Craig Cacek (pronounced Cass-ek) played in seven games for the Houston Astros in 1977. From June 18 to July 10 he was in the major leagues for the only time.1 He had one hit, one RBI, and one walk in 21 plate appearances, a .050 batting average. The Astros’ trade of Cliff Johnson to the New York Yankees created the opening for Cacek to be called up as a backup for two-time All-Star Bob Watson. Astros manager Bill Virdon told Cacek, “I don’t know how much you’re going to play, I don’t know if you’re going to play at all.”2 Consequently, Cacek spent most of his time in the majors acquiring splinters. Despite a solid .306 batting average in five minor-league seasons before the call-up and a .301 average through 11 professional seasons, he never saw the major leagues again, earning the legacy of a one-hit wonder.
Cacek was born to Vince and Betty (Nemec) Cacek in Hollywood, California on September 10, 1954. Vince Cacek was born in Bridgewater, South Dakota, and was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he met Betty. He served in the Navy during World War II, and in management with Collins Radio Company, was transferred to California in 1952.3 He later became an executive at Southland Marketing, which at the time was the largest liquor distributor in the world. Later in his career he was a consultant for Arthur Andersen and ITT.4
As a youngster Vince Cacek had played on a Cedar Rapids American Legion team that played against a St. Louis American Legion team that starred Larry Berra, later to be famous as Yogi. There is a story of Cacek hitting a smash 390 feet to the gap for a triple and Berra answering with a merely 300-foot home run down the line. In California, Vince played semipro baseball and caught the attention of the Hollywood Stars, the Los Angeles Angels, and even the Chicago Cubs. He opted not to join the low minors as a 24-year-old with a fine job, a wife, a young daughter, and a child on the way.5 He was a relaxed and supportive role model for Craig, serving as president of the Panorama City American Little League and always as Craig’s go-to hitting instructor. It was not unusual for him to say, “Stay aggressive, go up there and swing from your ass!”6
Betty Cacek was a strong influence as well. A homemaker who was involved in community affairs, she had rallied support for sewage improvements. Later she worked as the membership secretary at the Mid-Valley YMCA and as a receptionist at a travel agency. Craig’s older sister, Christine, like her brother, made a career in special education.
Craig started playing organized baseball in Little League as an 8-year-old. As one of two younger boys in his first Little League season with Panorama City American, he was drilled by a 12-year-old pitcher. The beaning made young Cacek scared and afraid to “step in the bucket.” Vince Cacek was there with supportive words that would go on to help Craig throughout his career: “If they hit you every time, it wouldn’t be a game.”7
Growing up in Los Angeles with the arrival of the Dodgers, it was often assumed that all baseball-loving boys would bleed Dodger blue. Not so for Cacek, who was a proud Yankees fan. With his parents’ Iowa roots, they would visit family in Cedar Rapids. On television, the Yankees were broadcast. Quickly, Mickey Mantle became his favorite. The 1963 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees brought 9-year-old Craig to devastation as the Dodgers won. He even wrote a poem to the Yankees that he sent to the team in consolation. Late in 1968, he got to see Mantle hit a home run in person, and it was a great thrill.8
Cacek starred for James Monroe High School under legendary high-school coach Denny Holt, who coached the Monroe Vikings from 1959 until 1981. “I didn’t tolerate much foolishness,” Holt recalled. “In fact, I didn’t tolerate any.”9 The Monroe Viking teams made the Los Angeles City final five times, winning the championship with a 19-0 record in 1971. The California Interscholastic Federation — Los Angeles Section holds the city final annually at Dodger Stadium. Many try but few high school teams play on the hallowed grounds of their heroes. Cacek started in right field for the Vikings squad as a junior and earned All-League honors. On a talent-loaded roster, three players (John Flinn, Kim Andrew, and Cacek) eventually reached the major leagues. After winning the Los Angeles City championship, All-City right fielder Cacek said, “We all grew up watching Sandy] Koufax and Don] Drysdale and dreaming to play there and to be there, oh my God. I remember leaving the parking lot and being shocked.”10
In 1972, as one of two returning starters from the 1971 squad, Cacek had the opportunity to sit with the Dodgers in the dugout for a 1972 game at Dodger Stadium.11 Walt Alston, Bill Buckner, and Frank Robinson made an impression on the shaggy-haired high-school slugger. While the Dodgers were taking batting practice, Cacek saw a young Steve Garvey doing an interview with Vin Scully behind the cage. In awe, he approached Garvey afterward and learned sage ballplayer advice on interviews, “Take all you can get, kid.”12
Cacek had an impressive senior season, batting .574 and earning Mid-Valley League Player of the Year, All City and Athlete of the Semester honors. The Vikings extended their winning streak to 34 games but fell short of repeating the City championship.13 Cacek credited his father’s people skills with advancing his case to be drafted. Vince Cacek had become friendly with Dutch Zwilling, the Federal League home-run king, and Harry Minor, both New York Mets scouts, Larry Barton Jr., a Reds scout, and even Casey Stengel. It was speculated that Cacek would attend the University of Southern California. Cacek, however, had no plans to go to college. “School and baseball together was not what I wanted to do. I was not the best student and I wanted to just play ball.”14 On June 6, 1972, he was drafted by the Mets in the ninth round of the amateur draft. He signed a contract with a $16,000 bonus.
The 1972 draft class was talented. Gary Carter and Dennis Eckersley would earn Hall of Fame honors. Several others became All-Stars and pennant-winning managers. Ellis Valentine, Mike Hargrove, Willie Randolph, and Chet Lemon, also from Los Angeles, started their professional careers in that draft.
After signing with the Mets, Cacek reported to the Marion (Virginia) Mets of the rookie-level Appalachian League. Cacek put up a solid .267/.376/.475 slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) with 54 hits in 61 games for the eighth-place squad. From Marion, he progressed through the Mets minor-league system with stops at Pompano Beach, Visalia, where he converted to first base, and then Jackson in the Texas League, where he set the team record for batting average.15
After the season the Mets traded Cacek to the Houston Astros for Manny Lantigua. Lantigua, a career minor-leaguer, would meet Cacek again as a teammate for the Pittsburgh Pirates Triple-A Portland Beavers club in 1979. Now firmly playing first base for the Memphis Blues in 1976 and the Charleston Charlies in 1977 when the Astros switched affiliates, both teams of the Triple-A International League. Cacek hit well, batting .324/.423/.429 in 1976 and putting up similar numbers with the Charlies before his 1977 call-up.
Cacek made his major-league debut on June 18with a pinch-hit appearance in the seventh inning against the Mets at Shea Stadium. The game was tied, 3-3, when Julio Gonzalez tripled off Jerry Koosman. Cacek was sent to hit for relief pitcher, Gene Pentz. A groundball to short for a quick 6-3 out kept Gonzales at third. César Cedeño, the next batter, drove in the run on a sacrifice fly. The run held up for a 4-3 Astros victory. Welcome to the show, Craig Cacek.
Cacek next played on June 20 against the Montreal Expos in Montreal. Bob Watson took a few days off due to a blood chemical imbalance.16 Cacek played first base in the three-game series. Facing a wild Jackie Brown in the first inning, he walked on four pitches with the bases loaded, earning his only RBI. The next day Cacek again started at first. In the top of the fifth, he took a dominant Steve Rogers up the middle into center for his first and only major-league hit.17 “It was a big hopper off the carpet over the head of Rogers. I think the shortstop scooped it up. There was no play at first,” he said. Time was called and the ball collected.18 Cacek reached second base on a fielding error but Roger Metzger struck out to retire the side.
Cacek started in two more games, pinch-hit and played first in two others, and was sent back to Charleston when Watson returned to the lineup. Terry Puhl took the roster spot and played 15 seasons with the Astros until 1990 and the Royals in 1991.19
Cacek recalled his time in the majors as traumatic for the 22-year-old. In a slump (0-for-30) at the time of his call-up, he never felt comfortable. It does not seem as if the Astros were really setting up Cacek for success. Virdon, like Holt, was a drill sergeant-style manager. Cacek never felt that Virdon liked him or that it was Virdon’s decision to bring him up. “I had no connection with Virdon like I did with Holt,” he said. “I felt pressure to perform in a way that I had not before. In retrospect, I was not ready. I did not know my teammates on the Astros, no connections. I know now I should have been kinder to myself.” In 21 plate appearances, Cacek put the ball in play 17 times. “These were just hit on the nose and did not find a hole,” he related, “There was a high fly drive in the fourth inning of a July 5 game versus the Padres that was foul down the line by half an inch. Had it been fair, it would likely have been a double and driven in two runs. Maybe that would have got me going.”20 Cacek lined out to short on the next pitch.21 That foul ball and lineout is a metaphor for how close Cacek was to having the big-league career of his dreams.
In comparison, Cacek noted that Jim Fuller, a hitter with great power, was told he would have 100 at-bats. “When I was sent back, I was in shock. As a ballplayer that identified as a hitter, he could not believe that ‘I went 0 for America.’” It was disappointment all around. Astros management in hindsight did not set up Cacek for success with comments such as “thought you were ready” remarked an unremembered scout in an uncomfortable elevator on the road that took a mental toll. Over time, Cacek has processed his cup of coffee in the show. In 21 at-bats, he had only three strikeouts. “I am proud about that. I always wanted to be a pure hitter and saw myself as a pure hitter.”22
In 11 professional seasons, one is bound to earn a few nicknames. “Coma” is an odd nickname for a ballplayer. In 1977 Cacek had come down with the flu during spring training and was bedridden in the team hotel for three days. When the inevitable “where’s Cacek?” questions in the locker room were bellowed, Dave Augustine answered, “He’s in a coma.” The name stuck and Cacek never minded it. “One-Speed” leaves less to the imagination. According to Cacek, “Honestly, I was never a real exciting ballplayer. I always hustled but it was always in one speed. Cannot recall when that one started but it fit.”23
Cacek had a shot at making the Astros in 1978. Cacek had had a solid spring training and knew he was close. In a game at Cocoa, Florida, then the Astros’ spring-training home, Cacek got to third base late in the game. According to Cacek, “The wind was blowing in and that always changed the way we had to play. There was a shallow fly ball to center and I went back to tag. The ball was caught, and I did not advance. They did not challenge with a throw. Just the ball back to the pitcher. The crowd began to boo. If third-base coach Bob Lillis had said anything, I did not hear it. Lillis and Virdon were livid. Jesus Alou would double in the next at-bat and I would score. I knew then and there that I was done with the Astros.”24
Being sent back down, Cacek wanted to play in the Pacific Coast League and Dave Hersh, then the youngest owner in pro baseball, worked a deal that brought him to the Portland Beavers in the Pittsburgh system. “I had no thoughts of making the Pirates, I just wanted to play in the PCL. Playing on the West Coast and a few trips to Hawaii.” Cacek loved Portland. It had a major-league town atmosphere and had a solid fan base, he said.25 The Beavers were talented with Dale Berra, Vance Law, and others who later played in the majors. With the change of scenery, Cacek responded, leading the PCL with 180 hits, batting .319, and earning all-star first-base honors. Scoring 92 runs and driving in 102 runs was apparently not enough for a September call-up. “They were looking for pitching for the playoff run. I knew that there was no chance.” Manager Johnny Lipon told him, “As far as I am concerned, you’re a major league hitter.” Cacek played winter ball in the Dominican Republic that year with Lipon. He struggled at the plate, but it was always something he wanted to do as a ballplayer.26
Spring training in 1980 was a fun and loose clubhouse of the reigning World Series champions. Willie Stargell jumped on a table holding a driver and teed off on a baseball that rocketed through the locker room, destroying a clock on a distant wall. Again, it was clear that Cacek, playing behind Stargell, would not make the Pirates and would return to Portland.27 In the 1980 season, Lipon moved to the Pirates Single-A ballclub and Doe Boyland saw more time at first base. After the 1981 season, the Pirates traded Cacek to the Angels as the Angels were preparing a trade to the Chunichi Dragons in Japan.28 The Dragons settled on Charlie Spikes, who had more home runs and major-league experience. Gene Mauch was at the helm of the California Angels and his protégé Moose Stubing was manager of the Spokane Indians in 1982. “I knew that it was the end of the line,” said Cacek. Stubing would bark, “You are in the lineup, it must be the second Tuesday of the month.” After starting in 12 games at first base and hitting in a total of 64 games that season, Cacek, at 27, retired from professional baseball.29 In 11 minor-league seasons, he had a slash line of .301/.401/.446.
Cacek quickly caught the attention of a Madison, Wisconsin, barnstorming team that went to the National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita, Kansas, in both 1982 and 1983. After that he did not hit a ball or put on a glove for nearly a decade. “When I hung it up, I had this thought to become a psychologist.” Cacek returned to California and went back to school at San Diego State, Pepperdine Professional School, and Long Beach State. He earned credentials and became a school counselor in special education, a role that he has enjoyed for three decades.30
Thinking that his playing days were long gone, Cacek was walking his dogs in Los Angeles’ Balboa Park in the summer of 1991. Reliving memories of a high-school playoff game at that ballfield 20 years earlier during the 1971 City championship, he saw a group of guys playing actual baseball, not men’s league slow-pitch softball. Hardball, real baseball, this caught his attention. Cacek approached the team manager, Nick Newton, and learned more about the team that would become known for a time as the NALU Hawaiian Buffaloes.31 In a legendary moment chronicled by teammate and Los Angeles Times writer Peter King, Cacek arrived late to a game, wheeling into the parking lot with his turn up to bat in the batting order. With his trademark “one-speed,” he ambled to the plate and promptly deposited the baseball 20 feet beyond the left-field fence for a home run.32 With the Buffalos, Cacek allowed himself to have fun with baseball again.
He played with the Buffalos and then three other teams — the Indians, Suns, and Padres — all of Santa Monica, in the Men’s Senior Baseball Association for over 10 years, and even worked to become a pitcher. On the mound, Cacek would face some interesting competition. Jose Canseco would reportedly go 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a fly ball to left. Tom Hayden, the noted liberal activist and Chicago Seven member, had an at-bat.33 Cacek tapped former Charlies teammate Randy Wiles for advice. Work fast, throw strikes, and change speeds, Wiles advised. Cacek threw mostly breaking stuff and even a knuckleball. He worked 100 innings per year for 10 years as a pitcher. At age 52, Cacek was the MVP in a 25-and-over league, having great hitting stats, and going 7-5 on the mound as a starting pitcher. Eventually, Cacek would play a game in Angel Stadium. Back in a major-league ballpark; fittingly, Craig Cacek got one walk and one hit.34
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and baseballalmanac.com.
1 His last game was July 5. He was on the roster until July 10. “Astros Recall Puhl to Majors,” Terre Haute (Indiana) Tribune, July 11, 1977: 11.
2 Author interview with Craig Cacek on November 6, 2019.
3 “Metro Deaths,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 11, 1983: 14a.
4 Craig Cacek, email correspondence with author, November 15, 2019.
5 Craig Cacek, telephone interview with author, November 6, 2019. (Hereafter Cacek telephone interview.).
6 Craig Cacek, email correspondence with author, November 15, 2019.
7 Cacek telephone interview.
8 Cacek telephone interview.
9 Steve Henderson, “Going Against the Flow,” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1990: 302.
10 Eric Sondheimer, “Monroe’s Perfect Season Withstands Test of Time,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2001: 89.
11 John Stamm, “Consistent Cacek Trades Homers for Line Drives,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), June 25, 1975: 39.
12 Cacek telephone interview.
13 Cacek telephone interview.
14 Cacek telephone interview.
15 Rick Cleveland, “Winningham Finds It’s Getting Easier,” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, June 22, 1983: 15.
16 “Giants Give Astros a Lift,” San Mateo (California) Times, June 25, 1977: 8.
17 “Expos Crush Astros, 6-0,” Del Rio (Texas) News Herald, June 22, 1977: 10.
18 Cacek telephone interview.
19 “Astros Recall Puhl to Majors.”
20 Cacek telephone interview.
21 Back to Baseball, backtobaseball.com/game/SDN197707050/san-diego-padres/versus/houston-astros/1977/july/5/all-plays-summary/.
22 Cacek telephone interview.
23 Cacek telephone interview.
24 Cacek telephone interview; “Alou Is Back as Astros Nip Blue Jays, 3-2,” Austin American-Statesman, March 13, 1978: 29.
25 Cacek telephone interview.
26 Cacek telephone interview.
27 Cacek telephone interview.
28 “Names in the News,” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1981: 59.
29 Cacek telephone interview.
30 Cacek telephone interview.
31 Peter King, “The Boys of Fall,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2000: 402.
33 Robert D. McFadden, “Tom Hayden, Civil Rights and Antiwar Activist Turned Lawmaker, Dies at 76,” New York Times, October 25, 2016: B, 14.
34 Cacek telephone interview.