Anaheim, Calif. — One of the peculiarities of the American baseball public is its refusal to put talent on a pedestal unless its owner also has the speed to run the bases or pursue a fly ball in time to the William Tell overture.
Frankie Frisch was the Fordham Flash; Joe DiMaggio the Yankee Clipper; and Pepper Martin the Wild Horse of the Osage, all of whom displayed a large hunk of swiftness en route to fame and glory.
What you get when you watch outfielder ken Singleton of the Baltimore Orioles run is the feeling that he should always rely on a taxi and not his legs at railroad crossings. Ken covers the 90 feet from home plate to first base in just under an hour.
The nice thing is that Singleton doesn't hit too many ground balls where they can be caught -- or fly balls, either. While Ken may have anvils for wheels, he's also got one of the quickest bats in baseball.
Trying to get Singleton to swing at a pitch even a fraction outside the strike zone is almost impossible. In his last six big league seasons, all with the Orioles, he has averaged more than 100 walks a year.
Baseball's greatest hitters are the ones who have learned to marry a high batting average to power; who nearly always make contact with men on base; and who can still do the job when the ball-strike count is heavily in the pitcher's favor.
"While there aren't many guys in baseball that i would call scientific hitters, who really know how to go after a pitcher, Singleton earned the right to be put into that category years ago," said Oriole Manager Earl Weaver. "Ken not only knows every inch of the strike zone, he also knows wht a player's on-base percentage can mean to the success of a ball club."
"Maybe this story won't mean that much to you, but I'm going to tell it anyway," Weaver continued. "As you know, Singleton has only average speed, and one time with us hanging onto a slim lead on the road going into the last of the ninth inning, I decided to replace him for defensive purposes.
"Now Ken had just signed a five-year contract with us that was going to pay him a tremendous amount of money, so I was a little surprised when he got on me for taking him out. Finally I said: What do you care, look at all the money you're getting? His reply was: 'Yeah, I know that, Earl, but don't you think I've got any pride?'"
Singleton, who grew up in New york City in a house that had previously been owned by the family of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, is a natural left-handed swinger who became a switch-hitter at the insistence of his father.
"My dad was a big Mickey Mantle fan, and he always thought a lot of Mickey's success came from the fact that he could hit from either side," Singleton said.
"For a guy who threw his first baseball left-handed and still plays basketball that way, it wasn't that tough for me to start switch-hitting," Ken told me recently outside the batting cage at anaheim Stadium.
"To me, switching around isn't what hitting is all about anyway -- it's making the pitcher come to you because he knows you won't swing at anything outside the strike zone. Sure, there are probably a lot of pitches that I could hit that are just off the edge of the plate. But once I showed a willingness to do that, those same pitches would keep getting farther and farther away from the strike zone."
Singleton says two pretty good hitters --the late Roberto Clemente and Larry Doby -- helped him on the way up.
"Clemente had this theory that a man should always set high goals for himself -- that if he wanted to hit .300 he should start the season trying to hit .325." Ken explained. "So I tried his theory, it, worked for me, and so I still use it."
"With Doby, the emphasis was always on taking what the pitcher gives you and not being just one kind of hitter," he said. "If the ball is up, and you think you can drive it for a home run, then do it. But if it's good pitch tha probably can't be pulled, then the best thing to do is go to the opposite field and settle for a single."
Questioned as to why the New York Mets traded him to montreal and why the Expos shipped him to Baltimore, Singleton replied: "I was never sure why the Mets let me go, but the Expos traded me because they needed a left-handed pitcher and Dave McNally was available, though the way things turned out, McNally didn't stay in baseball."
The way Ken deals with his reputation as a no-speed outfielder is to laugh right along with his critics.
"Most of them have me all wrong, because they just assume I was born slow," Singleton explained. "Well, that's not true. I had pretty good speed until i injured both of my legs rebounding in high school basketball. But you know my legs have improved considerably since then and I think I'm actually faster now than when I first came up with the Mets."
For people with short memories, Singleton has a .305 batting average for his last four years with Baltimore; has hit 103 homers during that same period and driven in 405 runs. Ken also was runner-up to California's Don Baylor as the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1979, and he's a leading candidate again this year.