On Feb. 14 across the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated. So what better day to look back at some of the best and worst of baseball Valentines?
As with most history, there is much debate as to the history of Valentine’s Day. Some have argued its origin is in a pagan holiday celebrated in ancient Rome; others claim it came about from a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. In fact, so little is known about Valentine’s Day that the Catholic Church isn’t quite sure who St. Valentine was or how he was martyred. What is known is that the tradition dates at the latest to the 1400s, and was sufficiently common within 200 years for Shakespeare to have Ophelia mention the holiday in Hamlet.
Whatever the history of Valentine’s Day, it did not reach the major leagues until May 20, 1876, when Bob Valentine played one game for the New York Mutuals, in the National League’s first year. Valentine, a catcher, went 0-for-3 and immediately disappeared from the record books. Of course, given that the Mutuals did the same (the National League would not have a New York franchise again until the Giants in 1884), it is hard to blame Bob for such an underwhelming career.
The first Valentine to play more than one game was John Valentine, with the Columbus Buckeyes of the American Association in 1883. The Buckeyes were not a particularly inspired club, finishing sixth in an eight-team league, more than 30 games out of first. John was a bright spot, however, managing the team’s best ERA—despite a 2-10 record—and hitting above average. Despite all this, John failed to stick and 1883 marked his only season in the majors.
The first Valentine to appear in the big leagues for more than one season was the memorably named Corky Valentine. Corky, real name Harold Lewis, threw nearly 200 innings and won 12 games for an underwhelming Reds team in 1954, but appeared only briefly the following season and never pitched in the majors thereafter.
Although he was not, strictly speaking, a Valentine, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the debut in 1954 of pitcher Vito Valentinetti, whose surname surely did not exist solely to sound like the name of a mobster from a bad movie.
The 1969 season saw the debut of one of the two greatest Valentines in baseball history, Robert John Valentine, better known as Bobby Valentine. Bobby had just a cup of coffee in 1969 as a 19-year-old, but saw regular time in 1971 and ’72 despite injuries. In 1973, he was putting together a pretty good season until a devastating leg injury essentially ended his career. He would play bits and pieces of six more seasons, but his chance at superstardom was over.
In 1975, just as Bobby’s career was winding down, Ellis Valentine debuted for the Expos. Ellis would go on to a career that is widely regarded as a disappointment, but is the greatest ever by a Valentine.
Things started off brilliantly for Ellis: In his sophomore season of 1977, he was an All-Star, arguably the Expos’ MVP and still just 22. Moreover, he was just beginning to show off his greatest strength as a player, his cannon arm from right field. The next season, Ellis would record 24 assists from the outfield and he is commonly seen as having the best outfield arm of his time.
Whether from the after-effects of a beaning, laziness or other factors—the former two being popular choices with Ellis’ managers—he never matched the potential demonstrated in 1977. His last season as a regular was 1982 with the Mets, and aside from a brief appearance for the Rangers in 1985, his career was over.
That Rangers appearance is notable for Ellis because it was the team being managed by the “other” Valentine of that era, Bobby. After his playing days, Bobby took over in Texas in 1985 and managed the Rangers into the 1992 season. He got them as high as second place, but never to the playoffs and finished his managing career there just under .500.
In 1996, he was hired to manage the Mets and led them into the playoffs in both 1999 and 2000, taking them to the World Series the latter year. But back-to-back losing seasons following the team’s five-game Series loss to the Yankees cost Valentine his job.
He also has managed in Japan, once after his tenure with the Rangers and again after his time with the Mets. On the second go-around, he led his team to victory in the Japan Series, the first foreign manager to do so. He also runs a restaurant in Connecticut, which features dishes like Chicken “Rollie” Fingers and “Ty” Cobb salad (no, really) and claims to be the first in America to sell wraps.
Following Ellis’ retirement, the majors’ player rosters were Valentine-less for 17 years, the longest period since the time from John to Corky Valentine. In 2003 that situation was rectified with the debut of Joe Valentine for the Reds. A right-hander, Joe pitched three years for the Reds, accumulating an unfortunate 2-4, 6.70 record, which probably contributed to his not making the majors last season. He did pitch for Houston’s Triple-A affiliate, but remains best known, if at all, for being the son of lesbian parents.
One final thought as I look over my (somewhat incomplete) list of Valentines in baseball history. Most of them don’t appear to be very good. A couple appeared for only one season, and those who lasted longer tended to meet some unfortunate fate. Bobby’s injury ruined a potentially great career. Ellis also suffered an injury but perhaps failed to capitalize on his talent.
I’m hesitant to claim there’s a Curse of the Valentines, but you might say that when it comes to talent, there’s a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.