A Conversation With Former Braves and Reds Outfielder Mike Lum

Mike Lum was good enough to have played parts of 15 big-league seasons. That he was rarely a full-time starter comes with a caveat. From 1967-1981, Lum was typically on teams that featured All-Star quality in front of him. An outfielder and later a first baseman, the left-handed hitting Honolulu native counted numerous Hall of Famers, batting champions, and Gold Glove winners among his teammates. Prior to appearing in 41 games with the Chicago Cubs at the close of his career, Lum played exclusively with the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds.

A long-time hitting coach, and most recently a special assistant for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lum discussed his playing days over the phone last month.


David Laurila: How would you describe your playing career?

Mike Lum: “I was never a star, but I contributed. I played mostly off the bench, and I thought I did a pretty good job. In my younger days I’d play a lot of defense for Rico Carty, who was the left fielder, and then I started pinch-hitting a lot [Lum had 102 career pinch hits, including 10 home runs]. I prided myself in those roles. Yes, it’s to nice to play every day, but there were guys in front of me who were much better. One thing I learned early on is that it takes 25 guys to win, so I just accepted my role.”

Laurila: Do you ever wonder how differently your career might have played out had you not been on teams with so many All-Star quality outfielders? You could have ended up with a thousand more at-bats.

Lum: “No doubt. And a lot of people don’t realize that when you play off the bench, and don’t get consistent at-bats, hitting can be difficult. And it becomes a mind game after that. If you look at my stats, the one year I had over 500 at-bats, I did really well [a 119 wRC+ and 16 home runs]. In my worst year, I had something like 125 at-bats. It’s difficult. That’s why I think guys who can come off the bench like I did can be very valuable to a team.”

Laurila: You mentioned Rico Carty. Other outfielders you played with in Atlanta included Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou, Dusty Baker, and Ralph Garr.

Lum: “And I was also with ‘The Big Red Machine.’ But again, I can’t complain. They were really good players. They were great players.”

Laurila: Who did you play with that was really good, yet isn’t a household name to most younger fans?

Lum: “In Cincinnati, Cesar Geronimo. With Atlanta, Tito Francona. He was a really good player, a good offensive player. That’s Terry Francona’s dad.”

Laurila: Carty won a batting title while you were in Atlanta. What do you remember about him?

Lum: “He was a brutal defensive player, which is why I always filled in. In those days they used to call that being someone’s caddy; I was the caddy for Rico. Late in the game, when we were ahead, I would go in and play defense. But he could flat out hit. I don’t know his numbers, but he was a hard guy to strike out. Not like today, where it’s okay to strike out. That’s the problem I have with today’s game. The art of the game isn’t there anymore. This is a skill game — it’s also a tough game — but it just seems like it’s swung away from… to me, being willing to strike out 140-150 times isn’t good. It just isn’t good.”

Laurila: The game has definitely changed since you played…

Lum: “It’s definitely has. What do you look for in a player? Ideally, you want someone who hits for power, walks, and hits for a high average. Those are the three key things you look for in a player, because that’s how you can put numbers up. It’s what we looked for in my days.”

Laurila: Players who can do all three of those things are stars…

Lum: “Yes, those are the stars. But now, if you hit .240 with 40 home runs, that’s okay. I don’t know. It’s very hard for me to watch baseball today.”

Laurila: A guy you played with who hit for a high average, yet didn’t walk much or hit for power, was Ralph Garr. He won a batting title, as well.”

Lum: “He could really put the bat on the ball. And he could run, too.

Laurila: Who was the best player you were teammates with?

Lum: “That’s a tough question. I played with some greats. I guess Hank Aaron would have to be No. 1. But there was Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan… those are great players. They’re Hall of Famers.

“You know, the thing about playing with those guys… what stands out is the type of character and integrity they had. When you look at a player and see how he carries himself… they all did that. How they were with their teammates is what stood out for me.”

Laurila: What was it like walking into a big-league clubhouse for the first time?

Lum: “I think the most-memorable experience I had was Hank Aaron. I don’t know how to say this, but I’m the type of guy that doesn’t look at the names. I didn’t look at my teammates as ‘baseball players,’ per se. They were just good guys that could play well. I didn’t think. ‘Oh, wow.’ Hank Aaron was the exception. He was the only one where I felt that way.”

Laurila: You once pinch-hit for Aaron.

Lum: “I did. I want to say we were playing San Diego, in Atlanta, and we had like a 10-run lead. He basically took himself out of the game. He said, ‘Do you want to hit for me?’ I said ‘Sure.’ So I went to the plate with the bases loaded, against Al Jackson. I pinch-hit for Hank Aaron against a lefty.”

Laurila: And you got a base hit.

Lum: “Yes, I hit a double.”

Laurila: What was the highlight of your career? Not from a team standpoint, but rather a personal accomplishment?

Lum: “Probably the day I hit three home runs in one game [on July 3, 1970]. It was the first game of a double-header, although I don’t remember who we were playing. It might have been San Diego.”

Laurila: Was that one of those days where the baseball looked a beachball?”

Lum: “Oh, yeah. And as a hitting coach, I wanted you to go to the plate with a dead mind. It’s not about mechanics. It’s not about launch angle. It’s not about exit velocity. It’s how you attack the pitcher with a clear mind, but also with a plan.”

Laurila: One of your minor-league teammates was Walt Hriniak, who went on to become a storied hitting coach.

Lum: “Yes, Walt and I played together. In fact, I worked for him with the White Sox. He hired me as a hitting coordinator. I was there for 16 years as a hitting coordinator.”

Laurila: I believe that Hriniak and Charlie Lau had similar hitting philosophies.

Lum: “Charlie was Walt’s mentor. What did they teach? That’s the thing: people misunderstand what they taught in those days. It’s all terminology. They talked about weight shift, which is something people talk about now. They talked about head discipline, which is to stay on the ball. If you watch hitters now, a lot of them are flying off the ball. Unbelievable. That’s probably one reason why you have so many strikeouts. Another thing they talked about was hitting through the ball. We talk about that now.

“Remember one thing: baseball is baseball. It just that the words people use change. Hit through the ball. Stay in the zone longer. That’s what they talked about. That was Charlie and Walt’s teaching. Stay balanced. We talk about that today. They think — and who is ‘they?’ whoever — that they’ve invented something new. All they’ve done is added metrics to measure what you’re doing.”

Laurila: Circling back to your playing career, how did you feel about going from the Braves to the Reds [in December 1975]?

Lum: “How would you feel? They’d just won the World Series, so I was very excited. I was traded for Darrel Chaney, the shortstop, straight up. The Reds were looking for players off the bench. Bob Bailey was right-handed, and I was left-handed, so they traded for us to make the bench stronger.”

Laurila: I remember Bailey as a power hitter who didn’t run well.

Lum: “Yeah, he was slow. I’ve got a good story for you, if you want to hear it.

Laurila: Of course.

Lum: “We were in LA, it was a day game, and Tom Seaver was pitching for us. Bailey was playing left field. A ball was hit out there, right up against the wall, and he reached up. The ball hit Bailey’s glove and went over the fence for home run. When we got back to the dugout, Seaver looked at Bailey and said, ‘Hey, if it was a sandwich, you would have caught it.’ Bailey was a little on the heavy side, and oh man, that bench roared.”

Laurila: What did Bailey say in response?

Lum: “I don’t remember, but do you know what? It was all in jest. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get mad. Many years later they did a reunion in Cincinnati — they brought back the ’76 team — and I told that story in front of all the people. Bailey said, ‘Come on, don’t tell that story.’ But I did.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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