Remembering Chuck Hinton

Chuck Hinton, an outfielder for the Washington Senators and the Cleveland Indians during the 1960s and early 1970s, died this week at age 78. Hinton was the first African-American baseball player who plied his trade in predominantly black Washington, DC to be perceived as a star.

Actually, Earl Battey, who played for the pre-expansion Senators, was probably a better player than Hinton. But Battey, a catcher, found himself overshadowed by teammates like Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jim Lemon, and Camilo Pascual. Hinton, a speedy outfielder, easily outshone his teammates on some very poor expansion squads.

In 1962, Hinton batted .310 and stole 28 bases in 38 attempts. As this was only Hinton’s second year in the big leagues, most Washington fans thought we had a phenom on our hands. Had we understood baseball statistics better, we would have noted that Hinton was already 27 years old, and that he didn’t walk enough. But we still would have recognized him as a breath of fresh air on a team in desperate need of one.

It’s not clear why Hinton arrived in the Majors so late. His career Minor League batting average was .346. It looks like a late start (he began his career at age 22 after his college education and later missed two years due to a hitch in the military) was to blame.

One cannot discount racism as a possible explanation. However, I believe that Baltimore Orioles, the organization for whom Hinton played, liked Hinton. Although they didn’t protect him in the expansion draft, Paul Richards reportedly planted a phony story in the Sporting News (“the Baseball Bible”) that Hinton was injured. When the expansion Senators drafted Hinton anyway, the “Wizard of Waxahachie” is said to have complained, “What’s the matter with the Senators; don’t they read the Paper?”

New York Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry beaned Hinton late in the 1963 season. Hinton suffered a concussion, and was never quite the same hitter thereafter. However, he played well enough in 1964 to represent Washington in the All Star game. He entered the contest late and didn’t get to bat. His contribution consisted of watching Johnny Callison’s walk-off home run sail over his head and into the seats.

The Senators traded Hinton to Cleveland before the 1965 season. He was ordinary with the Indians, but good enough to remain with the club for six years. Hinton’s career stats — .264/.332/.412 with 113 homers and 130 steals– understate his talent. With an earlier start and no beaning, surely the numbers would have been more impressive.

After the big leagues, Hinton became a successful baseball coach at Howard University. He also helped found the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, an organization promotes baseball to young people and has raised millions of dollars for charity. Reportedly, he had time for anyone who needed his help or who just wanted to talk about baseball.

You probably won’t find anyone in the D.C. area with a bad word to say about Chuck Hinton. He was a good ballplayer and an exemplary citizen.

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