Billy Sorrell was the type of player scouts coveted: a 6-foot, 190-pound left-handed hitter with power and speed who could play both infield and outfield. Legendary scout Tony Lucadello tracked and signed Sorrell for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959. Sorrell was a good batsman, often clutch, who played 14 professional seasons from 1960 until 1973, including parts of three seasons in the majors (1965, 1967, 1970) and two in Japan. He batted .267 lifetime in 85 big-league games.1
Billy Lee Sorrell (pronounced So-RELL) was born on October 14, 1940, in Morehead, Kentucky. His parents were Ottis Ralph and Goldie (Howard) Sorrell, who were married in 1937 when they were 18 years old. Billy Lee – or Lee, as he was called by his family and close friends2 – was the middle of three children. Glenis Ralph Sorrell was the oldest and Sharron Louise Sorrell was the youngest.
Sorrell’s father, the son of a rock quarry stonecutter from Kentucky, died when Billy was only 17 months old. On the night of March 6, 1942, Ottis Sorrell was driving with his relative Eugene Coffey, a passenger, in western Ohio. Both died of broken necks when Ottis lost control of the car. The car careened down an embankment, flipped over, and crashed into a tree. Ottis had been working at the Eavey Company warehouse in Richmond, Ohio, while his wife, who was pregnant with Sharron at the time, lived in Kentucky with their sons.3 A little more than 2½ years after Ottis’s death, Goldie married Clifford Geesey, a laborer working at Ford Motor Company’s Ypsilanti, Michigan, location.4
At Ypsilanti High School, Sorrell lettered in baseball, football, and swimming.5 He was an outstanding diver and was offered a scholarship to swim for the University of Iowa.6 He was also recruited by the US Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land Team, commonly known as the SEALs.7 Sorrell chose baseball instead and signed with the Phillies on September 1, 1959.8
Sorrell played for two Class D teams, the Tampa Tarpons and the Johnson City Phillies, in 1960. He had a .298 batting average, 8 home runs, 34 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases for Johnson City. He shared Appalachian League all-star honors at second base with Francis “Sonny” Pittaro of the Wytheville Senators.9
The next year, the Phillies advanced Sorrell to the Bakersfield Bears of the Class C California League, where he batted .319, led the team in runs scored (117), led the league in stolen bases (43), and earned all-star honors for the second year in a row.10
In the early years of his career, Sorrell played with an edge. “Feisty” was how Pat Corrales, his longtime friend and teammate (both in the Phillies’ farm system and on the ’65 Phils), described him.11 On May 8, in a game between the Bears and the Fresno Giants, Sorrell was called out while attempting to steal second. His hard slide and loud objection ignited a 10-minute brawl that was reported in several California newspapers.12
It was also in Bakersfield where Sorrell met the girl he would marry. Gayle Patricia Healy was a senior at Bakersfield High School in the spring of 1961. Her father, Frank, later an executive director of the United Way, was an avid baseball fan and active in community affairs.13 Early in Bakersfield’s season, Frank loaded up his four daughters into the family car, despite their pleas to be allowed to stay home, and headed downtown to “Meet the Bakersfield Bears,” the team’s public-relations event. There, the reluctant Gayle first met the 20-year-old infielder from Michigan.14
Each year, Sorrell advanced in the Phillies farm system while Gayle attended Bakersfield College and the University of California at Los Angeles. After a year at Double-A Chattanooga in 1963, Sorrell married Gayle in Bakersfield on February 21, 1964. For their honeymoon, they drove for three weeks from California to Dade City, Florida, where the Phillies’ Triple-A team, the Arkansas Travelers, trained.15 The couple later settled in San Diego.
Sorrell struggled in the infield in his early minor-league seasons, and so by the time he reached Triple A, he played almost exclusively in the outfield (that is, until the Kansas City Royals needed a third baseman in 1969). As he matured, he developed some power. He slugged 57 home runs over three seasons in the Phillies Triple-A system (1964-1966), including his career high of 22 in 1964 for the Arkansas Travelers, the Pacific Coast League’s East Division champions that year. He hit a total of 116 home runs over his full minor-league career.
When major-league rosters expanded in September 1965, Sorrell was called up to the Phillies along with Grant Jackson and Ferguson Jenkins, two other Lucadello signees. (It had always been a family chuckle that Sorrell appeared on the same “1966 Phillies Rookie Stars” Topps baseball card (#254) with Jenkins, a future Hall of Famer.16) Sorrell made his major-league debut on September 2, 1965, in the second game of a doubleheader against San Francisco at Connie Mack Stadium. In the bottom of the ninth with two outs, he batted for pitcher Jack Baldschun and lined a single to the opposite field off Frank Linzy, bringing the tying run to the plate. But he was stranded at first as the game ended with the Giants securing the win, 5-2.
Sorrell played in 10 games for the Phillies in 1965, with five hits, two walks, and a key home run in 15 plate appearances. When the calendar page turned to October, Sorrell was involved in a memorable weekend on the road against the New York Mets to wrap up the season. The Friday night game was rained out and was made up as part of a doubleheader on Saturday, October 2. The Phillies won the first game, 6-0, behind Jim Bunning’s two-hit shutout.
The nightcap went 18 innings with the teams tied at 0-0 before it was called for curfew. Chris Short for the Phillies and Rob Gardner for the Mets each pitched 15 scoreless innings in that game. Sorrell batted once; he popped out in the 18th inning while pinch-hitting for catcher Pat Corrales, who’d been behind the plate the whole way to that point. The game was not suspended; rather, it had to be replayed in its entirety on Sunday, the final day of the season, as part of another doubleheader.
The Phillies won the first game on Sunday, 3-1, when Ray Culp pitched a complete game. In the second game, Sorrell made his first start in the big leagues. He batted leadoff and played third base. With the game tied 1-1, he led off the 13th inning against Jack Fisher, who had pitched the entire game for the Mets. Sorrell drove the ball deep to right field for his first major-league home run, putting the Phillies up 2-1.17 They scored once more, and Fergie Jenkins held the Mets scoreless in the bottom of the inning to give the Phillies the game and a sweep of the series.
Sorrell, who played in the Dominican Winter League in 1964-1965 and in the Puerto Rican Winter League in 1965-1966, did well in spring training in 1966.18 He was rewarded by making the Opening Day Phillies roster. However, even though he knew that his playing time was blocked by lefty-hitting outfielders Johnny Callison, John Briggs, and Tony Gonzalez, Sorrell was still surprised that after just two games, he was sent down to the Phillies’ Triple-A team, which had just been switched from Little Rock to San Diego.19
“I was never so disappointed at anything in my life, and felt I didn’t get a fair shot at making the club,” he said.20
His frustration bubbled over into anger. In the first game of a doubleheader on July 4, 1966, Sorrell – who led the Padres at the time with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs – hit into two double plays. He threw his helmet in disgust and was immediately confronted by veteran manager Frank Lucchesi, who benched his star outfielder for the rest of that game plus the nightcap.21
Sorrell himself later admitted that his temper may have held back his progress: “I am intense and I want to win. When things didn’t go right, I blew my top. I know it hurt me.”22
But he put his disappointment and anger behind him as he led the Padres with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs in 1966. A notable stat for Sorrell that year was his extremely low strikeout total: only 11 that season in 569 plate appearances. Across his professional career, he stuck out just 8 percent of the time he came to the plate.
The San Francisco Giants, who finished the 1966 season in second place in the National League behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, needed outfielders who could “bolster the offensive bench and the defensive utility department.”23 Jesús Alou (.259 batting average) and Len Gabrielson (.217) had suffered through a subpar season. Roger Maris was frequently mentioned as a trade target for the Giants.24 Instead, San Francisco liked what they saw in Sorrell’s 1966 season and plucked him from the Phillies organization in the first round of the 1966 Rule 5 Draft. They also traded Gabrielson to the California Angels for Norm Siebern.
But Sorrell could not capitalize on his opportunity in 1967. He served almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter and late-inning replacement, with only three hits in 21 plate appearances. On June 22 Sorrell was cut by the Giants. He was returned to the Phillies, who assigned him to Triple-A San Diego once again, and this time he hit only .249 with no home runs.
On February 27, 1968, the Phillies traded Sorrell to the New York Mets to complete a deal that sent Mets catcher John Sullivan and outfielder Johnny Lewis to the Phillies. Sorrell was assigned to the Triple-A Jacksonville Suns, and played outfield with Tommie Reynolds, whom the Mets had selected in the 1966 Rule 5 Draft eight picks before San Francisco picked Sorrell, and Amos Otis, the future five-time All-Star. The three were among the team leaders in virtually every offensive category. But when the 1969 season began, Sorrell was sent to Triple A again.
The Mets had their “Amazing” year in 1969, but Sorrell never got the chance to join in the magic. He moved from the National League to the American League for the first time when on August 12, 1969, the expansion Kansas City Royals purchased his contract and assigned him to the first-place Omaha Royals (Triple A).
In 1970, Sorrell enjoyed his longest stint in the major leagues – 57 games – with Kansas City. The Royals had trotted out eight different players to man the hot corner in 1969. After that season, when Kansas City traded third baseman Joe Foy for Amos Otis and Bob Johnson, slick-fielding Paul Schaal seemed to have the inside track on the position. Instead, on May 28, when neither Schaal nor Bob Oliver could hold down the job on a regular basis, the Royals traded outfielder-first baseman Mike Fiore to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Tommy Matchick to add roster depth. In a lucky break for Sorrell, Matchick fractured his right thumb on the day he reported to the Royals. On June 1 Sorrell, who batted .360 with Omaha, was promoted to replace Matchick.26
Although Sorrell was limited almost exclusively to pinch-hitting duty in June, new manager Bob Lemon platooned him with Schaal in July and Sorrell rewarded Lemon with good offensive numbers: He batted .309 in July and .267 with four home runs in 145 plate appearances for the season. As a pinch-hitter, Sorrell singled home the go-ahead run in the eighth inning in a 4-3 victory over the Angels in Anaheim on July 7. On August 30 he hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth as the Royals defeated the Washington Senators, 4-3. It was reminiscent of his first major-league home run in 1965 and of his clutch hitting at Tidewater in 1969, when six of his nine home runs had decided games.27 Sorrell had the best game of his career on a day when the Royals tallied their biggest run output of the season. On September 29 he had three hits and three RBIs to help the Royals defeat the Minnesota Twins, 14-13.
In 1971 Schaal was entrenched at third. (He started 161 games there.) Sorrell was sent down to Omaha, where he remained for the entire season.28 He led the team in doubles (24), was second in runs scored (60) and tied for second in hits (104), was third in RBIs (48), and fourth in home runs (8). But his career in the United States was drawing close to an end.
Back in San Diego, the Sorrell family was growing. His 6-year-old son, Darren, had a newborn baby brother, Gregory. Sorrell had already begun to prepare for life after baseball by attending college in the previous offseasons, including Bakersfield Junior College and San Diego State University.29 He now had a big decision to make.
In the 1960s, a new idea had made its way into American players’ minds. It was an era when “aging big-league names past their prime … went to Japan for one last fat contract.”30 Sorrell told The Sporting News that “he was ready to retire and start teaching school in San Diego until he learned he could make more than twice as much money playing left field for the Hankyu Braves than he could teaching.”31
The savvy Sorrell signed with Hankyu to aid a squad that had battled the Yomiuri Giants in four out of the last five Japan Series and lost each time.32 He signed for about $27,000.33 Sorrell had a very good season in 1972. He hit .290 with 16 homers and 63 RBIs as the Braves went to the Japan Series again. In the championship series he contributed six hits in 14 at-bats, one RBI, and three runs scored.34 But the Giants defeated the Braves to win their eighth consecutive championship.
In 1973 Sorrell played only 64 games, batted .235, and hit just four home runs. In the Pacific League, the Nankai Hawks (first-half winner) defeated the Braves (second-half winner) in the newly created split-season playoff format but then lost to the Central League champion Giants in the Japan Series.35 In the playoff, Sorrell appeared in two of the three games and went 0-for-3 with one walk.36 When the Braves were eliminated, Sorrell called it quits. He was 33 years old.
When he returned to San Diego, Sorrell worked as a realtor and mortgage broker while his wife worked as a financial consultant.37 Sorrell also served as an assistant baseball coach at Grossmont College in San Diego.38 His hobbies included golf, swimming, and coin collecting, and he coached his sons from Little League through high school.39
Billy Lee Sorrell died at age 67 on July 22, 2008, in Rancho Bernardo, California. He is buried in Oak Hill Memorial Park in Escondido, California. As of 2022 his wife, Gayle, was married to Fred Folbrecht, and they lived in San Diego. His son Darren lived in Oregon with his wife, Lis; Gregory married Shannan Griffin, the daughter of former major-league pitcher Tom Griffin, and they live in Texas. Sorrell’s grandson Caden, the son of Gregory and Shannan, committed to play baseball at Texas A&M University starting in the fall of 2022.40
Special thanks to Gayle Folbrecht, Billy Sorrell’s wife, for her courteous telephone interview with the author on December 9, 2021; Greg Sorrell, Billy Sorrell’s son, for his input via email of July 11, 2022; Cassidy Lent, manager of reference services at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for furnishing copies of records on file at the Hall regarding Sorrell; and Robert K. Fitts, SABR member, founder of SABR’s Asian Baseball Research Committee, and author of several books about baseball in Japan, for Sorrell’s postseason box-score statistics for the two seasons he played in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Len Levin and fact-checked by John Watkins.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted www.baseball-reference.com, www.retrosheet.org, www.thebaseballcube.com, www.statscrew.com, www.sabr.org, www.newspapers.com, www.ancestry.com, www.classmates.com, and www.deanscards.com/Billy-Sorrell-Baseball-Cards.
Photo of Willie Mays and Billy Sorrell – courtesy of Greg Sorrell.
1 This Billy Sorrell is not to be confused with the Billy (William R.) Sorrell who pitched at T. Wingate Andrews High School (1970-73) and at High Point University (1974-1977), both in High Point, North Carolina. That Billy Sorrell was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1973 in the 25th round but went to college instead and played one year for the Paintsville (Kentucky) Highlanders in 1978 (non-major-league affiliated that year).
2 Gayle Folbrecht, telephone interview, December 9, 2021. (Hereafter Gayle Folbrecht interview).
3 “Two Richmond Men Are Killed Near New Paris,” Richmond (Indiana) Palladium-Item, March 8, 1942: 1; “Blame Cigaret for Auto Crash Fatal to Two,” Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, March 9, 1942: 3.
4 Goldie and Clifford had two daughters, Laura Geesey and Wanda Geesey, Sorrell’s half-sisters. After Clifford died, Goldie married John P. Jokubaitis.
5 Gayle Folbrecht interview.
6 Sid Bordman, “Sorrell Sees Himself Sticking This Time,” Kansas City Star, July 6, 1970: 11.
7 Gayle Folbrecht interview.
8 Associated Press, “Phils Sign Ypsi Infielder,” Detroit Times, September 2, 1959: 1. Note however, that Rod Nelson, SABR’s Scout Committee chair, reports that SABR records show the signing date as August 18, 1959: Rod Nelson, personal communications [via email], December 19, 2020.
9 “Rookie Honors Taken by Hock at Wytheville,” Roanoke (Virginia) Times, August 28, 1960: D-3.
10 Sorrell played second base in the league’s all-star game in July, which pitted first-place Reno against a squad made up of players from the other five teams. “All-Star Team Named to Meet Reno Monday,” Reno (Nevada) Evening Gazette, July 13, 1961: 34. However, he did not make the league all-star team chosen in September that included players from all six teams; Reno second baseman, Lou Ertle, played second in that game. “Six Reno Players on All-Star Team,” Reno Evening Gazette, September 4, 1961: 1.
11 Pat Corrales, telephone interview, January 29, 2022.
12 Tom Meehan, “Fresno Will Host Reno – Brawl Enlivens Li’l Giants’ 5-4 Win Over Bears,” Fresno (California) Bee, May 9, 1961: 1-B; “Bears Bow to Giants, Face Modesto Here,” Bakersfield Californian, May 9, 1961: 31; United Press International, “Fresno Beats Bakersfield; Visalia Wins,” Marysville (California) Appeal Democrat, May 9, 1961: 10.
13 Frank E. Healy Obituary, Santa Maria (California) Times, July 19, 1996: A-5.
14 Gayle Folbrecht interview.
15 “Catholic Rite Unites Couple,” Bakersfield Californian, March 4, 1964: 23; “In the Press Box with Larry Press,” Bakersfield Californian, November 29, 1966: 19.
16 Gayle Folbrecht interview.
17 Sorrell’s home run was the 5,001st home run in Phillies history. See “Home Runs by Rookies Put Phillies Over 5,000 Mark,” The Sporting News, October 23, 1965: 13.
18 See Fernando A. Vicioso, “Here Come Elephants – Led by Rico,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1964: 45 (re: Dominican League); Miguel J. Frau, “Hill Ace John Boozer Hero of Lions’ Surge in Playoffs,” The Sporting News, February 5, 1966: 29 (re: Puerto Rican League); “In the Press Box with Larry Press,” Bakersfield Californian, November 29, 1966: 19 (re: 1966 spring season).
20 “In the Press Box with Larry Press,” Bakersfield Californian, November 29, 1966: 19.
21 “Sorrell Erupts, Benched,” The Sporting News, July 23, 1966: 42.
22 Sid Bordman, “Sorrell Sees Himself Sticking This Time,” Kansas City Star, July 6, 1970: 11.
23 “No Wills Deal, but Giants Busy,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 29, 1966: 45.
24 Associated Press, “Giants May Trade, Says Herm Franks,” Oakland Tribune, November 29, 1966: 52; “Giants Seek Maris from Yanks?,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 1966: 53.
25 Associated Press, “Mays on First Base? Maybe, When He’s 65,” Minneapolis Star, March 21, 1967: 1D.
26 “Royals Call Up Billy Sorrell,” Kansas City Star, June 1, 1970: 10.
27 Kansas City Royals, “Billy Sorrell,” 1971 Kansas City Royals Media Guide, 32; Sid Bordman, “Sorrell Sees Himself Sticking This Time,” Kansas City Star, July 6, 1970: 11.
29 Kansas City Royals, “Billy Sorrell,” 1971 Kansas City Royals Media Guide, 32; see also Hall of Fame Questionnaire and Sid Bordman, “Sorrell Sees Himself Sticking This Time,” Kansas City Star, July 6, 1970: 11.
30 Robert Whiting, You Gotta Have Wa (2009 ed.) (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), xxi.
31 Norman Pearlstine, “Altman Still ‘Picked Off’ by Japan’s Customs,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1973: 15, 44.
32 League rules allowed only two non-Japanese players on a Nippon Professional Baseball League roster. In 1971 Hankyu had 43-year-old Daryl Spencer, who played in the major leagues for 10 years and in Japan for seven years, and Jerry Adair, Sorrell’s teammate on the Kansas City Royals in 1970. In 1972 the Braves had Sorrell and Spencer, and in 1973 Sorrell was the only American player on the Hankyu roster.
33 Published accounts of salaries for American players playing in Japan were typically estimated or admittedly unverified. The published salary for Sorrell in May 1973 – his second season in Japan – was $27,692. Associated Press, “Yanks Bolstering Japanese Pro Baseball,” Lima (Ohio) News, May 20, 1973: C4.
34 Robert K. Fitts, personal communications [via Facebook Instant Messenger], December 11, 2021.
35 The Pacific League introduced a split-season playoff structure that season with the first-half winner playing the second-half winner to determine its champion, while the more established and less attendance-challenged Central League did not. The 1973 Series win was the ninth consecutive championship for the Giants, and 11th out of the 14 seasons managed by Tetsuharu Kawakami, the most successful Japanese manager of all time. See Whiting, You Gotta Have Wa, 74. The Hankyu Braves achieved a modicum of retaliation when they won three consecutive Japan Series titles in 1975, 1976, and 1977, two of which were victories over the Giants. Sorrell was long gone from the Hankyu Braves by then.
36 Robert K. Fitts, personal communications [via Facebook Instant Messenger], June 27, 2022.
37 Gayle Folbrecht interview.
38 Kansas City Royals, “Billy Sorrell,” 1971 Kansas City Royals Media Guide, 32.
39 Hall of Fame Questionnaire; Gayle Folbrecht interview.
40 Gayle Folbrecht interview.