Cooperstown Confidential: The wonderful world of Manny Mota

Few ballplayers, no matter how good or even great, will ever have their names mentioned in a major motion picture. That stuff is mostly reserved for the legends, the iconic likes of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, and Robinson.

Yet, there are exceptions to this rule of celebrity. Manny Mota is one of those. If you remember the classic comedy hit of 1980, Airplane!, you might recall that the names of two journeymen ballplayers were mentioned during the film. As troubled pilot Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) takes control of the damaged airplane, he starts to hear voices in his head. One of the voices is a public address announcer making the following irrelevant announcement. “Now batting for Pedro Borbon… Manny Mota… Mota… Mota.” The strange, immaterial announcement produces a moment of comedy while illustrating Stryker’s fragile mental state.

Mota and the late Borbon (who died in 2011) will never be confused for Ruth, Mantle, or Robinson. But they were sufficiently intertwined with baseball in the 1970s to merit inclusion in one of the funniest movies ever made. It also shouldn’t matter that Mota and Borbon were never teammates in the major leagues. (Perhaps the fact checkers for Airplane did not do their homework. Or more likely, they considered the small factual error irrelevant in a film that parodied the Airport movies of the 1970s.) What should matter is that Mota and Borbon managed to carve out a niche in the game while having an effect on American culture, when most players struggle to achieve any kind of social notoriety.

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Why is this pertinent today? Mota made news earlier this spring when he was named one of the three new inductees of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. Mota, Lefty O’Doul, and Eddie Feigner will be honored as members of the Class of 2013 at the Reliquary’s induction ceremony in July. In contrast to the Hall of Fame, the Shrine does not elect players based on their statistical achievements or their level of greatness. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) bears no relevancy in this argument. Rather, election to the shrine, which consists of a fan vote, is based on the player (or anyone else connected to the game) having a significant impact on American culture.

Born in the Dominican and signed as an amateur free agent, Mota began to build his baseball legacy in 1962, when he made his debut for the pennant-winning Giants. After the season, the outfield-rich Giants opted to deal with their excess of young outfielders by trading Mota to the expansion Houston Colt .45s for infielder Joey Amalfitano. But Mota would never appear in a game for the Colts. Just before Opening Day in 1983, the Colt .45s foolishly traded Mota to the Pirates for journeyman outfielder Howie Goss.

With the Pirates, Mota would establish a reputation as one of the game’s most productive singles hitters. Platooning with outfielders like Jerry Lynch and Bill Virdon, Mota showed himself capable of hitting in the .270s while filling in capably as a left fielder and center fielder. By 1966 and ‘67, Mota had become an offensive force, as he posted averages of .332 and .321 in back-to-back seasons.

Blocked by a starting outfield trio of Willie Stargell, Matty Alou, and Roberto Clemente, Mota made the best of the situation by evolving into a role as the game’s best fourth outfielder. Mota benefited from the hitting instruction of manager Harry Walker, who emphasized the importance of hitting line drives and ground balls, and the friendship of Clemente, who provided his fellow Latino with guidance and advice in making the transition to the States.

Mota also contributed with his defense and his versatility. He could handle all three outfield positions and possessed enough flexibility to fill in at third base and second base.

The Pirates would have loved nothing better than to keep Mota in the role of fourth outfielder, but baseball’s decision to expand by four teams ruined that plan. After the 1968 season, the newly-formed Montreal Expos selected the 30-year-old Mota with their first pick in the expansion draft.

Mota started the 1969 season by hitting .315 in his first 31 games. But the impressive batting average came with a caveat. Mota did not drive in a single run through his first 97 plate appearances. He showed virtually no power. Additionally, he was already 31 years old, hardly the age desired by a young and building expansion club.

So on June 11, just four days before the old trading deadline, the Expos decided to make a move. They sent Mota and shortstop Maury Wills to the Dodgers for first baseman/outfielder Ron Fairly and utility infielder Paul Popovich.

No one could have known it at the time, but Mota and the Dodgers would begin an association that would last the better part of 40 years, including time as a player and coach. During his first four seasons with the Dodgers, Mota would hit better than .300 as a platoon outfielder and pinch-hitter.

In 1972, he hit .324 and earned some back-of-the-ballot consideration in the National League MVP race. In 1973, despite being a reserve outfielder and platoon player, he was selected to his first and only All-Star teams by Cincinnati’s Sparky Anderson.

Mota’s proclivity with the bat helped make him a favorite with members of the Los Angeles media. As famed sportswriter Jim Murray once described, Mota could wake up at two o’clock in the morning and hit an aspirin tablet with a toothpick, lining it to right field for a single.

By 1974, the 36-year-old Mota was no longer playing semi-regularly, as the Dodgers instituted a youth movement. Mota moved into the next phase of his career, serving almost strictly as a pinch-hitting specialist. Over the next six years, he never accumulated more than 72 plate appearances in a single season. He hit a grand total of one home run during that span. But he consistently posted batting averages of better than .280, reaching a peak of .395. Most importantly, he became the game’s most prolific pinch-hitter.

During the final days of the 1979 season, Mota collected his 146th career pinch-hit, breaking the major league record set by Smoky Burgess in the 1960s. The milestone pinch-hit capped off another successful season for Mota, who hit .357 in 42 at-bats. That October, President Carter took notice of Mota’s milestone by inviting him to the White Office so that he could personally offer him his congratulations.

Unfortunately, the Dodgers seemed to take more notice of Mota’s birth certificate than his batting average. He was now 41. At the end of the 1979 regular season, the Dodgers released Mota, though they would retain him as the team’s batting coach.

Yet, Mota wasn’t done. Realizing that he still possessed the ability to swing the bat (if not chase down fly balls in left field), the Dodgers took advantage of the expanded regular season roster and activated Mota in September of 1980. Coming to bat seven times, all as a pinch-hitter, the geriatric Mota delivered three more hits. Even at 42, Mota could still swat line drives into the seams of a team’s defense.

After a one-game cameo in 1982, Mota finally called it quits as a player, stepping aside with a lifetime average of .304. But he stayed with the Dodgers as their fulltime hitting coach. He would remain in the position for most of the decade, before transitioning into a role as a part-time coach. Mota would serve as a Dodger coach for a total of 33 seasons, before being taken off the staff and moved into an expanded role as a Spanish language broadcaster in the spring of 2013.

In looking at Mota’s career, his legacy is pronounced on several fronts, making him a deserving candidate for the Baseball Reliquary. Let’s consider these three areas where Mota has had a profound impact.

*Mota perfected the art of pinch-hitting, as evidenced by his lifetime mark of .297 in such situations. Balanced in his batting stance and approach, Mota used a compact and level swing to skillfully spray the ball to all fields. He was particularly adept at taking inside pitches to right field, thanks to a controlled inside-out swing. An aggressive hitter, he showed special aptitude in handling high pitches that most other hitters would have found daunting.

Pinch-hitting has become a lost art, particularly in an era where teams carry too many pitchers and too few backup position players. The pool of good pinch-hitters is simply not very deep. There is no one in today’s game who can match Mota’s skill in coming off the bench and delivering a good at-bat and a line drive—seemingly at a moment’s notice. It might be accurate to call Mota the last of the great pinch-hitters.

*As much as his long playing career, Mota’s staying power as a coach has made him a Dodger favorite. His 33-year tenure with the Dodgers ranks as the second-longest streak for a coach with one team, with only Nick Altrock (42 years) exceeding that number. Mota’s fun-loving, upbeat personality won him the favor of most players, who came to view him as a positive force around the ballpark. His ability to speak both English and Spanish allowed him to connect with both American and Latino ballplayers, an especially important consideration for a batting coach. In particular, Mota became a role model and a positive influence on the many Latino ballplayers who played for the Dodgers from 1980 to the present day.

*Mota has become the patriarch of one of baseball’s greatest families. Two of his sons, Jose and Andy, went on to professional careers as ballplayers, including short tenures in the major leagues. His other sons, Gary and Tony, played minor league ball. One of his cousins, Jose Baez, played for the Mariners in the late 1970s. And then there is the admirable work that he and his wife Margarita have done in running the Manny Mota International Foundation. The organization provides assistance to underprivileged youngsters and their families in both the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Like the late Clemente, Mota conducts free baseball clinics for disadvantaged children.

Earning a mention in one of the best comedic films of all-time ranks as a pretty good accomplishment in and of itself. But there is much more to Manny Mota than that, as fans of the Baseball Reliquary already know very well.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    Hi Bruce,

    Another great article, as always. Thank you.

    Not sure though I would call Mota the “last of the great pinch hitters” though as I recall Rusty Staub being a great pinch hitter for the Mets through the mid-80s and both Julio Franco and Lenny Harris pinch hitting for the Mets after Staub.  I believe Lenny Harris even set a record for most pinch hit AB in a season w 83 in 2001.

  2. Frank Jackson said...

    I recall that Manny Mota was the essence of cool in my youth.  It was simply an accepted fact.  Hard to say why, but the alliteration of the name helped. 

    Something about being a pinch-hitter also.  You sit there all day or night, just watching the game, then you pick up a bat and take a few swings.  If you succeed, you have to do a little baserunning, if you don’t, you go back and sit down again.  For that modest effort, you get a big league salary plus ample meal money.  Nice work if you can get it!

  3. Dennis Bedard said...

    His name had a certain panache.  It symbolized his style.  Sort of like Rocky Colavito and Dave Kingman.  You didn’t need to read a box score to know they hit a lot of home runs The list could go on.  His name reminded me of Road Runner.  The Mota was almost synonymous with motor.  You could pronounce his name very quickly.  I don’t know if he was a fast base runner but his name pronounced in rapid succession made me think he was.  I always confused him with Matty Alou, another player who hit a lot of singles and played for the Pirates.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    Mota’s stance and swing were about as technically perfect as ever displayed.  He was calm and sure and his head stayed extremely still.  He almost never swung and missed at a pitch, and he squared up damn near everything.

    As a Giants’ fan, Mota’s lurking presence in the Dodger dugout late in a close game was bone-chilling.

  5. BlftBucco said...

    It always amazed me how the late 70’s Dodgers were able to keep both Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo on the active roster at the same time when both had such limited playing roles.

  6. Steve Treder said...

    Well, not carrying 19 relief pitchers on the roster allows for creative use of the bench.  grin

  7. BlftBucco said...

    Steve,

    So True. 

    With the fact that their starting eight hardly ever sat out a game and their starting pitching rotation was so solid, I’d normally would have had a hard time remembering their bullpen.

    But thinking of Reggie Jackson quickly refreshed my memory!

  8. bucdaddy said...

    Harry Walker essentially taught Matty Alou the same thing, and Matty became a batting champ for the Pirates. Harry must have figured especially for Mota, who was right-handed, there was no point of a guy with little pop in the first place to try challenging the distant walls of Forbes Field, so: Slap and hit line drives and run.* Pagan also found second life (after age 30) as a sort of super-sub for the Pirates.

    I have a vague memory of seeing, when I was a kid, Mota hit a screaming line-drive homer over the screen above the right-field wall at Forbes. The distance down the RF line was so short (as opposed to the loooong LF line) that they put a 20- or 30-foot screen above the wall to take away cheap home runs. It seemed to my kid brain that Manny’s homer took about 1.2 seconds to clear the screen. It was hit well, and hit hard.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories.

    *—Actually, that’s not a bad idea for a lot of players in most parks.

  9. Northern Rebel said...

    I think a lot of younger fans don’t realize how much the ‘60’s, and early ‘70s were dominated by pitching. It was truly the second dead ball era.

    Yet Mota thrived, as did Ty Cobb, and Johnny Evers, in the pre-Ruthian era.

    I always considered a .250 pinch hitting average, the equivalent of a .300 average for an everyday player. It is a difficult situation, always coming to the plate in a pressurized situation EVERYTIME!

  10. Buffalo Amateur said...

    He also marketed Manny Mota Stick, a tanners grip stick that is used along with or as a better substitute to pine tar by batters. Think he’s out of that business now as many have copied the product now but up until a few years ago, our amateur team would only use Manny Mota Stick in his honor!

  11. Northern Rebel said...

    You know, I consider myself an amateur historian, and a statistical nut. But some of the people that post here, make Bill James seem like a technical novice.

    James’ skill is making the complex simple for digestion. Most of the anylitical folks are incapable of that talent.
    I tune in for these kind of articles!
    Awesome job, and thank you.

  12. dennis Bedard said...

    Hey Bruce, no mention of the card?  Has to be one of the most interesting ones yet.  An Expos player wearing a Pirate uniform and a brushed out cap.  But the big question is who is the player in the background?  It looks like a number 11 which in 1968 would be Jose Pagan for the Pirates.  Pagan was a journeymen himself but both his and Mota’s career at that time highlights something that has been discussed many times on this site:  Pittsburgh heavily recruited black and Hispanic players in the late 50’s and 60’s not out of any altruistic motives but because it is was good business. Ditto the Giants and Cardinals.  Nice post on an almost forgotten player.

  13. Bruce Markusen said...

    Dennis, I’ll have to do a Card Corner on this Mota card at some point. I didn’t want to dissect the card in this article since I wanted the focus to be on Mota himself.

  14. Cliff Blau said...

    The last great pinch-hitter was probably Matt Stairs.  He pinch hit 490 times with a .833 OPS, slightly better than his overall average.

    Actually, the guy who did best as a PH relative to his overall performance was Alex Arias.

    Among active players, Mark Kotsay seems to have the highest BA @ .295.

    (All minimum 200 games as PH)

  15. Shaun in Juneau said...

    Fantastic article Bruce, as a new regular here I really enjoy your articles on players from my youth. Thanks

  16. bucdaddy said...

    I had that game. IIRC, it allowed for primitive sabrmetrics. I used to try to collect the guys with the big HR slices, but a kid I often played against, slightly older than I was, collected the guys with the big walks slices and kicked my ass most of the time.

  17. Dennis Bedard said...

    The gold standard in baseball board games was Strat O Matic.  Invented by Hal Richman in the 50’s.  I recently read a very good biography of him by Glenn Guzzo, “Strat O Matic Fanatic.”  Between that game and the Sporting News I fell in love with baseball.

  18. John Szczepanski said...

    Even before I saw him play, I knew Manny Mota from the All-Star Baseball board game, played with cards and a spinner. Developed by Cadaco-Ellis (I had to look that up), ASB featured circular cards that mimicked each batter’s hitting stats. Your sluggers like Willie Stargell had a larger-than-normal “slice” that represented homers. In contrast, Manny Mota may not have even had a space on his card for homers, but his spaces for singles (number 7 and 13) were HUGE. I loved saying his name out loud, “Now batting, Mannnny Motttaaa…” then spinning the needle to see that, yes, he got another one-bagger. Ah, the memories…

  19. DanC said...

    Great article Bruce. Manny Mota was the most under rated .300 hitter in baseball history for the era he played in.

  20. DanC said...

    I had the Strato-matic 1970 season cards. Manny Mota was on the Dodgers that year. The highest hitter that year for LA. This was before calculator’s were invented. I had to add up the stats with one of those old style calculators that used a stylus to move the numbers. I played the whole season with both leagues. It took me 3 years.

  21. Pedro Genaro Rodríguez said...

    Mota and Borbon were indeed teammates, playing for the LICEY tigers in Dominican Republic during the 70s. The voices in the head of Ted Striker could be a remembrance from Winter League Games in Dominican Republic, not necessarily from MLB.

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