Hobie Landrith, RIP: Of Polo Grounds and Oranges

The plot was simple enough. Visiting my favorite aunt and uncle in their still somewhat new Poughkeepsie (NY) digs, a splendid colonial home that was actually the model for the development, my three cousins would awaken me promptly at 7 AM the next morning. They wanted to see me and my 12-year-old baseball brain win a local radio station's "Sports Call" contest and whatever prize would come.

So there was Tommy drumming out the fabled climax of the William Tell Overture (or, the theme from The Lone Ranger, if you prefer) against the nightstand next to my bed. (And, specifically, my ear.) There was Bobby, ready to dial the "Sports Call" number with the phone to my ear. Not to mention Linda, the eldest of the trio, standing by with a grin I'd swear was caught between amusement and amazement.

And there I was, maybe a quarter awake, Bobby starting to dial the split second the host began asking the question: who was the first player chosen in the National League's expansion draft? (The draft creating the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres was yet to arrive.)

Great hitters can hit rice pudding thrown right into their wheelhouses for distance, even if they happen to be hung over. At age 12, I wasn't exactly hungover, but I wouldn't have said no to about two more hours sleep except for the "Sports Call" idea. (A 7 AM awakening when it wasn't a school day was not my idea of paradise.) Sure enough, the other end of the line answered, the host's voice asking the question again to me directly. Right into my wheelhouse.

I managed to croak, "Hobie Landrith, catcher, by the New York Mets." Pay dirt. Minutes later, the station's music finished and the host came aboard to say he'd just received the fastest correct "Sports Call" answer since he'd begun doing the feature on his morning show. A few hours later, there were Bobby, Tommy, Aunt Marge, and yours truly, in the station wagon, pulling up to ... a pleasant stand-alone produce market, where my knowledge of Landrith's expansion draft status landed me two large crates of freshly-imported Florida oranges.

I left one of the two crates with Aunt Marge and Uncle Herb, now of blessed memory. (Their long, happy marriage ended only with their departures to the Elysian Fields a year apart in 2015-16.) Somehow, I managed to haul the other aboard the train to Marble Hill in the Bronx, where my mother met me for a night at my maternal grandparents before returning home to Long Beach. She almost collapsed when she saw me hauling the oranges with my small suitcase atop the crate.

"The first thing you have to have is a catcher," said Original Mets manager Casey Stengel, explaining why the new team handed the first expansion draft pick chose the non-renowned veteran catcher from the Giants. "Because if you don't have a catcher, you're going to have a lot of passed balls and you're going to be chasing the ball back to the screen all day."

Stengel was probably too occupied managing and winning pennants with the 1949-60 Yankees to notice that, as a 1956 Cub, Landrith was charged with 10 passed balls. But in the same season, he threw 23 would-be base larcenists out for a respectable 38 percent caught-stealing percentage. In three seasons as a Giant part-timer, before the Mets picked him, Landrith's caught-stealing percentage was 41 percent.

"31-year-old catcher who looked 28 and played like 40," wrote Leonard Shecter, in Once Upon the Polo Grounds, of Landrith, who died at 93 in California on April 13. "Hobie always said he was 5'8". He probably was 5'6". It wasn't his fault he wasn't big enough to play this game." (Baseball Reference actually lists Landrith as 5'10", if you're scoring at home.)

The Decatur, Illinois native was a perfect Original Met, until he wasn't. On Opening Day 1962, he threw past second trying to arrest a base thief. He was charged with three passed balls in 21 games. But he spoiled the fun when the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Braves that May. He won the first game by pinch hitting a 2-run homer off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Into the upper deck of the ancient Polo Grounds, the Original Mets' home while awaiting Shea Stadium's completion.

Remember: the Original Mets had Abbott pitching to Costello, with Who the Hell's on frst, What the Hell's on second, You Don't Want to Know's on third, and You Don't Even Want to Think About It's at shortstop. Clearly enough, Landrith didn't really have what it took to animate the Original Met faithful. So the Mets made him do the only thing, really, that he could have done to help the anti-cause.

The next month, they sent him to the Orioles to complete a deal they made in May, a deal in which they sent cash plus a player to be named later for first baseman Marv Throneberry. Marvelous Marv himself. It may have been Landrith's greatest contribution to the Original Mets's unlikely grip upon New York's heart. "The Mets were different, they were counterculture, they were fun," Stengel biographer Robert W. Creamer would remember. "The worse they were, the more fun they were."

The Orioles didn't yet resemble contenders when Landrith was sent there. The Washington Senators, to whom the Orioles sold him later in 1963, weren't exactly American League ogres, either. At least Landrith got to have a sort-of reunion before the Second Nats cut him loose after that season. His former Met teammate, Hall of Famer Gil Hodges, became their manager, after Mickey Vernon's 14-26 '63 start led to his execution and Eddie (The Walking Man) Yost's running the team for one loss before Hodges came aboard.

"I was in the major leagues more because I was a good defensive catcher, and the fact that I was good at handling pitchers," said Landrith, once upon a time, to This Great Game. The pitchers who threw to him lifetime had a respectable 3.92 ERA. His not-so-formidable bat was probably the thing that kept him from becoming a regular catcher over his early seasons with the Reds, the Cubs, and the Cardinals — even if he walked 253 times while striking out 188. (His lifetime Real Batting Average — total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances: .424.)

"I always thought I was a fairly decent hitter, but I realized that I wasn't in the big leagues for my bat," he continued in the same interview. "I had what they called 'warning track power.' You know, I'd hit the ball pretty good, the fans would get up on their feet, and then they'd groan, because the ball would die at the warning track."

As a Giant, Hall of Famer Willie Mays called Landrith "Honest John." Landrith had no idea why. "He gave some of us strange nicknames. Folks would criticize Willie for being hard to talk to, but it wasn't always that way. Willie got burned by the [San Francisco] press one time too many, and he got a little harder every time it happened. He was never that way with his teammates, though. I loved Willie and I had a great relationship with the man. I still do."

Likewise Hall of Famer Willie McCovey: "People ask me all the time, what kind of a guy is Willie McCovey? And I tell them, if Willie walks into a room and smiles, everyone in that room smiles too. I was in the lineup for his first major league game when he went 4-for-4 against [Hall of Famer] Robin Roberts. I just feel fortunate that I was able to play with the man during my career. He's just a wonderful person."

That game, on July 30, 1959, featured three Original Mets to be (Landrith, Hall of Fame center fielder Richie Ashburn, and Phillies first baseman Ed Bouchee), plus two more eventual Mets: Mays, and Giants shortstop Ed Bressoud — who ended up becoming an Original Colt .45 (Astro) first, in the same expansion draft in which the Mets selected Landrith to kick things off.

After working as a Senators' coach for 1964, Landrith left baseball and became a longtime public relations executive for Volkswagen. He and his wife, Peggy, had six children (three sons, three daughters), eleven grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. If he just wasn't made to be a true Original Met, he certainly was made for family and business success.

His roost in the Elysian Fields should only be that kind of serene. And I still can't drink a glass of orange juice without remembering a certain phone call that landed me two crates of its source. Or, without remembering the catcher who helped make those crates plus Marvelous Marv possible.

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