In nearly every particular it had been a typical week for that most contentious of baseball families, the Oakland A's. Gene Tenace groused that the team's quirky management had violated a solemn vow never to play him at catcher, barring dire emergency. Tenace insisted that his hitting suffers when he is forced to move from first base to behind the plate. That night Tenace had been ordered by Manager Alvin Dark—or, quite possibly, by Owner Charles O. Finley—to catch. He did, and hit a grand-slam home run in the A's 7-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Did that feat assuage his sense of outrage or jar his conviction that as a catcher he is a poor hitter? Not if his torrent of profanity is evidence.
Tenace was a first baseman the following evening as Larry Haney caught Blue Moon Odom, who, despite a 1-3 pitching record, was tossing live fastballs at the Brewers until his unexpected departure at Dark's behest in the seventh inning with two men on base and two out. Odom stomped off the mound and was smoldering in the clubhouse by the time the A's had succumbed 5-3.
"If I never pitch another game," he observed acidly, "I'll still say I don't think I should have been taken out of this one."
This sort of acerbic chatter is heard as often among the A's as it is in the Bunker ménage. It is as characteristic as a Joe Rudi line drive. What was missing in this otherwise vintage A's series was, in fact, a Rudi line drive. The poor man was in what for him was an abysmal slump: he had gone three games without a hit and his average had dipped to .292. It was only the fourth time this season that Rudi had suffered through more than two games without even a single. Normally, he hits in better than 70% of his games, and the Brewer drought was mystifying to teammates grown accustomed to "Joe's two hits." Rudi's own reaction to this lapse was typically detached.
September 1, 1974
"A slump," he said, speaking softly amid clubhouse roistering, "is just one of those things. I haven't seen too many guys who haven't had them."
And then he strolled off to the showers, seemingly unconcerned, a tall, good-looking, well-set-up, anomalously placid man on a team noted as much for rancor as ability.
Not that anyone much notices when Rudi is in a slump or even when, as is more often the case, he is on a hitting tear. He does his job so unobtrusively and in such a workmanlike manner as to be virtually unobserved. And yet his manager—and most, if not all, managers in the American League—consider him to be the finest leftfielder in baseball. Rudi has already hit over .300 in two of his four full major league seasons and he has been a star in the A's consecutive World Series triumphs. He made only two errors last year, which is exactly one more than he made in 1972. Slump or no, he could hit .300 again this season, drive in 100 runs and hit about 20 home runs and 40 doubles. Says the A's captain, Third Baseman Sal Bando, "His value to this team is no more and no less than Reggie Jackson's. I think of them as equals."
And yet everybody knows Reggie Jackson. His face and muscular body adorn the covers of prestigious national publications. The very mention of his name will elicit choruses of cheers or catcalls in stadiums across the country. Rudi, meanwhile, must content himself with the distinction of being, as Jackson has jested, "the most overrated underrated player in baseball." "Joe Rudi," says Bay Area Writer Herb Michelson, "is the Arnold Tucker of baseball"—an allusion to the talented Army quarterback of the 1940s who had the bad luck to play in the same backfield with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard.
Rudi's misfortune—although he scarcely considers it one—is to play on the same team with such publicity grabbers as Jackson, Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Bill North and Bando. Not to mention the Bible-thumping Dark and, inevitably, Charlie O. himself.
Rudi, the quiet man in a noisy place, is merely the prototypical unsung hero; he is not the only one. The Cincinnati Reds have three outstanding players whose praises are sung ever so softly—Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo—when compared with the choruses raised on behalf of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan. Of the slugging Pittsburgh Pirates, hardly anyone seems to notice that Al Oliver has hit .312 and .292 the past two seasons and has driven in 89 and 99 runs, respectively. Oliver, in the event you missed him, is also among the league's top 10 hitters again this year.
And what of Ted Sizemore, the canny little hitter whom nobody watches for the perfectly valid reason that batting second for the Cardinals, he is at the plate when Lou Brock is on the bases? Or how about Vada Pinson, perhaps the most obscure 2,600-hit man in the game's history? And what must it be like to be a Bill Singer on a staff with a Nolan Ryan? Pause for a moment over the plight of Milwaukee's Johnny Briggs, who averages about 20 homers a season but was not even mentioned in the team's season-ticket brochure.
"I have to admit I feel kind of neglected," Briggs says. "When it comes to the laurels part of it, the others get 'em."
Briggs' lament is an anthem that has been heard, if faintly, through the ages. Let's hear a belated huzzah for "Old Reliable" Tommy Henrich, who played next to and in the shadow of Joe DiMaggio. Or for Bob Meusel, who was the Yankee leftfielder when someone named Ruth was in right. Since the Babe outshone so many lesser lights, it would not even be stretching a point to include on this roster the most sung of all unsung heroes, Lou Gehrig.
For obvious reasons a mournful cry should be raised for the unsung siblings, such as Paul Dean, Dom DiMaggio and Lloyd Waner. For all of his now well-documented heroics, even Henry Aaron was considered unheralded until it became apparent that he, not Willie Mays, would break Ruth's record.
What is it then that keeps these stars out of the constellation? For many it is merely that they have suffered in comparison with more spectacular personalities on their teams. Some have played on losing teams or in media-poor cities. In this regard Bob Stevens of the San Francisco Chronicle spoke for much of the nation last week when he complained, "Anyone is unsung who does not play in New York City." Other unknown soldiers are merely quiet fellows who shrink from the limelight.
Joe Rudi fits into most of these categories. He certainly plays on a team with more flamboyant personalities, and though the A's are winners, he plays before minuscule audiences at home. He also has little use for celebrity high life. And to aggravate the situation, he is openly nettled at being considered unsung.
"I'm getting more and more ink about not getting ink than most people do who always get ink," he says. "Against Texas not long ago I had four hits and five RBIs and all I read about the next day was how little publicity I get."
However, Rudi has had his moments at center stage. His wall-crashing catch off Denis Menke in the 1972 World Series with Cincinnati is regarded as a classic of the genre, ranking right up there with Willie Mays' robbery of Vic Wertz and Al Gionfriddo's Joe DiMaggio heist. In this year's All-Star Game, Rudi made a diving catch in foul territory that would have been considered best-of-game had it not been followed moments later by a similar effort from teammate Jackson.
Though the one clearly outshines the other, Jackson and Rudi have been best friends since they played together eight years ago on the A's farm team in Modesto, a torrid Central Valley community where Rudi grew to manhood and met and married his high school sweetheart Sharon, now the mother of his two sons. No one sings Rudi's praises louder than Reggie.
"I just dig the guy," says he. "We have opposite personalities and that's probably why we jive. Sometimes I have to be cognizant of not dominating our relationship, like in picking movies to see and places to go. Joe is quiet, passive, subdued, but in private he likes to have a good time, down a few beers, raise a little hell. But he's that way only around people he's comfortable with.
"If you don't know him, you say, 'Aw, there's old Joe, a nice quiet guy who'll sign anything Finley sends around to him.' But he's a man's man. Not only do I like him, I respect him. He's always true to his word. There's nothing you can say bad about him. No, that's not right, there is something you can say bad about him—he's allowed himself to be underpaid. His shyness and humbleness are the reason for this. His public projection of humbleness has hurt him."
Rudi would concur. "I've always been a fairly easygoing guy, never pushy. When Finley would tell me, 'That's all you're getting,' I'd take it at face value. I didn't want to be a holdout and I can't blame Finley. He's a businessman. He wants to keep his payroll down."
Rudi was one of nine A's who took Finley to salary arbitration last winter. He was also one of the four who lost the fight. A series of virus ailments and assorted injuries cut down on Rudi's playing time last year, so that he was not completely healthy until near the end of the season. He hit .366 in the last 30 games and finished the year at .270, some 35 percentage points below his 1972 average. But he hit .333 against the Mets' tough pitchers in the World Series and, as always, fielded brilliantly. At salary time he asked for $67,500, an increase of $17,500 over what he earned in 1973. After arbitration he settled for $55,000. There was no bitterness, although he and Tenace were alone among the A's stars to flunk out in arbitration.
"Money doesn't mean all that much," Rudi says, almost convincingly. "If you make a lot of money, you have to put up with all the bull. That's the trouble with being famous. It's nice to be able to go into a restaurant with your family and not be recognized, to be able to go where normal people go and not be hassled. I hear some players complain about how they can't get any peace when they go out at night. But where do they go? To places where they know they'll be recognized. You hear ballplayers gripe and moan, but I can't think of one of them who'd say, 'Find me something else to do.' "
By his own acknowledgment Rudi is a self-made player. He has only average speed and he compensates with pinpoint accuracy for what his arm lacks in strength. He has learned to play the hitters well, and because he normally stands closer to the infield than most leftfielders, he is particularly adept at cutting off bloopers. At 205 pounds Rudi can hit for power, but he prefers to shorten his swing and spray line drives to all fields. This was not always his style.
"I was a pull hitter when I first came up," he says. "I held the bat high like Yaz and I took a big swing. In 1970 Charley Lau [then the A's hitting coach] changed me around. He closed up my stance and taught me a more compact, quicker swing. I learned to go with the pitch. I'm the type of player who has to concentrate on being consistent, doing all things well. I had some talent, but nowhere near what Reggie had. I could never run and throw with him or hit with such power, so I had to learn to do well in other things."
"Joe is like a Bill Bradley in basketball," says Jackson, an avid fan of all sports. "He doesn't have a lot of color, but he's a hell of a defensive player and a hell of a team player. And he seldom makes mental mistakes."
"I'll say one thing about Joe Rudi," said Milwaukee Manager Del Crandall, watching Rudi in batting practice. "He may be underestimated, but never by a manager and never by a ballplayer."
Rudi can endure slumps such as last week's with equanimity because they must end—he ended his on Sunday with a rather unseemly flourish, a grand-slam home run and a double against Boston—and because, as he says, "Baseball is not an end in itself. It's just a period of time you go through. When you're finished as a player, you're not just going to pass away. The older you get [Rudi will be 28 Sept. 7], the more you realize this. I have some real estate investments and I like fixing up houses. There'll be plenty for me to do."
And in the meantime?
"I'll just try to keep my mouth shut, do my job and keep out of people's way."
And, he might have added, go about his business unseduced by the bitch-goddess, fame, if it can be said of someone with his ability that he can elude the lady much longer.