Memories & Dreams: Sons of Major Leaguers

By Marty Appel

            Back in 1903, when southpaw Jack Doscher took the mound for the Chicago Cubs, a bit of baseball history was made. 

            His father, Herm, was a third baseman and outfielder for five National League clubs between 1872-1882.  Herm was better than Jack.  But Jack was the first son of a Major Leaguer to himself reach the big leagues.

            This comes to mind with the election of Ken Griffey Jr., to the Hall of Fame this year, and of course, the ever present note that he was not only the son of a big leaguer, but the first to actually play in the same lineup with his father.

            But he wasn’t the first son of a Major Leaguer to be elected to the Hall of Fame.  That was Robby Alomar in 2011, the son of Sandy Alomar Sr.  (On the executive side, Lee MacPhail, elected in 1998, was the son of executive Larry MacPhail). 

            There have been 213 father-son combos in the Major Leagues entering 2016, with more on the way.  Sons of players are drafted with great frequency, often providing the best draft day press notes for the media.  And not only are they arriving with more frequency than ever before, but in many cases, junior turns out better than senior.

            That wasn’t always the case.

Johnny Cooney, a favorite of Casey Stengel’s during his pre-Yankees managing days (and a partner in Casey’s oil investments), was arguably the first son of a Major Leaguer to exceed his father’s career. 

            Cooney played 20 years (1921-44) and hit .286, while his dad Jimmy played just three years of 19th Century ball and hit .242.

A little later, a case could be made for Billy Sullivan Jr., (1931-1947) who over 12 seasons hit .289 for seven clubs, while his dad, Billy Sr., hit just .213 in 16 seasons, 1899-1916).

             In a more contemporary time, Tom Tresh won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1962, switching in mid-season from shortstop to left field, starring in the World Series for the New York Yankees, and then going on to play in two more World Series in 1963 and 1964.    

              Mike Tresh, his dad, was a catcher, mostly for the Chicago White Sox, from 1936-49 – a lifetime .249 hitter with just two home runs, and no World Series or All-Star Game appearances. Tom fell victim to a back injury that found him retiring after nine years with a .245 average, but he did hit 153 homers, made an All-Star team, and won a Gold Glove.  He was probably the first post-expansion player to be thought of as “better than his dad,”  even though his average wound up lower than Mike’s.

            Generally speaking, the sons fell short.  For some sons, the bar was pretty high.  Earl Averill, Yogi Berra, Eddie Collins, Tony Gwynn, Fred Lindstrom, Connie Mack, Orator Jim O’Rourke, Tony Perez, George Sisler, and Ed Walsh were all Hall of Famers with Major League offspring, whose elite careers made it almost impossible to surpass them.

            But even those with just fine careers, like Hal Trosky (lifetime .302 and an RBI champion), and Smoky Joe Wood, (117-57 lifetime and a .283 hitter), had to watch Hal Trosky Jr. (two games in 1958), and Joe Wood Jr. (three games in 1944) struggle.  And there were plenty of others whose sons never got out of the minor leagues.  Or never got there at all.

            There have been five “three-generation” big leaguers, beginning with the Bells (Gus, Buddy, and then grandsons David and Mike), the Boones, (Ray, Bob and grandsons Aaron and Bret), the Colemans (Joe, Joe Jr, and grandson Casey), the Hairstons (Sammy, Jerry, Johnny and grandsons Jerry Jr. and Scott), and the Schofields/Werths (Dick and Dick Jr., and then Dick Sr.’s grandson Jayson Werth). 

            But the gene pool only went so far.

            Lately, the tide seems have turned in favor of juniors outdoing seniors.  The Los Angeles Dodgers Joc Pederson has already surpassed his father, Stu, who played eight games for the Dodgers in 1985.  Or at least the expectation exists that the son may surpass the father. 

            In the June 2015 amateur draft, sons of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, Ruben Amaro Jr., (potentially a third generation), Jay Bell, Roger Clemens, Kirk Gibson, Charlie Hayes, Jamie Moyer, Mariano Rivera and Jose Vizcaino were among the players drafted.

            “A lot of it reflects the affluence of modern players, as well as the general state of America’s health and fitness,” notes former club president Peter Bavasi, himself the son of a legendary front office man, Buzzie Bavasi. 

            “As players earn more money, the need to take winter jobs has faded, and the dads are home more to help teach their children the game,” he said  “So too do many of them move to warmer climates where the game can be played, and taught, year round. 

            “Along with the extra attention comes the better nutrition and better fitness instilled in today’s young people, whether they are bound for pro sports or not.  All of this adds up to a greater opportunity for succeeding generations to excel, and not just to go forward because their fathers knew a scout and got him to observe the son, and perhaps extend a favor.”

            Of course, the parents didn’t even have to move to warmer climates.  With the growth of college baseball, and the trend for more top baseball prospects to play college ball, many head for the sunbelt to play for great college coaches over long seasons, before signing a pro contract.  That too is fairly modern trend.

            Joe Garagiola, Jr., senior vice president of standards and on-field operations for Major League Baseball, whose father played nine years in the Majors (and was the 1991 Ford Frick Award winner and the 2014 Buck O’Neill Award winner), adds, “It doesn’t rank as high as fitness, nutrition, climate and personal coaching, but another aspect is access to the clubhouse.  There was a time – including when my dad played – when it was unthinkable to ‘hang out’ in a Major League clubhouse.  Today it’s much more common.  So for young kids like Barry Bonds, Robby Alomar, Prince Fielder {son of Cecil Fielder} and Ken Griffey Jr, there was less of a transition to the atmosphere, less a feeling of awe or intimidation, and a greater comfort level in acclimating to that scene.  That has value as well.”

            Of this we can be sure: the attraction of playing Major League Baseball has never been better.  Whereas at one point, a son with talent might opt to try a different field, today a son with talent will almost certainly take a shot at pro baseball – and carry on with the family business.