[ADDED 4/17/2015: This was written in March 2013. I’ve added updates to include players who have been added to the database since then. The number of players who hit cleanup in their debuts since 1914 is now up to 82, after Kris Bryant did so today.]
A while back I was researching Don Mincher to write his obituary for SABR‘s 2013 Emerald Guide when I noticed he batted cleanup in his first major league game on the opening day of the American League’s 1960 season (the National League had started six days earlier). It occurred to me that getting to be the alpha-dog cleanup hitter in your big league debut would be rare. It didn’t occur to me until now to check just how rare it is. And it is really rare.
But I assumed that making the kind of impression it would take to bat cleanup at the very beginning of your career would be a sign of such overwhelming excellence that the player would be destined for stardom. Mincher, for instance, played in two All-Star Games and finished with 200 career home runs. I figured that would be near the low end of career performance for first-game cleanup hitters. Instead I was overwhelmed with the…well, I hate to say “mediocrity,” since anyone who makes it to the major leagues is pretty damn good at baseball…but the undistinguished careers of so many of the players who were in the fourth spot in the batting order in their very first game.
Once again I employed the services of Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to search the box scores compiled by Retrosheet volunteers for all the seasons from 1916 through 2012. The complete list of players who started and batted cleanup in their debuts appears at the end of the article. In those 97 seasons, only 76 players who were in the starting lineup in their first major league game batted cleanup, out of 2,912 non-pitchers total. That is by far the least of any spot in the batting order. As you might guess, the highest concentration of these rookies came at the bottom of the order:
|Position in Order|
|*all in the American League in the DH era|
Play Index shows 4,100 non-pitchers who made their major league debuts as substitutes. So that means 76 of 7,012 non-pitchers who started their careers during that period were in the starting lineup batting cleanup in their first game, or just barely 1%.
And yes, some of these players did turn out to be special, with two Hall of Famers (Kiki Cuyler, Jim Bottomley), a Most Valuable Player (Justin Morneau), a Rookie of the Year (Tim Salmon), a batting champion (Dale Alexander), a home run champion (Gus Zernial) and several All-Stars (Vic Wertz, Mincher, Max Alvis, Rusty Staub). But far more of them turned out to have forgettable major league careers. Two of them never started another game; a dozen others started fewer than seven other games. Nineteen of them — one out of four — NEVER hit a major league home run; eight others hit only one homer in their careers.
The typical player hitting cleanup in his debut did so either early in the season, when a recruit may have won the job in spring training (27 of the 76 were in April, and 23 of them in their team’s first game of the season), or in September/October, when new players are being auditioned (also 27 of the 76). And typically he played for a team that wasn’t very good and might see a newcomer as an upgrade; the overall winning percentage of these teams (double-counting the two teams that had two rookies bat cleanup in their debuts) was .476, although there were a number of pennant winners resting regulars in the season’s final days along with some wretched cellar dwellers.
The complete list of players is at the end of the article. [ADDED 4/17/2015: Since I wrote the original post, Baseball-Reference.com has added the 1914, 1915 and 2014 seasons to its database. Kris Bryant hit cleanup in his debut today, bringing the total since 1914 to 82.] Here are a few comments, mostly about the people you’ve never heard of.
Dizzy Nutter: Started just 12 major league games, all in September 1919, and hit cleanup in all of his starts. Finished his major league career with no homers and a .212 batting average. Nutter had batted .299 with New Haven of the Eastern League in 1919, but with just one home run.
Red Torphy: Played just three games in his major league career, all in the final weeks of the 1920 season, batted cleanup in them all and went 3-for-15 with no homers. He had batted .290 with one homer at New Haven that year.
Frank Brazill: Brazill was just 21 when he opened the 1921 season as the A’s first baseman. In his previous two-plus years of minor league experience he compiled a .359 batting average, although with just five home runs. After hitting cleanup in the A’s first eight games in 1921 season he didn’t hit in that spot the rest of the year, and before it was over he started in every spot in the order except first and ninth. He started just 45 games in his brief major league career, with no home runs. The A’s traded Brazill to Portland of the Pacific Coast League shortly after the 1922 season began, and he played professional baseball until 1938 without ever returning to the majors. But he had some huge years in the PCL in the ’20s, starred in the Southern Association in the ’30s, and finished his minor league career with 2893 hits and a .331 batting average. John Spalding, in his terrific book “Pacific Coast League Stars,” described Brazill as “a marginal fielder with a scatter arm and an argumentative hothead who fought with umpires.”
Kenny Hogan: Okay, this is the strangest looking collection of stats I’ve ever seen. Hogan was a week shy of his 19th birthday — the youngest player on this list — when he batted cleanup for the Reds in the final game of the 1921 season, the second game of a doubleheader that was called after five innings and lasted just 50 minutes. The first game had gone 12 innings, so I’m guessing the second game was called early so the visiting Cubs could make their train; maybe there was weather, maybe it was getting dark. The rest of Hogan’s major league career consists of one pinch-running appearance for Cleveland in 1923 and two pinch-running appearances for the Indians in 1924. (Also, the official stats appear to have erroneously credited Hogan with an at-bat in 1924.) But what’s really odd is SABR shows no minor league games for him at all until 1927, when they show him playing three games for Toronto, and no substantial minor league playing time until 1929. Has some other Hogan in the records been given credit for games Kenny played? Or did he really make his major league debut at 18 with no professional experience, and then find himself in a major league uniform again two and three years later, still with no other professional experience? What’s this all about? Somehow we have to find out. [ADDED 4/19/15: THANK YOU THANK YOU, Chris Rainey, who tells Hogan’s story as part of the SABR Bio Project. Yes, his major league debut was his first professional game (and was called by darkness). He played semipro ball until he joined the Indians. Fascinating. Thank you Chris!)
Norm McMillan: McMillan was the opening day cleanup hitter and right fielder for the defending American League champion Yankees in 1922. He got the opportunity with both Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel under suspension for going on a barnstorming tour after the 1921 World Series in violation of what was then a major league rule. McMillan was the Yankees’ cleanup hitter for the first 13 games of the season, batting .314 but with just one extra-base hit and one walk, and while he stayed on the team for the rest of the season and even got into a World Series game he made just three more starts. He was a regular with the Red Sox in 1923 and with the Cubs in 1929.
Jewel Ens: The only second baseman to bat cleanup in his major league debut, at least from 1916 on (no shortstop or catcher has ever hit fourth in his debut during that time). Ens was 32 years old when he played his first game with the Pirates. The previous year he had hit .335 with 19 homers for Syracuse, what was to that point by far his best minor league season. Ens was the Bucs’ cleanup hitter for the better part of a month, but he wound up starting just 38 games in his major league career and hit only one home run. He took over as manager of the Pirates in 1929.
Mahlon Higbee: The 21-year-old Higbee made his debut in the second game of a doubleheader in a lineup that included third baseman Waddy MacPhee from Princeton University (also making his debut) and second baseman Freddie Maguire (playing his third game) along with a number of other Giants reserves. Eighteen-year-old shortstop Travis Jackson, a future Hall of Famer, also made his debut in the game off the bench. Higbee had been playing Class D ball before starting three games for the Giants in the final week of the 1922 season (all of them second games of doubleheaders) and went 4-for-10 with a homer and five RBI. That was the extent of his major league career. Another mystery, SABR doesn’t show much of a minor league career for him at all. Would love to know more about this one. ADDED 9/8/15: Gary Cieradkowski has more about Higbee in this post.
Jimmy Hudgens and Speed Walker: The Cardinals had rookies debut in the cleanup spot on consecutive days in September 1923. Hudgens would start just four other games in the majors, Walker just one other. Hudgens had not played above the Class C level before joining the Cards; he went on to have some fine minor league seasons. Walker came up from Class B and spent most of the rest of his career there.
Buddy Crump: Another end-of-season mystery for John McGraw’s Giants. He went 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly in the final game of the 1924 season and committed two errors in center field in what would be his only major league appearance, making him the only man on the list who never played another game in the majors. Crump had spent the season in the Class B Virginia League; SABR’s records don’t show him playing anywhere in 1925 and not much after that.
Mandy Brooks: More questions here. SABR’s records show Brooks beginning his career in Organized Baseball at the age of 26 at the highest level of the minors, batting .342 with Columbus of the American Association in 1924. Where was he before that? (UPDATE: The 1924 Reach Guide shows an outfielder named Brooks who played for Columbus in 1923, hitting .273 in 145 games. There’s no first name so I can’t say for certain it’s the same guy, but I suspect it is.) Brooks must have gone north with the Cubs in ’25, at least there’s no minor league record showing for him that season, but he didn’t play until the Cubs’ 41st game — at which time he was installed in the cleanup spot, where he stayed for most of the next two months. (UPDATE: No, Brooks didn’t go north with the Cubs; I’ve now found reference in The Sporting News to the Cubs acquiring John Brooks — his given name was Jonathan — from Columbus in May 1925 for cash and two players. The 1926 Spalding’s Guide says Brooks played 28 games at Columbus in 1925, batting .331 with 14 extra-base hits in 28 games.) Brooks got off to a blazing start; SABR member Tom Ruane points out that Brooks hit nine home runs in just over three weeks soon after joining the Cubs, and ESPN.com fantasy baseball columnist Tristan H. Cockroft found that Brooks had more runs batted in (34) and total bases (85) in the first 25 games of his major league career than any other player, at least since 1916. Brooks moved down in the batting order later in the season but remained the Cubs’ regular center fielder for the rest of the year and finished with a .513 slugging percentage. The following winter the Cubs acquired Hack Wilson and Riggs Stephenson, and Brooks was out of a starting job; he didn’t play much or well in 1926 and returned to the minors after that.
Red Holt: Holt was 31 years old and coming off his fourth straight season of hitting better than .300 for Jersey City of the International League when he came to the A’s in September 1925. He started 25 games over the rest of the season (although he never batted cleanup after his debut), hit .273 with one home run, and never played in the majors again.
Rusty Saunders: The 21-year-old hit .350 in Class D in his first year of pro ball in 1927 and joined the A’s at the end of the season. He started four games and went 2-for-15 with no homers. Saunders played four more years in Class B and hit well but never played in the majors again.
Del Bissonette: Del helped Buffalo win the International League pennant in 1927, hitting .365 and leading the league in home runs and RBI, and opened the 1928 season as Brooklyn’s cleanup hitter. He had four solid seasons with the Dodgers before severing his Achilles tendon in a spring training volleyball game. His interesting story is told by Will Anderson in the SABR Bio Project. (The photo at left is from Baseball Birthdays.)
Harley Boss: Just 19 years old, Boss came to the Senators from Little Rock of the Southern Association in July 1928 and made his debut in the same game that future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin played his first game as a Senator. Joe Judge was typically the first baseman and cleanup hitter for the Nats, and manager Bucky Harris just dropped Judge’s replacement into the same slot in the order, which often seemed to happen in those days. But Boss started only one more game for the Senators that year, their final game of the season. He was Cleveland’s regular first baseman in 1933, hitting .269 with his only major league homer, and was still playing in the minors during World War II.
George Blackerby: Hit .364 in 1927 and .368 in 1928 with Waco in the Texas League before joining the White Sox at the end of July 1928. He started 18 games over the rest of the season, batted .253 with no homers, and never played in the majors again, even though he had an even bigger year at Waco (.365, 33 homers) in 1929.
Dale Alexander: Opened the 1929 season as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter after winning the International League triple crown at Toronto in 1928. He led the American League in hits in both of his first two seasons and won the batting title in 1932, but was back in the minors by 1934. In addition to his .331 career major league average, he hit .338 in the minors with more than 2000 hits there for a professional total of 2883. Bill Nowlin tells his story in the SABR Bio Project.
Smead Jolley: The White Sox made Jolley their cleanup hitter in 1930 after he had wreaked havoc on the Pacific Coast League for four years with the San Francisco Seals, including winning the triple crown in 1928 by hitting .404 with 45 homers and 188 RBI. Defensive deficiencies limited Jolley’s major league career to four years, but he went back to the minors and continued to rake; in his final season, at age 39, he led the Western International League in batting average and RBI. He won six minor league batting titles and his minor league lifetime average was .366, with 3037 hits (plus another 521 in the majors). Bill Nowlin is also the author of his SABR Bio Project story.
Hank Leiber: Lieber was the Giants’ opening day cleanup hitter in 1933 after hitting .362 as a first-year pro in the Class B Piedmont League in 1932. But after going 2-for-5 in his debut, Lieber didn’t start another game for the Giants that season; he pinch-hit five times before being returned to the minors. He rejoined the Giants for good in June 1934 and stayed in the majors through 1942.
Joe Mowry: He hit .348 with 19 homers with Minneapolis in the American Association in 1932, and after he got off to a hot start with the Millers in 1933, he was traded to the Boston Bees on May 11 and was in the Bees’ cleanup spot two days later. In three seasons in the majors he started 103 games and hit .233 with two home runs.
Joe Hutcheson: The 28-year-old Hutcheson was in his fourth season of ripping it up for Memphis in the Southern Association when the Dodgers acquired him in July 1933. In his first 20 games he hit .333 with three home runs, then he went into a 4-for-59 slump. He did hit three more home runs after that, but he was traded to St. Paul after the season and never returned to the majors.
Skinny Graham: Just 5’7″, Graham hit .331 in Class A before joining the Red Sox in September 1934. He started 13 games that month (batting cleanup in only the first two) and started two more games in a late-season trial in 1935, finishing his brief major league career with no home runs and a .246 average. [ADDED 4/19/15: Bill Nowlin tells his story on the SABR Bio Project.]
Fred Sington: Had a big year for Albany in the International League in 1934, hitting .327 with 29 home runs, then joined the Senators in September and batted cleanup in each of the last nine games of the season. He spent all or part of each of the next five seasons in the majors.
Howie Gorman: Another mystery…SABR’s minor league records show Gorman playing just 25 minor league games in 1935 and none in 1936 or 1937. Yet there was Gorman in the lineup, batting fourth, for the Phillies on Aug. 7, 1937. His only other major league starts came when he hit leadoff in both ends of a doubleheader on Sept. 19 of that year, and he finished his major league career having gone 4-for-20 with no home runs. Where did he come from and why was he with the Phillies? Right now I have no clue.
LeGrant Scott: The unusually-named outfielder had a trial with the Erie minor league team in 1930 but then was “out of the game” (according to The Sporting News of Oct. 13, 1938) until June 1934, when he was almost 24. He joined the Birmingham team of the Southern Association at that time and stayed with them until he got a brief trial with Indianapolis of the American Association in 1938. The Phillies drafted him after that season, at the request of new manager Doc Prothro, who had managed against him in the Southern Association, and made him their right fielder to start 1939. Scott moved out of the cleanup spot after two games, but he remained a regular in the lineup until early August, when they returned him to Indianapolis. And that was the end of his major league career, in which he batted .280 with one home run. He remained active in the minors as a player and then as a manager through 1948. Scott’s son, also named LeGrant Edward Scott, played baseball at the University of Alabama and then spent eight years in the minor leagues; I found a story about him as a successful high school football coach in Alabama.
Buster Bray: In 1940 Bray was a 27-year old playing in the Class B Three-I League, where he hit .336 for Evansville. In 1941 he made the Boston Braves roster and was their center fielder and cleanup hitter in the fourth and fifth games of the season. He played just two more games before being sent to the minors in early May, finishing his major league career with one hit, a double, in 11 at-bats. He went into the military after the 1941 season and did not play professionally again.
Frankie Kelleher: Kelleher went to high school in Crockett, Calif. (home of C&H Sugar) and attended nearby Saint Mary’s College. I mention these facts only because we live near Crockett and my wife works at Saint Mary’s. Kelleher left Saint Mary’s before graduating to sign with the Yankees and scout Joe Devine, who according to John Spalding’s “Pacific Coast League Stars” was Kelleher’s third cousin. With the Yankee farm system loaded with talent, Kelleher struggled for playing time. He was the primary reserve on one of the most famous minor league teams of all time, the 1937 Newark Bears. Finally getting a chance to play regularly in Newark in 1941, he led the International League with 37 home runs and 125 RBI, then got off to another blazing start in 1942 with 23 home runs in 88 games before the Yankees traded him to Cincinnati in July. Kelleher moved right into the Reds’ lineup but got off to a horrible start and never really recovered, batting just .182 with three home runs in 38 games. After an 0-for-10 start in 1943 the Reds shipped him back to the minors, never to return. But the best part of his career was still to come: he spent 10 seasons with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars (1944-54, except when he was in the service during the 1945 season), led the league in home runs twice and helped the Stars win three PCL championships. He was the team’s most popular player ever, becoming the only player in Stars history to have his uniform number retired, and finished his minor league career with 358 home runs.
Jim Tyack: After hitting .309 for Little Rock in 1942 and leading the Southern Association in triples, Tyack was purchased by the A’s and opened the 1943 season as their left fielder, a 32-year-old rookie. He got off to a slow start but was flirting with the ,300 mark in mid-June, then after he went through a 5-for-38 slump he was traded to Toronto in early August. Tyack remained active in the minors through 1948 but never returned to the majors, ending his career with no home runs and a .258 average. He was an outstanding athlete in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., and is a member of the Kern County Sports Hall of Fame. The Jim Tyack Award is given annually Kern County’s outstanding male and female athlete; the first winner was future major league Johnny Callison, and another future major leaguer, Junior Kennedy, has also won the honor (he shared his with future NFL star Jeff Siemon).
Heinz Becker: Born in Germany, Becker and his family moved to Venezuela (!) when he was 7 and then to Dallas when he was 10. He finished second (to Eddie Stanky) in the 1942 American Association batting race when he hit .340 for Milwaukee, then the Cubs purchased him after the season. Becker opened the 1943 season as the Cubs’ first baseman, starting the first 15 games, but with a .155 batting average and no home runs he was sent first to the bench and then in early June back to Milwaukee. Becker did return to the majors and saw action as a pinch-hitter for the Cubs in the 1945 World Series, but he hit just two home runs in 152 major league games. He continued to rip the ball in the minors, though, winning the 1947 American Association batting crown and finishing with a lifetime minor league average of .325. Paul Tenpenny has more about Becker’s career here. Becker was charged with the murder of a friend in 1953 after a fight that started in a bar, but the charge was dropped. (After I wrote this, a full-fledged bio by Gregory H. Wolf was posted on the SABR Bio Project.)
Johnny Lazor: Lazor had the unenviable task of replacing Ted Williams in left field for the Boston Red Sox in 1943 after Williams entered military service. The Red Sox purchased Lazor’s contract after he hit .309 for Louisville of the American Association in 1942. Lazor hit just .226 in ’43 with no home runs, but he had more success with the Sox in 1945, batting .310 in 101 games. Bill Nowlin has much more about him in the SABR Bio Project.
Roland Gladu: Gladu has one of the most geographically diverse playing careers of his day, playing professionally in Canada, Mexico, Cuba and England (!). A native French speaker from Quebec, Gladu’s struggles with English hampered him in the early part of his baseball career, according to his bio by Rory Costello in the SABR Bio Project. For five years Gladu was out of Organized Baseball, playing in Quebec in the Provincial League in 1935, in England in 1936 and ’37 (he is a member of the British Baseball Hall of Fame), then returning to the Provincial League in 1938. In 1940 the Provincial League joined the National Association and Gladu played for the Quebec City team managed by another man on this list, Del Bissonette. Gladu served in the Canadian Army in 1943, but he was discharged after the baseball season and hooked up with the Boston Braves thanks to Bissonette, who was managing their Hartford farm club. Gladu was the Braves’ opening day third baseman in 1944 (the first third baseman since at least 1916 to bat cleanup in his debut), but by the end of May he was in Hartford, finishing his brief major league career with a .242 batting average and one home run in 21 games. Gladu later played winter ball in Cuba and joined Jorge Pascual’s ill-fated Mexican League before becoming a player-manager back in the Provincial League. After his playing career he spent more than a decade as a scout.
Joe Mack: Mack was reported to be 29 in October 1944 when the Boston Braves purchased him from the Columbus Redbirds, for whom he had driven in 102 runs that season. He was actually 32, and would turn 33 before opening the 1945 season as the Braves’ first baseman. Mack was moved out of the cleanup spot in late May but started 66 of the Braves’ first 67 games before being sent to the minors in early July. He never went back to the bigs, finishing his career with a .231 batting average and three home runs.
Ben Taylor: Bill Veeck brought Taylor to the majors from the Texas League shortly after taking over the St. Louis Browns in July 1951, and the newcomer hit a home run in his second trip to the plate. Taylor didn’t make a big impression after that, starting 25 games over the rest of the season, and while he did earn brief trials with the Tigers in 1952 and the Braves in 1955, he hit just three home runs in his major league career. His nephew, Bob “Hawk” Taylor, signed with the Braves for a then-record $119,000 bonus in 1957 and went on to play parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues.
Mel Hoderlein: Hoderlein had hit no more than five home runs in any of his seven minor league seasons, yet there he was in the cleanup spot, behind Ted Williams, when he made his debut with the Red Sox in August 1951. Bill Nowlin writes that a series of infield injuries led to Hoderlein’s call-up to the majors. He started just four other games that year for the Sox, including the final three games of the season. He never hit a home run in 118 major league games.
Earl Hersh: Hersh was called up to the league-leading Milwaukee Braves in September 1956 after a good season with Wichita of the American Association (.307, 27 homers). When Eddie Mathews sprained an ankle on Labor Day, Hersh moved into the lineup in left field (Bobby Thomson moving from left to Mathews’ third base spot) and hit cleanup, a lefthanded bat between righthanded sluggers Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock. Hersh ripped three doubles in his first two games but never started another major league game. He got a good look to win the left field job in spring training in 1957 but Braves manager Fred Haney found his defensive work wanting. A Maryland native, Hersh was a star athlete at what was then known as West Chester State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. He scored a touchdown in the 1952 Blue-Gray college all-star football game and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1953 before signing with the Braves. After his playing career Hersh went back to Maryland and was a successful high school coach and athletic director.
Jim Marshall: Marshall hit at least 20 home runs in seven straight seasons in the minors (1951-57), most of them in the Pacific Coast League, before he was acquired by the Orioles. He opened the 1958 season as the O’s first baseman and started 44 games, but he hit just .215 and was sent to the Cubs on waivers in August. His first day with the Cubs was his best day as a major leaguer, as he hit three home runs in a doubleheader against the Phillies on August 24. Marshall stayed in the big leagues through 1962, then played three years in Japan (he later coached there as well) before turning to managing, including stints with the Cubs (1974-76) and the A’s (1979). Among his claims to fame: he was the Mets’ starting first baseman in their first-ever home game in 1962.
Willie Kirkland: Kirkland averaged 35 homers a year in four minor league seasons, then spent a year in military service before earning the starting right field spot for the Giants in 1958. That was the team’s first year in California, so he was the San Francisco Giants’ first-ever cleanup hitter and was, along with the Dodgers’ Gil Hodges, one of the cleanup hitters in the first major league game on the West Coast. Two other Giants starters, Orlando Cepeda and Jim Davenport, also made their major league debut in that game. Kirkland stayed in the majors through 1966 and later played six seasons in Japan. He finished his professional career with 450 home runs between the majors, minors and Japan.
Rusty Staub: Staub had by far the longest career of any player on this list, making his major league debut eight days after his 19th birthday and playing his last game at the age of 41. A high school star in New Orleans who played on an American Legion national championship team in 1960, Staub signed a bonus contract with the new Houston Colt .45s before the team had even played a game. He spent his first year of pro ball in the Class B Carolina League, where he hit .293 with 23 home runs and earned most valuable player honors, and was ticketed to start 1963 in the Class AA Texas League, but he made such a strong impression in spring training (batting .420) that not only did he make the opening day roster, he was the Colts’ starting right fielder and cleanup hitter. “Why not?” Colts manager Harry Craft said when asked about having a teenage cleanup hitter. “Right now, Rusty’s our best hitter and he belongs in there.” Staub was moved out of the cleanup spot in mid-May but he stayed in the lineup all season. He batted fourth 35 times that year and may hold the all-time record for most games batting cleanup as a teenager (I haven’t found a way to verify that using Play Index).
Ossie Blanco: I was 12 years old in 1970 and obsessed with baseball, and I would have sworn I had heard of everyone who wore a major league uniform then, but I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of Blanco until I created this list. He got off to a blazing start in 1970, his eighth year in the minors, leading the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in batting average (.375) and ranking second in home runs when he was called up to the White Sox on May 24. He moved right into the Sox’ lineup at first base but batted cleanup only in his first two games. After going 2-for-22 in June he was returned to the minors, this time to Class AA for some reason; he rejoined the Sox in August but started just 13 games for the season. He also made a brief appearance with Cleveland in 1974, finishing his major league career with no home runs and a .196 batting average.
Roger Freed: After batting .334 at Rochester in 1970, leading the International League with 130 RBI and sharing most valuable player honors, Freed finished the season with the pennant-winning Orioles and batted cleanup in his debut. His three later starts that season found him batting in the sixth spot. Freed was traded to the Phillies after the season but never really blossomed as a major leaguer, although he did see action in parts of eight seasons. He had one more huge year in the minors, batting .309 with 42 homers at Denver in 1976 and being honored as the Pacific Coast League’s MVP.
Dave Schneck: Schneck spent more than a year serving in Vietnam after his first minor league season, missing two full seasons as a result of his military service, but returned in 1971 to hit 35 homers. After an incredible start at Memphis of the Class AA Texas League in 1972 (24 homers and 76 RBI in 81 games) he was summoned to the Mets. His manager at Memphis, John Antonelli (the former infielder, not the former pitcher), wanted to surprise Schneck with the news, so he packed his bag for him before telling him he was going to the majors. Alas, he forgot to pack any of Schneck’s bats, so when Schneck arrived in San Diego to make his major league debut, he had to borrow a bat from teammate Teddy Martinez, who to that point in his career had hit one major league home run. Schneck matched that in the sixth inning of his debut with a two-run homer that changed a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 Mets lead that would hold up as the final score. Two days later Schneck homered again and added a single and a double, but the rest of the season did not go well and he finished with a .187 batting average and a total of three home runs. Schneck spent the 1973 season in the Class AAA International League and then joined the Mets in September, starting 12 of their last 17 games in center field, but he was not eligible for the playoffs as the Mets went to the World Series. He opened the 1974 season as the Mets’ regular center fielder and got off to a torrid start, going 10-for-18 in his first four games and then hitting two home runs in a game at Montreal on April 17. But he cooled off after that and saw limited playing time after late June, and he did not return to the majors after that season. He finished his major league career with eight homers and a .199 average.
Frank “Moose” Ortenzio: Ortenzio hit 32 home runs in the Class A California League in 1971 and 26 homers at two minor league levels in 1972 to mark himself as the primary slugger in the Royals’ farm system (Lou Gorman, then the team’s scouting director, described him as having “Killebrew-style power”). A broken wrist suffered in a fall at home in early 1973 delayed his start to the season and led to his demotion to the Class AA Southern League, but after he recovered he hit .307 with 19 homers in 95 games there and earned a September promotion to Kansas City. Ortenzio was lifted for a pinch-hitter in his September 9 debut and didn’t get back into the lineup until the final week of the season, but in his five final-week starts he went 7-for-20 with two doubles and a home run. Yet Ortenzio never returned to the major leagues; in part due to a broken ankle suffered with Omaha in 1974, his hitting fell off. But, like Roger Freed, he did go on to have one monster year for Denver, hitting .311 with 40 homers and 126 RBI in 1977 and earning MVP honors.
Tom Robson: Robson started his pro career as a 50th-round draft choice and had been sold once and released twice before signing a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers as a 26-year-old in 1972. In 1973 he earned most valuable player honors in the Class AA Eastern League, leading the loop in home runs (38) and RBI (126) and finishing one point behind future Hall of Famer Jim Rice for the batting title. (Although, at 27, Robson was quite old for the league; by comparison, Rice was 21.) The next year he earned MVP honors again, this time in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, where he hit .322 with 41 homers and 131 RBI. That led to a September call-up to the Rangers and four starts down the stretch, all as a designated hitter, making him the first player to bat cleanup as a DH in his debut. Robson also saw some action with the Rangers at a few points in the 1975 season but started just eight games. That would end his major league career, in which he hit .208 with no home runs. He went to play in Japan in 1976 and has since had a long career as a hitting coach and written a book about hitting. His nephew is current Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.
Andres Mora: A native of Mexico, Mora started his professional baseball career in that country at age 16 in 1971. The Expos bought his contract in 1973 but he got off to an 0-for-21 start in the Class A Florida State League, then went on the disabled list May 8 for the rest of the season, and the Expos returned his contract. After Mora led the Mexican League in home runs and RBI as a 20-year-old in 1975, the Orioles bought his contract, and he made the 1976 opening day roster. He had three disappointing seasons with the O’s, then returned to Mexico and went on to win three more home run titles there. He played through 1997, when he was 42, and at the time of his retirement his 419 Mexican League home runs was second to Hector Espino in league history. He was elected to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. Much more of his story is told on the SABR Bio Project.
Pat Putnam: Putnam was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year in 1976 when he hit .361 with 24 homers and 142 RBI in the Class A Western Carolinas League. He was the first player from that low a classification to win the honor since the very first award in 1936, won by Johnny Vander Meer in the Class B Piedmont League. Bumped up to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in 1977, Putnam hit .301 and knocked in 102 runs to earn a September promotion to the Rangers. He was never a star but finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1979 (he spent most of 1978 in the minors) and twice led his team in home runs. His story is also on the SABR Bio Project.
Al Chambers: Chambers, the first player taken overall in the 1979 amateur draft, got the call to the majors in July 1983, when he was leading the Class AAA Salt Lake City team in batting average (.331), home runs and doubles. He began his major league career with two-run singles in each of the first two innings of his first game (Pat Putnam was one of the runners who scored on the first hit), and that was the highlight of his time in the big leagues. He drove in more runs in his first game than he did for the rest of the season (3, in 30 games). Chambers played his last major league game in 1985, having started 32 games in his career and finishing with a .208 batting average and two home runs.
Jim Wilson: A second-round draft choice in 1982, Wilson earned a September call-up in 1985 after leading the Class AAA International League with 26 homers and 101 RBI. He started both games of doubleheaders on back-to-back days against the Twins, got at least one hit in each game and drove in a total of four runs. But he did not play again that season, and his only future major league experience was five games for Seattle (one start) in 1989, during which he went 0-for-8. He had some good years in AAA and remained active through 1994.
Pete Incaviglia: Incaviglia’s major league debut was also his first regular season game in professional baseball. The NCAA’s all-time home run leader at Oklahoma State, he was the eighth player take in the June 1985 amateur draft but refused to sign with the Expos and forced a trade to the Rangers. That led to a change in baseball rules forbidding a team from trading a player until he has been under contract for one year. Incaviglia went north with the Rangers in 1986 without having played a game in the minors. He hit 30 home runs as a rookie, but that turned out to be his career high, although he hit 206 career homers in 12 seasons.
Jay Gainer: Gainer had not played above the Class AA level when he was traded to the first-year Colorado Rockies during spring training in 1993. He started the season at Class AAA Colorado Springs and got the call to the Rockies in mid-May, hitting a home run in his first at-bat. He started seven straight games, with just three singles in 24 at-bats after the home run, then was demoted to pinch-hitting before being returned to the minors later in the month. Gainer returned to the Rockies in September and was used only as a pinch-hitter, knocking two home runs. He did not play in the majors after that season.
Barbaro Canizares: A defector from Cuba who was signed by the Braves after playing in Nicaragua in 2006, Canizares shaved five years off his age and was actually 34 when he was playing at Class AAA Gwinnett in 2009. He was hitting .344 with 26 extra-base hits in 58 games when he was called up to the Braves to fill in for the injured Greg Norton. Canizares started four straight games, batting cleanup only in the first one, and went 4-for-17 before going back to the minors. He returned to the Braves to start one more game in July. He went to play in Mexico after the 2010 season and crushed the ball there. Maybe somebody can tell me what he’s up to now but I am under the impression that he still harbors hopes of returning to the majors at age 38 (even though, according to Baseball-Reference.com, he’s only 33).
[ADDED 11/12/14: Another Cuban defector, Jose Abreu, hit cleanup in his major league debut when he opened the 2014 season in the four-hole for the White Sox. Like Pete Incaviglia, Abreu had not played a game in Organized Baseball before his major league debut, although he had played professionally in Cuba. Abreu won Rookie of the Year honors, and his rookie season was by far the best of any player who hit cleanup in his debut.]
[ADDED 4/17/2015: Add Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant to the list, as he batted fourth in his big league debut today and became he first player to strike out three times while batting cleanup in his debut.]
[REVISED 4/18/2015:] Here now is the complete list of players who were in the starting lineup batting cleanup in their first major league game, along with how they did in their debut. Since I wrote this post in 2013, Baseball-Reference.com has added 1914 and 1915 to its database, resulting in four more players on the list, plus Jose Abreu from 2014 and Kris Bryant in 2015. Click on the player’s name to see his career major league stats, and click on the date to see the box score of his first major league game.