Ron Theobald (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Ron Theobald

This article was written by Graham Womack

Ron Theobald (THE TOPPS COMPANY)When Ron Theobald had finally had enough, when six years in the minors had led to nothing, a faltering wig business saved his hopes of a big-league career.

Theobald told the story to a Wisconsin State Journal writer in June 1971, by which time he was a 27-year-old Milwaukee Brewers rookie. Less than two years earlier, he’d opted to retire after his third season with the Denver Bears, a Triple-A affiliate for the Minnesota Twins.

“I was in the wig business and we were planning to expand,” Theobald told the reporter. “Then we had a couple of reverses and that didn’t work out.”1

It was a rare time that a tough break worked out in Theobald’s favor. The scrappy second baseman, who stood just 5’8” and 165 pounds, faced repeated adversity in his baseball career and ultimately played just two years in the major leagues. But by at least one measure, Theobald is among the more underrated players in major-league baseball history.

Ronald Merrill Theobald was born July 28, 1943, in Oakland, California, to Merle and Lila Theobald, They divorced when their son was 5, he said in a 2013 interview at his Walnut Creek, California, home. Lila remarried when her son was 7, to Joe Lovisone.2 Theobald’s stepfather was a teacher and coach in nearby Emeryville and later a high school principal.3

“He was an educator,” Theobald said of his stepfather. “He liked school; I didn’t care for school too much.”4

Following a prep career at Berkeley High School in 1959 and Richmond Ells High School in 1960-61, Theobald said he could have gotten $40,000 to $50,000 to sign with a big-league club. But his stepfather wanted him to go to college, so Theobald opted for Contra Costa College in 1962 and University of Arizona the following year.

With the Wildcats, Theobald became a second-team All-America selection in 1963 when he hit .366 and led the nation in runs batted in, runs scored, and total hits. In addition, Theobald led the Wildcats to a runner-up finish in College World Series that year, earning a spot as second baseman on the All-Tournament team.5

But Theobald lost his spot with the team the following year “because of scholastic deficiencies,” a press account noted at the time.6 He signed shortly thereafter with the Chicago Cubs for $17,000. Scout Ray Perry is credited with signing Theobald.7

In retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have been that surprising to Theobald that he’d be in for an epic trip through the minor leagues before finally making the bigs, ultimately spanning five organizations.

After all, Theobald had played Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball with future Hall of Famer and another Oakland product, Joe Morgan. He also played semipro ball with another East Bay product, Willie Stargell. Asked if he knew Morgan and Stargell would go on to big things, Theobald said, “No, because baseball’s so funny.”8

From the Cubs organization, where Theobald hit .256 with two clubs in 1964, he went to the Twins in the first-year player draft in 1965. Over the next few years, Theobald continued to struggle with the bat in the minors, never crossing .300 or hitting for much power. Meanwhile, he watched as teammates like Johnny Bench, whom he played with on a Cincinnati Reds instructional ball team in 1965, quickly went on to bigger things.

In the bushes, that 1971 Wisconsin State Journal piece would note, Theobald was “nicknamed ‘General’ when some minor league teammates noticed a resemblance to a picture of Napoleon on an old French coin.”9 Like Napoleon, though, stories of ignominious defeat sometimes seemed to follow Theobald.

One such instance occurred June 8, 1967. Just past midnight, only a few hundred fans were left at the end of a Triple-A doubleheader between Theobald’s Denver Bears and the host Indianapolis Indians, when Buddy Bradford lifted a popup to shallow center field. Playing second, Theobald called for the ball but it went over his head, with two runs scoring and the Bears losing.

“Those who did stay remained even longer to watch Theobald in his agony,” the Indianapolis News noted in its recap. “Chagrined at what happened, Theobald rolled in the outfield grass. He went to the outfield wall and pulled at the vines. He stalked back and forth across center field. Several Denver players tried to coax him back to the clubhouse but he refused their condolences. He was still in center field when the lights were turned off.”10

Another account had Theobald not returning to the dugout for 20 minutes after the game. In his 2013 interview, Theobald seemed to suggest that he sat on the outfield fence during this incident and contracted poison ivy, missing a week of games, though corroborating evidence of this could not be found during research for this piece.

At other points in his struggles, though, bright figures in baseball lore came to his aid. While in Denver, Theobald encountered another scrappy, light-hitting infielder from the East Bay, Billy Martin. A few years removed from his playing career and on the threshold of an outstanding managerial career, Martin was Theobald’s manager for only part of the 1968 season, but Theobald credited Martin with helping him finally reach the majors.

“You’re a good Triple-A ballplayer,” Theobald remembered Martin telling him. “But if you’re going to play professional ball, your goal should be the big leagues.”

“He got the most out of me,” Theobald said. “He was good.”11

Martin had sometimes unusual and inconsistent tactics. Once, he ran into Theobald and a teammate past curfew, greeting them cordially but fining them $100 apiece the next day. Another time, with the Bears mired in a losing streak, Martin took the opposite tact, telling the team, as Theobald remembered in his 2013 interview, “If you’re in your room by curfew, you’re going to get fined.”

Players went out that night, loosened up, and won the next day, Theobald recalled.

With the Bears in 1969, Theobald hit a career-best .293. There was only one problem: the second baseman for Denver’s parent club, the Twins, hit an American League-best .332. One can only wonder if Theobald might have made the majors a few years sooner if not for future Hall of Famer Rod Carew.

It is perhaps worth noting that Carew would later indirectly benefit Theobald, with Theobald saying in the aforementioned 2013 interview that he took Carew’s spot on a Venezuelan winter league team in late 1971 after Carew jumped ship. Theobald signed on the condition that the team match Carew’s pay, $4,000 a month. He didn’t return to the states a wealthy man. “I lost all my goddamn money playing cards with my teammates and golfing with them,” Theobald said. “Ah jeez. I didn’t make any money.”

Things began to change quickly for Theobald after his decision to stick with baseball following the 1969 season. The Washington Senators purchased him from the Twins in March 1970. Two months later, the Senators dealt Theobald along with Hank Allen to the Brewers — who had just relocated from Seattle where they had been the expansion Pilots in 1969 — for Wayne Comer.

Theobald made the Brewers out of spring training in 1971. The team’s manager, Dave Bristol, who’d also managed Theobald in instructional ball in 1965, had bright praise for the rookie in that Wisconsin State Journal piece.

“He can make the double play and field as good as anybody,” Bristol told the reporter. “He’s got quick hands and he’s also good at the hit-and-run.”12

Theobald said in the 2013 interview that it felt great to finally make the majors. “It was different than the minors as far as they really took care of you,” said Theobald, who earned the league minimum in salary, $11,500, as a rookie. “The hotel accommodations. You flew every place. Meal money was better.”

Although he led the American League in sacrifice bunts as a rookie with 19 (still a franchise record), hit a respectable .276, and — by more recent measures — was almost an average hitter with a 92 OPS+, Theobald continued to face challenges as a hitter. Pitchers, he said, were more precise in their location and with breaking balls.

His luck changed a little on June 8, 1971, when he led off the game against Detroit Tigers ace Mickey Lolich. The Brewers’ hitting coach and former batting champion Harvey Kuenn had familiarity with Lolich and counseled Theobald on what to expect.

“He said, ‘What he’s going to do, he’s going to throw a fastball right down the middle first pitch, just to get ahead of you … He’s going to give you a batting practice fastball and you just take a rip at it’.”

Theobald said that he “swung from [his] ass,” and hit it out of Tiger Stadium. Martin, by then Detroit’s manager, came out of the dugout, exclaiming, “Theobald, you never hit a home run for me, you bastard!”

It was, the Detroit Free Press noted the next day, Theobald’s first home run in professional baseball since 1967.13

In his sophomore season, though, Theobald slumped to a .220 batting average. While the entire junior circuit hit just .239 that year, helping perhaps to usher in the designated hitter rule the following year, Theobald’s position became vulnerable in the spring of 1973. With his successor, Pedro Garcia, poised to finish second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, Theobald learned of his fate two days before the end of spring training.

“It was an ashen-faced, close to tears Ron Theobald who clumped into the press box at Sun City Stadium late (in) March,” Steve Weston of the Arizona Republic noted two months later.14 “He could hardly speak. ‘They’ve released me,’ muttered the former University of Arizona All-America second baseman. It was the biggest shock of his life.”

By this time, the 28-year-old Theobald had hooked on with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders and hoped to return to the big leagues, though he told Weston, “If I have a lousy season, I don’t think I’ll stay in baseball. I’d hate to be one of those guys that just hang on.”15

Thus, it’s little surprise that Theobald’s numbers don’t go on past 1973, where he hit .221 in 43 games for the Islanders before hanging it up.

Theobald stayed in Honolulu another 18 years, working for the United Parcel Service, eventually becoming a supervisor. He also was a softball player, with Honolulu Star-Bulletin noting in June 1982 that the 38-year-old Theobald was playing in the Waikiki Restaurant & Bar League and umpiring in the Honolulu Advertising League.16

Theobald moved back to the mainland in 1989, going to Southern California to umpire high school and college games. He soon got a job driving a special education bus.

“It was rewarding because you didn’t drive the big buses,” Theobald said. “It was the smaller buses. You only had about 11 or 12 passengers. You got to know the kids and their parents. It was more of a social thing than when you drove the big bus. You didn’t know any of the kids and the kids were wild. These kids were kind of docile.”

In later years, Theobald said he also began receiving a $5,000 annual pension from baseball after childhood friend and fellow former big leaguer Ernie Fazio helped lead efforts to extend pension benefits for players who’d logged less than four years in the majors prior to 1980.

After his mother died in 2009, Theobald moved to Walnut Creek to live in her condo. He remained in Walnut Creek until his death on April 15, 2016, at 72 from undisclosed causes. At the time of his death, Theobald had been married twice, had an adult daughter, Laura Theobald, living in Washington and left behind a significant other of 26 years, Shirley Finch of Fullerton, California.17

By any reasonable measure, Theobald is an obscure figure from baseball history, with just 779 at-bats in the majors for two forgettable Brewers teams. But the brevity of his career underscores perhaps his greatest accomplishment: Not counting active players or pitchers, Theobald is one of just 13 players in National or American League history with at least four Wins Above Replacement and under 1,000 plate appearances, according to the Stathead tool on Baseball-Reference.com.

Just one player since Theobald, Joe Inglett, has joined this group, suggesting the current game might be better about utilizing and retaining a player of Theobald’s talents. Players above replacement level tend to stick in baseball these days.

Theobald’s career appeared to be a victim of timing in other ways as well. Only a few years after he hung it up, bright young players like Robin Yount, Gorman Thomas, and Paul Molitor began to turn the Brewers into a contender. Around the same time, free agency sent salaries skyrocketing, no small consideration for a player like Theobald, who topped out in the majors at $18,000 and worked blue collar jobs thereafter.

Asked in 2013, though, if he ever wondered if his career would have been different if he’d come up a few years later, Theobald didn’t waste too much time feeling sorry for himself.

“Oh, I know my paycheck would’ve been different,” Theobald said. “I don’t know about my career.”

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Darrell Jarvis and Joel Barnhart and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Notes

1 Thomas Flaherty, “Baseball is Theobald’s Business,” Wisconsin State Journal, June 6, 1971: Section 2,

2 “Licenses Issued,” Oakland Tribune, November 16, 1950: D-75.

3 Joseph C. Lovisone obituary, accessed via Legacy.com.

4 Author interview with Ron Theobald at his Walnut Creek, California home in 2013. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Theobald are from this interview.

5 “Trojan Slugger Wins ‘Series MVP’ Award,” Arizona Daily Star, June 17, 1963: Section B, 1.

6 “Grades Sideline UA All-America Ron Theobald,” Arizona Daily Star, February 1, 1964: Section B, 2.

7 SABR Scouts and Scouting Committee database. Thanks to Rod Nelson.

8 “Licenses Issued.”

9 Flaherty

10 Lester Koelling, “Tribe, Denver Trade Agonies, Ecstasies,” Indianapolis News, June 8, 1967: 49.

11 “Licenses Issued.”

12 Flaherty

13 Jim Hawkins, “Tigers Slip Brewers 2 ‘Mickeys,’ 8-3,” Detroit Free Press, June 9, 1971: 1-D.

14 Steve Weston, “Ron Theobald won’t give up,” Arizona Republic, May 29, 1973: 58.

15 Weston.

16 Dick Couch, “Everyone and His Kid Sister Play America’s Game,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 16, 1982: Section H, 1.

17 Ronald Theobald obituary, accessed via Legacy.com.

Full Name

Ronald Merrill Theobald

Born

July 28, 1943 at Oakland, CA (USA)

Died

April 15, 2016 at Walnut Creek, CA (USA)

If you can help us improve this player’s biography, contact us.

Tags

None

© SABR. All Rights Reserved