Saturday, April 9, 2011

#134 - Denis Menke

Just to prove that all things are cyclical, right after a rookie card comes Denis - I always want to spell it Dennis - Menke's final card. At this point in his career Denis was in decline mode: his knees were shot; his average and power were continuing their tailspin from his excellent '70 season; and one of the hot kids from the minors was ready to jump into his position. He doesn't look too concerned though. Maybe he knows he won't be idle for long. I believe the photo is a spring training shot so maybe too he has that spring optimism thing going.

Denis Menke was born and raised in Bancroft, Iowa and like David Clyde on the prior post, he was a local star in baseball. He was a .550 hitter at shortstop and 34-0 as a pitcher during his varsity career. He twice led his team to the state championship even though his town had south of 300 residents. Twelve teams sought him out with the Braves eking out the Giants, signing him in '58 for a $110,000 bonus. Denis was a bit of an everyman, able to play any infield position. From '58 to '61 he jumped from D to B to Triple A and with his exponential defensive range showed a pretty sharp eye at the plate, putting up a big '60 season in B ball.with a .336/28/103 line followed by a .413 OBA in '61 in Triple A. Until then exclusively a shortstop, Denis began the '62 season playing every other infield position in Triple A. The '62 Braves had a pretty old infield - every starter that year was at least 30 - and Denis had proven his stick was ready for the majors.So the team decided to check out his position diversity and after a pretty good start to his Triple A season he came up two-thirds through to Milwaukee and backed up the infield. In '63 he was again all over and had a decent rookie year but with a few too many strikeouts. In '64 he settled in at shortstop and had a big year offensively. He was fulfilling his early promise and began '65 at a .337 clip when in mid-May he collided with Pirates catcher Jim Pagliaroni, badly damaging his knee. He came back later in the season but the knee went out on him again in September and his momentum was lost. For '66 and '67 he maintained his shortstop position and actually had decent numbers in '66 (60 RBIs and a .355 OBA) but concern over his knee, perceptions that he couldn't play as well in Atlanta as he did in Milwaukee, and public criticisms by GM Paul Richards led to a frustrating time for Denis. After the '67 season he was traded to Houston with Denny Lemaster for Sonny Jackson and Chuck Harrison.

For the Astros, Menke again resumed his itinerant ways. In '68 Joe Morgan got hurt and Denis took his spot at second. In '69 and '70 he moved back to shortstop and put up two very good seasons, earning All-Star selections each year. In '71 Roger Metzger came up and Denis moved to first base. But his numbers declined pretty significantly that year and Houston was in the market for the big power-hitting first baseman, feeling neither John Mayberry nor Bob Watson was ready. So Denis was included on the right side of the big trade to the Reds. And just to complete his infield sweep, for Cincinnati in '72 Denis played third base. He did OK enough, getting 50 RBIs and experienced his first post-season, nearly winning a game with a home run that Joe Rudi grabbed at the wall. But his batting average was still heading south and in '73 he lost starting time to rookie Dan Driessen. He did have an interesting facet of his offensive performance that year: while he hit only .191 his OBA was .368, one of the largest seasonal recorded gaps. For '74 he was sent back to Houston for Pat Darcy. After a poor start, he was done that June. He finished with a .250 average, 101 homers, and 606 RBIs and in the post-season hit .163 in 15 games. He is one of very few players to put in 100 games in a season at four different positions and despite his moving around was very good defensively.

When he was done playing Menke moved into coaching and by '78 was managing in the Toronto chain which he did for two years. From '80 to '81 he coached for the Blue Jays. In '83 he moved to Houston where he coached through '88. From '89 through '96 he was the Phillies' hitting coach. His last gig was back with the Reds from '97 to 2000. He was an excellent hitting coach - both formally and informally - for a bunch of teams and has been given props by many players including Lenny Dykstra, Jim Eisenreich, Barry Larkin, and Paul Molitor.

I always loved the name Sugarland, Texas. In the 80's there was a great Bruce Springsteen bootleg from a concert there. As noted above, Denis had quite a good offensive season in '64 and his 20 homers that year would be his career high. Still, with that line-up, it is interesting that he was the guy pitchers avoided. Checking the game, an 8-4 win over St. Louis - though Denis was hitting over .300, he was in the eighth spot, so the next batter in each case was a pitcher. I still find the one "n" thing odd.

Time to hook up the two Texans:

1. Menke and Pete Rose '72 to '73 Reds;
2. Rose and Bernie Carbo '70 to '71 Reds;
3. Carbo and David Clyde '78 Indians.

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