Card Corner, 1972 Topps: Ken Berry and F-Troopby Bruce Markusen
December 28, 2012
When you are all of seven years old, you tend to come up with strange ideas, odd beliefs, and weird theories. Along those blurred lines, I used to think that former major league center fielder Ken Berry was the same Ken Berry who served as lead star on the 1960s television show, F-Troop. They had the same name, right? There couldn’t be two people in the world named Ken Berry, could there?
Furthermore, Ken Berry the ballplayer and Ken Berry the actor seemed to be about the same age. The actor who portrayed Captain Wilton Parmenter, the sometimes bumbling but loveable leader of the mythical Fort Courage, seemed young enough and sufficiently athletic to be a ballplayer. I also figured that since the show aired during the fall and winter months, there would be little conflict with a typical baseball season, running throughout the spring and summer. As a naïve seven-year-old in 1972, I had no idea that TV series like F-Troop started filming during the summer months, which would have made it difficult for Berry the baseball player to honor his major league schedule with the Angels.
There was another problem with my theory. When I was watching F-Troop in 1972, I did not realize that the show was actually airing in re-runs. F-Troop had aired live from 1965 to 1967, a mere three-season run, before it was canceled. So if my theory were actually true, Berry the ballplayer would have been filming F-Troop in the mid-1960s, while he was still a member of the White Sox. Can I say that all of this is rather embarrassing, even 40 years later?
In spite of my misguided beliefs, some of the characters on F-Troop could have fit into the stereotypical roles of ballplayers. Sergeant Morgan O’Rourke, played so smoothly by the late Forrest Tucker, might have made for a strapping, left-handed hitting first baseman. Corporal Randolph Agarn, played by comic actor Larry Storch, would have fit right in as a wisecracking utility infielder. And then there was Hannibal Dobbs, portrayed by the excellent character actor James Hampton of The Longest Yard fame, who would have seemed just right as a dazed relief pitcher.
Even the character of Captain Parmenter would have made a good ballplayer, perhaps an outfielder, just like the baseball version of Ken Berry. Parmenter looked lean and fit, and appeared to have enough speed to play center field. And in reality, Berry the actor was also an accomplished dancer and physical comedian, with just the kind of agility needed to be a distinguished center fielder.
Berry the ballplayer won two Gold Gloves for his work in the outfield. His professional journey began in 1961, when he signed as an amateur free agent with the White Sox. It didn’t take long for him to make the major leagues, though his first appearances were mere cameos. Berry sipped three cups of coffee in 1962, '63, and '64 before finally sticking in 1965.
The Sox made him their starting center fielder in 1965. He more than fulfilled their confidence defensively, but struggled badly with a bat in his hand. He batted .218, reached base less than 27 per cent of the time, and struck out 96 times against only 28 walks. Berry did hit 12 home runs, a total that he would never again match, but for the most part he was an offensive cipher for the Sox.
Berry fared better in 1966. He lifted his average to .271 and raised his on-base percentage to .316. Just as significantly, Berry switched positions; the White Sox moved him to left field to make room for Tommie Agee, who was arguably as a good a center fielder as Berry.
Remaining in left field in 1967, Berry put together a 20-game hitting streak and hit so well during the first half of the season that he earned a place on the American League All-Star team. It would be the only All-Star appearance of his career. After the glory of the Midsummer Classic, Berry’s hitting tapered off. He did manage to coax a career-high 46 walks, but his average ended up a disappointing .241 and his slugging percentage rested at a feeble .333, as the Sox narrowly missed out on winning a torrid pennant race against the Red Sox, Tigers and Twins.
In 1968, Berry again switched positions, this time reversing field. An offseason trade sent Agee to the Mets, freeing Berry to return to center field, the position where he could put his defensive talents to optimum use. He made the transition with relative ease, maintaining the center field excellence that Agee had continued.
In today’s game, which demands an offensive premium at almost every position, Berry would have had a difficult time maintaining a starting job. But in the diminished offensive environment of the mid to late '60s, when larger ballparks and expanded strike zones ruled the day, Berry’s offensive output was acceptable. The White Sox forgave his offensive shortcomings because of his defensive brilliance in center field. In the parlance of the day, sportswriters referred to him as an “excellent flychaser.” He got good jumps, tracked the ball relentlessly, and threw the ball strongly and accurately.
Berry did all these deeds with acumen despite lacking the speed of a typical center fielder. An old baseball axiom dictates that center fielders need to be fast baserunners, but Berry was neither particularly fast nor an effective basestealer. Much like Detroit’s Mickey Stanley, Berry displayed only average to slightly above average speed, but he made up for it with a quick first step and a habit of running direct routes.
Berry also became known for a signature play—one that relied less on speed and more on leaping ability—which he performed regularly at Comiskey Park. On deep fly balls, he raced back to the warning track, pushed himself up, and draped himself over the outfield wall. Extending his glove arm, he brought back fly balls that otherwise had home run distance. Berry’s ability to snatch potential home runs and convert them into highlight reel putouts earned him the nickname “The Bandit.”
Berry’s abilities in center field certainly caught the attention of his teammates, several of whom considered him to be at the top of the defensive charts. “Best I’ve ever seen—and I mean No. 1,” left-hander Gerry Arrigo told Jerome Holtzman of The Sporting News. “And I’m including Curt Flood and Bobby Tolan.”
When a reporter countered with Willie Mays, Arrigo provided this response. “But I’ve never seen Willie leap the way [Berry] does. I mean, this guy’s fantastic. He jumps over fences, over walls, over everything. Flood played deep, up against the wall, and Mays plays fairly deep. But this guy—heck, he plays shallow. Never seen anybody get a jump on the ball the way he does. He’s the best I’ve seen in 11 years.”
Berry's reputation for fielding excellence finally gained nationwide recognition in 1970, when he earned his first Gold Glove. Perhaps not coincidentally, that also was one of his finest seasons as a hitter. He hit .276, drew 43 walks, and compiled an on-base percentage of .344.
Ironically, Berry’s best season turned out to be his last in Chicago. With his trade value at a peak, the Sox dealt him and two obscure players to the Angels for defensive-minded catcher Tom Egan, flaky outfielder Jay Johnstone and veteran right-hander Tom Bradley.
By now, Berry was 30 years old and no longer the durable player who consistently appeared in 140-plus games for the White Sox. Playing in only 111 games for the “Hell’s Angels” team of 1971, he put up an OPS of only .578. Berry’s time in center field must have felt like a track meet, what with limited defenders like Alex Johnson and Tony Conigliaro surrounding him. Berry had to attempt to catch everything within reach, a daunting task given the lack of range exhibited by Johnson in left and “Tony C” in right.
Berry hit significantly better in 1972, a season that included a five-RBI performance against the Tigers. He reached a career high with a .289 batting mark, but played in only 119 games. Despite the relative lack of playing time, Berry won the second of his two career Gold Gloves. The following year, he played in 136 games and batted .284.
In spite of a solid performance, 1973 turned out to Berry’s swan song in Southern California. The Angels wanted to make room for a young Mickey Rivers in center field. So after the season, the Halos included Berry in a massive nine-player deal. The trade sent Berry, catcher Art Kusnyer, and left-handers Steve Barber and Clyde Wright to the Brewers for a package that included catcher Ellie Rodriguez, outfielders Ollie Brown and Joe Lahoud, and right-hander Skip Lockwood.
Now 33, Berry became a No. 4 outfielder, spotting Johnny Briggs in left, Bob Coluccio in center and Dave May in right. Serving as a defensive caddy and occasional starter, Berry batted .240 in 267 at-bats.
Given his age, the Brewers decided to release Berry in January of 1975. About a month later, the Indians signed him as a free agent. Indians GM Phil Seghi called Berry the second best defensive outfielder in the American League, behind only Paul Blair.
The buildup did not translate into on-field results. Again used as a backup outfielder, Berry batted only .200 in 40 at-bats before drawing his release at the end of May.
Berry’s playing career had come to an end, but he would eventually return to the game in other capacities. In 1988, he became a technical consultant for the hit film Eight Men Out, and even made a cameo as a fan. By then, he was in the midst of a minor league managing career, which included stops in Oneonta and Birmingham. Later on, he became a minor league coach. He would have seemed like a natural to teach defensive play, but the Mets actually hired him as a minor league hitting instructor in 1995.
As a coach for the Pittsfield Mets in 1999, Berry came to upstate New York for a game against the Oneonta Yankees, giving this writer a chance to interview him. Approachable and polite, Berry gladly answered my questions. He told me that the biggest change he had seen in baseball involved the level of hitting instruction; when Berry played, very few coaches were available to help a struggling young hitter. I sensed that Berry wished he could have talked to a Charlie Lau, a Walt Hriniak, a Jim Frey, or a Lou Piniella during his playing days.
After putting in some time as a roving minor league coach with the Brewers, Berry is now 71 and retired from baseball. Ken Berry the actor is also retired, which is certainly understandable given that he is now past his 80th birthday.
That leaves me with just one question: Have the two Ken Berrys ever met? I would like to think that they have. A meeting would probably bring a laugh or two. And if only I had seen the two of them at the same time in 1972, I could have avoided some of the confusion and embarrassment that comes with being seven years old.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.