Jim Ray Hart (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Jim Ray Hart

This article was written by Bob Trostler

Jim Ray Hart (THE TOPPS COMPANY)In averaging 27 homers a year from 1964 through 1968 to become one of the more feared power hitters on the San Francisco Giants, Jim Ray Hart first had to learn how to avoid getting clobbered at the plate. In his second game as a major leaguer, on July 7, 1963, Hart’s shoulder blade was broken by a Bob Gibson fastball. Then, just four days after returning to action on August 12, he suffered a concussion when struck by a pitch from Curt Simmons, ending his 1963 season.

“It was two things,” said Hank Sauer, former slugger and National League Most Valuable Player who was then the Giants’ batting coach. “Jimmy Ray was digging in so hard at the plate that he was locking himself in. When a pitch came at him, he had trouble getting out of the way. And he tended to lean toward the ball instead of away from it.”

“Don’t be a hero,” teammate Willie Mays advised Hart. “You can be in the big leagues a long time if you don’t keep getting hurt. When the pitch comes at you, you’ve got to get out of the way.”1

Hart learned his lessons well enough (getting hit by a pitch in only 26 of his remaining 4,211 major league plate appearances) to have a 12-year big league career, five of them as a starting third baseman/left fielder for the Giants, before being overcome by injuries, excess weight, and alcoholism. The soft-spoken performer finished his major league career with the New York Yankees in 1974 before venturing into the Mexican League until 1976.

James Ray Hart was born on October 30, 1941, in Lenoir County, North Carolina, one of six children born to Amos and Essie Lee (Jones) Hart2, but his family soon moved to Hookerton, NC, where Amos worked as a sharecropper on a nearby farm.3 As a teenager, he played catcher for Snow Hill High School, semipro ball on Sundays, and picked and lifted bales of cotton before signing with the Giants for $1,000 in 1960.4 He immediately was sent to the Salem (North Carolina) Rebels in the Rookie Appalachian League where he played second base and the outfield and hit .403 with an OPS of 1.213 in 34 games. Later that season, he was promoted to the Quincy (Illinois) Giants of the Class D Midwest League, where he played third base and batted .266 in 30 games with a more pedestrian OPS of .683.5

As a 19-year-old Fresno Giant the following year, Hart was chosen to the Class C Minor League All-Star team after leading the California League with a .355 batting average while hitting 23 homers and collecting 123 RBIs. He also had an OPS of 1.009.6 Jim Ray continued to excel at the plate in the winter, when he clouted a league-leading .373 in the Arizona Instructional League, pacing the loop with 76 hits, 15 doubles, 126 total bases and 57 RBIs.7

In 1962, Hart played with the Springfield (MA) Giants in the Class A Eastern League, where he caught the eye of Earl Weaver, then managing the Orioles’ affiliate at Elmira (New York). Weaver rated Hart as the Eastern League’s most likely major league prospect over, among others, Dick Allen of Williamsport (PA). “[Hart] can do everything in the field and hit for power and percentage,” the future Orioles’ Hall of Fame manager observed. “Every once in a while, a boy comes along who has all the tools. Hart is that boy.”8

Jim Ray, who hit 18 homers and had 107 RBIs, amassed a .337 average to outlast Allen (.332) to win another batting crown. Hart also was chosen Eastern League Player of the Year and selected as third baseman on the Class A Minor League All-Star Team.9 In the winter, Jim Ray again won the Arizona Instructional League batting crown (.399), making it four hitting titles in two years, two in the minors and two in winter leagues.10

While hitting .312 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs at Tacoma (Washington), the Giants’ Triple-A Pacific Coast League affiliate, in 1963, Jim Ray was summoned to the majors. In his first game, the opener of a July 7 doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals at Candlestick Park, Hart went 2-for-5 with two singles — his first off Bobby Shantz in the 11th inning, and scored the game-tying run in the last of the 13th after his second.11 In the nightcap, Gibson welcomed Jim Ray to the big leagues in the second inning by breaking the newcomer’s shoulder blade with a high hard one in his first at bat. “The ball must have been traveling 150 miles an hour,” Giant Trainer Frankie Bowman recalled.12 Hart returned to action on August 12 and then, on August 16, was laid low again when struck in the head by Simmons. Suffering recurrent headaches from a concussion, he missed the rest of the season after playing in seven games and batting .200. San Francisco Manager

During 1964 spring training, after Hart was struck on the hand and left shoulder by Cubs hurlers Bob Buhl and Glen Hobbie, Giants manager Alvin Dark started using Hart’s head for target practice,13 throwing at his head from behind a screen mounted 15 feet in front of the pitcher’s mound. “Boy, things weren’t like this down in the minors,” said Hart after a session ducking away from Dark’s tosses. This sure is a funny game up here.”

After forcing Jim Davenport, who had been the Giants regular third baseman since 1958, into a utility role and hitting .250 in April and .233 in May of 1964, Hart found his groove in June. when he was the Giants’ top hitter with a .330 average that included six homers, seven doubles and two triples. The hot streak featured a four-game stretch (June 26 through June 29) where he had 11 hits in 14 at bats.14 He smashed his 30th homer on September 27 to break Bobby Thomson’s 1947 rookie club mark and finished with 31 dingers, tying for third in the league.15 Hart, who also had 81 RBIs and a .286 average, capped his season by being chosen as Giants Rookie of the Year by the San Francisco Baseball Writers. He also finished second to Dick Allen for National League Rookie of the Year. The team finished fourth in an NL race that tightened up on the last weekend after the Phillies blew what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. The Giants wound up three games behind champion St, Louis, with a 90-72 record.16

Hart’s season in the field mimicked his hitting. He made 16 errors in his first 60 contests. Then, when his bat came around, he had a streak of 30 errorless games, and finished with 28 miscues. The only NL third sacker who made more errors was fellow rookie Allen with 41.17 His fielding percentage of .937 vs. the NL average of .941 and his 2.96 range vs. the 2.92 NL average for his rookie year were not quite in the middle of the pack among regular NL third basemen.18

The next season, Hart belied an early reputation for being injury prone by missing just two games. “[Jim Ray] was ready to play every day,” recalled Willie Mays, who also gave Hart $500 after the season for performing in 160 games.19 Hart hit .299 with 23 homers, including his first career grand slam off the Phillies’ Ray Culp, and 96 RBIs. But he also led all NL third basemen with 32 errors. In 1966 he was hit in the left rib cage on consecutive days (May 3-4) by Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen of the Dodgers and was taken to the hospital.20 Despite it, he did not miss a game until July, and was selected as the back-up third baseman to Ron Santo on the National League All-Star squad. Hart struck out against Sonny Siebert in his only trip to the plate as the Nationals took a 2-1 victory in St. Louis’ new Busch Memorial Stadium.21

Hart totaled 33 homers, 93 RBIs and a team-leading 165 hits in 578 at bats for a .285 average (his average was over .300 until late June) to again help the Giants battle the Dodgers for the pennant down to the last game of the season before finishing second, 1½ games back. He misplayed 24 chances at the hot corner and had the lowest fielding percentage of all regular NL third basemen. Baseball historian and analyst Bill James, in ranking Hart as the 74th best third baseman of all time in 2001, said, “He is a better hitter than 59 of the 73 men listed ahead of him. This should tell you all you need to know about [Hart’s] defense.”22

Hart began the ’67 season “overweight by about eight pounds, and I was swinging at bad pitches. Couldn’t get around on the good ones either.”23 But he turned things around in July, belting 13 homers and driving in 30 runs in 29 games to earn selection as National League Player of the Month.24 He finished with a career-high 99 RBIs as the Giants finished second again. It was the first of three straight years he played at least 65 games as a leftfielder. “Third base is just too darn close to the hitters,” he explained. “It’s easier to relax (in left field) than it is at third base. You don’t have as many things to worry about in the outfield as you do in the infield.”25

During the ’67 season Hart had ballooned at least 30 pounds over his normal playing weight. “I wasn’t in shape by opening day, and I wasn’t closing day either,” Hart admitted. “My muscles were crying after some of those nine-inning games, and I don’t like the way I got tired. I’ll be packing no more than my proper weight next season.”26 After boosting his pay from $25,000 to $30,000, Giants owner Horace Stoneham told him he would be fined if he did not report to 1968 spring training in shape. Hart began seeing an exercise therapist.

Although Hart should have been reaching his prime as a player, other circumstances prevented him from attaining the heights many predicted for him. The 1968 season was to be his last as a full-time player. Davenport again became the club’s primary third baseman, with Hart playing just 73 games there and 65 in left field. While he reported in proper condition, injuries to his shoulder, knee and groin, difficulty maintaining his weight, alcoholism, and getting hit by pitches conspired to limit him to 136 games.27 The highlight of the year for the soft-spoken slugger, who hit 23 homers and drove in 78 runs, was smashing four homers in five games from May 18 through May 21. Hart batted .258 — .212 after July, as the Giants (88-74) again finished second, 9 games behind the repeating Cardinals.

In addition to his other woes, alcohol was becoming a bigger problem. Hart’s dad was a bootlegger, and the third baseman later admitted that he had started drinking corn whiskey as a teen.28 In his second full season, Dark had suspended him indefinitely hoping to scare him, though the manager rescinded the suspension after one day. Hart had grown up in a family of little means, and the shy son of a sharecropper felt out of place in a clubhouse that featured the personalities of stars such as Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and others.29 Jim Ray continued to drink, but for four seasons it had little visual effect on his play. He was a consistent run producer and tolerable fielder until 1968, when injuries and weight gain began getting in the way of his range and ability to stay on the field.

Then, in late October 1968, Hart killed a pedestrian, Dorothy Selmi, while driving in San Francisco.30 It was never revealed whether drinking played a role in the accident. After that, Jim Ray’s drinking likely increased. Earlier in Hart’s career, Mays was one of the players who tried to intervene without success.31 Hart enjoyed having a couple of beers in the clubhouse following games and then heading to the bar for double shots of his favorite bourbon, I. W. Harper, and finally going home to drink some more.32

In 1969, Hart again was plagued by injuries and alcoholism.33 After missing 22 of his team’s first 52 games because of injuries including a bruised right shoulder, he returned to the lineup on June 11 only to get a bruised left shoulder when hit by a delivery from Gary Gentry of the New York Mets.34 On June 24, Jim Ray reinjured his right shoulder as he fell while fielding a fly ball in Houston, and was beaned again on June 29. He managed to get into only 95 games, 24 as a pinch hitter, playing only three games at third and 68 in left field. He hit .254 with three homers and 26 RBIs as San Francisco (90-72) finished second for the fifth straight year.

In 1970, Hart was determined to bounce back from his worst season. He lost 10 pounds to get down to 186 while participating in the Arizona Instructional League and saw a doctor twice a day for his ailing right shoulder.35 “Jim’s very serious, and I’m optimistic that he’ll be as well as ever by spring,” Giants manager Clyde King said. “Had Hart not been injured last year, I’m sure we would have won the [West Division] pennant.” 36

Horace Stoneham also realized the importance of Jim Ray’s return to form and began publicly calling out the player for not always being in condition (quite possibly a euphemism for his drinking) to play his best. The team owner also issued an ultimatum to the slugger. “Sometimes [Hart] has hurt himself by not taking care of himself enough,” Stoneham admitted. This is a shame. We’re certainly not counting Jim out. But if he doesn’t cut it this spring, he’ll have to go to our Phoenix club in the Pacific Coast League, or we might trade him.”37

When Hart failed to show in spring training that his shoulder had recovered, he was shipped to the Triple-A Phoenix Giants to play himself into shape.38 After hitting .317 with eight homers and 37 RBIs in 67 games while getting cortisone shots in his shoulder at Phoenix, Hart returned to the majors. On July 8, in his second game back, he tied a major league mark set by Fred Merkle of the Giants in 1911 and tied by six American Leaguers by driving in six runs in the fifth inning at Atlanta. Hart also doubled and singled in the game to hit for the cycle.39 He rebounded to finish the 1970 season with a .282 average, eight homers and 37 RBIs in 76 big league games, but San Francisco dropped to third with an 86-76 record.

The Giants’ team physician said degenerative changes in Jim Ray’s right shoulder, caused by a 1969 slide back to first base, helped create a chronic condition for the slugger, who underwent surgery to the shoulder following the 1970 season. Since Hart could not risk throwing until May 1, he skipped 1971 spring training and again was sent to Phoenix to play himself into condition.40

Hart was brought up to the majors in June and sent back to Phoenix in early July after four pinch-hitting appearances in which he went 0-for-3 with a walk.41 After hitting .310, he returned to the big leagues on August 2, a few hours after getting hit in the head in a game in Hawaii. In his second game after being cleared by doctors to return to action, Hart hit a two-run shot off Ferguson Jenkins in a 6-5 win over the Cubs on August 7.42 He finished the season with two homers and five RBIs in 45 trips to the plate as the Giants (90-72) captured the division by one game over Los Angeles. In the ensuing four-game Championship Series loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hart went 0-for-5, participating in three games.

Prior to the 1972 season, Jim Ray was optioned to Phoenix.43 He was hitting .301 when he was called up on May 12 following the trade of Mays to the Mets and was returned to the minors a week later.44 Hart was named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star second team after hitting .323 with 18 homers and 77 RBIs and was called up on August 25. With the big club, Hart hit .304 with five homers and eight RBIs in 79 at bats but also injured his knee during infield practice on September 19 in Cincinnati. The knee was operated on following the season.45

Hart became one of the early beneficiaries of the American League’s new designated hitter rule on April 17, 1973, when, after 1,001 games as a Giant, he was sold to the Yankees.46 On May 23, he and teammate Ron Blomberg were both batting .368 as the leading designated hitters.47 Due to his recurrent knee problem, Jim Ray faded after the brilliant start and wound up hitting .251 with 13 home runs and 52 RBIs in 114 games with the Yankees.48

In 1974, the power hitter’s major league career ended at age 32 when he was outrighted to Triple-A Syracuse after starting the season with one hit in 19 at bats. He was released by the Yankees on June 7 and signed with Triple-A Veracruz, in the Mexican League.After failing to stick with the Hawaii Islanders, Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, in the spring of 1975, Jim Ray returned to the Mexican League with Aguascalientes, and wrapped up his career there the following season by batting .315 in 28 games. 49

Later in life, Hart admitted that, although he was a stellar performer, he could have been so much better. “If I hadn’t been drinking, I’d have played another four or five years, no problem,” the 49-year-old said in 1991. “It got to the point I didn’t care about the game no more. Whether we won or lost, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go out and have a drink or two. I mean, this was every day.”50 Hal Lanier, Hart’s Giants teammate for eight years, said the slugger always showed up for games sober and not smelling of liquor. “He never came to the ballpark when he couldn’t play,” Lanier recalled. “And I can’t say the same for guys who didn’t have that reputation.”51

Out of baseball, Hart continued to struggle with alcohol. His San Francisco home was repossessed, and he was seen scavenging grocery store floors for lost change. After finally hitting rock bottom in 1988 when blacking out in the middle of a flight to Toronto and not knowing where he was when he awoke, Jim Ray entered a rehabilitation program called Project 90 in San Mateo, California, that he credited with saving his life. He then secured steady employment as a warehouse worker in Sacramento.52

Hart had married Barbara Jean Moore in 1963; after they were divorced, he married and divorced Janet Hart-Ayala. He had four children, 12 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Hart died on May 19, 2016, in Acampo, California, about 30 miles from Sacramento, following a long illness.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Evan Katz,

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author relied on information from Baseball-Reference.com. and Baseball-Almanac.com. Genealogy data was accessed using Ancestry.com

 

Notes

1 Harry Jupiter, “Jim Hart — The Rookie Who Made It Big,” San Francisco Giants 1965 Yearbook: 10.

2 According to a birth index for Lenoir County, he was born in the county on November 5, 1941. His marriage certificate to Barbara Jean Moore lists his birthdate as October 30, 1941. Baseball-Reference.com lists his birthdate as October 30, 1941.

3 Jim Trotter, “He takes life like the natural he was,” Sacramento Bee, June 7, 1991: 2.

4 Jack Chevalier, “Hefty Hitter Hart Pegged as Cinch for Giants’ Berth,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1962: 32. Note: The story that is told varies. Some sources say $500 and others $1,000.

5 Bob Stevens, “Hitting? Cinch For Hart — Once Cotton Picker,” The Sporting News, July 30, 1966: 8.

6 “1961 Minor League All-Star Teams Class C,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1962: 29.

7 “Hart, Haller, Vineyard Nab No. 1 Honors,” The Sporting News, January 10, 1962: 26.

8 “Pilot Picks Best Prospects,” The Sporting News, August 4, 1962: 43.

9 “Meet the Members of the Topps-National Association All-Star Teams,” The Sporting News, October 27, 1962: 31. Also, “Meet the Winners of the Topps-George M. Trautman Minor League Player-Of-The-Year Awards,” The Sporting News, October 27, 1962: 31.

10 Tom Diskin, “Hart Gunning for 2nd Title as Swat King,” The Sporting News, December 1, 1962: 41. “Also, Desert Dandies,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1962: 22.

11 Games of Sunday, July 7,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1963: 26.

12 Bob Stevens, “Gibson Pitch Shelves Rookie Hart After Youngster’s Dazzling Debut,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1963: 9.

13 Bob Stevens, “Unlucky Hart in Drydock Again Following Beaning,” The Sporting News, August 31, 1963: 27. Also, Jack McDonald, “Hurlers’ Fadeout Thickens Gloom of Giant Backers,” The Sporting News, September 7, 1963: 6.

14 Jack McDonald, “A Meal Ticket? Giants Have One In Ace Marichal,” The Sporting News, July 18, 1964: 7.

15 “Homer High for Hart,” The Sporting News, October 10, 1964: 37.

16 “Caught On The Fly,” The Sporting News, February 20, 1965: 26.

17 “Hart’s First Error in 30 Games Offset by His Homer,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1964: 31.

18 Range is (putouts + assists)/games played. The higher the range factor the more times the player was physically involved in a play during a game.

19 “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays,” New York, Simon and Schuster: 218-220.

20 Bob Stevens, “Hats Off! Jim Ray Hart,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1966: 21.

21 Bob Stevens, “Hitting? Cinch For Hart — Once Cotton Picker,” The Sporting News, July 30, 1966: 8.

22 Bill James, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore, The Free Press: 2001, 578.

23 Bob Stevens, “Hats Off! Jim Ray Hart,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1967: 29.

24 “Giants’ Jim Hart Named N.L. ‘Player of the Month’,” The Sporting News, August 19, 1967: 12.

25 Bob Stevens, “Hart’s Glove a Sieve? Don’t Believe It,” The Sporting News, April 27, 1968: 26.

26 Bob Stevens, “Hart Pants After Workouts So He’ll Be Ready for Bell,” The Sporting News, January 6, 1968: 45.

27 Bob Stevens, Giants Moan as Injury Wave Rips Holes in Regular Lineup,” The Sporting News, May 25, 1968: 16.

28 Bob Padecky, “Former Giant Jim Ray Hart Starts Over,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, August 22, 1988, Page 15.

29 Jimmy Cannon, “Started Wrong, But Hart Got Cotton Sack Off Back,” Miami Herald, September 10, 1965: 4F.

30 “Car Driven By Giants Player Kills Woman,” San Francisco Examiner, October 31, 1968: 13.

31 “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays,” New York, Simon and Schuster: 218-220.

32 Bob Padecky, “Former Giant Jim Ray Hart Starts Over,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, August 22, 1988, Page 15.

33 36 Harry Jupiter, “An M Squad Loaded With Giants’ Loot,” The Sporting News, March 29, 1969: 4.

34 37 Pat Frizzell, “Without Stretch, Giants Would Be N.L. Sad Sacks,” The Sporting News. June 28, 1969: 17.

35 Pat Frizzell, “Beefy Bryant Slimmer…Giants Elated,” The Sporting News, November 29, 1969: 39.

36 Pat Frizzell, “’Gotta Have Hart’, Says King — and Signs Are Good,” The Sporting News, February 7, 1970: 40.

37 Pat Frizzell, “Deliver or Go to Minors, Stoneham Tells Hart,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1970: 28.

38 Pat Frizzell, “No Hart—But the Giants Have Plenty of Plusses,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1970: 28.

39 Pat Frizzell, “Trim Hart Is Back From Exile; Bat Adds Swat Tonic to Giants,” The Sporting News, August 1, 1970: 8.

40 Bob Stevens, “Giants Are Enthused Over Medic Bulletin on Hart,” The Sporting News, January 9, 1971: 50. Also, “Bunts and Boots, Bad News For Giants,” The Sporting News, March 13, 1971: 55, and “Hart Shipped to Phoenix,” The Sporting News, May 15, 1971: 8.

41 Pat Frizzell, “Glove Artist Lanier Painting Giant Masterpiece at Hot Sack,” The Sporting News, July 24, 1971: 9.

42 “They’ve Gotta Have Hart,” The Sporting News, August 21, 1971: 34. Also, “National League, Games of Saturday, August 7,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1971: 26, 32.

43 “Deals of the Week, Major Leagues, Giants,” The Sporting News, April 15, 1972: 27.

44 Pat Frizzell, “If Willie Got Good Deal, Then Giants are Happy,” The Sporting News, May 27, 1972: 18. Also, “Phoenix Frolics While Parent Club Flounders,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1972: 39.

45 Dukes, Emeralds Lead PCL’s All-Star Parade,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1972: 34. Also, Pat Frizzell, “Bear Was Bullish in Depressed Giant Market,” The Sporting News, October 21, 1972: 37, 38 and Pat Frizzell, “Late-Season Splurge Polishes Kingman Socking Credentials,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1972: 50.

46 “Yankees Hoping Hart Fills Bill in DH Role,” The Sporting News, April 28, 1973: 30.

47 Jim Ogle, “DH Hart Puts New Muscle in Yankee Batting Order,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1973: 7.

48 Phil Pepe, “Yankees Yearning for Effective DH,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1975: 16.

49“Islanders Will Play Third ‘Last Season’, The Sporting News, March 29, 1975: 54.

50 Larry Stone, “When What Might Have Been Clashed with What Really Was,” San Francisco Examiner, February 12. 1991: 23.

51 “A.L. flashes,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1973: 31.

52 Bob Padecky, “Former Giant Jim Ray Hart Starts Over,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, August 22, 1988, Page 15.

Full Name

James Ray Hart

Born

October 30, 1941 at Hookerton, NC (USA)

Died

May 19, 2016 at Acampo, CA (USA)

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