agent. Assigned to Salem of the Appalachian League, Hart hit .403 in 139 at-bats. Having mastered that league, he moved up to Quincy of the Midwest League, where he batted a mild .260. Still, he was considered primed and ready for a promotion to Class-C ball in 1961. He put up an OPS of 1.007, beginning a three-year reign of domination against increasingly difficult minor league competition.
After a strong half-season at Triple-A Tacoma in 1963, Hart earned a trip to the major league roster. Unfortunately, his first season did not come without two cases hardship. In only his second game, he was hit in the shoulder blade by a Bob Gibson fastball. Later in the season, an errant pitch from Curt Simmons hit him in the head, putting him right back on the disabled list.
The pin cushion treatment limited Hart to only seven games in 1963. Not to worry, he made up for lost time in 1964. He put up huge numbers, including 31 home runs and an OPS of .840 to place second (along with Rico Carty) in the Rookie of the Year sweepstakes. He effectively pushed Jim Davenport, who had been the starting third baseman since 1958, into a super utility role, spelling starters at second base, shortstop and third.
Hart’s rookie season marked the start of a terrific five-year run. Forging home run totals of 23, 33, 29 and 23, Hart consistently reached the .800 OPS range. Those numbers were especially impressive given the dominance of National League pitching in the mid-’60s, not to mention the degree of difficulty posed by the cold night air and the swirling winds of Candlestick Park. Hart tended to struggle at Candlestick; his road numbers consistently showed him to be a better hitter than he was at home.
Burly and stocky to the point that he looked like an NFL linebacker, Hart reached his peak in 1967, when he slugged .509, drew 77 walks, and posted a career-best OPS of .882. He put up those numbers despite showing up to spring training overweight and thereby drawing the wrath of manager Herman Franks. National League pitchers certainly didn’t notice any effect on Hart’s swing. In a sign of respect, Hart drew 11 intentional walks that summer, second only to McCovey’s team-high total of 17.
Hart made a profound impression on Giants fans, including a future columnist for The Hardball Times. “[He had] a fundamentally sound approach, steady head, and quick, strong hands,” says Steve Treder, who has followed the Giants since the 1960s. “He was basically Kevin Mitchell at the plate.”
From an offensive standpoint, the Giants could not ask for much more from their No. 5 hitter, who was assigned the duty of protecting Mays and McCovey in the middle of their order. Defensively, Hart offered a much different outlook. At 5-foot-11 and close to 200 pounds, Hart did not have the ideal build to play third base. Stiff and limited in his movements, he lacked the range of your average 1960s third baseman. He did not have the soft hands to compensate for those shortcomings, as evidenced by his appalling error totals of 28, 32, 24 and 16.
To make matters worse, Hart did not particularly enjoy playing third. As he once said rather famously about third base, “it’s just too damn close to the hitters.” So at times the Giants tried Hart in left field, where he was hardly smooth, but he was far less a liability.
After another fine season in 1968, trade rumors began to circulate around Hart for the first time in his career. In December, reports indicated that the Giants were talking to the Angels about a deal that would send Hart to California for All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi. The deal made some sense for San Francisco, given the Giants’ abundance of outfielders and their desire for a shortstop who could hit. The Giants and Angels contemplated the trade, but ultimately, Hart stayed put.
Ironically, the “Year of the Pitcher” marked the end of Hart’s run of prime seasons. In April of 1969, he hurt his shoulder, which caused a severe loss of power. Not only did he surrender his third base job to Davenport, but his playing time fell off in left field, too. With only three home runs in 95 games, Hart lost time to younger outfielders like Ken Henderson and Dave Marshall.
At 27, Hart should have been in the midst of his physical prime. Instead, his shoulder continued to bother him. Just before Opening Day in 1970, the Giants farmed him out to their top affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. After the 1970 season, Hart and the Giants finally agreed that surgery was the best option.
Hart went into such a downward spiral that he continued to split time between San Francisco and the minor leagues the next two seasons. At a time when Hart should have been putting up huge numbers, especially with the pitching mound having been lowered and the strike zone expanded, Hart looked lost at the plate. Instead, he was spending much of each summer at Triple-A Phoenix, where he feasted against weaker pitching.
So why did Hart’s hitting ability at the major league level fall off so badly and so quickly? At first, Giants observers tried to explain his strange decline by pointing at an accumulation of injuries: the beaning at the hands of Simmons, followed by the shoulder injury in 1969, and then trouble with the cartilage in his knees. But that was a narrow way of looking at the situation. Actually, Hart’s drastic decline was being caused, not just by injuries, but by a bad personal habit.
By the early 1970s, it was well known in baseball circles that Hart was a heavy drinker. As the son of a North Carolina whiskey bootlegger, he had grown up with alcohol. “If you could drink that White Lightning, you could drink anything,” Hart told Baseball Digest.
As a major leaguer, he continued to drink. All one had to do was read between the lines of some of the newspaper reports about Hart. Let’s consider an article written by Jim McGee in a January 1971 edition of the San Francisco Examiner. “Hart’s way of life was well known,” wrote McGee. “He liked the good things. He saw no reason why he shouldn’t enjoy himself off the field as well as on.”
“Enjoying himself” involved not only too much eating, but too much drinking. Yet at least one of Hart’s Giants teammates came to his defense against the whispers. “He never came to the ballpark with liquor on his breath,” Giants infielder Hal Lanier later told The Sporting News. “He never came to the ballpark when he couldn’t play.”
A quiet and introspective sort, Hart did not make a public display of his drinking. He did not show up to games with a pronounced hangover, nor did he involve himself in drunken brawls. Still, it was obvious that had a problem with alcohol, which consumed too much of his time away from the ballpark. There is little doubt that his heavy drinking affected his health, which in turn affected is performance.
Hart remained with the Giants through the start of the 1973 season. By the time his Topps card (No. 538) made its way into stores, it was somewhat obsolete. He was no longer a Giant.
With the DH rule now in place in the American League, the Yankees needed a right-handed hitting DH who could split time with Ron Blomberg. Yankees GM Lee MacPhail contacted the Giants about Hart. Yankees coach Dick Howser gave a strong recommendation, having seen Hart play a lot in the mid-1960s. In particular, Howser liked Hart’s ability to hit with power to all fields, including right and right-center.
The Giants were only too happy to part with their declining slugger. They surrendered Hart for a small sum of cash, roughly $30,000.
Frustrated by a lack of playing time in San Francisco, Hart was thrilled to hear of the trade. He could have waited 72 hours before reporting to the Yankees, but he wouldn‘t need anywhere close to that. “I was fishing when my girlfriend called me. She told me the Yankees had picked me up,” Hart informed The Sporting News. “For the first time I thought about the designated hitter rule. I rushed home, packed my bags, and headed for Baltimore to join the club.”
Hart fit in well in the Yankee clubhouse. Although he was a quiet presence, he was quick to laugh at the jokes and pranks of his teammates. Laid back and easygoing, he earned an interesting nickname in New York: second baseman Horace Clarke dubbed him “Black Angus.” Sportswriter Dick Young asked Clarke about the moniker. “Did you ever see one?” Clarke replied. “This high, and all beef. He has arms like a bull. Legs like a bull. Strength like a bull.”
Smartly, the Yankees didn’t push their newly acquired “bull” into playing third base or the outfield, where he might have a greater chance of injury. “It will be snowing in July when you see Jim Ray going onto the field,” manager Ralph Houk told The Sporting News. “He’s my DH every day he can swing a bat.”
Near the end of May, Hart’s batting average soared into the .360s. In one of his best games, he hit a home run, a double and a pair of singles in a victory over the Tigers. “I like this job very much,” Hart told Sports Illustrated. “I have three gloves in my locker and I hope they fall apart from age before I get a chance to use them. I don’t miss playing in the field. I might just get a rocking chair for the dugout like old Satch Paige had.”
Hart’s hitting eventually cooled off, as his average fell into the .250s. But he did hit 13 home runs in 339 at-bats, an impressive ratio given the difficult dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium. On a team searching for offense, Hart proved to be a plus.
As it turned out, Hart’s 1973 season represented a last hurrah. When he reported to spring training in 1974, his bat looked so slow that the Yankees demoted him to Triple-A Syracuse. Recalled in May, Hart struggled badly in 19 at-bats, recording only one hit. Deciding that Hart’s body, affected by too many drinks, too many cigarettes, and too much rich food, had given out at the age of 32, the Yankees released him in June.
Unwilling to give up the cause, Hart signed to play in the Mexican League. For the next two and a half injury-plagued seasons, he played south of the border, hoping that some American League team would give him another look as a DH. No teams called. Hart finally decided to retire in 1976.
In retrospect, Hart said that heavy drinking cost his career dearly. “If I hadn’t been drinking, I’d have played another four , five years, no problem,” Hart admitted to Larry Stone of the San Francisco Examiner. “It got to the point I didn’t care about the game no more. What I was worrying about was the first and the 15th. That’s when the checks came in. I just wanted to go out and have a drink or two. I mean, this was every day.”
After baseball, Hart found himself sinking further. Alcoholism eventually cost him his house, which was repossessed. When he went to the grocery store, he scrounged the floor in a desperate search for loose change.
Hart hit rock-bottom while on a flight to Toronto to play in an old-timers’ game. Having downed several drinks before the flight, Hart blacked out for a spell and then woke up in the middle of the plane, unaware of where he was and where he was going. At that moment, Hart decided that he had to stop drinking.
He did stop, at least for awhile. He put himself through an alcohol rehab program called Project 90. He found work in a warehouse for Safeway Stores first in Richmond, Calif., and then in Tracy, Calif., before retiring in 2006. Since then, his whereabouts have become somewhat of a mystery. A few years ago, the Giants tried to contact him for a 50th anniversary celebration of the franchise’s tenure in San Francisco, but he did not respond to the invitation.
Rumors have circulated that Hart has begun drinking again. His increasing weight has reportedly caused him health problems, too. There have been reports, unsubstantiated, that Hart hit such hard times that he was rendered homeless, much like Leon Wagner, who was profiled earlier in this space. It’s hard to know for sure what has happened to Hart, because of his continuing reclusive nature.
It’s certainly Hart’s right to remain private. But his family and friends are concerned. His fans would love nothing better than to meet him, to have an opportunity for a handshake and an autograph. There are probably many people who would like to help him, if he needs it.
They hope Jim Ray Hart will receive that message.