This article was written by Malcolm Allen
John Wockenfuss was a powerful right-handed hitter with a unique closed batting stance, He spent most of his dozen years in the majors (1974-85) with the Detroit Tigers. Primarily a catcher/first baseman, he also appeared as both an outfielder and designated hitter more than 100 times, though he played that many games in a season only once. All told, “Fuss” got into 1,662 games in 20 professional seasons, later becoming a minor league manager.
Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss was born on February 27, 1949, in Welch, West Virginia. His dad, William Emil Wockenfuss, was raised by German-speaking parents in Baltimore and worked in that city’s shipyards as a pipefitter for contractors Doyle & Russell .1 The former Mildred Faye Stewart, John’s mother, grew up on a farm in Oceana, West Virginia, where her father, Bilton, was a logger.2 Her parents were of German and Native American ancestry. When 32-year-old William and 25-year-old Mildred wed in Hilton Village, Virginia, during the spring of 1947, it was the second marriage for both. They had four children: William, Jr., followed by John, then sisters Sue and Midge.
They settled in New Castle County, Delaware, and young John knew that he wanted to be a professional baseball player by age 5. His father and family were interested in the game, and he saw his first organized action with the Stanton Eagles of the Capital Trail Little League. He hurled a no-hitter for his junior high team, and usually played third base when he wasn’t pitching. When he was 14, his Millcreek Trailer Park team won the state Babe Ruth League championship; he went 8-for-12 at the plate in three tournament games. On a questionnaire that he filled out shortly after turning pro, he cited it as his greatest baseball thrill up to that time. He also played for Millcreek Trailer Park’s American Legion team.
At John Dickinson High School in Wilmington, he led the Rams to conference championships in his final two seasons and pitched a no-hitter in the first game of his senior year. He also lettered in basketball, track, and football. Wockenfuss’s work as a strong-armed quarterback and safety earned him numerous college scholarship offers. He dropkicked his team’s extra points and received an invitation to perform in Delaware’s prestigious Blue-Gold All-Star football game.
When the Washington Senators chose Wockenfuss in the 42nd round of the June 1967 amateur draft, however, the 6’0”, 190-pounder didn’t hesitate to enter professional baseball. “I walked in to talk to him in an old house that was dilapidated,” recalled scout Joe Branzell. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Where do I sign?’ His father and mother said, ‘Hey, let’s find out what he’s going to offer first’.”3 Years later, Branzell remembered the figure as $500, adding, “He would have given me $500 to play.”4
An anxious Wockenfuss reported to the Geneva (NY) Senators of the Single-A New York-Pennsylvania League. “They had 45 players, but only dressed 25 for games,” he said. “I wasn’t one of them, but I practiced with the team every day for three months.”5 When some of his older teammates left for college towards the end of the season, he got into three games and went 1-for-7. He would’ve played in the Blue-Gold game before signing had he known what his first year would be like. “It’s one of my regrets,” he admitted.6
Though Wockenfuss listed his positions as third base/outfield/pitcher on a questionnaire that he filled out his first summer in Geneva, he expected to make his mark on the mound. “I’ve always had a strong arm,” he explained. “I had a good curve ball, and I even had a good forkball that I had thrown all through high school.”7 When he reported to his first spring training however, the Senators told him that pitchers weren’t allowed in the batting cage. He wanted to hit, so he quickly decided to be an outfielder, only to second-guess himself later as his path to the majors grew longer and longer.
Back at Geneva in 1968, Wockenfuss appeared in 39 games, but batted only .197. With the Burlington (NC) Senators the next season, he hit just .168 in 62 Carolina League games. When he got shipped to a different Single-A affiliate in June 1969, he finally enjoyed success — homering twice in his debut with the Shelby (NC) Senators and enjoying another multi-homer game a few weeks later.8 In the Western Carolinas League’s All-Star Game, he delivered two singles and a double.9
During off-seasons, he was an avid hunter and fisherman and spent portions of his early winters in the Delaware National Guard. He was also an early proponent of weightlifting, pumping iron at a Wilmington health club with future Dallas Cowboys star Randy White. Wockenfuss cut meat and made deliveries for the butcher’s shop owned by White’s father.
In the fall of 1969, Wockenfuss reported to the Florida Instructional League, where he mostly played third base. When he was promoted to the Double-A Pittsfield (MA) Senators in 1970, however, he returned to the outfield. His 15 homers ranked second on the Eastern League club, but when the team’s name switched to the Rangers in 1972, he was still stuck in Pittsfield for a third straight year.10
The good news for Wockenfuss was that he’d married his high school girlfriend, the former Pamela Jo Lennon, before the 1971 season. The bad news was that his lack of baseball progress was eating him up. Though the nickname “Fuss” stuck with him for the rest of his life, he was known as “Wildman” Wockenfuss in his younger days.11 In high school, he’d nearly torn up his hand by trying to punch through the facemask of a football teammate’s helmet after a pass was dropped during practice.12 “I was terrible in the minor leagues. I punched a hole in the dugout roof. I threw stones at fans. I bumped umpires. When I didn’t do well, I went home and lost my temper with my wife — took it out on her. I couldn’t sleep.”
The Rangers converted Wockenfuss into a catcher in 1972. “I took my lumps at first,” he said. By season’s end though, he led the circuit’s backstops in putouts and assists and made the Eastern League All-Star team. After batting .247 and .233 in his first two years in Double-A, he raised his average to .288.
Now 24 years old, he finally reached Triple-A with the Pacific Coast League’s Spokane Indians. After spending part of the early season on the disabled list with a bruised shoulder, on June 6 he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals along with pitcher Mike Nagy for rookie right-hander Jim Bibby. “I was glad to get out of the Texas organization,” Wockenfuss confessed. “They had signed a lot of good young kids and given them a lot of money, and I hadn’t gotten anything. So, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere with them.”13
Six weeks after the trade, Wockenfuss became a first-time father when his son John was born. Brother Jeremy arrived in 1975, and Pamela later gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Caitlin.
In 60 games with the Tulsa Oilers, Wockenfuss batted .266 and they won the American Association championship before falling to Pawtucket in the Junior World Series. On December 3, he was traded for the second time in a year to the Detroit Tigers for a minor league pitcher.
Wockenfuss started 1974 with the Evansville (IN) Triplets, his third Triple-A home in two years. “I told myself before the season started that if I didn’t make it this year, I was going to quit baseball,” he said. “I have a wife and son and I just can’t keep moving all over the country.”14
His 10 homers and .396 OBP in 84 American Association contests included some mid-summer excitement involving his former teammates. On July 29 he homered twice against Tulsa, and in early August he took part in a bench-clearing incident ignited when Oilers pitcher John Denny threw at his head.15 As the Triplets prepared to board their flight back to Evansville, pitching coach Fred Gladding answered a phone call from the Tigers at the airport. Detroit catcher Jerry Moses had fractured a finger, and the team wanted Wockenfuss to catch a different plane to join them in Texas instead. When he stepped on the field at Arlington Stadium wearing a number 45 Tigers jersey the next day, he recalled, “My old buddies on the Rangers kind of kidded me when they saw me. They were saying stuff like, ‘See what you get for hanging in there’.”16
In his debut on August 11, Wockenfuss batted ninth and caught Dave Lemanczyk. Detroit lost, 9-0, and he went 0-for-2 with a walk against Bibby, the pitcher Texas had traded him for 14 months earlier. Three nights later at Tiger Stadium, he got his first major league hit, off Kansas City’s Steve Busby. In 13 appearances including 10 starts, he batted .138 in 29 at-bats.
In 1975, Wockenfuss was disappointed to realize that, despite a solid spring, he was ticketed for another year of Triple-A. He’d opened a pizzeria with his brother over the off-season and wondered out loud if that might not be a more suitable career. “I really ought to think about doing something besides playing ball if I can’t make it after eight years,” he said.17 With expansion rumored to be looming, he stuck it out and was called back to the majors to stay in June.
Detroit had lost starting catcher Bill Freehan to a hand injury and backup Terry Humphrey to a separated shoulder within three days. Consequently, Wockenfuss caught all 17 innings of a doubleheader when he arrived on June 11. He threw out four of the seven California Angels that tried to steal against him and collected three hits, including his first major league home run. He wasn’t able to retrieve the ball because it was a second deck shot off southpaw Frank Tanana, the majors’ strikeout leader that season.18 “It looked like he had been up here for 20 years,” remarked Angels manager Dick Williams.19
Wockenfuss notched a four-hit game later that week and remained with the Tigers for the rest of the season, batting .229 with four homers in 35 games. He missed almost three weeks in September after suffering a sprained shoulder and a concussion when the Indians’ Buddy Bell steamrolled him to score a run in Cleveland. “I got rapped, I was out, and a few minutes later I was out again. And then they took me [to the hospital] and got the doctor and the lady said, ‘You stay here, son,’ and then…I was out again.”20
The 1976 season was a disappointment. After he lost track of how many outs there were on May 12 at Yankee Stadium, Wockenfuss rolled the ball back to the mound prematurely, allowing speedy Mickey Rivers to race home from second in a game Detroit lost by one run. While he handled his teammates’ ‘count to three’ reminders and a Sports Illustrated cartoon portraying him as an ostrich with his head in the sand, it hurt when Tigers manager Ralph Houk didn’t start him again for two weeks. “I don’t think Houk ever forgave me for that mistake,” Wockenfuss told a reporter. He had only 144 at bats all year and hit just .222 with three homers and 10 RBIs. As the expansion draft approached that fall, he announced, “I already told them I don’t want to be protected. I don’t want to go back to Detroit and back up Milt May.”21
Neither the Toronto Blue Jays nor the Seattle Mariners selected him, however, so Wockenfuss returned to the Tigers in 1977 with a strange new batting stance he had discovered while playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League. From then on, he employed an extreme, closed stance that began with both his feet stationed on the back line of the batter’s box and his backside pointed toward the mound. As he waited for the pitch, he lifted his bat high above his head and wiggled his fingers. “You go monkeying around sometimes, and I said, ‘Well, this is pretty good’,” he explained.22 “It keeps my shoulder into it and keeps my bat level.”23
“That guy better not get a hit off me the way he stands at the plate,” remarked Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. “That stance is out of the caveman days. The last guy who could get away with something like that was Stan Musial, and there ain’t no more Stan Musials. I know. I faced him,”.24
In 1977 and 1978, the unorthodox Wockenfuss hit .274 and .283 with 16 homers in 351 total atbats. After enjoying his first two-homer game on July 4, 1977, in front of family and friends, he cranked two more in Texas later that month. His new stance coincided with a new uniform number, 14, but he insisted that the credit belonged somewhere else. “God turned things around for me,” he said. The player had occasionally attended Sunday chapel services at the ballpark before but, on May 8, 1977, a guest visit from Billy Zeoli — once the White House chaplain to President Gerald R. Ford — particularly impacted him. “Baseball was everythin’ to me. It was my life, but I just couldn’t get things together, I was pitiful … and I started getting these voids in my life, ya know.”25
He hadn’t been especially religious growing up, and he still wasn’t the type to proselytize aggressively. But, within a few years, Wockenfuss was leading the Tigers’ chapel services for broadcaster Ernie Harwell and a dozen or so players. “I contain my temper now. I don’t even argue with umpires anymore,” he said.26 During off-seasons, the former “Wildman” even taught Sunday school at Wilmington’s Marshallton United Methodist Church.
When Detroit achieved its first winning record in five years in ’78, Wockenfuss played more in the outfield than behind the plate for the first time as a major leaguer. In 1979, when Sparky Anderson commenced his 17-year run as the Tigers skipper in mid-June, the versatile player saw most of his action at first base. In 231 at bats, he walloped 15 home runs. He went deep in consecutive pinch-hitting appearances in late July and blasted his first career grand slam in a two-homer performance against the Rangers in August. He even stole his first two bases. The Detroit writers voted him the club’s Most Versatile player and his home state named him Delaware’s 1979 athlete of the year.27
Prior to the 1980 season, Wockenfuss signed a four-year contract extension to remain with the Tigers.28 He negotiated it himself, as he never had an agent as a major leaguer.29 That season, he started 103 games and established career highs in most batting statistics, including 16 homers, 65 RBIs and 68 walks. He did most of the damage after spending a night in the hospital following a May 20 beaning by Yankees reliever Ron Davis. “I expected my eyes to go foggy and then black out,” he recalled. “It didn’t happen. All I got was a headache.”30
By 1981, Wockenfuss was Detroit’s longest-tenured player with a double locker in the corner of the clubhouse. In a weird split season due to a players’ strike, the Tigers contended for a playoff spot behind young stars like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Lance Parrish. The team fizzled at the finish, however, and Wockenfuss struggled to bat .215, including a sickly .187 in the second half. “The worst slump of my life would have to happen at the same time. Wouldn’t you know it?” he lamented. “I don’t feel like I’m contributing at all.”31
Though Wockenfuss was a charter member of “The Riders of the Lonesome Pine”32 –the name the Tigers’ reserves gave themselves, in 1982 he made the first of two consecutive Opening Day starts as Detroit’s designated hitter. In April, when he subbed for an injured Parrish in 13 straight contests behind the plate, the team went 10-3. On the last day of the season, his pinch-hit homer in Cleveland gave him a career-best .301 batting average. That came four days after his only career walk-off homer; a blast off Baltimore’s Tippy Martinez that crippled the Orioles playoff hopes.
In 1983 Wockenfuss enjoyed another solid year for a Tigers team that finished second with 92 victories, the most by a Detroit club since 1968. After some Angels outfield follies helped him leg out his first triple in three years in August, he insisted that he never considered trying for an inside-the-park homer. “They could have lost the ball for five minutes and I still would have been on third,” he joked.33 His dubious foot speed once prompted Anderson to remark, “The problem with John Wockenfuss getting on base is that it takes three doubles to score him.”34
After signing a two-year extension for a raise to approximately $200,000 annually, he was upset to discover through newspaper reports that the mean Tigers’ contract paid about $60,000 more. “I’ve been playing for this club 10 years and I can’t make the average salary?” he asked.35 Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan had just paid a fortune for the team the previous fall. “All they say is, ‘We don’t have the cash.’ A guy just buys the club for $50 million and he’s worth $150 million. Please.”36
As trade rumors involving the Phillies swirled throughout spring training 1984, Wockenfuss insisted he’d welcome a deal. “I’ll be happy,” he said. “If it’s Philly, great. I could live at home and see my family more.”37 Finally, 10 days before Opening Day, he was swapped to Philadelphia, the reigning National League champions. Wockenfuss started 47 games for the Phillies, batting .289.
Before the 1985 season, he turned 36. The Phillies hired a belly dancer to mark the occasion in training camp.38 He was in no mood to celebrate, however, when the team informed him of their intention to rely on younger players after the season had already begun. Though Wockenfuss was on the active roster, he had only 37 official at-bats by mid-August. “They had me there as a bullpen catcher, carrying buckets of balls to the bullpen. They made me feel like a fool. A bum,” he said.39
He pleaded to be traded back to where he could be a DH or released so that he could seek a new team. The Phillies finally let him go on August 19. “I’ll contact all the American League clubs and see if anybody wants me,” he said. “If not, I guess that’s it for me.” “I don’t think he’ll have any trouble because he can still hit,” opined Philadelphia manager John Felske.40 As a 12-year major-leaguer, Wockenfuss had batted .262 in 795 contests with 86 home runs. But the veteran couldn’t find any takers.
In 1986, Wockenfuss tried hiring an agent for the first time. He showed up at the Red Sox spring training but couldn’t convince the team to give him a look. He called Tom Grieve, the Rangers GM he’d played minor league ball with, but Texas had no room for him either. To make matters worse, he was recently divorced. Finally, he joined the Single-A Miami Marlins. His former Phillies teammate Derrel Thomas had made it back to the majors after starting there the previous year.41
At 37, Wockenfuss was the oldest player in the Florida State League, but he appeared in a career-high 136 games – 96 as a catcher — and made the circuit’s All-Star team by hitting .269 with 80 RBIs.
He returned to the FSL in 1987, but as a manager, leading Detroit’s Lakeland Tigers to a 74-61 record. He moved up to Double-A in 1988, leading the Glens Falls (NY) Tigers to the best regular-season record in the Eastern League before falling in the playoffs. Wockenfuss skippered the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens in 1989. When the Tigers visited for an exhibition on May 11, he hurled five shutout innings of three-hit ball against them.42
Despite a sub-.500 finish, he returned to Toledo in 1990, only to be fired 24 games into the season. Detroit Vice President Joe McDonald explained that the move was made because the club wanted Tom Gamboa to manage the prospects he’d worked with in the lower minors.43 But a bitter Wockenfuss said, “I wouldn’t work for Detroit in any capacity now. They showed what they thought of me.”44
Wockenfuss resurfaced in the Pirates organization in 1992, managing Pittsburgh’s Salem (VA) Buccaneers affiliate in the Single-A Carolina League. In 1993 he took over the Double-A Carolina Mudcats for part of the Southern League season. He was inducted to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame later that year.
By early 1994, however, Wockenfuss had undergone two back surgeries and shifted his focus to the Tri-State Baseball and Softball Academy he’d opened in Avondale, Pennsylvania; figuring his professional baseball days were over.45
He returned to the dugout in 1996 and 1997, managing the independent Albany Diamond Dogs. The team won the Northeast League championship his first season, then lost in the finals after finishing first in ’97. In the two decades that followed, he married and divorced again and saw the first pupil from his baseball academy reach the majors: Joey Wendle, a left-handed-hitting infielder who debuted in 2016. 46
On October 27, 2018, Wockenfuss married Becky Askins of Watertown, New York, whom he met through his siblings. Detroit Tigers caps were a part of the joyful wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, two weeks later, he was diagnosed with dementia. The condition makes it harder for him to communicate and renders his hands too shaky to respond to the autograph requests he still receives.
Looking back on his days of contact football and hardnosed play behind the plate, he supported Major League Baseball’s 2014 rule change designed to reduce home plate collisions. Recalling the time he was knocked out by Cleveland’s Buddy Bell in 1975, in 2019 Wockenfuss said, “That’s why I [have] the dementia. That’s how (the game) was.”
He added, “I just wanted to play.”47
Last revised: November 19, 2020
This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia, Rory Costello, and Norman Macht. It was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
1 “Wockenfuss ‘Home’ in Big-League Uniform,” Baltimore Sun, June 29, 1975, B1.
2 Jeremy Wockenfuss, John’s son, filled in some blanks concerning the family history in an e-mail to the author on October 7, 2020.
3 Ed Nicklas, “Touting the Baseball Talent,” Washington Post, August 14, 1986: DC7.
4 Nicklas, “Touting the Baseball Talent.”
5 “Ill-timed Trade Keeps Wockenfuss From Series,” Compass (Wilmington, Delaware), October 11, 1984: 4.
6 “Ill-timed Trade Keeps Wockenfuss From Series.”
7 Jim Hawkins, “Wockenfuss Struggles to Stick with Tigers,” News Journal (Wilmington Delaware), March 11, 1975: 12.
8 Wockenfuss’s Baseball Questionnaire.
9 North Blanks South, 6-0, in WCS All-Star Contest,” The Sporting News, August 16, 1969: 45.
10 The parent Washington Senators had moved to Texas and become the Rangers.
11 Wockenfuss’s 1970 Baseball Questionnaire.
12 Matt Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Finds God, Inner Peace,” Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), November 27, 1979: 24.
13 Hawkins, “Wockenfuss Struggles to Stick with Tigers.”
14 Matt Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Story Has Happy Ending,” Morning News, August 14, 1974: 25.
15 “Homer Ignites War,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1974: 40.
16 Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Story Has Happy Ending.”
17 Hawkins, “Wockenfuss Struggles to Stick with Tigers.”
18 “Ill-timed Trade Keeps Wockenfuss From Series.”
19 Jim Hawkins, “Wockenfuss Solves Tigers’ Catching Shortage,” The Sporting News, July 19, 1975: 26.
20 Gregory Gay, “Former Big League Player Wockenfuss Deals With Dementia in Watertown,” https://www.nny360.com/top_stories/former-big-league-player-wockenfuss-deals-with-dementia-in-watertown/article_a2bded08-0833-52a5-ab47-1e6fd5b982c4.html (last accessed October 8, 2020).
21 Matt Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Would Rather Forget 1976,” Morning News, October 15, 1976: 32.
22 Gay, “Former Big-League Player Wockenfuss Deals with Dementia in Watertown.”
23 Dick Kaegel, “Florida Notebook,” The Sporting News, April 5, 1980: 36.
24 “Major League Flashes,” The Sporting News, September 6, 1980: 32.
25 Marty Gervais, “Tigers Make Pitch for Prayer,” Windsor (Ontario, Canada) Star, August 29, 1981: 30.
26 Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Finds God, Inner Peace.”
27 “Ill-timed Trade Keeps Wockenfuss From Series.”
28 Tom Gage, “Wockenfuss Happy, But…,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1981: 30.
29 Matt Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Playing with Little Fanfare,” News Journal, May 28, 1986: 25.
30 Tom Gage, “Deal a Shock to Jason,” The Sporting News, June 14, 1980: 11.
31 Tom Gage, “Wockenfuss’ Slams Treat Uncle Chess,” The Sporting News, October 10, 1981: 25.
32 Gay, “Former Big-League Player Wockenfuss Deals with Dementia in Watertown.”
33 Tom Gage, “Sparky Fidgets as Kirk Flounders,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1983: 12.
34 Dan Holmes, “14 Amazing Things Sparky Anderson Actually Said,” https://www.vintagedetroit.com/blog/2018/06/11/12-amazing-things-sparky-anderson-actually-said/ (last accessed October 9, 2020).
35 Tom Gage, “Wockenfuss Wants Average Paycheck,” The Sporting News, March 19, 1984: 44.
36 Bill McGraw, “Wockenfuss Wouldn’t Mind Trade,” Detroit Free Press, March 13, 1984: 33.
38 “Fans Favor Lights at Wrigley,” The Sporting News, March 25, 1985: 45.
39 Ira Winderman, “Wockenfuss Goes Full Circle -Back to Square 1,” Fort Lauderdale News, May 4, 1986: 45.
40 Ray Finocchiaro, “Wockenfuss Cut; Stone Returns,” Morning News, August 20, 1985: 39.
41 Winderman, “Wockenfuss Goes Full Circle -Back to Square 1.”
42 “Tigers,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1989: 33.
43 Rob Rains, “Did Someone Slip Bosox Prospect Pina a Mickey?” The Sporting News, May 14, 1990: 29.
44 Matt Zabitka, “Wockenfuss Still Feeling the Sting of Tigers’ Firing,” News Journal, May 22, 1990: 5.
45 Matt Zabitka, “Former Major Leaguer Opens Business,” News Journal, January 27, 1994: 93.
46 Gay, “Former Big-League Player Wockenfuss Deals with Dementia in Watertown.”