Tuesday, May 10, 2011

#159 - Jim Ray Hart

This is one of the posts I have been looking forward to because I never understood what happened to this guy. Five good seasons and then - boom! - right off a cliff. Plus I think I may have been the only guy around that actually liked the Yankees back then, so it gives me some nostalgic closure. Away from all that, this is Jim Ray Hart's final card, taken during his only active season as a Yankee. Jim is a little shy of over-the-top happy in this photo. Maybe he's confused, like me, by whatever's going on behind him at first base. It looks like Mike Hegan back there, but what are those things surrounding him? Jim is sporting the patch the Yankees wore that season honoring the 50th anniversary of Yankee Stadium. The stadium would experience a renovation in '74 and '75 and the Yankees had to move to Shea. Jim wouldn't be joining them for long.

Jim Ray Hart was from North Carolina, where his dad reportedly made a living manufacturing and selling bootleg alcohol. After finishing high school in Hookerton, he was signed by the Giants in 1960 and finished the year in the developmental (D) leagues where he hit pretty well. In '61 he moved up to C ball, splitting time between the outfield and shortstop, and killed there: .355 with 22 homers, 123 RBIs, and a .419 OBA. He continued along that path in A ball in '62 and Triple A in '63, those two seasons playing only third base. In the latter year his numbers came in a little, although he still hit above .300 and had an OBA above .370. In '63 he also got some time in SF, very little time unfortunately, since in his first game Bob Gibson hit him in the shoulder, breaking his scapula, which is really hard to do with a baseball. or anything for that matter. After Jim returned, he was in for six games when he got beaned by Curt Simmons, putting him in the hospital and ending his season. Tough way to start.

Hart returned in '64 and had an awfully good rookie year, nearly aping the one Dick Allen had in Philly, who he lost out to in ROY voting. He played primarily third base, of which he was not really a fan. He preferred the outfield, but when he came up it was stocked with .300 hitters Mays, McCovey, and Alou. His defense numbers were not so hot, but over his first five seasons, Jim would average .285 with 28 homers and 92 RBIs, earning an All-Star nod in '66. In '69 Jim hurt his shoulder again, limiting his playing time. By the time he was moderately healthy again, Jim Davenport and then Alan "Dirt" Gallagher had taken over third and a significant part of Jim Ray's time in the majors was spent in the outfield. He also played a bunch at Triple A from '70 to '72, all at third, putting up excellent numbers including a .320 average and a .420 OBA. But his power came in a bit and his range was declining and those factors, combined with his now chronic shoulder problem, led to an early '73 sale to the Yankees, where he put in a season splitting DH Time with Ron Blomberg.

Much later in an interview with Baseball Digest, Hart indicated his decline was also due to what was more or less an open secret while he was playing: he had a serious drinking problem. Beginning in the late '60's he was basically mailing it in, and his demotion to the minors was more about alcohol than his playing abilities. When the '74 season began, after a slow start, the Yankees sent him to Triple A as well, where he played a few games. He then asked if they would pay him his full salary if he quit. The answer was yes, so he did. Only 32, Jim finished with a .278 average, 170 homers, and 573 RBIs in 1,125 games, which worked out to significantly better averages than most third basemen of his time. After leaving MLB, Jim played two seasons in Mexico as well as in in some old-timers games. He also generally went into a downward trajectory, losing his home to foreclosure and scrounging for loose change in local stores. He put himself into rehab in the '80s and eventually got a job working in a warehouse for Safeway in a couple cities in California. At the time of the interview - '91 - he was living in Sacramento and he would finish in Newark, California in 2006 when he retired.Since then he has again gone radio silent.

Jim gets a star bullet for his rare feel-good moment from the early '70s. He also hit for the cycle in that game. If you Google Jim there is some confusion as to his whereabouts. One site indicates he is homeless in Newark, NJ but he was actually employed in Newark, California.

All NL West for this hookup:

1. Hart and Jesus Alou '64 to '68 Giants;
2. Alou and Jack Billingham '69 to '71 Astros.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like Hegan has a cage around him...first base sometimes has a cage to protect it from batting practice.