SABR

George Staller

This article was written by Malcolm Allen.

“His reputation is that of a driving, spirited leader who at all times has evidenced an interest in the boy’s future, rather than furthering any ambitions he might have had for himself.” With those words in The Sporting News, columnist John Steadman introduced George Staller as the latter joined the Baltimore Orioles’ coaching staff in 1962.1Indeed, Staller spent the bulk of his nearly four decades in professional baseball behind the scenes, managing, coaching, and scouting dozens of young players who eclipse his largely unnoticed three-week career as a major-league player.

George Walborn Staller was born on April 1, 1916, in Rutherford Heights, Pennsylvania, part of East Harrisburg in the south central region of the state. No April fool, he nonetheless had a good sense of humor and a knack for the national pastime that he honed in the Keystone State’s rugged semipro anthracite leagues. As described by William C. Kashatus in Diamonds in the Coal Fields, “Anthracite baseball was an excellent proving ground for the professional game because it taught independence, pride, and above all, a necessary outlook on life as incessant struggle where nobody was going to give you anything – you had to earn it.”2

One of Staller’s opponents in the 1930s who exemplified this spirit was one-armed outfielder Pete Gray, who reached the majors with the St. Louis Browns during World War II. “Pete was a fierce competitor who used to slide into bases with his spikes high,” Staller recalled with admiration. “On one occasion, he almost got into a brawl with one of the coal miners on our team, but he wasn’t the one to back away.”3

Like pitchers Charlie Wagner and Ken Raffensberger before him, Staller passed through the semipro Lebanon Valley League as a steppingstone on his way to the pros. His break came midway through the 1937 season when the business manager of the Elmira Colonels, a Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate, signed him off the central Pennsylvania sandlots. The 21-year-old left-handed outfielder reported to the Class D Beatrice Blues, got some batting tips from manager Leon Riley, and pounded Nebraska State League pitching for a .354 average in 36 games.

The next season the boyish-faced Staller, who had a playing weight of 190 pounds and stood 5-feet-11, played briefly with Elmira of the Eastern League, and spent the bulk of the campaign with the Class C Dayton Ducks, earning all-star honors as the Middle Atlantic League’s top right fielder with a .366 batting average and a league-leading 92 RBIs and 43 stolen bases. Southpaw pitchers gave him trouble, but when Staller got to Elmira in 1939, manager Clyde Sukeforth gave him an opportunity to play through his struggles. Staller rewarded his skipper’s faith by winnng the Eastern League batting title with a .336 mark. Now playing left field because of an arm labeled a liability, Staller improved his defense playing home games in spacious Dunn Field, and led the circuit with 187 hits and 49 doubles batting out of the leadoff spot.

The Dodgers invited Staller to spring training in 1940, and Sukeforth predicted to The Sporting News that Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher “whose plan is merely to look at the boy, won’t let Staller out of his sight after he’s had a chance to watch him for 20 minutes or so.”4

Staller wound up in Double-A with the Montreal Royals, where he continued progressing toward the big leagues by hitting .312 with 94 runs scored and 85 RBIs. In addition to legging out a dozen triples and slashing a league-leading 40 doubles, Staller more than quadrupled his previous personal best by hitting 14 home runs. His season ended on September 5 when he caught a spike sliding into second base and fractured his ankle.

He was still limping when spring training rolled around in 1941, and after batting just .263 in 53 games in Montreal, he was dealt away by the Dodgers to the unaffiliated Nashville Vols of the Southern Association, where he hit .287 in 42 games. He helped Nashville sweep the Dallas Rebels in the Dixie Series, but found himself out of a job at season’s end. Staller wound up signing with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, just a 90-minute drive from his home.

Back in right field in 1942, Staller walloped 20 home runs while batting .283 with 72 RBIs. Feeling even better after an ankle operation, he returned to Baltimore in 1943 and hit .304 with 16 homers and 91 RBIs. That got the attention of Connie Mack’s cellar-dwelling Philadelphia Athletics, who brought him up the majors for the last three weeks of the 1943 season.

Staller debuted on September 14 at Yankee Stadium, notching his first major-league hit, walking twice, and scoring a pair of runs in Philadelphia’s 6-5 loss. The Athletics were swept the next day on their way to 105 total losses, but Staller made a nice running catch.

He hit safely in his first 11 games, and saw action in 21 contests. 20 of them starts in right field. He batted .271 with a double, three triples, and three homers in 85 at-bats, scoring 14 times and driving in 12 runs. He stole one base and committed one error, and that was the end of his major-league playing career. Staller spent 1944 and 1945 serving in World War II with the US Marine Corps. The June 14, 1945, issue of The Sporting News reported “Sgt. Willard Marshall, former Giants outfielder, and Pvt. George Staller, late of the Athletics, are members of the same Marine team at a Pacific base.”5

With the war won, Staller rejoined the International League Orioles on May 30, 1946, and batted .254 in 72 games. He dipped to .251 for Baltimore the following year before moving on, at the age of 31, to the next phase of his baseball career.

Staller returned to the Athletics organization, accepting an offer to be the playing manager of the Portsmouth A’s of the Class D Ohio-Indiana League. The club finished second with an 82-58 mark, helped in no small measure by Staller himself. He batted .333 with 13 homers and 98 RBIs, and scored 122 times. In six years managing in the Athletics system, that was Staller’s only winning season. Eighth-place finishes with Martinsville (Virginia) in the Carolina League and Sunbury (Pennsylvania) in the Interstate League came the next two years, followed by three seasons in sixth place.

Staller spent 1951-52 skippering the Class A Savannah (Georgia) Indians of the South Atlantic League. In Augusta, Georgia, on May 20, 1951, he was arrested along with his catcher for interference and abusive language, respectively, after bad feelings erupted midway through the second game of a doubleheader. Augusta started making outs on purpose with a 3-0 lead in an effort to make the contest official, while Staller’s club stayed true to his surname by slowing things down. After the ensuing argument, Staller and catcher Al Spaziano were allowed to finish the game, then arrested and held on $15 bond when it was over. Augusta Mayor W.D. Jennings investigated the incident, and then accompanied his city’s club on its next trip to Savannah a few weeks later to return the bond money, get an autographed baseball, and allow two Augusta players to be “arrested” as a joke to make amends.

Staller played in less than half of the games in his two seasons at Savannah, which were his last as a player-manager. After batting .338 and .336, he didn’t play at all in 1953, when he was granted a request to manage the Single-A Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Eastern League club to be closer to his ailing father. When the St. Louis Browns were moved to Baltimore for the 1954 season, Staller returned to the Baltimore organization (and stayed close to home) by taking over the reins of the York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the Piedmont League, where he remained for two years.

Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson began his professional career at York in 1955 as a second baseman, but Staller and Orioles manager Paul Richards shifted him to the hot corner after 40 games. Robinson has spoken glowingly about the long hours Staller spent working with him to hone his infield play. Staller, however, humbly insisted during Robinson’s MVP season in 1964 that he had always been a great fielder.

Staller moved on to the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Pheasants of the Northern League in 1956, then the Knoxville Smokies of the South Atlantic League for the next two seasons. With a pinch-hit single in the last game of the 1958 season, he closed the books once and for all on a professional playing career that saw him bat .309 with 124 homers and 858 RBIs in 1,526 minor league contests

His father, Ervin, died in April 1959 at the age of 69, and Staller spent that summer managing the Double-A Amarillo Gold Sox of the Texas League. He went north to Canada in 1960 to manage the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League, then returned to the Texas League a year later to guide a Victoria (Texas) Rosebuds club that moved to Ardmore, Oklahoma, in late May because of poor attendance. Then, after 13 “home” cities in 16 years since he returned from World War II, he came back to the big leagues, as new Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock hired Staller to be his first-base coach in 1962.

The Orioles were a talented bunch seemingly on the verge of challenging the Yankees. Staller’s addition made perfect sense; he had managed a lot of the young Orioles in the eight years he’d spent in the organization. Milt Pappas, Dave McNally, Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada, Ron Hansen, Jerry Adair, Jack Fisher, Wes Stock, Dave Nicholson, Jerry Walker, and Brooks Robinson had all played for Staller.

Staller seemed like a natural fit, but when the Orioles slipped to a disappointing 77-85, seventh-place finish, coaches Cal Ermer and Staller got the ax. Whispers hinted that they were too genial and quiet, and Baltimore replaced them with a pair of “holler guys” in Luke Appling and Hank Bauer. “We wanted to shake things up in view of our disappointing season,” said club President Lee MacPhail. “We feel we need coaches with more experience. Cal and George are capable fellows, and we’d like to keep them in the organization.”6 Indeed, both Ermer and Staller had been offered and accepted scouting jobs before other clubs knew they’d been let go. Staller’s territory included Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, and he covered it for more than five years.

The Orioles won the World Series in 1966 under Bauer, who had succeeded Hitchcock as manager, but the front office became disenchanted again when the club fell below .500 the following year. General Manager Harry Dalton asked Earl Weaver, then a minor-league manager in the Orioles chain, to recommend some coaches. “I started with George Staller,” Weaver recalled in Weaver on Strategy. “He had given me a ton of advice when I was a minor-league manager, and he had been part of the Orioles organization for a long time. George couldn’t pitch batting practice, but I told Harry that George would be a fine first-base coach. He got along with everyone, and had a knack for cooling people down in stressful situations, which is a wonderful gift. He had the marvelous ability of getting along with the players, and of having fun with them, yet being able to keep their respect and listen when he did some teaching.”7

Surely some of Staller’s skills were honed during the dozen off-seasons he spent working as a guard in Pennsylvania prisons. Asked for similarities between his two dissimilar careers, he noted that in both cases you did not want to get too close the charges. The Orioles made Weaver, not Staller, the first-base coach in 1968, but midway through the season “The Earl of Baltimore” started working on his Hall of Fame plaque by replacing Bauer as manager. One of the first things Weaver did was to appoint Staller his first-base coach.

The 1969 Orioles won 109 regular-season games, romped through the inaugural American League Championship Series and a World Series title seemed like a mere formality. Instead, they were defeated by the upstart New York Mets. The despair surrounding the Orioles’ flight back to Baltimore after they lost to the Mets in five games was palpable, the type of thing that could have undermined a lesser team. Staller, however, had other ideas. “It is George Staller trying to overcome unhappiness and cheer everyone up,” wrote columnist Doug Brown describing the trip. “Waiting at the airport for the flight back to Baltimore, Staller crept up behind his wife and gave her a hot foot. On the plane, he gave another wife a hot foot. It was Joan Cashen, wife of the club’s executive VP (Frank Cashen).”8

Rather than dwell on their loss, the Orioles were determined to come back better than ever in 1970, and they did just that, with Staller earning a World Series ring in the process. Baltimore made it three straight American League pennants in 1971, still the most glorious era in franchise history. Staller did a lot of little things that could easily go unnoticed, like tossing the ball to the Orioles pitcher at the beginning of each inning … unless it was Mike Cuellar. Staller knew the superstitious Cuban southpaw wanted the baseball resting in the grass in front of the mound. When Earl Weaver initiated a tomato-growing competition down the left-field line at Memorial Stadium in 1972, Staller was one of the charter participants.

The Sporting News published an anecdote that gave insight into the benefits Baltimore gleaned from Staller’s wealth of baseball experience. Early in the 1970 season, Weaver realized he didn’t have a scouting report on Detroit Tigers rookie Elliott Maddox, who was in the lineup that day. Maddox had played in the Carolina League, but the Orioles didn’t field a team in that circuit. The rookie had also played in the Florida State League, but nobody connected to Baltimore’s FSL outfit was on hand. “‘Wait a minute. I’ll get something,’ first base coach George Staller finally said, heading out of the dugout toward a gent sitting in the front row behind the screen. Three minutes later, Staller was back. ‘Likes the ball up and out over the plate,’ George said. ‘Has a good arm, but it’s erratic sometimes. Good man to test on a bunt’.”9

Sure enough, when Mike Cuellar left a pitch up and out over the plate, Maddox drove it to the warning track. The Tigers rookie also made a throwing error and was unable to make a play when Baltimore shortstop Mark Belanger bunted for a base hit.

By early 1975, though, it was clear that Staller’s days in Baltimore were numbered. Other than an aging Brooks Robinson, the players he’d managed in the minors were all gone, and at 59 years old, there were some in the organization who thought he was getting too old. Loyal organization man Cal Ripken, Sr. was ready to join the coaching staff, and Staller decided to make 1975 his last season, though he did some scouting work for the expansion Seattle Mariners the following year.

Staller moved smoothly into retirement in Harrisburg, where he remained until his death at the age of 76 on July 3, 1992. He was buried at Hershey Cemetery, leaving behind his wife of 52 years, Joy, his son, George, and his daughter, Nelda.

 

Notes

1 John Steadman, “Hitchcock Rings Bell With Choice Of Orioles Tutors,” The Sporting News, November 8, 1961.

2 William Kashatus, Diamonds in the Coal Fields (Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland, 2002), 40.

3 William Kashatus, One-Armed Wonder (Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland, 2002), 30.

4 Tommy Holmes, “Early Call Placed For Rising Dodgers,” The Sporting News, February 15, 1940.

5 The Sporting News, June 14, 1945.

6 “Orioles Fire Coaches Ermer/Staller,” The Sporting News, October 13, 1962.

7 Earl Weaver with Terry Pluto, Weaver on Strategy (Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s, 2002), 119.

8 Doug Brown, “They’re Still Birds of Paradise at Home,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1969.

9 Phil Jackman, “Grapevine Gives Birds True Line Of Maddox,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1970.

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