Joe Staton

This article was written by Tim Herlich

“The great Jackie Robinson once said, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’ This afternoon, as the Mariners acknowledge Tuesday’s league-wide celebration of the life of Jackie Robinson, the Mariners are pleased to welcome a special guest who personifies Jackie’s spirit and has dedicated his life to serving others.” — Pregame introduction of Joe Staton prior to ceremonial first pitch, Safeco Field, Seattle, Washington, April 13, 2014.

 

Google the name “Joe Staton” and you will most likely be directed to links to a prolific comic book illustrator, not the former major league ballplayer honored above. Understandable, because Joe Staton, the ballplayer, came to bat only 19 times in his big-league career during a pair of September call-ups. He never appeared on a Topps-issued baseball card. His professional baseball career barely exceeded five seasons, although he was a minor league all-star in three of them. He never really had a chance to compete in the major leagues. Yet, as evidenced by the above testimonial, Staton has had a profound influence on improving the lives of others, transcending anything he could potentially have achieved on a baseball diamond.

Joseph Staton was born on March 8, 1948, in Seattle, Washington, the youngest of two children and only son to Joseph I. Staton and the former Aretha Glover. His father could be described as a Renaissance man. He was an actor in the Negro Repertory Company and a sports columnist for the Northwest Enterprise, Seattle’s African-American newspaper. He also provided the baseball pedigree for his son, pitching and playing first base for the semi-professional Seattle Royal Giants and American Giants from 1931 until World War II. 1 Following the war, the elder Staton toiled as a building contractor and later worked for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Aretha worked as a department supervisor at Fircrest State School, a facility for developmentally disabled people. Both parents were active in the Masonic community. Joseph Sr. was ordained a 33rd degree Freemason, and Aretha served in the Order of the Eastern Star.

The elder Staton could be a strict disciplinarian. “My dad took me out of baseball my first year, because I was acting up,” Joe recalled. After pitching a one-hitter in his first Little League start, the jubilant eleven-year-old ran to his father sitting in the car nearby. “I said ‘Dad, did you see that?’ He said ‘Yes, I did see that, and I saw this’ and handed me my report card. He said ‘Take the jersey back over to the field.’ I had to take it back right then.”2 Fortunately, Joe was eventually allowed to resume his baseball activities. Playing the same positions as his father, he excelled on his Pony, Colt, and Connie Mack League teams.

Tall, slender, and fast, young Joe could have been a three-sport athlete at Seattle’s Garfield High School, but his father decreed that Joe play only one varsity sport. Choosing baseball, Joe won the Seattle Metro League Triple Crown in his senior year, batting .500 in 48 at-bats with six home runs and 23 runs batted in. He earned First Team All-Metro honors, as did future major league pitcher Bob Reynolds of Ingraham High School. Joe’s partner on the right side of the Garfield infield was second baseman and future major league center fielder Bill North. All three graduated from high school in 1966.3

During his high school years, Staton attracted the attention of major league scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates and California Angels organizations. But real-life responsibilities precluded any hope of signing a pro baseball contract or pursuing a major collegiate baseball program. Within months of graduation, Staton wed his first wife, Kathy Daniels, who gave birth to their only son, Keith, in November. To support his family, the eighteen-year-old new papa took a job at Boeing and enrolled at Seattle Central Community College.4 In his limited spare time, Staton played on the Central Area Youth Association (CAYA) baseball team. His association with CAYA provided a critical chapter in his life — not once, but twice.

While playing for CAYA, Staton impressed the premier amateur baseball team in the area, the Seattle Studs. Winners of the Amateur Athletic Baseball Congress (AABC) national tournament in 1968,5 the Studs recruited him to play first base to help defend their title. The 1969 AABC tournament was held in Battle Creek, Michigan. Although the Studs finished third, Staton caught the eye of the Detroit Tigers’ legendary scouting director Bernie DeViveiros. Staton remembers the sliding instruction he received from the spry DeViveiros, who was nearly eighty years old at the time. “He moved all the furniture in the hotel room and put a pillow down, showed me how to slide past the pillow and reach it going past. Hook slide — showed me all this stuff in the hotel room!”6 The lanky first baseman signed a contract with Detroit and reported to Tigertown, the Tigers’ spring training complex in Lakeland, Florida, the following year.

Lakeland in 1970 was a town where vestiges of segregation and Jim Crow-era racism persisted. There were white neighborhoods where a black person was not welcome and at risk. When Staton arrived, Willie Horton and Gates Brown, the two most prominent African-Americans on the Tigers, took all of the new black players aside, as they did each spring, and counseled them on how to conduct themselves, where to go and what areas to avoid when they ventured off the Tigertown campus. Staton, the affable northerner, followed their sage advice, until a day when some of his white teammates persuaded him to go with them to the area of town deemed off-limits by Horton and Brown. When his group arrived at a bar, the owner refused to serve everyone in his party because Staton was black. In retaliation, his teammates trashed the place. The group left the bar and quickly returned to the campus before police arrived. News of the incident spread at Tigertown, and Horton and Brown summoned the rookie. “Gates and Willie called me over to their room,” Staton remembered emotionally almost fifty years later, “[and] told me how dangerous that was.”7 Not only had he suffered the indignity of being refused service because of his race, he also felt shame and disappointment in himself that he had strayed and let his mentors down. Lesson learned; the Seattle native avoided any further trouble throughout his minor league career which, except for a brief call-up to Toledo in 1972, was played exclusively in the Deep South.

Staton remained in Lakeland in 1970 and played for the Tigers’ Class-A team the entire year. Standing six-feet three-inches and weighing 175 pounds, he was given the apt nickname “Slim.”

In his first season in pro ball, Staton was a one-man wrecking crew, leading the Florida State League in batting average (.346) and hits (160). He also paced the circuit with 42 stolen bases, while being caught stealing only seven times. The Silver Slugger Award winner was elected to the Topps Class-A All-East all-star team.8 His batting average and stolen bases were tops among all six Tiger farm clubs.9 Promoted to Rocky Mount of the higher Single-A classification Carolina League in 1971, the lefty posted a .303 BA and pilfered 35 bases in 41 attempts. In the Florida Instructional League that fall, Staton batted .270 with a league-leading 36 runs scored. The young Tigers easily captured the Northern Division title.10 He was one of five Detroit farm hands named to the FIL all-star squad, joined by pitcher Fred Holdsworth, shortstop Tom Veryzer, and outfielders Ike Blessitt and Marvin Lane 11

Detroit management began to take note of the young speedster. General Manager Jim Campbell proclaimed “we’ve got a rookie who isn’t even on the [major league 40-man] roster who can run faster than anyone in our organization — a youngster named Joe Staton.”12 The left-handed batter was timed from home plate to first base in 3.4 seconds, almost as fast as the major league-best 3.3 seconds clocked by Ralph Garr.13 Assigned to Montgomery in the Class-AA Southern League in 1972, Staton again impressed with a .289 BA and 33 stolen bases. The slender speedster helped Montgomery take the West Division title. In the championship series, he led the Rebels to a three-game sweep of the Asheville Tourists, collecting seven hits, including three doubles, in 13 at-bats for a .538 BA.14 Following the playoffs, Staton was added to Detroit’s major league 40-man roster and called up to the parent club.15 He was one of nine players Detroit added to its roster in September, including mammoth first baseman Frank Howard.

The Tigers in 1972, under manager Billy Martin, were an aging ballclub in the midst of a division pennant race. Many of the players were veterans of the World Series championship team of 1968. Staton made his major league debut on September 5, pinch-running for future Hall of Famer Al Kaline.16 He appeared in six games, mostly as a pinch-runner, and was hitless in two at bats. Detroit clinched the AL East flag on October 3, and Staton was on hand for the raucous locker room celebration that followed.

Staton and the other September call-ups were ineligible to play in the postseason. The Tigers lost to the Oakland Athletics in a hard-fought five-game American League championship series.

Staton had a very productive spring training in 1973, rapping ten hits in 17 at bats.17 But Norm Cash and Howard were entrenched at first base. Brown was penciled into the new designated hitter position. With fellow prospects Reggie Sanders and John Young ticketed for Class-AAA Toledo, Staton was optioned back to Class-AA Montgomery. Not lacking in confidence, the first sacker felt he was major league-ready. “I can bypass Toledo,” Staton insisted in mid-season. “I’ve had four years in the minors and I could be helping the [Tigers] team right now.”18 Disappointed but determined, Staton responded with a .282 batting average, 39 stolen bases, a career-best 10 home runs and over 80 runs scored for the fourth year in a row. He was named the Southern League All-Star first baseman and helped the Rebels defend their league title, batting .333 in the championship series. Staton was recalled by the parent club again in September and received a little more playing time than the previous year, batting .235 in 17 at-bats. On September 30, 1973, the first baseman played the entire final game at the original Yankee Stadium before it was closed for two years for renovation. The Tigers beat the Yankees by a score of 8 — 6. Staton scored two runs, batted in another, and was on the field as the last putout was made. The prolific minor league base thief tried to swipe the first base bag for a souvenir. "All I remember is the fans pouncing on me and jumping on the field," Staton recalled. "They stole my hat and tried to take my uniform. I saw Gates Brown and Elston Howard fighting over third base. It was a mob scene."19 The contest was his last appearance in a major league game.

Although the Tigers were aging, Staton’s chances of making the team in 1974 were bleak. Norm Cash kept hold of the starting job at first base. Kaline replaced Brown as the everyday DH. Detroit had invested signing bonuses in Young and other amateur draft picks. Staton, an undrafted free agent, became the victim of a numbers game. When the Tigers purchased Luke Walker from the Pittsburgh Pirates in December 1973, the twenty-six year old Staton was removed from the Tigers 40-man roster and assigned outright to their AAA affiliate.20 Months later, in what one sportswriter considered the most surprising move of a tumultuous spring, Staton’s contract was sold to the Mexican League.21 His time in the Detroit organization was over. As it turned out, Cash played only 53 games in 1974 and was released in August, Kaline retired at the end of the season, Young was traded in December, and Walker was released in April 1975.

Staton’s career in the Mexican League was short but sweet. The two-time minor-league All-Star joined the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (Red Devils), pennant winners the previous season. Ex-major league veterans on the roster included Panamanian outfielder Adolfo Phillips and thirty-nine-year-old Cuban pitcher Pedro Ramos. The mound staff was anchored by future major league hurlers Aurélio López and Enrique Romo, both of Mexican heritage. Staton quickly became a fan favorite at the 25,000 seat Parque de Seguro Social (Social Security Park). Affectionately nicknamed “La Pantera Rosa” (The Pink Panther) after the popular animated cartoon character, the fleet-footed first baseman hit .297 and stole 17 bases. The Diablos Rojos prevailed over Puebla and Jalisco, four games to two in each series, before sweeping Gómez Palácio in four games to successfully defend their title. For Staton personally, 1974 marked the third straight season that he starred in and won a league championship.

Staton began 1975 with the Diablos Rojos, but a persistent stomach ailment curtailed his season. He was released by the club and left Mexico after appearing in only 31 games. Staton returned to Seattle and neither reached out to, nor was contacted by, any major league organization. He retired from professional baseball, except for two unsuccessful comeback attempts. In 1978 he received a try-out with his new hometown team, the Seattle Mariners. At thirty years old, however, he was a poor fit for a fledgling franchise and was not offered a contract. Eleven years later he signed on with the Orlando Juice of the ill-fated Senior Professional Baseball Association, managed by former teammate Gates Brown.22 Staton tore his hamstring in pre-season and did not appear in a league game.

Was Staton talented enough to have been an everyday major league player if given the chance? That question must be asked but is impossible to answer. The Tigers of the early 1970’s were laden with high-paid veterans who had to play. If Staton had signed on with a more youthful franchise, he likely would have had a better opportunity. His game seemed ideally suited to the speed-oriented offensive style of baseball that emerged later in the decade, particularly in the National League. If free agency had been available to him, perhaps he would have found a team that valued his skill set.

But Staton harbors no resentment. He has forged life-long friendships with many of his teammates, particularly those with whom he played in the Detroit farm system. In 2013, he returned to Lakeland to attend a reunion of former Tiger ballplayers from his era.

After Staton returned home in 1975, he began working in the security department at Swedish Hospital. "I knew I would get back here and do something in baseball,” the Seattle native avowed. “If it wasn't for me, it would be for kids. I would coach.”23 True to his word, Staton served as varsity baseball head coach for several years at two of Seattle’s inner-city high schools, Franklin and Garfield, his own alma mater.

His dedication to youth intensified in 1993, ironically collaborating with the man who had helped thwart his major league ambitions twenty years earlier. John Young had created the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiative in Los Angeles four years earlier. Staton founded and became Commissioner of the Seattle RBI Club, a position he continues to hold. In partnership with Major League Baseball, the Seattle Mariners, and other entities, the mission of the RBI Club is to increase the opportunities for inner-city youth to pursue collegiate and professional baseball and softball. Academic achievement is encouraged.24 Staton is also Executive Director of the Central Area Youth Association (CAYA), the same institution that inspired him as a teenager to pursue a baseball career. CAYA provides year-round organized activities, academic tutoring and confidence-building programs for boys and girls each year. Staton’s commitment to both the RBI Club and CAYA programs has touched and improved the lives of thousands of kids over the years.

Staton and his wife, Rhonda, reside in Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. At 70 years old, he remains physically active and is within 20 pounds of his major-league playing weight. Reflecting on his life and on the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Safeco Field on Jackie Robinson Day in 2014, the gracious Staton was predictably humble. “Having traveled along that long and winding road with stops in Florida, North Carolina, and Montgomery, Alabama, before reaching the Detroit Tigers, I can truly appreciate the accomplishments of those who paved the way for those of us who would follow. Thank you, Seattle, for being my home; thank you Seattle Mariners, for your generosity and commitment; but, most of all, thank you Jackie Robinson.”25 Many in Seattle would respond in kind, saying “Thank you, Joe Staton.”

Last revised: December 26, 2018

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Joe Staton for generously giving his time for a series of personal interviews and providing newspaper clippings, photographs and personal recollections.

The author also acknowledges Dennis da Silva and the Seattle Mariners organization for providing the transcript of the pre-game announcement at Safeco Field on April 13, 2014.

This biography was reviewed by Joe DeSantis and fact-checked by David Kritzler.

 

Additional Sources

The Official Baseball Guide (St. Louis, The Sporting News) 1971 — 1976

Detroit Tigers Media Guide, 1973

Topps Baseball Cards (New York, Warner Books) 1985

www.baseball-almanac.com

www.baseball-digest.com

www.newspapers.com

www.paperofrecord.com

www.retrosheet.org

 

Notes

1 http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/seattle-royal-giants-1928-1945

2 Joe Staton, personal interview with author, May 11, 2018.

3 Bob Reynolds was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 1966 amateur draft and pitched for six major league teams over six seasons. Bill North went to Central Washington University, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the twelfth round of the 1969 amateur draft and played for four clubs over eleven seasons.

4 Staton later enrolled in Columbia Basin Junior College but did not play baseball there.

5 “Coldwater Meets Texans; Clark’s Play Under Lights,” Battle Creek Enquirer, September 4, 1969, 21.

6 Joe Staton, May 11, 2018

7 Ibid.

8 “21-Game Winner Hebert Is Topps Class A Whiz,” The Sporting News (TSN), November 28, 1970, 41.

9 Bill Frank, “Frankly Speaking,” Battle Creek Enquirer, October 18, 1970, 43.

10 “FIL Tigers Sport Successful Season,” The Tampa Tribune, November 27, 1971, 8.

11 Jack Ellison, “Scarce, Womble: FIL’s Best,” TSN, December 4, 1971, 53..

12 Joe Falls, “Tigers Picked 4th? GM Jim Takes Bait,” Detroit Free Press, February 8, 1972, 1-D.

13 Rick Young, “Scoring Runs What Baseball Is About”, The Montgomery Advertiser, June 24, 1973, 6C.

14 Compiled from box scores published in The Montgomery Advertiser, September 3 — 5, 1972

15 Jim Hawkins, “Tigers Back in 1st Alone,” Detroit Free Press, September 6, 1972, 5-D.

16 On the same day, terrorists murdered nine Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

17 Rick Young, The Montgomery Advertiser, June 24, 1973, 6C.

18 Ibid. Staton was called up briefly to Toledo, but otherwise played the entire 1973 minor league season in Montgomery.

19 Dan Raley, “Where Are They Now: Joe Staton,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 24, 2004, reprinted online at https://www.seattlepi.com/sports/article/Where-Are-They-Now-Joe-Staton-1152431.php

20 Jim Hawkins, “Sutherland Solves Keystone Problem, Tigers Say,” TSN, December 22, 1973, 40.

21 Jack Donne, “Spring Leftovers,” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 10, 1974, 20.

22 “And Now … Over-35 Transactions,” TSN, October 2, 1989, 25.

23 Dan Raley, “Where Are They Now: Joe Staton.”

24 https://www.mlb.com/mlb-community/reviving-baseball-inner-cities

25 “Jackie Robinson Day at Safeco Field,” The Seattle Medium, April 10, 2014, reprinted online at http://seattlemedium.com/jackie-robinson-day-at-safeco-field