This article was written by Steve Myers
When the Baltimore Orioles announced their 2015 Hall of Fame class, it seemed fitting that Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein would be inducted together. The two previously shared left field duties for the Orioles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, not an ideal situation for Roenicke – a former first-round pick still in the prime of his career, but even he admitted, “we were winning back then and so it was hard to argue for more playing time.”1
Gary Steven Roenicke was born on December 5, 1954, in Covina, California, and exposed to baseball at a very early age by his father William, who coached a nearby high school team. Gary Roenicke credits his father for generating an early interest in the sport.
“We were a baseball family,” he said. “Dad took us to games, played catch. He pretty much taught us the game.”2
Covina sits 19 miles east of Los Angeles and 25 miles north of Anaheim. In 1958, when Gary was only three years old, the major league Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles. And three years later, the Los Angeles Angels joined the American League. The impact these professional teams had on young ball players like Roenicke can perhaps be seen in the number of kids from the region and state who went on to enjoy professional baseball careers.
Gary referred to the area as “a baseball mecca when I grew up there in the 1970s.”3 The two brothers attended Edgewood High School in West Covina. When I spoke with Gary over the phone, he perked up with the memory and mentioned long-time Major League Baseball outfielder Jay Johnstone as an alumnus of the same school, and added, “10 years before me,”4 hinting at the tradition and perhaps, expectation, to perform at a high level. Seventeen Edgewood graduates had played professional ball as of 2015, including Gary’s younger brother Ron, who played and managed in the majors.
Roenicke dominated at the high school level and at 6’ 3’’ and 205 pounds, he attracted the interest of national scouts like Bob Zuk, who combed Southern California for the Montreal Expos, and discovered Roenicke. The Expos made him the eighth overall pick in the 1973 amateur draft, behind future Hall of Famers Robin Yount (third) and Dave Winfield (fourth). Roenicke was initially selected as a shortstop and then converted into an outfielder.
“I came up through the Expos system and worked under some great people, learned how to play the game,” he explained. “I was treated fairly, just like everyone else. I worked just as hard as the guy who was drafted in the 50th round. We were all treated equally. I had to prove myself if I wanted to move up to the next level. There were no favorites, no pampering.”5
Roenicke began his pro career in 1973 as a third baseman for the Jamestown Expos in the New York Penn League. From the very outset, it was clear he knew how to get on base. In that shortened A-level season, Roenicke played 68 games and walked nearly as many times (37) as he struck out (38), a rare skill at such an early stage in his development. He finished with a .298 batting average and .387 OBP.
His impressive play earned him a promotion the following season to the A-level West Palm Beach Expos of the Florida State League. There, he split time as a third baseman and outfielder and hit .277 with 14 home runs in 477 at bats. At season’s end, he was called up to the Expos Double A affiliate in Quebec City. He began 1975 there as well and enjoyed his best season as a professional – finishing with a .285 BA and 14 home runs.
His next stop was the Triple-A Denver Bears of the American Association where he showed no signs of intimidation. In fact, Roenicke’s on-base percentage spiked to .397 in 1976 to go along with 12 home runs and a .290 BA.
For three consecutive years at three different levels, Roenicke had proven his worth as both a productive hitter and versatile defender. He began as a third baseman in 1973, but by 1975, played the entire season, all 122 games, in the Quebec City outfield. He also played a few games at first base.
Roenicke had nothing more to prove at Triple-A. On June 8, 1976, he made his major league debut at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, as the Expos starting left fielder and number two hitter. Before a paid attendance of 2,424, he went hitless against four different San Francisco Giants’ pitchers, as the Expos won, 9-4. But in the third game of the series, he recorded his first big league hit – a single off Ed Halicki, as the Expos nipped the Giants, 6-5, on home runs by Andre Thornton and Barry Foote, before 2,321 paid attendees.
Roenicke stayed with the Expos a little over a month in 1976 before being sent back to Triple-A Denver, where he continued to perform at an elite level, hitting .290 with 12 home runs and a .397 OBP. In September when rosters were expanded, he was called back up again, but appeared in only four games. Overall for Montreal in 1976, he finished with a .222 BA in 29 games, two home runs and five RBI’s. Nonetheless, he reported to spring training 1977 with every intention of cracking the Expos roster.
“I don’t know why I didn’t get my chance in Montreal,” Roenicke explained. “They brought in different managers and somehow they didn’t think much of me. I had some great seasons with the Expos in the minor leagues…. But when I got up to the big leagues, I was not given an opportunity. We brought in the Charlie Foxes of the world and no one cared for that guy. And Dick Williams came along and I was shuffled to the side. Those are the two guys who never gave me a chance.”6
Roenicke may have been auditioning for an outfield spot at the wrong time. The Expos were loaded with tremendous talent, so when it came time to head north in 1977, he was not invited. The Expos opening day outfield consisted of rifle-armed Ellis Valentine in right, future Hall of Famer André Dawson in center, and the talented Warren Cromartie in left.
Roenicke swallowed his pride and reported to Triple-A Denver again and wound up staying there all season. He matched his previous year’s OBP of .397 and hit above .300 (.321) for the first time in his pro career to go along with 11 home runs and 72 RBIs.
In retrospect, that 1977 season may have worked wonders for Roenicke’s career, as a sort of showcase, so some club might take notice, like the Baltimore Orioles. On December 7, 1977, Roenicke was traded along with pitchers Joe Kerrigan and Don Stanhouse to the Orioles in exchange for pitchers Rudy May, Randy Miller, and Bryn Smith.
Initially, it appeared that a bad situation got worse for Roenicke. He was being shipped from a team not interested in his services to a team whose manager, Earl Weaver, was furious over losing left-handed veteran pitcher Rudy May and for not being consulted prior to the trade.7
The Orioles were an incredibly successful franchise, having enjoyed 10 consecutive winning seasons under the charismatic Weaver. They appeared in three World Series during that 10-year span, won one of them, and made the playoffs a total of five times including an incredible run of three consecutive 100-win seasons, from 1969-1971.
Roenicke made the Orioles roster out of spring training in 1978 and played sparingly until mid-May. He was then sent down to Triple-A Rochester where he continued to perform at an elite level, hitting .307 with 13 home runs and 64 RBIs.
He was called up to the Orioles again in September of 1978 and as it turned out, he was there to stay. Roenicke would never again play in the minor leagues. He made the Orioles roster out of spring training in 1979 and was penciled in to bat seventh and play left field on opening day, on April 6th, at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Behind veteran ace Jim Palmer, the Orioles downed the Chicago White Sox, 5-3. Roenicke did not contribute to the victory – he went 0 for 3 with a walk.
It didn’t take Roenicke very long to earn some recognition. Unfortunately, it was not because of a game-winning home run or diving catch. In game two of the 1979 season, on April 7th, in the bottom of the sixth inning, White Sox Manager Don Kessinger summoned veteran Lerrin LaGrow from the bullpen to replace White Sox starter Mike Proly, with the Sox nursing a 3-2 lead. Lee May greeted LaGrow with a single to load the bases. Gary Roenicke stepped to the plate.
“He (LaGrow) threw a fastball down the middle, and I saw it leave his hand and then lost it until it crossed home plate,” Roenicke explained. “So I took it. The next pitch, I saw the ball leave his hand. I lost it again, and then I saw it right at my face. I must have jerked, so it got my lip. If I hadn’t flinched like that, I probably would have lost some teeth and broken some bones there.”8
Roenicke may have avoided breaking bones, but as he explained, “I went down, and I was on my elbows. My hands were up in my face area, and I pushed myself up to see what the heck was going on, and a steady stream of blood was just pouring into my brand-new white batting gloves. I covered back up again, and I figured, ‘He must have got me in the nose if there’s that much blood.’ The whole area was numb. I walked off and went into the clubhouse, and our trainer, Ralph Salvon, was great. He said, ‘Gary, it’s not going to be a problem. We’ll stitch you up and you’ll be fine.’”9
The beaning itself is not remembered as much as Roenicke’s recovery. He was back at the ballpark taking batting practice after four days and thanks to some ingenious engineering, a protective device was manufactured.
“The Orioles went to the Colts’ (NFL Baltimore Colts) locker room, unscrewed the two bars off the front of (quarterback) Bert Jones’ helmet and put them on mine,” he said. “I wore that thing for two years.”10
John Lowenstein trotted to first to run for Roenicke on the April 7th game and first baseman Eddie Murray jogged home on the play to score the tying run. The Orioles, seemingly energized by the incident, scored three more runs on a double, a passed ball, and two singles, winning the game, 6-3.
Roenicke was back in the lineup a mere eight days later and went three for three in a 4-2 losing effort against the Brewers’ left-hander Mike Caldwell in Milwaukee. It was a tremendous return and a sign of things to come. Roenicke went on to have a superb 1979 season, hitting 25 home runs in only 376 at bats.
The Orioles won the American League East that year and made quick work of the California Angels in the AL Championship Series. Roenicke only played in two games for a total of five at-bats and one base hit, but the Orioles were heading to the World Series and for Roenicke in particular, the win over the Angels was extra special.
“The highlight of my career was 1979, beating the Angels in Anaheim. I had all my family there including my dad who was so big with my brother and I, teaching us the game from the time we were little kids. I went out into the stands and got my dad and brought him into our clubhouse to celebrate with us.”11
The Orioles wound up losing the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games, but Roenicke has very fond memories of that team.
“We (The Orioles) could have just as easily been assigned the Pirates theme song,” (We Are Family) said Roenicke. “We all blended in real well and on off days we hung out together. I guess the song stuck with the Pirates because they ended up beating us.”12
Roenicke struggled in the series with only two hits in 16 at bats, but he had a home in Baltimore. Weaver mispronounced his last name – “Rhinekeee,” and quickly converted it into Rhino.13 A nickname was born. Weaver’s managing style, his “so-called” platoon system maximized productivity from players. “So-called” because Roenicke, a right-handed batter, hit 17 of his 25 home runs in 1979 against right-handed pitchers.
“With Earl Weaver, we didn’t platoon,” Roenicke said. “It wasn’t until 1983, after Weaver retired for the first time. That year I faced just left-handers and John Lowenstein faced just right-handers. But back in 1979, I played like five out of seven days. That’s way more than a platoon guy.”14
In fact, Roenicke hit 19 home runs in 1983 and 18 of them were off left-handed pitchers in comparison to the 17 he hit off right-handers in 1979. Sort of contradicts the black and white notion of a straight platoon. The same was true in 1982 when Roenicke hit 18 long balls and 13 of them were off right-handers and more of the same in 1980 when he hit 10 home runs, seven coming off right-handers.
In retrospect, Weaver and the Orioles were a perfect fit for Roenicke. Other than a few dozen at bats, he was not given his fair shake in Montreal. Weaver gave Roenicke his first chance in the big leagues. It was perhaps a little less than traditional in that Roenicke never knew if he would be in the lineup or not, but one thing was certain – Weaver knew a player’s strengths and weaknesses and made the right use of them.
“From the day I took over the Orioles,” Weaver explained, “I wanted all the statistical information I could get. We had charts that showed how our hitters did against every pitcher in the league. It’s the most important information you can have. Its worth is impossible to measure, but you better believe the charts helped us win a lot of games.”15
Earl Weaver rode hot streaks and loved players who hit home runs and got on base, and that’s just what Roenicke did. He was a team player. You had to be.
“Weaver was the first guy to use statistics,” Roenicke explained. “He had them all jotted down on little note cards. He also went by hunches like ‘Ya know I got a feeling this guy will come through today.’ So, as a player, you never knew whether you would be playing or not.”16 Many of Roenicke’s philosophies about the game mirror those of his manager.
“For the majority of the players, it’s a game of streaks,” Roenicke said. “It’s hot and cold, peaks and valleys. The good players have longer peaks than the normal ones. If you’re seeing the ball right, that’s the time you want to play.”17
There’s no question Roenicke wished he would have played more, but it was hard to argue with the Orioles’ winning ways. During Roenicke’s playing days under Weaver, the Orioles won a stunning 377 games against 257 losses and were in contention for a division crown every year. Roenicke hit 106 of his 121 career home runs as an Oriole and still wears a World Series ring from the their 1983 triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Roenicke failed to get a hit in seven trips to the plate during that ‘83 Series, but he did play a significant role in helping his team get there. After losing the first game of the ALCS to the Chicago White Sox, Roenicke doubled in the second inning of Game 2 in Baltimore, off of Floyd Bannister, and scored the first run of the game. In the sixth inning he hit a two-run homer, again off Bannister. The Orioles won, 4-0.
In the final game, in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Roenicke also made a tremendous shoestring catch, robbing Harold Baines of a base hit in the bottom of the fourth inning, which helped seal the 3-0 win that clinched the pennant.
The year after winning the World Series, the Orioles stumbled to fifth place in the American League East. Roenicke hit a somewhat disappointing 10 home runs and little by little the World Series team began to be dismantled. Roenicke, however, remained an Oriole and in 1985, Earl Weaver came out of retirement and replaced Joe Altobelli as manager. Roenicke rebounded and hit an impressive 15 home runs in 225 at-bats, but in December, he was traded along with a player to be named later to the New York Yankees for pitcher Rich Bordi and utility infielder Rex Hudler.
Roenicke played one year as a Yankee, appearing in only 69 games. He was then granted his free agency and signed by the Atlanta Braves. He did hit nine home runs in 151 at bats for the Braves in 1987, but after even more limited action in 1988, he retired as a player.
Roenicke`s career spanned 12 seasons. He hit 121 home runs in 2,708 at bats or one per 22.38 at bats, good enough for 202nd on the all-time list as of 2015. He also finished with a .351 OBP and an impressive 406 walks against only 428 strikeouts.
Roenicke’s biggest regrets were being three games out of first place with four games to go in 1982 and coming all the way back against the Milwaukee Brewers, only to lose the Eastern Division title on the last day of the season against those very same Brewers. He also regrets leaving the Orioles and the way the team was broken up, “so mishandled after all those great years. I was there from 1978 through 1985 and from 78-83, we were in a playoff hunt every single year and the AL East…gosh, it was good back then! After the 1983 team, they started dismantling the team, getting rid of players and bringing in new guys and it just wasn’t a very good fit. Very disappointing.”18
Roenicke, being a hitter, cited the Science of Hitting by Ted Williams as the one baseball book he recommends. “I don’t think anyone can go wrong with that book,” he said. “And the one thing that sticks out from it more than any other is the advice to know yourself, know your capabilities.”19
Roenicke managed the 2003 Montreal Royales of the short-lived Canadian Baseball League. He was then hired as a professional scout by his longtime friend and former Oriole teammate Mike Flanagan, who was serving as the Orioles’ General Manager at the time.
Roenicke has been a scout with the Orioles ever since. He evaluates players already on professional teams. This includes major as well as minor league players, at all levels, 20 teams in all. The trade that brought Adam Jones to the Orioles is in Roenicke’s estimation, his greatest achievement as a scout.
He currently lives on a ranch in Rough and Ready, California, with his wife of 36 years. They raised three boys together, Jarrett, Jason, and Josh, all of whom were drafted by major league teams. Josh is the middle child and the only one still playing professionally in 2015, pitching with Triple-A Colorado Springs in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Last revised: January 13, 2016
Doucet, Jacques and Marc Robitaille, Il était une fois les Expos, Tome 1: Les années 1969-1984, Montreal, Éditions Hurtibuse, 2009.
Keri, Jonah, Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, Toronto, Random House Canada, 2014.
Okrent, Daniel, Nine Innings, New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1985
Sahadi, Lou, The Pirates We Are Family, New York, Times Books, 1980
Sandoval, Jim and Bill Nowlin, Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and their Profession, SABR, 2011.
Weaver, Earl with Terry Pluto, Weaver on Strategy, Washington D.C., Potomac Books, Inc., 1984
Crasnick, Jerry, “Giancarlo Stanton is not alone when it comes to returning from a beaning,” http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/12742109/giancarlo-stanton-alone-comes-returning-beaning, April 23, 2015.
Klingaman, Mike, “Catching up with…former Oriole Gary Roenicke, “ http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/sports/thetoydepartment/2009/07/he_still_has_the_wild.html, July 7, 2009.
1 Gary Roenicke, telephone interview with author, December 3, 2010.
7 Jacques Doucet, Jacques and Marc Robitaille, Il était une fois les Expos, Tome 1: Les années 1969-1984 (Montreal: Éditions Hurtibuse, 2009), 322.
8 Jerry Crasnick, “Giancarlo Stanton is not alone when it comes to returning from a beaning,” http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/12742109/giancarlo-stanton-alone-comes-returning-beaning, April 23, 2015.
10 Mike Klingaman, “Catching up with … former Oriole Gary Roenicke,” http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/sports/thetoydepartment/2009/07/he_still_has_the_wild.html, July 7, 2009.
11 Roenicke interview.
15 Earl Weaver with Terry Pluto, Weaver on Strategy, (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 1984), 52-53.
16 Roenicke interview.