John Romano: For five years, Indians’ homer-hitting catcher


John Romano was best remembered for his his five years with the Indians, but he won pennants as a backup catcher with two other teams. He's still second or third on the Indians in home runs by a catcher (Victor Martinez would be first but his 101 include homers hit while playing first or being the DH) with 91, which tells you all you need to know about Indians catchers through the years. Romano died late last month at age 84. Romano was also involved in some of the most interesting trades of the '60s, going from the White Sox to the Indians with Norm Cash for Minnie Minoso in a six-player deal, and going from the Indians back to the White Sox in an eight-player, three-team deal that included Tommie Agee, Tommy John, Rocky Colavito and Fred Talbot of Ball Four fame. (Cash was dealt by the Indians to the Tigers, for whom he hit 373 home runs and won a batting title at .361, for Steve Demeter, who went 0-for-5 with the Indians and had a career of 23 plate appearances. It was one of the worst trades the Indians ever made, if not the worst. And in the small world department, Demeter, who died in 2013, was current Red and former Marlin Derek Dietrich's grandfather.) Romano made it to the majors in 1959 to back up Sherm Lollar on the White Sox's AL champions. With the Indians, Romano's power -- he hit 38 home runs at age 20 in 1955 to lead a Class B league -- showed. Romano hit 16 homers in 361 plate appearances in 1960, 21 in 1961 and a career-high 25 in 1962. Only a broken hand, which cost him half the 1963 season, deterred him. In his five Indians seasons, Romano's OPS+ topped 123 every year but '63. He was an All-Star in two seasons, had a 22-game hitting streak in 1960 and .816 OPS as an Indian. But the Indians traded Romano, just 30, after he hit 19 homers, walked 51 times and slugged .460 in 1964. From the website itspronouncedlajaway.com: "After the trade was announced, Romano told a reporter that he and (manager Birdie) Tebbetts 'never saw eye to eye.' Tebbetts was far less diplomatic, having been quoted as saying 'he (Romano) never showed me any great talent—maybe he can in Chicago. I’m not accustomed to having .240 hitters trying to tell me where they should stand on my ball club.' Tebbetts also faulted Romano’s work behind the plate ..." That doesn't say much for Birdie's assessment of talent. Azcue might have handled pitchers well, but he homered 26 times over the next four seasons; Romano hit 33 over the next two. (And if Birdie didn't like .240 hitters telling him what to do, imagine how he'd fare to do as manager of Bryce Harper, who hit .249 last year.) From Romano's bio at sabr.org: “Romano said: '... Birdie helped sign a guy named Joe Azcue from Cuba when he was with Cincinnati. He wanted to bring Azcue on board to Cleveland. I was their All-Star catcher and Birdie wanted to put Azcue behind the plate instead of me. I couldn’t figure that out.' Much later, Romano learned the reason. 'I definitely wasn’t Birdie’s favorite, but later on, I understood why. A few years ago, we had a Cleveland fantasy camp here in Florida. Joe Azcue told me that Birdie was just looking after him. He had signed him when he was just 16 out of Cuba. I can understand that, now.'” Romano's power dipped, but he still hit 18 and 15 homers for the White Sox in '65 and '66. That might have been too many for the "hitless wonders" the White Sox were in 1967 -- the finished three games behind the AL pennant-winning Red Sox despite being next-to-last in runs scored and home runs. Romano was by then a backup to Tim McCarver on the Cardinals, who won the World Series. Romano, who batted just .121 in 58 at-bats, didn't make the World Series roster (Dave Ricketts was the backup catcher) and was released by the Cardinals after they beat the Red Sox in seven. Romano, just 33, retired shortly thereafter. Career numbers: .255 average, .354 on-base percentage, .443 slugging percentage, .797 OPS, 129 home runs, 417 RBIs, 706 hits, 112 doubles, 355 runs scored, 414 walks, 485 strikeouts, 122 OPS+, 24th in 1961 MVP voting with one, 0-1 in the 1959 World Series, 35% of opposing base stealers caught (37% league average), 20.9 WAR (4.6 in 1961, 4.5 in 1962).

John Romano was best remembered for his his five years with the Indians, but he won pennants as a backup catcher with two other teams. Romano’s 91 homers as an Indian are still second or third on the team by a catcher (Victor Martinez would be first, but his 101 include homers hit while playing first or being the DH; Sandy Alomar has one more than Romano). Romano died late last month at age 84. (Not to be confused with the Hill Street Blues television writer of the same name.) Romano was also involved in some of the most interesting trades of the era, going from the White Sox to the Indians with Norm Cash for Minnie Minoso in a six-player deal after the 1959 season, and going from the Indians back to the White Sox in an eight-player, three-team deal that included Tommie Agee, Tommy John, Rocky Colavito and Fred Talbot of Ball Four fame after the ’64 season. (Four months after they acquired him, the Indians dealt Cash to the Tigers, for whom he hit 373 home runs and won a batting title at .361 in 1961. They got back Steve Demeter, who went 0-for-5 with the Indians and had a career of 23 plate appearances. It was one of the worst trades the Indians ever made, if not the worst. And in the small world department, Demeter, who died in 2013, was current Red and former Marlin Derek Dietrich’s grandfather.) Romano made it to the majors in 1959 to back up Sherm Lollar on the White Sox’s AL champions. With the Indians, Romano’s power — he hit 38 home runs at age 20 in 1955 to lead a Class B minor league — showed. Romano hit 16 homers in 361 plate appearances in 1960, 21 in 1961 and a career-high 25 in 1962. Only a broken hand, which cost him half the 1963 season, deterred him. In his five Indians seasons, Romano’s OPS+ topped 123 every year but ’63. He was an All-Star in two seasons, had a 22-game hitting streak in 1960 and .816 OPS as an Indian. In 1961, Romano batted .299 with 21 homers, 80 RBIs and 61 walks; a year later he batted .261 with 25 homers, 81 RBIs, and 73 walks. He was 10th in the AL in 1961 with an .860 OPS; he was 10th with a .479 slugging percentage and ninth with an .842 OPS in 1962. But the Indians traded Romano, just 30, after he hit 19 homers, walked 51 times and slugged .460 in 1964. From the website itspronouncedlajaway.com: “After the trade was announced, Romano told a reporter that he and (manager Birdie) Tebbetts ‘never saw eye to eye.’ Tebbetts was far less diplomatic, having been quoted as saying ‘he (Romano) never showed me any great talent—maybe he can in Chicago. I’m not accustomed to having .240 hitters trying to tell me where they should stand on my ball club.’ Tebbetts also faulted Romano’s work behind the plate …” That doesn’t say much for Birdie’s assessment of talent. Jose Azcue, who replaced Romano, might have handled pitchers well, but he homered 26 times over the next four seasons; Romano hit 33 over the next two. (And if Birdie didn’t like .240 hitters telling him what to do, imagine how he’d fare today as manager of Bryce Harper, who hit .249 last year.) From Romano’s bio at sabr.org: “Romano said: ‘… Birdie helped sign a guy named Joe Azcue from Cuba when he was with Cincinnati. He wanted to bring Azcue on board to Cleveland. I was their All-Star catcher and Birdie wanted to put Azcue behind the plate instead of me. I couldn’t figure that out.’ Much later, Romano learned the reason. ‘I definitely wasn’t Birdie’s favorite, but later on, I understood why. A few years ago, we had a Cleveland fantasy camp here in Florida. Joe Azcue told me that Birdie was just looking after him. He had signed him when he was just 16 out of Cuba. I can understand that, now.’” Romano’s power dipped, but he still hit 18 and 15 homers for the White Sox in ’65 and ’66. That might have been too many for the “hitless wonders” the White Sox were in 1967 — they finished three games behind the AL pennant-winning Red Sox despite being next-to-last in runs scored and home runs. J.C. Martin, Duane Josephson and Jerry McNertney, who replaced Romano, combined to hit eight homers and bat .234. Romano was by then a backup to Tim McCarver on the ’67 Cardinals, who won the World Series. Romano, who batted just .121 in 58 at-bats with St. Louis, didn’t make the World Series roster (Dave Ricketts was the backup catcher) and was released by the Cardinals after they beat the Red Sox in seven. Romano, just 33, retired shortly thereafter. Career numbers: .255 average, .354 on-base percentage, .443 slugging percentage, .797 OPS, 129 home runs, 417 RBIs, 706 hits, 112 doubles, 355 runs scored, 414 walks, 485 strikeouts, 122 OPS+, 24th in 1961 MVP voting with one, 0-for-1 in the 1959 World Series, 35% of opposing base stealers caught (37% league average), 20.9 WAR (4.6 in 1961, 4.5 in 1962).

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