Wow. Who knew that Jarred Kelenic would be washed up after just 23 games in the major leagues?
We jest, of course. Still, the sky-is-falling reaction of many Seattle Mariners fans to Kelenic’s failure to immediately light up the baseball world at the age of 21 seems a bit overboard.
Granted, Kelenic’s .096 batting average was pitiful. Hitless in his final 39 at-bats, he returned to Triple-A Tacoma in desperate need of a boost in his stats and confidence.
Although Kelenic has been widely regarded as one of baseball’s top prospects, the young outfielder is living proof that it is exceedingly difficult to hit a thrown baseball in the major leagues. It also is exceedingly difficult to pitch in the major leagues. As proof, we look back on the painfully slow starts of 10 Baseball Hall of Fame players, all of whom have ties to Spokane or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
The ex-Mariner is regarded as one of the finest right-handed hitters since World War II. No one would have predicted that in 1983, when Martinez batted .173 with just two extra-base hits (no homers) in 32 games as a rookie pro with Bellingham in the short-season Class A Northwest League.
Martinez was 27 years old and in his eighth season of pro ball before he played a full season in the majors. He retired as one of six players in major league history with career marks of 300 or more homers, 500 or more doubles, a batting average of .300 or higher, an on-base percentage of .400 or higher and a slugging percentage of .500 or higher.
Ken Griffey Jr.
The greatest player in Mariners history hit .189 in his first 14 games in the majors, when Seattle rushed the 19-year-old center fielder to the bigs less than two full years after he graduated from high school.
Mind you, Griffey went 13-for-20 (.650) over his next five games to lift his average to .333. He tailed off late in the season but still posted very respectable rookie numbers with a .264 average, 16 homers and 61 RBIs in 127 games. Griffey ended his 22-year career with a .284 average and 630 home runs (seventh all-time).
Midway through his career, Koufax found himself at a crossroads. The southpaw struggled to throw his mighty fastball for strikes and had a mediocre 36-40 record with a 4.10 earned run average after six seasons with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers.
Koufax’s fortunes turned around in 1961 after journeyman Dodgers catcher Norm Sherry, a former Spokane Indians player, convinced Koufax to stop trying to throw as hard as possible. The result was one of the greatest six-year stretches in history from 1961-66: A 130-47 record, 2.19 ERA, 115 complete games, 35 shutouts, six All-Star Game selections and three Cy Young Awards as the National League’s best pitcher. In 1966, an elbow injury forced Koufax into retirement after he led the NL with 27 wins, a 1.73 ERA, 323 innings pitched, 27 complete games, five shutouts and 317 strikeouts.
One of the saddest truths about American sports is that thousands of worthy Black players were denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the modern color line in 1947.
Paige did not make his big league debut until he was 42 years old, more than two decades after he began playing on Black pro teams. Once he made it to the bigs, Paige posted a 6-1 record and 2.48 ERA as, officially, a rookie while helping the Cleveland Indians capture the 1948 American League pennant.
Paige was 54 when he pitched in Spokane during a brief stint with the PCL’s Portland Beavers.
It was bad enough that Johnson was cut by the Tacoma Tigers during his first pro tryout in 1906. Making matters worse was the fact that Tacoma player-manager Mike Lynch – who later became a Spokane player-manager – told the sidearmer he should give up pitching to become an outfielder.
Two years later, after the Washington Senators signed Johnson off a semipro team in Weiser, Idaho, Johnson began a spectacular 21-year major league career. Nearly a century after he retired, Johnson still lays claim to all-time rankings of first in shutouts (110), second in wins (417), third in innings pitched (5,9141/3), fifth in complete games (531), ninth in strikeouts (3,509) and 12th in ERA (2.17).
The knuckleballing relief pitcher spent seven years in the minors and three more years in the military during World War II before he finally reached the majors. As a 29-year-old rookie, Wilhelm rewarded the 1952 New York Giants by going 15-3 and leading the National League with a 2.43 ERA, 71 games pitched and an .833 winning percentage.
Only five players in major league history have pitched in more games than Wilhelm (1,070). He was nearing his 50th birthday when he wrapped up his 21-year major league career in 1972, one year after he appeared in eight games with Spokane in the PCL.
Few people in baseball questioned Johnson’s potential as a young pitcher. Fortunately for the Mariners, some of the doubters worked in the Montreal Expos’ front office, so the Expos traded Johnson to Seattle in 1989.
Johnson blossomed into one of the finest pitchers in baseball once a few tips from legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan helped the 6-foot-10 Johnson learn to control his blazing fastball. Johnson led the American League in bases on balls during each of his first three full seasons with Seattle, but he later won four straight Cy Young Awards with the National League’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Only Ryan struck out more major league batters than Johnson (4,875).
The legendary boo-birds of Philadelphia had a field day with Schmidt in 1973, when the highly touted third baseman hit just .196 in his first full season with the Phillies. Schmidt slugged 18 home runs, but he struck out a National League-leading 136 times for an average of one whiff in every 2.7 at bats.
One year later, and two years removed from a banner season with the PCL’s Eugene Emeralds, Schmidt began flashing his Hall of Fame form by hitting .282 with 36 homers and 116 RBIs. Schmidt spent his entire big league career in Philadelphia, where he won three Most Valuable Player awards and 10 Gold Gloves. His 548 career homers rank 16th all-time.
McGinnity’s career was a remarkable one. He pitched in the minors until he was 54 years old, and that was 17 years after he last pitched in the majors. He averaged 24 wins per season in the majors, but he also averaged 344 innings pitched per season in the bigs, which helped limit his major league career to 10 seasons.
Nicknamed “Iron Man”, McGinnity spent three years playing semipro and amateur ball after he was released following two losing seasons to start his pro career. One year after returning to the minors in 1898, McGinnity won 28 games as a 28-year-old rookie in the majors. His career peaked in 1903-04 with the New York Giants, when he won 66 games (31 and 35, respectively) and pitched a stunning 842 innings (434 and 408, respectively). McGinnity won a total of 41 games with Tacoma in 1914-15.
The Snohomish native briefly gave up baseball as a teenager due to arm trouble, then bounced around on various semipro and “town teams” until he turned pro at 23 with Bellingham. He was nearly 27 when he reached the majors and hit .332 with 18 homers and 96 RBIs for the 1929 Cleveland Indians.
Averill, a fleet-footed center fielder, hit over .300 in each of his first six seasons with Cleveland. During that span, he averaged 115 RBIs, 24 homers, 39 doubles and 11 triples. Averill was named to the American League team for the first six All-Star Games (1933-38). He retired after spending part of the 1941 season with the PCL’s Seattle Rainiers.
Howie Stalwick covered baseball and other sports for The Spokesman-Review and dozens of other newspapers nationwide (often as a freelancer) before retiring in his hometown of Spokane in 2016. Howie may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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