Pinch Me I’m Elmer Valo

A couple of weeks back, I made the notation: “Elmer Valo walks 18 times as a pinch hitter” and thought it might be fun to do a little digging on Mr. Valo. Valo was one of five players to make the big leagues out of Czechoslovakia. Valo’s abilities first drew the attention of the sage Connie Mack, who despite limited resources knew the value of getting on first by any means necessary. Players like Wally Moses, Robert Lee “Indian Bob” Johnson and Max Bishop were geniuses at finding ways to reach base.

Superficially it would be easy to dismiss Elmer Valo. As a full time player from 1942-52, excluding three seasons of military service during World War II, he batted .283, slugged just .391 and hit a mere 41 home runs driving in 404 — the kind of performance that will land you meaningful employment as a team‘s fourth outfielder. If we peek a little closer we see that he was a pretty valuable offensive player. Valo had a Hall-of-Fame batting eye walking over three times as often as he struck out; with a decent lineup behind him he’d likely have been among the league leaders in runs scored.

Valo got his first taste of the big leagues in 1940 at the tender age of 19, and by age 21 he cracked the Philadelphia A’s varsity and enjoyed the little known honor of being the first player to grace the cover of Baseball Digest. However, his first full year was fairly unimpressive (save for his 70 BB to just 21 whiffs) to say the least and he quickly saw less playing time the following season. Thanks to military service, he saw still fewer not picking up a bat in the majors until 1946.

Upon his return, he quickly justified Mack’s faith in him, being a bright spot on a club that often had little to cheer about. Although he only had over 500 AB in a season once, he made his time in the lineup count. As mentioned, while not a power threat — except to the well-being of Shibe Park‘s outfield walls which he showed a Reiser-like ability to challenge unsuccessfully — Valo used his strike zone judgment to post an on base percentage over .400 in eight of the ten seasons (.414 from 1946-55). On May 1st, 1949 Valo ripped two bases loaded triples in a 15-9 win over the Washington Senators.

Toward the end of his tenure with the A’s (now in Kansas City), he became among the league’s finest pinch hitters. Appearing in 112 games in 1955, Valo hit a stunning .364/.460/.484 in 283 AB. One of Valo’s less well known contributions to the A’s was the befriending of fellow import (albeit from Puerto Rico), Vic Power. In the racially charged 1950’s in an area where the racial question was strong, Valo taught Power the English language and how to pull practical jokes — especially on one another.

After a rough start to the 1955 season, he was cut loose and went back to Philadelphia with the Phillies. Valo rediscovered his stroke at the age of 35, finding the familiar environs of Shibe Park much to his liking as he hit .289/.392/.405 hitting five home runs in just 291 AB.

It wasn’t to last as he was included in a six-player trade before Opening Day, where he, minor leaguer Mel Geho, Tim Harkness, Ron Negray, $75000 cash and a player to be named later (Ben Flowers) were sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers for shortstop Chico Fernandez. The most notable event of his time with the Dodgers was that he went west when the club was relocated to Los Angeles. After a year on the West Coast, he was sent to Cleveland where he garnered seven hits and seven walks in 24 AB without striking out once and was released by the Indians at the end of the year.

The New York Yankees, still stinging from the embarrassment of 1959 where they finished a distant third to the Chicago White Sox, looked to Valo to add depth to the bench. With a lineup that consisted of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron and a newly acquired young Turk named Roger Maris, a man with Valo’s particular talent would come in handy for skipper Casey Stengel. Like Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter before him, Stengel valued veteran players who could come off the bench and provide a key hit or needed baserunner.

He got all of five at bats with the Yankees drawing a pair of walks.

However those two walks were both part of a much bigger record. In 1960, starting with the New York Yankees and continuing on later in 1960 with the Washington Senators, Valo would set a pair of all time records. His two walks with the Bronx Bombers were part of the single season record for most walks by a pinch hitter (18) mentioned at the outset. Further, those two free passes are part of Valo’s record for career walks by a pinch hitter (91). In his season where he briefly donned the pinstripes, he reached base 33 times: 18 walks, one hit by pitch and fourteen hits. His OBP that year, at age 39, was a lofty .413. Valo summed up his role thusly: “There are times when all a pinch hitter has to do is to get a pass. In that sort of situation, the trick is to walk and forget your temptation to go for a long hit.” Over his career, he received a record 91 walks while collecting 90 pinch hits.

Valo’s career spanned 20 seasons, six teams, zero post season appearances and was part of three of the many franchise shifts in the 1950’s He was a member of the Athletics when they moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1954-55, a member of the Dodgers when they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957-58, and was a member of the Washington Senators when they vacated the nation’s capital for Minnesota. Another distinction Valo enjoys is being the only major leaguer to endure two 20-game losing streaks. The first with the 1943 A’s, who tied the then record of 20 consecutive defeats (surpassed by the Baltimore Orioles with 21 to start the 1988 season) and again with the Phillies when they lost a modern record of 23 consecutive games in 1961. Valo had a brief tenure as a major league coach with the Cleveland Indians in 1963-64 and received two Hall-of-Fame votes in 1967.

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