Jim Ray Hart and the rookie class of 1964


Jim Ray Hart

Jim Ray Hart was one-third of one of the National League’s greatest class of rookie hitters. A Giants third baseman for most of a decade, Hart died this week at 74. Hart made his big-league debut in 1963 at age 21 when he played seven games, and became the Giants’ regular third baseman in 1964. Hart hit 31 home runs — 19 away from the difficult Candlestick Park, where he almost always hit worse in his career — drove in 81 runs, slugged .498 and batted .286 in 1964. That earned him one of the 20 votes in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, and a tie for second with Braves outfielder Rico Carty, who batted .330, hit 22 homers and slugged .554. The other 18 went to the Phillies’ Richie Allen, who didn’t hit for as high an average as Carty (.318) or as many home runs as Hart (29), but slugged more (.557), walked more (67) and led the NL in three categories: runs scored (125), triples (13) and strikeouts (138). Allen also played third base, if not terribly well, like Hart, making 41 errors (Hart made 28), and the Phillies were in first place for much of the summer. Allen got 18 votes, and WAR said the voters got it right and by about the right margin: Allen’s 8.8 outdistanced Hart’s 5.3 and Carty’s 4.8. The AL Rookie of the Year, Tony Oliva, was a pretty fair hitter, too: he led the AL with a .323 average, 217 hits and 43 doubles, and added 32 homers. It’s hard to believe there have been many years as good for first-year hitters. Hart’s Giants were tied for first place as late as July 20 in 1964. But they were 36-33 from there, won 90 games, finished fourth and weren’t a factor in September, despite having five Hall of Famers and Hart. Willie Mays hit 47 homers and Orlando Cepeda 31, but Willie McCovey suffered in left field, hitting just .220 with 18 homers. Juan Marichal won 21 games with a 2.48 ERA and Gaylord Perry won 12 with a 2.75 ERA as a starter-reliever. Hart hit 139 home runs in his first five years for the Giants, including a career-high 33 in 1966. He never hit .300, though he did hit .299 in ’65, and he never had 100 RBIs, though he knocked in 99 in ’67, when he struck out 100 times. He had that kind of career. His numbers might well have been better, but for Candlestick: for his career, Hart hit 38 points higher (.296-.258) and slugged 70 points more (.500-.430) on the road. His road OPS (.860) was 101 points better than his home OPS (.759). After ’68, Hart never had more than .385 at-bats again, hitting three homers in ’69 and eight in 1970. He hit for the cycle in the second game he played in 1970, on July 8, getting his double, single and homer off Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. He hit his triple off Aubrey Gatewood in the same inning he homered, giving him six RBIs in an 11-run fifth (and seven for the game). He drove in just 37 for the season. The Giants sent Hart to the Yankees in 1973 where Hart could take advantage of the new DH rule and he hit 13 more home runs (his old teammate Cepeda hit 20 as the Red Sox DH). He played just 10 more games in 1974 and his major-league career was over at age 32. He played parts of three seasons in the Mexican League before retiring. According to a 2013 Hardball Times article: “ ‘If I hadn’t been drinking, I’d have played another four, five years, no problem,’ Hart admitted to Larry Stone of the San Francisco Examiner. ‘It got to the point I didn’t care about the game no more. What I was worrying about was the first and the 15th. That’s when the checks came in. I just wanted to go out and have a drink or two. I mean, this was every day.’ ” Hart was 27 when his career descended, typically an age when it ascends. Bill James ranked Hart 74th all-time among third baseman in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, saying Hart was, “A better hitter than 59 of the 73 men listed ahead of him at third base. This should tell you all you need to know about his defense.” It does, but it also tells you a lot about his offense, too. The defense is not surprising considering Hart’s enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for the position. According to The Hardball Times, Hart said of playing the position: “it’s just too damn close to the hitters.” He had a point. (A link here to the complete Hardball Times article.) Career totals: .278 average, .345 on-base percentage, .467 slugging percentage, .813 OPS, 170 home runs, 1,052 hits, 578 RBIs, 380 walks, 573 strikeouts, 134 errors, 127 OPS+, three top-20 finishes in MVP voting (15th in ’65, 17th in ’67, 18th in ’64), an All-Star in ’66, 24.9 WAR (6.6 in ’66, 5.8 in ’67, 5.3 in 64), 30.2 offensive WAR.

 

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