Over 13 minor-league seasons, Steve Stroughter batted .304 with a .377 on-base percentage and .485 slugging percentage. The lefty-hitting outfielder was 30, however, when he received his lone major league opportunity – 51 plate appearances for the 1982 Seattle Mariners.
Stephen Lewis Stroughter was born on March 15, 1952, in Visalia, California, about 190 miles north of Los Angeles in the state’s San Joaquin Valley. His parents, Lewis and Mildred (Williams) Stroughter, were both natives of Hope, Arkansas. Lewis owned his own trucking business when Steve was small, and later worked as a bus driver. He sang in a gospel group in his spare time and often brought his son along with him. “He’s the main reason I stayed with baseball,” Steve recalled. “I’ve been playing since I was 9.”1 Steve had an older half-brother, Jimmy, and a younger sister, Sandra.
Growing up on the north side of Visalia, Steve played for championship Little League teams.2 On an early career questionnaire, he cited a highlight of his amateur days: “Receiving award as best Babe Ruth player –batted .883.”3 In a Babe Ruth League All-Star Game, he batted cleanup behind a one-year older player named Jim Wohlford. “Steve was one of the greatest natural hitters I ever saw, and I played 18 years — 15 in the majors,” Wohlford said. “He was just a gifted athlete.” Recalling that the wooden bats they used growing up had smaller sweet spots than modern aluminum models, Wohlford still marveled more than 50 years later about a homer that Stroughter hit at Recreation Ballpark — Visalia’s minor-league stadium. “He hit one out in left-center, probably 380 feet. He was still in junior high school.”4
At Redwood High School, Steve played football and basketball as well. As a senior cager, the school’s yearbook records that “Stroughter was the top rebounder and top scorer for RHS and was the number-two scorer in the Central Yosemite League. He also made the All-League first team.”5 The same publication includes a picture of him pitching for the Rangers’ baseball team. Stroughter’s impact stretched beyond athletics, however. In 1969, he was elected president of Redwood’s student body –the first African American to achieve that distinction.6
Stroughter received a letter inviting him to attend the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, but never responded after being counseled by his brother, who was involved in the Black Power movement.7 The California Angels were the first team to draft the lefty-hitting, righty-throwing outfielder — in the 15th round in June 1970. He did not sign then, nor did the Chicago Cubs land him following his first semester at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, when they made him their second-round pick in the secondary phase of the January 1971 draft. Finally, after the San Francisco Giants selected Stroughter sixth overall in the secondary phase that June, he was signed by scout Dick Wilson.8
Stroughter led Wilson’s Great Falls (Montana) Giants to the championship of the rookie-level Pioneer League in 1971, topping the circuit with a .351 batting average. He also notched 46 RBIs in 57 games to tie for third in the league. Stroughter was named to the Topps Rookie League All-Star team and received an engraved plaque from the same company as the George M. Trautman Pioneer League Player of Year.9
In 1972, Stroughter moved up to the Class A Decatur (Illinois) Commodores. Decatur had the worst record in the 10-team Midwest League, but Stroughter’s .285 batting average in 111 games was the club’s best by a regular. That fall, he was named to the All-Star squad in the Arizona Instructional League.10
With the Fresno Giants of the Class A California League in 1973, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Stroughter began to hit for power. He went deep twice and drove in all of Fresno’s runs in a 4-3 victory over Visalia on April 19. The next day, he hammered a game-winning home run against Modesto.11 By batting .302 with 18 homers in 130 games overall, Stroughter finished fifth in the league in both categories.
Stroughter advanced to the Amarillo Giants in the Double-A Texas League in 1974 but he showed up an hour late to the ballpark one day after forgetting to adjust his alarm clock. That sparked a heated argument with manager Denny Sommers. Despite batting .279 with 32 RBIs in 61 games, Stroughter was demoted to Fresno on June 24 and remained there through the end of the following season. “I’m not saying who was right or who was wrong, but it still hangs with me,” he remarked eight years after the incident. “I was labeled a troublemaker.”12
Back with Fresno, Stroughter hit .283 in 53 games to help the Giants finish with the California League’s best record and highest scoring offense in 1974. In the club’s championship series triumph over San Jose, he was intentionally walked three times in the decisive fifth game.13
Stroughter remained stuck at Fresno in 1975. During this time in the California League, he was older than most of the circuit’s players. After he batted .301 with 15 homers in 131 contests, the California Angels purchased his contract from the Giants in October. “When I was with the Giants, they said I was hard to get along with,” Stroughter reflected. “I’m always quiet, but I always get along with everyone. It’s funny, in baseball, if you get branded with a certain label, it sticks with you no matter what you do.” His habit of retreating into solitude before games was often misunderstood. “I have to concentrate — see myself hitting the ball — and I get quiet then, thinking about the pitcher,” he explained.14
That offseason, Stroughter appeared in 10 regular-season contests for the Mexican Pacific League champion Naranjeros de Hermosillo and accompanied them to the Dominican Republic, where they won the Caribbean Series.15
In 1976, he returned to Double-A and the Texas League with the Angels’ El Paso Diablos affiliate. In 116 games, he batted .296 and cracked the circuit’s top 10 in homers (15), doubles (27), RBIs (85), runs scored (82), and slugging (.470). “I was confident the Angels would move me up, but then, I came back here in the role of DH, and I wound up getting off to a bad start,” he said midway through another season at El Paso in 1977. The previous year, Stroughter had committed a dozen errors and compiled a poor .945 fielding percentage in the outfield. For the remainder of his career, he never topped 83 outfield appearances in any single season. The El Paso Herald Post noted his tendency to make one-handed catches that summer. “I feel comfortable with it and stay with it,” Stroughter said.16 “I know I’m no Willie Mays, but I don’t think I’ve made many errors that hurt the team… I think I’m a good outfielder. And I hustle out there. A lot of guys will jog after a ball that gets by them. I don’t.”17
In the summer of 1977, Stroughter was so hot at the plate that El Paso’s fans dubbed him “Stevie Wonder.” Diablos manager Buck Rodgers observed, “He’s starting to hit better because he’s going with the pitch more.”18 Stroughter earned El Paso’s team MVP honors by hitting .336 with 25 homers and league-leading totals of 116 RBIs and 35 doubles. “I know I can hit, and I know I can hit a higher classification of pitching than Double-A,” he said. “I try to get a good pitch to hit. My problem has been that I swing at too many good pitches. And when I get tired, I tend to lunge after bad pitches.”19
Although Stroughter batted just .212 with five homers that winter in the Mexican Pacific League, he demonstrated improved patience at the plate by walking 35 times in 62 games with the Águilas de Mexicali.20 When he received his first chance to face Triple-A pitching in 1978, he walked more than he struck out for the first time as a professional and hit .325 with 15 homers and 85 RBIs in 132 contests for the Salt Lake City Gulls in the Pacific Coast League. Stroughter’s 35 doubles and 92 runs scored led the team. The Angels had no room for him, however. When he did not make California’s Opening Day roster in 1979, he was released.
Stroughter caught on with the Rieleros de Aguascalientes in the Mexican League but contracted a virus and hardly played. The Seattle Mariners offered him a spot with their PCL affiliate, but it involved a pay cut, and they were not willing to buy out the remainder of his Mexican League contract. Stroughter withdrew $3,500 from his savings account to purchase his free agency from the Rieleros and join the Spokane (Washington) Indians in late June.21 In his fifth at-bat with his new team, he homered and won $210 as part of a promotion. “I sure can use it,” he said. Stroughter went deep twice against Ogden on June 27.22 In his first two dozen contests with Spokane, he scored 24 runs and exploded for seven extra-base hits in one 10-game stretch.23 On July 19, he led off the game against Tacoma with a home run, blasted a grand slam in the second inning and added a two-run single in an 11-4 victory.24
Overall, “Stevie Wonder” batted .300 with 12 homers in 81 games, but Spokane skipper Rene Lachemann quipped that the slugger’s outfield defense gave his nickname another dimension, saying, “Every time they hit the ball to him, you wonder what’s going to happen.”25
In 1980, Stroughter remained at Spokane. He hit .307 in 123 games, but his home run total slipped to 11. In January 1981, Mariners manager Maury Wills told reporters that he’d look at Stroughter in spring training, unaware that Seattle had dealt him to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Mike Bacsik in December.26 Stroughter didn’t stay in the Twins organization for long, though. After only 27 games with the Toledo Mud Hens in the Triple-A International League, he was sold back to Spokane on May 28. In 114 contests between the two teams, he batted .276 with 14 homers overall.
Stroughter finally attended his first big-league spring training in 1982. “This year was the first time I got more than one pair of [baseball] shoes,” he remarked that summer.27 He had been invited by Lachemann, his former Spokane skipper, who had replaced Wills at Seattle’s helm the previous year. “I was just hoping that I’d get a chance during the spring. I wanted to at least get some at-bats and let people make up their mind about me from what they saw,” Stroughter said. He turned 30 during training camp in Tempe, Arizona, and made the Mariners’ Opening Day roster by batting .429 during exhibition play, including 5-for-5 as a pinch hitter. “I spent a long time in the minor leagues and I’m tired of them,” he said. “I’m healthy and I’m in good shape. I can run. I can hit the ball. I think I’m ready to be here.”28
On April 7, 1982, Stroughter made his major-league debut. The Mariners were trailing, 7-5, with two on and two out in the top of the ninth inning at the Metrodome. He struck out pinch-hitting against Twins reliever Doug Corbett to end the contest. The next day, he struck out pinch-hitting against Corbett again. On April 11 in Oakland, Stroughter made his first start and went 0-for-4 as a designated hitter. Finally, with the A’s visiting the Kingdome on April 17, Stroughter stroked an eighth-inning pinch-hit single to right against Matt Keough in the second game of a doubleheader. He remained in the game as a left fielder and gloved a Davey Lopes flyout. After Seattle’s 10-3 loss, Stroughter’s teammates presented him with two game balls –one for his first hit, one for his first catch.29
Stroughter made his only major-league start in left field memorable with his bat. It came in Baltimore on May 4. The Mariners fell behind early, 3-0, but Stroughter led off the fifth inning with an opposite-field homer off Dennis Martínez. He also legged out an infield hit in Seattle’s come-from-behind 4-3 victory. Stroughter’s only other defensive appearance came in the last six innings of a 14-inning loss to Cleveland on May 11, in which he cut down Indians speedster Miguel Diloné attempting to stretch a single into a double.
Between May 13 and May 19, Stroughter was the Mariners’ starting DH for five of six games and twice batted cleanup. On May 21, however, he was demoted to Salt Lake City, by then Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate, after hitting just .200 in 40 at-bats. Back in the PCL, he blasted seven homers in his first 24 games to earn another callup to the Mariners at the end of June.30 Stroughter remained in the majors for a month but appeared in just seven games and went 0-for-7. For Salt Lake City, he produced a .333/.429/.615 slash line and drove in 48 runs in 54 games.
That winter, Stroughter batted .333 for the Cardenales de Lara in the Venezuelan League, though he appeared in just six contests.31 He began 1983 in the Japanese Central League; hitting .276 with five homers in 28 games with the Hanshin Tigers while being hobbled by a mysterious injury to his left foot. By August, he was back in the Triple-A International League with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Syracuse Chiefs farm team, where he batted .203 with one homer in 22 games. “At least I can say I’ve seen the world,” Stroughter said. “I’m a guy who makes the airlines rich.”32
After baseball, the condition of Stroughter’s left foot — a nuisance at first — worsened. By the time he was diagnosed with a virulent form of Valley Fever, the foot nearly had to be amputated, and he was left with a permanent limp. Six months after the infection was discovered, doctors found that it had spread to his brain, causing excruciating headaches. Once, his life was saved by emergency surgery after his father called 911. Stroughter was also an insulin-dependent diabetic with a serious addiction to drugs. Like many professional baseball players in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had developed a substance abuse problem in the minors. The end of his playing career and the addition of prescribed pain medications made matters worse. Stroughter’s bleak 1990s included bouts of homelessness and multiple arrests.
Finally, in the early years of the 21st century, he found the willpower to get clean. Stroughter went back to the College of the Sequoias and made the dean’s list while completing his Associate of the Arts degree. He returned to baseball, coaching at clinics, offering personal hitting instruction, and participating in functions with the nearby Single-A Fresno Grizzlies. In 2007, Stroughter was one of the inaugural honorees to have his name etched in granite at Visalia Riverway Sports Park as part of the Sports Pillars of Fame.33
In 2014, Stroughter reconnected with Isabelle “Izzy” Brown, a registered nurse with Kaiser Permanente. He had known her since 1979 but they had lost contact. Steve and Izzy married a year later — a life-changing event, in the eyes of his friends. When Izzy had her DNA analyzed through ancestry.com in 2016, she encouraged Steve to do the same. The results located a 100-percent match to Steve’s DNA that he soon realized was his son. Shortly after he had entered professional baseball, his girlfriend at the time had given their baby up for adoption because they were in no position to care for a child. After a series of emails and phone calls, for the first time Steve met his 46-year-old son: Michael Helsley, a successful litigator with a top Fresno law firm.
Despite his many ongoing physical problems, the presence of Stroughter’s loving wife and his relationship with his son made his final years rewarding. Stephen Lewis Stroughter was 65 when he died in Fresno on March 6, 2018. He is interred with his parents at Visalia Public Cemetery. Former Angels minor-league director Tom Sommers spoke at the funeral, which featured recollections from Wohlford read by one of Stroughter’s cousins. During the service, a lifelong friend observed that Stroughter’s life was like a Greek play with three separate acts: hope, tragedy, and redemption.
Special thanks to Isabelle “Izzy” Stroughter (telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, August 4, 2021).
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and David Bilmes and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
1 Harry Readel, “‘Big Stick’ Helps Stroughter Push Away Wrong Image,” El Paso (Texas) Herald-Post, July 16, 1977: 6.
2 “Sweet-swinging Stroughter Dies at 65,” Sun Gazette (Exeter, California), March 28, 2018, https://thesungazette.com/article/news/2018/03/28/sweet-swinging-stroughter-dies-at-65/ (last accessed July 30, 2021).
3 Steve Stroughter, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, October 23, 1971.
4 Jim Wohlford, Telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, August 18, 2021.
5 Log Nineteen Hundred Seventy (1970 Redwood High School Yearbook): 175.
6 “Sweet-swinging Stroughter Dies at 65.”
7 Isabelle Stroughter, Telephone conversation with Malcolm Allen, August 14, 2021.
8 Stroughter, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss.
9 “Topps Salutes the Minor Leagues,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1971: 39.
10 Ed Prell, “Cactus Loop Picks 16-Man All-Star Squad,” The Sporting News, December 2, 1972: 53.
11 “Class A Leagues,” The Sporting News, May 12, 1973: 38.
12 Tracy Ringolsby, “After 11-Year Wait, Stroughter Arrives,” The Sporting News, May 3, 1982: 34.
13 Bob Teitlebaum, “Somber Celebration Follows Salem Sweep,” The Sporting News, September 21, 1974: 40.
14 Harry Readel, “‘Big Stick’ Helps Stroughter Push Away Wrong Image,” El Paso Herald-Post, July 16, 1977: 6.
15 Jesús Alberto Rubio, “Celerino Sánchez, Un Immortal del Béisbol,” March 12, 2013, http://www.revistapresencia.com/2013/01/celerino-sanchez-un-inmortal-del-beisbol.html (last accessed August 14, 2021).
16 Bob Ingram, “Baseball Now Filled with Pete Grays,” El Paso Herald Post, August 15, 1977: 23.
17 Readel, “‘Big Stick’ Helps Stroughter Push Away Wrong Image.”
18 Harry Readel, “Steve Stroughter Enjoys Wonderful Dudley Weekend,” El Paso Herald-Post, July 11, 1977: 21.
19 Readel, “‘Big Stick’ Helps Stroughter Push Away Wrong Image.”
20 Guillermo Gastélum Duarte, Enciclopedia Conmemorativa del 75 Aniversario del le Liga Meixcana del Pacifico, (2019, Moby Dick Editorial: Culiacán, Mexico): 593.
21 Ringolsby, “After 11-Year Wait, Stroughter Arrives.”
22 “Stroughter’s Revival,” The Sporting News, July 14, 1979: 41.
23 “Sizzling Stroughter,” The Sporting News, July 28, 1979: 40.
24 “Stroughter’s Salvo,” The Sporting News, August 4, 1979: 37.
25 Jim Price, “Steve Stroughter, Former Spokane Outfielder, Dies,” Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), March 18, 2018, https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2018/mar/18/stroughter-dies-indians-of-in-79/ (last accessed August 14, 2021).
26 Steve Rudman, “How Did Wills Lose His Job?” San Bernardino County (California) Sun, May 12, 1981: C2.
27 “Stroughter Paces Gulls,” The Sporting News, July 12, 1982: 49.
28 Ringolsby, “After 11-Year Wait, Stroughter Arrives.”
29 Ringolsby, “After 11-Year Wait, Stroughter Arrives.”
30 “Stroughter Paces Gulls.”
31 Steve Stroughter’s Venezuelan League statistics from, https://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=stroste001 (last accessed August 14, 2021).
32 Paul Patton, “Chiefs Await the Call of Blue Jay Big Time,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), August 10, 1983: S3.
33 Lewis Griswold, “Pillars of Fame Rise in Visalia Sports Hall,” McClatchy-Tribune Business News (Washington, DC), August 19, 2007.