Pick My Post -- Top 5 Illini Baseballers!

May 15, 2019


So we tried to play Pick My Post for baseball...and got one response. Cue the sad trombone.

We move forward with the goal of making Illinois baseball a household thing here in the Midwest, bent, but unbroken, resolute in the knowledge that...I'm getting off-course here. Here's the "winning" tweet:

If you only use MLB success/longevity as the metric, who are the top 5 Illini baseballers of all time?

-- David Atkins (@thegoah) May 15, 2019

Thanks for asking David! This was a fun one. I'd be lying if I said I was familiar with some of these names, so it was pretty educational! The first part of this was a bit difficult. After all, what defines success. As a baseball guy, however, I the more I thought about it, longevity was the simplest answer. If you hang around the big leagues for 10 or more years, you're obviously pretty successful.

So without further ado, here's a look at our Top 5 most successful baseball alums starting at No. 5!

5) Hoot Evers, OF (12 years -- Detroit, AL (1941,1946-52), Boston, AL (1952-54), New York, NL (1954), Baltimore, AL (1955,56), Cleveland, AL (1955-56) -- Evers was a member of the Greatest Generation and, if you look at his years of service, he missed three years while serving in WWII.

And military service actually impacted his career twice. With Ted Williams piloting jets in Korea, Evers was acquired by the Red Sox to fill his spot in left field.

Evers was a two-time All-Star (1948, 1950). In fact, Evers put together an incredible season in 1950, hitting .323 with 35 doubles, an American League-leading 11 triples, 21 home runs and 103 RBIs!

Evers later joined the Tigers' MLB coaching staff and later served as their Director of Player Development!

4) Tom Haller, C (12 years -- San Francisco, NL (1961-67), Los Angeles, NL (1968-71), Detroit, AL (1972) -- No less an authority than baseball historian/stat wizard Bill James ranks Haller as the No. 32 overall catcher in history in terms of his "Years of Position Dominance Index." While was he was never statistically the top catcher in baseball during his 12-year career, he was second-best statistically three times, third best twice and fourth best once. Not too shabby.

Haller was a three-time MLB All-Star. According to the fine folks at sabr.org, Haller ranks second all-time with six Hall of Fame pitchers caught! And, like so many catchers, he stayed in the game, serving as General Manager of both the San Francisco Giants and his hometown Chicago White Sox (He was a native of Lockport).

Perhaps what I love most about Haller, however, was the fact that he was a multi-sport athlete at illinois. He suited up in basketball, football AND baseball for the Fighting Illini. In fact, he came to Illinois on a football scholarship! And when he signed early for $54,000 in 1958 (the equivalent of about $474,000 today), he went out of his way to pay the university back for not fulfilling his scholarship!

3) Cy Falkenberg, RHP (14 years -- Pittsburgh, NL (1903), Washington, AL (1905-08), Cleveland, AL (1908-13), Indianapolis, FedL (1914), Newark, FedL (1915), Brooklyn, FedL (1916), Philadelphia, AL (1917) -- Fans of the university's mission as a whole are going to love this one.

Cy Falkenberg didn't come to the University of Illinois to further his baseball career! According to the fine folks at sabr.org, he wanted to be an engineer and build his own wonder like the Panama Canal which was being built while he was at the university!

Fans of the university might be less thrilled with what Falkenberg also earned recognition for -- an emery ball. It seems that our own Cy used a piece of emery board to scuff the baseball and generate a little extra movement. To be fair, it was legal back then. Me personally, I've always trended toward Bardol, Crisco or jalapenos. But to each their own.

Nevertheless, once old Cy -- coincidentally he was a teammate of Cy Young -- picked up the emery ball, he was dominant. At the Triple A level in 1912, he was 25-8 and then, with the Cleveland Indians in 1913, he posted a 23-10 mark with a 2.22 ERA. This earned him the wooing of the upstart Federal League, where he got $5,000 per season for a three-year contract (roughly $128,000 today) as opposed to the $3,250 he was getting from the Indians in 1913.

Unfortunately for Cy, the Federal League went under after two seasons and MLB outlawed the emery ball about the same time, thus ending Cy's brief period of dominance.

2) Darrin Fletcher, C (14 years -- Los Angeles, NL (1989-90), Philadelphia, NL (1990-91), Montreal, NL (1992-97), Toronto, AL (1997-2002) -- Fletcher is one of the longest MLB-tenured Illini and goes down in baseball history as one of the most reliable defensive backstops. In fact, his career fielding percentage of .9934 ranks No. 32 all-time!

Perhaps my favorite tidbit about Darrin is that he was a Montreal Expo. What's an Expo you young'uns ask? It's short for exposition. Montreal hosted the 1967 World's Fair (yes the whole world used to have a fair too) and Montreal was awarded an MLB team not long after in 1968. Plus, the spelling was the same in French and English so they wouldn't have to double-print everything from lineup cards to merchandise!

Darrin was an All-Star in 1994 when the Expos might have had a real shot at a World Series title were it not for the players' strike ending the season early. He really found his hitting stroke later in his career when he hit .291 with 18 home runs and a career-high 80 RBIs in 1999 and then again in 2000 when he hit a career-high .320 with 20 home runs and 58 RBIs.

Darrin's presence is still felt at Illinois Field. He only lives about a half-hour away and his son, Casey, and nephew, Danny, have both suited up for the Illini.

1-tie) Ken Holtzman (14 years -- Chicago NL (1965-71, 78), Oakland AL (1972-75), New York AL (1976-77) -- I forgot Ken Holtzman. Can you tell it's the end of the school year? Dang.

Holtzman is known, of course, for many things. On an individual level, he's the only Jewish left-hander not named Sandy Koufax with a pair of no-hitters to his credit. Both of those no-hitters were with the Chicago Cubs, which was tops all-time for the ball club (in the so-called "live-ball" era) until Jake Arrieta twirled his gems a few years back. And, of course, there's the fact that Holtzman was drafted in the fourth round of the 1965 draft -- the first year that MLB held a draft. (That draft featured a number of notable of Illinoisans, including future Pete Rose victim Ray Fosse and, my personal favorite, Marty Pattin, whose namesake bar I spent many an evening in)

Speaking of Ray Fosse, he and Holtzman would eventually become teammates on some of the most colorful and dominant teams in baseball history, the Oakland A's. The Cubs traded Holtzman after the 1971 season to the A's. Over the next three years, Holtzman would front a rotation alongside Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter.

Holtzman would win 19 games and become an All-Star for the first time in 1972. He would also win his first world championship as the A's kicked off a string of three straight World Series titles. Holtzman would win 59 games over those three seasons and, in the fourth season, when the Red Sox swept the A's in the ALCS, he would win 18 more. In all his World Series appearances totalled, he posted a 4-1 record with a 2.55 ERA!

1-tie) Lou Boudreau (14 years -- Cleveland, AL (1938-50), Boston, AL (1951-52) --Boudreau's No. 5 can still be found all round Illinois Field, just not on anybody's back.

Boudreau joined Illini legends Red Grange and Dick Butkus as the only Illini to have their numbers retired when the Illini retired the No. 5 in 1992. Of course, that's to be expected when, like Grange and Butkus, you're enshrined in your sport's Hall of Fame as Boudreau was in 1970.

Boudreau, like the aforementioned Tom Haller, was a multi-sport star at Illinois. In addition to guiding the Illini 9 to the 1937 Big 10 championship, he also helped the Fighting Illini cagers to a hoops title that same year! In fact, he was more decorated in basketball after earning All-America honors in 1938!

Unfortunately for Boudreau, his excellence in both sports also created problems for him. After the Cleveland Indians paid him to commit to baseball while he was still at Illinois, he was ruled ineligible. Thus, did Boudreau forfeit his senior year. He did, however, return to the university in the 1939 and 1940 off-seasons to serve as an assistant basketball coach and even served as the lead recruiter on future Whiz Kid Andy Phillip!

Boudreau had an incredible career that included, at the age of 24, becoming the player-manager for the Indians, which makes him the youngest manager in MLB history, a record never likely to be broken. He was even credited with creating the bane of so many hitters today -- the shift! The Boudreau Shift was employed to "psyche out" Ted Williams. It still works today as countless big leaguers still pound balls into the shift rather than look to slap something away (see Schwarber, Kyle and Gallo, Joey).

As a player, he was an eight-time All Star, culminating in guiding the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948, when he hit .355 with 18 home runs and 106 RBIs. For those efforts, he earned Player of the Year honors from the Sporting News and the American League MVP.

After his playing days wrapped in 1952, Boudreau went on to manage in Boston, Kansas City and his hometown Chicago Cubs, where he later moved into the radio broadcast booth and stayed with the team until 1987.

I do hope this was as enjoyable for you as it was for me. As for our current Illini, they are on the road at Michigan State this weekend, looking to close out the regular season in fine form. After starting the Big 10 slate 1-5, they are 12-3 since to stand at 13-8 in the conference, good for third place behind Michigan and Indiana, respectively.

In its latest update, D1baseball.com has Dan Hartleb's squad getting to the Dance as a No. 2 seed and, currently headed to Athens, Ga. where the host Georgia Bulldogs await and, presumably, Illini superfan and friend of the IB Will Leitch would don a press pass and take over the IB baseball beat for a weekend! This blogger, however, would like to see the Illini get out the brooms in East Lansing this weekened and then win two or three games in the Big 10 tourney next weekend in Omaha to put themselves in position to host a regional at Illinois Field!


MM on May 16 @ 02:39 AM CDT

Not sure how you make any such list without Ken Holtzman

BenE74 on May 16 @ 06:29 AM CDT

That dreadful error has been remedied! My wife points out that once again I managed to overlook something in front of my face!

illinitrueblue on May 16 @ 11:27 AM CDT

I actually batted vs. both Holtzman (as a frosh at UI) and Pattin (in American Legion ball.)

Both were amazing. Kenny threw harder than anyone I ever saw and Pattin had the first slider I ever saw. Or, rather didn’t see. Fun times, though.

wesd2005 on May 16 @ 12:07 PM CDT

Ray Fosse mentioned on the A's broadcast last week against Cincinnati that he had been offered a football scholarship by Pete Elliott.

I guess he was talking about U of I because of Tanner Roark.

Considering the career he has had, I guess he made the right decision.

Norcal Illini on May 16 @ 06:27 PM CDT

If I'm not mistaken, Bear Bryant also offered Fosse a football scholarship. Playing baseball was still a good choice, even with the Pete Rose incident that permanently affected his career.

Bear8287 on May 26 @ 12:53 PM CDT

Thanks for the article Ben. Very enjoyable and I learned a few things too. I have a nephew at UNL and he joked after the series with the Illini that maybe the Cornhuskers and Illini would meet for the B1G championship... well one of those teams actually got there.

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