"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Remembering Don Mincher, power merchant

Don Mincher on baseball card, which could have been purchased at Stark's Grocery in Morris. (Image from "bolstablog")

Books by George Will and Tim McCarver made me realize how complicated baseball strategy is. As a kid it seemed pretty simple to me. I was among the legions of young Minnesota Twins fans who marveled at the home run.
Those early Twins teams were built for power.
Harmon Killebrew was the clear household name. Winning seemed pretty basic to us. You had 3-4 players in the meat of the lineup capable, at any time, of powering the ball over the fence.
What could be better for captivating Minnesota's still-neophyte major league baseball fans? The Twins were still new in 1965. Calvin Griffith brought them here from Washington D.C. four years earlier. Previous to that we were that "cold Omaha," I guess, which is the term intoned by sports advocates when we see the specter of a team possibly leaving here.
The Lakers left. The Twins put their roots down.
The Twins enthralled us with home runs in 1964 but couldn't win accordingly. My, they finished in a tie for sixth place in the American League. The team's braintrust went to work prior to '65 making sure more of those "little things" would be implemented. The power was still there.
Power alone wouldn't lift us past the New York Yankees who were nearing the end of their dynasty at that time.
Sam Mele was the Twins manager who engineered the more complete attack. An irony is that it worked despite Killebrew missing two months with injury.
How did we adjust? With the power-swinging Don Mincher available, we hardly missed a beat.
We lost Don Mincher on Sunday (3/4). He passed away at age 73 after a long illness.
He played in 128 games for the 1965 Twins who won the American League championship. I have a hard time typing that, as I would much prefer "world champions." But the story didn't end like in 1987 or '91.
It was a seven-game series in '65 just like in those two later years. But the game #7 story wasn't joyous. We failed to overcome legendary lefty Sandy Koufax.
Los Angeles had to adjust its pitching rotation because of Koufax observing a Jewish holiday. The Twins won three games in that series and thrilled their Met Stadium following - no Teflon roof there - with considerable success at home.
Even the pitcher, Jim Grant, hit a home run in game #6.
We were surely the opposite of a "cold Omaha." But victory eluded us in game #7.
It was a bitter end to our otherwise exhilarating ride that summer. Mincher hit 22 home runs in his 346 at-bats. He drove in 65 runs and scored 43. His power bat resonated for 17 doubles and three triples to complement those dingers.
The lumbering Mincher even stole a base. His batting average: .251.
Boomers like me will remember Mincher as a guy who deserved to play more. The problem is that first base got a little crowded for the fledgling Minnesota Twins. We had Vic Power, a pioneering non-white athlete who was a maestro with the glove. I loved his flourishes with that six-finger glove around first base.
Killebrew played first along with third and the outfield - interesting versatility considering he was never considered a great fielder. Bob Allison also had first base credentials.
The early Twins were not known for great fielding. In this sense you might say Mincher fit right in. He wielded a power bat while bringing yawns with his play in the field.
Billy Martin worked on this. Martin joined the Twins in 1964 when he was still a dedicated craftsman of the game, not the character that marked his slow and rather sad demise. Like Hunter Thompson, the journalist, Martin carved out his professional reputation in the standard way, with hard work and dedication, getting one's proper amount of sleep and minimizing any bad habits.
If kids think those later celebrated bad habits had anything to do with achieving success, they are sadly mistaken.
Martin made Mincher a project at first base. He taught the brawny guy to carry himself like a middle infielder, to get in front of ground balls instead of "swiping" at them.
Mincher also learned to "whistle while he worked." Actually he sang, literally. Martin sensed some tenseness with "Minch" when working in the field. Some light singing was therapy, presumably not detectable amid the din of Met Stadium fans.
That stadium was where Mall of America is today. It's slowly fading in fans' memories. But what a magical focal point of Minnesota life it was, never more so than in 1965.
Mincher's career spanned 1960 to 1972. He was with the original Washington Senators when they came here. Griffith might have been a curmudgeonly throwback but he was a hero here for a long time. Mincher and Earl Battey, the iconic catcher, came to the Griffith organization along with $150,000 in cash. This was in exchange for a player named Roy Sievers.
There was no free agency then. Free agency might have allowed Mincher to free himself from the crowded first base situation with the Twins. As it was he hung in there and made big contributions when getting the opportunity.
He homered twice in a game three times in 1965. He excelled in July, connecting for nine of his season total 22 home runs that season.
Boomers had an emotional connection to the team throughout the '60s. There was just one pennant to be celebrated. But the team was respected throughout.
Mincher made an impression in 1964, homering 23 times in fewer than 300 at-bats. We wonder how Mincher could have done as a full-time player. But there was no doubt he was an essential ingredient.
In June of 1966, Mincher was part of a thrilling episode in Twins history, as he was one of five who homered in a single inning! It was the seventh inning of a game against the Kansas City Athletics (later to become the Oakland A's). Mincher rocketed the ball over the fence, Twins style, along with Killebrew (of course), Tony Oliva, Rich Rollins and Zoilo Versalles.
It's still a major league record. Three of those homers were off Catfish Hunter who was destined for greatness, just not on this day. For the record, the other two were off Paul Lindblad.
I remember Del Sarlette of Morris joking that Mincher once hit "40 home runs as a pinch-hitter."
Del was exaggerating, making the point that the early Twins teams were so power-laden, you might almost expect such a thing. He also summed up Mincher's tenure with the Twins, with memorable power contributions in limited playing time.
Eventually Mincher did leave the Twins' fold. He in fact became one of those "journeyman" players. Is that good or bad?
I remember John Madden talking about this type of player in football. He thought it was good. His comments were prompted by Gus Frerotte. Players who seem to "bounce around" actually have good attributes, he said, as they "take good care of their bodies and are good teammates."
Mincher took his power bat to the Angels, Seattle Pilots (in their only year of existence), the A's, the (new) Washington Senators, Rangers, and A's (again). Yes, his whole career was in the American League.
He really had a storied career. He finished with 200 home runs, right on the nose. He drove in 643 runs and twice made the American League all-star team, in '67 and '69. Had he been with the Twins in '69 he would have played under Billy Martin, who by that time was developing some of his eccentricities. Note the fight with pitcher Dave Boswell.
But Mincher was with the fascinating Seattle Pilots in 1969, an orphan team. He led them with 25 home runs. Today Seattle only cares about the Mariners. And Milwaukee only cares about the Brewers. (The Brewers are the former Pilots.)
More significantly, the Pilots gave the backdrop for the seminal baseball book by Jim Bouton: "Ball Four." It was a new kind of sports book, clearly showing that pro athletes were human beings with failings and peccadilloes. I'm not going to dust off my copy to refresh my memory, but I believe there's a story about Mincher "bumming" cigarettes off people and then not immediately lighting them up - cute.
Remember when you could "bum" cigarettes off people? Heck, remember when smoking was a norm in our society?
Mincher reportedly didn't like Ball Four. That was the typical attitude of players at the time.
Mincher's storied career ended with a dramatic hit in his very last swing of the bat in the big leagues. He was with the A's, a team known at that time for reclamation projects. The year was 1972. The A's were destined to win it all.
Along the way they needed Mincher to come through as pinch-hitter. The capable veteran came to bat, adorned in the Oakland green, in the ninth inning of game #4 of the World Series against the Reds. (It was the fall of my senior year in high school.)
It was his only at-bat of the series. He hit an RBI single that tied the score. It might have been the highlight of his career.
We Twins fans would beg to differ. We can close our eyes and think it's 1965 again, envisioning those Twins power hitters like Mincher giving us such priceless memories on the Bloomington prairie.
We can envision Mincher "getting ahold of one," perhaps prompting us to stand in loud acclamation.
Funeral services for Don Mincher are tomorrow (Wednesday, March 7). He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Patsy Ann Payne Mincher, along with three children, six grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
Don Mincher, RIP.

Click on the permalink below to read the blog post by Phil Bolsta, where I got the card image that appears at the top of this post. It's a touching and reflective post that shows Don Mincher to have been a very considerate person. It's also a window into what it was like to be a young fan of the Twins in the 1960s.

- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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