SABR

Jack Heidemann

This article was written by Chuck Johnson.

Jack Heidemann played well during spring training in 1978, so well in fact he thought he had made the Milwaukee Brewers Opening Day roster. It came as a shock when, shortly before the team broke camp, he heard the words no player ever wants to hear:

“Hey, Jack, Bambi wants to see you.”

“Bambi” was Brewers manager George Bamberger. “Jack, you had a great spring, we know you can play up here, but we just have to make room for the Molitor kid.”

“I played two years in Milwaukee,” Heidemann said. “I roomed with one Hall of Famer (Robin Yount) and was replaced by another (Paul Molitor).”

Jack Seale Heidemann was born on July 11, 1949 in Brenham, Texas, a small town of about 16,000 people located 70 miles northwest of Houston.1 Brenham is best known as the home of Blue Bell Creameries, the maker of the third largest selling brand of ice cream in the United States, and as the birth place of two other former major leaguers, Chuck Machemehl and Cecil Cooper. Machemel, in fact, was not only a teammate of Jack’s at Brenham High School, but also during his only major league season with the 1971 Cleveland Indians.

The son of Herbert and Mildred, Jack, his brother, and two sisters were born into a farming family. Jack showed athletic promise at an early age, and despite having farm responsibilities before and after school, managed to find the time to play whatever seasonal sports were taking place at the time.

Once at Brenham High, Heidemann turned his focus to baseball and by the time he graduated in 1967 he had led the Cubs to three consecutive district titles and their first ever state tournament appearance in 1966. 2

As the June draft approached, Jack had a good idea baseball would soon become his way off the farm. “The Mets had shown the most interest,” he recalled, “but they weren’t the one who called.”

The Mets had the fourth pick in the 1967 draft and had chosen Pennsylvania high school pitcher Jon Matlack. When the phone rang it was the Cleveland Indians, who had chosen him with the eleventh overall selection in the first round.

The seventeen-year-old was now a professional baseball player, a journey which began in the Western Carolinas League in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Playing for former major leaguer Pinky May, Heidemann understandably struggled against the older competition, hitting just .186 over 58 games.

The following season, 1968, would prove to be much different, with Heidemann playing to the level expected of a first rounder. With Reno of the California League, he led the league in doubles and triples, finished second in at bats and hits, fourth in total bases, and his .305 average was good for sixth. He would be named not only the Cal League All-Star shortstop, but the Class A shortstop as well.

The tributes didn’t stop there. Indians VP Hank Peters said of his prized young prospect, “He has the best range of any kid shortstop I’ve ever seen…the way he covers territory is unbelievable.”3 His manager in Reno, Clay Bryant, took the praise one step further, saying, “Jack already has as much range as any shortstop in the American League except Bert Campaneris of Oakland.”4

The ultimate compliment may have been paid unintentionally by the Indians themselves. Following the 1968 season, each major league team had to submit to the commissioner’s office a list of organizational players who would be protected from the upcoming expansion draft. The Major Leagues would be adding four teams beginning in 1969, with their rosters being stocked from the existing franchises. The Indians thought so much of Heidemann he was one of the fifteen players they protected, despite being just a nineteen-year-old Class-A player.

Heidemann played well during spring training in 1969 and was sent to Triple-A Portland to start the season, a big jump from his A ball experience the year before. He started the season strong, hitting .282 through the first two weeks before getting not one, but two, call-ups. The first came from the Indians; second baseman Davey Nelson pulled a hamstring and was placed on the disabled list. The Indians promoted reserve Vern Fuller to the starting role, with Heidemann coming in to fill the vacant utility spot.

Unfortunately for Jack, the second call-up took priority over the Indians; it was from the United States government. He was called to report to active duty by his Texas National Guard unit.

“That was a tough conversation to have, especially considering the circumstances.” Jack said. When he got to Cleveland, he had to tell manager Alvin Dark and general manager Gabe Paul he couldn’t stay. He was due to report for basic training in Fort Gordon, Georgia, in three weeks.

Heidemann hung around long enough to make his major league debut, entering as a ninth-inning defensive replacement on May 2 in Washington against the Senators. He started the next two games at shortstop, striking out twice in four hitless plate appearances before his season came to an early end.

Jack headed to Georgia for his basic training and upon completion went to paratrooper school at Fort Benning, which included several jumps from a C-130 transport plane, then headed back to Texas, where he finished out his six-month active duty requirement with both feet on the ground.

Heidemann was released from active duty in November and immediately began getting back into baseball shape. Reporting to winter ball in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, he played for Indians teammate Lou Klimchock. Indians manager Alvin Dark, after returning to the States from a winter scouting trip, praised Jack’s play, saying, “Heidemann is a real diamond in the rough….all he needs is some polishing, and he’s getting that in Puerto Rico.”5 Klimchock too was full of praise, albeit more guarded: “Jack played great in the field, there’s no question about his defensive ability, but offensively I don’t think he’s ready for the majors.”6 Nonetheless, Dark named Heidemann and Eddie Leon as his Opening Day keystone combination even before spring training began in 1970.

Heidemann did in fact make the Indians opening day lineup and would spend the entire season as the starting shortstop, posting career highs in every offensive and defensive category. He recorded his first major league hit on Opening Day in Baltimore, a second-inning single off Dave McNally. His first major league homer came in the second game of a doubleheader on May 24 against Yankees left-hander John Cumberland at Yankee Stadium, a game that featured nine homers by both teams, including three by Cleveland first baseman Tony Horton. Jack’s personal season highlight came a month later, on June 28 in the first game of a doubleheader in Detroit, when he went 5-5 in an 8-2 Indians’ victory.

As he had every year as a pro, Heidemann again played winter ball in the off-season, this time in Caguas, Puerto Rico, for future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. Jack reported to spring training in 1971 confident and secure in his role as an everyday player. Unfortunately, things would go south almost from the start, setting in motion a set of events which ultimately would contribute to a premature end to his career.

On March 7, in the third game of the exhibition season, the Indians were taking on the San Francisco Giants. Attempting to turn a double play, Heidemann clipped the sliding Al Gallagher with his feet, flipped over, and landed on his right shoulder. He missed a few games, and after returning had difficulty throwing and following through on his swing. With three days left before the start of the season, Alvin Dark named Larry Brown the starting shortstop and sent Heidemann to Triple-A Wichita.

On April 24 the Indians recalled Heidemann, who had played just six games with Wichita, after trading Brown to the Oakland A’s. On May 17, in the fourth inning of a game in Washington, the Senators’ Tom McCraw blooped a ball into short left-center field where Heidemann, left fielder John Lowenstein, and center fielder Vada Pinson collided trying to make the catch. While McCraw circled the bases for an inside-the-park homer, the three Indians players remained sprawled on the field.

While Pinson managed to escape with a cut on his chin that required nine stitches, the other two players weren’t as lucky. Lowenstein suffered a concussion and knee injury and would spend a week in the hospital after developing a blood clot. Heidemann spent a week in the hospital with a knee injury of his own, but he also reinjured his shoulder after flipping over Lowenstein (Jack’s cleats caused the cut on Pinson’s chin).

Jack missed nine games, returning in a part-time role for a week starting on May 28, and didn’t return to the starting lineup until June 4. He was hitting .190 at the time of the injury and even though he was back playing every day, his shoulder was still causing him problems on the field. On June 28, with his average at a season-low .162, Heidemann enjoyed the first of four straight multi-hit games, boosting his average to .207.

On August 3 he was batting .208 when the Indians played the Yankees in Cleveland. In the second inning, with runners on the corners and one out, Roy White grounded to second baseman Eddie Leon, whose poor throw to second brought Heidemann into the path of the sliding Bobby Murcer. In the collision he suffered torn ligaments in his left knee that required season-ending surgery.

Heidemann spent all but 10 games of the 1972 season in Triple-A Portland, where he hit a respectable .256, and again played winter ball in Puerto Rico, this time for Jack McKeon. When he reported to Tucson for spring training in 1973, he was informed by manager Ken Aspromonte he would not be the starting shortstop. The job instead would go to Frank Duffy. “I think it was all pre-determined by Aspromonte after Duffy came in the trade for Sam McDowell,” Jack said. “If everything is set before spring training, then why have spring training?”7

Heidemann would go on to out-hit Duffy in spring training, .318 to .150, but Apromonte held his ground with Duffy. The Indians resolved the situation on March 24, trading Heidemann and catcher Ray Fosse to the Oakland Athletics for catcher Dave Duncan and outfielder George Hendrick. Told by the Athletics front office that he was obtained to serve as backup to shortstop Bert Campaneris and second baseman Dick Green, Heidemann instead was sent to Triple-A Tucson, where he hit .283 in 109 games. He would never play for the A’s during the 1973 season, one which saw Oakland win the World Series and cost Heidemann a championship ring.

In March 1974 Oakland placed Heidemann on waivers and he was claimed by, of all teams, the Indians. He made the team as a utility player and hit .091 in 12 games before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Jack hit .296 over 14 games with Triple-A Tulsa before being recalled to St. Louis, where he finished the year hitting .271 in 47 games.

The New York Mets headed to the 1974 winter meetings looking for a shortstop to replace Bud Harrelson, who was recovering from a knee injury. On December 11 they traded outfielder Mike Vail and Ted Martinez to the Cardinals for Heidemann, who would spend the entire 1975 season in New York, although he didn’t play regularly, getting into just 61 games.

Heidemann started the 1976 season at Triple-A Tidewater, where he hit a career high .356 over 37 games before being recalled to New York. He went 1-for-12 over five games before being benched for two weeks. On June 22, the Mets traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers for minor league pitcher Tom Deidel.

Filling in for injured utility man Gary Sutherland, Heidemann posted a .219 batting mark in 69 games. He made the Brewers out of spring training in 1977, getting one at-bat in five games before being sent to Triple-A Spokane on May 12. The lone at-bat was a fly out to center field off Dave LaRoche in Cleveland on May 10. It was Heidemann’s final big league appearance.

Playing in Spokane was bittersweet for Jack. It wasn’t the major leagues, but it was home. In 1972, while playing in Portland, he had met a team employee named Carol Cutler, who was the daughter of team president Bill Cutler. She adhered to her father’s rule of not dating players, but they became friends. After he was traded to Oakland, they got engaged and subsequently married. During the off-season the family lived in Tempe, Arizona, but Carol continued to work for her dad during the season while Jack was playing.

Now he would be playing at home in Spokane, and for the next year and a half would flourish. In 1977 he hit .315 in 102 games and .323 over 111 games in 1978. After the season, the Brewers announced they were moving their AAA operations to Vancouver, British Columbia. Heidemann was thinking this might be the end of the road for him. His shoulder was giving him problems and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue playing in pain. Fate would step in, however; with Spokane seeking a new affiliation, the Seattle Mariners decided to move their AAA team from San Jose.

Now a free agent, Heidemann decided to give his career one more shot, and signed with Seattle. On Opening Day 1979, in Hawaii, the Islanders’ Steve Brye hit a ground ball up the middle. Jack fielded the ball cleanly but as he threw to first base the pain in his shoulder dropped him to the ground. After a couple of minutes, he got up and walked off the field, telling manager Rene Lachemann his “arm was gone.”

Heidemann missed a month, and after coming back he hit .236 in 100 pain-filled games. “Surgery wasn’t the same then as it is now,” he said. “There was no guarantee I’d be better off after than I was before, and if the doctors couldn’t guarantee me I could play again, then why bother?”

The Mariners sent him a contract for the 1980 season, but he never opened the envelope. They finally called and asked if he was done, to which he answered, “I guess so.”

Heidemann had shown interest in real estate and had worked during the previous off-seasons with former major leaguer Roric Harrison, who convinced him to get his license. He eventually did, and after spending a couple of years with Coldwell Banker, he moved over to Realty Executives, where he retired after 30 years.

Jack and his former wife, Carol, have four children: Michael, Matt, Jamie, and Molly. Michael was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies but didn’t sign, then played one season of independent ball with Sioux City. Jack has two nephews who also pursued baseball professionally. Brett Bordes played five seasons in the Orioles organization, and Jim Patterson was pitching in the Blue Jays chain in 2013.

Jack lives in Mesa, Arizona, where he spends time with his six grandchildren, playing golf and enjoying his hobbies of landscaping and gardening. He is an active member of the Arizona Major League Alumni and continues to share his baseball knowledge and experience through speaking engagements and clinics.

 

Sources

Baseball-Reference.com.

Personal Interview with Jack Heidemann on June 5, 2013.

Email exchanges with Jack Heidemann on June 7, July 16, and September 29, 2013.

 

Notes

1 Brenham.gov/Brenham, TX

2 Brenham High School Baseball website, brenhamub.tripod.com.

3 Russell Schneider, “All Indians Must Share in Broken Dream,” The Sporting News, September 14, 1968, 8.

4 Russell Schneider, “Gabe Plans Early Safari in ‘Big Tater’ Country” The Sporting News, October 5, 1968, 40.

5 Russell Schneider, “Indians Baiting Bullpen Hook with Infield Lures,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1969, 43.

6 Russell Schneider, “Klimchock Issues a Glowing Report on Tribe Kiddies”, The Sporting News, February 21, 1970, 40.

7 Russell Schneider, “Job or Plane Fare,” Heidemann Tells Tribe”, The Sporting News, March 10, 1973, 40.

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