Monday, August 5, 2013

#570 - Ralph Garr

Now this is a great action shot. Topps seems to have thought so as well since they used it again for Ralph Garr’s ’75 card. On its own it’s pretty cool but it also does a nice job demonstrating Ralph’s batting style. Known as Roadrunner, he was about the best bad ball hitter in baseball, nearly standing on the plate in his stance and getting a significant number of hits off non-strikes. After contact he sort of fell down the first base line almost before his swing was done so it wasn’t rare to see his helmet dislodged. Here it looks like he lined one to the left-center gap in Atlanta in what was a bit of an off year as he hit below .300 for the first time as a regular. But it was a very good .299 given that he put up 200 hits, 94 runs, and eleven triples. He also topped out career-wise with his doubles total and his 35 stolen bases. And it wasn’t a bad preview year for his ’74 which would be pretty excellent with serious potential to be one of the best ever.

Ralph Garr grew up in Ruston, Louisiana, where in school he was a speedy infielder and a halfback/wide receiver in football. He came from a family of eight kids and growing up pretty much supported himself shining shoes on weekends. He played local ball as well and one of his coaches had a relationship with nearby Grambling University. Ralph had the skills to play there but not the size – he was about 145 pounds when he finished high school – or so thought the Grambling coach. So in the summer of ’63 he graduated and in fall ball he played for a couple local teams against the school until he showed enough props to make the team. He didn’t play too much his freshman year but thereafter he took over second base and hit .418 for his career there, leading the school to a record of 103-11 during his time at the school. His senior year was impressive enough to get him listed in SI's Faces in the Crowd section: he hit .586 with eleven triples as Grambling rang up a record of 35-1. It also got him drafted that summer in the third round by the Braves. His pro career began that summer in Double A, where he hit .274 while playing second. But his defense was pretty suspect – it always had been – and in ’68 the Braves moved him to the outfield. That year at the same level he hit .293 with 32 stolen bases before making his debut in September. In ’69 he spent all of April in Atlanta, but hit below .200 in a couple starts and in May moved to Triple A, upped his average to .329, and his stolen base total to 63, and got back with Atlanta in September. ’70 was pretty much a repeat performance – that outfield of Rico Carty, Tony Gonzales, and Hank Aaron, .300 hitters all, was tough to crack – and after getting a hit in ten pinch at bats through early May he returned to Triple A where he hit a record .386 while swiping 39 bases. This time when he went back up he hit over .300 his last month. When he followed that up with a .417 in the Dominican winter league Atlanta recognized a spot needed to be made.

The plan following the ’70 season was that Garr and Sonny Jackson, who’d been converted from shortstop, would swap time in center field after the trade of Tony Gonzales late that year. But while Ralph was doing his damage in the Dominican, Rico Carty was on the receiving end in the same league and he would miss the entire season to an injury sustained there. So Ralph got left field all to himself and nearly matched Rico’s NL-leading average the prior season by having a bang up first year as a regular. His 101 runs and 30 stolen bases were personal highs for a while. Carty came back in ’72 so Ralph put in most of his time at the corners as well as some starts in center. In ’73 Carty went to Texas and Hank Aaron returned to the outfield so Ralph moved to right. He would put up some pretty high error totals wherever he was put but his response to criticism was that he was so fast that he was reaching – or barely reaching – balls other outfielders would never get. He did lead the league in putouts a couple times and was always near the top in that stat so maybe he had something there. In ’74 he went on a rampage and got his 100th hit by June and his 200th by August and was on target to knock off Ralph Terry’s record of 254 hits in a season. But he got hurt in early September, missing three weeks, though he still won the batting title with a .353 average on 214 hits (had he done his season average for the games he missed, he would have put up 241 hits). He was an All-Star that year for the only time and his first four seasons as a regular had accumulated 800 hits, pretty impressive stuff for a guy deemed too small for college ball. In ’75 Ralph went to arbitration over his contract and also experienced not hitting in front of Aaron for the first time in Atlanta. Both contributed to a discounted season as his hit count declined by 40 and his average fell to .278, though he again led the NL in triples. After the season he went to the White Sox with Larvell Blanks for Ken Henderson, Dick Ruthven, and Ozzie Osborn (there’s that name again).

The ’76 White Sox were in a bit of disarray and that year pretty much bottomed out the team’s post-Dick Allen decline. So Ralph put in pretty much equal time at the three outfield positions while reviving his average to hit an even .300. He then got to enjoy his first serious pennant run as a regular in ’77 as a member of the Southside Hitmen, again hitting .300 with better support numbers. He also returned to a permanent home in left field as manager Bob Lemon helped things out by realigning the line-up. In ’78 his at bats fell as he missed some time to minor injuries, an outfield youth movement, and a few games after a late-season fight with pitcher Francisco Barrios. That year he hit .275 with a slight decline in power. The next year he split time in left with Junior Moore and was hitting .280 before a late September sale to California for that team’s pennant drive. For the Angels in his few games he didn’t do too much and then got shut out of post-season action. He remained with California in ’80 but after starting that season with a sub-.200 average as an infrequently-used DH, he was released in June, ending his MLB time. Ralph finished with a .306 average, 64 triples, 75 homers, 408 RBI’s, and 172 stolen bases.

In ’81 Garr played a season for the Mexico City Tigres and then settled in Houston, where he owned and managed a donut shop with a relative for a bunch of years. In ’85 he ran into his old buddy Hank Aaron at the baseball winter meetings and Hank gave him a position as an area scout for the Braves. He did that for over 20 years while continuing to be involved in his shop. He has also done some minor league coaching work for the Braves as well as community work and this year he represented the team at the first year draft. He was also inducted earlier this year into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.

Roadrunner gets some pretty excellent star bullets. His cartoon is pretty cool also. Let’s investigate that feat: the September 8th game of that year was Ralphs fourth up top and it was home against Houston. In the bottom of the eighth, with the score tied at 1-1, Joe Torre stroked a single off Dave Giusti with one out, scoring Felix Millan from third, and moving Hank Aaron from first to third. In came Danny Coombs to relieve Giusti and with Hank’s brother Tommie at the plate, Atlanta tried a squeeze play. Though Tommie missed the pitch, Hank successfully stole home and Ralph stole second on the play. The Braves would win 4-1, getting their final run when Tommie knocked in Ralph. So Topps got some bad info, though stealing home sounds a lot better than being on the back end of a double steal.

A flashy teammate gets these two together:

1. Garr and Pat Kelly ’76 White Sox;
2. Kelly and Rick Dempsey ’77 to ’80 Orioles.

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