If you ask baseball fans of a certain age to name the best defensive catcher they’ve ever seen, more than a few will tell you Ivan Rodriguez. Older fans might say Jim Sundberg or Johnny Bench, who is one of 45 Hall of Famers in Cooperstown for this year’s induction weekend.
A few of those older fans might suggest another name. And they might not be wrong. That name would belong to Randy Hundley, who is also in Cooperstown this weekend, specifically for the induction of his longtime Cubs teammate, the late Ron Santo. Whether Hundley was the best defensive catcher of all-time or even in his era remains a matter of debate, but there is no question that he at least belongs in the discussion.
It’s not particularly well remembered, but Hundley started his career in the Giants’ organization, having signed with them as an amateur free agent. He spent most of the early 1960s in the minor leagues, except for a brief stint in San Francisco when starting catcher Tom Haller was injured. Ultimately, Hundley was deemed expendable, and the Giants traded him and right-hander Bill Hands to the Cubs for reliever Lindy McDaniel and outfielder Don Landrum.
Hundley immediately become one of the Cubs’ cornerstones. Manager Leo Durocher, in his first year with the Cubs, made Hundley the starting catcher, giving him 149 starts in 1966. That set a record for the most starts by a rookie catcher. Displaying a powerful arm, Hundley led all National League catchers in assists. He also hit a career-high 19 home runs.
The dreaded sophomore jinx did not affect Hundley’s defensive play. He won the Gold Glove Award in 1967, confirming his status as one of the game’s elite young catchers.
While with the Cubs, Hundley became the first major league catcher to use a hinged mitt, which enabled him, with no runners on base, to catch pitches with one hand, thereby protecting his bare hand from injury. Bench is often credited as being the first catcher to use a one-handed catching style, but it was Hundley who was the actual pioneer. Bench later adopted the Hundley style, perfecting the practice.
Hundley enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1969, when he hit over .300 through the middle of July and earned selection as one of the backups on the National League All-Star team. But like many of the Cubs that summer, Hundley faded because of overuse. Playing too many games in the Chicago heat of July and August, he wore down, seeing his season average fall to .255. Still, Hundley hit 18 home runs and led all NL catchers in assists while playing over 150 games for the third consecutive season.
The heavy workload of catching eventually took its toll. Hundley suffered a knee sprain in 1970 and then underwent knee surgery in 1971. He returned to play well in 1972, and caught no-hitters (by Burt Hooton and Milt Pappas). But all was not right; the knee injury caused him to favor one side, thereby affecting his throws. Though still a positive force behind the plate, Hundley was no longer the supreme defensive catcher he had been in the late 1960s.
Hundley’s intelligence, ability to call a game and general toughness made him one of the game’s better defensive catchers, and one of the Cubs’ true leaders. He would remain in Chicago through the end of the 1973 season.
That winter, the Cubs dealt him to the Twins for a younger catcher, George Mitterwald. He played a season in Minnesota before drawing his release. He then signed with San Diego, where he played for a season before returning to the Cubs as a coach and player in 1976 and ‘77.
Even though Hundley retired 35 years ago, his presence in the game continues to be felt. He was the man who came up with the concept of fantasy camps, which have been adopted by most every major league team. He has also sired a son, Todd, who became a power-hitting catcher with the Mets in the mid-1990s.
And now he’s doing the right thing by coming to town and paying homage to a man he played with for eight seasons, new Hall of Famer Ron Santo.
Hall of Fame Weekend news and notes
According to reliable sources, actor Charlie Sheen will be among those attending today’s induction ceremony. Sheen is good friends with Barry Larkin, who is being inducted along with Santo. As a guest of Larkin, Sheen will be seated in the VIP area at the Clark Sports Center, where the ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m….
Tom Seaver, normally a fixture at Hall of Fame Weekend, is not attending this year’s event. He has a painful hip condition that makes it difficult for him to fly….
As expected Pete Rose filmed a segment on Friday for his new reality TV show at T.J’s Place on Main Street. A film crew taped Rose having breakfast with his fiancee, Kiana Kim, and two Cooperstown locals, restaurant owner Ted Hargrove and memorabilia dealer Andrew Vilacky.