Trading a promising young outfielder — a future All-Star — for a pitcher with a large contract at the end of his career may be the worst trade Harry Dalton ever made. But the pitcher was future Hall of Famer Don Sutton. The arrival of the 37-year-old Sutton wowed Brewers fans and was the final piece in the Milwaukee Brewers successful run to the 1982 World Series. Sending 23-year-old outfielder Kevin Bass to the Astros was necessary to complete the August 30, 1982, deadline deal.
Four years later, Bass made the All-Star team and was a key member of the 1986 NL West champion Houston Astros, hitting .311, his finest season, with 20 homers and 79 RBIs in 157 games. He made the final out in the 16th inning of Game Six of the 1986 NL playoffs, striking out against Jesse Orosco. The game sent the New York Mets to the World Series.
Bass played 14 years in the majors, 10 of them in two stints with the Astros. He played in 1,571 major-league games, winding up with a .270 lifetime batting average, 611 runs batted in, and 118 home runs.
Kevin Charles Bass was born on May 12, 1959, in Redwood City, California and raised in Menlo Park, on San Francisco Bay. Nine-year-old Kevin was a shortstop on a Menlo Park Little League team coached by his father; his older sister kept score.1 Chris Haft, a high-school teammate, remembered that Kevin spoke about his determination to be a major-league baseball player as early as his freshman year.2
The Bass family had roots in baseball and sports. Kevin’s brother, Richard, was a minor-league outfielder in 1976 and 1977, and his cousin is NFL Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton. His uncle Stan “Lefty” Johnson received the first baseball scholarship offered to an African-American at the University of San Francisco; he went on to play briefly for the 1960 Chicago White Sox and the 1961 Kansas City Athletics and played 10 years in Triple A for four major-league teams before ending his career in Japan with the Taiyo Whales. After retiring in 1970 he became a West Coast scout for the Boston Red Sox.3
In Menlo Park High School Bass was an all-league player in football and baseball, and also played basketball. His hopes of playing college football waned when baseball scouts began coming to see him play. They had reason to make the trip: At the end of the 1977 season, Bass was named a first-team All-American high-school player by the High School Division of the American College of Baseball Coaches.
The Brewers selected the high-school senior in the second round of the June 1977 free-agent draft. (They used their first-round pick to select Paul Molitor.) “He’s got a good arm, good speed, and he has an excellent instinct about going after the ball,” said Brewers scout Roland LeBlanc of the 18-year-old switch-hitting outfielder.4
After signing with the Brewers, Bass was sent to Newark (New York) of the New York-Penn League In his first 44 at-bats he hit .182. By the time he accumulated 96 at-bats his average had improved to .313.
The next season Bass was invited to major-league spring training. He later said that Cecil Cooper became a mentor to him, watching him take batting practice and offering batting tips. 5 He saw his own assets as his speed, power, and his strong arm — in addition to being a switch-hitter. After his retirement he said his faults were technical weaknesses as a left-handed hitter and a base stealer.
The 6-foot Bass, listed at 183 pounds, started as the leadoff man for Burlington of the Class A Midwest League in 1978, and after showing power he was moved to the middle of the lineup. He was named to the league all-star team, both at midseason and at yearend, after batting.265 average with 18 home runs, 69 RBIs, and 36 steals.
In 1979 Bass was promoted to Holyoke of the Double-A Eastern League and started slowly, the surged in June. “The difference is confidence,” he said. “When I get down on myself, I can’t do the job. When I’m loose and relaxed, I’m okay.”6 In 1980 he returned to Holyoke and in June, the month of his 21st birthday, he hit safely in 25 of 27 games.
Holyoke won the Eastern League title and Bass was again an all-star. He and his manager, Lee Sigman, were rewarded by promotions to Triple-A Vancouver (Pacific Coast League), where in 1981 he batted .257 in 97 games.
Bass was named in 1982 spring training as one of four rookies (along with Bob Skube, Thad Bosley, and Marshall Edwards) considered for the starting role in right field, which eventually went to Charlie Moore. He made the Opening Day roster but was sent back to Vancouver in May after going hitless in his first nine major-league at-bats. (He started only one game.) In Vancouver he hit .315 with 17 home runs, 65 RBIs, and 23 stolen bases in 102 games.
Bass was traded by the Brewers with Frank DiPino and Mike Madden to the Houston Astros on September 3, 1982, to complete a trade for pitcher Don Sutton. Bass went 0-for-8 with the Astros in September after being added to the roster along with second baseman Bill Doran. He got his first major-league hit on September 8 — an RBI single against Atlee Hammaker of the San Francisco Giants, and said, “I’ve had trouble seeing the ball. I don’t think the pitchers I’ll face are that much better than the ones I’ve seen in Triple A, I mean consistently. I just have to get used to playing inside (the Astrodome) I guess, even in center field.”7 In July 1983 Bass married Elaine Bell on the campus of Mills College in Oakland, California. On the field that year, he was a part-time player, appearing in only 88 games with 195 at-bats. Bass played in the winter leagues that winter and throughout the early years of his major-league career. His friend Gary Haft asked him that year why he just did not relax in the offseason. Bass’s reply was, “Have you ever tried to hit off Lavelle?” referring the San Francisco relief pitcher Gary Lavelle.8 Bass began the 1984 season on the disabled list with a severely pulled right thigh muscle and then came off the bench, starting only 64 games in the outfield. He was splitting time with Terry Puhl and Tim Tolman in right field and Jerry Mumphrey in center. He was a reliable pinch-hitter, getting 13 hits in 44 attempts, and put together a 12-game hitting streak from September 14 to September 25 as he got a chance to play in the outfield every day. The Astros moved the Astrodome’s outfield fence in before the 1985 season, Bass’s first as a starting outfielder. He batted .269 with 16 homers, 68 RBIs, and 19 stolen bases in 539 at-bats. As he did for most of his career, he hit for a higher average from the right side (.311) than the left (.241), but his power numbers were more equally distributed. In 1986 the Astros came together as a contender under the fiery first-year manager Hal Lanier with young talent and strong pitching led by Mike Scott, Bob Knepper, and Nolan Ryan. They also added Billy Hatcher and Tony Walker, eliminating their need to use Bass in center field. Lanier saw Bass’s speed as an asset and installed him as the starter in right. During that year Bass’s trademark consistency was highlighted by long hitting streaks including one of 20 games, and his selection to the 1986 National League All-Star team. He joked, however, that his nickname the team had become “Rodney” (for comedian Rodney Dangerfield) as he was still largely an unknown and not yet an established star. The lack of respect was so pervasive that writer Bill Conlin, in a preview of the All-Star Game, confused him with Randy Bass, a former major leaguer who won the Triple Crown in Japan.9 The 1986 season was Bass’s best. He batted .311 with a career-high 20 home runs and finished seventh in the voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. But he would be remembered most for his game-ending strikeout in the deciding game of the NCLS against the New York Mets. “My adrenaline was so high for the whole series, most of it was like a blur, except for that last at-bat,” he said in a 2002 interview.10 In 1987 Bass batted .284 and had 31 doubles, 19 home runs, 85 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases. During a 10-1 Astros win over the Cubs on September 2, he became the first National League player to homer from both sides of the plate twice in one season. Chili Davis of the San Francisco Giants accomplished the feat 13 days later, on September 15. In 1988 Bass’s average dropped to .255, but he had 72 RBIs and 31 steals. On July 23 he flied out to left field against Steve Bedrosian of the Philadelphia Phillies in the eighth inning after fouling off 15 pitches, which stood for many years as the record for foul pitches in a single at-bat.
In 1989 Bass batted .300 in 87 games for the Astros, but missed nearly half the season with a broken right shinbone after fouling a pitch from Bill Landrum of the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 27. He played for four weeks before an x-ray revealed that a stress fracture had developed. He returned to the lineup on August 11.
After the season Bass was a free agent and he signed a three-year contract with the San Francisco Giants. He received a $500,000 signing bonus and the first no-trade clause general manager Al Rosen had ever included in a player contract. The deal was worth $5.25 million and made Bass the highest-paid player on the Giants.
Bass had been involved in Astros trade rumors over several years — he had once been all but traded to the New York Yankees for Dave Winfield before Winfield refused to go to Houston. And he was perplexed by moves the Astros had made under general manager Dick Wagner, including firing manager Lanier after the 1988 season and their recent decision to let Nolan Ryan sign with the Texas Rangers as a free agent. “It was tough leaving Houston,” he said in 1990 spring training. “I had been there for so long, and they treated me pretty good. But the offer came up and it was a chance to come back home.”11
The Astros had refused to include a no-trade clause in their offer to Bass. “That ended up being the key factor,” he said in a conference call for Bay Area media from his home in Sugarland, Texas. “I think the Astros were pretty serious about signing me, but the Giants were more serious.”12
Rosen knew Bass’s talent well. He was with the Astros in 1982, and responsible for prying him away from the Brewers.
Bass had been batting fifth with Houston and admitted he might have been trying to do too much to lead the Astros’ offense. With the Giants he was slated to bat second between Brett Butler and Will Clark.
He was especially excited about returning to the Bay area. His wife had grown up in Palo Alto, and both their parents still lived there. Bass said his agent had also received calls from Montreal, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee — along with a call from Japan. They were also attempting to gain interest from the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers.
But an injury to his left knee on May 27, 1990, limited Bass’s impact with the Giants. Although he was able to return after surgery that September, he later admitted that it took almost three years for his injury to heal. Dogged by the creaky knee and unable to provide the solid defense and consistency he had become known for, he hit .252 and .233 in his first two seasons with San Francisco. “I didn’t realize how important (speed) was to me,” he said at spring training in March 1992. “Man, if you can’t run you can’t hit. If you can’t run you can’t play defense.”13
The Giants traded Bass to the New York Mets near the end of the 1992 season and after the season, a free agent, again, he re-signed with the Astros. He said later that it took until the 1993 season until his knee to fully heal, and by that time he had lost any legitimate chance to remain a starting outfielder in Houston.
The players strike in 1994 very much hurt Bass’s career. On July 31, 1994 the Astros obtained veteran outfielder Milt Thompson from the Phillies with the idea of platooning him with Bass, who was struggling with right-handed pitching. On August 12 the season ended with the players strike, and didn’t resume until April 1995.
During the strike-bound offseason Bass was again a free agent, and he signed with the Orioles. Baltimore released him after a season in which he hit .244 with five home runs. He spent 1996 at home in Sugarland. He later said he was “just being a dad to my kids and husband to my wife.”14 He became a 5-handicap golfer with a powerful drive. As his own father had done, he coached the little league team for his two older sons. Just before he decided to attempt a comeback with the Angels, he had been offered a job hosting a radio talk show. The general manager agreed to hold the job open for six weeks.
Before the 1997 season Bass signed a minor-league contract with the Anaheim Angels. He had been offered a job hosting a radio talk show, and the station manager agreed to hold the job open for six weeks. Bass arrived at spring training two months short of his 38th birthday but taut and slim and hoping to make a comeback. In the Angels camp he remembered that the years with the Giants had been hard and were a turning point in the way he looked at his career. “The funny thing is that it doesn’t matter how much money you have. My wife and I, we’re financially stable. We can do whatever we want, and go wherever we want. But you realize that is not really the answer. Your financial needs are met, but you need something to care about, to care about and that you can get some fulfillment out of.”15
Bass was unable to return to the major leagues. Hampered by an Achilles’ tendon injury, he announced his retirement on May 20, 1997, after playing in four games with the Angels’ Triple-A team at Vancouver.
Bass and his wife, Elaine, have four children. In 2007 two of his sons were selected in the major-league draft. Garrett was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 42nd round from Jacksonville State University and played four minor league seasons, including the 2010 season an independent league playing for his father’s former manager Hal Lanier. Justin, a 21st-round pick by the Angels, played for seven seasons after high school, and also ended his career in independent ball.
Bass and his wife founded a real-estate investment business in Texas in 1993, and he continued to attend events on behalf of the Astros, as well as taking part in old-timers’ games, fantasy baseball camps and other events.
“It’s a fraternity,” Bass said. “It’s a time in the players’ lives that basically is probably the best time of our lives. Ten, fifteen years, however long you played, you just meet some of the best guys ever. It’s always great to be able to come back, just get together and just reminisce, talk about the good old days and watch these [current Astros] out there do the stuff that we used to be able to do.”16
The addition to the works cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and The Sporting News, as well as the following:
Stone, Larry. “Baseball Goes Shopping,” Santa Rosa (California) Press Democrat, December 6, 1987: 37.
Krell, David. “Hal Lanier,” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/2bd24617.
Briley, Ron. “The Greatest Game Ever Played? October 15. 1986,” SABR: The National Pastime, 2014. sabr.org/research/greatest-game-ever-played-october-15-1986.
Costello, Rory. “October 15, 1986: Mets Win NLCS Thriller in 16 Innings,” SABR Games Project, sabr.org/gamesproj/game/october-15-1986-mets-win-thriller-16-innings.
1 Buster Olney, “Getting Started; Remembering Roots, New O’s Look Back Fondly,” Baltimore Sun, May 1, 1995: 31, 41.
2 Chris Haft, “Motivation Stands Out Most When Recalling a Major Leaguer,” Twin Falls (Idaho) Times-News, June 26, 1984: 17.
3 Stanley Johnson Obituary, Duggan’s Serra Mortuary, Daly City, California, April 2012. duggans-serra.com/obituary/Stanley-Lucius-Johnson/Daly-City-CA/1062910.
4 Associated Press, “Molitor May Succeed Yount,” Chippewa Falls (Wisconsin) Herald Telegram, June 8, 1977: 12.
5 “Kevin Bass Career File,” Baltimore Sun, May 19,1995 p 173
6 “Eastern League,” The Sporting News, June 23, 1979: 44.
7 Terrence Moore, “Blown Out Giants Try to Regroup,” San Francisco Examiner, September 9, 1982: 63-66.
8 Steve Sneddon, “Everything Right for Bass This Spring,” Reno Gazette-Journal, March 17, 1992: 25.
9 “Voice of the Fan/Conlin Confused,” The Sporting News, August 11, 1986: 6.
10 Ray Kerby, An Interview with Kevin Bass, January 14, 2002, AstrosDaily.com. astrosdaily.com/players/interviews/Bass_Kevin.html.
11 Richard Obert, “To Improve Cast, Giants Catch Bass, Throw Him in Right,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), April 8, 1990: 49.
12 Larry Stone, “Giants Hook Bass,” Santa Rosa (California) Press Democrat, November 17, 1989: 37.
14 Gwen Knapp, “Bass Among Old Vets Trying to Come Back.” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), March 9, 1997: 253.
16 Alyson Footer, “Astros Host Ex-players for Legends Weekend, MLB.com, August 11, 2018. mlb.com/astros/news/astros-host-annual-legends-weekend/c-289917276.