Jerry Jr. and The Amazing Hairstons

Jerry Hairston tweeted his retirement Wednesday; almost immediately, he was announced as a new announcer for the Dodgers. It was fitting: Hairston rarely started, but he was always needed. The longtime utilityman picked up a World Series ring with the 2009 Yankees, logging time in the Fall Classic at every position but first base, catcher, and pitcher.

Jerry’s actually from one of the great baseball families — his grandfather Sam, father Jerry Sr., uncle Johny, and brother Scott all reached the major leagues — and Jerry Jr. had more plate appearances than the rest of them combined. As a matter of fact, as Red Reporter points out, “The Hairston family is the biggest baseball family ever.” His family is one of only four three-generation families in major league history, along with the Boones and Bells, and, most recently, the Colemans (Joe Sr., Joe Jr., and Casey).

The Hairstons are the only one of those four families to get a total of five players to the majors, and the only African-American family. Jerry’s grandfather Sam actually played on the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 1940s, right around when Henry Aaron played for the team. Then, in July of 1951, Sam became the first African-American player on the Chicago White Sox. (Cuban-American Minnie Minoso joined the team in May, so he was the first player of color for the team.) Moreover, Jerry’s mother is Mexican, so Jerry and Scott played for Mexico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Fourteen years ago, Jerry described his grandfather to a reporter:

My grandfather was never a bitter man… He didn’t really talk a lot about (the barrier). He just talked about playing.
He told me tremendous stories, like having caught Satchel Paige, playing with Jackie Robinson, with Willie Mays, with Hank Aaron. And I got to meet some former Negro League greats, like “Double-duty” Radcliffe.
I remember one story about when they played the white all-stars. Satchel Paige was throwing and struck out Joe DiMaggio four times. And Joe DiMaggio turned to my grandfather and said, ‘That’s the best pitcher I’ve ever seen.’
He just loved the game, and until the day he died, he was coaching baseball.

— Bruce Deachman, Ottawa Citizen, August 12, 1999 (link unavailable)

Though Hairston was not drafted until the 11th round of the 1997 draft, his talents were recognized early, and he advanced quickly through the system, reaching the majors for his first cup of coffee in 1998. One scout in 1997 sized him up quite well: “Can be an offensive type second baseman at worse a utility type player, I feel he will play in the ML in some capacity/ Highly instinctive type player, knows how to play game.” By 2000, Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman recognized him as “Baltimore’s top prospect,” and that year a scout wrote even more simply: “You can tell when you see Hairston play that he comes from a baseball family.”

The Hairstons had a special gift for making the majors, but none of them have been starting players. The White Sox only allowed Sam to play four games in the majors — where he happened to collect two hits and two walks in seven plate appearances, for a career .400/.571/.600 batting line — before sending him back to the minors for good, and John only managed three games.

Jerry Sr. did a bit better than his father and brother. He was primarily known as a pinch hitter, the Lenny Harris of his time: he led the league in pinch hits each season from 1982 to 1985, collecting 94 over his career. For his career, Scott has been a utility outfielder, and Jerry Jr. has, for the most part, been a utility infielder. But for brief moments, he has been a starting player. Indeed, Jerry Jr. is the only member of his family to collect 500 plate appearances in a single season.

He did that in 2001, when he was the Baltimore Orioles’s regular second baseman. After two years of being blocked by Delino DeShields, he managed to beat out Brian Roberts for the starting job. Sadly, he couldn’t hold onto it for very long. In 2002, he started 118 games at second while the up-and-coming Roberts started 25. Then, in 2003, Hairston fouled a ball off his foot and landed himself on the 60-day DL.

It would be the first of 14 DL trips for him, and it sealed his fate: with rare exceptions, for the rest of his career he would be a bench player.

His medical history reads like a game of Operation: over the course of his career, he fractured his ring finger, his ankle, his thumb, his tibia, and his wrist, strained his hamstring, thigh, and groin, sprained his elbow, and had surgery on his hip. No word on whether he had butterflies in his stomach.

(This is the paragraph where I perfunctorily disclose that Hairston was named in the Mitchell Report. He denied ever having used steroids.)

Other than their appearance on the Mexican team in the World Baseball Classic, Jerry and Scott only played together for one season, 2010 in San Diego. It was the first time two Hairstons had ever played together in the majors: John and Jerry Sr. were brothers, but John’s four plate appearances came with the Cubs in 1969, four years before Jerry Sr. debuted with the White Sox. (While that was a first for the Hairston family, baseball-reference points out that there were two players who played with both Jerry Sr. and Jerry Jr.: Ozzie Guillen and Harold Baines.)

The highest points in Jerry’s career came in his 30s, the 2009 World Championship and his brilliant fill-in play for the Reds in 2008. As Reds Reporter explains, “Due to injuries to Alex Gonzalez, Jeff Keppinger, and Jolbert Cabrera (?), Hairston played nearly half of his games at shortstop.” All he did was hit .326 with an .871 OPS while playing every position but first, catcher, and pitcher; he was worth 2.6 WAR in a little under 300 plate appearances. Not bad for a 32-year old utilityman.

He may have gotten that from his father. Jerry Sr., the pinch-hitter, embodied tremendous patience: he spent four seasons in the Mexican League between his 1977 release and his 1981 pickup by the White Sox and reinvention as a pinch hitter extraordinaire. “I count them as years of learning, of growing up, of putting my feet on the ground, learning patience,” Hairston told the Toronto Star in 1986, and he described the art of pinch-hitting. “What you have to do is monitor the pulse of the game… You’ve got to kind of play manager all the time, put yourself in situations, figure out what might happen. You have to be ready.” His son clearly absorbed that lesson.

“Game will not miss me,” Hairston modestly wrote in his farewell tweet, “but I will miss it and teammates immensely!” There’s no doubt that the second part is true. But I’d like to believe that Hairston — the greatest player in his remarkable family — sold himself short in the first part. Though he was flashy when he came up, Hairston got more understated as he got older. He was the kind of player teams wanted to have around, who knew how to use each of his seven gloves and could play anywhere in a pinch.

He’s the kind of player that you don’t know how much you need until he’s no longer around. Here’s hoping a fourth generation of Hairstons picks up a glove.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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10 years ago

One year almost a decade ago, I ran out of at bats at catcher in my Diamond Mind replay league, and who was the obvious choice to fill in for the last 20 or so games of the season? Jerry Hairston Jr.!

It wasn’t pretty, though. I think he had something like 30 passed balls in those 20 games, which actually could have been much worse.

jim S.
10 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Are you ever on the Diamond Mind forum, fansofdmb? If so, what moniker do you use?

10 years ago
Reply to  jim S.

I do sometimes read there, but haven’t posted ever. If I do, it’ll probably be the same as my username here.

What is yours?