By Bartee Haile
In a double-header with the Kansas City Athletics on Sept. 17, 1958, Boston’s Pete Runnels hit safely in four of eight at-bats to raise his batting average to .322, four points better than Red Sox teammate Ted Williams.
James Edward Runnells was the name the doctor wrote on his birth certificate in 1928, but he was “Little Pete” to his father’s “Big Pete.”
Growing up in Lufkin in the heart of the East Texas pines, the natural athlete played quarterback on the football team and guard in basketball. He did not bother with baseball because the “national pastime” was about as popular as tiddlywinks in those days.
Three years in the Marines gave Pete the opportunity to play organized baseball for the first time. Following his discharge in 1948, he enrolled at Rice Institute for the fall semester, but his mind was not on his studies.
A chance meeting with Eddie Dyer, the St. Louis Cardinals manager who lived in Houston, resulted in an invitation to spring training with the National League club. Denied a fair tryout, Pete told the Cardinals no thanks when they assigned him to their Class C farm team in North Carolina without a contract.
The 21-year-old negotiated a better deal on his own with a Class D club much closer to home. Pete batted .372 at Chickasha, Oklahoma, an impressive mark that earned him a step up the minor-league ladder to the Class B Big State League, where he hit .330 in 1950 for the Texarkana Bears.
The Washington Senators bought Pete’s contract and shipped him off to the Chattanooga Lookouts. He feasted on the presumably stronger pitching of the Southern Association and was hitting .356, when the parent club decided it could use his hot bat.
In reality the bottom-feeding Senators would have brought the young Texan to D.C. if his bat had been only lukewarm. The worst team in baseball, Washington’s pitiful predicament was described to a tee by the catchy ditty “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”
Pete Runnels, who dropped the second L in his surname upon moving to the majors, hit for a respectable .278 in 78 games with the Senators in 1951. Alternating between shortstop and second base, he was a steady performer in the field and at the plate with an overall batting average of .274 in seven seasons in Washington.
When his average dropped 80 points in 1957 from the .310 of the previous season, the Senators put him on the auction block. Pinky Higgins, Texas-born skipper of the Red Sox, convinced owner Tom Yawkey that Runnels would be a valuable addition to the Beantown roster and in no time flat the deal was done.
Runnels repaid Higgins for his vote of confidence by jumping out to an early lead in the battle for the American League batting title. His instant success in Boston’s Fenway Park was due to priceless pearls of wisdom from the resident legend, Ted Williams. The five-time batting champ and the last man to hit .400 in the majors taught his new teammate to be more patient at the plate and to slice line drives off the “Green Monster” in left field.
It took Williams, who turned 40 that August, awhile to find the groove, but by Labor Day he was hot on Runnels’ heels. With only two games to go, they were in a dead heat at .3226. But the “Splendid Splinter,” who batted at a blistering .403 pace over the last third of the season, surged ahead to win his sixth and last batting crown .328 to .322. Runnels’ consolation prize was being named the league’s “Comeback Player of the Year.”
The next season Pete hit .314, third highest in the American League but 39 points below Detroit Tiger Harvey Kuenn’s .353. In 1960 he upped his average to .320, good enough for his first batting title, and earned a Gold Glove as the best fielding second baseman. And he accomplished both feats with a severe stomach ulcer.
The following year, Runnels moved to first base to make room at second for a promising rookie. He responded to the challenge by winning another Gold Glove. Over the course of his versatile career, he played all four infield positions.
After winning his second batting title in 1962, Pete asked to be traded. Texas finally had a major-league franchise, and he wanted to play for the fans back home.
That was how the three-time All-Star and two-time batting champion wound up in the brightly colored uniform of the Houston Colt .45’s on opening day 1963. But he was not the Pete Runnels of old. Either the unfamiliar pitching of the National League and/or the heat and humidity – and occasional rattlesnake! – of open-air Colt Stadium got the best of him causing his average to plummet to .253.
Twenty-two games into the 1964 season, Houston gave Runnels his unconditional release. He coached for a couple of years with the Red Sox and even managed the ball club for two weeks before retiring from baseball and going into business in Houston.
Prior to his death from a heart attack in 1991, Pete Runnels was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. As for Cooperstown, his name has never appeared on a ballot despite the fact that his .291 lifetime batting average is higher than many enshrined there.
“Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile” is full of talented Texans who deserve a curtain call. Order your copy by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.