My friend Jerry Rosenthal was in his first spring training in 1961, being switched from shortstop to second base.
The coaches were swatting grounders during infield practice, concentrating on the double play with a bunch of strangers, trying to claw their way up the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system.
“I was figuring out the steps on my own,” Rosenthal recalls. Get to the base. Turn. Throw to first.
The stranger on line behind Jerry offered his critique: Jerry did not know jack about making the double play, and was going to get killed.
“You’ve got to cheat toward the base,” Ron Hunt told him, while executing his own double-play pivot. “Plant your foot and throw the ball.”
Jerry remembers the stranger as “very acerbic, but not mean spirited.”
It should be noted that the year before at Cedar Rapids, Hunt had batted .191 and committed 37 errors in 121 games. However, he offered advice -- even to a rival.
Hunt also delighted in patrolling the sparse training clubhouse, pulling adhesive tape off the bodies of teammates, but not in a mean way, Jerry Rosenthal adds. (An all-conference shortstop at Hofstra who came back from being hit by a pitch near the eye, Jerry played two years in the minors, admiring teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson and opponents like Lou Brock, and later taught school in Brooklyn, and is great company for his love of the game.)
Ron Hunt became the Mets’ first young star – scrappy and opinionated, the epitome of The Youth of America that Casey Stengel swore was in the pipeline.
Hunt was in the news the other day, in a lovely article and video from Ken Davidoff in the New York Post, detailing how Hunt, now 77, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, quite possibly the toll from being hit by 243 pitches in a 12-year major-league career, and throwing his body around in the field and sliding into bases.
Right here, you could switch over to Davidoff’s depiction of a grouchy but idealistic baseball lifer, now suffering:
I first met Ron Hunt in spring training of 1963 He had inched forward in the Braves’ system and the Mets had drafted him out of AA ball.
In those days, rookies were discouraged from being brash. Show us something, kid. Based in funky St. Petersburg – long before the move to eternally desolate Port St. Lucie -- the Mets played exhibitions on the Gulf Coast and inland Florida. Rookies got to ride the bus, so Hunt was designated for a game in Sarasota. I had already discovered that he was a blunt and willing talker, with opinions on anything.
Pitching for the White Sox was Herb Score, whose career had been disrupted by a line drive that hit him alongside the eye in 1957. Score was trying to hang on. After the game, I asked Hunt how Score looked to him.
“He don’t have shit,” Hunt told me. “He’s just cunny-thumbing the ball up there” – an old baseball expression for a junkballer.
The rook surely did not hold anything back. And he was right. Herb Score never pitched in the majors again. Three weeks later, Hunt jumped ahead of five or six other second baseman to open the season for the Mets, and he became a fixture, first with the Mets, later with four other teams. The Mets enjoyed him, called him “Bad Body” for the way he slouched and slumped his way around, infuriating rivals by getting hit by pitches, sliding hard into bases, bunting with two strikes, and other anti-social acts.
In the age of the Launch Angle, I must add that Hunt was the antithesis of today’s model player, who swings from his butt, every pitch, trying to propel a home run. Hunt hit only 39 homers in 12 seasons and today would surely be scorned by the analytics experts hunched in front of their computers. The Mets have a second baseman named Jeff McNeil who batted .329 in 63 games as a late-blooming rookie last season, and the last I heard the Mets don’t sound convinced he should be a major-league regular. I’d like to hear Ron Hunt’s take on that.
Hunt has opinions on everything. For a decade or two, he ran a baseball program in the St. Louis area, his own funds, his own rules, trying to make tough kids even tougher, while he also ran his farm.
Ken Davidoff catches him perfectly. Ron Hunt, with a nasty condition, sounds just like the opinionated teammate Jerry Rosenthal met in 1961 and I met in 1963. May he have a testy opinion about his illness, and tell it where to go.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.