Bateman lived for roughly 25 years after his retirement from baseball, dying from kidney disease at the age of 56. But there’s little doubt that he lived fully. He was brash and outgoing, loved to drink and brawl, and had a sense of adventure matched by few ballplayers. His was not a household name among fans, but should be; his escapades could easily fill a book, if anyone were compelled to write such a tome.
Born in Fort Sill, Okla., Bateman was not blessed with the most attentive of parents. At a young age, he moved in with his aunt and uncle, Jewel and Raymond Priest, who essentially raised the troubled youngster. As a teenager, Bateman fought in barrooms, resulting in a few nights in jail. He also married far too young; predictably, the marriage lasted only a few weeks.
By 1960, Aunt Jewel had grown tired of young John’s antics. She sent him back to live with his father, who was now living and working for the Army in Texas. The elder Bateman arranged for his son to play for the military team at Fort Hood. John played well, improving as he grew bigger and stronger.
In 1962, Bateman wrote to a number of major league teams, asking for a tryout. The scheme sounded like something out of a bad baseball movie, but Bateman figured he had nothing to lose. Unbelievably, the letter-writing campaign worked. The expansion Houston Colt .45s, desperate for talent, told Bateman they would give him a look. The Colt .45s invited him to their amateur camp in Texas City, a few miles southeast of Houston.
Colts scout Red Murff liked what he saw from Bateman, particularly his power and his throwing arm. He also liked that Bateman was 19. Little did he know that young John was lying about his age. In reality, Bateman was already 21, but that fact would elude the Colt .45s—and the rest of baseball—for the remainder of his career.
Based on Murff’s recommendation, the Colt .45s signed Bateman and assigned him to Modesto, Houston’s affiliate in Class-C ball. Bateman did well, compiling a 19-game hitting streak on the way to a rookie season that saw him hit .280 with 21 home runs. He also displayed a strong throwing arm from behind the plate, leading to a rave review from general manager Paul Richards, who compared Bateman’s throwing ability to that of Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett. Not bad for a kid who had resorted to writing desperate letters begging major league teams for a tryout.
In the spring of 1963, Bateman boldly predicted that he would make the Colt .45s’ Opening Day roster. No one believed the cocky rookie, probably not even Bateman himself, who later admitted that he wasn’t ready for the major leagues. One of the exceptions to that belief was Colt .45s Astros manager Harry Craft. Three days before the opener, Craft announced that Bateman would be his No. 1 catcher.
Only a broken hand suffered late in spring training prevented Bateman from playing on Opening Day, but by late April, he was healthy and ready for starting duty. That allowed him to make some history; on May 17, he caught the franchise’s first no-hitter, working Don Nottebart’s gem at Colt Stadium.
Bateman had the difficult task of trying to catch not one but two knuckleballers on the Colts’ staff, Ken Johnson and Hal Brown. Not surprisingly, he led the league in passed balls and errors. Richards, an ex-catcher himself, worked with him on his catching, including his handling of the knuckleball. By season’s end, his catching of the entire staff impressed the Colt .45s, as did his throwing arm. Some opposing scouts dubbed Bateman the best throwing catcher in the National League.
On offense, Bateman contributed 10 home runs, but hardly ever reached base. With a batting average of .210 and only 13 walks, his on-base percentage rested at .249, terrible for any era. That number would remain the same in 1964, as Bateman lost the starting job to a young Jerry Grote and even went back to the minor leagues for some additional seasoning. While Grote’s throwing was not as good as Bateman’s, he was quicker and more mobile behind the plate.
As the Colt .45s prepared to move into the Astrodome (where they became known as the Astros) in 1965, they faced a dilemma: who would start behind the plate, Bateman or Grote? As it turned out, the answer would be neither. The Astros farmed out Grote during the spring, and made Bateman, whose weight had gotten out of control, the backup to another young catcher, Ron Brand. Bateman played in just 45 games before being sent back to Triple-A ball. He continued to struggle against National League pitching, batting only .197.
Then came the breakthrough of 1966. After the Astros traded Grote to the New York Mets, Bateman wrested the job away from Brand and found his hitting stroke. He lifted his average to .279, his on-base percentage to .315, and his home run total to 17. All three numbers represented career highs—and by large margins. At 25 years of age, Bateman appeared to be the Astros’ catcher of the present and future.
Bateman also emerged as the leader of the team. His sense of humor made him popular with his teammates; his temper made him something else with the umpires, who ejected him six times. But the Astros knew that Bateman always had their back.
On paper, the Astros looked set, but the environment posed problems for Bateman. Houston now played in the Astrodome, a cavernous ballpark that didn’t cater to a power hitter like Bateman. Pitchers were dominating the game in these years, in part because of changes to the strike zone and a preponderance of pitcher’s parks. Those conditions did not suit a free swinger like Bateman, who already had holes in his swing.
Bateman slumped in 1967, in part because he suffered two significant injuries. “It was just a bad year,” Bateman told John Wilson of The Sporting News. “But one thing that nobody has considered is that I was hurt most of the season. I broke my ankle (costing him six weeks), and when I got back from that, my back gave me trouble.” After the season, Bateman heard reports that the Astros might replace him. So he requested a trade, but the Astros received no semblance of a decent offer.
He would play more frequently in 1968, fending off a charge from young Hal King, but lingering back problems sapped him of much of his power. When the Astros acquired Johnny Edwards in a wintertime trade with the Cincinnati Reds, they left him exposed to the expansion draft. The Montreal Expos, one of two new National League teams, cast their lot with Bateman. With the sixth pick of the draft, the Expos selected the veteran catcher, who was still only 28 years old.
Ever outspoken, Bateman took a verbal shot at the Astros. “This is the greatest organization in the world for making players mad and having them not do their best as a result,” Bateman told The Sporting News. In spite of such candor, other teams wanted his services. Teams needed catchers who could throw and hit with power. Several clubs called Expos general manager Jim Fanning, asking for Bateman. Fanning requested pitching in return, but no team satisfied his demand.
On April 8, the Expos played the first game in franchise history. Batting sixth and serving as Montreal’s catcher, Bateman picked up a hit in five at-bats and scored a run in Montreal’s 11-10 loss to New York. Less than two weeks later, he caught Bill Stoneman’s no-hitter, the first no-no for the new franchise.
As fate would have it, Bateman soon found himself in competition with Ron Brand, his former teammate in Houston. By midseason, Brand took over the starting catching job, relegating Bateman to part-time duty. Appearing in only 74 games, Bateman hit eight home runs and saw his batting average slip to .209. He became a target of fans at Montreal’s Jarry Park, who booed him more loudly than any other Expos player.
Once again, Bateman’s career was firmly planted in the crossroads. He hadn’t hit well for three straight seasons. If he couldn’t make it with an expansion team, his major league days figured to be over.
The next spring, he faced competition for the No. 1 catching job from John Boccabella, and didn’t help himself by reporting to spring training overweight, a chronic problem for him. Big John checked into Expos camp at roughly 215 pounds, a decrease from his weight of 235 pounds in 1969, but still about 15 pounds above the suggested limit. Somehow Bateman lost the excess poundage, reducing his weight to 198 and causing Washington Senators manager Ted Williams to remark: “[Bateman] used to be a slob. Now look at him… excellent shape with a solid swing.”
Only two days before Opening Day, Bateman suffered a bruised kidney in an exhibition game. The injury, significant enough to begin with, became more worrisome when Bateman revealed that he had only one kidney. Bateman missed Opening Day, but upon his return, he moved into the starting lineup. Making a remarkable comeback, he hit 15 home runs and did good work in leading the young Montreal pitching staff.
Bateman’s kidneys made news in another way in 1970, when he was named the chairman of the Canadian Kidney Association. When asked about having only one kidney, Bateman explained that he had lost the other kidney because of a serious high school football accident. In truth, Bateman had never even played football in high school. He had lost the kidney because of a barroom fight during his amateur days. Bateman was drunk and took such a beating that doctors had no choice but to remove the kidney. Figuring the foundation would not have appreciated the true story behind his medical condition, Bateman concocted the tale about playing high school football.
Bateman became something of a cult figure in Montreal, where he was now establishing his home. He worked at a Seagram’s distillery during the winter and often made the rounds at local watering holes. He also attended golf tournaments and lent his name to a number of charitable events. Then in November of 1970, television cameras picked up Bateman taking part in a raid conducted by the Quebec police department. Why Bateman was allowed to participate in such police activity remains something of a mystery, but his involvement did not please Expos manager Gene Mauch. The stern skipper saw the film of the police raid and became upset with Bateman for unnecessarily risking his health and well being.
Mauch also forbade Bateman from participating in an offseason tour of Vietnam, where he had been asked to entertain the troops during the war. Bateman was not pleased that Mauch had vetoed his invitation to join other major league players touring Vietnam, but felt compelled to give in his manager.
Bateman managed to put up similar numbers to what he done in 1970, while doing the bulk of the catching for the Expos. Perhaps the biggest negative in his game was his tendency to bounce into double plays. In 1971, he hit into 27, leading the league and cementing his reputation as one of the slowest runners in the game.
Late in 1971, Bateman became upset when Mauch began to use young catcher Terry Humphrey more and more behind the plate. During the team’s final road trip of the season, Bateman and Mauch argued in the lobby of the St. Louis hotel where the Expos were staying. The two men nearly came to blows before being separated by some of the Expos.
In 1972, Bateman returned to Montreal, but lost the starting catching job to Humphrey in the spring. He became a rarely used backup. Through his first 18 appearances, Bateman accumulated only 32 plate appearances. As the June 15 trading deadline approached, it became apparent that Bateman would move on. Just one day before the deadline, the Expos dealt him to the Philadelphia Phillies, acquiring the left-handed hitting Tim McCarver in return. Coincidentally, McCarver had angered Bateman a few years earlier when he referred to Bateman as a member of baseball’s all-ugly team. “They decided to pick co-captains [of the team],” McCarver told Bateman, “and you were both of them.”
Bateman took on an increased role in Philadelphia, becoming the Phillies’ No. 1 catcher and working regularly with Steve Carlton, who praised his catching and pitch-calling. But outside of Carlton, the Phillies didn’t have much. They were an awful team headed to a last-place finish. While Bateman did good work defensively, he did not perform well with a bat, failing to hit for either average or power.
During the winter, the Phillies released Bateman. Carlton asked the front office to reconsider, but Phillies general manager Paul Owens ruled the day. When no other team showed interest in Bateman, he called it a career.
Done with baseball, Bateman joined an amateur softball team, the Houston Bombers, the champions of the state of Texas. In 1977, Bateman joined an even higher profile team—The King and His Court, headlined by fireballing pitcher Eddie Feigner. Bateman emerged as one of the most prolific home run hitters in fast-pitch softball history. In 1979, he hit 179 home runs during a 221-game season. In 1980, he hit 190 homers while tipping the scales at 240 pounds. Bateman did so well that he earned more money playing for The King and His Court than he had ever accrued during his major league days.
Bateman also coached American Legion ball, but had to cut back his connection to athletics because of mounting physical concerns. He underwent numerous surgeries to his knees, limiting his mobility. More seriously, he began to encounter problems with his remaining kidney. The condition forced him to undergo dialysis three times a week.
His body weakened by dialysis, Bateman struggled with heart disease. On Dec. 3, 1996, he passed away, survived by two ex-wives and three children.
The realities of the calendar tell us that Bateman lived 56 years. That’s about 20 years less than the average life expectancy of an American male. But it would be difficult to find others who lived such an eventful life in such a short span, in terms of setbacks and triumphs, tragedies and achievements. John Bateman was many, many things; boring was not one of them.