How many kids growing up have dreamed about playing in the major leagues and hitting a home run in their first major-league at-bat to win a game? Danny Sheaffer came close on April 9, 1987, while playing for the Boston Red Sox on the road against the Milwaukee Brewers. Having already passed the milestone of getting his first major-league hit in the sixth inning, an opposite-field single, he faced Chris Bosio an inning later and hit a game-tying home run in a slugfest the Red Sox eventually lost, 12-11, at County Stadium. Sheaffer later indicated in an interview that it was the favorite moment of his playing career.1
Growing up in Red Land, a small Fairview Township farm community in central Pennsylvania, just west of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River, Sheaffer went on to play on a state Little League championship team in 1974,2 participated in a College World Series as a member of Clemson University’s baseball team in 1980 (he studied political science and government at Clemson),3 was selected in the first round of the January 1981 draft by the Red Sox, at the age of 19 met Ted Williams at a Harrisburg outdoors show4 after he was drafted, and topped it off by getting his first major-league hit and homer in his first major-league game.
Danny Todd Sheaffer was born on August 2, 1961, in Jacksonville, Florida. His family moved to Central Pennsylvania, where he, his sister, Edna, and brothers, Leroy Jr. and Jeff, were raised by their parents, Leroy Sr., a carpenter and roofer at the New Cumberland Army Depot, and Hilda, born in Germany, who was head of housekeeping at the former Sheraton Harrisburg West. As a youth, he said, he “was a short, fat kid without a glove or a position” at around age 10 when his father took him to a local fire station to sign up for Little League baseball (the same Red Land Little League that produced the USA Little League championship team in 2015). During his first practice his team’s third baseman was injured so Danny borrowed a glove and played third base. Later the catcher was also hurt; Danny wanted no part of playing that position until his dad “volunteered him for the job.”5
Sheaffer graduated from Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, in 1979. His senior season was cut short by the Three Mile Island accident in late March 1979. (The Red Land school was just a few miles west of the nuclear plant.) Not finishing that season may have been why Sheaffer wasn’t drafted by a major-league team despite previous scout contacts. Once his season resumed, he sent a letter with his schedule to Clemson baseball coach Bill Wilhelm, inviting the coach to possibly attend one of his games. Wilhelm did make it to a game, and offered him a scholarship. (His father said, “he’d love to” before Danny could respond.)6 After his freshman season he had planned to transfer to Oklahoma State but was drafted in January 1981 by the Red Sox.7
Sheaffer’s professional career started with an air of confusion in early 1981. He was called by his high-school baseball coach, Brandt Cook, who told him he had been drafted in the first round of the draft by the Baltimore Orioles, but the next day he received a telegram saying he had been drafted by the Red Sox.8 His selection by the Red Sox led to an unexpected encounter with Williams, whose interest in Danny was based on Williams’s close ties with his early 1940s roommate, Charlie Wagner. Wagner, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, was the scout who signed Sheaffer.9
The Red Sox sent Sheaffer to their short-season New York-Penn League affiliate in Elmira, New York, for whom he batted .288 with 8 home runs in 62 games and earned a quick promotion to Double-A Bristol, which needed a catcher as an emergency fill-in for eight games. His Elmira season opened the door for a step up to Winter Haven in the Class A Florida State League in 1982; he struggled there with a .250 BA with 5 home runs in 82 games and was sent to Winston-Salem of the Class A Carolina League for 1983. There he had a breakout season, hitting .276 with 15 home runs in 112 games and was named the Carolina League all-star catcher.10 (In 2006 Sheaffer was inducted into the Greater Winston-Salem Baseball Hall of Fame;11 in 2001 he had been inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame — a West Shore Chapter.12)
Sheaffer continued to improve statistically as he moved through Double-A ball at New Britain in 1984 and the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox the next two years. Having batted .340 in 79 games in 1986 for Pawtucket, he was hoping for a call-up to the majors (the Red Sox played the Mets in the World Series that year); but teammate Dave Sax received the September promotion, probably as a result of his previous major-league experience with the Red Sox and Dodgers.13
But Sheaffer made the Red Sox 1987 Opening Day roster and made his memorable first major-league start in the third game of the season. He followed that up with a two-hit game the next time he started. His hitting after that dropped off (.121 in 68 plate appearances), and he ended up back at Pawtucket to finish the season. He played there again in 1988, never earning another call-up with the Red Sox.
Sheaffer was released by the Red Sox after the 1988 season, and signed with the Cleveland Indians. During the season he had decided to reinvent himself as a utility player by learning to play multiple positions in hopes of paving his way to a more successful major-league career.14 It was also during 1988 that he moved from Central Pennsylvania to Mount Airy, North Carolina, married his wife, LaDonna, and raised their three children, Daniel, David, and Lorianna.15 Mount Airy, at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is famously associated with the fictional town Mayberry and television’s long-running 1960s The Andy Griffin Show.
Sheaffer started the 1989 season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, received a midseason promotion with the Cleveland Indians, batted .063 (1-for-16) in seven games and ended the season back at Colorado Springs. During spring training with Cleveland, teammate Don Gordon invited him to a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and subsequent Bible studies. His friendship with Gordon has continued over the years and led them to travel to other countries with SCORE International Baseball, playing exhibition games, donating baseball equipment, and sharing the gospel with fans and players after the games.16
After the 1989 season, Sheaffer was released by the Indians and signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In both Pennsylvania and North Carolina Sheaffer ran an offseason chimney-sweep business, for which a teammate on the 1990 Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, Tommy Shields, also a native Pennsylvanian, worked. Shields also made it to the majors a few years later for a few games. After their playing careers they both managed in the minors and as fate would have it, baseball juxtaposition occurred. As opposing managers for the first time in a 2013 Appalachian League game between Burlington, North Carolina, and Princeton, West Virginia, they presented their lineup cards at home plate.17
Sheaffer never lost hope to play again in the majors and while playing again for Pittsburgh’s Buffalo Bisons in 1990 and for the Minnesota Twins affiliate in Portland, Oregon, in 1991 and 1992 he continued to sharpen his multi-position player skills and even pitched two innings in a Portland game in 1992. Although he batted .288 over 209 games with Portland, he never got the Minnesota call-up and was granted his free agency in October 1992. Two weeks later he signed with the expansion Colorado Rockies and made their Opening Day roster in 1993.18
Playing for the Rockies in 1993, Sheaffer had a reasonably productive .278 batting average in 82 games, with 4 home runs and 32 RBIs. He saw those numbers drop in 1994, to .218 in 40 games. One significant result of his time in Colorado came through his acquaintance with general manager Walt Jocketty. After the 1994 season Jocketty left the Rockies to become GM of the St. Louis Cardinals. Sheaffer, meanwhile, was released by the Rockies. Based on the relationship the two developed in Denver, Jocketty signed Sheaffer for the Cardinals.19
His last game with the Rockies was August 11, 1994, just before the players strike began. After the strike began, Sheaffer told the St. Petersburg Times, “I know I may have played in my last major-league game on August 11th if this (strike) goes through 1995, because I’m not getting any younger” and “it’s beyond my control” — yet he never gave a thought to playing ball with replacement players.20
Once the strike was settled in the spring of 1995, the next three years allowed Sheaffer to carve out his major-league niche with the Cardinals as a valuable utility player under manager Tony La Russa. He ended up playing eight different positions in the majors, most of which came during his days with the Cardinals. In those three years with the Cardinals, spent entirely at the major-league level, he played in 231 games, batting .234 with 7 home runs and 61 RBIs. He hit a pinch-hit go-ahead ninth-inning grand slam off Rockies pitcher Bruce Ruffin on August 26, 1995,21 with his former teammates silently congratulating him as he rounded the bases.22 He played for the Cardinals in the 1996 postseason.
A 1998 injury forced Sheaffer to play all his professional games that year with Triple-A Memphis, and he never made it back to the major leagues. He retired after that season, having played 389 major-league games over seven seasons with 13 home runs, 110 RBIs, and a .232 batting average.
Sheaffer’s favorite major-league seasons were, he felt, “a toss-up between the 1993 season with the Colorado Rockies (inaugural season) and the 1996 St. Louis Cardinals season, the years we played in the NLCS against Atlanta.” He said Roger Clemens “hands down had the best stuff” he ever caught as a catcher (with the Red Sox).23 If he had the chance to do anything different about his playing career, it would have been to “get to the National League quicker than he did,” since “there was way more opportunity for someone who plays multiple positions to stay in the big leagues.” He said La Russa was his favorite manager to play for and former Cardinals batting coach George Hendrick was his favorite coach.24
As well traveled as he was in his playing career, Sheaffer’s coaching, managing, and instructor jobs in baseball also took him cross-country. Commencing with the 1999 season, he coached for the Northwest League Cubs affiliate in Eugene, Oregon, and in 2000 took over the reins as manager there.25 Sheaffer’s ties to Jocketty surfaced again when the GM hired him to manage the Cardinals affiliates in New Britain, Connecticut, in 2001 and Peoria, Illinois, in 2002. Peoria won the Midwest League championship and Sheaffer won the Cardinals’ 2002 George Kissell Award for player development. He later said, “I hold nothing closer to my heart than the George Kissell Award.”26
After his success in Peoria, Sheaffer managed the Cardinals’ Triple-A team at Memphis from 2003 through 2006. During his tenure there Baseball America tabbed Sheaffer as a future major-league manager.27 In 2007 he became a coach with the Houston Astros’ Triple-A Round Rock team, and was the Astros’ roving catching instructor from 2008 through 2012, one year earning their player-development Man of the Year Award.28 His final stop in professional baseball was managing the Tampa Rays’ Princeton team from 2013 through 2019. Princeton, an Appalachian League rookie team, was a perfect fit for Sheaffer because it was only a one-hour drive from his home in northwest North Carolina. In 2018 he was named the Appy League manager of the year, leading his team to the championship series.29
From all we know about Sheaffer’s playing days in the minors, the major leagues, as well as his post-playing days, it was always more about his value to his teams, not only as a player but as a teammate, coach, and instructor. Those years at short-season Princeton allowed him to be closer to home with his wife and family. Princeton, conveniently, is the geographical center point of the entire Appalachian League. His daughter was a swimmer and his two sons also played baseball, both attending The Master’s College, a Christian college in Santa Clarita, California, also known for its successful baseball program. His youngest son, David, was drafted out of high school by the Tampa Rays in 2013 but choose to go to Master’s instead and eventually finished his college career closer to home. He subsequently signed with the Seattle Mariners, making his minor-league debut in June 2018, almost 38 years to the day that Danny Sheaffer had started his professional career.30
Sheaffer’s strong Christian faith clearly is evident by the impact he has had with teammates over the years, including Braden Looper in 1998. Looper went to a Bible study group led by Sheaffer which he would later say “was the day God entered (my) heart.”31 Over the years Sheaffer has done the same for others, whether it is the simple offering of his Christian-oriented baseball cards or, as he says, “Sometimes we’re there and used by the Holy Spirit just to be a tool and a seed-planter, and the other times we get to close the deal.” He also was one of the founders of BLITS Worldwide (Business Leaders Inspired To Serve), a North Carolina Christian-based charitable organization providing clean water to people living in underdeveloped countries by installing solar-powered filtering systems that purify dirty, bacteria-infested water.
During the 1994 strike he took time to stop by a SABR Carolina Chapter meeting held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just south of his home in Mount Airy, sharing his perspective on life in the major leagues. In the early 1990s he was asked if he wanted to catch Tom Seaver in a three-inning fundraising game held at nearby Wake Forest University. He had asked for an autographed baseball and after the exhibition found a dozen balls signed by Seaver. It was a pleasant pay-it-forward surprise for all the sharing of his time over the years.32
Always busy and wanting to teach and make others better, Sheaffer conducts baseball clinics of his Firm Foundations Catching program. He and his older brother, Leroy Jr., received a patent in 2020 for a batting-practice pitching target.33 Maybe getting to the National League sooner would have afforded him more major-league time, yet one can feel sure that as he looks back on his baseball career and life in general, he feels he has been blessed. Who knows, maybe Jocketty will call again with some new baseball venture.
Last revised: December 18, 2020
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Len Levin and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com.
1 The Baseball Historian, August 17, 2012. baseballhistorian.com.
2 Jim Seip, “After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach,” York (Pennsylvania) Daily Record, August 22, 2015. ydr.com/story/sports/2015/08/22/after-18-year-baseball-career-player-red-lands/72348156/.
4 Jim Seip, “Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Reflects on a Life in Pro Baseball,” York Daily Record, August 22, 2015. ydr.com/story/sports/2015/08/22/red-lands-danny-sheaffer-reflects-life-pro-baseball/72153616/.
5 Jim Seip, “Red Land Little League, the Darling of Pennsylvania, Has Support of MLB Vet Danny Sheaffer, a Red Land Alum,” York Daily Record, August 20, 2015. https://ydr.com/story/news/2015/08/20/red-land-little-league-darling-pennyslvania-has-support/72140538/.
6 “After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach.”
7 “After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach.”
8 “After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach.”
9 “Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Reflects on a Life in Pro Baseball.”
10 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd Edition (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 1997).
11 “Warthogs Announce 2006 Hall of Fame Class,” MiLB.com, January 19, 2006.
12 2017 PA Sports Hall of Fame-West Shore Chapter Inductee Program.
13 “Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Reflects on a Life in Pro Baseball.”
14 Robbie Knopf, “Former Major Leaguer Danny Sheaffer the Best Manager the Princeton Rays Could Ask For,” Fansided, 2013. https://rayscoloredglasses.com/2013/02/11/former-major-leaguer-danny-sheaffer-the-best-manager-the-princeton-rays-could-ask-for/.
15 “After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach.”
16 After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach.”
17 Baseball America Almanac, 2014, 386.
18 Rod Beaton, “Major League Baseball Expansion Draft,” USA Today, November 18, 1992: 4C.
19 “Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Reflects on a Life in Pro Baseball.”
20 Facebook.com (from an early 1995 article in the St. Petersburg Times), “The Greatest 21 days, Researching the Minor League Ballplayers of the 1990’s,” St. Petersburg Times, September 2, 2010. https://greatest21days.com/2019/10/danny-sheaffer-worked-to-take-advantage.html.
21 Twitter, Danny Sheaffer, October 24, 2020.
22 “Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Reflects on a Life in Pro Baseball.”
23 The Baseball Historian.
24 The Baseball Historian.
25 Baseball America Almanac 2019, 393.
26 After 18-Year Baseball Career as a Player, Red Land’s Danny Sheaffer Finds Niche as Coach.”
27 Firm Foundation Catching, firmfoundationcatching.com, October 24, 2020.
28 Firm Foundation Catching, firmfoundationcatching.com, October 24, 2020.
29 Baseball America Almanac, 2001.
30 Twitter, Danny Sheaffer, October 24, 2020.
31 Tim Ellsworth, “Spring Training — Braden Looper’s Full Circle,” Baptist Press, March 26, 2006. https://baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/spring-training-braden-loopers-full-circle/
32 Twitter, Danny Sheaffer, October 24, 2020.