Viva Vino! An underappreciated Wineby Frank Jackson
December 16, 2011
While it is fairly easy to find baseball lists that accentuate the positive (the positive, the positive) and eliminate the negative (the negative, the negative), David Nemec’s Great Baseball Feats, Facts & Firsts (Plume Books, New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontario, 1987) includes both. So when I discovered a chart for “Lowest Career Batting Average by Position (Minimum 3,000 at Bats)” on page 301, my attention was riveted.
Some of the low achievers Nemec listed were familiar, some were not. There were a couple of sluggers: Dave Kingman (.236), representing first basemen, and Gorman Thomas (.225), representing all outfielders (curiously, the outfield was not broken down by left, right and center). Second baseman Bobby Knoop (.236) was there, but I remembered he had always been renowned for his fielding, not his hitting. Pitcher Ron Herbel was as close to an automatic out as you can get, as he had come to bat 206 times (the minimum for pitchers was 200 AB) with just an .029 batting average to show for it.
I learned about third baseman Lee Tannehill (.220), one of the mainstays of the White Sox’ famed Hitless Wonders of 1906; also another dead ball player, catcher Bill Bergen, who played 11 years for Cincinnati and Brooklyn, mostly with the latter, with a career average of .170. One can only assume that he must have called one hell of a game, or had a rifle arm, or been a jim dandy handler of pitchers, or that he had married into the Ebbetts family.
All of the above was interesting to me in an academic way, but there was one name that stopped me cold. Occupying the shortstop slot, with a career batting average of .215, was the first major league baseball player I had actually met: Bobby Wine. I was a mere lad of 12, and at that tender age, I had no inkling I was in the presence of a ballplayer who had a date with destiny.
After almost five decades, my memories of that meeting are hazy. The meeting was in an automobile driven by my Little League coach, an elderly gentleman who seemed to be very well connected and very well known in local baseball circles. About his career, I knew nothing. People simply said of him, “He’s a baseball man,” which explains everything and nothing. Despite his grandfatherly appearance, he had somehow managed to snare a much younger wife, which was occasionally whispered about by the parents of the players on my team. I didn’t care about such things then, but now as I approach his age, all I can say is “Way to go, old-timer!”
Along for the ride was his son (age-wise, he would have been more appropriate as a grandson), who was not much of a ballplayer—indeed, in today’s parlance, he was something of a slacker—but since his dad was the coach, he was on the team; that was axiomatic in youth league teams. Dad wasn’t a total pushover, however. He rarely put his son into a game. In fact, the only lasting memory I have of his son was a joke he told me: “What word begins with F and ends with U-C-K?” he once asked me. Give up? “Firetruck!” Well, it seemed funny at the time, but eventually I learned that fire truck is two words, not one. That one measly detail undermines the whole joke, so while I remember it to this day, in good conscience, as a former English major, I have not repeated it until this very moment.
At any rate, I was in the car with my manager and his son and we were going to pick up Bobby Wine on our way to a baseball banquet. At the time, I didn’t think of it, but in retrospect, it seems rather odd that Wine didn’t just drive to the banquet himself. Still, keeping in mind the old maxim that home-run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles-hitters drive Fords, one can’t help but wonder what weak-hitting shortstops drive. Not the baseball, obviously (at least not with great frequency) but what kind of cars do they drive? Used Fords maybe? Or did they take public transit? Did they walk? Wine did—he drew 214 bases on balls in his career! He also drew 53 intentional walks, which may seem high for a .215 lifetime hitter, but assuming he usually batted eighth, it’s likely that with a base open in a tight game, he was often walked to get to the pitcher.
Now, the only time I ever saw him in street clothes, he walked up to the car, opened the passenger-side door, and climbed into the front seat. Then he turned around to shake my hand. With those high cheekbones, that buzz cut, and slight overbite, there was no mistaking him. That was him, all right, Robert Paul “Bobby” Wine, just like in the Phillies yearbook, and he talked to my manager as though they were old friends.
I don’t really have much memory of the banquet that evening. I suspect these functions haven’t changed much over the years, so if you’ve been to one recently, you can probably re-create my experience. In those days, I was never big on attending events that required me to wear a dress shirt, tie and sport coat. I used to feel nothing but pity for the boys who attended parochial schools and had to play dress-up every day. Then in the fall of 1962, I was sent to a private school where I had to play dress-up every day. If ever I needed an excuse for self-pity, there it was!
Well, in those days, Bobby Wine’s major league baseball career was just beginning, but my career in organized baseball was pretty much over. Once I realized that going to the beach was as valid a summertime option as baseball, the latter tended to become more and more a spectator sport and less a participant sport. Not that I was a total slug in the summer: Learning the proper techniques of body surfing is trickier than you might think.
While attending Phillies games or watching them on television (preferably from the Jersey Shore), I remember Bobby Wine as a major presence throughout the 1960s, just like the more renowned Jim Bunning, Richie (later Dick) Allen, Chris Short and Johnny Callison. At 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds, he wasn’t particularly slender, as many shortstops (e.g., Mark Belanger) were, and he wasn’t one of those scrawny middle infielders bristling with hustle (e.g., Larry Bowa). He didn’t have speed to burn, as his stolen base record proves (in 1967, his best season, he stole three bases and was caught twice).
What he did have were good hands and a strong arm, and I suspect he was knowledgeable about where to position himself versus National League hitters. He was the proverbial good-field, no-hit shortstop. Remember those guys in days of old? When they talked about strength up the middle, a slick-fielding shortstop was a must—never mind what he hits. If he chips in with the occasional timely hit that’s a bonus. In today’s high-charged offenses, there is no room for good-field, no-hit anythings, other than pitchers in the National League.
For that reason, I do not hesitate to say that today Wine would never garner as many at-bats as he did during his career with the Phillies and the Expos. In fact, just being a back-up shortstop wouldn’t be good enough to place him on a roster today. With most major league clubs carrying 12 pitchers (as near as I can remember, 10 was the standard in Wine’s day), the bench players, fewer in number, must be more versatile. These days, a light-hitting shortstop might be qualified only to be an infield coach. In fact, after his playing days were over, Wine re-joined the Phillies as a coach. He later served in the same capacity for the Atlanta Braves. In 1985, he even managed the then-lowly Braves for the final 41 games of the season and remained in the organization as a scout.
Actually, the beginning of Wine’s career was hardly disastrous. By the offensive standards of the day, his rookie season in 1962 wasn’t bad at all. Sharing the shortstop position with Ruben Amaro, he came to bat 311 times and ended up hitting .244, not exactly unheard of for shortstops in those days (the veteran Amaro finished the season at .243). But we must put Wine’s achievement—and his career—in context. Though he played a few games for the Phillies in 1960, he did not play for them in the nadir season of 1961.
During his rookie season of 1962, the Phillies were arguably a team on the rise. This probably would have evoked profuse laughter among the sportswriters and fans at spring training in Clearwater that year, but clearly the signs were favorable. For one thing, the Phillies had finally bottomed out. Admittedly, the no-place-to-go-but-up philosophy might have sounded good a few years before. In 1958, they finished last (eighth place in those pre-expansion, pre-division days) with a 69-85 record. So truly there was no place to go but up, right?
Wrong! You couldn’t finish ninth, but you could sink deeper into last place. Before the word “quagmire” was expropriated by political pundits to describe United States military misadventures, the word was an apt fit for the Philadelphia National League Baseball Club in the late '50s and early '60s. The Phillies sunk (or is it stunk?) to 64-90 in 1959, 59-95 in 1960 and the low-water mark, 47-107 in 1961, highlighted by a 23-game losing streak from July 29 through Aug. 20.
But in 1962, the league added two new teams, one of which, the New York Mets, has passed into baseball legend as the last word in lovable losers, insuring that the Phillies would end their string of bottom-feeding seasons and scale the peaks of mediocrity. Actually, the Mets’ 40-120 season in 1962 could have been a reasonable projection for the Phillies, given the direction they had been headed. Instead, thanks to the Mets, the Houston Colt .45s (the other expansion team), and the Cubs (who finished ninth that year with 103 losses—no problem getting tickets at Wrigley in those days), the Phillies turned it around.
They actually played better than.500 ball (81-80—thank God for that rain-out, whenever it was) in 1962. They finished seventh in a field of 10. In 1963, they were 87-75—a .547 winning percentage—and finished in fourth place! Hello, first division! In a sense, Wine’s 1963 season was a triumph for good-field, no-hit shortstops everywhere: his batting average matched his .215 career average—but he won a Gold Glove! Then in 1964, the Phillies...well, let’s not go into that. If you’re a regular visitor to this Web site, you likely know what happened.
One might surmise that the experience of 1964 changed the Phillies in many ways, but not for the better. Wine, for one, changed his uniform number from 7 to 13. This reversal of traditional lucky/unlucky numbers didn’t hurt in 1965, when he hit .228 (remember, this is 13 points above his career average), but in the succeeding years, the hits were even fewer and farther between. In 1967, he was a mere 69 for 363, good for a .190 average, then he slumped to .169 with just 12 hits in 71 at bats in 1968. It was no surprise when the Phillies left him unprotected in the expansion draft. In Philadelphia, he was something of a forgotten man.
Gene Mauch, however, remembered him. Probably figuring that nothing he would experience in Montreal in 1969 could surpass what he had been through while managing the Phillies in 1961 (during Mauch’s seven-year tenure at Montreal, the Expos didn’t have any monumental meltdowns à la 1964, but they did finish below .500 each season), Mauch took over the fledgling franchise and selected Wine to play shortstop. Mauch, who managed the Phillies in 1960 when Wine got his first taste of National League baseball, was the only major league skipper Wine had ever played for, except for the latter part of the 1968 season when Bob Skinner took over the Phillies.
Mauch, a weak-hitting backup infielder, perhaps felt Wine was a kindred spirit. Reportedly, Mauch had mellowed over the years. He had once turned over a buffet table of postgame eats after a Phillies loss, but it is unlikely he would have done the same with the haute cuisine in Montreal. After all, his best player, Le Grand Orange (Rusty Staub) was a noted chef, so it would not do to upset him.
In the Expos’ premiere season of 1969, Wine came to bat 370 times and got 74 hits, which placed him smack dab on the Mendoza Line. The next season he had his career year. He started 159 games, came to bat more than 500 times for the first time in his career (tops with the Phillies had been 418) and hit .232. It was the only time he garnered more than 100 hits in a season. More importantly, he participated in 137 double-plays, at the time a major league record for shortstops, and still the National League record (if you’re wondering, the major league record is held by Rick Burleson with 147 for the Red Sox in 1980).
To be sure, the Expos finished in last place, but now with the advent of divisional play, that meant sixth place, not 10th. Clearly, the stigma of a last place finish had diminished. Major league baseball was ahead of the curve in the self-esteem movement.
For Wine, however, self-esteem proved fleeting. He never came close to matching those heady numbers of 1970. Indeed, in 1971, Wine was back at the Mendoza Line. In 1972, his last season, he was just four for 18. In a sense, he had come full circle. In 1960, when he had his first taste of action with the Phillies, he was two for 14. In those two abbreviated seasons—and only in those two seasons—his OBP was identical to his BA!
If nothing else, Wine played long enough to see the Expos surpass his old team. In 1971 and 1972, the Phillies were back to their accustomed position in last place, which now meant sixth in the Eastern Division of the National League. How it must have gladdened Mauch’s heart to see the Phillies remain cellar-dwellers while his team actually finished in fifth place in 1971 and 1972, and vaulted all the way to fourth place in 1973. Not quite magnifíque, but not exactly merde either.
Of course, given his last name, there was something fitting about Wine playing in a French-speaking metropolis. Now baseball fans would get to see if the French Wine was superior to the American Wine! Not that his sojourn in Philadelphia was entirely inappropriate. When the Phillies played at home, they were decked out in white and red uniforms—the very colors of the fruits of the vine!
Though he retired in 1972, major league baseball hadn’t seen the last of Robert Paul Wine. Robert Paul Wine Jr., better known as Robbie, was in the Houston organization. Unfortunately, he carried on the family tradition of weak offense all too well. After spending his college years at Oklahoma State (where he later served as an assistant coach), he came up with the Astros and went three for 12 in 1986. He matched that hit total in 1987, but unfortunately it took him 29 at bats to do so. That computed to a .103 average. The Mendoza Line never looked so inviting.
Robbie Wine finished with a career batting average of .146, but unfortunately, his 41 total at bats in the major leagues are 2,959 too few to qualify for David Nemec’s list, so catcher Bergen’s achievement was never threatened. Actually, the same could be said of Wine Sr., and his niche at shortstop. It is hard to conceive of a shortstop in today’s game coming to bat 3,000 times and hitting less than .215. Not even if he fielded 1.000, stole 100 bases a year, and agreed to work for minimum wage paid out of petty cash stashed in a cigar box.
While it might be tempting to snicker at Wine’s .215 lifetime batting average, one would do well to consider one’s own lifetime batting average—metaphorically speaking. If you had to compute your lifetime batting average in the great game of life, where would you end up? .400 hitters are as rare in all walks of life as they are in the annals of baseball. Even .300 hitters aren’t plentiful. For some of us, .215 might be a painfully realistic figure; for the most unfortunate among us, it might represent an impossible dream.
But that is one of life’s most enduring lessons: sooner or later, no matter how egocentric you are, you are forced to admit that there are people who are definitely superior to you. The consolation prize is that after you recover from this disappointment and take a good look around, you can always find somebody you can feel superior to.
Unless you’re Bill Bergen.
Mario Mendoza: A shortstop sidebar
Why the Mendoza line? Out of all the light-hitting players in major league history, why was Mario Mendoza selected to live in infamy? Why not Bobby Wine?
Mendoza, like Wine, had a career batting average of .215 but had only 1,337 at bats, not even halfway to the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify for Nemec’s list. Why was there no Wine Line? Did it sound too much like something that would be of interest only to a sommelier? Personally, I think the Bobby Wine Line would have been entirely appropriate—or even better, the Robert Weinlein—venture below .200 and you will find yourself a “stranger in a strange land.”
The Mendoza Line is certainly a catchy enough phrase, perhaps because it has a quasi-military ring to it. After all, the French had the Maginot Line and the Germans had the Siegfried Line. Don’t the Spaniards deserve a line of their own? Imagine Napoleon’s troops crossing the Pyrenees, smashing through the Mendoza Line, and striking fear in the hearts of Barcelonans. Or perhaps Gary Cooper in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” unrolling a dog-eared map that shows Loyalist and Republican troop deployments on either side of the Mendoza Line. Or 16th century religious refugees attempting to flee to sanctuary on the far side of the Mendoza Line, only to be turned back at the last minute and told “No one escapes the Spanish Inquisition!”
Actually, I’d be surprised if one Spaniard in a million has ever heard of Mario Mendoza, much less the phrase graced by his name. For all they know, the Mendoza Line could be a collection of the latest threads churned out by some chi-chi fashion designer in Madrid.
Ah, if only they could have seen Mendoza in his ensalada days! That was when he was known as El Espirador (the vacuum cleaner). I was lucky enough to witness him plying his trade for the Texas Rangers on the left side of the infield at old Arlington Stadium in the early 1980s. Whatever the shortcomings of the Rangers in those days, a solid defense on the left side of the infield was assured when Mendoza and Buddy Bell were on duty.
But that is not the only locale I associate with Mario Mendoza. In the year 2002, I ventured to Shreveport, La. to see a Texas League contest at Fair Grounds Field. The environment was perhaps the most pathetic I’ve ever seen in my baseball travels. The Shreveport Captains (appropriately named given the city’s port status and the Herculean efforts of one Captain Shreve, who cleared a 180-mile logjam on the Red River in the 1830s) had a long, proud minor league history, and at the time I visited, they were the Double-A farm team of the San Francisco Giants.
In a misguided attempt to hype the team, the nickname was changed from the bland Captains to the supposedly way-cool Swamp Dragons in 2001. Unfortunately, the floundering franchise had been sold and it was common knowledge that in 2003, the team would be relocated to Frisco, Texas, where it would become the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate.
As one might expect, attendance in Shreveport, less than robust in previous years, really tanked during the 2002 season. Even in May, team souvenirs were being offered at clearance prices and management didn’t bother to print scorecards. On the day of my visit, there were about 500 people in attendance. To his credit, the team’s dragon mascot worked hard to drum up enthusiasm. A lame duck would have been more appropriate and might have achieved better results.
Managing the home team under these circumstances was possibly the most thankless task in all of minor league ball that season. Yet that was what Mario Mendoza had been asked to endure—as though lending his name to an eponym denoting offensive ineptitude had not been enough punishment.
When I got to the ballpark, I immediately went into the team office to check out the souvenirs. Moments later, Mendoza wandered in. Heavier and grayer than when he’d played for the Rangers (hey, 20 years had passed), he was immediately recognizable: a middle-aged guy with a Spanish accent in a Swamp Dragons uniform—who else could he be? Armed with one of his old Rangers baseball cards, I quickly thrust it and a Sharpie into his hand and asked for an autograph. Affable and gracious, he signed the card in the old school manner, in other words, legibly. Of course, given the Swamp Dragons’ attendance that season, he could afford to take his time with autographs.
Later that same season I noted the name Mario Mendoza in relation to another Texas League franchise. This time, it was Mario Mendoza Jr., and the team was the Arkansas Travelers. Unlike Robert Paul Wine Jr., he did not make it to the major leagues.
But the last laugh belongs to Mendoza Sr. One day, while noodling around on the internet, I discovered the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame (or Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Profesional de Mèxico) in Monterrey. No surprise to find the likes of Fernando Valenzuela and Bobby Avila enshrined there, but Mario Mendoza (or, more formally, Mario Mendoza Aispuru)? You could have knocked me over with a sopapilla!
The Web site bio covers his major league career and adds some info on his time spent with Mexican teams, both in the summer and winter leagues. Let it be known that in 661 games in the summer league (with México [City], Monclova, Aguascalientes, Jalisco and Monterrey) he had a batting average of .291. Not too shabby for a “light-hitting” shortstop. For this, among his other achievements, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000. In case you’re wondering, his bio makes no mention of la línea Mendoza.
In a sense, Mario Mendoza is a lucky man—perhaps the luckiest .215 lifetime hitter in baseball history. Not only has he joined the baseball immortals enshrined in the Mexican Hall of Fame, but his name will live on as long as men play the game of baseball and fail to get at least one hit every five at bats.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.
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