Monday, February 29, 2016

The Most With The Least: Art Shamsky (1968-70)

One of the worst feelings for a promising minor league talent is knowing his path to the majors is being blocked by a productive veteran.  It happens to young prospects all the time, causing those players to be misused at the major league level when a space eventually opens up for them on the parent club's roster.  Unfortunately, many of those misused players end up having relatively short careers and their potential on the big league diamond is never fully realized.

Occasionally, a team that can't guarantee playing time to a young star at the major league level ends up trading that player to a team that can offer him a more steady job.  Sometimes, all it takes is a trade to a new environment for that player's talents to shine.  And in the late 1960s, one such player found his way to success as a member of the New York Mets.

Art Shamsky's left-handed power was crucial in the Mets' drive to October glory.  (Warren Zvon/Mets Fantasy Cards)

Arthur Louis Shamsky was born in 1941 to Jewish parents in St. Louis.  Signed as an amateur free agent by Cincinnati in 1959, Shamsky was a power-hitting outfielder in the Reds' minor league system, clubbing 92 home runs from 1960 to 1964.  Even though he had proven himself in the minor leagues, spending the entire 1963 and 1964 campaigns at the Triple-A level, his road to everyday success in the majors was blocked by the Reds' potent outfield.  With young star Tommy Harper manning one corner outfield position and future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson handling the other, Shamsky didn't make the jump to the majors until 1965, and even then, the Reds could only give him 96 at-bats, mostly as a pinch-hitter, as he started just 12 of the 64 games he played in.

Cincinnati had two 20-game winners in 1965 in Sammy Ellis and Jim Maloney, but the team's combined ERA was ninth in the ten-team National League, with only the Mets posting a worse earned run average as a team.  Because of the Reds' shortcomings on the mound, Reds owner Bill DeWitt went into the 1965-66 off-season coveting starting pitchers.  At the same time, he thought 30-year-old Frank Robinson was past his prime and felt he was expendable.  As a result, DeWitt traded Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for two-time All-Star pitcher Milt Pappas and two other players in what became one of the most lopsided trades in major league history.

Pappas never panned out in Cincinnati, while Robinson went on to win a Triple Crown in his first season in Baltimore and eventually wore an Orioles cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.  The Robinson trade didn't help the Reds, but did help further the career of Art Shamsky, who appeared to be in line to earn more at-bats in 1966 with the departure of Robinson.  Or so he thought.

In 1966, the Reds moved third baseman Deron Johnson - who had a league-leading 130 RBI in 1965 - to left field and shifted Tommy Harper from left to right.  As a result, Shamsky started just 63 games for the Reds in '66.  However, Shamsky made the most of his opportunity when he did receive a rare start, blasting 21 homers in 234 at-bats.

Although Shamsky was one of the team's top home run hitters in 1966, he did not cross the plate very often nor did he drive in many runners other than himself.  Despite his 21 homers, he scored just 41 times and produced 47 RBI.  In doing so, he became the first player in major league history to hit 20 or more homers while failing to score 50 runs or drive in 50.  And since then, only seven players have been able to match Shamsky's feat.

Without the Baseball Reference Play Index, Shamsky's feat would have remained an urban legend.

Shamsky failed to capitalize on his breakout season, batting .197 with just three homers in 147 at-bats during the 1967 campaign.  Although he was still only 26 years old, the Reds traded him to the New York Mets at the conclusion of the season for veteran utility infielder Bob Johnson.  Nineteen days after Shamsky became a Met, the team made an unorthodox trade, sending pitcher Bill Denehy and cash to the Washington Senators for manager Gil Hodges.

The arrival of Hodges changed Shamsky's career forever, as Hodges believed in a platoon system in which he assembled his starting lineup according to the opponent's starting pitcher.  Now, rather than being relegated to the bench the way he was throughout most of his career in Cincinnati, the left-handed hitting Shamsky would get an opportunity to start against right-handed pitchers.  As a result, Shamsky started in 87 of the Mets' 162 games in 1968, collecting 30 extra-base hits (including 12 homers) in 345 at-bats.

Although Shamsky batted just .238 in his first year with the team, that was still higher than the team's .228 overall batting average in what became known as "The Year of the Pitcher".  Shamsky finished eighth on the team in at-bats, yet still finished third in doubles (tied with Ron Swoboda), second in triples (tied with Cleon Jones) and third in homers.  His 48 RBI were also good for fourth on the team, just 11 behind team leader Swoboda.  If there was one negative about Shamsky's 1968 campaign, it was his 58 strikeouts against 21 walks.  By today's standards, that may not seem like a tremendous number of whiffs.  But it was highly unusual for Shamsky, who prided himself on being a good contact hitter.  The "high" strikeout total was something Shamsky set out to correct in 1969, and in doing so, he enjoyed his most complete season at the plate and his greatest team success.

From 1965 to 1968, Shamsky posted a .231 batting average and .723 OPS.  He also struck out 166 times (and drew 78 walks) in 822 at-bats, averaging a strikeout every 4.95 at-bats.  A back injury suffered in spring training caused Shamsky to miss the first 30 games of the 1969 season.  But when he returned to the Mets in mid-May, he was far more focused at the plate, and the team benefited from the new Art Shamsky.

Shamsky made his season debut with a pinch-hit RBI single against the Atlanta Braves on May 13.   By the All-Star break, he was batting .343 with a .997 OPS in 140 at-bats.  He also drew 22 walks while striking out just 19 times as part of a right field platoon with Ron Swoboda.  Then, beginning in mid-August, Shamsky started 30 of the team's next 43 games.  Three of the 13 games he did not start were due to his observance of Rosh Hashanah, even though the team was facing right-handed starting pitchers in those games.  The Mets won all three games sat out by Shamsky - plus 25 of the 30 contests he did start - on their way to winning their first National League East crown.

Photo by The Sporting News
Despite spending the first month of the 1969 campaign on the disabled list with a back injury, Shamsky surpassed 300 at-bats for the second consecutive season.  He also batted .300 for the first time in his career, adding 14 homers and 47 RBI, while finishing the year with more walks (36) than strikeouts (32).  Shamsky finished second on the team in both batting average and home runs.  He was also the team's first runner-up in on-base percentage (.375), OPS (.863) and OPS+ (139).  And despite Cleon Jones's team-leading .340 batting average and Tommie Agee's club-topping 26 homers, it was Shamsky who led the team with a .488 slugging percentage.

Shamsky continued his torrid hitting in the National League Championship Series, collecting seven hits in the three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves.  Atlanta used right-handed starting pitchers in all three games, allowing Shamsky to start each game over Swoboda, who did not have a single plate appearance in the short series.  Shamsky set the tone for the series in Game One, collecting the Mets' first hit and crossing the plate on a Jerry Grote single.  He then contributed another single - his third hit of the game - during the Mets' five-run eighth inning rally, which turned a 5-4 deficit into a 9-5 lead.  The Mets won Game One, then took the next two games, with Shamsky producing four more hits.  But just as Shamsky earned playing time over Swoboda in the NLCS, he spent most of the World Series on the bench, as the Mets faced southpaw starters four times in the Fall Classic.  Shamsky did not collect a hit against Baltimore in the World Series, but he did collect a ring after the Mets dispatched in Orioles in five games.

The Mets failed to defend their World Series title in 1970, but Shamsky finally succeeded in becoming a regular player for the first time.  Shamsky continued to platoon in right field with Ron Swoboda, but also logged significant time as part of a first base platoon with Donn Clendenon.  Originally, Ed Kranepool was supposed to be the left-handed hitting complement to the righty-swinging Clendenon at first, but Kranepool experienced the worst slump of his career during the first few months of the 1970 campaign and was subsequently sent to the minors, allowing Shamsky to become the starting first baseman whenever the Mets were facing a right-handed starting pitcher.

Used mostly out of the cleanup spot in the Mets' batting order, Shamsky started over 100 games for the first and only time in his career in 1970.  He had his greatest success in the month of May, when he put up a .341/.416/.580 slash line in 24 starts.  During the month, he produced six doubles, five homers and 17 RBI, all while splitting time between right field (13 starts), first base (nine starts) and left field (two starts).  He also struck out just seven times in 101 plate appearances, while walking a dozen times.

New York may not have recaptured the glory from their miraculous 1969 campaign in 1970, but Shamsky did have a spectacular season of his own, setting career highs in runs scored (48), RBI (49), hits (118) and extra-base hits (32).  He also led the team with a .293 batting average and produced his second straight season with an OPS above .800.  And once again, he finished the year with more walks (49) than strikeouts (33).

Sadly, the 1971 campaign would be Shamsky's fourth and final season in New York.  For the second time in three years, injuries curtailed his campaign, but this time Shamsky could not recover from his nagging aches and pains, batting .185 with five homers in 18 RBI in 135 at-bats.  The only positive thing to come out of Shamsky's 1971 season was that he once again walked more times than he struck out, drawing 21 bases on balls while fanning 18 times.

Just one day after the conclusion of the 1971 World Series, Shamsky was part of an eight-player deal between the Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Unfortunately, he never played a game for his hometown team, as he was released by the Cards at the end of spring training and signed with the rival Chicago Cubs.  Shamsky then split the 1972 season between the Cubs and the Oakland A's before being released by Oakland in July, just three months before the A's won the World Series.

When he played his final game in the majors, Shamsky was 30 years old.  Only once in his eight-year major league career did he play enough to reach 400 at-bats, but he never had a problem with the fact that he did not become a true everyday player.  While in New York, Shamsky learned to love his adopted city, just as Mets fans - especially ones of the Jewish faith - embraced him.

(Barry Talesnick/Globe Photos)

"I learned that New York City is really one of a kind. ... The city energizes you.  There is never a dull moment in New York City.  After a few months I fell in love with the city. ... I was okay with it now."

---Art Shamsky, from his book "The Magnificent Seasons".

Art Shamsky found the role he was perfect for as a member of the New York Mets.  In his four years with the team, Shamsky accepted the platoon philosophy of manager Gil Hodges, becoming one of the most valuable members of a championship team.  To this day, he is beloved by Mets fans young and old.  He is also respected by his peers in the Jewish sports community, who inducted him into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.

He may have averaged just 296 at-bats per season during his tenure in New York, but Shamsky always made the most of those opportunities, appearing among the team leaders in virtually every offensive category despite his limited number of plate appearances.  That is why whenever the topic comes up of which player accomplished the most on the Mets with the least amount of playing time, Art Shamsky is sure to be one of the players in the conversation. 

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou
February 22, 2016: Pat Zachry

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