This article was written by Hugh Poland
James Edward “Pete” Runnels occupies a place in Washington Senator and Boston Red Sox history as a stalwart, versatile infielder who learned how to hit from possibly the greatest hitter of all time. He parlayed his tutelage from none other than Ted Williams into two American League batting championships and lost a third title on the last day of the 1958 season to his former teacher.
Runnels was born January 28, 1928, in the logging town of Lufkin, Texas, about 120 miles northeast of Houston. His family, which went by the last name of Runnells, called him “Little Pete” after his father, and the nickname Pete stuck with him throughout his life. Football reigned in most small Texas towns on Friday nights and basketball was popular too, but organized baseball was harder to find. “We used to have trouble rounding up nine guys to play on a team,” Pete once explained. “In those days, most people there didn’t even know what baseball was.” Pete played football (quarterback) and basketball (guard) at Lufkin High School and only played sandlot baseball in the summer.
His career direction changed while serving as a batboy for his older brother’s sandlot team. Pete was pressed into duty as a player one day when the team needed a ninth member, and he responded with a base hit. After that, baseball became his passion.
Upon high school graduation in 1945, Runnels joined the Marines and played more baseball in the service. Once he was discharged in 1948, the Texas native attended a semester at Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, but he still had an itch to play baseball. St. Louis Cardinals Manager Eddie Dyer lived in Houston at the time and advised Pete to stay in college. Upon seeing Pete’s determination, however, Dyer invited him to try out with the Cardinals during spring training in 1949. Pete attended camp in St. Petersburg, Florida, but languished on the bench much of the time. When the team broke camp, he was assigned to the Cardinals’ Class C club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But by the time the team finished training camp and headed north, Runnels had not been offered a contract. Feeling rebuffed, he refused an invitation to stay with the team and instead returned home.
Once he got nearer to home, Runnels signed with Chickasha, Oklahoma, in the Class D Sooner League. His baseball career was off to a strong start, as Runnels posted a gaudy .372 batting average for the 1949 season. As an added bonus, he also met his future wife, Betty Ruth Hinton, there while playing in Oklahoma. In 1950 Runnels was promoted to the Class B Texarkana Bears of the Big State League, where he “cooled off” to the tune of a .330 average for the Texas-based team.
Runnels’ hitting exploits gained the attention of the Senators, who purchased his contract for $12,500 and sent him to the Chattanooga Lookouts in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he hit .356 during the first half of 1951. Desperate as always for bats, the hitting-poor Senators club promoted him to the show in mid-season that same year.
One anecdote from his days in the Southern Association at Chattanooga typified Runnels’ determined style of playing baseball. In one game, Pete had been hit in the left eye by a ball that took a bad hop. Manager Jack Onslow went onto the field to check on him and found Runnel’s eye swollen shut. Onslow tried to remove Runnels from the game, but Pete would have no part of it.
“Mr. Onslow,” said Runnels in his unmistakable drawl, “You’re a hunter, aren’t you? You shoot with one eye closed, don’t you? Well, I hit with one eye closed.”
“How can you take a guy with spunk like that out of any lineup?” Onslow mused later. Throughout his career, Runnels refused to be an alibi artist. Instead, he often played injured, without saying a word to anyone.
Pete never returned to the minors after his promotion. Simplifying his family name from Runnells to Runnels, he played for Washington until 1958, mostly at shortstop and second base. Through the 1955 season, Runnels played well but not spectacularly, hindered slightly by the deep dimensions of Washington’s Griffith Stadium and his continued seasoning as a player. His best offensive year during that time was in 1952, when Runnels hit .285 and drove in 64 runs. But he never hit below .257 in that period. His power numbers were slight, as he hit no more than 3 home runs and 18 doubles in any of those years.
Runnels’ calm but scrappy demeanor, however, was already taking shape. Although Runnels was energetic and highly competitive, he was not known as a hothead or a troublemaker. At one point in his career, however, he charged the mound after former Senators teammate Camilo Pascual lodged a fastball too close to his noggin. But Pete regretted it later. “I shouldn’t have done that,” Runnels said. “Pascual and I were always the best of friends. I just couldn’t help myself.”
In more typical Runnels fashion, he had a way of letting off steam without venting his frustrations on others. Once while in a slump with the Senators, he watched the two batters ahead of him in the lineup get on base through errors. With a chance to drive them in, Pete hit a shot up the middle of the infield, only to see New York Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek make an incredible play as he dove for the ball and caught it.
Pete returned to the dugout, calm as always. He didn’t take out his frustration on a water cooler, his bat or another player. Instead, he picked up the water bucket full of ice water and poured it over his own head, as usual internalizing his frustration.
Runnels had a breakthrough year as a Senator in 1956, when he set a career high for RBIs with 76 and hit .310. But in 1957, he slumped to a career-low .230 average and was targeted for trade by the Senators during an off-season housecleaning.
Red Sox Manager Pinky Higgins recommended trading for Runnels, and owner Tom Yawkey gave the OK. On January 23, 1958, only 30 years old, Runnels went to Boston for Norm Zauchin and Albie Pearson. It would turn out to be a one-sided deal. Zauchin exited the big leagues early in 1959, and Pearson, though he was named A.L. Rookie of the Year in 1958, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles during the 1959 season.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, reaped large dividends from the lopsided trade. In his five years with Boston, Runnels never hit below .314. Furthermore, his versatility in the field made up for his lack of speed. Though he was not known to cover an immense amount of territory, he played all four infield positions for the Sox and led the A.L. in fielding at second base in 1960 and at first base in 1961.
In 1958, his first year in Boston, Runnels’ career took a major upswing. He batted second in the Boston lineup, a table-setter ahead of his new tutor, Williams. Runnels joked in later years that he would have led the league in doubles had he not batted in front of Ted. Sound strategy forced him to hold up at first base on many occasions so as not to leave it unoccupied and tempt the opposing pitcher to walk Williams.
When Runnels first went to the Sox, he admitted that he swung at everything that came near the plate and tried to be a pull hitter. In Washington’s spacious Griffith Stadium, that usually only amounted to an average of three home runs a year. But under Ted’s tutelage, Pete waited for better pitches and started hitting to the opposite field, off the Green Monster in left. The results spoke for themselves over the five years he wore the Red Sox uniform.
Throughout that first season with the Red Sox, Runnels was neck and neck for the A.L. batting title with Williams. As the season drew to a close, the Red Sox went to Washington for a final four-game series, and Runnels led Williams by two tenths of a percentage point in the batting race. Williams had been on a tear, hitting .403 over his last 55 games of the season.
With two games to go, the men were virtually tied. In the third game, Pete tripled the first time up while Ted walked. The next time up, they both singled. In their next at bats, both homered. Pete was thinking to himself, “What do I have to do to beat this guy?”
Unfortunately, that home run was Runnels’ last hit of the season, as he went hitless in the final game. Williams, however, got two hits in the last game and wound up winning the crown with a .328 average, while Pete came in second place with a .322 mark. But any sense of deflation was short-lived, as Runnels was named the A.L. Comeback Player of the Year for his efforts.
Williams admitted later that he was half pulling for Runnels to win the batting championship. “I was thinking in my heart, I hope he wins it,” Williams confided. “I’m not going to give it to him, but I hope he wins it. Runnels had never won a batting championship, and I had won five. We weren’t in the pennant race. It certainly wouldn’t make much difference to me at that point. I wasn’t getting the kick out of it I had the year before.”
Runnels always regarded that batting race as the highlight of his career. “Wasn’t he capable?” an admiring Runnels said of Williams. But batting championships also proved to be in Pete’s future. Without the competition from Williams, Runnels would go on to win the batting championship in 1960 by hitting .320 and again in 1962 by hitting .326.
His 1960 batting title came with added challenge; during the season, Pete was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. But in his usual stalwart style, he played through the pain. On August 30, Runnels had nine hits in a doubleheader against the Tigers, tying a major-league record. Even so, the painful stomach problems continued to plague him, and as the season drew to a close, it appeared the batting championship might slip through his fingers once more. Since Boston was again out of the pennant race, Higgins offered to bench Runnels to rest his ulcers and also assure him a lock on the batting title.
Runnels emphatically refused the idea, saying “I want to win this thing the right way.” After recording three hits in his last two games of the season, Runnels finally agreed to sit out the final game, knowing he would have to go 0 for 7 (an unlikely possibility) to lose the batting championship.
After following up his spectacular 1960 season by hitting .317 in 1961, Runnels topped himself in 1962 by winning his second batting title with his highest mark ever, .326. He added to those glossy numbers by hitting 33 doubles, good for eighth in the league, while playing in all 152 games and pounding out a career-best 10 home runs.
Major league baseball finally came to Houston in 1962, as the Colt .45’s became the first expansion team in Texas. Pete expressed a desire to return to his home state to play, and Yawkey granted him his request. On November 26, the Red Sox traded Runnels to Houston for slugging outfielder Roman Mejias.
Unfortunately for Runnels, his string of outstanding seasons did not transfer from Boston to Houston. Adjusting to a new league proved difficult for Runnels at age 35. He struggled through the 1963 season, batting .253 in a more or less full-time role and watching his home run total sink to 2. Houston released Runnels on May 19, 1964, after he hit only .196 in 22 games. That proved to be the end of his big league career.
Runnels is remembered as a fine singles hitter who blossomed with the Red Sox, where his lowest five-year batting average had been .314. His career totals of a .291 batting average, 282 doubles and 876 runs scored all point to Runnels being one of the better hitters of his era. He was named to A.L. All-Star teams in 1959, 1960 and 1962, even hitting a pinch-hit home run in the second of the two All-Star classics in 1962. Runnels, who always had good hands but limited range, also had shown his versatility by playing every infield position, thus keeping his bat in the lineup.
After his playing days were over, Runnels returned to the Red Sox as a coach for the 1965 and ’66 seasons and was named interim manager for the last 16 games of the 1966 season when Billy Herman was fired. Highly regarded by owner Yawkey, Runnels was encouraged by others to lobby for the job full-time. But he wouldn’t do it, and others speculated that Runnels believed himself too proud a man to ask the Red Sox for the job. Instead, the Sox hired Dick Williams for their “Impossible Dream” season in 1967, while Runnels retired from baseball at age 38 after the 1966 season
Runnels returned home to Pasadena, Texas, to the love of his life, Betty, and their three children. He expanded his outside business interests, owning a gas station and a sporting goods store, and was the operator of Camp Champions, a summer camp program in Marble Falls, Texas. For many years, Runnels made appearances at old-timers games and baseball card shows. In addition, he served quietly and faithfully as a deacon at First Baptist Church of Pasadena.
He was also a fine golfer who often said he would love to exit this life after driving a tee shot onto a green. Sadly, this came true on May 20, 1991, as he died suddenly at age 63 after a heart attack felled him on a golf course.
Runnels was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2004. His career .291 average is higher than many of those in Cooperstown. His name lives on in an annual Lufkin high school baseball tournament, the Pete Runnels Texas Shoot Out.
However much his name lives on, the gentle, brown-haired Runnels never lived for attention or recognition. Ultimately, this quiet, unassuming man of slight build was a model of humility and faithfulness for many both on and off the field.
Joe Garagiola, Baseball is a Funny Game (J.B. Lippincott, 1960).
Al Hirshberg, “Secrets of a Batting Champion,” Saturday Evening Post, April 22, 1961.
Hy Hurwitz, “He Sets the Table for the Red Sox,” Baseball Digest, September, 1958.
Hy Hurwitz, “Runnels Credits Rise to Red Sox Trade,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1958.
Larry Klein, “The Rap Against Runnels,” Sport, June 1961.
Jim Linthicum, “Pete Runnels: Here’s the Inside Story,” Baseball Magazine, June, 1955.
Ray Robinson, “Pete Runnels, Bosox Bat Champ,” Baseball Stars 1961 (New York: Pyramid Books, 1961).