Introducing the 1ABHR Club, Part I

For the man from Castro’s Cuba, it happened at Great American Ball Park.

On August 2, 2012, in Cincinnati, Eddy Rodriguez departed the Padres on-deck circle and made his way to a big league batter’s box for the first time in his seven-year pro career. His larger journey had been less direct. Two decades earlier, seven-year-old Eddy had boarded his father’s rickety fishing boat and with dad Edilio, mom Ylya, and sister Yanisbet embarked on the 100-mile route from the northern shores of the communist country to the southern shores of the United States. En route, the family encountered 20-foot waves and a useless compass. The boat nearly capsized, threatening to send them to the sharks. By day three, they were low on fuel, water and food. Soon they had nothing but coffee beans. They ate them.

Desperate, they tied a white sheet to a pole.

In time, the U.S. Coast Guard arrived.

Now here he was, called up from the Single-A Storm just four months shy of his 27th birthday, getting his shot against Reds ace Johnny Cueto. On a 1-2 count, and with nearly 23,000 fans watching from the seats and many more on TV, Rodriguez drove a Cueto curveball “high and deep to left-centerfield!”

Just as it slammed into a seat 416 feet from home plate, announcer Dick Enberg added, “Rodriguez will touch ‘em all in his first big league at-bat!”

In that instant, Rodriguez had become the 112th player in big league history to join what I deem the 1ABHR Club. It looks like a vanity plate. It should be.

It’s an exclusive group. Through the end of the 2019 season, 10 additional players had homered in their first at-bat to put membership at 122; one more has joined so far in 2020. What binds these players is the singularity of their feat. Babe Ruth? Not a member. Bill Duggleby? A pioneering member.

On April 21, 1898, the man they called Frosty Bill hit a Cy Seymour fastball “right on the pickle,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and sent it out of Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl for a grand slam. Not for another 107 years would a player belt a granny in his first big league at-bat. What made Frosty Bill’s four-bagger all the more remarkable is that he was a hurler, one of 20 now in the club.

Forty-one seasons hence, Boston left-hander Bill LeFebvre stepped in for his first at-bat and drove Monty Stratton’s first pitch to the Green Monster. As he approached second base, LeFebrve saw the ball carom onto the field. Head down, he rounded second and slid into third for a triple.

Except that it wasn’t.

The ball had hit a loudspeaker above the wall.

“Come on in, kid,” umpire Bill McGowan said. “You hit a home run.”

LeFebvre had just gone deep on the only pitch he’d see all season. To this day, he remains the only player in big league history to have done so. What his homer points to, perhaps, is that all these feats are suited to Trivial Pursuit.

To wit: Thirty players, including LeFebvre, have joined the club on the first pitch they saw in The Show. There’s more.

  • The oldest to join is 31-year-old Hack Miller.
  • Three teens have joined: Whitey Lockman, Ted Tappe, and Jurickson Profar.
  • Twenty joined as pinch hitters.
  • Six have done it against Hall of Fame pitchers.
  • One member, Ace Parker, played for the Dodgers and Yankees. Those were NFL teams. Parker is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He homered for the 1937 Athletics.
  • For three members, it was an inside-the-park job.
  • At least three position players — Dave Machemer, David Matranga, and Chris Richard — had to borrow a bat.
  • At least a dozen players achieved the feat in front of fewer than 6,300 fans. Having hit his before 840 fans at D.C. Stadium, Brant Alyea led the dismal group until Tyler Stephenson arrived in 2020 and hit his before zero.
  • Forty-four players have achieved the feat while one or more of their fellow club members were on the field or in the dugout. Jose Offerman and Starlin Castro were each present for four initiations, Castro notching two within two minutes’ time when Yankees teammates Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge went back-to-back.

Though Austin and Judge are the only members to have gone back-to-back, they are not alone in being members of the same team who joined in the same season. Gerardo Parra and John Hester did it for the Diamondbacks in 2009. Ace Parker and Gene Hasson did it for the A’s in 1937.

Nor are Austin and Judge alone in joining on the same day. On April 19, 1938, before an Opening Day crowd of 10,000, Dodgers rookie Ernie Koy and Phils rookie Heinie Mueller each blasted first at-bat home runs in the first inning. And though Koy and Mueller were the first to join in the same game, they weren’t the first to join on the same day. That honor goes to Mike Griffin and George Tebeau, who not only joined on April 16, 1887, but who, in doing so, became the original members of the 1ABHR Club.

Notably, researchers have never agreed on the answer to one trivial question: Who did it first? Was it Griffin, who in the first inning of a game between his Orioles and the Athletics clubbed a dinger off right-hander Ed Seward, or was it Tebeau, who in his first at-bat for the Red Stockings went yard off Cleveland Blues righty George Pechiney?

The answer is trivial, too, of course, a concern for those who want only the facts. Whichever player it was, he ushered in a long run of nontrivial tales.

By all accounts, George Tebeau cut a striking figure on the field. In a piece for the Sporting News in 1923, John B. Foster claimed that Tebeau was “almost perfectly built … proportioned like an Apollo … and appeared on a ball field as if he had walked out of a tableau.”

Behind that impeccable surface, however, was less impeccable substance. Following his 1ABHR Club initiation, Tebeau homered just three more times on the season. In his next two campaigns, his batting average dropped from his rookie mark of .296 to .229 and .252.

Suddenly, the man they once called White Wings had fallen out of favor with Cincinnati fans and writers.

“George Tebeau,” wrote the Cincinnati Commercial, “is a failure.”

What the writer realized, no doubt, was that Tebeau’s introductory dinger was not a sign of things to come. What he might also have realized was that one at-bat is never the patternmaker of future greatness nor even a predictor of a middling career. It is, as they say, what it is: one at-bat.

Of course, for club members, that one at-bat is one to remember. And the one key takeaway is that each, along with the batter who puts it in the books, creates a singular history. In 1895, Joe Harrington became the third member and the second, after Tebeau, to amount to not much. Perhaps it had something to do with the horse-drawn bus accident he suffered near the end of his rookie season. Harrington, with his feet tangled in the railing, got the worst of it. In 72 career games, he totaled three homers.

On Opening Day, 1938, Philadelphia’s Heinie Mueller became the first player in history to hit a leadoff home run in his first at-bat. Four years later, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, he joined the U.S. Army and in 1945 was wounded in action. He received the Purple Heart.

Joining the military, too, was Clyde Vollmer. Just months before his 1942 enlistment, Vollmer boarded the 1 AM train out of Syracuse to make the 600-mile trip to his hometown of Cincinnati. Upon arrival, he called his dad, Albert, to tell him to go posthaste to Crosley Field. Clyde arrived just in time to get the start. Albert arrived just in time to see Clyde hit a ball onto the left field “laundry roof” to become the 24th club member. Months later, Vollmer was at war. He wouldn’t hit his second homer until 1947.

Upon his own return from World War II, in 1944, Cubs catcher Paul Gillespie wore the “ruptured duck” patch on his uniform indicating an honorable discharge from the service. He provided an honorable discharge of his baseball duties, you might say, by homering in his first post-war at-bat. Déjà vu? Gillespie had homered two years earlier in his first-ever big league at-bat. Then in 1945 he homered in his last. He had a flair for the dramatic.

Buddy Kerr, by contrast, had a flair for the comedic. Upon hitting a first-AB homer in 1943, he got so excited that he stumbled rounding first.

Unlike Vollmer, whose career the war interrupted, Hack Miller could thank the war. Having bounced around the boonies, Miller got the call from Detroit in 1944, when rosters had been depleted by military service. In his first at-bat, the 31-year-old Miller hit a three-run inside-the-park home run to give Detroit a 4-3 win over Cleveland. In seven career games, it was his only homer.

By contrast, Whitey Lockman joined on July 5, 1945, at age 18. The two-run blast marked a big moment but not his biggest. Six years later, he scored the tying run on Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World. A shot heard ’round Fenway Park gave Eddie Pellagrini his big moment. That shot was the sound of a Sid Hudson fastball bouncing off Johnny Pesky’s head. After pinch running for Pesky, Pellagrini blasted the game-winner in his first AB.

A year later, on August 26, 1947, Dan Bankhead became both the first African-American pitcher in the major leagues and the first to homer. It would be his only blast. Sam Vico was next to join. Like Bankhead, he had served three years in the military during World War II. In 1948, three years after his return, he homered on the first pitch he saw. A year later, he nabbed a role in The Monty Stratton Story, about the man who’d yielded Bill LeFebvre’s home run.

In his first at-bat, on May 21, 1948, Les Layton drove the ball onto the left field roof at the Polo Grounds and returned to a quiet Giants dugout. “They didn’t say, ‘Nice going,’ or anything,” he told an interviewer. “Then suddenly they all broke out in rapture.” Layton had just become the first club member in recorded history to suffer the silent treatment.

In a ceremony on June 10, 1995, the town of Clifton, New Jersey, dedicated the baseball field at Albion Memorial Park in the name of Ed Sanicki. Letters of recognition came from President Bill Clinton, Governor Christine Todd Whitman, and parents of children he had taught during his three-decade career as a special-ed teacher. Nearly half a century earlier, on September 14, 1949, the World War II vet had ripped a Rip Sewell pitch over the head of Pirates left fielder and future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner to join the club.

The next to join, Ted Tappe, had a similar baseball fate but a different existential one. With a swing that observers compared to Ted Williams’, the 19-year-old Cincinnati rookie whacked a pinch-hit solo home run in his first at-bat to bolster expectations of greatness. Still unpolished, Tappe played just 10 more major league games across the next two seasons. Following an 18-month Army stint and a trade to the Cubs, Tappe began the 1955 season as a part-time and then full-time player. Then on May 29, while rounding second base, Tappe tore his left Achilles tendon.

He would never play in the majors again. In the last years of his life, per a story in The Kitsap Sun, the onetime high-school phenom had become a gaunt alcoholic keeping track of his Wally’s Tavern bar tab on a wrinkled piece of paper. “I should have hit 35 homers a year in that National League,” Tappe told writer John Wallington. “If everything had…”

As he stepped into the box on Opening Day, 1954, Wally Moon heard Busch Stadium fans chanting, “We want Eno!” Following an unpopular trade, Moon had replaced fan favorite Enos Slaughter in the Cardinals lineup, and now, prior to his first at-bat, he was hearing all about it. Moon then sent a pitch over the right field pavilion and onto Grand Avenue. Once he reached second base, the jeers had turned to cheers. Once he touched the plate, he’d joined the club. Others would follow, in equally theatrical ways.

In 1960, while injured, Cubs farmhand Cuno Barragan served as the team’s “scoreboard spy,” using a 10-power scope to steal the catcher’s signs and relay the pitch type to the batter. A season later, after rosters expanded on September 1, the 29-year-old catcher got his first at-bat and took advantage, cranking a pitch from Giants starter Dick LeMay toward the Wrigley Field seats. Racing for a double, he saw an umpire signal home run. At that point, he told an interviewer, “I started laughing.” It would be his only blast.

For Bob Tillman, club membership came not in his first game nor even in his second. It came in his third. Even then, it came not in his first plate appearance nor even in his second. It came in his third. After walking in each of his first two trips to the plate, the Boston catcher connected. Today, he remains one of eight players who received at least one plate appearance prior to their first-AB dinger.

John Kennedy’s first-AB dinger came in that same 1962 campaign. Pinch-hitting on September 5, the Senators call-up ended Minnesota starter Dick Stigman’s no-hitter in the sixth. Ask not what your team can do for you….

What Baltimore’s Buster Narum did for his team, on May 3, 1963, was homer off Detroit’s Don Mossi. Six weeks later, against Boston, Mossi was replaced by pinch hitter Gates Brown. Brown had taken an unusual path. As an inmate at the Ohio State Reformatory, he had impressed the prison baseball team’s coach. The coach then contacted the Tigers, who secured an early parole for Brown. Now here he was, facing fellow rookie Bob Heffner. He left the yard.

Liberated, too, was Bert Campaneris. Like Eddy Rodriguez nearly half a century later, Campy left Cuba for the United States. He did so as a teenager, signed by the Athletics shortly before the U.S. imposed an embargo on his native country in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then on July 22, 1964, Campy arrived in Minneapolis two hours before game time and in his first at-bat walloped Jim Kaat’s first pitch for a solo job.

A decade later, John Montefusco arrived at Dodger Stadium just one hour prior to gametime. Four hours hence, he had claimed a tremendous debut. In the first inning, the Dodgers scored four runs against Giants starter Ron Bryant before he recorded an out. In came the Triple-A call-up, and all Montefusco did was pitch nine innings of one-run ball to claim the win. Well, that’s not all he did. In his first official at-bat, he belted a home run.

Three years later, in 1978, Dave Machemer got his big break when Angels third baseman Carney Lansford went down with an injury. He caught another when, during his first at-bat, Twins catcher Butch Wynegar mishandled his foul tip and dropped what would have been strike three. Then on a full count and with a borrowed bat in hand, Machemer went yard. As Machemer entered the dugout, Angels ace Nolan Ryan picked him up in a bear hug.

Eight years later — after Johnnie LeMaster had smacked a liner that bounced for an inside-the-park home run, and Bob Horner had stepped off his college campus and into a home run trot, and Gary Gaetti had hit the first of his 360 career homers — Ryan was less thrilled when he yielded the first of Will Clark’s 284 career home runs in the first of his 7,173 at-bats. Afterward, Clark said to teammate Chili Davis, “He’s gonna drill me next at-bat, isn’t he?”

Jose Offerman caught a break when Expos third baseman Tim Wallach — who had joined the 1ABHR Club 10 years earlier — slipped while starting for a foul pop-up off the bat of the Dodgers rookie. Offerman then drove a 2-2 pitch from Dennis Martinez into the seats at Dodger Stadium.

Four years later, Offerman’s teammate Garey Ingram couldn’t find his helmet when skipper Tommy Lasorda called on him to pinch hit. He rounded the bases anyway, but only after umpire Steve Rippley told him to keep going after he stopped at second.

Initiations continued, uniquely.

Brad Fullmer caught a break. After Boston starter Bret Saberhagen shook off catcher Scott Hatteberg’s sign, Fullmer hit the next pitch for a bomb.

Chris Richard caught a break. Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter was out with injury in that 2000 game. After his homer cleared the wall by inches, Richard claimed Hunter would have made the catch. To this day, Richard cites the blast in the marketing copy for his Personal Pitcher pitching machines.

Miguel Olivo? He caught a break, too. Three rain delays totaling two hours threatened to wash away his 2002 blast. It stood.

Mark Saccomanno got the call at 2:30 PM for a 7:05 game and raced to Minute Maid Park in his hometown of Houston. As if still in a hurry, he hit the first pitch for a homer — his only big league blast. In a 3-2 win, it was big.

Japanese import Kazuo Matsui hit his tomorrow — at 8:36 AM Tokyo time.

Luke Hughes, like Matsui, homered tomorrow. He might also have caught a break. In his first plate appearance, on April 28, 2010, he watched as Tigers catcher Alex Avila gunned down Twins teammate Delmon Young to end the Twins’ half of the second inning. He restarted the plate appearance in the top of the third and blasted a home run while his mom watched on the Internet at around noon the next day, so to speak, in his hometown of Perth, Australia.

Lane Thomas? He might also have caught a break. Just prior to what would have been his first plate appearance, on April 17, 2019, he was left in the on-deck circle when Cardinals teammate Marcell Ozuna grounded out to end the top of the ninth against the White Sox. Two nights later, Thomas hit a pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo to right field, where it bounced off the top of the wall for a triple. After video review, Thomas was awarded a home run.

Thomas became the 121st to join the club and the first to do it via replay. On July 27, 2020 — more than 13 months after White Sox rookie Zack Collins became the 122nd member — Reds rookie Tyler Stephenson drove a ball 421 feet to become 123rd and latest member and the first to do it in a stadium with an official attendance of zero.

Officials didn’t need to rewatch the Stephenson blast. Still, thanks to video, the rest of us can rewatch the past 60 initiations and 63 of the past 74. In Part 2 — Let’s Go to the Videotape! — we’ll do exactly that. Included in the video-age initiations is that of Eddy Rodriguez, who, like Stephenson, joined the club at Great American Ball Park.

John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

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Seattle Homer
3 years ago

That was fun!