As a kid growing up in Cleveland in the 1970s I dreamed of two things happening. One, the Cleveland Indians would make it to the World Series. And two, my favorite player would make the highlight reel of This Week in Baseball.
Well, the Indians never made it to the World Series. But one of the club’s most popular players, a slap-hitting second-baseman named Duane Kuiper, was featured on This Week in Baseball more than once. “Another caper by Duane Kuiper,” is what host Mel Allen said, referring to one of Kuiper’s diving catches that foiled base hits and sent potential base runners back to the pine.
Kuiper wasn’t a shabby hitter either. He once hit two bases-loaded triples in a single game. He also spoiled no-hitters by Ron Guidry, Andy Hassler, and the great Nolan Ryan. And if it weren’t for that ONE home run he hit on August 29th, 1977, he’d have a perfect record of no home runs in 3,379 major league at bats.
I often wonder if that home run jinxed Duane Kuiper and prevented him from making the Hall of Fame as the only player in major league history to go homerless in 3,379 at bats. Baseball has seen some of its greatest players fall victim to gambling and cheating, making it virtually impossible for them to get inducted into the Hall. But keeping Duane Kuiper out because he made one line drive travel a little too far one night is both a travesty and an insult to Duane Kuiper and the city of Cleveland.
Alright, perhaps I am being a bit extreme. Kuiper would never take an induction into the Hall of Fame seriously. He has joked more than once that he stopped hitting home runs after the first one because he didn’t want fans to expect them all of the time. But I will continue to lobby for his induction. Because with that one home run he is officially on the all-time home run list – just a little more than 700 away from notables like Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth!
Without that home run, he would be at the top of a unique list of players with no round-trippers in a career’s worth of plate appearances. Perhaps we can induct Kuiper into the Hall of Fame with an asterisk? He can have a special category: the only player to almost never hit a home run in 3,379 at bats if it weren’t for the wind blowing like crazy at his back one night.
Now I’ve done some thinking lately. Maybe his not being in the Hall of Fame runs deeper than his “tainted” record. Perhaps voters know something we don’t. For example, did anyone check his bat to see if he corked it on August 29th, 1977? Does anyone have surveillance of Kuiper (or members of his posse) sneaking into the park before the game and moving the wall closer to home plate? Was there a second baseball? These are tough questions, but worth considering.
What’s the big deal about Duane Eugene Kuiper? Kuiper played in Cleveland when Clevelanders needed a hero. The city was in default, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire more than once, and its home team was the butt of jokes. Local gangsters grabbed the headlines while the Indians slept in the basement of the American League East. Kuiper, an unlikely hero, seemed small and powerless. But he could handle whatever pitch was thrown at him – a drag bunt here, a weak single there, a triple in the right field gap. He was scrappy, much like the hard-working people of the city he played for. A city that had struck out but was trying to get back on base.
He hailed from Racine, Wisconsin. Born on June 19th, 1950, he was a Saluki from Southern Illinois University. He was drafted in 1972 in the first round (21st pick) by the Cleveland Indians. He made his big league debut wearing # 18 on his back near the end of the 1974 season. He clubbed 11 hits in 22 at bats for a .500 average. I thought, move over Ted Williams, this hitter is destined to unleash his wrath on all of your records!
Well, he ended his 12-year career (8 with the Indians) with a .271 batting average. A far cry from the single-season batting record of .408 set by Mr. Williams. Numerous at bats will do that to a batting average. Kuiper had one season of 610 at bats, the same year he was named the Indians “Man of the Year” with a .277 BA, 50 RBIs, and 8 triples. Like I said, he was scrappy.
Other teams had players like George Brett, Rod Carew, and Steve Garvey – a worthy collection of .330 hitters. The Indians had Duane Kuiper. So what if he didn’t make the highlight reel of This Week in Baseball as much as those guys. Nothing made this young fan’s heart pound with excitement like seeing another caper by Duane Kuiper at Municipal Stadium.
So don’t induct Duane Kuiper into the Hall of Fame…you baseball writers who spend your days scouring record books for profound statistics and lifelong achievements. But just remember there is a full-grown adult here with enough money in his wallet to buy one admission ticket to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I am putting it in a 6-month CD. I will keep rolling it into more CDs, as terms expire, until Duane Kuiper is inducted. Then I will see you in Cooperstown.