This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
Perseverance and a love for the game guided sure-handed utility infielder John Donaldson through a 12-year career in Organized Baseball (1963-1974), including parts of six seasons with the Kansas City/Oakland A’s and the Seattle Pilots. The hard-nosed North Carolinian played in 405 big-league games and weathered trades, demotions, promotions, and outright releases, but looked back on his career with the same enthusiasm he exhibited as a player. “I’d do it all over again. It was the best time of my life,” he told the author.1 “Throughout my career, I think my managers saw my attitude. I wanted to play and worked extra hard — baseball’s not easy. I tried to let my glove and bat do the talking.”
John David Donaldson was born on May 5, 1943, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the eighth of ten children born to Walter Norris and Mary (Moore) Donaldson. Like many of their surrounding neighbors, the Donaldsons worked in the cotton mills of the rapidly urbanizing city of about 100,000 people. Walter, a World War I veteran, later worked for Johnston Manufacturing running cards in a cotton production line. “I was introduced to baseball by my three older brothers,” John said. “We tossed and hit the ball on local sandlots.” At the age of 9 he began playing Little League baseball at a local YMCA. “My coach was Fred Ashford, who was real good with mechanics,” recalled Donaldson vividly. “He taught me the fundamentals of the game.” Donaldson played in organized youth leagues through junior high school. By the time he was in high school, he worked part-time in a cotton mill and did not play for his school team. The summers, however, offered the enthusiastic youngster ample opportunities to play the game. “I started playing semipro baseball on a cotton mill team in Charlotte when I was 14 years old,” said Donaldson. “We played against other mill teams in the area. I also played American Legion ball for three years in the summer. Those leagues were highly competitive around here and fun.”
Quick, agile, and athletic, Donaldson was 5-feet-11, weighed 160 pounds, and was blessed with great hand-eye coordination. “I always played infield even in semipro ball,” he said. “I enjoyed playing shortstop the most, liked the long throw. I was converted to second base later in the minors. Playing second was awkward at first because you were always turned around, but I got used to it.” The right-handed Donaldson batted left-handed. “I took that after Ted Williams,” he joked, noting that his three older brothers also batted from the left side. “Williams and Stan Musial were my idols when I was a kid. I still remember listening to them on the radio and thinking that I’d be in the big leagues one day.”
When Donaldson graduated from Garinger High School in 1961, scouts were not beating down his door to sign him. If fact, he followed his father’s footsteps and began working in a mill, but continued to play semipro ball and never abandoned his dream about a career in baseball. And he had a stroke of luck. “I had been scouted by Red Robbins of the Minnesota Twins,” said Donaldson. “He didn’t think I was big enough to play and didn’t want to sign me. But Phil Howser, general manager of the Double-A team of the Minnesota Twins in Charlotte, saw me play and thought I was good enough to join them in spring of 1963.” Donaldson was sent to the Twins’ minor-league camp in Fernandina Beach, Florida. “I had a real good spring,” he said honestly. “Billy Martin was a scout for the Twins at the time and also taught the players fundamentals at spring training. He had the final say over me signing a contract.” The Twins signed Donaldson, who was just shy of his 20th birthday. “I got a progressive bonus which was worth $7,500 altogether once I made it to the big leagues,” he explained. When asked about his parents’ reaction, Donaldson replied, “My parents were working people. My father didn’t play baseball — he had a big family to support. But they always encouraged me because they knew I loved the game.”
Donaldson’s career with Minnesota did not last long. He was assigned to the Orlando Twins of the recently reclassified Class A Florida State League (Minor League Baseball was reclassified and realigned for the 1963 season; Class B, C, and D were designated A). The shortstop batted a respectable .251 and played in 121 of the team’s 123 games. However, the Twins left him unprotected in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player draft in December 1963. On December 2 the Kansas City Athletics drafted Donaldson for $8,000 with the stipulation that he be added to the team’s 40-man roster. “I went from semipro ball to the Florida State League to a major-league roster in just over a year. Can you believe that?” said Donaldson.
“I was young and full of myself,” said Donaldson of participating in his first big-league camp in 1964. “It wasn’t really overwhelming.” Not ready to challenge dependable Wayne Causey for the shortstop position, Donaldson was optioned to the Lewiston (Idaho) Broncs of the Class A Northwest League. He batted .315, showed surprising pop to his bat (ten home runs) and was named to the All-Star team.
Donaldson was assigned to the Vancouver Mounties of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League after spring training with the A’s in 1965 and 1966. In Vancouver he came under the tutelage of former big leaguer Mickey Vernon, who became manager of the team in 1966 and had a profound effect on his career. “I loved Mickey Vernon. He took me under his wing and taught me how to approach hitting and work the pitchers,” said Donaldson. “I came up as a pull hitter. He worked with me on my stance so I wouldn’t lunge at the ball. He taught me to keep my bat back. I always got my front foot out too much.” After batting a disappointing .231 in 1965, Donaldson improved his average to .298 and was named a second-team all-star in 1966. Donaldson’s improvement accompanied a shift to second base. Kansas City’s 24-year-old Bert Campaneris was a budding star and seemingly had shortstop locked up for the next decade. Consequently, the A’s brass felt Donaldson’s best chance to make it was at second base. “I had great instructors in the A’s organization, like Alvin Dark and Al Vincent,” said Donaldson. “They were patient and taught me how to play second base.” Vernon was impressed with Donaldson’s winning and team-first attitude and willingness to play through nagging, everyday injuries. “[He’s] one of the gutsiest players in baseball,” said the two-time former AL batting champ.2
After the 1965 season, Donaldson played winter-league baseball in the Caribbean for the first time in what became an annual tradition. “I played for Lara and Magallanes, and for (Baltimore Orioles shortstop) Luis Aparicio in Zuila, Venezuela, as well as with Escogido in the Dominican. It was kind of like a vacation, but the pay was good and I stayed in shape,” said Donaldson. He relished playing baseball essentially year-round, but stopped after the 1971-72 season when it began to take a toll on his body.
The Kansas City A’s noticed Donaldson’s improvement and called him up to the parent club in late August 1966 before the rosters expanded to 40 players. He made his major-league debut on August 26 playing second base and batting leadoff against the California Angels. He went 0-for-5, but recorded two putouts and four assists in the field. He connected off the Angels Dean Chance the following game for his first big-league hit, an RBI single, and later scored on Jim Gosger’s double. “I got a taste of the big leagues,” said Donaldson, who managed just four hits in 30 at-bats.
The A’s sent Donaldson and other top prospects like Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, Cito Gaston, and Rollie Fingers, to the Arizona Instructional League in the fall of 1966. In his first six games, Donaldson rapped 20 hits, prompting sportswriter Frank Gianelli to gush, “[Donaldson is] one phenom who has been proving he can hit.”3 Eddie Robinson, a former big-league first baseman and then assistant general manager for the A’s, noted, “I’m very impressed. … [Donaldson] is a fine second sacker.”4 Despite the praise, Donaldson’s promotion to the big leagues was blocked by Dick Green at second base and Campaneris; consequently, his name was bandied about as trade bait at baseball’s 1966 winter meetings in Columbus, Ohio.5
Donaldson found himself in Vancouver for the third consecutive year after spring training with the A’s in 1967. He continued his torrid pace from the previous autumn, putting together an 18-game hitting streak and earning the Topps Minor League Player of the Month award in June. On June 8 the A’s called up the “hot-hitting star” Donaldson (batting .339) as well as Reggie Jackson and catcher Dave Duncan from the Birmingham Barons, and sent down third baseman Sal Bando, utility infielder Ossie Chavarria, and catcher Ken Suarez.6 “I finally had my chance to play regularly in 1967,” said Donaldson. “Dick Green was hurt at the time and manager Al Dark put me in. And I took off hitting and making the plays at second base. I got along with Dark really well. He was a good manager and you listened when he talked.” Donaldson took over the keystone position on June 9 and proceeded to start 100 of the final 110 games. After a 3-for-4 performance with a career-high three runs batted in (achieved five times) in a 9-2 whitewashing of the reigning World Series champion Baltimore Orioles on June 14 at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, Donaldson scored the winning run on Reggie Jackson’s walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th to record the A’s third straight victory over the Orioles, 6-5, the next day. With the majority of his at-bats in the two-hole, Donaldson was a streaky hitter. In his first month with the team, he recorded three hits in a game four times and had a career-high four against the Boston Red Sox.
For the last-place A’s, Donaldson was a surprising bright spot. “The guy’s a good hitter,” said Dark. “He makes contact with the ball and keeps it moving around. I like his work at second base, too. He’s a much better player than I thought he would be.”7 Donaldson led the team with a .276 batting average (104-for-377) and a .343 on-base-percentage. “Batting .276 was good back in those days,” said Donaldson. “We faced a lot of good pitching and they had those high mounds.” And then he told the author with a chuckle, “Of course, if you hit .276 at second base nowadays, you’d be out of a job unless you hit a ton of home runs.”
After 13 losing seasons in Kansas City, the A’s relocated to Oakland for the 1968 season. “Danny Cater, Jim Gosger, Lew Krausse, and I, and some others, went out to Oakland with Charlie Finley in the offseason to do some publicity and sell tickets,” said Donaldson. “I looked forward to the season because I knew I’d be there the whole year. We had a good team with lots of young players. It was only a matter of time before we started winning. I roomed with Danny Cater mostly. We had a close team.”
Donaldson began the season firmly entrenched as the A’s second baseman. On April 18 he belted a walk-off sacrifice fly driving in Reggie Jackson in the bottom of the 13th inning to give the A’s their first win at Oakland, beating Baltimore, 4-3. Six days later Donaldson came to the plate again with the bases loaded in extra innings, and delivered a walk-off single, this time knocking in Campaneris in the 11th inning to defeat the New York Yankees, 4-3. But despite the early-season heroics, Donaldson struggled at the plate, laboring to push his batting average to .200 through July 3. “I was having a problem with my stomach. It was acid reflux and making me sick. I wound up having offseason surgery,” said Donaldson. He lost his starting job at second base at the end of July. “I wasn’t hitting very well,” he said, but added. “Bob Kennedy was the new manager and I think Finley talked him into putting Green back in.” Donaldson was used primarily as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch-hitter during the final two months of the season, finishing with a .220 average. In their inaugural season in Oakland, the A’s posted a winning record for the first time since 1952 when they were still located in Philadelphia, and began a streak of nine consecutive winning campaigns.
Donaldson recalled that Joe DiMaggio (whom Finley persuaded to join the A’s in 1968 as an executive vice president and consultant) was a good influence on the team. “DiMaggio enjoyed talking to the young players, like Bando, Monday, and Jackson, Joe Rudi, and me about hitting. We looked up to him and he taught us about winning. He and I got along well, too. We’d go out to dinner. He liked to hear my stories about growing up in North Carolina and playing semipro ball.”
After playing just one game in the field in the first two months of the 1969 season, Donaldson was sent to the expansion Seattle Pilots for catcher Larry Haney on June 14. “I didn’t anticipate the trade,” he said. “Hank Bauer called me into his office and told me that they are trading me to Seattle.” Then he joked with a tinge of seriousness, “I think it was Bauer. We had so many managers with the A’s at the time, I can’t keep ’em straight anymore.”
In Boston at the time of the trade, Donaldson joined his new team in New York in time to pinch-hit against the Yankees. “Rich Rollins was hurt so Seattle moved Tommy Harper (who was playing out of position at second) to third base. I took over second base and played regularly for the rest of the year.” Donaldson put together a career-best 11-game hitting streak (18-for-40) in August and recorded 18 multi-hit games for Seattle en route to a .234 average, which matched the Pilots’ team batting average. “John is not flashy,” said Pilots beat reporter Hy Zimmerman. “He is steady, especially adept at going back in right field for shallow flies.”8
Donaldson had fond memories about his season with the Pilots. “Manager Joe Schultz was a piece of work,” he said, laughing. “After every game, he’d say, ‘Pound that Budweiser, boys.’ And I liked the uniforms, they weren’t too bad. I know many people didn’t, but I did.”
“Playing in Sick’s Stadium was like playing in the minor leagues, to be honest,” Donaldson replied when asked what he thought about the Pilots’ home field, which had a seating capacity of 25,420 and had an average attendance of 8,268, good for tenth place among 12 AL teams. “I played in the Pacific Coast League for years and knew the stadium well from the days I faced the California Angels Triple-A team there. It was really a minor-league ballpark.”
The Pilots conducted spring training in Tempe, Arizona, in 1970, unsure about their future. “We didn’t know where we were going to play — in Seattle or Milwaukee,” said Donaldson. “The team had a new manager, Dave Bristol, and he liked a utility infielder named Gus Gil (whom he had managed in the Cincinnati Reds farm system). I didn’t have a good spring. Two days before we broke camp, Bristol told me that I was being sent to Portland (Beavers of the PCL). I was upset because I had been on a major-league roster for the last three years. I was probably making as much as anyone on the team.” After about a month in Portland, Donaldson was shipped to Oakland for utility infielder Roberto Pena. In his first game back with his former club, he started at second base against Bristol’s team — now the Milwaukee Brewers — on May 19. “I got a bit of revenge later in the season when I had the game-winning hit against the Brewers in Oakland,” said Donaldson. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he stroked a walk-off single to drive in Rick Monday for a 4-3 victory on July 12. In a season-long utility role, Donaldson batted .247 (22-for-89) in 41 games for the second-place A’s.
Donaldson opened camp with the A’s in 1971 but was optioned to the Iowa Oaks of the American Association to commence a three-year odyssey in the minor leagues before making it back to the big leagues in 1974. After batting a career-best .308 in 27 games with the Oaks, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Daryl Patterson on May 22. He was subsequently optioned to the Toledo Mud Hens (Triple-A American Association), where his .290 batting average ranked second on the team. Sent to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Bill Burbach in the offseason, Donaldson was acquired outright by the Hawaii Islanders of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (a San Diego Padres affiliate) in 1972. He spent 1973 with the Islanders and split the 1974 season with the Islanders and the Wilson (North Carolina) Pennants of the Class A Carolina League.
“I loved the game and I was gonna stick around as long as I could,” said Donaldson emphatically when asked why a 30-year-old former big leaguer would endure trades and insecurity, and keep playing. “I was making good money and I don’t think I could have earned that much back in Charlotte. And I still felt like I could get back to the big leagues and I was determined to do so. I wasn’t gonna quit.”
Donaldson’s career seemed as though it had reached its end in 1974. “I got released by Hawaii during spring training in Yuma, Arizona,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. My wife called Charlie Finley and told him I needed a job. (Donaldson laughed). I’m serious. Finley liked me. I didn’t have a problem with him. He gave me a job in Triple-A ball with Tucson.”
Donaldson acknowledged that Finley got a lot of bad press and was known for being cheap, but said his generosity often went unreported. “He always treated me well. When I got married in 1967, Finley sent us on a honeymoon to Lake Tahoe and bought us a color TV.”
Happy to have a job in Triple-A, Donaldson was sent to the Tucson Toros of the PCL in 1974. “A few weeks into the season, they called me up to Oakland,” said Donaldson with an air of incredulity in his voice. “I was 31 years old and hadn’t played in the big leagues for three years. That upset a few young guys on the team, like (hot infield prospect) Phil Garner.” The Sporting News reported that Donaldson needed only 53 days of active roster time in order to qualify for his four-year major-league pension.9 In his second game with the club, Donaldson replaced pinch-runner Herb Washington in the ninth and took over third base against the Chicago White Sox in Oakland, on April 15. He led off the bottom of the 13th inning with a single and scored the dramatic winning run when Gene Tenace stroked a two-out walk-off single. The run proved to be the last in Donaldson’s big-league career. On May 8 he was involved in a violent collision with center fielder Billy North trying to field a fly ball hit by Baltimore’s Earl Williams. Both North and Donaldson were carried off the field (though North returned to the game). Donaldson was subsequently diagnosed with a separated shoulder.
After recuperating, Donaldson was back with the Toros and thought he had lost his chance of a four-year pension. But as A’s beat writer Ron Bergman once noted, Finley had a “soft spot for former A’s players.”10 Donaldson was recalled in September when the rosters expanded. He said his teammates and good friends lobbied for his return to the team. “I was tight with Catfish, who was from North Carolina, like me. He had a good relationship with Finley and Finley did what Catfish told him to do. Same with Reggie.” Donaldson’s only action that month was a pinch-hit appearance in the last game of the season. His addition to the roster of the reigning two-time World Series champions was a procedural and symbolic move with far-reaching ramifications. “My four years of service and pension mean so much. If anyone should be in the Hall of Fame, it should be Marvin Miller (former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association). He did more for players than anybody,” said Donaldson, also paying tribute to Finley. Donaldson was not on the A’s postseason roster.
Donaldson was released by Oakland in the offseason. “I could’ve gone to spring training with a big-league club in 1975 but didn’t,” he said. “The St. Louis Cardinals wanted me to sign a minor-league contract but that wasn’t much money. So I went back to Charlotte. It was time to move on.” The good-natured North Carolinian played in 405 games, batted .238 (292-for-1225), scored 96 runs, and drove in 86 runs in parts of six big-league seasons. In ten seasons in the minors, he batted .274 and hit 55 home runs in 1,055 games.
As of 2014 Donaldson still resided in Charlotte, where he has spent most of the four decades years since he retired from baseball. He owned a painting business and worked for a local trucking company, but as of 2014 enjoyed retirement. He is divorced from his wife, Barbara Brooks, with whom he had one child, John Jr. For anyone who has ever spoken with Donaldson about baseball, it is apparent that he never lost his passion for the sport. He has participated in old-timer’s games and attended reunions of the Kansas City and Oakland A’s, and kept in regular contact with many of his teammates. When asked about his greatest memory in his career, he thought for a moment and mentioned his first home run (“It was in Cleveland in 1968, and that’s just something you don’t forget”) and going 4-for-4 against the eventual pennant-winning Boston Red Sox in 1967, but then stated unequivocally, “The highlight of my career was playing in Catfish Hunter’s perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in 1968. I made a few plays for him in that game. I remember there were two outs in the ninth inning and I yelled to him, ‘Hey Catfish, just make them hit the ball to me. I got it.’ And then he struck out [Rich Reese] to end the game. Now that’s baseball.”
The author extends his sincerest appreciation John Donaldson, who was interviewed on January 26, 2014. He subsequently read this biography to ensure factual accuracy.
Sincere thanks also to SABR member Bill Mortell for his diligent genealogical research.
The Sporting News
1 Interview with John Donaldson on January 26, 2014. All quotations from Donaldson are from this interview unless otherwise noted.
2 The Sporting News, August 20, 1966, 28.
3 The Sporting News, November 5, 1966, 41.
4 The Sporting News, December 24, 1966, 32.
5 The Sporting News, November 19, 1966, 35.
6 Associated Press, “Athletics Call Up Hot Hitting Stars From Farm Clubs,” Daily Capital News (Jefferson City, Missouri), June 8, 1967, 10.
7 The Sporting News, August 5, 1967, 17.
8 The Sporting News, September 6, 1969, 20.
9 The Sporting News, June 1, 1974, 15.