This article was written by Steve West
“Good field no hit” is a label that can doom any player. When that player is pushed through the system, it can stunt his natural growth into a position. And when he’s competing against several others for the same spot – people who have much more support from the team – the opportunities may just disappear. This happened to Lee Bales, and can explain why his two-year major-league career occurred at ages 22 and 23, and why he was out of baseball at 24.
Wesley Owen Bales was born on December 4, 1944, in Los Angeles. His parents, Kenneth and Geraldine (Secrest) Bales, had met and married in Oklahoma, then moved to Los Angeles during World War II, when Kenneth was in the Navy. Wesley would be known as Wesley, Wes, and Lee through school and the early part of his career, before mostly being called Lee for the rest of his life. Lee had two younger siblings, Cheryl and Terry. As he grew up he was very athletic, starring in baseball, basketball, and football at Norwalk High School. After graduating from high school in 1962, he went to junior college at Cerritos College in Los Angeles, where he played center field on the baseball team, and was named first-team All-Conference in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Conference.
At the end of the 1963 college season, Bales signed with the Milwaukee Braves and was sent to the Boise Braves in the Class A Pioneer League, where he mostly played shortstop. He hit .268 in 39 games and did well enough with a poor team to get noticed by the parent club. On October 15 Bales was added to the Braves’ 40-man roster to protect him from the first-year player draft of the time – the only player from Boise to be protected in that way.
Bales returned home and played for the Long Beach Rockets in the local Winter League, as he would several more times during his career. In the spring of 1964 he attended the Braves’ early instructional camp along with other younger players. Bales was already aware that he had a good glove but wasn’t as good a hitter as he needed to be: “I’m concentrating on learning to bunt and beat the ball to first for base hits,” he said. “I’ll never be a power hitter, but I hope to make myself a big league ball player.”1 At 5-feet-10 and 165 pounds, he was similar to many of the middle infielders of the time, trying to get on base rather than having much power. Bales was a switch-hitter, believing that would give him some small advantage as well.
Because Bales had been added to the 40-man roster as a first-year player, under the rules in effect at the time the Braves had to carry him on their roster all season or, if they sent him to the minors, count him against the roster limit and play one man short. The Braves had one other player in that situation, Woody Woodward, but they had given Woodward a large bonus and he was more advanced, so the team kept Woodward and sent Bales to the minors.
Assigned to the Austin Senators of the Double-A Texas League for the 1964 season, Bales was 19 and playing with and against players several years older. Despite that disadvantage, he led his team in games played (133 of 140), hit .253, stole 17 bases and walked (76 times) more than he struck out (61 K’s). He split his time between second base (78 games) and shortstop (54 games), and although he made 40 errors he was generally regarded as a good fielder. His problem wasn’t Bales’ ability though; it was his lack of experience. In June his manager, Buddy Hicks, said, “Bales is way over his head in Double-A. He’s the best we have at this time, but he just isn’t ready.”2 Despite that vote of no-confidence from his manager, Bales stayed with Austin the whole season.
In 1965 Bales was again assigned to Austin, this time playing much more shortstop (89 games) than second base (37 games). Although at 20 he was still among the youngest regulars in the league, he was very consistent compared with the prior year, raising his average to .261, with most of his other numbers similar to 1964. On April 19 he had four hits, including a home run and triple, and on July 25 he had his best day as a professional, going 6-for-6 with two doubles against El Paso. The publicity from that game may have helped Bales get a promotion a week later to the Atlanta Crackers of the Triple-A International League. He spent the rest of the season there, but played in only 10 games, and hit only .130 in 26 at-bats.
With the United States mobilizing for the Vietnam War, Bales ended up in the Army Reserve during the winter. His military obligations often interfered with his baseball career, as he would have to leave his team for a weekend here or a couple of weeks there while on Reserve duty.
The 1966 season arrived with big change, with the Milwaukee Braves moving to Atlanta. Bales had a good spring, with various comments that he was one of the team’s stars of the future and a likely successor to Frank Bolling at second base. But again Bales was assigned to the minors, this time starting the season with Triple-A Richmond. By mid-May he was batting.317, and with Atlanta struggling, general manager John McHale was making noises about bringing Bales up. On June 18 Bales had another highlight day: He homered off Gary Waslewski in Toronto, and after Larry Maxie later homered, Bales came up next and Waslewski hit him. Bales took exception to this, and began a fight in which he got in the only punch. He was fined for his action, but league President George Sisler Jr. also privately admired Bales for his combative spirit.3
On July 25 Atlanta came to town, and Richmond beat them 5-3 in an exhibition game. The major leaguers were impressed by Bales, with manager Bobby Bragan mentioning him as a player who might be called up soon. Over the next couple of weeks, several other Richmond players headed to Atlanta, in what was called “a full-blown Atlanta Braves panic policy.”4 Bales was called up on August 5, with Atlanta’s defense struggling, and Bragan desperate to stave off the inevitable. “I didn’t think I’d be going up until the end of the season,” Bales said.5
Bales made his major-league debut on August 7, 1966, in Philadelphia. He batted at the top of the order and played second base, and he went 0-for-4, striking out all four times, as the Braves won 3-0. The next night he made his home debut, and led off in the bottom of the first with his first major-league hit, an infield single to second off Don Sutton of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Moments later Bales scored on a double by Mack Jones. He went hitless in his next three at-bats, and was pinch-hit for in the ninth inning as the Braves scored four runs to win 10-9.
The next day the Braves fired Bobby Bragan and installed Billy Hitchcock as manager for the rest of the season. Hitchcock wanted to play veterans to help him keep the job the next season, and so Bales played in just 10 more games all season, almost all as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement (including one appearance in left field, giving Hank Aaron an inning off). He did score the winning run as a pinch-runner on September 14, sliding home to beat the tag in the 10th inning, giving the Braves their eighth win in a row. “Lee did a good job of base running,” Hitchcock said. “He got a real good jump on that play at the plate and slid hard.”6 But Bales ended the season with just one hit in 16 at-bats (.063) in 12 games, scoring four runs thanks to his pinch-running appearances.
The Braves sent many of their minor-league players to winter-ball destinations for more experience, and Bales played in the Venezuela League that winter. The winter-league season had not even kicked off when he was traded to the Houston Astros. In a six-player deal, Atlanta sent Bales along with pitchers Tom Dukes and Dan Schneider to Houston, and got back catcher John Hoffman, infielder-outfielder Gene Ratliff, and minor-league infielder Ed Pacheco. At the time the Astros were talking about adding the two pitchers for their bullpen, but it was also seen as a trade of two top prospects – Bales and Pacheco – who hadn’t fulfilled their promise with their current teams, and it was hoped a change of scenery would help them.
In Venezuela Bales played for the Lara Cardenales under Hub Kittle, who had managed him in Austin. He started off hot, hitting well over .300 for the first month or more, but then went into a slump. Late in the season the Cardenales shook up their team in an attempt to reach the playoffs, releasing several players including Bales. He ended up hitting .264 in his one season in Venezuela.
Bales began his first spring training with the Astros in a good position. Although the Astros had two set starters in Joe Morgan at second base and Sonny Jackson at shortstop, manager Grady Hatton said that Bales had been acquired as their backup, because injuries to Morgan and others during 1966 had caused the Astros to slump in the standings. His main competition was Bob Lillis, who had been signed as a coach but was wavering in his decision to retire from playing, and Sandy Alomar, who had come over from the Braves in a separate trade during the winter. When the Astros traded Alomar to the New York Mets in late March, Bales had earned a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Even so, Bales ended up sitting on the bench most of April. He got into seven of his team’s first 15 games, but six of those were pinch-hit or pinch-run appearances, with only one start, on April 25. By the time he was optioned to Double-A on April 29 (with Lillis being activated as a player to take his place), Bales was just 0-for-5 with 3 walks, and had played just once in the field. A wasted month, Hatton as much as admitted when he said the plan was for Bales to have a full season starting at shortstop in the minors.
So Bales again went to the Texas League, two steps back to where he was in 1964 and 1965. Now playing for the Amarillo Sonics, he was catching up to the league in terms of age, with most of the players on his team being in the 21-to-24 range (Bales was 22). He was not overmatched (in his 60 games he hit .271 with one home run), but neither did he stand out. He played mostly shortstop with a few games at second base, and his time in Amarillo was punctuated by breaks to go to Army Reserve training, a few days here and a couple of weeks there breaking up his rhythm.
Sonny Jackson was struggling in his second full season in the majors, and several times through the early part of the season there was talk that the Astros would bring up Bales to play some shortstop, but it wasn’t until Jackson was injured in late July that Bales was recalled. This time he spent a couple of weeks in the major leagues, with two more starts and several more pinch-hit and pinch-run appearances. His best day in the majors came on July 30, when he went 2-for-3 with a walk (the only multihit game of his major-league career). But on August 11 Bales left again for Reserve duty, coincidentally at the same time that Jackson returned from the disabled list. By the time Bales got back, he had been optioned to the Oklahoma City 89ers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he spent the next month playing in 23 games and hitting .277. When the 89ers’ season ended he was recalled to the Astros, where he got into another five games. On September 22 he started at second base, and in the second inning he singled to left off Jerry Koosman for his third hit of the season, scoring Rusty Staub for his first career RBI. On October 1, the last game of the season for the Astros, Bales pinch-hit in the second inning and hit a sacrifice fly for his second career RBI in his last major-league plate appearance.
Bales ended 1967 having played in 19 games for the Astros (just seven of them in the field), going 3-for-27 at the plate (.111), and making little impression on anyone. On November 17 the Astros made several roster moves, including assigning Bales to Oklahoma City, removing him from the 40-man roster and making him eligible to be drafted by any team that wanted him. As an 18-year-old the Braves had protected him as a potential future star, but now at 23 the Astros would let anyone take him. No one did, and when Bales returned to Astros spring training in 1968 as a nonroster player, it appeared that other players had passed him by. Having to spend some of the spring on Reserve duty gave him even less opportunity to impress.
Sure enough, Bales was in the Oklahoma City lineup when the PCL season began in mid-April, but just a few weeks in, it was clear he was struggling, hitting just .171 in 12 games. In early May Bales was reassigned, this time to his third Texas League team, the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs. He played 63 games there, mostly at second base with a few appearances at third and short, but his hitting was gone, and he would end the season at just .206.
And that was it. Bales would not show up in another box score, and he moved on with the rest of his life. He had realized that he would need a life after baseball, so while playing he had kept studying, passing several securities-industry exams in February 1968. That same month he married Elizabeth Winter, and they had two children, daughter Brett born in 1972 and son Kenneth in 1974. Bales spent his post-baseball career as an investment adviser, eventually opening his own company that catered to high-net-worth investors. He was successful enough that his company managed more than $50 million within a few years. The family lived in the Houston area, spending retirement years in Sugarland, Texas.
Last revised: July 14, 2015
1 Bob Wolf, “Bragan Trying Wills’ Switch On Rookie Duo,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1964: 10.
2 “Hicks Sings Blues, Too,” Milwaukee Journal, June 11, 1964.
3 Shelley Rolfe, “Upholding Precedent Led To Bales Being Fined,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 26, 1966: C-5.
4 Shelley Rolfe, “R-Braves Lose Bales To Atlanta,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 6, 1966: 17.
5 Rolfe, “R-Braves Lose Bales To Atlanta.”
6 “Braves Nip Cubs for 8th in Row,” Madison (Wisconsin) Capital Times, September 15, 1966.