SABR

Bill Heath

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

Rare are the occasions when a manager will upset the cohesion of his battery by using more than one catcher in a no-hitter – it has happened less than a handful of times. Rarer still is the singular instance when a catcher’s last major-league appearance was in a no-hitter. Both of these instances occurred to Bill Heath when lefty Ken Holtzman handcuffed the Atlanta Braves in Chicago’s Wrigley Field on August 19, 1969. Starting in place of regular catcher Randy Hundley – hospitalized with a severe ear infection – Heath joined Hundley in the hospital after a foul ball broke his hand in the eighth inning. This once-promising California native was placed on the disabled list never to surface again. A far more productive career beckoned when the 21-year-old collegiate star signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1960, and his vast potential was glimpsed by Hall of Famer Al Lopez among others. But when he was removed from the Holtzman gem in 1969 he had collected fewer than 200 major-league at-bats.

William Chris Heath was born on March 10, 1939, in Yuba City, California, 40 miles north of Sacramento. Baseball pulsed through his veins. His father, William Gordon “Chico” Heath, a truck driver, was a “star outfielder in California semipro circles”1 before turning his eye to scouting in his later years. Bill followed his older brother, Robert, into baseball’s professional ranks. Their athletic skills were not derived solely from their father. Anne Christina (Spitzer) Heath’s family had staked its own mark in the pros – her niece’s sons, Jeff and Brett Jenkins, also gained employment on the baseball diamond.

The Heath family of four gravitated to Modesto, California (80 miles east of Oakland), a city immortalized in the 1973 film American Graffiti. The brothers displayed their athletic prowess on the fields of Modesto High School and Thomas Downey High School, preceding by five-plus years fellow Downey alum Joe Rudi. Bill had barely begun his collegiate career at the University of Southern California when, not for the first time, tragedy struck. On September 11, 1957, his father died of a heart attack. He was 49 years old. Bill appears to have channeled his grief into the game his father so cherished. An All-American and team captain for the Trojans, he led with a .396 average (as of 2013 still among the university’s single-season leaders) that helped USC capture the 1958 College World Series championship. He soon attracted major-league attention from, among others, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Chicago White Sox – the latter assessing his on-field leadership skills as: “[H]e’s got a lot of bulldog in him. He’s a scrappy, noisy guy behind the plate.”2

Once again, Chico Heath’s influence played a significant role in the direction his son would take. He had developed a strong friendship with a fellow scout, Paul Owens, who was moving up in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. The friendship was not forgotten when Bill signed with Owens and the Phillies in 1960. Assigned to the Bakersfield Bears in the California League (Class C), Heath batted an impressive .356 in limited late-season play. A similarly impressive full season in 1961 with Williamsport, Pennsylvania (Class A) and Des Moines, Iowa (Class B, where he placed among the league leaders with a .316 average) earned him a nonroster invitation to try out with the parent club in February 1962.

The Phillies, who had suffered 107 losses the year before, were conducting an open invitation for all comers, and no fewer than seven catchers were competing to serve as backup to Clay Dalrymple. Reporters marveled at the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Heath as the “left-handed batter who bears a remarkable resemblance to [former Phillies’ backstop] Smoky Burgess, [and] has shown a definite ability to hit,”3 but still he was returned to the minors. A player known more for an ability to spray line drives than for any great power (he managed 21 home runs – all in the minors – over an 11-year-career), he drew nationwide attention after an April 23 shot cleared Williamsport’s right-field fence (moved back to a daunting 385 feet after stadium remodeling). Despite an impressive start that included a sizzling .375 average, a subsequent slump (six hits in 41 at-bats) resulted in his demotion to Bakersfield where he spent the remainder of the year.

For the next two years Heath was shuttled between Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Arkansas (Little Rock) and garnered a combined .307 average. He and another prized prospect, Pat Corrales, were considered the two best catchers in the minors. To keep his bat in the lineup, Bill often saw time at third base and left field when Corrales was behind the plate. On June 27, 1963, Heath nearly tied a Southern League record, scoring five runs in a 23-6 trouncing of the Knoxville Smokies. (Corrales had six RBIs in the lopsided contest.) There were the odd, unfortunate events as well: In an attempted inside-the-park home run on July 29, 1964, Heath was called out at the plate. The umpire reversed his call, then after consultation with his base partner he again called Heath out (prompting manager Frank Lucchesi, described as “boiling mad,”4 to play the game under protest). In another instance a year earlier the generally sure-handed backstop had committed two passed balls that resulted in the only tallies for the Syracuse Chiefs in a 2-1 defeat for Arkansas. Still Heath and Corrales helped lead the Arkansas Travelers to the Pacific Coast League’s Eastern Division Championship in 1964.

On July 3, 1964, the battery of Joel Gibson and Bill Heath produced a 4-0 no-hit victory over the Dallas Rangers. Their reward: a trade to the Chicago White Sox organization that offseason. The presence of Corrales combined with the Phillies’ established catching corps of Clay Dalrymple and Gus Triandos left little room for Heath. Heath was out of minor-league options, and the Phillies sought something in return for him. Meanwhile the White Sox, who had completed a successful 98-win campaign, were looking to improve upon a .197 average from their primary backstop. They talked Heath into quitting his offseason teaching job for a winter campaign in the Florida Instructional League.

In the spring of 1965 Heath faced a situation identical to that he encountered in 1962: competition from seven other catchers. Still, his chances appeared strong when manager Al Lopez said, “[W]hen we get into the exhibition games, the fellows I’m going to use almost entirely at the start are Jimmie Schaffer and Bill Heath. … I have seen a little of Heath … and he’s a pretty good hitter. … He punches the ball around real well.”5 The intense struggle resulted in newcomer John Romano and former incumbent J.C. Martin prevailing over all challengers, but Martin later acknowledged the fierce competition by stating, “There were some good ones on hand … [including] a fine rookie in Bill Heath.”6 Assigned to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, Heath produced a productive .283 campaign. As a September call-up he made his first major-league appearance in a pinch-hitting role for hurler Joe Horlen against the Kansas City Athletics on October 3, the last day of the season, and grounded out to the second baseman.

Released to Indianapolis at season’s end, Heath was claimed by the Houston Astros, and the two teams worked out a multi-player deal. Assigned to Oklahoma City, he reported to the Astros’ spring camp as a nonroster invitee and again faced a broad contingent of six competitors. Like the White Sox the year before, the Astros looked to improve behind the plate – of their two primary catchers in 1965, Ron Brand had placed among the league leaders in errors and John Bateman batted only.197. Heath’s strong spring caused the Astros to consider trading either Brand or Bateman and retaining the left-handed hitter’s strong bat.

For the first time in his career Heath departed spring training as part of a parent club. Although no trade was consummated, he absorbed the leading responsibilities as backup to newly ensconced starter Bateman. He had 133 plate appearances, his high for a season. While serving solely as a catcher (he also had ten at-bats as a pinch-hitter), Heath closed the season with a .301 average (.750 in eight at-bats against lefties). He developed a particular mastery against Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. In two complete-game wins against the Astros, Gibson yielded one run and six hits combined. Heath had three of them and the sole RBI. He had arguably his best game on September 17 when he went 4-for-4 with two runs scored in an 11-2 pasting of the Phillies. His strong finish and near-flawless work behind the plate (one error) convinced manager Grady Hatton that Heath was “capable of holding down a No. 1 big league catching job,”7 and rumors emerged of trading Bateman and making Heath the starting catcher in 1967.

But while Bateman remained with the Astros until the 1969 season, Heath had a mere 15 more plate appearances in a Houston uniform. Two additional catching prospects, Dave Adlesh and Bob Watson, arrived at camp in spring 1967. The team was determined to retain Adlesh, who was out of options, and when a rumored trade of Bateman did not happen, Heath became the odd man out (in 22 games he had only 11 at-bats). On May 8 he was sold to the Detroit Tigers for $40,000 and assigned to Triple-A Toledo. Called up to Detroit in June with Mike Marshall and Pat Dodson in a six-player shuffle, he made his first start with the Tigers on June 6, contributing two hits and three RBIs in an 11-1 win over the Kansas City Athletics. “We’ll catch him some more,”8 chirped manager Mayo Smith, but the All-Star performance of Bill Freehan behind the plate limited Heath to 24 at-bats the remainder of the season.

In one of those at-bats Bill had the opportunity to play spoiler. On September 10 he came to the plate with one out in the ninth inning of a no-hit bid by Joe Horlen (whom Heath had pinch-hit for two years earlier in his first major-league appearance). A spectacular play by third baseman Don Buford on a twisting roller nabbed Heath by a step and preserved the no-hitter for the White Sox righty (the out lowering Heath’s batting average to .100). He concluded the campaign with a .116 average in a very limited 48 plate appearances.

Heath did not reappear on the major-league stage for two years. In 1968 his contract was first purchased by the New York Yankees and then by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He spent the entire season with the teams’ Triple-A affiliates. Released by the Dodgers after the season and signed by the Chicago Cubs, he was recalled by the Cubs from the minors on May 10, 1969, and made his first appearance for Chicago as a pinch-hitter 12 days later. Excluding nine appearances behind the plate – including the ill-fated occasion when his hand was broken during the Holtzman no-hitter – he was used exclusively in the pinch-hitting role. On September 16 he scored the first run after a 22-inning drought that precipitated the Cubs’ late-season collapse and cost them the pennant. Assigned to Tacoma in 1970, he appeared in 37 games before being released in June (“The twilight of a horse sh__ career,” he later quipped). Offered a coaching job with the Cubs, he told an audience at a SABR event. “I had no interest in doing any more of those long bus rides in the country. I was ready to go home and build on my new career in business.”

Heath had continued his studies during his playing career and completed a degree in accounting from the University of Chicago. In 1972 he established Barrington Financial Advisors in Houston, a thriving enterprise that added an office in Modesto, California (directed by his brother, Robert). As chairman and CEO, Bill Heath proudly presented himself as a “financial coach” advising on millions of dollars of assets.

Another major thread that ran through Bill’s life was his deep faith, forged through immeasurable tragedy. His second wife, Patty, and his daughter, Courtney (named after catcher Clint Courtney), were murdered in a home invasion in the mid-’70s. Heath said his turning to Jesus as a refuge helped him survive the heartbreaking loss. Many years later he remained comfortably in the Houston area living with his third wife, Linda.

A man of considerable wit, Bill Heath reflected on the achievements of his playing career with the comment, “Not bad for a little short fat guy.” He proudly pointed to a .500 average against one of the most feared pitcher of his era, Bob Gibson, and relished his only stolen base, against a catcher also well known in baseball circles: Joe Torre. Nearly all players at one time or another tend to carve a particular niche all to themselves. Through 2013, Bill Heath remained the only major-league catcher whose last appearance was during a no-hit performance.

 

Author’s note

The author wishes to thank Bill Heath for his time and assistance in ensuring the accuracy of this narrative. Further thanks extended to Len Levin for editorial and fact-checking assistance.

 

Sources

The Sporting News

http://ancestry.com

http://baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Major_League_Baseball_Sanctioned_No-Hitters

http://barringtonfinancial.com/professionals/bill.htm

http://sabr.org/chapters/houstonlarry-dierker-chapter-meeting-recap-992013

http://calbizjournal.com/ed/a-big-hit/

U.S. Census Bureau, 1940 Census

Bill Heath, e-mail correspondence, September 12, 2013.

Bill Heath, telephone interview, September 25, 2013.

Bill Heath, e-mail correspondence, October 1, 2013.

 

Notes

1 “Obituary,” The Sporting News, September 25, 1957, 40.

2 “Chisox Boom Heath to Plug Backstop Gap,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1964, 19.

3 “’Extras’ Could Crash Lineup of ’62 Phillies,” The Sporting News, February 21, 1962, 26.

4 “Ump Reverses Call Twice,” The Sporting News, August 15, 1964, 36.

5 “Chisox Toss 8 Names Into Mitt Hopper,” The Sporting News, March 6, 1965, 26.

6 “Lopez Tip Changes Martin From Flea To Lion With Mace,” The Sporting News, June 5, 1965, 8.

7 “Hatton Maps Astros’ Goal: Mound Help,” The Sporting News, October 15, 1966, 17.

8 “Motor City Humming As Mac Steps on Gas For Bumper Season,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1967, 13.

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.