With Valentine’s Day here and Spring Training hard upon us, who better to revisit than former Orioles outfielder Fred Valentine?
A native of Clarksdale, Miss., and a star shortstop (and quarterback) at Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School (class of ’53), Valentine was signed by the Orioles out of Tennessee A & I University (now Tennessee State University) in 1956. After playing three seasons in the minors — including batting .319 and hitting 16 homers for the Wilson Tobs of the Carolina League in 1958 — Valentine earned a call-up to the O’s in the last month of the 1959 season.
He made an impression almost immediately — although perhaps not the greatest impression ever.
In an early game, looking to show off the speed that attracted the Orioles in the first place — “It is his talents as a base stealer that have intrigued Baltimore club officials almost as much as his power-hitting potential,” The Sun’s Lou Hatter wrote on Sept. 6, the day he was called-up — Valentine took off after crushing a ball to the right-centerfield wall. Running for all he was worth, the rookie outfielder slid into third base with what he was sure was his first major-league triple.
Only problem was, as Valentine told Pete Kerzel of masnsports.com in 2012, lumbering catcher Gus Triandos had been on first base with a single. When Valentine got up off the ground at third and looked back, Triandos was standing on second base. Valentine was called out and credited with only a single.
“I learned something today,” manager Paul Richards said when Valentine came back to the dugout. “As long as you play for me, I’ll never put you behind Gus Triandos in the lineup.”
Valentine, 84 and living in Washington, D.C., in the same house he bought in 1968, laughs heartily at the memory, “Gus, you know, he wasn’t a speed demon.”
(Adding insult to injury, Valentine would collect only six hits during his 12-game intro to the Orioles — all singles.)
Valentine was back in the minors the following season; it wasn’t until 1963 that he returned to the big leagues. After playing sporadically for the Orioles for a season (batting .268 in 26 games), Valentine was off to D.C., as his contract was sold to the Washington Senators for $25,000.
With the American League Senators over the next four seasons, Valentine enjoyed his greatest success. In 1966, he finished the season with 16 home runs and 59 RBI, earning the team’s Most Valuable Player award. He even got some votes for league MVP, finishing tied for 21st place — one position ahead of teammate (and future Oriole) Pete Richert, seven spots ahead of Boston outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, who would win the Triple Crown and league MVP the following season.
In 1968, following a slow start, Valentine, then 33, was traded back to the Orioles for pitcher Bruce Howard. In an outfield already crowded with Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Don Buford, Merv Rettenmund and Curt Blefary, Valentine saw little playing time (even though he was batting .238 at the time of the June 15 trade, higher than any of the other O’s outfielders, according to a report in The Sun).
He made the most of some of his chances. The day of the trade, he hit a 400-foot third-inning home run against Oakland (“It looked like he was turning Father’s Day into Valentine’s Day,” The Sun’s Alan Goldstein wrote).
“That was a shocker to me, and all the other people, too,” Valentine says of that first-game-back power. “You know, I could always swing the bat.”
And on July 4, his 12th-inning triple was followed by three consecutive walks, giving the Orioles a 4-3 win over the Yankees.
But Valentine hit only .187 in 47 games for the ’68 O’s, and with Robinson, Blair and Buford firmly ensconced in the outfield by season’s end, his second go-round in Baltimore was destined to be short. He played for the Orioles’ minor-league team in Rochester in 1969, then spent the following year playing in Japan. He left organized baseball at the end of the year.
In 1982, Valentine was one of the founding members of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, a charitable foundation and outreach organization led by his former teammate, Brooks Robinson; he remains the organization’s vice-chairman.
“I got to play with Brooks and Frank and Boog; it was quite an experience,” Valentine says of his time with the Orioles. “I think I was blessed.”