It’s easy to overlook how fine a player Gus Triandos was during the 1950s. After all, he wasn’t a Hall of Famer, and never received the promotional boost that comes with performing in the postseason. His prime seasons occurred for some non-contending Orioles teams, and that will always prevent him from receiving his full due. But Triandos, who died on Thursday at the age of 82, could play the game.
Triandos came up with the Yankees in the early 1950s; that was the wrong franchise for a catcher, given the perennial All-Star presence of Yogi Berra. To make matters worse, Triandos had to spend two years in the military during the Korean War, further delaying his rise to the majors. With nowhere to go but down in the Yankees’ organization, Triandos became trade bait. In November of 1954, the Yankees sent him to the Orioles as part of the blockbuster 16-man trade that brought Don Larsen and Bob Turley to New York.
It was not only the largest trade in major league history, but it was also the transaction that liberated Triandos, freeing him up to play fulltime in the major leagues. The Orioles installed Triandos as their No. 1 catcher in the spring of 1955. He responded by hitting a respectable .277 with an on-base percentage of .333 and 12 home runs. He would hold on to the catching job for seven seasons.
From 1955 to 1961, Triandos was a very good player, making three All-Star teams and receiving MVP votes four times. As a catcher, the most physically demanding position on the diamond, he drew some walks and hit with power, topping out with a 30-home run season in 1959, a record for American League catchers at the time. That season, he placed 11th in the league’s MVP race.
Yet, Triandos did more than just hit home runs and take walks. He also possessed a strong arm, which allowed him to throw out 45 per cent of opposition base stealers over his career. He was a better defensive catcher than his reputation might have indicated, largely because of the high number of passed balls he allowed. Those passed balls, 138 in total, weren’t all his fault. Many of them were caused by the fluttering of Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball. Triandos simply hated having to chase the knuckler, even during Wilhelm’s memorable no-hitter in 1958.
Late in 1962, with Triandos on the wrong side of 30, the Orioles decided to part ways with him. Despite his popularity with Baltimore fans, and with his teammates, who loved his good-natured ways, the Orioles traded him and outfielder Whitey Herzog (yes, that Whitey) to Detroit for catcher Dick Brown. Triandos held down the catching position for the Tigers until they deemed a young Bill Freehan ready for action.
After Triandos’ single season in Detroit, the Tigers handed the position to Freehan and dealt Triandos and Hall of Fame right-hander Jim Bunning to the Phillies for pitcher Jack Hamilton and outfielder Don Demeter. Triandos put up a good season in Philadelphia, but a bad start to the 1965 season resulted in him being traded to the Astros. A 24-game stint in Houston ended with his unconditional release in November. At that point, Triandos called it a career.
His post-playing days were good ones, at least until a terrifying car accident in the mid-1990s. Triandos suffered a broken neck, but he eventually made a full recovery. Shortly thereafter, he began to suffer congestive heart failure, which plagued him for 10 years before it finally took his life on Thursday.
So how should we evaluate Triandos as a player? Let’s try to place his career in context by offering a comparison to two players of more recent vintage. Two catchers who approximate him on similarity scores are Jody Davis, a standout power hitter for the Cubs in the 1980s, and Mike MacFarlane, the onetime defensive stalwart for the Royals. That’s pretty good company.
One final footnote about Triandos involves his base running ability, which was legendary. He was so slow that he attempted only one stolen base in his career, and remarkably, he made it. (He also hit an inside-the-park home run at Memorial Stadium, a feat that defies explanation.) I’ve heard a number of stories about Triandos’ lack of footspeed; he has to make the top five list for slowest baserunners of all time. So I’ll put him up there (or down there) with Ernie Lombardi, Rich Gedman, Steve Balboni, and Bengie Molina, though I’m sure I’m missing some other plodders along the way.
But that’s one of baseball’s greatest attributes. You don’t have to be an Olympic sprinter or run the hurdles to be a productive player. The slow-footed, power-hitting catcher also has a role in the game, just like Gus Triandos did. And for much of the 1950s, he performed that role very well.