Nobody drove them in: the unusual seasons of Ron Northey, Bob Nieman and Smoky Burgess

Bob Nieman had a fine year at the plate as a pinch-hitter and occasional outfielder for the Cardinals and Indians in 1961, compiling a .378 batting average and .427 on-base percentage with 22 singles, seven doubles and seven walks. He also reached base on error twice.

Bob Nieman Cleveland

Bob Nieman

But not once after reaching base did Nieman score a run. He did score twice that season, on his own home runs, but no teammate ever drove him in. Nieman’s 37 times reaching base turns out to be the major league record for most times reaching base in a season for a player who was never driven in. Yes, I said 37 times reaching base, even though his singles, doubles, walks and reached-on-error add up to 38; one of his singles was a walk-off hit, so it wasn’t possible for anyone to drive Nieman in. (By the way, I checked the play-by-play of all Nieman’s games that season to see if he ever reached base on a fielder’s choice; he did not, but others who will come up later in this discussion did.)

One of the reasons Nieman never scored after reaching base was he was frequently removed for a pinch-runner. He was replaced by a runner four of the nine times he reached base for St. Louis, then after he was traded to Cleveland in May (and spent some time on the disabled list with torn leg muscles) he was replaced by a runner six times. Of course, that still leaves 27 times he was on base and didn’t score.

Nieman was thrown out at the plate twice in 1961. The first one was unexceptional, as he was thrown out at home on a bases-loaded fielder’s choice in the seventh inning on April 29. But the other was unusual, as he was thrown out trying to score from second on an infield hit in the first game of a doubleheader at Minnesota on July 16. How do you even think about scoring from second on an infield hit?

Nieman was on second with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the first inning and Bubba Phillips at the plate. Here’s the Retrosheet play-by-play of what happened next:

Phillips singled to shortstop [Temple scored, Nieman out at home (shortstop to catcher), Francona to third]

But the next day’s Cleveland Plain Dealer had a little more detail — and a different player making the throw home:

Phillips hit a slow bouncer to [shortstop Jose] Valdivielso for a single. Temple scored, but Nieman was out at the plate, [second baseman Billy] Martin to [catcher Earl] Battey.

At first glance this is even more puzzling; after all, the “single to shortstop” described in the Retrosheet play-by-play could have been deep in the hole where you might envision a scenario in which a runner could score from second. A “slow bouncer”? No way a man scores from second. But perhaps Valdivielso threw to second base to try to get a force out and Nieman (or his third base coach) thought the Twins were asleep at the switch, but Martin noticed and threw home after taking the throw from Valdivielso. We’ll likely never know what happened for sure. At any rate this appears to have been Nieman’s best chance of scoring a run after reaching base in 1961.

The last time Nieman was driven in by a teammate was on September 18,1960, when he drew a walk with nobody out in the bottom of the sixth, went to third on a double by Ken Boyer and scored on Stan Musial’s single. Nieman was on base seven times after that in 1960 without scoring. In 1962 he started the season with Cleveland, was sold to the Giants in late April and spent the rest of the season with them as a pinch-hitter (making three brief appearances in the outfield). He reached base eight times (six singles, a double and a walk) without scoring (he was removed for a runner six of those times). This is not counting the double he hit July 28 as he was thrown out trying to stretch it to a triple (with the Giants trailing by five runs), so he was never in a position to be driven in.

All told, then, Bob Nieman did not score after the last 52 times he reached base in his major league career. If you include postseason, the streak is 53; Nieman was intentionally walked in his final major league appearance, in Game 4 of the 1962 World Series, and was removed for a pinch-runner.

Nieman Patkin

This photo appeared on the front page of the Boston Herald September 15, 1951, the day after Bob Nieman’s major league debut. The Red Sox had hired baseball clown Max Patkin to entertain the fans during the game.

Nieman may not have been much of a runner (he was caught stealing on 30 of his 40 career major league attempts, the lowest career stolen base percentage ever for a player with as many attempts) but he was quite a hitter. A two-time minor league batting champion, he was the first man ever to hit home runs in his first two major league plate appearances in his debut for the St. Louis Browns on September 14, 1951, at Fenway Park. Teammate Satchel Paige said afterward, “Gimme him, two more — t’hell with nine — and we could win a lot of ball games. He’s just a lot of boy. Leans into that ball pretty good, and hits the pitch where it is.” Nieman finished his 12-year major league career with averages of .295/.373/.474. He hit .325 for Baltimore in 1958 and finished seventh in the American League MVP vote in 1956 when he hit .320.

Before Nieman, the record for most times reaching base in a season without ever being driven in was held by Ron Northey, whose nickname was “Round Ron” and who was often described in The Sporting News as “roly-poly.” What was unusual about Northey was at that stage in his career he was never even given the chance to score after he reached base.

Ron Northey TSN 1944

This sketch appeared in The Sporting News issue of March 2, 1944. Northey was spending the offsesason “doing guard duty at a war plant.” Northey was classified as 4-F and was turned down for military service three times because of a punctured eardrum, high blood pressure and a heart ailment, but when the military took a closer look at 4-F ballplayers in 1945 he was inducted into the Army — where he played baseball.

Northey was a left-handed hitting outfielder who drove in 104 runs for the 1944 Phillies and batted .321 in part-time play for the 1948 Cardinals. His weight was a constant source of comment; he was typically listed as 5’10” and 195 pounds, but a story in The Sporting News in 1952 said Northey had lost 24 pounds to get down to 202, “the least he has weighed since he left high school.” Here’s how he was described in the first big feature about him in The Sporting News, by Bill Dooly in 1944:

Northey is a short, bay-windowed party. In civvies he looks like a well-fed, prosperous young merchant. His cheeks bulge out as if he were concealing a couple of all-day suckers and he wears a perpetual grin of geniality and well-being.

In 1946 Phillies manager Ben Chapman said, “Ron has a waistline that looks like a man who just swallowed a watermelon.” In The Sporting News, writer Stan Baumgartner attributed that to Northey’s love of “double chocolate milk.”

In spring training 1951 with the Cubs Northey injured his knee and had to undergo an operation. He returned to action in an exhibition game against the Cubs’ Springfield (Mass.) farm club in July but had to come out of the game after he couldn’t get to an easy fly ball. “He just couldn’t run at all,” Cubs player personnel director Wid Matthews told The Sporting News. “It was pitiful to see him try to hobble around.”

After that Northey actually went on the voluntarily retired list, at age 31. But after a doctor recommended he lose weight to ease the stress on the knee, he cut down to 202 (as alluded to earlier) and was back in spring training with the Cubs in 1952. In The Sporting News, Edgar Munzel told the story of the diet Northey undertook under his doctor’s supervision.

He was allowed only 970 calories per day as against a normal intake of 4,000 to 5,000 calories. He could eat anything except potatoes and bacon as long as he stayed within the low-calorie limit.

“It doesn’t take much to use up those 970 calories,” laughed Northey. “You know, one piece of apple pie is 350 calories. Three pieces would put you over the limit for the day.”

This, my plump little pets, was a typical day’s menus for Northey:

Breakfast: Nothing at all. Feeling faint?

Lunch: Peanut butter sandwich on protein bread and coffee with cream and one sugar (186 calories). Vary with lettuce and tomato sandwich.

Dinner: Lean steak (200 calories), lettuce and tomato salad with vinegar (75), fresh corn on cob out of freezer [sic], with one-quarter pat of butter (50), one cookie (100) and two cups of coffee with cream and sugar (100).

“That would give me about 711 calories for the day, then I would use up the rest on a light snack of cookies and coffee around 10 o’clock in the evening while I was watching television,” said Northey. “That would mean only about two cookies, though.”

The relatively svelte Northey went north with the Cubs out of spring training, but after one pinch-hitting appearance was sent to the minors. In August 1955, at the age of 35, he returned to the majors as a pinch-hitter for the White Sox. Apparently he was no longer relatively svelte; a story in The Sporting News said a Dodger official had asked former Dodger pitcher Rex Barney who was the best left-handed pinch-hitter in the Class AAA American Association, where Barney was working as a broadcaster and Northey was playing. Barney said Northey, to which the Dodger official replied, “That’s what everyone tells us, but he’s so fat we don’t want to put him in a uniform.” In September 1956 Edgar Munzel wrote in The Sporting News that Northey was “built somewhat along the lines of an animated barrel” and “doesn’t move around too sprightly. In fact, he scarcely can bend over for a ground ball. But, brother, he can still swish that bat.”

Ron Northey 1957 Topps

Ron Northey’s 1957 Topps baseball card

Northey stayed in the majors through the end of the 1957 season, except for a brief stint in the minors in 1956. In his last 2+ years in the bigs he started just three games in the outfield and came off the bench to play in the field on just three other occasions. But as Munzel said, he could swish that bat: over the final weeks of the 1955 season his slash line was .357/.471/.714, in 1956 it was .354/.417/.583 (with just one strikeout in 60 plate appearances), and even though his batting average dipped to .226 in 1957 he walked enough to post a .408 OBP. (Apparently White Sox vice president Charles Comiskey had to persuade Northey to return in ’57, as Northey was vice president and sales manager of a toy manufacturer in his native Connecticut and was inclined to concentrate on the business.)

What Northey couldn’t do was run. After his return to the majors in 1955 he was driven in by a teammate just once over the rest of his career. That came on July 19,1956, in his last career start, when Fred Hatfield singled him home from third base. Two days later Northey made his last appearance in the field after pinch-hitting, and when he reached on a fielder’s choice later he stayed in the game (and was promptly doubled up after a line drive to second base).

From that point on, Northey played in 107 major league games, all as a pinch-hitter…and was removed for a pinch-runner EVERY TIME he reached base.

The last 13 times Northey reached base in 1956 (starting with the time he stayed in after the fielder’s choice) he did not score; that included six singles, two doubles and four walks, in addition to the fielder’s choice. (Two walk-off singles don’t count.) In 1957 (when he was released by the White Sox in July and signed with the Phillies the next day) Northey reached base 29 times — nine singles, one double, 17 walks and two fielder’s choices (again, a walk-off single doesn’t count) — and was replaced by a pinch-runner on each occasion. That 29 was the season record for times reached base without scoring before Nieman came along. Northey did score one run, when he homered in his first game after signing with the Phillies. It was his ninth career pinch-hit home run, which at the time tied him for the major league record. (Northey is still tied for the record for most career pinch-hit grand slams, with three, all of which came before his 1951 knee injury.)

Northey set another major league record in 1957. His 73 games played was the most for anyone who never played in the field. That record would be broken ten years later by the man who came closest to breaking Bob Nieman’s mark for not being driven in.

This is Smoky Burgess' 1965 Topps baseball card. The picture was taken while he was still with the Pirates.

This is Smoky Burgess’ 1965 Topps baseball card. The picture was taken while he was still with the Pirates.

Like Ron Northey in the mid-1950s, Smoky Burgess in the mid-1960s was a short, round man late in his career who could hit but couldn’t run. Burgess had been an all-star catcher (based on his bat, not his receiving skills) for the Phillies, Reds and Pirates. By the time he got to the White Sox in 1964 he was considered to be 5’8″ and 195 pounds. “Roly-poly” was his most-used Sporting News adjective, followed by “rotund.” “Smoky is so rotund,” Edgar Munzel wrote in The Sporting News in 1965, “that he looks like he ought to be wearing a bar apron and drawing foaming steins in a beer garden.” (In a 1966 story Munzel alluded to Burgess’ “aldermanic girth,” and in 1967 Munzel described him as “a year-round Santa Claus.” Washington Post columnist Bob Addie wrote in 1967 Burgess most resembled “the member of the state legislature who is eating too many portions of grits and corn pone.”)

The last time Burgess was ever driven in by a teammate was when he was still with the Pirates, on August 30, 1964, when he scored from second on a single by Bob Bailey in the third inning. At the age of 37, Burgess was already primarily a pinch-hitter, but he still started 40 games behind the plate for Pittsburgh in 1964. On September 12, 1964 he went to the White Sox on waivers and remained in a Sox uniform through the end of the 1967 season, but in those 3+ years he started just three games at catcher, came off the bench to catch in only four others, and spent a total of 31 innings behind the dish.

The rest of the time Smoky did what he did best: hit. In 1965 he reached base 34 times without being driven in, with 15 singles, four doubles and 11 walks; he reached on an error twice and on a fielder’s choice twice. Another walk-off single doesn’t count. (Two of the singles and a fielder’s choice came in games he started at catcher, all else was as a pinch-hitter.) Burgess scored twice when he hit home runs, but he never scored otherwise. Of course, Sox manager Al Lopez removed him for a pinch-runner 19 times.

Topps collectors got their first look at Smoky in a White Sox uniform in 1966

Topps collectors got their first look at Smoky in a White Sox uniform in 1966

In 1966 Burgess was 39 years old and playing under a new manager, Eddie Stanky, who cut down on Smoky’s opportunities to run the bases. Burgess again reached base 34 times, with 16 singles, five doubles, 11 walks and a hit-by-pitch, plus he reached once on an error and once on a fielder’s choice. Another single doesn’t count as Smoky was thrown out trying to stretch it to a double! (All but one of his times on base came as a pinch-hitter; he drew one intentional walk after staying in a game to catch.) But Stanky removed him for a runner 29 of those 34 times. In two of the games Burgess was allowed to stay in and run he got as far as third base but didn’t score.

And because Smoky didn’t hit a home run in 1966, he didn’t score at all that season, even though he was on the Sox roster all year. He holds the records for plate appearances (80) and times on base in a season for any player who did not score a run, as well as the record for most games (79) by any non-pitcher who did not score a run.

This photo of Smoky Burgess at his car dealership appeared in The Sporting News in December 1965

This photo of Smoky Burgess at his car dealership appeared in The Sporting News in December 1965

Burgess announced after the 1966 season he was retiring to devote full time to his auto dealership back home in North Carolina, but in February he decided to return to baseball at the age of 40 in 1967. That’s the year he went “the full Northey,” spending the entire year on the roster, never playing in the field (except for a midseason exhibition against the Cubs) and ALWAYS being removed for a pinch-runner whenever he reached base (which was far less frequently than it had been the previous two seasons). He played in 77 games, breaking Northey’s major league record for most games played in a season without playing in the field. (Many players in the DH era have broken that mark. Burgess’ record of most games played in a season without starting one was broken in 1974, when track star Herb Washington was used as a pinch-runner in 92 games for the A’s without ever being allowed to bat.)

Smoky’s batting average in 1967 was a dismal .133, affected by tearing a muscle in his rib cage in May. White Sox pitchers collectively outhit him with a .156 mark, but Smoky drew enough walks to lift his on-base percentage to .303, which was actually better than the overall team mark of .291. Burgess scored twice, on his two home runs, but he came out of the game immediately the 23 times he reached base (five singles, a double, 14 walks, a hit-by-pitch and two fielder’s choices). Burgess did not score a run the last 96 times he reached base in his career (including his last five in 1964).

Smoky Burgess' last baseball card, in 1967. Doesn't he look like he should be the beloved bullpen coach instead of an active player?

Smoky Burgess’ last baseball card, in 1967. Doesn’t he look like he should be the beloved bullpen coach instead of an active player?

After the 1967 season, for the second straight year, Burgess announced his retirement, but as the winter wore on he changed his tune and tried to get the White Sox to bring him back in 1968 at age 41. The Sox, understandably, declined. Burgess ended his career with what was then a record 150 pinch-hits; he still ranks fourth on the all-time list, behind Lenny Harris, Mark Sweeney and Manny Mota. No player active today is remotely close. His 16 career pinch-homers ranked second all-time when he retired.

The modern game doesn’t have room for anyone resembling Bob Nieman or Ron Northey or Smokey Burgess. With 12-man pitching staffs, not to mention designated hitters, who can afford to carry a player whose only job is to pinch-hit — let alone someone who needs to be removed for a runner whenever he gets on? The records they set are likely to last forever barring dramatic changes in tactics.

So, to recap, these are the players who reached base the most times in a season without ever being driven in by a teammate (or, to be more technically accurate, without ever scoring a run on anything but their own home run):

Bob Nieman 1961 Cardinals-Indians 37
Smoky Burgess 1965 White Sox 34
Smoky Burgess 1966 White Sox 34
Ron Northey 1957 White Sox-Phillies 29
Smoky Burgess 1967 White Sox 23

The player who’s come closest to cracking this list since Burgess is Boog Powell, who — like Northey and Burgess — was a heavy, slow man nearing the end of his career. Powell was much taller (6’4″) than Northey and Burgess and as a result much heavier (he was listed at 250 in the Indians’ 1977 media guide, 260 in an April 1977 Sporting News story, and was the largest player in the majors at the time).

Powell was a slugging first baseman who had been the American League Most Valuable Player in 1970 for the World Series champion Orioles; he had also finished second in the MVP vote in 1969 and third in 1966. But in 1976 he had a poor year with the Indians (a .215 average with just nine home runs), in part due to injuries, and late in spring training 1977 Cleveland let him go. The 35-year-old Powell immediately contacted the Dodgers, who had shown some interest in trading for him during the previous offseason, and signed with them just before the regular season started.

Boog Powell

Boog Powell

Steve Garvey was anchored at first base for the Dodgers, but first-year manager Tom Lasorda wanted Powell as a left-handed pinch-hitter. Lasorda already had a full-time right-handed pinch-hitter in 39-year-old Manny Mota, a holdover from Walter Alston’s regime. Powell and Mota each started just one game in 1977.

Powell had hit 339 home runs in the American League and ranked 30th on the all-time home run list when he went to Los Angeles, but he didn’t launch one out of the park as a Dodger; in fact, he didn’t have a single extra-base hit. He did reach base 22 times, on 10 singles and 12 walks. Nineteen of those came as a pinch-hitter. Boog was replaced by a pinch-runner 17 times; when he was allowed to stay on base he got as far as third once, but never scored. His 50 games played is the most in a season for any non-pitcher who didn’t score a run aside from Smoky Burgess’ 79 in 1966.

On August 17 the Dodgers acquired 41-year-old Vic Davalillo, who had been playing in Mexico. That gave Lasorda THREE pinch-hitting specialists (although Davalillo still played a little outfield), which didn’t seem tenable. Two weeks later the Dodgers traded for veteran catcher Jerry Grote, and to make room on the roster Powell was released, never to play again. Davalillo and Mota remained the Dodgers’ left-right tandem off the bench in 1978 and parts of the 1979 and 1980 seasons as well.

Here are some of the other players who never scored aside from their own home run. I identified these using’s Play Index, looking for the most times on base including reached on error for players whose runs scored equaled their home runs. I haven’t gone through any of these to look for times reached on fielder’s choice, or walk-off hits, or times when the player was thrown out trying to stretch a hit; for some of these seasons play-by-play accounts are not available to find those events anyway.

Ed Lennox 22 1 1915 31 PBS FL 55 53 16 3 1 9 7 0 .302 .383 .453
Bill Nicholson 19 3 1950 35 PHI NL 41 58 13 2 1 10 8 0 .224 .318 .448
Cy Falkenberg 21 0 1913 33 CLE AL 39 84 10 1 0 5 9 2 .119 .221 .131
Prince Fielder 17 2 2005 21 MIL NL 39 59 17 4 0 10 2 0 .288 .306 .458
Chris Heintz 18 0 2007 32 MIN AL 24 56 14 0 0 7 3 0 .250 .288 .250
Johnny Pramesa 17 1 1952 26 CHC NL 22 46 13 1 0 5 4 0 .283 .340 .370
Robin Roberts 17 1 1948 21 PHI NL 21 44 11 2 0 5 6 0 .250 .340 .364
Chet Chadbourne 18 0 1907 22 BOS AL 10 38 11 0 0 1 7 0 .289 .400 .289
Kelvin Torve 17 0 1990 30 NYM NL 20 38 11 4 0 2 4 2 .289 .386 .395
Dave Hillman 17 0 1959 31 CHC NL 42 60 9 0 0 3 6 1 .150 .239 .150
Slim Sallee 17 0 1915 30 STL NL 46 92 11 0 0 5 6 0 .120 .173 .120
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/30/2015.

* ETOB (estimated times on base) = H+BB+HBP+ROE (if known)-HR. Sorry I didn’t take the time to neatly rearrange these in ETOB order, although I did change the Play Index category from TOBwe, which includes home runs.

Falkenberg, Roberts, Hillman and Sallee were pitchers. The player here who’s closest to the Nieman-Northey-Burgess-Powell mold is Bill Nicholson, a slugging star with the Cubs through the 1940s who struggled with his health playing for the National League champion Phillies in 1950 and was primarily a pinch-hitter; turned out Nicholson had diabetes and he missed out on playing in the World Series.

Note the player who’s had the most times reaching base without being driven in since Boog Powell is Chris Heintz…which I mention only because his father was my junior high baseball coach. It’s not Bob Heintz’s fault I can’t play baseball.

Razor Shines

Razor Shines

Let’s wrap it up with the player who reached base the most times without being driven in during his entire major league career. That would be Razor Shines, who started nine games at first base and did some pinch-hitting for the Montreal Expos in the 1980s. Shines played 16 seasons in the minors but never got a long look in the majors and didn’t hit when he did get to play, posting a .185 career average. Over four seasons (1983-84-85-87), Shines reached base 21 times on 14 singles, a double, five walks and a hit-by-pitch and got as far as third base twice but never scored; he was removed for a pinch-runner on four occasions. His only multi-hit game in the majors came on September 25, 1984, when he had three singles…only to have the next batter ground into a double play each time (Tom Lawless twice, Mike Stenhouse once).

[ADDED 3/30/15] Actually I should adjust this and say Shines was on base 22 times in his career, because he was used as a pinch-runner in the Expos’ final game of the 1985 season…and was promptly caught stealing.

Shines played in 68 games in his career, the most of any non-pitcher who never scored a run (well, Shines wasn’t completely a “non-pitcher”; he once threw an inning of mop-up relief). His 88 career plate appearances were the most for any player who never scored until Brandon McCarthy broke that mark April 19, 2015. Of course, McCarthy still has a chance to score before his career is over, which could give the record back to Razor. ADDED 4/24/17: McCarthy finally scored a run on April 23, 2017 after having gone scoreless through his first 115 plate appearances…so Razor is the record-holder once again!

Razor Shines’ story is told in detail as part of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Baseball Biography Project.

3 thoughts on “Nobody drove them in: the unusual seasons of Ron Northey, Bob Nieman and Smoky Burgess

  1. Pingback: Brandon McCarthy now holds an all-time major league record…but not for his pitching | The J.G. Preston Experience

  2. graham64

    “After the 1967 season, for the second straight year, Burgess announced his retirement, but as the winter wore on he changed his tune and tried to get the White Sox to bring him back in 1968 at age 41.”

    Is Burgess the only player in Major League to “unretire” in consecutive seasons?

  3. Pingback: New Arrival: Bob Nieman, lf, Baltimore Orioles | Cleveland Sweet Spotting

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