SABR

Terry Puhl

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

“When I signed with the Astros … I decided I was going to give myself at least two years to see what I could do,”1 remarked Terrance Stephen Puhl in 1978. His trial turned into a 15-year major-league career. Four decades after the two-year trial began, Puhl was still involved with baseball as a head coach at the collegiate level. Compared favorably with Pete Rose for his ability to “slap the ball with authority to all fields,”2 during his first full season he was welcomed to the 1978 National League All Star Game (as the sole Houston representative) by the very same Charlie Hustle. Puhl was projected as a long-term two-way star, but an accumulation of injuries – four trips to the disabled list in 1985 alone – limited the fleet-footed Canadian to an average of 162 at-bats in each of his last seven years.

One of six children born to Frank and Margaret (Gulash) Puhl, this grandson of Austro-Hungarian immigrants arrived in the prairie province of Saskatchewan on July 8, 1956. Puhl was an avid hockey fan and an accomplished athlete – he quarterbacked his high-school squad –and he pitched his hometown Melville teams to four championships (including the 1973 Canadian National Midget Championship) while winning two most valuable player awards. He’d already attracted attention from the Cincinnati Reds at 15 years old and had a later tryout with the Montreal Expos. (“I wasn't given a chance in their tryout and I vowed after that I would never go back to an Expos’ camp,” he said later.3) Puhl came to relish his three hits on June 1, 1979 – including the game-winning home run – that led Houston to a 3-2 victory over the Expos). But it was Puhl’s torrid .575 pace during the 1973 Midget Championship series that caught the attention of Houston scout Wayne Morgan, who signed the left-handed hitter to a $1,000 bonus contract as an outfielder (a position Terry had never played before). “I left the 12th grade with one semester to go and went away to spring training,” Puhl remembered. “Then I returned to Melville and finished school after playing in the Rookie League.”4

Over four seasons Puhl made quick progress through the minor leagues. A team-leading 30 stolen bases in 1975 for Class A Dubuque contributed to a single-season record of 137 for the Packers. A remarkable .500 clip over a five-week period raised Puhl’s average to .376 at the end of June, gaining him a Midwest League All Star selection and prompted his manager, Bob Cluck, to dub him “one of the top major-league prospects in the league.”5 His first home run did not come until his 590th professional at-bat but it arrived in grand style – a bases-loaded jolt on April 23, 1976, in Columbus, Georgia, before his visiting parents (soon promoted to Memphis of the International League, he stroked another grand slam on June 8; the two blasts were his only home runs of the season6). With a crucial above-the-fence grab preventing a three-run homer on June 13, Puhl demonstrated the kind of versatility that could lead to a job with the parent Astros the next spring.

With only two winning seasons since their inception in 1962, the Astros had reason for optimism going into 1977. The season before, under new manager Bill Virdon, the team had improved its victory total by 16 games and had expectations for more improvement. The offseason acquisitions of Willie Crawford and Jim Fuller appeared to lock down the only outfield vacancy. Figuring the Canadian youngster needed a full season of Triple-A ball, the Astros returned Puhl to the International League.

The Astros’ optimism had long since dissipated when they entered July ten games under .500. One reason was the turnstile in left field, which six players had occupied with little to no advantage (example: Fuller’s .146). Meanwhile, Puhl continued his onslaught against International League pitching, placing among the leaders on the Charleston (West Virginia) Charlies with an average above .300. And in early July he was called up by the Astros. (Meanwhile his parents had traveled to Charleston to see him play, and had to reroute their return trip.7)

On July 12, 1977, four days after his 21st birthday, Puhl made his major-league debut as a defensive replacement in an 8-0 blowout loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The prior evening he had driven through the “night and stopped my car on Kirby Drive at the Astrodome. … I could feel my heart beating, thinking, ‘I’m going to play in that building tomorrow.’ And what a fabulous sight it was all lit up.”8 On July 13 he made his first plate appearance against Dodgers righty Burt Hooton as the Astros’ leadoff hitter. Puhl was hitless leading off the bottom of the 13th when he stroked a single to left field off Elias Sosa. He scored the winning run on a double by Bob Watson. Puhl stabilized the left-field post the rest of the season, the Astros winning 35 of the 58 games he started. In just a half-season, Puhl was among the team leaders with 40 runs scored, the result of a .385 on-base percentage (a .301 average plus 30 walks). Hitting coach Deacon Jones labeled Puhl “the best student I’ve encountered. … He has good instincts and he is the best young hitter I’ve seen at knowing the strike zone.”9

On the eve of the 1978 season Virdon called Puhl the “leadoff man we need.”10 As if in confirmation, Terry delivered his first major-league homer on the third pitch of the season off future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, setting in motion the All Star campaign that followed. He was moved from left field to center field after Cesar Cedeno was injured on June 16 and missed all but two games the rest of the way. The move only intensified Puhl’s hot bat – an 18-game hitting streak (.405 in 74 at-bats) had vaulted his average among the league leaders, and a subsequent 21-for-50 surge elevated him to.333. Though he did not play in the All-Star Game, the significance of representing Houston became crystal clear to the youngster when Hall of Famer Willie Stargell congratulated him for the honor of being selected. Though he slowed to a .269 average, the 21-year-old placed among the team leaders in many offensive categories and a bright future beckoned.

Puhl became a major contributor to the high-water marks of the Astros in 1979-80. Devoid of power – a major-league-low 49 homers in 1979 – the team manufactured runs with nearly 400 stolen bases over the two-year span, including a record 194 in 1980 (through 2013 a figure surpassed only by the 198 thefts registered by the 1988 squad). In 1979 Puhl and shortstop Craig Reynolds accounted for more than 25 percent of the runs scored in the team’s successful small-ball approach. A late-season collapse in 1979 prevented the franchise’s first playoff appearance. In 1980 the Astros were swept in Los Angeles in the last series of the regular season, forcing a one-game playoff to determine the West Division champion. In typical small-ball fashion, Puhl scored the first run by reaching base on an error, advancing to third on a single and scoring on a fielder’s choice in a 7-1 victory over the Dodgers that set up one of the most exciting League Championship Series in history.

After toppling the Dodgers, the weary Astros, traversing over 2,700 miles, took the field less than 24 hours later against the Philadelphia Phillies. Their best-of-five series featured four extra-inning contests that included nail-biting pitching duels, controversial calls, and many lead changes. After the Phillies prevailed in the tenth inning of Game Five, The Sporting News described the Series as a “tension-packed week … [with] emotions drained from players and patrons alike. … There may never be another playoff like it!”11

Though Phillies infielder Manny Trillo was the series MVP, he was outhit by Puhl .381 to .526 (the latter a playoff record that stood for eight years). His ten hits were a NLCS record. “I got down to first base and they flashed up on the scoreboard that I had just broken Pete Rose’s record,” recalled Puhl, “and Pete Rose just happened to be at first base for the Phillies. And he looks at me and says, ‘TP, that’s what records are all about. They’re made to be broken.’”12 All of Puhl’s hits came in the last four games of the series. (He had made an unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance in Game One.) Puhl’s performance raised grand expectations for his future.

But Puhl and the Astros suffered from an offensive malaise in 1981. Injuries suffered in spring training and aggravated in April contributed to Puhl’s.183 batting average entering May. A surge elevated him to .275 in mid-August, but a subsequent slump (.192 in his final 99 at-bats) resulted in a final .251 average, well under the .288 of the preceding four seasons. Signed to a four-year contract after the season, the “rising young star”13 was linked to a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates for lefty slugger Dave Parker that never got made. (Another Pittsburgh trade emerged a year later when, fearing the loss of catcher Alan Ashby to free agency, the Astros were rumored to be pursuing Tony Pena in exchange for Puhl.)

A worse fate awaited the Astros in 1982. Puhl provided one of the season’s few highlights with a ninth-inning game-tying grand slam against the New York Mets on May 22 (the Astros lost in extra innings). The team’s league-low .247 batting average resulted in a 77-85 collapse and the firing of Virdon. Houston slotted Puhl (.262) into nearly every position in the lineup in hopes of jump-starting the anemic offense, but with little success. But this was Puhl’s last season of 500 or more at-bats, as he fell victim to a constant stream of injuries.

An eighth-inning broken-bat pinch-hit single by Puhl on April 16 was the Astros’ only hit off Montreal’s Charlie Lea. Puhl hit only .152 in April and the team struggled. In the midst of further trade rumors, Puhl soon found himself competing for playing time with recently acquired Kevin Bass. But Puhl, surging to a .343 pace through the end of August, helped place the Astros just six games behind the division-leading Dodgers. Though the Astros made no further progress, Puhl finished the season with a respectable batting line of .292-8-44. After an early stint on the disabled list in 1984, a similar campaign followed – .301-9-55 in 449 at-bats – that included a league-leading .379 in June.

In his remaining six years with Houston, perhaps nothing illustrated Puhl’s frustrations more than: “Puhl came off the disabled list on June 28, but he played only five innings before his right hamstring was reinjured while he was running the bases.”14 But he still had value; the same report stated that Puhl was being sought by the Pirates in exchange for one-time lefty ace John Candelaria, a deal that likely went south due to the four trips Terry made to the disabled list in 1985. After the season he adopted a new winter exercise regimen – “[s]ince I took the season off, I’m not taking an offseason. I’m trying to make sure nothing like last year happens to me again.”15. To little avail: when he sprained his ankle in a March 13 exhibition and started the 1986 season on the disabled list. The injury contributed to a slow start that soon relegated Puhl to pinch-hitting duties and the occasional outfield platoon. He ended the season with fewer than 200 plate appearances (though he did collect two hits in three pinch-hit at-bats against the Mets in the NLCS, his final postseason). It was two years before Puhl saw substantial playing time again.

From his final postseason appearance in 1986 to June 9, 1988, the injury-hobbled Puhl had just 170 at-bats, and the door was opened for other prospects to emerge in the Houston outfield. Manager Hal Lanier started turning to the 31-year-old “forgotten man”16 when the new outfield trio of Kevin Bass, Billy Hatcher, and Gerald Young each suffered extended slumps. Puhl responded positively; over a 25-game stretch (12 starts), he hit a torrid .481 (25-for-52) and finished with his last .300 season. He also collected 22 stolen bases despite his limited play.

Rumors were rife in the winter of 1988-89 that Puhl and reliever Dave Smith would go to the Kansas City Royals for slugger Danny Tartabull, but when the bell rang Terry was still an Astro, and his 406 plate appearances equaled his total for the preceding two years. After taking over the vacated right-field post from the injured Kevin Bass, Puhl acquired additional time after Hatcher was traded to Pittsburgh. Poised to fill this same utility role in 1990, he was hit by the all-too-familiar injury bug, missing most of May and all of June. On his return he was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter (41 at-bats), and didn’t play after August 5. When Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy was traded to the Phillies on August 3, Puhl became the longest-serving active one-team player in the National League, a remarkable achievement in the age of free agency. Puhl held the honor only until the Astros released him in November while in full pursuit of a youth movement. Signed by the Mets for $100,000, or $350,000 if he remained on the roster on Opening Day, he was let go one week before this date. Subsequently signed by the Royals, he made 21 plate appearances before being released on June 9.

Puhl returned to his adopted hometown of Houston where, having secured a stockbroker’s license, he entered the world of wealth management, a position he still occupied as of 2013. (In an altogether different investment strategy, he had an ownership stake in Kentucky Derby contender Skywalker in the mid-1980s.) Puhl’s wife, Jackie, and daughter, Naomi, established an event-planning and management company in Houston. Though he was ensconced in Houston, Terry’s native Melville never forgot him. He was honored with a Terry Puhl Day on June 27, 1992. Twice he received the Canada Baseball Man of the Year Award from the Toronto and Montreal chapters of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. In 1984 Puhl was the first recipient of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award, and he was subsequently inducted into the Hall in 1995 (a year after the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame had similarly recognized him). In 2006 he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall.

That latter year, son Stephen, a catcher at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, was drafted by the Mets and converted to a pitcher. (He spent two years in Organized Baseball.) In August 2006, Terry coached the Canadian National Senior team at the Olympic Qualifier in Cuba; aided by some successful pinch-hit strategies, Canada advanced to the next round. Less than two months later, the University of Houston-Victoria announced the appointment of its first head baseball coach: Terry Puhl.

Months before Puhl’s phenomenal performance in the 1980 NLCS, teammate Enos Cabell referred to him as “the guy who’ll be the best player on [the Astros] in a couple of years.”17 Through 2013, Terry continued to place among the franchise leaders in many categories. But a career destined for greatness was derailed, in large part due to injury, but also because of the way the Astros used their multi-talented Canadian. Lacking power, the team curiously looked to fill this void with the youngster who had not managed his first home run until his 590th professional at-bat: “[Puhl is a] proven .300 hitter whose average had plummeted partly because of a need to swing for the fences18… and in the process became so confused that he hit neither for power nor average.”19

Looking back on his career, Puhl reflected both disappointment and dismay: disappointment stemming from never reaching a World Series with the talent-laden Astros squads of the late 1970s and early ’80s (a core group of teammates that became lifelong friends); and justified dismay in never earning a Gold Glove. Credited by Nolan Ryan for a running catch that preserved the Hall of Famer’s fifth no-hitter in 1981, Puhl compiled flawless campaigns that included the first season (1979) by a Houston outfielder without an error. Through 2013 he still held the highest career fielding percentage (.994) for a major-league right fielder.

“‘You can’t quote a smile,’" one perplexed Cincinnati writer said after interviewing Puhl in 1978, foreshadowing the respect that continued to accrue decades removed from Puhl’s playing career.20 When he left the field for the last time on May 29, 1991, he had played in 1,531 games, at the time the most games played by a Canadian in the major leagues – certainly not a bad accomplishment for the 17-year-old who entered professional ball on a two-year trial basis.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank David Vincent for his support researching the grand-slam circumstances of 1899 and 2004. Further thanks extended to SABR’s Houston chapter members Bob Dorrill and Bill Brown, and to Len Levin for editorial and fact-checking assistance.

 

Sources

Advosports.com/news/2013/aug/28/mf_onsports_082913_218336/

Ancestry.com

Astros.com

Baseball-reference.com

Baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Tip_O'Neill_Award

Canadianbaseballnetwork.com/articles/following-terry-puhl-signed-at-midget-nationals/

Cooperstownersincanada.com/2010/10/20/puhl-fondly-remembers-1980-nlcs/

Dee-nee.com/rbi/heroes/puhl.shtml

Ottawa Citizen, July 21, 1979

http://nnsl.com/obits/Puhl.pdf

tbhof.org/bio/2006/biopuhl.htm

http://sites.google.com/site/melvilleminorbaseball/terry-puhl

http://uhv.edu/car/newswire/release.asp?id=123

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