In one of baseball’s strange coincidences, Paul Blair and Mike Hegan died on back-to-back days last month. They had several points in common. Neither was a remarkable offensive player. For his career, Blair rated about league average, while Hegan was certainly below average for a position like first base, where power and production are expected. Yet, the hitting numbers of these two players don’t begin to capture their value. Blair and Hegan were both players who led with their gloves first, players whom you needed to see in action in order to gain full appreciation of their talents.
I’ve always found Hegan’s story to be particularly compelling, and for a variety of reasons. First off, he came from a great baseball family; he was the son of former catcher Jim Hegan, a defensive stalwart on those fine Indians teams of the 1950s. Strangely, Mike rarely talked baseball with his father, but still pursued a career on the diamond. (It was his mother who most often gave Mike advice about hitting.) Jim eventually became a coach with the Yankees, and that’s exactly where the younger Hegan would make his major league debut.
After signing as an amateur free agent with the Yankees in 1961, Mike received a call to the Bronx in September of 1964, but he played sparingly, picking up no hits in five at-bats. When Tony Kubek and Jake Gibbs went down with last-minute injuries late in the regular season, the Yankees put Phil Linz at shortstop and added Hegan to the World Series roster. That late-season maneuver allowed Hegan to become one of those rare players to appear in a World Series without first having picked up a hit in regular season play.
Hegan remained with the Yankee organization for three and a half more seasons, but his playing career was interrupted by commitments to reserve duty in the National Guard. When he was able to play, there was little opportunity for advancement. He was stuck behind other veterans, first Joe Pepitone and then a fading Mickey Mantle. In 1968, Hegan once again found himself playing at Triple-A when the Yankees came to an intriguing agreement with a team that had yet to begin play. The Yankees agreed to sell Hegan to the expansion Seattle Pilots, who would not begin play until the following spring. Under terms of the agreement, Hegan remained with the Yankees’ affiliate while technically becoming property of the Pilots.
The strange transaction would turn into a big break for Hegan, who would finally receive some significant playing time. After finishing out the summer at Triple-A, he joined the Pilots for their 1969 debut, became a platoon right fielder and backup first baseman, hit the first home run in Pilots history, and made the American League All-Star team. As it turned out, an injury prevented him from playing, so he bowed out, giving way to teammate Don Mincher.
Hegan gained additional fame when his teammate, Jim Bouton, published Ball Four, a diary of Bouton’s 1969 season. One of the more memorable episodes of the book involved Pilots players being asked to fill out a questionnaire. According to Bouton, Hegan gave this response to a question asking about the most difficult thing about being a major leaguer: “Explaining to your wife why she needs to take penicillin for your kidney infection.” Hegan’s one-liner remains one of the most famous quotations in Ball Four.
In 1970, with the Pilots now transferred to Milwaukee, Hegan hit 11 home runs, a career high, and drew 67 walks. While his offensive numbers were respectable, they were hardly typical of what teams wanted from their first baseman, and that was power. Hegan instead hit line drives to all fields, drew walks, and advanced baserunners.
While with the Brewers, Hegan began to show people that he was a terrific defensive first baseman. He had the entire package: soft hands, great range, good throwing arm. Charlie Finley, who was a far better evaluator of talent than he is given credit for, recognized what Hegan could do, having tried desperately to sign him as an amateur player 11 years earlier. Looking for a backup first baseman who could spell Mike Epstein, Finley acquired Hegan in a straight cash deal just before the June 15th trading deadline.
At first, Hegan viewed the trade with skepticism. “It was kind of a mixed emotion because my wife and I had just purchased a home in Milwaukee,” Hegan told me several years ago. “We had come to the Brewers as part of the Seattle Pilots, and at the time we had come to Milwaukee, we were looking at planting some roots and living someplace year-round for a change, something we hadn’t done [before].
“I think at first it was kind of a shock, although I knew the Brewers at that point really didn’t have plans for me to be playing every day. So, if I wasn’t going to play every day in Milwaukee with a team that was struggling, I think the best alternative at that time was to go to a winning team, and have a chance to go to the playoffs and World Series. After the deal set in and once I got to Oakland and I became comfortable with the surroundings, it turned out to be probably the best thing that happened in my career.”
Though Hegan didn’t play much for the A’s in 1971, he would pay major dividends in 1972. A’s manager Dick Williams came to realize just how valuable Hegan could be at first base. At one point, he claimed that Hegan was superior to Wes Parker, a better known first baseman with the Dodgers. A piece of evidence in Hegan’s favor emerged during Game Two of the 1972 World Series.
With the A’s nursing a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth, the Reds had a runner on first and one man out. Cesar Geronimo lashed a line smash down the first base line. Hegan made a fantastic backhanded grab, bobbled the ball before recovering, and then basically crawled to first base to pick up the second out. Hegan says the late afternoon start time of Game Two made the play even more problematic. “It was very difficult to see because you’re in the shadows, and fortunately, when the ball was hit, I just reached out and stabbed; I didn’t catch it cleanly, and had to kind of scramble back to the bag.”
It was a huge play, just about as important as the more celebrated catch by Joe Rudi that directly preceded it. If Hegan had not executed the play, Geronimo likely would have had a double and the Reds would have had the tying runs at second and third with one out. Instead, Hegan brought the A’s within one out of a critical Series win, as the Reds’ rally would end up falling one run short.
That play capped off a fine 1972 season that saw him hit .329 for the A’s as a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter. An argument could be made that Hegan’s season was the best of any bench player in the American League that year.
The following year, the A’s found an additional job for Hegan to undertake. Recognizing his broadcasting ability, the A’s actually asked him to fill in for one of their regular announcers, Jim Woods, that summer. Moments before a July 18th game against the Orioles, Dick Williams told Hegan to put on dress pants and a collared shirt and report to the broadcast booth as a replacement for Woods, who had taken ill. Incredibly, the backup first baseman-turned-broadcaster announced the first three innings of the game against Baltimore, then rode the elevator back to the clubhouse to make himself available for pinch-hitting duty in the later innings. Hegan threw on his A’s uniform and returned to the dugout. Experiences like that would help prepare him for a distinguished career as a broadcaster with the Brewers and Indians.
On the field, Hegan struggled at the plate and in a pinch-hitting role, in contrast to his success in 1972. Life as a reserve player began to wear on him so much that in July he announced his intention to retire at season’s end.
Charlie Finley took heed of Hegan’s declaration. Just a few days later, Finley sold him to the Yankees in what was officially described as a conditional sale. The transaction reunited him with father Jim, who was in his final season as the Yankees’ bullpen coach, and gave him a chance to play. Mike hit well over the balance of the season, earning himself part of a first base platoon with Bill Sudakis at the beginning of the 1974 campaign.
The situation looked promising for Hegan, but the Yankees soon decided on Plan B, making a trade for Indians first baseman Chris Chambliss. With Chambliss targeted for everyday duty, Hegan found himself on the move again, this time sold back to the Brewers. Yet again, Hegan brought no players in return, only cash.
Now in his early thirties, Hegan settled into a role as George Scott’s backup first baseman, while also doing some DH work and playing the outfield corners. He remained in that role through July of 1977, when a .170 batting average cost him his job and resulted in his release. At 34 years of age, Hegan’s playing career was over.
Yet, his second career was about to begin. He soon became a broadcaster with the Brewers before becoming a longtime voice of the Indians. He drew respect for his ability to do both play-by-play and deliver color commentary. It was a job he continued to do well until later in the 2011, when his health forced him to step aside.
I have particularly fond memories of Mike Hegan. He was one of the former A’s players who granted me an interview for A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley‘s Swingin’ A’s. Along with retired players like Don Mincher and Rick Monday, I found Mike to be gracious, thoughtful, insightful, and precise in his ability to recall past events. Among other things, he said that there was no doubt that Billy Martin had ordered Lerrin LaGrow to throw at Bert Campaneris during the 1972 playoffs. Hegan also defended Finley as an owner, emphasizing how Charlie O. often invested money on behalf of his players and quietly helped them solve personal problems without seeking publicity.
Although Hegan’s playing career was over by the time he was 34, it was a tenure packed with substance. His 12-year career included a world championship with the A’s, a pennant with the Yankees, an All-Star Game nod, and a memorable time with a Pilots team made famous by Ball Four.
Well done, Mike. I’m glad that our paths crossed along the way.