This article was written by Jack Herrman
Earl Jesse Battey, Jr. was one of the top defensive catchers in the American League in the early 1960s. His Twins teams were in contention for the pennant in 1962 and 1967, and won the pennant in 1965, losing the World Series to Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. Battey was also a part-time player for the pennant-winning 1959 White Sox, though he did not appear in the World Series.
Battey was born in Los Angeles on January 5, 1935, to Earl and Esther Battey. In his own words, “I was the oldest of three brothers and seven sisters. My father was a construction foreman in Whittier, just outside metropolitan Los Angeles. He pitched for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and my mother, believe it or not, caught for the Nine-O ladies team that played at church outings.”1 Battey attended Jordan High School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. There he was scouted by the White Sox. According to Bob Vanderberg, Chicago Tribune assistant sports editor, “Billy Pierce told me the story that when the Sox were in California training, Paul Richards after practice asked Billy to go with him to see a high-school game. When Billy asked why, Richards told him about a great young catcher [Battey] who supposedly was the best in the country.”2 White Sox scout Hollis Thurston signed Battey to a $3,999 contract. His mother was ill and his family needed the money. At that time, a player signing for a bonus of $4,000 or more had to be kept on the major-league roster for at least two years.
After high school the White Sox sent Battey to play for Colorado Springs in the Western League in 1953, and then to Waterloo in the Three-I League in 1954, where he hit .292, played in 129 of Waterloo’s 135 games and was the league’s rookie of the year. He spent most of 1955 in Triple-A, with Charleston, West Virginia, of the American Association. In a 1964 book that Jackie Robinson put together concerning integration in baseball, Battey said he encountered segregation for the first time playing in the minors. His Los Angeles neighborhood had a mix of races and no segregation. In the minors there was no problem at the ballpark, but he was forced to eat and sleep apart from his white teammates in some of the road cities, including Wichita and Louisville, as well as at home during the year he played for Charleston.3 He was a late-season callup to the White Sox when the roster expanded and made his first appearance in September of 1955. He also played in Chicago briefly at the beginning and end of 1956, but spent most of that year with Toronto of the International League, where he hit .178 in 101 at-bats. Of that season, Battey explained: “I was knocked out in a play at home plate. I suffered a knee injury that kept bothering me when I finally got back in the lineup.”4
Healthier, Battey hit .331 in winter ball in Venezuela and impressed new manager and former catcher Al Lopez during spring training with the White Sox in 1957. When the major-league roster was cut to 28 on Opening Day and then 25 a month into the season, Battey stayed with the team. He continued to impress defensively as a fill-in when regular catcher Sherman Lollar needed a rest. On June 4 the White Sox were in first place with a five-game lead, and Battey was one of a number of bright spots. Manager Lopez said, “I’ve tried to rest Sherman Lollar as often as possible. Having a good young catcher like Earl Battey gives us the chance to rest Sherman, of course. The development of Battey has been one of my pleasant surprises.”5 Battey’s hitting didn’t hold up, however. Later in June Lollar broke his wrist in a game against the Orioles and Battey and Les Moss shared the catching duties as Lollar missed 41 games. Lopez said: “Neither can measure up to Lollar. Lollar would have won one more game against the Yankees. Battey was up with the bases loaded and he struck out. We went on to lose, 6-5.”6 Battey hit only .174 in 48 games with the White Sox that year and in August he was optioned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. His hitting improved at that level and in winter ball in Venezuela he again hit over .300. He hit well in spring training of 1958 (“I now have the confidence that I can hit major-league pitching.”7) and made the major-league roster again. He showed more power (eight home runs in 68 games) and spent the whole season in the majors for the first time, but still hit only .226.
The 1959 season was catcher John Romano’s first full season with the White Sox, and his presence limited Battey’s playing time. In a preseason article, the Chicago Tribune speculated about moving Lollar to first if Battey or Romano began to hit with power.8 Romano did, and caught 38 games while hitting .294. Battey appeared in only 26 games, catching in 20, as he hit .219. Lollar won his third consecutive Gold Glove as the No. 1 backstop. Battey made the White Sox World Series roster in 1959, but saw no action as Lopez relied on the veteran Lollar to start all six games. (John Romano didn’t do much better; he got one at-bat in the Series.)
The 1959 team had been built on pitching, speed, and defense. Before the 1960 season began, the White Sox traded some of their young players in order to get some established power. The management wanted 1957 American League home-run champion Roy Sievers from the Washington Senators. The Senators asked for Battey and infielder Sammy Esposito, but Lopez opposed that trade, saying he was “reluctant to give up ‘two players who figure to be regulars for the Senators.’”9 In early April 1960, however, the White Sox offered Battey, minor-league first baseman Don Mincher, and cash for Sievers, and the Senators accepted.
Lopez was right; Battey became a regular for the Senators in 1960. No longer in the shadow of Sherm Lollar, he blossomed into an American League star. He led the league in games caught by a catcher (136), putouts, and assists, but also in errors and passed balls, and he won the first of three consecutive Gold Gloves. Washington won more than 70 games for the first time since 1953 and Battey was voted the team MVP. The right-handed batter drove in 60 runs and hit .270. He finished eighth in AL MVP voting.
The Senators moved to Minnesota and were renamed the Twins for the 1961 campaign. Battey hit over .300 for the only time in his career (.302) and hit 17 homers as he caught in 131 games. He asked for a $1,300 raise from the Twins’ owner, Calvin Griffith, but Griffith was noted for being tight with a dollar. “I was quite elated with my season,” Battey recalled. “I had never hit over .300 in the majors. But he said, ‘We finished in seventh even with you hitting .302,’ and he didn’t see any reason for a raise.”10
Metropolitan Stadium was an exciting place for the Twins in the next couple of years. Both the Twins and the Los Angeles Angels challenged the Yankees in 1962 before falling back. The Twins finished second by five games. Battey made the All-Star team for the first time, getting 150 votes from the players and coaches to Romano’s 84. Both the AP and UPI postseason polls voted him the best catcher in baseball. He had 17 home runs at the All-Star break the next year and was again voted the starter for the American League, outpolling eventual league MVP Elston Howard, 196 to 70, in the vote among players and coaches. Despite 26 homers, he was fourth in homers for the power-laden Twins. Harmon Killebrew had 45, Bob Allison, 35, and rookie Jimmie Hall, 33. Killebrew finished fourth in league MVP voting and Battey was seventh. The Twins led the league in homers (225), runs (767), and batting average (.255), but were eighth in defense. They won 91 games, but finished third behind the Yankees and White Sox.
The Twins dropped below .500 in 1964 for the first time since 1961. Battey was injured several times, but still caught 125 games. His most spectacular injury occurred when he was knocked out hitting his head against a chair after making a diving catch over a railing on May 10.11 He had reported to spring training at 260 pounds, a fact that caused the Twins to make $1,000 of his salary dependent on reporting at no more than 230 pounds the following spring. He also reinjured his right knee and was batting .220 at the end of June, but rallied to finish with .272. He did not make the All-Star team in 1964.
In 1965 the Twins, behind great pitching from starters Jim Grant, Jim Kaat, and Jim Perry, excellent relief work from veteran Al Worthington, and an excellent offense led by batting champion Tony Oliva, won 102 games and took the American League pennant by seven games over the White Sox. Always known for his great arm, Battey threw out 26 of the 54 runners who attempted to steal with him behind the plate that year, according to Retrosheet data. Earl hit .297 and was selected to start the All-Star Game. Though he struck out only 23 times all season, he fanned five times in the World Series against the Dodgers, including twice against Koufax, with two runners on in the first inning and with one runner on in the ninth inning of Sandy’s three-hit shutout in Game Seven. A factor in Battey’s .120 hitting performance in the Series was an injury he sustained in the seventh inning of Game Three. He hit his throat against a dugout railing in Dodger Stadium while chasing a foul pop hit by Willie Davis. He left the game, but returned to start every game in the Series. Nonetheless, the Dodgers stole nine bases in winning the three games played in Los Angeles after losing the first two in Minneapolis.
The Twins kept essentially the same lineup in the following year, 1966, and won 89 games, but couldn’t keep pace with the Baltimore Orioles and finished in second place, nine games out. Battey’s batting average dropped to .255, but he made the All-Star team as a reserve after Bill Freehan outpointed him among votes from the players and coaches, 111 to 95. Over the first six years of the Twins’ residence in Minneapolis, Battey had, despite frequent injuries, played in 805 of the Twins’ 972 games.
The 1967 season was Battey’s last as a player. It was the year of the exciting four-team race for the pennant among the Twins, White Sox, Tigers, and Red Sox, but Earl was frequently injured and lost his starting job to Jerry Zimmerman. On May 18, after Jim Kaat was knocked out of the box for his eighth consecutive start, manager Sam Mele sent Kaat to the bullpen temporarily and benched Battey. Zimmerman injured his finger on July 17 and Battey played for a while, but then he was placed on the 21-day disabled list on August 9 after a foul ball dislocated his thumb. He ended up playing in only 48 games that year, catching in 41, and hitting .165. The Twins finished in a tie for second place, one game out. He announced his retirement on November 3 after a season “plagued by injuries.”12
In April of 1968, Battey “accepted a job as baseball consultant to Consolidated Edison … to help run the [NYC] power company’s part of a baseball-community relations program.”13 It was known as the Con-Ed Answer Man program. Con-Ed would buy Yankees tickets and give them free to inner-city kids. The youngsters attended the game with Battey, “combination chaperone and the Con-Ed Answer Man (He answered their baseball questions).”14
In 1980 Battey enrolled at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He finished his undergraduate studies in 2½ years. After graduating he taught high school and coached baseball in Ocala, Florida.
Battey was named the catcher on the Twins’ 40th-anniversary all-time team in 2000, and attended a reunion ceremony. He died of cancer on November 15, 2003. He and his wife, Sonia, had five children (Earl, Corey, Darren, Brenda, and Barbara) and, at the time of his death, four grandchildren.
Since his death a number of Twins teammates have recognized Battey’s contribution during the 1960s. “Earl was a great storyteller, and he could tell them both in Spanish and English,” second baseman Frank Quilici said. “He had the biggest personality on the team. That was as close a group of players as I’ve been around, and Earl was probably the main reason.” Harmon Killebrew said, “Earl had two very important things going for him. He was a fun guy in the clubhouse. More importantly, he had everyone’s respect, because he had sore knees, sore hands, sore everything, but he stayed in the lineup. I didn’t realize how good of a catcher Earl was until he was gone.”15 Sam Mele, his manager from midway through 1961 to midway through 1967, said, “He was one of the best catchers I had in my life. He ran the pitching staff, I don’t mind telling you: He was the leader of my ballclub.”16
Earl Battey had a great career with the Twins, and one can only wonder if the White Sox would have been better off keeping him. As one White Sox blogger has noted, the Sox came close in 1964, and if they had kept one or two their young nucleus of future All-Stars — Battey, Johnny Callison, Norm Cash, Barry Latman, or John Romano — they might have won a pennant in the 1960s.17 In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1968, farm director Glen Miller shook his head, “as if to say ‘never again,’ when he [thought] of John Callison, Earl Battey, and Norm Cash, all of whom were Sox property.”18
An updated version of this biography appeared in “A Pennant for the Twin Cities: The 1965 Minnesota Twins” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. An earlier version appeared in SABR’s “Go-Go To Glory: The 1959 Chicago White Sox” (ACTA, 2009), edited by Don Zminda.
1 Jack R. Robinson and Charles Dexter, Baseball Has Done It (New York: J.P. Lippincott Company, 1964), 183.
2 Mark Liptak, “Remembering Earl Battey,” Whitesoxintereactive.com aka FlyingSock.com, 2004.
3 Robinson and Dexter, 184.
4 “Battey to Stay with Sox,” Chicago Defender, April 27, 1957
5 David Condon, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1957.
6 Edward Prell, Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1957.
7 Russ J. Cowens, “Lopez Lauds Battey,” Chicago Defender, March 18, 1958.
8 Edward Prell, Chicago Tribune, January 20, 1959.
9 Edward Prell, “Lopez Opposes Sox Deal for Sievers,” Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1960.
10 Jon Roe, LaVelle E. Neal III, and John Millea, “Memories of Calvin,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 21, 1999.
11 A Smashing Catch,” UPI Telephoto, Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1964.
12 Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1967.
13 Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1968.
14 Blog posted by “Tim” on March 21, 2007, in response to “Absence of African-Americans in Baseball: Crisis or Fact of Life?”, “Extra Bases” section of 108 magazine, 108mag.typepad.com/extra_bases/2007/03/absence_of_afri.html.
15 Patrick Reusse, “ ’65 in 05: A Twins Reunion,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 19, 2005.
16 Jim Souhan, “Twins Notes: Battey joins team Hall,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 6, 2004.
17 Mark Liptak, “Remembering Earl Battey.”
18 Richard Dozer, “Meetings May Determine ‘Untouchables’,” Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1968.