Then there are the celebrated rookies who didn't make it. Paul Strand, purchased by the 1924 Athletics for $70,000, then a staggering sum. Didn't last the season. Andy Cohen, 1928 Giants, John McGraw's lure for New York's Jews. Pressing under unremitting scrutiny, was sent down after two seasons. Lou (The Mad Russian) Novikoff, brought up by the 1941 Cubs. Stuck around during the war years, released by the Phillies in 1946. But they all pale in comparison to the Giants' Clint Hartung.
When the Hondo Hurricane reported to Phoenix in March of 1947, he had been described as "an entire ball club in himself," "potentially the greatest player in baseball" and "half-Feller, half-Foxx." To be sure, Hartung was an imposing and appealing fellow. At 23, he stood nearly 6'5" and weighed 215 pounds. Hailing from Hondo, Texas, a small farming and ranching town, he was modest, good-natured, toothy, angular, big-eared and a bit awkward. Everyone called him Floppy. That he could hit and pitch was the clincher: the kid was obviously the second coming of Babe Ruth. And that was the problem. His true credentials were more down-to-earth.
In 1941 the principal of Hondo High School persuaded the Minneapolis Millers to take a look at Hartung, who had been an all-state pitcher and first baseman. The Millers signed him, but when he was lackluster in half a dozen games they shipped him to Class C Eau Claire of the Northern League. There, playing first base, Hartung batted .358, with 12 homers and 61 runs batted in over a 66-game season. As a pitcher he was 3-1.
An orderly transition through the minors was cut short by World War II. Playing for an Army Air Force team in Hondo, Hartung won 23 games and impressed some big league soldiers, including Enos Slaughter, with his speed. Transferred to a base in Hawaii, he continued to pitch well and clubbed several tape-measure homers. Word got to New York. Sight unseen, the Giants bought him from Minneapolis in 1945.
March 24, 1980
Hartung was expected at spring training in 1946 but instead he reenlisted and spent another season in Hawaii. Playing for the Hickam Bay Bombers, he was 25-0 as a pitcher and batted .567. Never mind that the other pros were back in civvies: the legend grew.
The Giants had finished last in 1946, and their canny publicist Garry Schumacher was casting about for good news. "Hartung's a sucker if he ever shows up," Schumacher told the New York press. "He should go straight to Cooperstown." When Hartung homered in his first at bat in an intrasquad game, the writers let down their guard and dubbed him the Phee-nom.
Encouraged by Hartung's power. Manager Mel Ott started him in rightfield on Opening Day. Unfortunately, Hartung had played fewer than 50 games in the outfield. After a month of bobbled grounders and muffed fly balls, Ott switched him to pitcher. Hartung finished the season with a 9-7 record, a 4.57 earned run average and a .309 batting average in 34 games. At times he showed genuine promise, tossing a two-hitter and winning games with his bat.
The problem was that Hartung was exclusively a fastball pitcher. During the next three seasons he struggled—8-8, 9-11, 3-3. In 1951 Leo Durocher, then the Giants' manager, switched him back to the outfield, but he was no more successful at hitting curves than throwing them. After the 1952 season he was released. His six-year stats: a 29-29 record and a 5.02 ERA as a pitcher and a .238 average in only 378 at bats.
Hartung's now a gangpusher, or foreman, for Marathon Oil in Sinton, Texas. After his release he played three seasons in the minors, went to work for the oil company and led its semipro team, the Sinton Oilers, to the 1956 U.S. championship.
"There's nothing you can do about getting built up as a rookie." says the laconic Hartung. "Just bear down and take it. I just did what I was told; I was brought up that way. I have no complaints."
And in a way, he shouldn't. After all, Hartung is a baseball immortal. Not only as the game's most celebrated rookie but also as a principal in a famous trivia question:
Who was on base when Bobby Thomson hit the home run that won the 1951 pennant? Answer: Whitey Lockman had doubled, sending Don Mueller to third, but Mueller had broken an ankle sliding. The pinch runner? Clint Hartung.