Dave Skaggs played four seasons for the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1970s, a time in which “The Oriole Way” had helped propel the franchise to the top of the American League. Seeing action in the 1979 World Series was his biggest thrill in baseball. Just playing in front of 50,000 people was something that he could never have imagined while growing up in Torrance, California. “It was great to be young and an Oriole,” Skaggs would say years later.
He was born in Santa Monica, on June 12, 1951, but his family moved to Torrance when he was very young. His father, a member of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, became a plasterer when he returned to civilian life. Skaggs attended North Torrance High School, where he played baseball, and also was a quarterback and middle linebacker on the football team. He broke his ankle in his senior year, however, and couldn’t continue to play on the gridiron.
Drafted by the Orioles in the sixth round of the 1969 amateur draft, Skaggs was sent to Aberdeen in the Northern League. He was primarily a catcher in his minor-league career, but he also played some outfield, first base, and third base. That first season of pro ball, Skaggs hit a career-high .314 in 62 games.
Skaggs was a member of the reserves from April of 1970 until August of the same year. This resulted in his having to miss the entire baseball season. “I would have been sent to Vietnam if I wasn’t in the reserves,” he noted. By 1971, however, he was back on the field, playing for the Stockton Ports in the California League. For the next three years, Skaggs made stops at Miami, Lodi, and Asheville, before finally reaching the Triple-A level with the Rochester Red Wings in 1975. He played one more year at Rochester in 1976. “That was a great team,” Skaggs recollected. “We had about seven or eight guys on that team who all came up (to Baltimore) at the same time.” The club featured future Orioles such as Terry Crowley, Rich Dauer, Kiko Garcia, Larry Harlow, Andres Mora, Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, and Dennis Martinez. (Although he never played for the Orioles, future Twins manager Tom Kelly also played on the team, swatting 18 homers.) It was during that year that Skaggs became Martinez’s personal catcher, an arrangement that continued in their major-league careers. “He requested it,” Skaggs said. “Some pitchers just feel more comfortable throwing to certain catchers than they do to others.” According to Skaggs, at one point in the season the Red Wings won 19 games in a row. They won the International League Championship with a final record of 88-50. Skaggs finished the year hitting .242 with two homers and 27 RBIs in 85 games.
He made the big club in 1977, seeing his first action on April 17 at Texas, in the first game of a doubleheader. He went hitless in four at-bats against Bert Blyleven. His first major-league hit came at the Kingdome in Seattle on May 17, a pinch-hit double. Skaggs’ rookie year was his best, statistically speaking. He was able to see a lot of playing time due to regular catcher Rick Dempsey missing most of July and August. He had career highs in games (80), at-bats (216), runs (22), hits (62), doubles (9), RBIs (24), and batting average (.287). His first career home run came on the last game of the year, off Rick Wise in Boston.
Although healthy and on the major-league roster the entire year, Skaggs managed to get into only 36 games in 1978. On the season, he hit .151 with no homers and only two RBIs. Looking back on his career, Skaggs says that at the time he would have liked to have played more. But Dempsey was the number one catcher on the team, and a favorite of manager Earl Weaver. When asked what it was like playing for Weaver, Skaggs replied, “There was never a dull moment. He was feisty, a pretty excitable guy.” Did he have a good relationship with Earl? “Not really,” Skaggs admitted. “But it was that way with just about all of his players. I think that was the way he wanted it. He could be distant.”
In 1979, the Orioles started slowly, going 3-8 in their first 11 games. They won 15 of their next 16, however, and finished the year with a record of 102-57, beating out the two-time defending Yankees by eight games. In 65 games that year, Skaggs batted .248 with one home run and 14 RBIs. His best game of the season came on the final day, in Cleveland. He hit one home run with two doubles and four RBIs. The opposing pitcher was again none other than Rick Wise, who had served up Skaggs’ final-day home run two years previously.
The American League Championship Series featured Baltimore against the California Angels. Skaggs saw action in Game Three, going 0-4. The Orioles won Game Four to take the Series three games to one. Next, they squared off against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a classic World Series that went the full seven games. The Orioles were up three games to one, before Pittsburgh won the next three to claim the championship.
In Game Four, Dennis Martinez was on the mound for Baltimore, and, of course, Skaggs being his personal catcher, got the start that day in Pittsburgh. While Martinez only lasted one and a third innings before getting pulled, Skaggs wound up with a single in three at-bats, and one run scored. It was the only Series game in which he appeared. Looking back, Skaggs acknowledges that the Pirates simply pitched “better than expected” in those final three games. Whether it was a case of Pittsburgh pitching tough, or the Baltimore bats simply going cold, they scored only two runs in the last three contests.
Skaggs appreciated his years with Baltimore. In his opinion, much of the success of “The Oriole Way” could be attributed to the fact that so much of their great talent was home grown. But also, he said, it involved instilling the right attitude in players from an early age. He believes that the organization let go of a lot of players in the minors who may have been talented, but had the wrong attitude. Looking back, it was a great franchise to be a part of. “They treated you special.” Chartered flights, for example, are something he remembers as one of the perks of being an Oriole. “We didn’t have to fly coach like so many other teams did at the time.” He admits he didn’t realize how good it was in Baltimore until his contract was sold to California.
The 1980 season was one of transition for Skaggs. He started out with Baltimore, but after playing only two games, he was purchased by the California Angels on May 13. “After Brian Downing (the Angels’ regular catcher) got hurt, they picked me up.” Skaggs’ first game as a member of the Halos was in Cleveland. He went 3-for-5 with a home run, three runs scored, and five RBIs. In his next game, he went 3-for-4 with two runs scored. The next day, he got a single in three at-bats, but he unfortunately hit a ball off his ankle. The resulting injury sidelined him until September 2. “I was just never the same after that,” Skaggs said. He played regularly the final month of the season, but he managed only six hits, two runs scored, no homers, and four RBIs.
The Angels released Skaggs on February 2, 1981, and he was picked up a couple weeks later by Seattle. The Mariners released him on the last day of March. Skaggs’s career as a baseball player was over.
“The Tigers wanted to sign me to a Triple-A contract, as a player, but they mainly wanted me to work with some of their minor league pitchers. That was when (the Tigers) had Lance Parrish, so I knew I basically had no chance to move up and do any catching at Detroit. So I said no thanks.”
Skaggs spent the summer of 1981 as a roving instructor with the Orioles, and he did some scouting for them as well. After that brief period, he was out of the game. Skaggs would have liked to try his hand at coaching, but instead his family became his number one priority. He went back home to California, and dabbled in real estate for a short time. “But that didn’t work out.” He soon joined his father as a plasterer, which has been his profession ever since.
In 1999, Skaggs learned that he had colon cancer. “I underwent chemo and radiation treatments for about seven to eight months. They had to remove a part of my colon. But since then I’ve been cancer free.”
Since his retirement from the game, Skaggs has only been back to Baltimore once. “That was when they played the last game at Memorial Stadium, before they moved to Camden Camden Yards.” As of 2013, he still follows the game from his home in California, and has great memories of his days as a player. “One of the hardest pitchers for me to hit was Dennis Eckersley. That was when he was a starter for the Red Sox, and he threw really hard. With him, the ball was never where I swung. Gaylord Perry was tough, too.” He remembers Al Oliver as being probably one of the best pure hitters he ever played against. Skaggs said he always liked playing in the old parks, like Fenway Park, Comiskey Park, and Tiger Stadium. Among the newer parks, he really enjoyed Royals Stadium, “but not the Astroturf.”
When comparing the modern game to the era that he played in, Skaggs admits that money has changed the game. “We never really talked about how much a guy was making. It just wasn’t something you talked about. You always kind of knew who was making the most money, though. On the Orioles, I’m sure Jim Palmer was making the most.” Skaggs says that back when he played, there wasn’t such an emphasis on pitch counts. “Sure, we counted the pitches. The pitching coach or somebody was always taking a count. But it wasn’t as big a factor as it is today. Back then, they would pay more attention to whether or not a guy was losing velocity in the late innings. Guys would throw 120, 150 pitches a game a lot more.” Also, he notes that the games today are much longer. “They could be quicker. When we played, if a game went 2 ½ hours, it would be like, ‘what went wrong?’ But I do understand that today they’ve got to fit the commercials in, and that really makes the games longer.”
Skaggs tends not to favor one style of baseball over another. “I’m OK with the DH. As a hitter I get it. But I can also understand why the National League prefers not to have it. I like small ball. I like how the National League plays. As you’re watching the game, you’re always wondering what they’re going to do with the pitcher.”
Today, Skaggs doesn’t stay in contact with many of his former teammates. “I do keep in touch with Larry Harlow. We go back a long way. We started and ended our careers at about the same time. I’ll talk to (Scott) McGregor and Doug DeCinces sometimes.” Skaggs has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1970, and together they raised three children (two sons and a daughter). He also has two grandchildren.
The writer’s primary resource for this article was Dave Skaggs himself, who was kind enough to talk on the phone about his life and career during an April 2013 interview. All quotations from Skaggs are from this interview. For dates and statistical information, the writer also consulted baseball-reference.com.