SABR

Gene Stephens

This article was written by Todd Newville.

When former Boston Red Sox player Gene Stephens got his chances to play, he came through often with a big hit or maybe even a clutch play in the field. But there was only one problem. He never seemed to get enough of those chances.

On May 12, 1955, in Fenway Park, Stephens had four hits, three runs batted in, and three runs scored while hitting second during a 12-7 victory for the Red Sox over the Kansas City Athletics. About two weeks later, on May 25, he helped the Red Sox defeat the Baltimore Orioles 5-2 in the second game of a doubleheader by going 3-for-4 with one run scored as the third batter in the lineup.

On July 1, 1955, Stephens, batting third (the usual occupant of that spot, Ted Wiliams, was out with one of his several injuries that season) helped the Red Sox to another victory over the Orioles with a 3-for-4 performance as the Red Sox won 4-3 in 13 innings at Baltimore. On May 2, 1957 at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, while batting third again, he had three hits in four trips to the plate and knocked in three runs in a 7-5 loss to the Tigers.

All this goes to show how great an everyday player Stephens might have been if he had been given an actual shot at cracking the Boston lineup. He certainly had the tools to do it. At the Boston Baseball Writers’ winter dinner in 1957, Stephens received a special award as the club’s unsung hero.

In an article in the June 1958 issue of Baseball Digest titled “Caddy for Ted Williams,” sportswriter Shirley Povich wrote that Stephens thought he had it made in the summer of 1955 when Williams was thinking of retiring because of his injuries and domestic troubles. But just as the article was appearing, Williams was granted a divorce, came back to the team, and Stephens was bumped from the outfield spot he wanted.

There was no doubt Stephens could play every day, Povich believed. “In 1957,” he wrote, “Stephens hit .266 overall. In August, though, he hit .467 and in September, hit .333 while spelling Ted Williams for longer than usual rests during games. He wanted a steady job, but with the Red Sox he was stymied.”

Well, that’s what happens when you’re playing behind one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. Still, for Stephens, it was aggravating at times. He knew he had the ability and the tools to play regularly in the major leagues. Yet his spot was usually on the bench as a reserve.

So it went for Stephens during his duration with the Boston Red Sox as Hall of Famer Williams patrolled left field and posted numbers most major leaguers could only dream about. Stephens played with Boston for eight years with Boston and never had more than 310 plate appearances in a season; Much of his playing time was as a late-innings substitute for Williams.

Like Povich, many referred to Stephens as Williams’ “caddy” for good reason, although it was a term that Stephens didn’t like. From 1955 to 1959, he averaged nearly 112 games per season – but only 1.69 at-bats per game. It was not the ideal situation for Stephens, who dearly wanted to crack the lineup as an everyday player.

“I knew I could hit, run, throw, and field,” said Stephens (born January 20, 1933), who in 2010 was living near a golf course in Granbury, Texas, with his wife. “I didn’t have any weaknesses. I regret that I didn’t get to play as a regular.”

It’s hard to get any rhythm going as a hitter when you don’t get a consistent number of trips to the plate. But one time Stephens made the most of one of his rare opportunities on the field to tie a major-league record that may never be broken.

On June 18, 1953 (while Williams was away serving with the Marines in the Korean War), Stephens collected three hits in one inning during a 23-3 Red Sox victory over the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. Boston exploded for 17 runs in the seventh inning, sending 23 batters to the plate during their 47-minute half of the inning.

Stephens had a double and two singles off three different Detroit pitchers. The 17 runs scored by Boston in that inning were two more than the previous major-league record, set by the Brooklyn Dodgers on May 21, 1952, against the Cincinnati Reds. The Red Sox had a record-breaking 14 hits in the inning.

The Red Sox led 5-3 going into their half of the seventh inning. Detroit pitcher Steve Gromek allowed nine of the 17 runs, while Dick Weik and Earl Harrist each allowed four. Boston had 27 hits in the game. The day before, they had 20 hits when they walloped Detroit, 17-1.

The Red Sox’ Johnny Damon became the only other major leaguer since 1900 to get three hits in an inning, when Boston whipped the Florida Marlins, 25-8, on June 27, 2003. Damon collected a single, double, and triple in the first inning as Boston scored a record 10 runs before recording an out.

Of his 1953 performance against the Tigers, which was witnessed by a meager crowd of 3,108 at Fenway Park, Stephens recalled, “I was (one of) the youngest ballplayer(s) in the major leagues at the time. I was 19 years old and I probably shouldn’t have even been in the major leagues at that time.

“Ted Williams had gone to the Korean War and therefore they gave me the opportunity to play. As soon as (Williams) came back, the Red Sox optioned me down to Triple A at Louisville. I remember it all vividly and it was exciting. Lots of things happened in that game.”

One of Stephens’ ardent admirers was Williams himself. In his 1969 book, My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life, Ted praised Stephens’ ability and said, “He could run like a deer. If I had had that boy’s speed, I know my lifetime average would have been twenty points higher.”

“It was a very good relationship,” Stephens said of himself and Williams. “At the time, I was wanting to play regularly. But we had the greatest hitter of all time with Ted Williams in left field. Playing with (Williams) was great. …”

Glen Eugene Stephens was born in Hiwassee, Arkansas, on January 20, 1933, to Orville William and Ellen Stephens. Orville and with his four brothers owned a sawmill that cut timber for use in construction. (Most baseball publications and almanacs list Stephens as being born in Gravette, Arkansas. He said, “My senior year in high school, we consolidated with Gravette and that’s where Gravette came into the picture, I think. Gravette is just seven miles from Hiwassee and Hiwassee didn’t even have a post office, a grocery store, or anything. So, that’s how that all came about.”)

Stephens played on the weekends on Hiwasee’s town team, whose players were much older than the young Stephens. “They would play teams from all over Northwest Arkansas – Bentonville, Siloam Springs, Rogers, places like that. Northwest Arkansas had some great town teams with serious players. There were some good ones.

“They would just get games together and play for the fun of it. It wasn’t organized in a true sense, but there was such a following with everyone’s families involved, it made for an exciting weekend and atmosphere. I also played on an American Legion team in Rogers and another town team in Bentonville called the Merchants. I would play just about anywhere they would let me play when I was young in those days.”

Whenever Gene had a game to play, the sawmill closed down early so Gene’s family could watch him play. Besides his family, Stephens had a lot of fans then.

Soon after he graduated from high school, Stephens, a sinewy 6-foot-3, 175-pound ballplayer, was invited by legendary New York Yankees scout Tom Greenwood to try out for the Yankees in Joplin, Missouri.

“My mom and dad took me to Joplin one afternoon and it was hotter than hell,” Stephens recalled. “I changed clothes in the back of our car. Tom Greenwade offered me $3,000 and said I threw hard and had a pretty good arm – that I had good speed and could hit. But he said I never had played against any good competition in Arkansas, which couldn‘t be further from the truth.”

Stephens said he turned that offer down flatly and soon ended up signing with the Red Sox. Boston sent him to High Point-Thomasville in the Class D North Carolina State League. Only 18 years old, he hit a robust .337 with 22 home runs, 118 runs scored, and 112 RBIs. Expectations were high for Stephens.

“After about three weeks, I was hitting about .400 at High Point,” Stephens said. “I was kind of peeved about (Greenwade’s) comment about me not playing against good competition. I felt like asking him if he thought I had played against enough good competition now!”

The Red Sox were so pleased with Stephens that he began the 1952 season in Boston. Comparisons to Williams began to be heard. “I had a good bat and I swung like Williams – or so they said,” Stephens remembered. “When Williams went to Korea, they gave me his locker in spring training. Well, they started writing things like I had the potential to be the next Williams. I didn’t know about that, but I knew I could play. That’s all I wanted.”

Stephens played in only 26 games with the Red Sox in 1952 and hit just.226. Of his 12 hits, one came in his very first plate appearance in the majors. It was a solid pinch-hit double in the eighth inning off Julio Moreno of the Washington Senators in a 4-3, 11-inning loss to the Senators at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.

He split the rest of the season between Triple-A Louisville in the American Association and Albany in the Class A Eastern League, hitting a combined .244. Stephens split 1953 between Boston (.204 in 78 games) and Louisville (.214 in 30 games). He had his three-hits-in-an-inning heroics that year, and hit his first major-league home run on May 24, off Johnny Sain of the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

Stephens spent all of 1954 at Louisville and began to hit his stride, raising his batting average to .286 as the Colonels won the American Association championship and the Junior World Series in six games against Syracuse of the International League. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Stephens made the Red Sox roster for good in ’55 - playing sparingly in 109 games as he hit at a major-league career-best .293 clip, going 46-for-157.

Stephens played in 104 games in 1956, 120 in ’57, and 134 in ’58 – getting a limited number of plate appearances but making the most of them. In 1958, he had a career-best nine home runs. In ’59, he hit .278 with a career-high 39 RBIs in 92 games, including a sixth-inning grand slam on July 13 that highlighted Boston’s 13-3 victory over the Yankees to complete a five-game sweep. Stephens had entered that game in the sixth as a pinch-runner for Williams and when the Red Sox batted around, he connected for his blast.

He said he had to sit out several weeks early in the 1960 season because of a broken right wrist that he said was never really publicized. According to Stephens, he misjudged a fly ball behind second base in Chicago but made a diving catch. Later at the hospital, X-rays didn’t reveal any broken bones but he was placed in a cast as a precaution and sent home to Oklahoma City to recuperate.

“I went back to Boston after about eight weeks or so,” said Stephens, who can’t remember the exact date of the injury. (No official record of the incident could be found in printed accounts.) “I finished the year and hit pretty well, thinking I finally had the [center field] job for the next year. My wrist was still sore, though, and they took another X-ray. There was a bone chip in there they overlooked about the size of a pencil eraser.”

Stephens played through the pain, but just before the trading deadline, on June 9, 1960, Boston traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Willie Tasby. “I sat on the bench behind Williams for five or six years,” Stephens said, “and then I got hurt and they traded me. No one really knew I was hurt and you never said you were hurt back in those days. You had to play and they didn’t pamper you. But they traded me with a bone chip in my wrist. My career was essentially over.”

Still, Stephens hung on and nearly got a chance to play in the World Series in 1960 with the Orioles. The Orioles battled the Yankees but were swept by New York in a four-game series in September and finished second.

On June 8, 1961, the Orioles traded Stephens to the Kansas City Athletics for first baseman Marv Throneberry. Stephens was hitting only .190 at the time. A bad knee forced him to the bench for nearly all of 1962. In ’63, he was picked up by the Chicago White Sox but got into only six games (hitting .389) because of his knee. He played most of the year for Indianapolis, which won the International League title. Stephens batted .305 with 17 home runs.

In 1964, Stephens got his final chance in the majors, hitting .234 in 82 games with the White Sox. He performed well in the clutch for the White Sox; seven of his 33 hits came as a pinch-hitter (.368). That was another “almost” season for Stephens, as the White Sox lost the pennant to the Yankees by one game.

The White Sox dropped Stephens after the season. He played two seasons of minor league ball with five teams – the Atlanta Crackers and Indianapolis Indians in 1965, and the Columbus Jets, Syracuse Chiefs, and Tacoma Cubs in 1967. (He didn’t play in 1966.)

But that was it for Stephens – enough was enough. All told, he appeared in 964 major league games and had 1,913 at-bats in the big leagues. He ended with a .240 lifetime batting average with 37 homers and 207 RBIs. Afterward, he worked for Kerr-McGee Corporation, an energy company, in Oklahoma City in the marketing department for 23 years, retiring in 1991.

Stephens and his wife, Jean, lived in Oklahoma City for 33 years. While he was playing, he worked during some offseasons selling commercial mud to oil drillers. Later they settled in Granbury, Texas, and in 2010 had been married for 56 years, with two daughters, Robin and Kim.

Stephens said he wondered for a long time what might have happened if he were an everyday player. “It was tough,” he said. “For about 15 years, I couldn’t talk about it after I quit playing. I was hurt. I wanted to play and I knew I could play.”

He may not have been a regular starter for anybody during his 12-year big-league career. But the record book says for one inning, he was one of the most prolific hitters ever. That’s definitely an accomplishment to be proud of: three hits in one inning.

Now, that’s something not even the great Ted Williams could ever say he did.

 

Sources

Craig Carter, ed., The Sporting News Complete Baseball Record Book (St. Louis: The Sporting News Publishing Co., 1997).

John D. Rawlings, The Sporting News Chronicle of Baseball (New York: BDD Illustrated Books, 1993).

Bob Burke, Kenny Franks, and Royse Parr, Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1999).

Shirley Povich, “Caddy for Ted Williams,” Baseball Digest, June 1958.

Bob Holbrook, “What to Look For in 1959,” Baseball Digest, April 1959.

Gene Stephens, telephone interviews, March 11, 2006, and January 3, 2008.

http://www.baseballtoddsdugout.com

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.