November 29, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Manny Sanguillen

Manny Sanguillen was a great contact hitter, a great bad ball hitter, and a Gold Glove catcher if not for Johnny Bench. He was a two-time World Champion who played on all six of the Pirates' 1970s playoff teams.

Manny was signed out of Colon, Panama (also the hometown of Rod Carew and Rennie Stennett) in 1965. By 1967 he was hitting poorly at AAA Columbus but nevertheless got a shot to play in the summer when Pirates starter Jerry May was injured. He hit .271 over the final two months of the season, better than his .258 AAA average, and threw out 8 of 14 base stealers. He returned to Columbus for all of 1968, but the writing was on the wall as May hit only .213 for the Pirates while Sanguillen hit .316 in AAA.

Sanguillen returned to the majors the next year for good as the club that would contend throughout the next decade took shape. He had an excellent first year, starting 107 games and hitting .303. He was the fastest catcher in the league and had six triples and eight stealsa that year. Behing the plate, he again shut down the opposing running game, throwing out 44% of baserunners.

The 1970s Dynasty
The next year, Manny improved his hitting to a .325 average and slugged .444. He threw out 43% of baserunners and caught what was now the third best pitching staff in the league. He finished 11th in the MVP balloting as the Pirates won 89 games and returned to the playoffs for the first time in ten years. Pittsburgh was swept out of the playoffs by the Reds, but the league was on notice.

We don't see many players like this today - the closest I've seen was Coco Crisp's Indians days - but by all accounts the Pirates' catcher played the game with unbridled joy. One wonders if the reason he swung at balls well outside the strike zone was the sheer love of hitting. Even today he is rarely pictured without a smile.

Sanguillen returned with another fine year for the immensely talented 1971 Bucs. Batting seventh in the lineup, he hit .319 and drove in 81 runs. He had his best throwing year, nailing 51% of base stealers (Bench only threw out 42%). He was rewarded with an All-Star appearance and an eighth place finish in the MVP voting. But the best reward, of course, was the seven game World Series victory in which Sanguillen hit .379 and stole two bases as the fleet footed Orioles tried to steal on him only once.

He continued to be a model of consistency for the 1972-75 Pirates, hitting no worse than .282 each year, always with around 65 runs scored and RBI and stellar defense.During those years Sanguillen was present for the worst day in Pirates history, New Year's Eve 1972. His close friend Roberto Clemente was aboard a DC-7 that took off that night to fly relief supplies to earthquake victims in San Juan. The plane exploded and plunged into the ocean less than two minutes after takeoff. Clemente was 38 years old.

"It was almost 10 or 11 when we got the news. We were having a party to count down the New Year in my restaurant and a friend called and said to turn on the radio. He said Roberto's plane had crashed," recalled Clemente friend Rudy Hernandez.

"Manny Sanguillen, the Pirates catcher, and (Clemente) were very close. Manny was in my joint that night. When he heard the news he and a couple of guys jumped in their car and raced out there. They got a small boat and Manny started diving in the water to see if he could find something. There are sharks out there, man. I mean real, man-eating sharks and he didn't care."

The catcher didn't give up the search. He was the only Pirate to miss Clemente's memorial service. He was in a boat helping the diving teams, looking for the body of his friend.

The year following the tragedy was the only time the Pirates didn't win the division from 1970-75. Sanguillen's tenth inning, walk off single clinched the National League East on the last day of the 1974 season. Just an inning earlier, he had scored the winning run to tie the game. Statistically his best season was 1975, when he hit .328, slugged .451 and got on base at a .391 clip - all career highs.

A Shocking Trade
In 1976 however, Sanguillen was injured twice and started only 104 games. He always hit seven or eight home runs but that year had only two. A young catcher named Ed Ott hit .308 in a September cup of coffee. Manager Danny Murtaugh retired after the season, and A's owner Charlie Finley was in a buying mood. So in one of the strangest trades ever, the Pirates shipped their starting catcher to Oakland for $100,000 and manager Chuck Tanner.

To that point, Sanguillen was a .304 hitting catcher who also happened to play some of the best defense in the league. That the Pirates' savvy general manager Joe Brown would give him up shows how great a manager Tanner was. Finley's thoughts: "Managers are a dime a dozen."

The trade makes less sense from the A's perspective. Sanguillen's salary was $145,000 in 1977, so he ended up costing the A's a quarter of a million dollars. Yet the A's spent the entire '77 season selling off their veterans, fielded a lineup of mostly rookies and and finished 63-98. Did Finley really need a playoff tough, veteran catcher for that group?

Apparently he didn't think so, for in the ensuing offseason Sanguillen was shipped back to Pittsburgh for a few spare parts. Sanguillen was no longer healthy enough to catch on a regular basis. Recast as a platoon first baseman, he had his worst year yet hitting only .264.

Champion Again
By 1979, Sanguillen was an occasional pinch hitter who barely played in the field. He got one of the season's bigger hits late in September, when he beat the Phillies with a two out, two-run triple in the ninth inning. It was the last triple of the old catcher's career.

Sanguillen was on the playoff roster but didn't bat at all in the NLCS. But of course, he got one final big hit for the Pirates. It came in Game 2 of the 1979 World Series, tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning with the Pirates already down 1-0 in games. Don Stanhouse was pitching for the Orioles and there were two outs with men on first and second. In one of the biggest at bats of the Series, Sanguillen delivered a game winning single to right field. The Pirates lost three of the first four games of that Series, so they might have been swept without Sanguillen's hit.

After another year of pinch hitting in 1980, Sanguillen's career was over. But it was a remarkable one. Over 12 years in Pittsburgh, eight as a starter, he hit .299 with 1343 hits. He made three All-Star teams, got votes in the MVP race four times, and won six division titles and two championships. If not for Bench he would have certainly won three Gold Gloves (1970-72) and potentially a few others.

Manny Sanguillen was not a perfect player. He never walked, he grounded into too many double plays, and he never could use his speed to be an effective base stealer. His career on base percentage was only 30 points higher than his batting average. But he was an outstanding starting catcher for the greatest Pirates dynasty ever and a World Champion, and for that he is truly a Great Pirate in History.


  1. Manny Sanguillen remains my favorite player of all-time. I found this summary to be very fair and accurate. He did ground into many double plays but along with Roberto was a true inspiration for many Latin players. I'm a white guy from Pittsburgh who now lives in Jersey. I'm so glad he is considered a Great Pirates. He inspired me to be a catcher from ages 8 to 22. Now at 49, I still have his autographed picture and baseball in my living room. Thank you Manny for all the great thrills during my childhood. Glad you are still part of the Pirates organization in different ways.

  2. I'm a white girl from Oregon. Manny my favorite too. Great to watch. Put his heart into the game but not in a serious way. Loved the smile.

  3. I'm a white girl from Oregon. Manny my favorite too. Great to watch. Put his heart into the game but not in a serious way. Loved the smile.

  4. Pittsburgher in Jersey... We're pretty much the same age. While not my favorite Pirate, I always liked him a lot. What's wild is now he lives in my town during the season and I've gotten to know him. He's a great guy. He just threw out the first pitch in a Little League wooden bat tournament hosted by the local youth league. He also autographed souvenir little wooden bats the MVPs got.

    1. Hello Anonymous - My father worked with Manny in Panama - he was a father figure to Manny. Now he is old. I would love to contact manny - as I am sure he would love to say goodbye to my dad. How can I contact him?

  5. I ran into Manny leaving PNC park. I thanked him for '71 and he said " what about ' 79 ?" He laughed and shook my hand. Then I went to his BBQ behind centerfield. The pulled pork sandwich was the best I ever had.

  6. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama and like to follow the Panamanians who played MLB. I do remember Manny playing. It seemed as though the Pittsbrg fans loved him and rightfully so. Baseball is important to Panama I played on our local village team while a pc volunteer. Very athletic players that love the game and play in very challenging fields with slopes/rocks/creeks running through the outfield. Catchers wore a mask and no shin guards or chest protectors in the rural areas!!!! Probably why Manny was so tough.

  7. I am looking to contact Manny for old time's sake... I now live in Canada. Anybody have info how I can reach Manny?

  8. Manny - if ever you read these blogs... My father Elmer Fehr - would love to say hello to you. He remembers you so fondly.