If Ken Guettler had been a used car in 1956, no one would have bought him.
At 28, he was ancient for a Texas League–or any high minor league–rookie. Thanks to a boyhood hockey injury in his native Bay City, Michigan, one arm was shorter than the other. And his eyes? Ted Williams supposedly could see a bullet in flight. Guettler had trouble watching a bowling ball roll all the way to the pins.
Yet Frank Lawrence was up to the selling task. Lawrence was a banker in Portsmouth, Virginia, who for a hobby ran the local entry in the Class B Piedmont League. Guettler, in spite of his eyes and arms, was his player-manager when the league folded after the 1955 season under the pressure of newly arrived television. It was Lawrence who persuaded Bonneau Peters, owner of the AA Texas League Shreveport Sports, to give Guettler a chance.
Peters was one of organized baseball’s prime minor league executives. In 1959 he was crowned King of Baseball at the winter meetings by Baseball Almanac, at the time only the eighth to be so honored. During the talent-starved years of World War II, he proved to be an opportunist, also, selling his entire Shreveport roster to St. Paul of the American Association.
At Lawrence’s suggestion, Peters talked with Guettler and the two became if not friends at least owner-player. By the time the Sports’ spring had ended, the Piedmont refugee had played himself into a spot as Shreveport’s starting right fielder by hitting .378 in spring games. When the summer was over, he had become one of only nine minor league players to hit 60 or more home runs in a season and captured virtually every league post-season honor available.
His greatest accomplishment was unseating Clarence (Big Boy) Kraft as all-time Texas League home run king.
A league icon who had a three-game major league career with the Braves in 1914, Kraft had hit 55 homers in 1924 at Fort Worth, a mark many thought had a chance to last forever. But the early post World War II years were the minor league homer epoch with six players hitting 60 or more between 1948 and 1956. In 1954 Joe Bauman hit a record 72 home runs while playing with a Class C team in Roswell, New Mexico.
Of those 1956 was the big year with three players reaching the three score level. Guettler’s total was overshadowed by Dick Stuart who was slugging 66 at Class A Lincoln, Nebraska. In that same summer, Forrest Kennedy hit 60 at Plainview, Texas, in the Southwestern League. Of the three, only Stuart made it to the big leagues, but in Shreveport that summer, Guettler was reigning.
At 5’11’ and 190 pounds, Ken and Mickey Mantle could almost buy their suits off the same rack (Mantle was listed at 5’11 ½ and 195 pounds). However, the alteration lady still had to deal with Ken’s arms.
So big they resembled water mains and made Popeye’s look anemic, Guettler’s multi-length arms may have been a blessing in disguise. Some observers say they forced him to swing slightly upward, giving a rise to the ball that, combined with his strength, sent it flying out of the park.
And though the summer of 1956 turned out to be the apogee of Guettler’s career, it was by no means the only one in which he hit well. Long before he became Super Sport he was devastating other teams’ pitching.
He had spent half of his career at Portsmouth, leading the league in home runs four times. In three other years he had led a league in homers, was batting champion once, runs batted in leader four times and the leading scorer once. Here are his league leading totals:
1945 Kingsport (Appalachian): 13HR
1947 Griffin (Georgia-Alabama): 25HR/103RBI
1948 Montgomery-Gadsden (Southeastern): 24 HR
1951 Portsmouth (Piedmont): 30HR/142G/114R/116RBI
1952 Portsmouth (Piedmont): 28HR/104RBI/.334BA
1953 Portsmouth (Piedmont): 30HR
1955 Portsmouth (Piedmont): 41HR/113RBI
1956 Shreveport (Texas): 62HR/143RBI/115R
Why the huge jump in his output, from a consistent 25-30 homers a year to more than twice that in 140 games in 1956?
The consensus: his glasses.
Guettler beefed up his weak eyes with monster glasses, as thick as Coke bottle bottoms, according to those who knew him.
Bert Thiel, Texas League pitcher of the year in 1956, had also regularly faced Guettler in the Southeastern League. “He could hit then, the pitcher said. “But he didn’t wear glasses and I’m sure that’s helped the guy.”
Norm Sherry, who eventually had a five-year National League career as a catcher, also believed experience aided Ken. Like Thiel, he had faced the Shreveport star before as well as during 1956. “We used to be able to get him out pretty good when we had to,” Sherry said. “With two strikes, we’d give him the curve ball low and away and he’d chase it right into the dirt.” By 1957, the curve was less effective.
The glasses were a special shatter proof model that when damaged in the Piedmont League had taken a New York doctor days to repair.
So in 1956, Shreveport opened at home and in the second game, Guettler hit three home runs off Houston. A day later, when Shreveport went to Houston for the Sports’ first series there, Guettler hit a two-run homer. That may have been enough for the Buffaloes, then the Cardinals’ double A affiliate. The next day, when the teams returned to the park, the glasses had disappeared from Guettler’s locker. Finding them was urgent. Shreveport could not afford to give up its hottest hitter for long.
Shreveport manager Mel McGaha did not accuse host Houston of stealing them. But he was adamant that the glasses disappeared from Shreveport’s locker room. Guettler left them in his locker after the April 15 game. They were gone when he returned.
McGaha was quoted in the Shreveport Times the next day as saying, “The glasses were taken from the club house. They were under supervision all the time we were in the club house and when we left the place was locked. Yet the glasses were gone when we returned to the park on Monday and there was no evidence of a break-in. They had to be taken by someone who had access to the place and who knew where they were. I’m not accusing anybody but the circumstances are mighty suspicious.”
Jack Fiser, who covered the Sports and produced a column for the Times, also wrote, “It’s hardly conceivable that adult professionals would even be silent parties to such a bush league caper as swiping an opponent’s specs, and the Sports aren’t saying that anybody on the Houston club did. But they’re not all sure that adequate precautions were taken by the home team to see that someone else didn’t swipe ’em, somebody with an angle.”
Guettler came back as a pinch-hitter without his glasses. McGaha explained that even a partially-sighted Guettler was more likely to deliver a sacrifice fly to send a run home than someone else with full vision. But his plan failed. “I never saw a pitch until it was halfway to the plate,” the hitting star said later.
Fortunately, a San Antonio optometrist proved quicker than his New York counterpart when it came to replacing the glasses. He made new ones in only a day and they seemed to spark Guettler to new highs. He went on a spree that produced eight home runs in eight days, tying a Texas League record. The original had been set by Justin (Nig) Clarke who smashed all eight of his in a single game, Corsicana’s remarkable 51-3 victory over Texarkana in 1902. Guettler also set a league record that summer by twice hitting three home runs in a single game.
In addition to his regular season home runs, Guettler hit another in the Texas League all star game. And he lost one to a disputed umpire’s call in July. Playing in Fort Worth, the Shreveport hitter’s blast appeared to bounce off the farther of two rows of signs around the outfield, supposedly a home run. Don Demeter, playing in center for the Cats, was so convinced it was a home run that he didn’t even play the ball when it bounced back. But umpire Bill Malesky ruled the ball hit an inner sign. That gave Guettler his only triple of the summer.
Honors covered Guettler after the season. He was named to the in-season and post-season all star teams. He edged Oklahoma City’s 5′ 5″ Albie Pearson as most valuable player and won rookie of the year honors over San Antonio third baseman Brooks Robinson and Fort Worth’s Demeter. Cash, though, was more elusive. Fans gave him $500 and the team just $200–perhaps in part because the Sports drew fewer than 50,000 fans that summer in spite of Guettler’s record chase. “I made more the first year I played,” Guettler later recalled. At Kingsport, Tennessee, in his first season, fans gave him cash for home runs, as much as $175 following one game.
He did receive a promotion for his 1956 output. “Whether he crashes the big show or not, Ken is a mortal cinch to be promoted to the Triple A classification–assuming, of course, he wants to play minor league ball anywhere but here,” Fiser wrote in his Times column.
The new assignment would be Wichita in the American Association, the AAA affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves who bought Guettler’s contract over the winter. Ken started 1957 in AAA, but was sent back to AA Atlanta in the Southern Association. In August, he returned to Wichita a year to the day after breaking the Texas League home run record. The Wichita Eagle newspaper commented on his return:
“The hard hitting outfielder who hit 62 home runs in the Texas League last year may be a valuable man here in a pinch-hitting role. It is doubtful if he can break in the outfield regularly, however, as he was never renowned as a fielder and Wichita will have Dale Talbott [Bob Talbot] available before long as well as (Bob) Hazle, (Roy) Hawes and (Ray) Shearer, the current three. At Atlanta he suffered from a bad ankle and played but seldom.”
Guettler played three more seasons but with little success. At Dallas in the Texas League, Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican League and Charlotte and Charleston in the Sally he hit just 24 home runs and .206 in 110 games.
“I never had the opportunity to play in the major leagues. In fact, I was never invited by a major league club to its spring training camp,” he said. So the only player to ever lead minor leagues in home runs eight times and to be the Texas League Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and an All Star in the same season quietly retired.
Ken moved to Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife and two children where he was a postal employee until his death at age 50 on Christmas Day, 1977.
Shreveport Times, April-September 1956
Wichita Eagle, August 12, 1957
Baseball Almanac, Web Site, 2007
Baseball Digest, February 1975
Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Web Site, 2007
Minor League Register, Edited by Lloyd Johnson
The Baseball Encyclopedia, 10th, edition, MacMillan
Texas League, A Century of Baseball by Bill O’Neal
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