FOR HIRE: Two proven power hitters, one right-handed and one left, who have each hit more than 200 big-league home runs. Available to help contenders down the stretch. Contact L. Wagner or R. Stuart, c/o Phoenix Giants, Phoenix, Ariz. 85008.
Those two frenetic advertisements for themselves, Leon Wagner and Dick Stuart, are alive, well and swinging in the Pacific Coast League. Even though both are in their mid-30s they are still the Daddy Wags and Dr. Strangeglove of old, free swingers at the plate, free formists on defense and free spirits just about any time.
Two hundred homers add up to a tidy sum for any big-league career. It is an especially startling total for both Wagner and Stuart, since neither completed 10 years in the majors and both were such raggedy fielders during their turns in places like Pittsburgh and Boston, Los Angeles and Cleveland that they were often platooned.
Together they give the Phoenix Giants a pair of sluggers whose accomplishments are not matched by anyone on 14 big-league rosters. Only the Cubs, with Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams, have more 200-home-run hitters than the Triple A Phoenix team. There are at present only 16 players in the majors who have hit that many homers, and that list glistens with the most authentic names—Aaron, Howard, Kaline, Killebrew, Mays and Robinson.
August 17, 1969
That Stuart led the National League in errors for more seasons than any first baseman in history and that Wagner's career fielding percentage is only a shade higher than that of the 1945 Browns' one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, tells more about why they are no longer in the majors than do their respective ages of 36 and 35 years. Managers long ago wearied of the defensive weaknesses that earned Stuart and Wagner the nicknames Stone Fingers and The Butcher. They are both hitting as ever, though. Wagner is averaging .288 and Stuart has taken over the team lead in homers, after playing only two months.
Although both men were given unconditional releases this spring—Stuart by the Angels and Wagner by the Reds—they are not two old hands illogically gasping their way to oblivion instead of retiring gracefully. There are four major league pennant races this season, where there used to be two, and it appears that at least two of them will be close until the end. When the 25-man roster limit is lifted on Sept. 1 pinch hitters with Stuart's or Wagner's power will become valuable. To Wagner, who needs just 20 more days in the majors to qualify as a 10-year man in the players' pension plan, a hitch with a contender in September could mean $60 extra a month when he is 50 years old. Stuart is still a season away from 10-year status, but he hopes a shot at the majors this fall will earn him a job in the big leagues next year.
Predictably, neither silently whiles away his exile in Phoenix. Their styles differ, but their decibels number about the same. Wagner is waggish; Stuart stubbornly proud.
"I'm in semiretirement now," says Wagner. "I have so much confidence in my moneymaking ability that I blew the $34,000 salary I had in Chicago easier than most guys would give up $10,000. I'd like to go out as an example to those guys who flip out of their minds when they're dropped—the guys who can't face society when their careers are all over."
Pretty somber stuff from Daddy Wags, but he claims it is genuinely him. "I don't want to be made out as some dumb, black ballplayer just because I've got a sense of humor," he says. There is not much chance of that. He grosses more than $3,000 a month from his salary at Phoenix and income from real estate.
Besides, as he sees it, his earning potential is largely untapped. Wagner figures his chances of returning to the majors are 70 to 30 in his favor, he has a $27,000 offer to play in Japan next year and he has his face. "I made a couple of shows for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. once and they wanted me to stay in acting," he says. "They loved my high cheekbones; I'm about half Indian.
"The women always called me conceited, so I've never had to go through that stuff that Clay does, telling everyone how beautiful he is," says Wagner. "But look at me, I'm 35 and I'm in great shape, no injuries and no scars, and I'm looking forward to a long, happy, terrific life. You know I certainly never messed up my body crashing into outfield walls."
In a moment of rash abandon a few years ago Wagner did climb a wall in Cleveland, making a great, leaping catch. Unfortunately he then inadvertently dropped the ball over the fence. Home run. Indian Pitcher John O'Donoghue was furious when Wagner returned to the dugout. " 'Look, John,' I told him, 'I realize I should have held that ball, but can you tell me one thing? What was I doing out there jackknifing like a swimmer over the fence? How come the ball happened to be on top of the wall 400 feet from home in the first place?' John didn't say much after that."
Wagner is giving the fences a wider berth in Phoenix. One night after Wags let a line drive zip past him and patiently waited for the ball to dribble back off the barrier while the runner sped to third, the Giants trainer charged into left field thinking Wagner was suffering from temporary blindness, heat prostration or a mild coronary. "I'm not sick," said the outfielder.
"Why didn't you chase the ball?" asked the trainer.
"I know a ball hit that hard will bounce back to me before long," replied Wagner. To save face, the trainer treated a nonexistent injury before returning to the dugout.
Although Wagner's play has not all been that casual, his life in Phoenix has. "Except for the money, this is better than some major league towns," he says. "I played here on the way up in 1958 and I liked it then. I like it better now that I've found out how you gotta live here. It's 110°, 112° every day, and everyone just lies around the pool. So I go out and buy me eight or 10 newspapers, put on my trunks, lay down and cover myself with the papers. I'm cooler than anyone else, and I leave two holes for my eyes so I can see all the action."
Stuart is not nearly so cool, and his cigar sticks out from between clenched teeth. "I'm not proud to be here," he says. He began the season with the Angels, but was released when the team floundered in the cellar and decided to go with younger prospects. It was not the first time he has been passed by. In 1956 he hit 66 home runs in the minors and could not make the majors. Since arriving in the big leagues, at Pittsburgh, in 1958, he has played for six teams, not including 1½ years with the Taiyo Whales in Japan.
The decision to go abroad came after his worst season. Stuart began 1966 in New York, where the Mets paid him what he considers the ultimate insult by playing him behind Ed Kranepool. Then he finished the season as a pinch hitter in Los Angeles, helping the Dodgers win the pennant. He hit only seven homers, less than half his lowest previous total.
Stuart enjoyed a revival in Japan, where he was the only man ever to defeat the great Japanese slugger Oh in a home-run hitting contest, and clouted 37 homers for the season. "Because I played for the Whales, they called me Moby Dick," says Stuart. "At first I thought they were saying 'moldy.' "
Stuart claims, "I really don't care much if I get back to the majors. I'll stay around here to see what happens." But his actions show he has plenty of his particular kind of pride left. In a game several weeks ago the left-handed-hitting Wagner received an intentional walk to fill the bases, with Stuart on deck. Stuart then hit a grand-slam home run and, as he rounded third, directed a derisive gesture at the opposing manager. "I felt mad because when they walked Wags I knew the other team was saying, 'Here's Stuart, he's on the way down.' I showed them I still have a little left," he said.
Stuart, who owns a big house in an exclusive section of Greenwich, Conn., can hardly afford to be on the way down. If he fails to make the big leagues again, he hopes to pick up a minor league coaching job or, better, a major league broadcasting spot. He had his own TV shows as a player in Boston. Philadelphia and New York and received good notices. It was suggested that since Jerry Coleman is quitting the Yankees' announcing crew, Stuart might pick up a seat in the New York booth. "That'll never happen," he said. "Don't forget, after Ralph Houk kicked me off the All-Star team in 1964 I ripped up his picture on my TV show in Boston."
There is little chance Stuart will have a chance to rip Houk again, since the Yankees are in fifth place in the one division with a runaway race. But he and Wags could show up in the American League West or in either National League division. Both players are technically property of the San Francisco Giants, but they have agreements with the Giants that if Manager Clyde King decides he does not need them they will be released to any team that does.
Lethargic used to be the word for the crowds in Phoenix, where 100° temperatures during the games stifled even the best fans' urges to become emotional. Wagner and Stuart have overcome the heat and brought life to Giant spectators. When and if they are recalled to the majors this fall they might be driving temperatures up somewhere else. September heroes like Johnny Mize of the 1952 Yankees, Pedro Ramos of the 1964 Yankees and Dick Nen of the 1963 Dodgers have been rare and exciting surprise elements in the pennant races they helped win. Daddy Wags and Dr. Strangeglove are certain to be at least exciting and awfully rare.