This annotated week in baseball history: June 6-June 12, 1947

On June 10, 1947, Ken Singleton was born. Richard looks back on his life and career.

Like a lot of (relatively) young people, I associate certain figures in baseball far more with their post-playing career than with their days on the field. For multiple generations of Mets fans, Ralph Kiner is not the Hall of Fame hitter who led the league in home runs his first seven years in the league, but rather the grandfatherly broadcaster and host of “Kiner’s Korner.”

For me, Ken Singleton is such a figure. Singleton played his final game a little over six months after I was born, so I of course remember nothing of him as an active player. On the other hand, he has been doing Yankees games since I was in the seventh grade, so it is easy to see why I think of him as a broadcaster first. But in the spirit of knowing more about the man with whom I spend, so to speak, many nights a year, we’ll look back on Singleton’s career. And you should all pay attention, because there will be a quiz later.

One of only three players to reach the majors from Hofstra University on Long Island, Singleton remains the most recent and best. Drafted third overall by the Mets in the 1967 draft—just ahead of Carlton Fisk—he spent less than five years in the minors and made his major league debut for the Mets in June 1970. This was all the more impressive given that Singleton was actually attending Hofstra on a basketball scholarship, and played baseball there for only one season.

A switch-hitter, Singleton came to the majors with the batting eye that would be his defining characteristic as a hitter. Despite his playing just 69 games, Singleton drew 30 walks, good for 11th on the team. The next season Singleton became the team’s regular right fielder, where he would play for the overwhelming majority of his career, and led the team in walks while finishing one shy of the team lead in home runs.

That would be Singleton’s final season with the Mets before he was dealt, along with first overall pick bust Tim Foli and Mike Jorgenson, to the Expos for Le Grande Orange, Rusty Staub. Despite Staub’s status as a popular figure among Met fans—he has even written a Mets-themed children’s book, Hello Mr. Met!—on the field this was probably a deal the team would take back if it could.

Singleton’s first year in Montreal was about the same as the previous season at Shea Stadium, but he exploded in 1973. Playing every day, Singleton hit .302 with a .904 OPS. His .425 OBP led the league, and combined with his 103 RBIs (good for fifth in the NL) helped earn Singleton a ninth-place finish in the MVP vote.

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The Earl of Baltimore, Singleton’s long-time skipper (Icon/SMI)

Singleton’s 1974 season did not maintain the excellence of his campaign the previous year, and after that season he was sent to Baltimore with Mike Torrez for aging Orioles pitcher Dave McNally and a pair of young pitchers. This was another deal the team trading Singleton would regret; McNally was finished after one mediocre year with the Expos, while the two young players would fail to perform. Meanwhile, in addition to Singleton’s excellence—which we’ll get to momentarily—Torrez would win an additional 124 games in his career, including 20 for the O’s the next season.

It was with Baltimore that Singleton truly found a home. He would spend the last 10 years of his career there and put up some impressive numbers. Counting only those who played for the team after its 1954 move to Baltimore—and played at least 650 games in Charm City—Singleton remains in the Orioles’ all-time top 10 in home runs (182), RBIs (766), walks (886) and batting average (.284), and he is second only to Frank Robinson in OBP and third in OPS+ at 135.

Rob Neyer rated him the team’s second-best-ever right fielder (behind Robinson, though Nick Markakis may have something to say about that before his career is done), and he was described by Bill James—who ranked him the 18th-best right fielder in baseball history—as “the ultimate Earl Weaver player, quiet, functional and nearly flawless.” His first seven years in Baltimore, Singleton put up a collective .298/.403/.471 line.

His debut year at Memorial Stadium, Singleton hit an even .300 and earned himself a 10th-place finish in the MVP vote. He would better that in 1977, when he hit .328 and finished third in the vote, and in 1979, when he hit .295 with 35 home runs and placed second to the inferior Don Baylor. (In fairness, the real MVP that season was likely George Brett or Darrell Porter, but that shouldn’t overshadow Singleton’s greatness.)

Although this period is unquestionably Singleton’s peak, it is also emblematic of his strengths as a player. He had the major leagues’ eighth-best OPS+ in the 1970s, with only Rod Carew and Joe Morgan getting on base more often. Singleton stayed on the field (once he left the Mets, and excluding the strike-shortened ’81 season, Singleton didn’t play fewer than 148 games in a season until he was 37) and played solid if not excellent defense.

His only real weakness as a player came in base stealing; he was successful in just 21 of 57 attempts. The majority of this performance came during his time in Montreal. Playing for Gene Mauch, Singleton attempted 32 steals in three years—and made it just 12 times. In contrast, during his 10 years with Earl Weaver, Singleton attempted only 22 steals—making it an equally unimpressive eight times.

Always well-regarded during his career, Singleton won the Roberto Clemente Award—given each year to the player who combines community work with excellence in play—in 1982. Singleton began broadcasting immediately after his career, working first for the Expos before moving to a national role with Fox and then on to his current role calling Yankees games, which he has done since 1997.

Finally, lest you think I was kidding around when I said there would be a quiz, you can test to see how much of this article you retained here, where you can play the YES Network’s Ken Singleton trivia game. Appropriately, it focuses primarily on his feats as a player, rather than broadcaster. For those men behind the microphone who also played, that is the way it should be.

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Comments

  1. AlbaNate said...

    In an interesting article where he ranks the best players (by win shares) in every five-year period from 1970 to 2010, Joe Posnanski lists Singleton as the best player in baseball from 1975 to 1979, and has him very close to the top from 1974 to 1981.

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