This article was written by David E. Skelton
If not for the existence of a similar game involving Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon, one would’ve had to be invented marking the numerous degrees between Denis Menke and Cooperstown. For although he got not a single vote in his only year of Hall of Fame eligibility, the Hall shadowed Menke throughout his four decades of professional baseball: from early comparisons of all-time greats to having his bat enshrined in the Cooperstown vaults (albeit via the batting exploits of his pitcher-roommate), and finally to helping shepherd the career of an eventual inductee. Menke’s ironic sense of humor amused teammates and fans alike, and his intelligence and awareness seemingly made him a perfect candidate to manage in the major leagues – an offer that was at no time forthcoming. Never to don a championship ring during his 13-year playing career, he was nevertheless a steady, productive, and valued player.
Raised in a richly-endowed baseball family, Denis became the highest-achieving professional among a grouping that included his father (Walter), younger brother (Alan), and uncle (John). The eldest of two children of Walter Lewis and Mary Helen (Rahe) Menke, Denis was born on July 21, 1940, on a 480-acre farm in Bancroft, Iowa, 15 miles from Minnesota’s southern border. (The city, whose population has never exceeded 1,200, has produced two major leaguers, Menke and left-handed pitcher hurler Joe Hatten [1946-52]). As a 17-year-old shortstop and pitcher from this small community, Denis led his American Legion post to the regional playoffs, where he got the only hit in a loss to the Topeka, Kansas, entry. Long before that he had already attracted the attention of major-league scouts.
When he left the Braves in 1959, minor-league player-turned-scout Ed Dancisak had a reputation for signing “three of [Milwaukee’s] most costly bonus players.”1 Dancisak’s hefty checkbook merely reflected the 1958 market (before the free-agent draft), when the bonuses paid to prospective players totaled a shocking $5 million. Rarely was Menke’s name mentioned for years without reference to the sizable cash outlay he received. According to one knowledgeable source, “bidding … for Menke … started at $50,000, and a scout, representing an opulent club, dropped out at $80,000.”2 Twelve other clubs also fell by the wayside and on May 27, 1958, Menke signed with Milwaukee for $125,000.
During his five years of steady advancement in the Braves farm system, Menke played at each infield position – a precursor to his major-league career – and drew considerable attention. “[He’s] a natural … worth every cent of the [bonus],” said Braves instructor and former manager Bob Coleman after seeing him play in the Florida Winter Instructional League after the 1958 season.3 Later in the Sunshine State, Menke drew his first published comparison to a Hall of Famer after making “a succession of Pie Traynor plays at third base.”4 In 1961 he made the jump to Triple-A with the Vancouver Mounties, earned Rookie of the Year honors in the Pacific Coast League, and appeared poised to step into the Milwaukee lineup in 1962.
That spring the Braves reported to Bradenton, Florida, with the league’s highest payroll even though they were the youngest squad in the team’s history. When the Braves broke camp to begin the 1962 campaign, 22-year-old Menke’s versatility helped make him one of eight rookies on the Opening Day 28-man roster. “A fellow like that can be extremely valuable,” observed manager Birdie Tebbetts. “When you’ve got somebody who can play anywhere in the infield or outfield [for the first time since high school Menke played left field], you can keep an extra pitcher or maybe an extra man somewhere else.”5
The power-laden Braves (second only to San Francisco in home runs in the National League) struggled to find playing time for their prized prospect, and Menke was eventually assigned to Triple-A Toronto. Before departing he hit his first big-league homer in grand fashion, a bases-loaded shot on May 15 at Forbes Field off Earl Francis of the Pirates. The grand slams did not cease after he left Milwaukee. In a three-game series in Columbus, Ohio, with family members in attendance, Menke unloaded three homers (including a grand slam) while driving in seven runs. (Showing a propensity for the spectacular on special occasions, he delivered four hits on his birthday the following summer.)
After the 1962 season, departing manager Tebbetts commented that “Menke has the talent and when he puts it all together he’s going to be great.”6 And at Bradenton in 1963, baseball scribes awarded Menke the Braves’ “Likeliest to Improve” honor.7 Versatility continued to serve Denis well. In 1962 he had become the first Milwaukee Brave to play five positions in one season, and in ’63, his first full season in the majors, he did it again. His home run potential combined with a torrid .364 clip in late July convinced new skipper Bobby Bragan that he needed to find a permanent position for Menke in 1964.
Milwaukee’s shortstop position had been manned by slick-fielding, light-hitting Roy McMillan since 1961. The Braves felt that by replacing McMillan with Menke they would maintain the defensive prowess with added heft in the lineup, which is exactly what Menke delivered. He hit a career-high 20 home runs, was one of only five National League shortstops to hit 20 homers in a season from 1961 through 1991, and was compared favorably to Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, one of the five. Menke’s six game-winning RBIs in 1964 placed him among the league leaders, as did a sterling .964 fielding percentage. His clutch hitting and fine glove work continued in future seasons, but his offensive numbers in 1964 represented the pinnacle of his career with the Braves.
Injuries hampered Menke for much of the 1965 campaign. A violent collision at home plate on May 13, plus an onslaught of phlebitis, sidelined him for 38 days. On his return, his lack of maneuverability in the field relegated him to occasional pinch-hitting duties, and he had only 181 at-bats for the season. General manager John McHale was optimistic in the offseason: “If Denis comes to spring training on two good legs, and if he can stay healthy, he should start having some great years.”8 Those great years, if they came, would find Menke as an Atlanta Brave, because the Milwaukee franchise was moved to the Georgia city for the 1966 season. On Opening Day Menke became the first Atlanta Brave to make an error; things seemingly spiraled downhill from there, and on May 1 Menke was struggling with a .214 average. A brisk pace in September lifted his batting line to a respectable season-ending .251-15-60.
Menke’s bat in the hands of another made its way to Cooperstown that season. Menke often batted leadoff, and so he often followed his roommate, pitcher Tony Cloninger, to the plate. Cloninger was an accomplished hitter, and on June 16 he hit two home runs against the New York Mets. After each blast the 185-pound Menke was forced to hit the dirt. Protesting (“Why don’t you knock down the guy hitting the homers?”), Menke was informed that, for reasons of self-preservation, the Mets had no intention of decking the 210-pound Cloninger. Seventeen days later, with Menke’s bat in hand, Cloninger smacked two grand slams, an offensive outburst by a pitcher that quickly resulted in the bat’s being sent to the Hall of Fame. Another 27 days passed and Menke delivered a game-winning RBI single while Cloninger waited in the on-deck circle. “That’s why I got the hit,” said Menke, laughing. “I need those RBIs. My roomie is closing in on me.”9
A 23-9 finish to the 1966 campaign brought hopes of pennant contention for the Braves as they entered the 1967 season. Instead the offense, which led the league the year before, collapsed and the franchise had its first sub-.500 season in 15 years and a seventh-place finish. Menke meanwhile faced his own challenges. He had reported to camp ten pounds lighter and had a strong spring training. But the Grapefruit League exploits didn’t carry over to the regular season and Menke was batting under .200 in mid-May. Though he rebounded in June, he finished an injury-riddled September with a disappointing season line of .227-7-39. Team vice president Paul Richards sought a complete overhaul of the Braves, and on October 8 Menke and left-handed pitcher Denny Lemaster were traded to Houston.
Lemaster was the key to the deal for the pitching-poor Astros, and Menke was perceived as “a fifth wheel for the Astros’ infield … the back-up man at shortstop … [and] the extra man to support whatever position needed help.”10 Menke, not ready to settle for a super-utility role, reported to spring camp in 1968 ten days early with every expectation of winning a starting role. Coach Harry Walker (whose brother Dixie was instrumental in Menke’s early development with the Braves) set about “trying to get [Menke] to learn bat control and hit the ball where it’s pitched.”11 The success of this instruction was evident two years later when no less an authority on hitting than Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle remarked, “Menke should be showing everybody on [the Astros] the value of going to the opposite field.”12
Menke started the season on the bench. After five games second baseman Joe Morgan sustained a severe knee injury that cost him the remainder of the season. After a brief flirtation with Julio Gotay at second, the team turned to Menke and the response was explosive. Courting a .300 average in the early stages, he placed among the team’s offensive leaders while establishing a then-record .982 fielding percentage at second base. He was the unanimous choice among the Houston baseball writers for Most Valuable Astro award, and the team was so enamored that the idea of moving Morgan to the outfield upon his return was discussed. Morgan eventually regained his job, and Menke later quipped, “I played so good at second base … [the team] is moving me to shortstop.”13
Hitless in his first ten at-bats starting the 1969 season, Menke erupted at a .474 clip that helped gain him the first of his two National League All-Star selections. He was an integral part of two league records that season: turning seven double plays in one game on May 4, and teaming with Jim Wynn to club grand slams in the same inning on July 30. Overuse and injury contributed to a .235 average in the season’s second half, but Menke concluded the campaign by leading the Astros in hits (149) and runs batted in (90) – the latter representing the season’s most by an NL shortstop by a wide margin of 37. This fine season served as a springboard for what soon followed.
A .343 average in early June 1970 placed Menke among the league leaders, and he concluded the campaign with his only .300 season. For the second consecutive year he fell to Don Kessinger in fan voting for the starting All-Star shortstop, though a survey of players gave him a 148-89 edge. On September 19, due to a glut of injuries, Menke played right field, his sixth position with the Astros in three seasons. Twelve days later he got his 1,000th major-league hit, a single against future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Still there was concern that the 30-year-old had lost range at second base, a concern readily acknowledged by Menke: “Lots of balls, two or three years ago, that I would have cut off out there, I haven’t done it this year … [but] I think I’ll [still] be in the infield somewhere.”14 His instincts turned out to be correct. Eleven days after the season’s end Houston acquired slick-fielding Roger Metzger from the Chicago Cubs, and talk quickly centered on moving Menke to first base.
Menke was no stranger to the corner infield position. He had played the position frequently in 1962 under the tutelage of manager Chuck Dressen in Toronto, and Dressen said that he “had never had a better fielding first baseman,”15 considerably high praise from a man who once managed Gil Hodges. Astros announcer Gene Elston compared Menke to one of the few Hall of Famers inducted primarily for his glove work: “Seeing Menke play first points up what Bill Mazeroski said: It is the feet that makes the difference. Well, Menke had the great hands and he moves around first base like a ballet dancer. It’s so smooth it makes everything look easy.”16 But Menke’s contributions to an already-strong defensive corps did not make up for a team-wide offensive collapse. On June 1 his.252 represented one of the team’s higher batting averages (Cesar Cedeno: .180; Doug Rader: .189). Houston saw little improvement throughout the entire campaign and finished the 1971 season with a near-league-low .240 average and only 71 home runs. Menke was barely better than the team average with a batting line of .246-1-43. In November, with an eye toward improving its lackluster offense, Houston included Menke in a seven-player swap with Cincinnati. (Joe Morgan and other future members of the Big Red Machine were included in the deal.) Menke had moved his family to the Houston area just months before, a familiar pattern previously witnessed when he moved to Atlanta on the eve of his trade to Houston.
Reds manager Sparky Anderson had already taken note of Menke’s leadership skills in June 1971 when he predicted a future managerial career. But in 1972 he looked to Denis to fill the void created at third base when Tony Perez moved across the diamond to play first (vacated by the departed Lee May). Menke’s bat was added to an already powerful offense that paced the NL West, providing Menke with his first postseason experience. The Reds squeaked by the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the National League pennant and proceeded to the World Series against the Oakland Athletics.
Wins in the first two games vaulted Oakland to the world championship, but a matter of inches victimized Menke and determined the outcome of Game Two. A ninth-inning game-saving catch by outfielder Joe Rudi preserved the victory – at the expense of Menke. He homered off Catfish Hunter to help the Reds win Game Five, but Oakland won the Series in seven games. A post-Series publication describing how the A’s were pitching him reflected the respect shown Menke: “Pitch him about the way you pitch to Bench. They are much alike.”17 Still, Menke’s glove drew the greater attention. He established a World Series record (still standing as of 2012) for the most chances at third base without an error (29). The plays ranged from routine to spectacular ones that prompted A’s manager Dick Williams to remark, “I didn’t know [Sparky Anderson] imported Brooks Robinson for the Series.”18
Despite his Series exploits, the Reds had already begun casting about for a replacement for the aging Menke. He helped mentor 21-year-old Dan Driessen, who eventually platooned with Denis at third base throughout the 1973 campaign. Menke’s offense suffered in limited play – 241 at-bats, his fewest since the injury-plagued 1965 season – and he concluded the campaign with a dismal .191-3-26. Anticipating similar usage in 1974, Menke requested a return to Houston to be close to family and his business ventures, and the Reds accommodated him, trading him to the Astros for pitcher Pat Darcy and cash.
Menke had added an ownership stake in a motorcycle enterprise to the real-estate pursuits from his early days in Milwaukee. Four months before the trade back to Houston he had celebrated the tenth anniversary of his marriage to Jean Gitzinger. A Marquette University student, she had been introduced to Denis in 1962 by a Bancroft native who lived in her dormitory. Two daughters and a son, as well as nine grandchildren, resulted from this union, and on October 5, 2013, they observed their 50th anniversary.
Once again an Astro, Menke discovered that the past success in Houston did not extend to 1974. Getting little playing time, he had just 34 plate appearances in 30 games. On July 10, after 17 years in professional baseball, Menke retired as a player. “I’ve slowed down a little,” he said. “If I felt like I was helping the ballclub, I might have stayed on. I don’t want to back up to the pay window. … I’m not made that way. … I want to leave with a good taste in my mouth.”19 He finished the season as the Astros’ color man on radio and television broadcasts.
Three years passed before Menke donned a professional baseball uniform again. In its iteration as the American League Brewers, Milwaukee tapped Menke to manage the Burlington (Iowa) Bees of the Class A Midwest League. Taking over the helm – and later coaching at the major-league level – came as no surprise. Over the years Sparky Anderson’s 1971 prediction of a managerial future had been echoed by Houston general manager Spec Richardson and manager Harry Walker (among many others). With 20-year-old future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor as one of his students, Menke led the Bees to the league championship. The next season the Toronto Blue Jays lured him away to skipper their Dunedin, Florida, affiliate, and Menke moved his family to the St. Petersburg region in 1978. (As of 2013 he and Jean still lived there.) After two years in the Florida State League, Toronto tapped him as a coach for the parent club. He served in that capacity for three other organizations over the next 20 years.
Paul Molitor was one of many who credited Menke with helping usher their development at the major-league level. “Denis made me more of a standup hitter,” Molitor remarked. “Less power, but with more consistent contact … [after he] had me close my stance more.”20 Menke recalled being approached by Molitor when Denis was serving as the hitting coach for Toronto. The Milwaukee center fielder was in the midst of a terrible start to the 1981 campaign (a .171 average) and sought advice from his first professional manager. Molitor promptly went 3-for-4 with a grand slam that single-handedly demolished the Blue Jays that April evening. Menke later told Molitor that he should thereafter seek assistance from other quarters.
Menke was universally respected for the individual attention given to each player – not seeking to mold every hitter with a cookie-cutter approach. In 1986, while with the Houston Astros, he recommended that black plastic be draped in the center-field tunnel in the Astrodome to give hitters a better background, offering “[i]f it works, it’ll be my idea … doesn’t work, it’s somebody else’s dumb idea.”21 Lest one think such dry humor was limited solely to his coaching career, he once remarked after hitting the foul pole in two of three home runs, “[a]nybody can hit the ball into the stands.”22
Menke made no secret of his desire to take the reins of a major-league club, and at least twice – in Cincinnati and Toronto – it appeared that this desire might be fulfilled. But a formal offer was never made. After the 2000 season Menke returned to Florida to spend his years enjoying fishing and an occasional golf outing with his neighbor and former major-league friend Jim Fregosi.
A player once described as “the greatest prospect to come out of the Iowa cornfields since Bob Feller,”23 Denis Menke continued the rich tradition of baseball established by his father and other close relatives. Though his career fell short of early superstar projections, he was ever the esteemed and valued asset to both teammates and management alike, and his willingness to mentor those around him made him indispensable long after his playing career.
The author wishes to thank the subject, Denis Menke, for his time and assistance in ensuring the accuracy of this narrative. Further thanks are extended to Bill Deane, Everett Cope, and Len Levin.
1 “Dancisak, Braves’ Scout, Quits Job to Rejoin Quinn,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1959, 8.
2 “Winter Incubator Hatches Hill Woe and Hefty Hitting,” The Sporting News, November 5, 1958, 25.
3 “Costly Bonus Trio Fails in All-Star Bid,” The Sporting News, January 7, 1959, 1.
4 “Alvis, Hershberger Shine as Slickest Major Hopefuls,” The Sporting News, December 28, 1960, 27.
5 “Six Pickets Toe Mark in Tepee’s Left Field Derby,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1962, 15.
6 “ ‘Solid Base Laid for Rebuilding Barves,’ Claims Bye-Bye Birdie,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1962, 7.
7 “N.L. Writers Make Their Picks,” The Sporting News, April 20, 1963, 14.
8 “A Tip From Braves: Keep Eye on Menke, Possible Super-Star,” The Sporting News, January 15, 1966, 15.
9 “Reeling Braves Switch Players In Mild Shakeup,” The Sporting News, August 13, 1966, 18.
10 “ ’Fifth-Wheel’ Menke Rolls As Astro Cog,” The Sporting News, September 14, 1968, 15.
11 “Astros See Denis as a Real Menace to Pitchers,” The Sporting News, March 16, 1968, 20.
12 “A New Delivery Revives Billingham,” The Sporting News, June 20, 1970, 20.
13 “Strike Zone Too Wide, The Hat Insists,” The Sporting News, February 22, 1969, 42.
14 “N.L. Flashes,” The Sporting News, September 12, 1970, 34.
15 “Astros’ Menke: Artist With Bat and Glove,” The Sporting News, April 17, 1971, 22.
16 “Rookie Metzger Completes Flashy Astro Infield,” The Sporting News, April 24, 1971, 10.
17 “The Hollingswoth Report: It Helped A’s Conquer Reds,” The Sporting News, November 11, 1972, 36.
18 “Menke Earns Praise,” The Sporting News, November 4, 1972, 12.
19 “ ’It’s Been Good Life’ – Menke Retires,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1974, 35.
20 “Molitor Master Craftsman as Baby Brewer,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1978, 3.
21 “Astros,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1986, 25.
22 “Denis Foul-Pole Menace,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1967, 10.
23 “Menke, $125,000 Beauty, Can Play Infield or Outfield,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1963, 5.