SABR

Andy Etchebarren

This article was written by Ben Klein.

Five years after being signed to a minor-league contract by the Baltimore Orioles, Andy Etchebarren found himself starting behind home plate for the Orioles on Opening Day, April 12, 1966, against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The 22-year-old rookie not only settled into the lineup, but thrived as Baltimore’s No. 1 catcher. Etchebarren caught in 63 of the Orioles’ first 68 games and by the end of June led all American League catchers in RBIs and was turning heads with his defensive prowess, toughness, and ability to handle Baltimore’s star-studded rotation. By early July Etchebarren had secured a place on the American League All-Star team and thrust himself solidly into the Rookie of the Year discussion. Then he suffered a fractured bone in July that hobbled him for several weeks.

Nonetheless, Etchebarren played an integral role in Baltimore’s run to the 1966 pennant and subsequent sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. He placed 17th in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Teammate Frank Robinson walked away with the MVP award, but his success was bizarrely linked to Etchebarren. At a party in August, Robinson slipped and fell into a pool. Not knowing how to swim, Robinson began sinking before Etchebarren dived into the pool and rescued him.

Apart from his lifeguard skills, Etchebarren’s quickness behind the plate and ability to handle pitchers so impressed Baltimore manager Hank Bauer that Bauer entrusted him to catch every inning in the World Series. Etchebarren went 1-for-12 in the Series and earned the distinction of being the last major leaguer to face Sandy Koufax, grounding into a double play to end the top of the sixth inning of Game Two. Etchebarren’s impressive rookie campaign was probably his finest and, instead of foreshadowing even greater seasons, stands as a microcosm of his entire big-league career—a career that was slowed by nagging injuries but highlighted by Baltimore’s pennant runs.

Andrew Auguste Etchebarren was born on June 20, 1943, the son of a French mother and a Basque-American father. He first caught the eye of Harry Dalton in 1961, when Dalton, eventually the Orioles’ general manager, was earning his stripes as the farm director and Etchebarren was a star at La Puente High School in La Puente, California, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles. A two-sport athlete, Etchebarren turned down several football offers, including one to the United States Naval Academy. After Dalton secured Etchebarren’s commitment to the Orioles in 1961 with an $85,000 signing bonus, Etchebarren began to earn a reputation in the minors for his defense, ability to manage pitchers, clutch hitting, and toughness. He also began to draw comparisons to Yogi Berra—less for his ability than for his facial features. Etchebarren was even cruelly dubbed “Lurch” by fans of the Addams Family TV show and was later derided by broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who suggested that Etchebarren could profit from crashing into the screen behind home plate at Yankee Stadium because the collision “might rearrange some of those parts.”1

After minor-league stops in Class C Aberdeen in 1961 and Single-A Elmira in 1962, Etchebarren made his major-league debut on September 26, 1962. Completing the Orioles battery on that day was Dave McNally, who was also making his debut and hurled a two-hit shutout against the Kansas City Athletics. The achievement was not lost on Etchebarren, who later called McNally the best pitcher he ever caught. In the second inning, Etchebarren singled and drove in the second Orioles run of the 3-0 victory.

After the 1962 season, Etchebarren spent a few more years in the minors, first back with Aberdeen, now a Single-A club, and ultimately landing with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League in 1965. It was at Rochester that Etchebarren cemented his reputation for toughness by playing through injuries and even remaining in a game after being knocked unconscious when he hit his head while diving after a foul ball. By 1965, it was obvious that Etchebarren was ready for the majors defensively, but his bat remained a question mark despite his three-run home run off Yankees pitcher Bill Stafford in one of his five late-season games. In his five seasons in the minors, Etchebarren compiled a batting average of .242, and never finished a season over .255.

Etchebarren’s chance finally came in the 1966 season, after Baltimore’s No. 1 catcher, Dick Brown, suffered the misfortune of being diagnosed with a brain tumor and his backup, Charlie Lau, was hampered by an elbow injury. Suddenly faced with vacancies at the position, the Orioles thrust Etchebarren into major-league action and acquired Vic Roznovsky from the Chicago Cubs. After receiving his shot, Etchebarren had a memorable rookie year, hitting just .221 but with 11 homers and 50 runs batted in, while starting 118 of the club’s 162 games. Etchebarren remained the Orioles’ catcher in 1967, playing in 112 games and finding himself on the American League squad for the All-Star Game for a second consecutive season. (He played in neither game.) His defense and game-calling were highly prized, though he hit just .215 in 1967.

Despite his defensive prowess, 1967 was the last year in which Etchebarren was the Orioles’ primary catcher. It was also the last season in which he was 100 percent healthy; his appearances in 1968 dwindled to 74, the result both injuries and the emergence of left-handed-hitting catcher Elrod Hendricks. The two began sharing duties as the Baltimore backstops. A midseason change of managers in 1968, with Earl Weaver replacing Hank Bauer, may have dealt a blow to Etchebarren’s chances at resuming his lead role, because Bauer had been a strong advocate of Etchebarren, once calling him the quickest catcher he had ever seen, and Weaver loved Hendricks’ superior bat.

Etchebarren and Hendricks resumed sharing catching duties in 1969, with Hendricks playing in 105 games and Etchebarren in 73. Although he would have preferred to have earned the main job, Etchebarren conceded that Weaver’s decision to platoon him and Hendricks was a good one for the club because the catching duo had a strong combined season in 1969. They helped lead the Orioles to 109 victories and their second pennant in four years. Etchebarren started Games Two and Five of the World Series, but failed to get a hit in six at-bats during the Series, a five-game defeat to the Mets.

Etchebarren continued to share catching duties with Hendricks in the 1970 season, making 78 appearances and finishing the season with a .243 batting average. In the 1970 World Series triumph over the Reds, Etchebarren started Game Three and Game Five, catching victories pitched by Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar. As in the 1969 World Series, Etchebarren struggled at the plate, striking out three times and netting only one hit in seven at-bats. In 1971 he appeared in 70 games and raised his batting average to .270, his career high. Etchebarren also swatted nine home runs, his highest total since his rookie season. In 1971 the Orioles won their third consecutive pennant. The Orioles took the battle to Game Seven, but lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Etchebarren appeared only in Game Four, going 0-for-2, including grounding into a double play and getting hit by a pitch.

In 1972 Etchebarren squandered the opportunity to regain the No. 1 job when Elrod Hendricks became disabled by a calcium deposit in his neck early in the summer. Instead of seizing the opportunity, Etchebarren saw his batting average plummet to a career-low .202 and he lost the lead job to Johnny Oates. By 1973 Etchebarren’s shot at the starting catcher role appeared bleaker than ever. Elrod Hendricks remained in the lineup to hit against right-handed pitching and the Orioles obtained power-hitting Earl Williams from Atlanta in the offseason. Despite their depth at catcher, manager Weaver turned to Etchebarren during the stretch run. The insertion of Etchebarren into the starting lineup during the run to the postseason was motivated largely by his ability to handle pitchers, but Etchebarren’s greatest postseason performance at the plate came in the 1973 American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics. Etchebarren appeared in four games, hitting .357 and driving in four runs. Before the series, Oakland manager Dick Williams teased Etchebarren by sarcastically saying that he feared Etchebarren for the strength that he must have built up from not playing all season. In response, Etchebarren clubbed a three-run home run off Vida Blue to help the Orioles win Game Four of the ALCS before the club was eliminated by Oakland in Game Five.

At the start of the 1974 season, Etchebarren was fed up with backing up Earl Williams at catcher and was growing tired of being away from his wife and children, who remained at home in Hacienda Heights, California. Harry Dalton had left the Orioles in 1971 for the California Angels. Confronted with a young and inexperienced team, Dalton began a quest to bring Etchebarren to Anaheim. The feeling was mutual and Etchebarren saw in the Angels not only an opportunity to have a strong shot at a No.1 catching position, but also to be closer to his wife and two daughters. Etchebarren demanded either a three-year contract or a trade to the Angels and threatened retirement if neither of the two alternatives materialized. When Baltimore refused to acquiesce to Etchebarren’s demands, spring training began with Etchebarren back in California tending the family liquor store. Not surprisingly, Etchebarren missed baseball too much and within two weeks after the start of spring training came to terms with new Baltimore general manager Frank Cashen, without securing either a three-year contract or a trade to the Angels.

At the start of the 1975 season, Etchebarren was named the Orioles’ everyday catcher. But in the first week of the season, he suffered two injuries, a strained Achilles tendon and a fractured elbow. When the Orioles failed to reactivate Etchebarren after he was given a clean bill of health, Etchebarren filed a grievance through the Major League Baseball Players Association. Although he was reinstated, Etchebarren’s days with the Orioles seemed numbered as he had only one plate appearance after his reactivation. Etchebarren informed the Baltimore front office that he would retire if they refused to trade him and he even refused to sit for the Orioles’ 1975 team photo.

When the June 15 trading deadline arrived, Etchebarren and the Orioles went separate ways, with the Orioles leaving for a series in Cleveland and Etchebarren traveling on his own for California, thinking his playing days were behind him. While Etchebarren was en route west, he was sold to the Angels. The news didn’t reach Andy until 50 of his closest friends greeted him at his house in Hacienda Heights and surprised him with the news. The move was a happy one for Etchebarren, who had enthusiastically entertained the idea of a move to Anaheim ever since Harry Dalton became the Angels’ general manager. Dalton held Etchebarren’s baseball knowledge in very high regard and believed that he would be very helpful to the Angels’ young and inexperienced team. Etchebarren’s motivations were both professional and personal—with the Angels he would have a shot at an everyday position at Anaheim Stadium, a mere 20-minute drive from his home.

Etchebarren immediately replaced Ellie Rodriguez as the Angels’ everyday catcher. But within two weeks of his first start for the Angels, Etchebarren’s health woes returned as he suffered a broken right thumb and he finished the season appearing in only 31 games for the Angels. In 1976, new Angels manager Norm Sherry named Etchebarren the Angels’ primary catcher and he appeared in 103 games and finished the season with a .227 batting average. By 1977, Etchebarren was 33 years old and the elder statesman of the young Angels team. Although it was clear that he was in the twilight of his playing career, his future in baseball as a coach appeared secure when he re-signed with the Angels in 1977 as a player-coach. Etchebarren finished the 1977 season appearing in 80 games and hitting .254.

In 1978, Etchebarren joined his third big-league team. His contract was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers, where Harry Dalton was now the general manager. But Etchebarren was plagued by injury, and 1978 was his last as a player in the major leagues. He had elbow surgery in June, and he finished the season appearing in only four games with six plate appearances. He retired as a player after the season. Etchebarren finished his career with a .235 average, 49 home runs, and 309 RBIs. While his offensive numbers are largely unimpressive, he will be remembered for the role he played on four pennant-winning teams, his defense, toughness, and baseball acumen.

After retiring, Etchebarren decided to take a break from baseball and he bought a racquetball club in Hacienda Heights. After three years of running the club, Etchebarren itched to get back into baseball, and once again Harry Dalton came back into the picture. Etchebarren accepted Dalton’s offer of a job as the Brewers’ minor-league catching instructor. Then he worked his way back up to the big leagues, managing in Stockton in 1984 and becoming the Brewers’ first-base coach in 1985 and bench coach under manager Tom Trebelhorn in 1987. By 1993, Etchebarren found himself back in the Orioles organization and became the manager of the Bluefield Orioles in 1993. After a stint as the Baltimore bench coach in 1996 and 1997, Etchebarren managed at Bluefield again in 1998, at Frederick in 1999, at Bowie in 2000 and in Rochester in 2001 and 2002. He was a roving minor-league instructor from 2003 to 2006, and managed short-season Aberdeen from 2005 through 2007, leaving the Orioles organization after the latter season. He later served as the bench coach for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League, before becoming in 2009 the manger of the York Revolution of the same league. He held that post in 2010 as well. Etchebarren is a true baseball lifer.

 

Notes

1 Doug Brown, “Handy Andy Pressure-Proof Bird Prize,” The Sporting News, October 8, 1966, 9.

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