Uniform Numbers through the ages: #10 – Johnnie LeMaster

Welcome to the fifth edition of Uniform numbers through the ages, the series that looks at Giants of the past through the lens of their uniform numbers. This edition explores the number 10.


 

Previous entries: 0-2, 3-6, 7-8, 9


10

Number of Giants to wear this number: 43

Notables: Masanori Murakami, Johnnie LeMaster, Royce Clayton

Most recent: Chris Dominguez

At first glance, the number ten appears to be another of the less illustrious numbers in Giants history, but it’s had its brief moments in the spotlight. The very first ten was Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, but he switched to eleven after one season and that’s the number that was retired in his honor. Pioneering Japanese hurler Masanori Murakami wore #10 in his first year with San Francisco, but also switched in his next season; we’ll tell his story in the “37” edition of this series.

Most of the other players to sport this number haven’t been quite as significant. Harry Gumbert pitched in consecutive World Series for the Giants in the ’30s… poorly. Gumbert is one of three players to have multiple World Series games of giving up four or more runs while recording fewer than four outs. His postseason ERA in four outings with the Giants was 32.40.

Davey Williams was the starting second baseman in the 1954 October sweep of Cleveland, but failed to record a hit in fifteen plate appearances. Catcher and career Giant Harry Danning earned four consecutive All-Star nods from 1938-41, putting him alongside Bonds the younger, Cepeda, Will Clark, Mays, McCovey, Mize, Jo-Jo Moore and Ott as the only Giants position players to achieve this.

In modern times, first round pick, defensive wizard and movie star Royce Clayton sported #10 from 1992-95. Clayton was traded away for a whole lot of nothing, but one of the players in the deal, Allen Watson, was later used to steal J.T. Snow from the Angels.

Newly appointed Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ended his career wearing this number with San Francisco. Roberts is the only Giant to steal 30 bases in a season in the last 18 years. By doing it at the age of 35 he also became the oldest Giant to steal 30 bags in the last 110 years.


The longest tenured #10 by far, however, was shortstop Johnnie Lee LeMaster, who wore the number for the entirety of his ten-plus seasons with San Francisco.

Let’s cut to the chase: LeMaster is famous for being a terrible major leaguer. In 3515 plate appearances, LeMaster hit .222/.277/.289, good for an OPS+ of 60; only three post-war ballplayers have put up a worse OPS+ in more PA. Even going back to the start of the live-ball era in 1920, his is the fifth worst OPS+ for anyone who had 3000+ PA. And even if you go all the way back to 1911, he’s still eleventh worst in OPS+.

“Well,” you say, “was he at least a clutch hitter”? Nope! LeMaster hit .169/.213/.197 with the bases loaded, his slugging percentage and OPS being the second and third worst figures of all time, respectively, given a minimum of 80 bases loaded PA. His tOPS (OPS in a split relative to overall OPS) in these situations is 15th worst of all time.

With runners in scoring position and two out he hit .168/.266/.215. That level of unclutchness, relative to overall performance, is 7th worst all time, min 400 PA. His .481 OPS in these spots is the worst of all time by a whole 42 points given the same PA minimum. Even if we drop that PA threshold to 250, he still shares the lead, and if you drop it to 200, he’s only overtaken by pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton.

Well, was he any good against the Dodgers? Guess. His .514 OPS against LA is the 4th worst for anyone who had at least as many PA as he did against them.

“But he wasn’t in the lineup for his bat,” you now say. “He must have been a good fielder right?” Well unfortunately… no. Total Zone, the stat used to calculate historical defensive performance, figured LeMaster to be 61 runs worse than average in the field over the course of his career. Here he is botching a play in humorous fashion.

When you his defense to his hitting value, you get a player who was, according to Baseball-Reference, worth -5.4 Wins Above Replacement. LeMaster is only the second player in history, and the only player since the Second World War, to be rated as both 150 runs below average with the bat and 50 runs below average in the field.


And yet things started out so well for him. In his first major league at-bat, he hit a inside the park home run off of future Hall of Famer Don Sutton. “I was a 21-year-old kid and I hit a line drive that hit a seam on the old astro turf at Candlestick Park and it bounced over the center fielders head,” said LeMaster. “I just took off running and running. That’s the fastest I ever ran and the scariest I’d ever been.”1

Expectations must have been high for the shortstop even before that explosive start, as he was the sixth overall pick in the 1973 draft. (In fact, the only position players drafted higher by the Giants are Will Clark, Matt Williams and Buster Posey).

But LeMaster couldn’t live up to the hype of his initial at-bat, and his tenure with Giants coincided with the worst period in franchise history. The club’s terrible performance in the draft had a lot to do with it. San Francisco’s first round draft picks from 1969-1978 accumulated a total of -3 WAR in the majors. None of the five first round picks in the years after LeMaster was drafted made it to the majors. Ignoring supplemental picks, the fifteen first rounders drafted by the Giants from 1969-1984 somehow contrived to put up negative WAR in the majors.


So LeMaster was a bad player on a bad team, and after a while fans start to get frustrated. That frustration only grew after 1978. That year’s team had an unexpectedly great season, being as close as half a game of the division lead as late as August 27th. LeMaster called the excitement in the air “contagious”.1 But the team tanked down the stretch, eventually finishing six games out.

If the boo-boys hadn’t already been out for LeMaster, they certainly were by 1979. LeMaster, a devout Christian, belonged to a clique of religious Giants derisively known as “The God Squad”.1 Critics said that their religion made them passive ballplayers,2 and that they “used religion as a crutch for poor performances, allegedly suggesting that it was “God’s will” when things failed to happen as planned on the field of play.”1 His teammates, fully aware of his religious nature, would try to mess with him as well, initially at least. According to LeMaster he once returned to his seat on the team bus to find a Playboy magazine open on the centerfold.3

And LeMaster made things worse for himself when he made some anti-gay comments in the press,4 not a great idea in famously liberal San Francisco. A player with a better relationship with the sportswriters might have had more protection in the media, but LeMaster was never comfortable with the press.3 His comments, in addition to his poor play on the field, made him an easy scapegoat. Some untimely errors only compounded the issue.4

The booing distressed LeMaster. He said in retirement, “An athlete wants to please his home crowd more than anything in the world, and it’s a crushing [feeling], it’s a thing that hurts so bad when your own fans boo you… I want my fans to be pleased with what I’m doing, because they’re the ones that pay my salary, they’re the ones that cheer us on, they’re the ones that care about us the most.”4

Eventually, LeMaster took action. On the prompting of his wife, he asked the team equipment manager to mock up a shirt with LeMaster’s number 10 on the back, but with “BOO” in place of his name. After leaving it hanging in his locker for a couple of weeks, he finally put it on before a home game against the Expos, unbeknownst to his manager. “When I walked to the plate that night I could hear manager Joe Altobelli say, ‘Why does John have “Bob” on the back of his uniform?’” said LeMaster.1

He only got to wear it for an inning or so. After the game, LeMaster found a letter form the GM fining him $500 for being out of uniform. But, “the fans loved it and the media loved it, it got the fans off my back and the media off my back.”he said later.4


LeMaster’s best season came in 1983. Through May 27th he was hitting .289/.396/.409 and supposedly playing good defense. “[LeMaster is] playing as good a shortstop over the last seven weeks as I have ever seen,” said one announcer. “There is no shortstop in the National League who is playing any better.” He may have been getting carried away. “If Ozzie Smith is the wizard, we’re gonna to have to think of a nickname for Johnnie LeMaster,” said the same announcer after the shortstop made possibly the most routine play of all time. “You don’t fool Johnnie LeMaster,” he continued, after the Giant bounced a change-up through the 5.5 hole.

LeMaster hit his standard .219/.281/.264 the rest of the season.

“Johnny Disaster” ended his Giants career in acrimonious fashion. He had fallen out with manager Frank Robinson, and made it clear that he wanted to be traded.5 After opening 1985 by going 0-16, he got his wish. Cleveland acquired him to replace a shortstop who had made eight errors early in the season and had led the majors in errors the season before.6 The Giants acquired a shortstop who hit .179 in his only season for them. A blockbuster this was not.


LeMaster kept his Christian faith in retirement. He has “made several trips to Latin America with a Christian organization that builds homes and offers medical assistance in areas stricken by poverty and natural disaster”1 in addition to being an elder at the Paintsville Church of Christ in Kentucky.7 He has given sermons that are available online, at least one of which offers unintentional support for Chase Utley:

“If Jesus Christ was a runner at first base, would he slide hard into that guy at second? I believe with all my heart he would have knocked him out into left field.”


In the next edition: the best lefty in Giants history.


References:

  1. A.J. Hayes (May 12, 2008).Boo-yah! Johnnie LeMaster returns“, The Guardian’s San Francisco Blog
  2. Lowell Cohn (Aug 16, 1989). “A dilemma of Biblical proportions, The Salina Journal
  3. Johnie LeMaster audio sermon“, HousetoHouse.com
  4. Boo…Who? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast, Freakonomics.com
  5. Steve Daley (Feb 5, 1985). “Cubs Could Deal For Short Stopgap“, Chicago Tribune
  6. Mike Kiley (May 8, 1985). “Bernazard Expects A Trade“, Chicago Tribune
  7. Johnnie LeMaster visits Truman State University, 22gigantes’ YouTube Channel
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About Aidan Jackson-Evans

I write about baseball. Follow me on Twitter: @ajacksonevans
This entry was posted in Pinch Writers, Uniform Numbers Through the Ages and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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