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RIP Gus Triandos

Mar 29, 2013, 11:12 AM EDT


Gus Triandos was famously slow ballplayer. There’s a difference between been a regular old slow ballplayer and a famously slow one. The first might go somewhat unnoticed, especially if he tries hard enough. Raul Ibanez is very slow, he will be the first one to tell you that. But he always runs it out and so people don’t notice it much.

But the famously slow ballplayer — he has nowhere to hide. And that was Gus Triandos.

Triandos could hit with power. Man, could he hit with power. At 17, he hit .323 with 18 homers in just 92 games for Class C Twin Falls. The Yankees were generally unimpressed and put him right back in Class C the next year. He hit .435 with 10 homers in 28 games. You would think that might catch their attention. It really didn’t. After a brief move up, they put him BACK in Class C, where he hit .363 with 11 homers in in 74 games. It was as if the Yankees couldn’t believe someone that heavy-footed could hit baseballs that hard. Bill James has written that if Triandos had been established as a big league catcher at a young age, he might have hit 400 or 500 homers.

The Yankees never did believe — they traded Triandos to Baltimore in a 17-player dump that netted the Yankees Don Larsen and Bob Turley. The Orioles got Gus Triandos and, well, they got Gus Triandos. He immediately became one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. He was a regular in Baltimore for seven or so years, and he posted a 111 OPS+ in that time. He hit as many as 30 home runs (only Rudy York among American League catchers had ever hit more) and he also had seasons of 25 and 21 homers. He played in three straight All-Star games, starting two of them.

In Baltimore, he was beloved. He was a self-effacing man, good natured, who understood his place in the world. Outside of Baltimore, yeah, he was known as a famously slow ballplayer. This was especially apparent in 1959, when (as memorialized in the classic NSFW “Which man would you have sex with so you could sleep with the Olsen twins” scene in “The Wire”) the Orioles decided to make knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm a starting pitcher. He started 27 games that year, 11 more the next, and that was it for him as a starter …  he started four more games the rest of his career.

So that was fortune of Gus Triandos: To be the starting catcher the year and a half when Hoyt Wilhelm was a starting pitcher. And, it’s quite possible that Wilhelm threw the nastiest knuckleballs in baseball history during that time. He led the American League in 1959 with a 2.19 ERA.  He threw 13 complete games. Wilhelm’s second start that year was April 21, 1959 in Fenway Park. Wilhelm and the Orioles won 5-2. Triandos hit two homers.* He also had three passed balls.

*Triandos killed the ball at Fenway Park. He was a classic pull-hitter, who smashed the ball to left field. In his career, he hit 17 homers in 73 games at Fenway.

Five days later, on April 26, Wilhelm threw a complete game at Yankee Stadium. Triandos had four passed balls.

On August 30 of that year, Wilhelm started against the Red Sox. Triandos had four passed balls in the first two innings. He had 28 passed balls total in 1959 (backup catcher Joe Ginsberg had 21 more). Up to that point, passed balls had not been a particular problem for Triandos. He was a big and solid catcher. But after Wilhelm, passed balls haunted him. He led the American League in passed balls three times — one of those years in Detroit after he had left Wilhelm behind.

And really, few things in baseball are more humiliating than a passed ball. It should be the most basic of all things. The snapshot of Triandos was not of the massive home runs he hit, that big wide stance of his, the wicked cut he would take at the ball. Instead it was the image of this big, slow and proud man watching a ball flip of his glove and then lumbering after it as fast as he could. Triandos took it all in stride. He once said that heaven is a place where no one throws knuckleballs.

On this day — the day after Gus Triandos died at the age of 82 — it is worth remembering a different moment, the moment Gus Triandos hit an inside-the-park home run. It happened toward the end of the season in 1957 at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. That Orioles team was perfectly mediocre — 76-76, scored nine more runs than they allowed — and actually had TWO Hall of Fame third baseman (George Kell exiting the stage and Brooks Robinson entering).

It was the fifth inning, a scoreless game, and Triandos smashed a vicious line drive to right field — that was classic Triandos. When he hit the ball hard, he hit the ball HARD. He actually was on the old “Home Run Derby” show once — facing Dick Stuart — and I remember it because he ripped three or four line drives that hit the top of the fence and bounced back in. This line drive also whacked off the left field wall, but he hit it so hard that it caromed off shot right past the left fielder, who was completely overwhelmed by the bounce. The left fielder then began chasing after the ball. The left fielder that day was Ted Williams.

While Williams tried to run down the ball, which had rolled a 100 feet away, Triandos chugged around the bases. The ball was hit so hard and rolled so far away from Williams, that Triandos saw the third base coach waving him in.

And that’s a good way to remember Gus Triandos, an Orioles star when there were no Orioles stars. That very same day, the Orioles pitcher was Hal Smith, who, yes, was a knuckleball pitcher. In the ninth inning, Hal Smith threw a knuckleball to Ted Williams and, yes, it got by Gus Triandos. A passed ball. But on that great day it didn’t matter at all. While Ted Williams ran after the ball, Triandos rounded third, headed for home. He scored standing up.

  1. cur68 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    Out. Standing. I never heard of this guy, but he should have been a DH. He IS his era’s David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Edgar Martinez: perhaps all of them rolled into one. Had he been a DH he’d have been brilliant, deservedly famous, and beloved just like those three guys.

    Great story.

    • Old Gator - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:39 AM

      And that’s just the point: if there had been a DH, he never would have been an all star catcher despite his shortcomings as a runner. And the manager wouldn’t have had to juggle some difficult decisions – play him with his issues for his power or bench him for someone faster, who might not hit very well. It takes the thinking, the juggling, and most of the drama out of an entire dimension of the game. One more reason why the designated hitter is a dumb-downer.

      • cur68 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:53 AM

        Oy, oy, oy. We do this again? And I haven’t even had my coffee yet! Well, just because watching pitchers bat is SUCH a joy to you doesn’t mean those of us who wince every time a pitcher comes to bat really wants to see that.

        Also, I never watch a game to see a manager do ANYTHING except argue with an umpire (Jim Leyland, you umpire arguing GOD, you). NEVER have I said: “well, lets see what that LaRussa does NOW!”. In fact I’ve said “Jeez. Siddown ya old fart and let the kjds play”. Also, I’ll never agree that seeing someone as power gifted as Triandos languish long past his time in AA or whatever, really served something greater.

        Ultimately the goal of baseball is to put butts in seats. Since we ALL dig the long ball, the DH rules.

        And, for those that disagree, I think the NL is a necessary evil. I like the 2 league format for just that: choice. Somedays I need a laugh and really do want to see some kid tote his lumber up there and spin wildly out of his shoes missing hilariously and being laughed at by all. Then, when he takes the bump, he can grit his teef and throw like his hair’s on fire to get even at all those guys that laughed at him.

        Besides, we get to have these amusing arguments. Better than trolling Tiger’s fans, if you ask me.

      • Old Gator - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:16 PM

        I happen to be a connoisseur of wince. Think of wincing as you would pepper on vichyssoise. And after all, what is pepper without vichyssoise? Cold potato soup, that’s what it is. Nonfat poutine with Sun Light low carb french fries. And baseball without the wince is cold potato soup, too.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:19 PM

        Hey!…Ohhhhh. 😦

        /googles “beaver traps”

      • 1historian - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:20 PM

        The solution to this ‘problem’ has been plain since day one – before the game starts when the managers submit their rosters to the umps you either have a DH for that game or not. Once the roster is in the ump’s hand the decision is irrevocable, but you can choose whether or not to use the DH before every game. IOW you do NOT have to use a DH.

      • zzalapski - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:23 PM

        We know you don’t like the DH, but, geez, do you have to propel your argument at every opportunity?

        Poz wrote a great memorial to Gus Triandos, who many of us may not have even heard of. Can’t you just enjoy his career for what it was on this occasion?

      • albertmn - Mar 29, 2013 at 2:39 PM

        historian – Managers already have the option to not use a DH in any AL game. But, barring a mistake filling out the lineup, no one opts to have the pitcher hit, because they can’t consistently hit better than whoever you would have DH.

      • thegreatstoneface - Mar 29, 2013 at 5:42 PM

        is there any league in the world besides the NL that doesn’t have the DH option? hell, i DH’d in high school for the varsity as a freshman the spring of ’76.

        opposition to the DH at this point is nothing more than…quaint.

    • rpayne49 - Mar 29, 2013 at 1:44 PM

      Nice tribue to GUS. As an Oriole fan for 50 years, I remember GUS as a monster at the plate. The spread of his stance was one of the largest I have ever seen, meaning he hit with his arms– which were massive. My friends and I tried to emulate his stance, but the results were pitiful and Little League coaches hated it. It is true, you could time him to first on a watch without a second hand.

  2. spudchukar - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    Aww. Maybe it was just his name, but he was one of my old baseball card favorites. RIP Gus, the world needs more guys like Gus.

  3. jdl1325 - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    Herc from The Wire loved him some Gus Triandos.

  4. 1historian - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Thanks, Joe. I remember Gus from when I lived in Maryland.

    Ne4ver got to tell you this but your farewell to Bob Feller was for the ages.

  5. leftywildcat - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    I believe the Tigers traded him to the Phillies in the winter of ’63-’64 along with Jim Bunning, and that he caught Bunning’s perfect game against the Mets in June 1964.

  6. turdfurgerson68 - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    Back in his day, being famous for being slow was probably cause for embarrassment.

    Today, just being ‘famous’ for ANYTHING is cause for celebration; now it might get him a book deal or a reality show. And this media whore culture would eat it up…ugh.

    R.I.P Gus.

  7. stackers1 - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    I’m with Herc & Carver – I’d do Gus to get at Mary Kate & Ashley.

    Rest in peace Gus!

  8. newpairofsox - Mar 29, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    Another outstanding story, Joe.

  9. copter1 - Mar 30, 2013 at 3:54 PM

    Very nice article. One little quibble — the pitcher you referenced was not Hal Smith but Hal Brown, nicknamed Skinny, who pitched for the Orioles for the better part of 8 years.

    There was a Hal Smith back then, two in fact, both catchers, one of whom played for the Orioles. He actually was part of the same 17-player trade that brought Gus to Baltimore, and later hit a 3-run home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series against the Yankees. That put Pittsburgh up 9-7 in the 8th — if the Yankees hadn’t scored twice in the top of the 9th to tie, Smith might have become the legendary hero, and Bill Mazeroski would have never come to bat.

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