Monday, October 27, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (1960-1974)

Dick Groat (1960 NL MVP)
Groat could have chosen basketball as a career if he had wanted to. He was an All-American at Duke University,winning the UPI National Player of the Year award in 1951. He began his pro baseball career with the Pirates the following season. Without the benefit of any minor league experience, he hit .284 in 95 games and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. At season's end, he returned to Duke to complete his degree and ended up being selected in the first round of the NBA draft. He played in 26 games for the Fort Wayne Pistons, averaging 11.9 points per game. His season ended prematurely when he was drafted into the Army. Upon receiving an honorable discharge in 1955, Groat considered pursuing both sports, but ultimately chose hardball over the hardwood.

With the addition of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski in the mid-50s, the Pirates climbed into contention after several years of mediocrity. Groat held his own, combining solid defense with timely hitting. In 1959, he earned his first All-Star selection. He followed with his signature season, winning a batting title, a World Series ring and an MVP Award. Although he was an offensive no-show in the Series that year, he was widely praised for his leadership. His RBI single in the eighth inning of Game 7 helped ignite a historic Pirate rally that sank the powerful Yankees. Groat had some good seasons after 1960, getting named to three more All-Star teams before calling it quits in '67. In later years, he ran a golf course outside of Pittsburgh and served as a commentator at Duquesne University basketball games.

Ken Boyer (1964 NL MVP)
 Boyer came from a family of fourteen children. He was one of three siblings who made it to the majors. Cloyd--the oldest--had the shortest career, spending five seasons in the Show as a pitcher. Clete--the youngest--enjoyed great success with the New York Yankee teams of the late-'50s/ early-60s. Together, Clete and Ken combined for 444 lifetime homers, placing them third on the all time list among big league brothers. Only the Aarons and DiMaggios surpassed that total.

Ken began his big league career with the Cardinals in 1955. He blossomed into one of the finest defensive third basemen in the National League, capturing five Gold Glove Awards. He enjoyed his peak offensive years from '56-'64, gathering no fewer than 23 homers and 90 RBIs on eight occasions during that span. His finest hour came in 1964, when he earned his sixth All-Star selection and only World Series ring. At season's end, he was named NL MVP. Slowed by back trouble the following year, Boyer's numbers began to taper off. He played for three different clubs between '66 and '69 then retired. He took over as Cardinals manager in '78, but was fired just 51 games into the 1980 campaign. Two years later, he died of lung cancer. His number (14) was retired in St. Louis.

Denny McLain (1968 AL MVP)
Originally property of the White Sox, the Tigers obtained McLain in the 1963 minor league draft. For five seasons, he was among the best pitchers in the American League, capturing two Cy Young Awards and earning three All-Star selections between 1965 and 1969. In '68, he became the last pitcher of the modern era to win 30 games during the regular season. He added another win in the World Series against the Cardinals, finishing with 32.

McLain's SABR biography describes him as "cocky, arrogant, reckless." He had a habit of pulling his cap down so low that he had to tilt his head back to see the signs from his catchers. He treated batters to a steady diet of fastballs and hard sliders, employing a "Here it is--hit it if you can" strategy. Off the field, he was compared to a high school wise guy. He flew his own airplane and sometimes played the organ at Tigers games. McLain had little success after 1969 as the strain of averaging nearly 300 innings per season over a three-year span began to take its toll. Traded to the Senators in 1971, he compiled an 18-36 record before retiring from baseball two years later. McLain could not keep his personal life in order after baseball. He was sent to prison twice for charges of fraud and embezzlement. In 2008, he failed to show up in court to testify in a foreclosure and eviction case. He ended up in jail.

Boog Powell (1970 AL MVP)
Powell's unusual nickname came from his father, who used the word "Boog" as shorthand for the term "Bugger." After graduating from Key West High School in Florida, Powell quickly ascended through the Orioles minor league ranks. Called to the majors in September of '61, he would spend thirteen full seasons at first base in Baltimore. A big man at six-foot-four, 230 pounds, he was little more than adequate with a glove. His primary value to the club was on offense. Between 1963 and 1970, he smashed 25 or more homers five times while gathering 80 or more RBIs on six occasions. He had his shining moment in 1970, when he finished among the AL top five in at least half a dozen categories, among them homers, RBIs and total bases. He continued to hit well in the World Series against Cincinnati, driving in 5 runs with a  double and a pair of homers. It was Baltimore's only championship of the decade.Powell played in four Fall Classics with the Orioles altogether, coming out on the winning end twice.

After another solid effort in 1972, Powell's numbers tapered off. Traded to Cleveland in '75, he bounced back with 27 homers, 86 RBIs and a .297 batting average. It was his last excellent season. After his retirement, Powell appeared in a series of TV commercials for Miller Lite Beer. He currently owns Boog's Barbeque, an eatery located on Eutaw Street at Camden Yards. A second restaurant is located in Ocean City.

Jeff Burroughs (1974 AL MVP)
Burroughs got his start in the Senators organization, but would spend his most productive years with the Rangers and Braves. A right-handed outfielder with some power, he had a breakthrough season in 1973, launching 30 home runs--second in the league to Reggie Jackson of the A's. The following year--at just 23 years of age--Burroughs captured MVP honors on the strength of his 60 extra-base hits and league-high 118 RBIs. He won the vote by a wide margin over four different members of the championship A's, among them Jackson and Catfish Hunter.

Burroughs struck out at an alarming rate over the course of his career, but drew a fair amount of walks as well. After hitting just .226 in '74 and .237 the following year, he was traded to Atlanta. He reached a career high for homers in '77, going deep 41 times. That total was eclipsed by George Foster of the Reds, who became the first player to hit more than 50 long balls in a season since Willie Mays accomplished the feat in '65. After receiving his second All-Star selection in 1978, Burroughs became a rather ordinary player. He never hit more than 16 homers or drove-in more than 56 runs in any season from 1979 to 1985, which was the year he retired. He coached his son Sean's team to consecutive Little League World Series berths in 1992 and '93. Sean later ascended to the majors with the Padres. As of 2014, he was playing for Bridgeport of the Atlantic League after compiling a .278 batting average in portions of seven big league seasons.      

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