Dick Stuart: A DH before his time

The origins of nicknames, like jokes, are obscure. Some come and go quickly; others have more staying power.

And so it is that in the year 2012, 10 years after his death, Dick Stuart is still fondly remembered as Dr. Strangeglove. People who never saw him play remember that nickname. People who weren’t born when he retired remember that nickname. After all, having heard it once, how could you ever forget it?

Actually, he had another good nickname, but I’ll save that for the end of the article.

Since Stanley Kubrick’s renowned film Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, we can easily designate the nickname’s year of origin (the 1958 novel the film was based on was titled Red Alert), even if we can’t pinpoint the wit who added the “g.” Even so, we can marvel at what a difference a consonant makes.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt Stuart’s legend that Dr. Strangelove is a classic American movie with a prominent place in popular culture. Had the film been more obscure and disappeared after release, Stuart’s nickname might have disappeared, or might never have been coined.

In retrospect, it is clear that Stuart was really a designated hitter before designated hitters were invented. As one wit once expressed, “He’s a Williams type player. He bats like Ted and fields like Esther.” His reputation as a butcher was so secure, he could not have enhanced it short of trading in his first baseman’s mitt for a meat cleaver.

But was Stuart really as bad a fielder as everyone assumes? Was he the Babe Herman of his generation? Or was his reputation more colorful than the reality?

Short answer: Yes, he was that bad—and right from the start.

Stuart’s first error came in his first game, a July 10, 1958 contest (Cubs 8, Pirates 7) at Wrigley Field. Appropriately, he also hit his first big league home run in the ninth inning, as the Pirates’ five-run uprising almost caught the Cubs. The attendance for that game is listed at 35,000, and I’ll wager that not one of those fans realized that a legend was born that day, for Stuart went on to lead his league in errors for eight straight years.

Some years he tied with someone else for most errors, some years he led only his league and some years he led all major league baseball. So there’s no doubt his reputation as a lousy fielder was well deserved.

Stuart himself often said that the day 30,000 Pittsburgh fans gave him a standing ovation for snaring a windblown hot dog wrapper was one of his most memorable days in the big leagues.

Of course, to stay in the major leagues, he had to have some offensive punch (he retired with 1,055 hits and 228 home runs). Indeed, Stuart arrived with great expectations. In 1956 he hit 66 home runs at Class A ball. With stats like that, you can’t help but turn heads. A season like that assures a higher ranking in your organization’s depth chart.

Stuart’s 1958 rookie season with the Pirates was impressive in more ways than one. In 254 at bats, he clubbed 16 home runs and drove home 48. Not a bad half-season for a rookie. True, he struck out 75 times, but his most salient shortcomings were in the field, not in the batter’s box.

Stuart tied Orlando Cepeda for the league lead in errors with 16 even though he appeared in the field in only 64 games. His fielding percentage of .973 might have been acceptable in the 19th century when gloves were primitive and errors were plentiful. But in modern times, a slick-fielding first baseman should have a fielding percentage close to 1.000. And if you check the league leaders, you will see that such is the case.

In 1959, Stuart got more playing time with enhanced results. Offensively, he had 27 home runs and 78 RBI’s to go with a .297 batting average. Defensively, though he played just 105 games at first base, he committed 22 errors, leading the NL.

In 1960, the year the Bucs went all the way, he contributed 23 home runs and 83 RBIs to the cause. He tied the Phillies’ Pancho Herrera (who also lead the league in striking out) for the league lead in errors, but he had cut the total to 14. His fielding percentage improved to .986. He was in no danger of becoming a contender for the Gold Glove, but at least he held out the promise that one day he might join the ranks of mediocre glove men.

In 1961 he again led the league with 21 errors, but he had played 132 games at first base. His fielding percentage dipped slightly to .983, but since he hit 35 home runs and garnered 117 RBIs (his batting average of .301 and his slugging percentage of .581 were both career highs), his defensive liabilities were overshadowed. Surely, he was driving in more runs than he was letting in. So what’s the big deal?

Then in 1962, Stuart had an off-year with the bat. He fell off to 16 home runs, 64 RBIs and a .228 batting average. He didn’t let his offensive struggles affect his fielding, however. He tied for the league lead (with Marv Throneberry, who was enjoying his status as the face of the first-year Mets) in errors with 17. The Pirates responded by trading Stuart to the Red Sox.

Fenway Park proved to be a better fit than spacious Forbes Field for the right-handed slugger, and Stuart actually bettered his 1961 offensive stats. He clubbed 42 home runs and amassed 118 RBIs as the Sox’ everyday first baseman. He had 612 at-bats (a personal best), which gave him the opportunity to commit more errors than ever before: 29, a mark he never surpassed. Again, he led the league in errors, but this time it was the American League.

In 1964 he had 33 round-trippers and drove home 114. And he kept his streak of leading the league in errors with 24. This also marked the season when Stuart attained the career lead among active first baseman with 143 errors. Fittingly, Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, just in time for Stuart’s career achievement.

One can’t help but ponder if Dr. Strangelove (portrayed by Peter Sellers)—crippled as he was—might have been an improvement over Stuart at first base. One can almost see him springing out of his wheelchair and exclaiming, “Mein Führer, I can field!”

Despite Stuart’s offensive heroics for the Red Sox in 1963 and 1964, they traded him to the Phillies, who were apparently looking to add some punch to the lineup after their 1964 meltdown. Despite a .234 average, he hit 28 homers and drove home 95 runs.

The most noteworthy aspect of Stuart’s lone season with the Phillies was that his streak of leading the league in errors came to an end. His 24 errors were certainly a respectable total, but a new champion was on the scene. The Pirates’ Donn Clendenon committed 28 miscues, the first of three consecutive years he led National League first basemen in errors.

Curiously, Stuart’s offensive mojo vanished with his streak. Splitting 1966 with the Mets and the Dodgers he garnered a mere seven home runs and 21 RBIs. He was released by the Dodgers in the offseason but somehow, at age 37, he found a spot on the Angels’ roster in 1969. He was around long enough for only 51 at-bats. He did, however, get one last home run—and one last error. He retired with 169 errors. And a nickname for the ages.

Oh, and that other nickname for Stuart…the Ancient Mariner.

What? That Coleridge poem we had to read in high school? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?

Yep, that’s it. So what’s the connection, you’re wondering?

Well, like Dr. Strangeglove, this nickname pertains to Stuart’s fielding lapses. It derives from the opening lines of the poem:

It is an ancient mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.

A pity Stuart didn’t come out of retirement to play for the Mariners during their inaugural season of 1977. At age 44, after eight years of retirement, Stuart fielding .333 might have been pretty close to the truth.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    I watched “Dr. Strangelove” a few years ago and was surprised how boring it is when Sellers isn’t on screen. I guess it gets a lot of bonus points for being an anti-nuke movie in an era when the government was still pushing the “friendly atom” (though I was a first-grader around the time the movie was released and can remember air raid practice—hiding under my desk was going to save me from a nuclear holocaust).

    FWIW, I see Stuart hit .150 (three singles) in the 1960 Series.

  2. Edmundo said...

    bucdaddy, you don’t like the scenes in the airplane?  “Well, boys, I reckon this is it – nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies. “

    The 1965 Phillies had some error prone corner infielding: Stuart and Dick Allen.

  3. Casper said...

    Well, buc, people had attention spans in those days.

    ‘You can’t fight in here.  This is the war room.’

  4. roadrider said...

    @Edmundo,

    According to Wikipedia Slim Pickens (Major Kong) was not told that the film was a comedy and he was playing it straight up (also, Sellers was originally supposed to play the pilot part but sprained his ankle and could not work in the cramped cockpit set).

    Nevertheless, you are right. The airplane scenes are funny even if they weren’t actually played that way.

  5. Will said...

    I was a fan of Stuart as a kid and had his autograph.  But I had never heard of his “Ancient Mariner” nickname.  That is just hilarious!

  6. Ron said...

    James Earl Jones is one of the crew in the plane, reciting all that “technical” stuff about opening the bomb bay doors near the end, plus the great line, “Hey!  What about Major Kong?”

    He was at a book signing at a store near me and all these kids were trying out their Darth Vader impressions on him….but when I walked by and said “Auto CDC to manual teleflex link” I got a laugh out of him…

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