The phrase “hitting the ball a country mile” is a maxim that has been frequently used in baseball to describe the raw power of players. A player who personified that phrase to a tee was Fred Whitfield, a slugging first baseman, who came to professional baseball from the little town of Vandiver, Alabama.
Whitfield was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1956 as an 18-year-old. They liked what they saw from the left-handed slugger and felt that he could develop into another cog for their already potent lineup.
Whitfield began his professional career in 1958 in the low minors and immediately proved he had walloping power. In his first three seasons he hit 23, 28, and 22 home runs, at a time when 20 home runs still meant something. His batting average also climbed as he was promoted through the system, culminating in the .323 mark he posted in 33 games at Triple-A in 1963, which caused the Cardinals to call him up to the majors.
Getting to the majors was only part of the challenge for Whitfield. When he arrived, star first baseman Bill White was entrenched at the same position, leaving less opportunity for the rookie than he would have preferred. But Whitfield ran with what he was given and played very well in the 73 games in which he appeared. Although he only had 158 at bats, he hit .266 with 8 home runs and 34 RBI.
Following the 1962 season the Cardinals realized that they had to do something about their abundance of talented first basemen. The solution they hit upon was trading Whitfield to the Cleveland Indians for Jack Kubiszyn and Ron Taylor.
While Whitfield never became a star, he blossomed into a very effective player for the Indians. His best season came in 1965 when he hit .293 with 26 home runs and 90 RBI in 132 games. He was limited in his career because of his struggles again left-handed pitching (.231 career average) and was often benched when southpaws were on the mound.
Whitfield was traded back to the National League after the 1967 season, when he was shipped to the Cincinnati Reds. He was never a regular starter again, playing two years with the Reds and four games for the Montreal Expos before calling it a career after the 1970 season.
In 817 career major league games over nine years, Whitfield hit .253 with 108 home runs and 356 RBI. More information on his career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/whitffr01.shtml. While he never became a star, he developed into a very productive player and is still thankful for the time he was able to play professionally. He recently shared some of his sentiments and memories with me, showing how fondly he regards his time in baseball.
Fred Whitfield Questionnaire:
If you could do anything differently about your career, what would that be?: I was blessed to be able to play; very blessed.
Who was your favorite coach or manager?: Joe Schultz, Dave Bristol, and Birdie Tebbetts.
What was the strangest play you ever saw during his career?: I hit a ball off the center field fence when two runners were on base. The outfielder played the ball off the fence and threw home and the catcher tagged both runners out.
Who was the most competitive player you ever played with or against?: Stan Musial and Pete Rose.
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