Chuck Hinton was a lost opportunity for me. Several years ago, he visited Cooperstown to play in a celebrity golf tournament at the Leatherstocking Golf Course. I saw him near the first hole, wearing his trademark black hat that made him look like something out of The Big Valley, but I was there to secure an interview with Mudcat Grant. When Mudcat came by, I asked him some questions. As usual, Mudcat was great to talk to, but by the time our chat had ended, Chuck Hinton was nowhere to be found. My chance to talk some baseball with him had been lost.
Hinton, who died on Sunday at the age of 78, had a fascinating career, first as a ballplayer, then as a college coach, and then as one of the movers and shakers in the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.
His professional career began with the Orioles organization, but it was almost immediately interrupted by two years of military service. He started out as a fast catcher, an early version of Craig Biggio, but Baltimore thought his talents lay elsewhere. Wanting to better use his standout speed, the Orioles moved him to the outfield.
Hinton never actually made it to Charm City. That’s because major league expansion provided the twist that altered his career permanently. Legendary writer Shirley Povich, authoring a piece in the Washington Post, told an amusing story about Hinton’s transition from Baltimore to Washington. It involved Hinton playing in the Arizona Winter League in 1960.
“I want you to go out center field and fake an injury, a bad one,” Orioles manager Paul Richards told Hinton. Richards figured that if Hinton had a serious injury, one that was known to the public, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators would be less likely to select him in the expansion draft. Given Hinton’s speed, power and throwing ability, Richards did not want to lose him to one of the new American League entries.
Hinton agreed to carry out the charade. During a pregame workout, Hinton caught fungoes in the outfield. On a deep fly ball, Hinton ran back to the fence and intentionally bumped into it. Grabbing his shoulder, he fell to the ground, shrieking in pain. When a teammate attempted to help him off the field, Hinton yelled, “Don’t touch it, it hurts!”
Hinton’s acting fooled a reporter for The Sporting News. Reports of the alleged injury made a subsequent edition of the “Bible of Baseball.” Well, apparently members of the Senators’ front office didn’t read The Sporting News. Washington selected Hinton in the expansion draft, paying the Orioles $75,000 as compensation.
The move to Washington turned out to be the biggest break of Hinton’s career. The Senators, who needed plenty of help in the talent department, put him at Triple-A to start the 1961 season but brought him up in May, allowing him to make his big league debut at the age of 27, and made him one of their outfield regulars.
After struggling as a rookie outfielder, Hinton developed into a top-flight player in 1962. He hit 17 home runs, stole 28 bases, ran up an OPS of .834. He batted .310, becoming the first member of the expansion Senators to achieve a .300-plus average. Hinton also showed tremendous versatility, playing five positions. In addition to manning all three outfield spots with excellent range, he filled in at second base and shortstop, making himself extremely valuable as a jack-of-all-trades.
Hinton remained a productive player for Washington over the next two seasons, and qualified for the All-Star team in 1964, but he never quite matched his 1962 level. Furthermore, he ran afoul of manager Gil Hodges late in 1964, when he caught a fly ball, forgot the number of outs, and allowed a runner to score easily without a throw. Hodges never forgot the incident, apparently because he considered it a sign that Hinton was not living up to his enormous potential.
That winter, the Senators traded Hinton to the Indians for first baseman Bob Chance and veteran outfielder/infielder Woodie Held. Hinton continued to flash power and speed for the Tribe, but his overall numbers declined from his first to his third season in Cleveland. After the 1967 season, the Indians dealt Hinton to the Angels for a young Jose Cardenal.
When the Angels acquired Hinton, he enthusiastically embraced the role planned for him by manager Bill Rigney. “I’m the ideal man for Rig. He likes to make the moves and, baby, I can move anywhere,” Hinton told The Sporting News.
Although Hinton embraced the role of super-utility man, he flopped at the plate. He hit a career-low .195 and slugged a personal worst of .333. It was a struggle from start to finish in Anaheim.
In spite of the troubles, Hinton’s intelligence, outgoing personality, and upbeat nature continued to make him popular with teammates. One of them was starting left fielder Rick Reichardt. “The Senators, in the aggregate, were the most intelligent team I played on,” says Reichardt. “Chuck was in that mode, too. Always a ready smile.”
Hinton went to spring training with the Angels in 1969, but did not survive the cutdown to Opening Day. In early April, the Angels sent Hinton back to the Indians, this time for veteran outfielder Lou Johnson. Hinton finished out his career with three years as a utility man in Cleveland. The Indians even used him as a catcher, a position that Hinton had not played since his minor league days with the Orioles. By putting in time behind the plate, Hinton could now boast of having played every position except pitcher.
His second tenure in Cleveland included a small dust-up with manager Alvin Dark, who was known for his old school ways. During the spring of 1971, Dark felt that Hinton had allowed his Afro to grow too large. “Get it cut, or get it braided,” Dark curtly told Hinton. So Hinton decided to have some fun and have his hair braided. But the braided hairdo lasted only a day. Having had a laugh with the offbeat look, he went to the barber the next day and had the extra locks chopped off.
The 1971 season turned out to be the last of Hinton’s 11 as a player, but he wasn’t done with baseball. He turned to coaching almost immediately, becoming the head coach of Howard University.
With his smarts and motivational skills, Hinton found a home in coaching. He remained at Howard for 28 seasons, winning more games than any baseball coach in school history.
Yet, there was more work to do in baseball. In the early 1980s, Howard came in contact with members of an NFL alumni association. His experience with the NFL alumni convinced him that a similar organization was needed for retired baseball players.
One of the first people Hinton contacted was his friend, the late Red Sox pitcher Walt Masterson. “I was in on the ground floor of the operation,” Masterson told me several years ago.” I was coaching at George Mason University when Chuck Hinton contacted me. He had talked to the Washington Redskins, who had already started a group for retired players. Chuck told me, ‘It’s a good idea to start an alumni association. Why don’t we start one?’ We had about 15 to 20 guys involved at the start. Half of them were in Baltimore and half were in Washington.”
With people like Hinton, Masterson and former Senators pitcher Jim Hannan leading the way, the MLB Players Alumni Association has grown from a grass-roots organization into a national network of retired players that travels the country. Through old-timers games, instruction clinics and celebrity golf tournaments, the alumni association provides work for former major leaguers while raising money for charity. It’s a well-run organization, and few were more instrumental in developing it than Hinton.
Hinton’s work with the alumni and his record at Howard were impressive. But let’s not forget that he was a pretty good player, too. He finished his career with more than 100 home runs and over 100 stolen bases. When you can reach the century mark in those two categories, you have made an impact.
As a player, coach, and organizer, Chuck Hinton certainly did.