Before Ohtani, there were …

Before Shohei Ohtani arrived with the Angels as both a pitcher and position player (or least, a designated hitter), few major leaguers in recent years had played with some regularity on the mound and as hitters. We’re not talking about guys sent in to finish up blowouts, but those who actually were major-league-level pitchers and good enough hitters to play other positions.

The two most noted examples this century have been Rick Ankiel, who came up as a pitcher, and Brooks Kieschnick, who added pitching to his role as an outfielder and pinch-hitter to extend his career. Ankiel stopped pitching in 2001, except for a brief appearance in 2004. He reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder in the minors before returning to the Cardinals. Both have numerous cards with them on the mound and at bat.

The Angels have another two-way possibility in Jared Walsh, who was up briefly earlier this season. Although he has pitched in earnest at the AAA level, his only work on the mound with the Angels so far has been in lopsided affairs.

The most famous pitching convert obviously is Babe Ruth. Contemporary cards of Ruth as a pitcher—the 1916 Sporting News version being the most familiar—are expensive and hard to find. A few of Ruth’s contemporaries also pitched and played some at other positions, but since World War II, it’s rare to find a player with significant time in the majors as both a pitcher and a position player. And almost always, those who did it made a permanent conversion.

Kieschnick was one of the few who kept doing both with the Brewers, who for a while were happy to have him as a two-way player. Another was the 1950s Pirates infielder Johnny O’Brien. He switched mostly to pitching in 1956 and had a decent year, playing 10 games at short and second and hitting .300. But he was so bad on the mound in ’57 that he went back to being a full-time infielder. He had Topps cards before he pitched and after, but none listing him as a pitcher. His ’58 Topps card mentions his having pitched. Johnny’s brother and fellow Pirates infielder, Eddie, also pitched in a few games.

The Pirates also had a light-htting infielder/outfielder in Dick Hall, who has a card in the ’55 Topps set. Hall spent that year in the minors, working on his pitching (and still hit .300). He was back with Pirates mostly as a pitcher in 1956 and went on to a long career in the bullpen with the Orioles.

Until Ohtani resumes pitching (if he does), the only “modern” card era player who pitched in 15 games or more and played substantially at another position in the same season is far more obscure: Willie Smith of the 1964 Angels. Smith came up as a pitcher with the Tigers and was traded to the Los Angeles to bolster the bullpen. He ended up as a regular in the outfield and hit over .300.

Smith never had a card showing him as a pitcher, although the back of his 1965 Topps card raves about his pitching. Although primarily an outfielder after the middle of the ’64 season, he pitched a few times for the Indians and Cubs after he was traded by L.A., never yielding a run.

Two other players in the ‘60s came up as outfielders before switching to pitching. Mel Queen with the Reds was the most successful and converted quickly. His 1967 card lists him as “P-OF.” Danny Murphy was an outfield prospect with the Cubs and played a bit in 1960, ’61 and ’62. He made the long road back to Chicago, but to the South Side with the Sox, in 1969 and ’70 as a pitcher.

Going back farther, Hal Jeffcoat came up with the Cubs in 1948 as an outfielder before converting at the big league level to pitching in 1954. He spent the rest of the decade on the mound. Jeffcoat appeared on Bowman cards as an outfielder from 1951 through 1954 and on Topps cards in 1952 and 1953. His 1955 Bowman card is his first as a pitcher, and his 1956-59 Topps cards follow suit.

Baseball Reference.com has a listing of every non-pitcher who ever pitched and played more than five times as many games at other positions, if you’d like to see how rare it is for players of the past 100 years to make the switch.

I’ve always been fascinated with these two-way players. It led me to write the BioProject essays on Willie Smith and Hal Jeffcoat. If you know of others from the Bowman/Topps card era I’ve missed, please let me know.

Author: Andrew Sharp

I'm a retired daily newspaper journalist and life-long baseball fan. I write biographers of players when I can for the Bio Project and game stories for the Games Project. Please feel free to offer suggestions for blog post by emailing me at senators24@yahoo.com.

16 thoughts on “Before Ohtani, there were …”

  1. As a Giants fan I’ve got to nominate Clint Hartung whose cards list him as both pitcher and outfielder over 1948-1952. IIRC he’s he only guy between Ruth and Ankiel to homer first as a pitcher and later as a position player.

    Like

    1. Jeff Kunkel has a Fleer card with him as an IF-P. Granny Hamner in 1957 was listed as P. Johnny Lindell’s Topps cards all had him as pitcher. Skip Lockwood’s first Topps card was as a rookie infielder, and Bobby Darwin’s first card was as a rokie pitcher.

      Like

    2. Pretty sure Jeffcoat did it, too. His homer as pitcher was mentioned a couple of years ago when Mad Bum hit one for the Giants after giving up a slam.

      Like

      1. Digging in more. It looks like Jeffcoat is in the “position player -> pitcher” camp and Ruth/Hartung/Ankiel are on the “pitcher -> position player” side.

        Like

  2. He has less cardboard, and I haven’t dug around to see if it is mentioned at all on it, but Johnny’s twin brother Eddie O’Brien also pitched in five games for Pittsburgh.

    They were also the first twins to take the field together in MLB, and were also drafted as collegiate basketball stars but chose baseball thanks to Branch Rickey and Bing Crosby.

    Like

    1. Dug around and one does! His 1957 Topps actually lists him as a SS-P and talks about his multitude of positions on the back.

      Like

      1. Also, if we’re talking about position switches Jason Lane should be on this list. I don’t believe he got any proper MLB cardboard upon his return as a pitcher, though he does have two pitcher cards from the AAA El Paso Chihuahuas team sets in 2014-15 . Former Astros pitching prospect Brian Bogusevic had several pitcher cards before he made his conversion to OF, but those are all prior to his big-league debut.

        Like

      2. I was going to mention Eddie, but since he pitched in just 5 games, I let it go. I surprised he had a card , though that lists him also as pitcher. Quite a pair, those two.

        Like

  3. Somebody with the Pirates in the mid 50s must have been enthralled by the potential for two way players. O’Brien’s teammate Dick Hall came up as an outfielder and then switched to pitching. Obviously he made the right decision.

    I know Hall had plenty of cards as a pitcher; I don’t know if there ever was one of him as an outfielder. If I recall correctly, many of his pitcher cards noted his beginnings as a hitter.

    Like

  4. Not really in the scope of this article, but perhaps it’s worth noting that John Olerud’s 1990 Score rookie card gives his position as “OF-P”. Olerud had been a two-way player (and a very successful one) in college, but in the majors was exclusively a position player; perhaps surprisingly, he never even pitched in a mop-up role. Obviously there are many other players who did both in college (and many such as Stan Musial and Trevor Hoffman who switched in the minors), but it’s unusual to have a mainstream major league card showing a player as both a pitcher and a position player.

    Like

  5. Minor correction: Ankiel pitched 10 innings in 2004. The line doesn’t look great – 5.40 ERA in 10 innings – but he had one terrible game in Coors where he gave up 5 runs in 2 innings (it happens).

    Jimmie Foxx, while he didn’t homer as a pitcher, had a 1.59 ERA in 22 2/3 innings in 1945 and hit 7 homers. He started two games and finished the other 7 in which he pitched. The 2011 Topps Lineage Foxx doesn’t have him on the pitcher’s mound in a game, but it almost looks like he is warming up to pitch. That’s probably not accurate though because he is pictured with the A’s but only pitched for the Red Sox (one game in 1939) and the Phillies (in 1945).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s