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Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Ken Hunts

August 9, 2016

Speaking of coincidences, one of the sadder I can recall is the brief career of Ken Hunt. There have been two Ken Hunts in baseball history, a pitcher and an outfielder, whose careers burst into stardom and then fizzled out almost exactly simultaneously in early 1961, which was the only year one of them played in MLB at all, and the only year that the other played more than a pittance. ("Pittance" is defined here as "averaging more than 70 plate appearances per year," which the outfielding Ken Hunt failed to do in the five years he played in MLB other than 1961.)  That also happened to be the first year that I can recall following baseball. Mazeroski’s HR the previous October is something I learned about only through reading afterwards, but I followed the 1961 season passionately, and I was lucky enough that summer to root for the Cincinnati Reds, who won the NL pennant, thanks in part to their rookie pitcher Ken Hunt, although by the time I actually started rooting for the Reds, his baseball career was effectively over.

Hunt was incredibly impressive for the first ten weeks of the season. By June 21st, he had won 8 games as a starting pitcher, losing only 3, with a 2.73 ERA in 89 innings, which projects out to something like 19-8 in 225 innings over the full 154-game season, Rookie of the Year material. In fact, Hunt won the Sporting News’ NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year award, despite not doing a damned thing after June 21st.  In the remaining 90 games of Cincinnati’s schedule, he was jerked from the starting rotation by early August, and his record for those 90 games is a horrible 1-7 W-L record and a 6.27 ERA in under 50 innings. It was a very good 10 weeks while it lasted. Hunt never pitched an inning in MLB again, though he did play for four more seasons in the minors after that. (And actually he did pitch exactly one inning of mop-up relief in that year’s World Series, but that was it for him.) Finito. Done. Goom-bye.

Meanwhile, in the American League that year, outfielder Ken Hunt was having an even more eye-popping rookie season—at least until mid-June.  This Ken Hunt (Kenneth L. Hunt, as opposed to Kenneth R. Hunt, although both were righties all the way) was batting .309, with an impressive OBP of .387 and an even more impressive SLG of .597 as of the late afternoon of June 6th. (I’m drawing a very fine line here, between games of a doubleheader, to cherry-pick precisely where this Ken Hunt’s season, and career, fell apart.) Projected out to 162 games (that was the only season that the NL played 154 and the AL played 162)  those averages remain, of course, but the counting stats would add up to 33 HRs and 98 RBIs, again sure-shot ROTY material. (Neither Hunt received a vote in their leagues’ ROTY awards, but this Hunt’s projected stats were slightly better than those of NL outfielder Billy Williams, who won the ROTY award there, and the other Hunt’s projected stats are slightly better than those of pitcher Don Schwall, who won the AL’s ROTY award, for what it’s worth.)  To complete the ugly picture, starting with the second game of that doubleheader,  this Ken Hunt’s slash numbers fell to .232/.300/.438, which are just about his career stats over six years, including his hot first 10 weeks of 1961.

The outfielding Ken Hunt had come to the Angels from the Yankees, where he had been competing with the likes of Mantle and Maris for an outfield spot. (He had been a boyhood friend, in fact, of Maris’s in North Dakota, and he roomed with Maris during his brief stay with the club in 1960.) Hunt’s career after June of 1961 was even more frustrating than his career before that spring—he injured his shoulder throwing in a 1962 spring training game, and would never again bat 200 times in his three remaining seasons with the Angels and the Senators. His one claim to fame outside of baseball is that he married a woman with a small child who went on to play Eddie Munster in the TV series of that name and later became the current Speaker of the House. (OK, not that last one, but Hunt did appear with his stepson in a Munsters episode, "Herman the Rookie" in 1965.) He is buried in Fargo, North Dakota, a few feet from Roger Maris’s grave. The other Hunt is buried in Utah. Both men were out of baseball by 1966.

Like I said, a mostly sad story, but one that would be less unusual but for the coincidence of both men sharing a name and an exact period of MLB stardom for the only time in either of their lives. Worth thinking about, perhaps, the next time you get all worked up about a rookie getting off to a hot start.



COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Not to mention the sad fate of Ken Hubbs!
12:29 AM Aug 15th
It was said at the time that a Yankee pitcher likewise hurt himself doing that Colavito thing. (I think it was Bill Stafford.)
BTW I myself do a version of it, and it feels like it helps -- but I'm always mindful of that Stafford thing and so I don't do it terribly ambitiously, just enough to loosen up some of the stuff back there. :-)

Rocky himself used to really yank that bat down, repeatedly and with intensity, making a face that matched the effort.
5:04 PM Aug 14th
Steven Goldleaf
It's a mess trying to diagnose accurately from this distance. According to Hunt's SABR bio, which I relied on extensively:

"Trying to cut down a baserunner in an early April exhibition game against the Angels’ Dallas-Fort Worth farm team, Hunt tore muscles in his right shoulder. The injury limited him to pinch-running and a few pinch-hitting appearances early in the season. On May 4 he was called on to pinch-hit against the Baltimore Orioles. In an attempt to stretch his sore shoulder muscles in the on-deck circle, Hunt flexed his bat behind his neck in what was described as the “Rocky Colavito manner” and separated his right shoulder.

He was placed on the disabled list and returned to Grand Forks to recuperate. One report said Hunt had also fractured his collarbone, and another said he had developed an aneurysm in his shoulder that required surgery."
4:22 AM Aug 13th
According to Haunted Baseball, Ken Hunt the hitter actually broke his collarbone while swinging a bat in spring training in 1962. It was diagnosed as a strained arm and he tried to play through it through spring training, and even into the start of the season. He went on the DL in May and came off in September.
12:28 AM Aug 13th
Marc Schneider
I love stories like this because they are the rule rather than the exception for ballplayers. Sure, everyone would like to have had a great or at least solid major league career, but at least these two Ken Hunts had a few moments of baseball glory that they could tell their friends and family about. It's a lot more than most of us have.
3:39 PM Aug 11th
(Tracer shows it was probably Hunt's third extra base hit, not his first.) :-)
3:16 AM Aug 10th
Nice piece, Steven. Lots of people who start their MLB careers as comets end up as meteors, and most of the stories are interesting when presented in some detail, as you have done. Also a nice coincidence that the Hunts' middle initials were L and R.
9:48 PM Aug 9th
My goodness gracious!
Not only did I learn some things about Ken Hunt (the Yankee Ken Hunt), about whom I already knew more than mostly anybody, which admittedly isn't saying much. I also learned stuff about Maris.
Not to mention about the Munsters.

I remember how Ken Hunt (the Yankee Ken Hunt) stood up there at the plate, how he waggled his bat (a distinctive series of quick sudden flicks, interspersed by near-stationary-ness), and I remember his first extra base hit, which was a sharp double pretty deep down the left field line, and I remember thinking of him as a solid .300 hitter because in his first cup of coffee he hit .333, even though that was just in 12 AB's, and even though I was pretty good with numbers it never occurred to me that hitting .333 in 12 AB's didn't tell much. All I knew was, this rookie finished the year at .333, so he must be a real good hitter.
Of course don't assume any of this to be true, since yesterday I was sure Phil Paine was the guy whose Topps card showed him going 4-5. It could be that Phil Paine was the guy who stood as the plate like that and hit the double with the Yankees.

BTW, for me the most humbling instances of confusing one guy with another who has the same name is when the guy I think is the same as this other guy that I remember playing some games is actually the first guy's son. If not for that, I wouldn't have to realize that I'm old. :-)
8:18 PM Aug 9th
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