Cooperstown Confidential: a tribute to Jack Pierceby Bruce Markusen
September 28, 2012
Jack Pierce’s family is still struggling with his unexpected death earlier this month. The former Tiger and Brave died in Mexico from a pulmonary embolism, the result of complications that occurred after seemingly successful surgery. He was only 64.
If you didn’t grow up collecting baseball cards in the 1970s, you may not recall much about Jack Pierce. I remember him primarily from his 1975 and ‘76 Topps cards, which show him as a first baseman with the Tigers. But there is a lot more to his story than two random baseball cards.
Born Lavern Jack Pierce, he must have faced his share of ribbing over his given first name. Not surprisingly, he became known as Jack. And that was an appropriate name in light of his baseball talents. A left-handed hitter with enormous power, Pierce often put on majestic pre-game hitting displays, as he launched home run after home run into the right field stands. Pierce’s batting practice exhibitions became must-see viewing for fans who were wise enough to show up early to the ballpark.
Originally drafted by the Mets in 1968, Pierce opted not to sign. Two years later, he was taken in the second round by the Braves. Moving through the Braves’ minor league system quickly, Pierce looked like the first baseman of the future. But the Braves felt that he needed to switch positions. “The Braves sent me to Arizona as a catcher, my main position in junior college,” Pierce told The Sporting News. “They had me catch Phil Niekro and he about beat me to death with knucklers…. Looking back, I might have made it faster as a catcher. But they didn’t catch me after that.”
As a first baseman, his path to the major leagues was blocked by Orlando Cepeda. That roadblock was apparently alleviated in the middle of the 1972 season when the Braves traded the “Baby Bull” to the A’s for Denny McLain. But the Braves had other young first basemen in the system, particularly Andre Thornton and Jim Breazeale. So Pierce remained in the Southern League as the Braves played Hank Aaron at first base and tried a young veteran like Mike Lum in right field.
With Lum showing little power and struggling to hit .230, the Braves gave Pierce a look early in 1973. The tryout amounted to 20 at-bats; Pierce picked up just one hit and earned a ticket back to the minor leagues, this time with the Triple-A Richmond Braves, where he struggled to hit with power.
Pierce did not start the 1974 season with Atlanta, nor did he begin the season at Richmond. Strangely, the Braves sent Pierce to Jalisco, a team in the Mexican League. Playing in Mexico for the first of many times, Pierce tormented Mexican League pitchers. His performance would portend future greatness south of the border.
The Braves rewarded Pierce by calling him up in September, but his time in Atlanta lasted an eye blink. He managed just one single in nine at-bats. Call it a small sample size, but the Braves believed that Pierce was no longer part of their future. So the following spring, they traded him to the Tigers for another first base prospect, the right-handed hitting Reggie Sanders (not be confused with the Reggie Sanders who later played for the Reds and the Royals).
After his good performance at Triple-A Evansville, the Tigers promoted Pierce. He did respectably as a backup, hitting eight home runs in 120 at-bats and slugging a passable .424. Unfortunately, the Tigers had two other young, left-handed hitting first basemen in Dan Meyer and Jason Thompson. Regarding Thompson and Meyer as better players, the Tigers considered Pierce as no more than a backup, an insurance policy.
Pierce took some of the blame for his inability to rate higher on the depth chart. “But if I had been playing better at the time,” Pierce told The Sporting News, “maybe they wouldn’t have been able to take me out of the lineup so early.”
Pierce’s defensive play might have been the culprit. “I know I made some mistakes in the field… Dumb mistakes… mistakes I never made before in my life. I messed up… I just had a horse manure year fielding.” If nothing else, Pierce deserved credit for brutal honesty in assessing his efforts at first base.
His career at the crossroads, Pierce chose to return to Mexico, this time with a team in Puebla. In 1977, Pierce hit 36 home runs to lead the Mexican League. That represented the first of his three home run crowns. He also slugged a phenomenal .599 and hit .331. Without a doubt, Pierce had achieved stardom in the Mexican League, where the caliber of play was considered somewhere between Triple-A and Double-A.
Pierce was the Mexican League’s top slugger, but like most of the players there, he did not make much money. So he jumped when a more lucrative offer arrived from the Japanese Leagues. The Nankai Hawks enticed Pierce, but he struggled to adjust to the culture of Japan, not to mention the style of pitching. He hit only .227 with 13 home runs in 1977. The Hawks waited until just before Opening Day of 1978 before deciding to release him.
Pierce could have given up, but still only a few months short of his 30th birthday, he felt he had more to offer. He shopped himself to major league clubs, finally enticing the Mariners, a recent American League expansion team, to offer him a minor league contract.
He played two seasons at two different Triple-A stops for Seattle, including the Spokane Indians of the Pacific Coast League. Thanks to his strong sense of humor and outgoing personality, Pierce became one of the most popular players in the history of Spokane baseball.
Batting .280 with 16 home runs for Spokane, Pierce did not sufficiently impress the Mariners’ brass. With no major league roster spot in the offing, Pierce moved on. So for the third time, Pierce returned to the Mexican League, where he would begin the most impressive phase of his professional career.
Pierce’s third stint in Mexico did not begin well. He hit only .198 in 32 games. But his struggles were more a matter of adjustment than lack of talent. The next year, playing in a strike-shortened season, Pierce led the Mexican League with 17 home runs.
No one knew it at the time, but Pierce was now home. He would remain in the Mexican League for the rest of his career, putting in time with a bevy of teams.
The changes in uniform would not hurt his recognition. With his chunky sideburns and big-boned body, Pierce would become an easily identifiable figure in Mexico. More importantly, he would have a huge impact on the field. Perennially among the league leaders in home runs, slugging and RBIs, Pierce emerged as a Mexican League legend. When the league adopted a livelier ball in 1984, no one took great advantage of the change than Pierce. He batted .364 and slugged an otherworldly .659 that season.
For many years, the legendary Hector Espino had been considered the greatest slugger in Mexican League history. He was nicknamed “The Babe Ruth of Mexico.” Some regarded him as the Mexican equivalent of Aaron. So to be compared to Espino in any way, one had to achieve elite status in the Mexican League.
In 1986 while playing for the unaffiliated Leon Braves, Pierce won his third home crown. Far more significantly, he broke Espino’s single-season record of 46 home runs. Pierce easily surpassed Espino’s mark, finishing with 54 home runs. That total remains the current record in Mexican League history. He also achieved career highs with a .783 slugging percentage and a .381 batting average. As if those numbers weren’t staggering enough, Pierce took on additional responsibility as Leon’s player-manager.
In 1987, Pierce saw his numbers fall off dramatically, but he still slugged .516. Even approaching his 40th birthday, he appeared to have plenty of hitting ability left. Yet, Pierce was not interested in enduring a decline. After 11 seasons in the Mexican League, including 294 home runs, which placed him eighth on the league’s all-time list, Pierce decided to call it quits.
To this day, Pierce continues to rank among the top ten home run hitters in the history of minor league ball. For his career in Mexico, Pierce batted an even .300 and slugged .553. Not surprisingly, such an output earned him a place in the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Espino and former major leaguers like Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Martin Dihigo, Minnie Minoso, Aurelio Rodriguez, Andres Mora, Teddy Higuera, Aurelio Lopez and Enrique Romo.
As much of a reputation as Pierce forged in Mexico as a player, he wasn’t quite done. He remained in Mexico, working as a manager in the 1990s before becoming a Mexican-based scout for a variety of teams, including the Braves, Padres, White Sox, Diamondbacks and Red Sox. Among the players he scouted and signed were slugging infielder Vinny Castilla and right-hander Armando Reynoso, the latter being a fellow member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.
Most recently, Pierce served as a coach for the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League. After the Sultans completed the 2012 season, Pierce went into the hospital for a hip replacement. The surgery went successfully, but he then suffered a fall. He had to return to the hospital for a second operation. After the surgery, Pierce suffered a pulmonary embolism and passed away.
His death makes little sense to his family and friends. About all that makes sense is what Jack did with his professional life. When he realized that his major league career would not gain traction, he found a second career in Mexico. He made himself into a legend, first as a player and then as a scout. Along the way, he met many strangers and made many friends, mostly on the strength of his ability to talk and teach and laugh. Jack Pierce found a way to make a life in baseball.
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.
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