Danny Walton - 1978 Topps baseball card

Look Past Statistics And You'll Find A Dandy Tale
Behind Former Big League Outfielder Danny Walton

By Todd Newville

Former big league outfielder Danny Walton could hit like Mickey Mantle at times during his professional baseball career. Unfortunately, he also ended up with a bad knee just like his childhood hero.

“Mickey Mantle was my idol since I was a little kid,” said Walton, who was nicknamed “Mickey” for his prowess as a switch-hitter in his youth. “I could hit a ball further left-handed than I could right-handed. I was probably a better average hitter right-handed - just like Mantle. I had a gimpy right knee and so did he. We just kind of fit right in together!”

While Walton didn’t put up the kind of Hall of Fame numbers that Mantle did, he certainly held the baseball world in the palm of his hand for a short while during his professional baseball tenure. Numbers do not tell the whole story.

But, the affable Walton certainly can because he experienced all that professional baseball has to offer - all over the world.

“I just wished I hadn’t hurt my darned knee,” said Walton, who is now 59 and living comfortably in Huntsville, Utah. “I think that I could have won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team. I was on a hot streak that you just wouldn’t believe.”

Walton is referring to his 1970 season, when he hit .257 with 17 home runs and 66 RBI in 117 games for the Milwaukee Brewers. Those numbers alone would dictate that the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Walton had a respectable rookie year at the plate. But, they were garnered mostly during just the first half of the season while playing left field.

His old-fashioned, aggressive approach at the plate proved to be his undoing. “I used to dig in so hard,” said Walton, who was strictly (and naturally) a right-handed hitter at the start of his professional career. “I swung and hit a line drive to left field. My right foot never moved.”

Danny Walton won The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors with the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1969 when he hit .332 and led the American Association with 25 homers and 119 RBI.

His right foot - the one any right-handed swinger uses to push off with to generate bat speed and power as he pivots - stayed firmly planted in the dirt as he completed his vicious cut one day.

“I spun all the way around and when I landed on my front foot,” Walton continued, “my knee and (back) foot were behind me. In other words, I did a complete ‘180’ and really tore (my right knee) up good. It was bad.”

In 1970, Walton ranked among the leaders in the American League in both home runs and runs batted in during the first half of that campaign. In April, he hit an impressive .321 with seven homers and 20 RBI. By the end of May, he was still hitting a solid .302 with 10 homers and 38 ribbies.

Danny Walton hit .257 with 17 home runs and 66 RBI in 117 games during his rookie season with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970. He was in the running for Rookie of the Year in the American League, but Yankees catcher Thurman Munson won the honor after Walton went down with a knee injury in August.
In June, Walton struggled - hitting just .156 for the month (12-for-77) as his average dipped to .257. But, he still had 15 homers and 48 RBI at that point. As July and August rolled by, Walton slowly began to work his way out of his funk. On Aug. 28 at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, Walton got two hits and an RBI against the Orioles during an 8-4 loss.

But, while ripping his second single to left field, Walton also injured his knee as his cleats stuck like glue to the ground. He was replaced with pinch-runner Russ Snyder. Just like that, his rookie season came to an abrupt halt.

“I got into a little slump that year and was just starting to get out of it when I tore up my knee,” remembered Walton, who had to have surgery to repair the damage. “But, that’s the way it goes.”

Walton, who was born in Los Angeles, lettered in track, football, wrestling and baseball in high school. He was selected by the Houston Astros in the 10th round of the June 1965 amateur baseball draft as the 196th overall pick that year. Just 18 years old, he started out in rookie ball with the Gulf Coast Astros in the Gulf Coast League - going 0-for-21 in 11 games.

The Houston organization still pushed him along to Cocoa (Fla.) in the Class A Florida State League, where he hit .200 in 14 games. In 1966, Walton started to get on track by hitting .320 with 20 homers, 80 RBI, 26 doubles, and 82 runs scored in 111 games for Salisbury (N.C.) in the Class A Western Carolinas League.

From there, he went to Amarillo (Texas) in the Double A Texas League - hitting a measly .091 in 11 games. In 1967, though, he came back to hit .302 with 25 homers, 76 runs scored, and 78 RBI in 120 games for Asheville (N.C.) in the Class A Carolina League.

Walton spent the ‘68 season mostly with Dallas-Fort Worth in the Texas League, hitting .247 in 78 contests. He also played at the Triple A level for the first time with the Oklahoma City 89ers, hitting .300 in just six games for that Pacific Coast League squad.

The 1968 season officially marked Walton’s debut at the major league level, too. On April 20, 1968, at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, Walton grounded into a double play against right-hander Larry Jackson during a 7-1 loss to the Phillies.

In 1969, Walton put his name on the baseball radar. He was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .332 for OKC and leading the American Association with 25 homers and 119 ribbies. His batting average was fourth in the league and his RBI total stands as the all-time record for the 89ers - a now-defunct minor league franchise.

To exemplify the magnitude of Walton’s historic minor league campaign, consider the record of former major league third baseman Al Rosen of the Cleveland Indians, who won the 1953 American League MVP award after hitting .336 with 43 home runs and 145 RBI.

Rosen finished second to Washington’s Mickey Vernon (.337) for the AL batting crown that year and led the Junior Circuit in homers, ribbies, slugging percentage (.613), runs scored (115), total bases (367), and extra-base hits with 75. Before that, Rosen played for Cleveland’s top minor league club (the Oklahoma City Indians) in 1947.

Rosen was named MVP of the Texas League that year after leading the league with a .349 batting average and 141 RBI. In the history of Oklahoma City pro baseball, Rosen is the only man to have more ribbies in one year than Walton, who also established a permanent 89er season standard with 283 total bases in ’69.

The 1969 Seattle Pilots had a record of 64-98. Danny Walton was a member of that one-year team (second row standing, fifth from right.)
Walton had an impressive .587 slugging percentage along with 74 runs scored, 32 doubles, and seven triples in 132 games for the Niners in ‘69. Walton remains the only player in the history of Oklahoma City pro baseball to win Minor League Player of the Year honors - a distinction that Walton is still very proud of.

“That was a great honor,” Walton said. “When you think of how many teams there are in professional baseball and how many guys there are playing in the minors, that’s quite an honor. I had a good year.”

Yes, he did. And, because of that, he was a very marketable commodity that Houston eventually traded to the Seattle Pilots on Aug. 30, 1969. The Astros sent Walton and fellow outfielder Sandy Valdespino to Seattle for former National League batting champion Tommy Davis, who led the National League in hitting twice with the Los Angeles Dodgers in ‘62 with .346 and in ’63 at .326.

The Pilots were a one-year wonder in terms of existence. They played their home games at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle - a quaint but aging minor league facility that barely seated 18,000 fans.

Sick’s Stadium made its major league debut on April 11, 1969, as the Pilots beat the Chicago White Sox 7-0 that afternoon. Water pressure in the clubhouse, press box, and restrooms reportedly was a major problem when attendance passed 14,000 patrons for any game.

The Pilots finished last in the American League’s Western Division that ’69 season with a 64-98 record. But, as late as mid-August, the Pilots occupied third place and remained a competitive bunch until losing 18 of 20 games from Aug. 15-Sept. 4.

After several weeks that winter haggling over stadium rent and other financial matters with the City of Seattle, the Pilots moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers in March 1970. Seattle would have to wait another eight years for a replacement franchise. Then, the Mariners moved into the $67-million Kingdome in 1977.

Walton, of course, holds the distinction (along with 52 others) of being one of the only men in baseball history to play for the Pilots. He hit .217 with three homers and 10 RBI in 23 games for Seattle after being traded from Houston. The Pilots attracted only 677,944 fans in 1969 - outdrawing only the Cleveland Indians (619,970) and the White Sox (589,546) in the AL.

“You’re sad because you kind of wish they had stayed there,” Walton said of the Pilots’ failure to stick in Seattle. “But, the stadium they had was very old. It was an old Triple A, beat-up stadium. Because of that, they didn’t draw very good. But, it was nice, too, and it was a great place to play.

Danny Walton was traded from the Houston Astros to the Seattle Pilots in August 1969 and became one of just 53 players to play for the one-year franchise.

“Seattle was beautiful country. It rained quite a bit. But, there were good people there. The next year, we went to Milwaukee. Back then, we thought that sooner or later they would get another team. Now, they’ve got the Mariners and they’re doing fine.”

In 1970 with the Brewers, Walton finished second on the team in both homers and RBI. Third baseman Tommy Harper (with 31 home runs and 82 ribbies) led Milwaukee in both departments. Walton set a Brewers team record for home runs by a rookie that was later matched by Greg Vaughn in 1990. In 2006, rookie Prince Fielder (the son of former Detroit Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder) broke that mark with his 18th homer for Milwaukee on July 25.

A free-swinger, Walton struck out 126 times in 397 at-bats in '70 as he finished tied for second in the American League in whiffs with Kansas City’s Bob Oliver. Only future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (135) of the Oakland Athletics had more strikeouts in the Junior Circuit.

In ‘71, Walton came back and hit .203 in 30 games for Milwaukee before the Brewers traded him on June 7 to the New York Yankees for first baseman Frank Tepedino and outfielder Bobby Mitchell. Walton hit .143 in five games for the Yanks, who eventually sent him to Syracuse in the International League.

Danny Walton (as he appeared on his 1970 Topps baseball card)
With Syracuse that year, Walton finished with a .242 average in 61 games. He poled eight homers and collected 25 RBI as he worked his way back from knee surgery. He spent the entire 1972 season in Syracuse and hit .271 with 23 home runs and 88 RBI in 137 contests.

Then, he was traded again - this time from the Yankees to the Minnesota Twins for catcher Rick Dempsey on Oct. 27. Dempsey eventually caught over 1,600 games in 24 major league seasons, winning MVP honors in the 1983 World Series by hitting .385 for the Baltimore Orioles in their five-game victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Following his trade from New York to Minnesota, Walton became a switch-hitter. Actually, he went back to doing what he felt like he did best all along.

“In Little League and such, I used to switch hit a little bit,” Walton said. “When I went down to Syracuse with the Yankees, I hit a ball left-handed over a 440-foot centerfield fence that was probably 40-feet high - a tape-measure shot.

“When it was going out, it was still on a line drive. I went to winter ball that next year in Puerto Rico and started switch-hitting steady again. When I came back with the Twins, I switch-hit the rest of my career.”

In ’73 with Minnesota, Walton hit just .177 with four homers in 37 games. In ‘74, the Twins shipped him to Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League for the entire year and Walton responded by hitting .263 with 35 homers and 109 RBI in 139 games. In ’75, he hit .306 for Tacoma with 13 home runs and 38 RBI in 49 games before hitting .175 in 42 contests for the Twins.

“When I played in Tacoma, it seemed like it rained every day about four o‘clock,” Walton said. “On the days it rained really hard, they would get a helicopter and hover over the field to dry it out.

“That was the only way back then, especially in the minors because they didn’t have the big tarps to go over the infield or across the whole field. They would get that helicopter to come in to dry the field out. It would just hang over the infield dirt until it was dried out. Then, we would go out and play.”

On Dec. 23, 1975, Walton was traded once again. This time, Walton was swapped to the Los Angeles Dodgers for second baseman Bob Randall. In 1976, Walton hit .133 in 18 games for the Dodgers. But, he spent most of the season with Albuquerque in the Pacific Coast League - hitting .292 with eight homers and 45 RBI in 60 games.

In ‘77, Walton plastered PCL pitching by hitting .289 for the Dukes along with 42 home runs and 122 RBI. Both totals represented professional career highs for Walton. And, for his efforts… he was traded once again.

Danny Walton (as he appeared on his 1971 Topps baseball card)

On Sept. 5, Los Angeles sent Walton back to the Astros for infielder Alex Taveras and outfielder Bob Detherage. Walton hit .190 in 13 games for Houston that season. On March 27, 1978, the Astros released Walton. So, he went overseas and hit .215 for the Taiyo Whales of the Central League in Japan.

“That was very different,” Walton said of his time in Japan. “Those people are baseball crazy. They really take it seriously. On days off, we would run five miles and then take batting practice for two or three hours. They worked you hard and that was probably the best shape I was ever in.

“Those guys get the most out of their ability. They really work at it. There were some good ballplayers over there. They’re not quite as big or strong as we are over here. But, as far as ability goes, they get the most out of it. I enjoyed playing over there. It was a very good experience.”

While in Japan, Walton met the legendary Sadaharu Oh of the Yomiuri Giants. Oh is the all-time home run leader in Japan with 868 - or 113 more than Hank Aaron hit in the majors. Oh led the Central League 15 times in home runs, 13 times in RBI, and five times in hitting. He was also a nine-time MVP in Japan.

“I met Sadaharu Oh and he’s a neat guy,“ Walton said. “He gave me a couple of his baseball bats. Those things were like iron! Those things were hard like an old hickory bat. You can’t break ’em. You‘re supposed to go over to Japan when you‘re ready to retire (from the majors.) But, I still wanted to come back over here to the United States and play.”

In ’79, the Mariners inked Walton to a contract and assigned him to Spokane in the Pacific Coast League where he hit .259 with 15 homers and 81 ribbies. Seattle released him the following spring and Walton never appeared in a Mariners jersey. For the record, pitcher Diego Segui is the only man to ever appear in both a Pilots and Mariners uniform.

In 1980, the Texas Rangers signed Walton in April and used him mostly as a pinch-hitter (he went 2-for-10 in 10 games) before sending him to Charleston of the International League, where he hit .226 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI. The Rangers traded Walton and catcher Greg Mahlberg to the Cincinnati Reds on Dec. 15 for catcher Don Werner and minor leaguer Greg Hughes. But, Walton never played another professional game and called it quits.

In nine major league seasons, Walton hit .223 along with 28 homers, 107 RBI, 69 runs scored, 174 hits, and a .376 slugging percentage in 297 games. In 13 minor league campaigns, he hit .278 with 238 home runs, 883 ribbies, 737 runs, 215 doubles, 1,253 hits, and a .495 slugging percentage in 1,315 games.

Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter was tough to hit. So were guys like Vida Blue and Sam McDowell. But, according to Walton, the toughest guy for him to hit during his major league career was definitely Fritz Peterson of the Yankees.

Peterson (who also pitched for the Cleveland Indians and Rangers during his 11 years in the majors) didn’t throw particularly hard. But, he was good enough to go 20-11 with a 2.90 ERA for the Yanks in 1970 when he made the American League All-Star team.

“When you’re hitting good, you can hit them all,” said Walton, who hit .200 (going 4-for-20) with 11 strikeouts and no extra-base hits against Peterson in his career. “When you’re in a slump, they’re all tough. I liked hitting against a guy like Nolan Ryan, Sam McDowell, or somebody who reared back and wanted to throw it by you. Those were the kind of guys I liked - their best against you.

Danny Walton (as he appeared on his 1973 Topps baseball card)

“But, tricky guys like Fritz Peterson drove me crazy. One of the toughest guys I ever faced was Peterson. He couldn’t throw a ball through a pane of glass. But, with the curveballs, change-ups and screwballs, he drove me crazy!”

Walton played for many distinguished managers and coaches during his pro baseball career. He played for Dave Bristol in Milwaukee, Ralph Houk in New York, and both Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda in Los Angeles.

But, the two men who perhaps made the biggest impact on Walton during his professional tenure were two minor league skippers named Cot Deal and Frank Verdi. Deal was Walton’s manager in Oklahoma City during his tremendous 1969 performance. He also coached in the majors for several teams like the Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Cleveland Indians, and Detroit Tigers.

Deal also pitched in the majors (in 45 games over four seasons) for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Verdi (who never coached in the majors) did play one game at shortstop for the Yankees in 1953. He managed Walton in Syracuse.

Danny Walton played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues for seven teams: Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, and the Texas Rangers.
“All the managers I had were good ones,” Walton said. “But, there were a few that I was really close to - like Walter Alston, who was great. I played for Frank Verdi in the minor leagues in Syracuse. You couldn’t beat him - a tough, rough, son-of-a-gun. And, he was a great guy. He really made you feel like a son more than just a ballplayer.

“Cot Deal was the same way. He was great and when I played in Oklahoma City, he was like a dad to me. His family and my family were very close. I’ve got to get in touch with him one of these days.”

During his time in the majors, Walton certainly played with many great players. In his estimation, Harmon Killebrew on the Twins was something special, though. The Hall of Fame slugger won American League MVP honors in 1969 when he led the circuit in both homers (49) and ribbies (140) that season. Killebrew still ranks eighth on the all-time charts with 573 lifetime round-trippers.

“Harmon Killebrew was one of the best I ever played with,” Walton said. “He was a great guy and a great ballplayer. Plus, he was just as nice and as humble as could be. He was one of those guys that would hit a 500-foot home run - or strike out with the bases loaded - and you wouldn’t know any different. He was just a real gentleman.

“Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Pete Rose - those were some great ballplayers. All those guys in the seventies were great. Frank Robinson and Frank Howard were awfully good, too. In fact, Frank Howard was probably the strongest man that I ever met.“

Few would disagree in baseball circles. Howard (at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds) was indeed an imposing figure at the plate. He hit 382 homers in 16 major league seasons - mostly with the Dodgers and Washington Senators. In a three-year span from 1968-70, Howard hit a whopping 136 home runs with 343 ribbies.

“He hit a ball to me one time in Washington that was a pop-up behind third base,” said Walton, playing left at the time for the Brewers. “I played him with my back touching the wall. I ran all the way to about 20 feet behind third base and still had to wait what seemed like 30 minutes for the ball to come down. It made me dizzy waiting on it. He could really hit the ball!”

When Walton retired from baseball, he became a welder and pipe fitter in Utah. “I was a union pipe fitter and welder - a steam fitter,” Walton said. “We welded the big pipe in a refinery or a powerhouse. We ran pipe for electricity plants and places like that. Our pipe was the big, thick stuff that steam would go through under real high pressure. I did that almost 25 years.”

In 2003, Walton retired permanently to the mountainous beauty of Northern Utah near Ogden. He lives there with his current wife Judy. They met on vacation in New Mexico and have been married for 23 years now. Walton also owns six horses which he breeds.

Danny Walton (shown as a member of the Dodgers) played 13 seasons in the minor leagues and posted a .278 average with 238 home runs and 883 RBI. He had five years with at least 23 homers in the minors - including 35 with Tacoma in 1974 and 42 with Albuquerque in 1977. Three times, he topped 100-plus ribbies.

“It’s such beautiful country up here,” Walton said of Utah. “We’ve got mountains all around us and a great big lake about a mile away. I live on a dirt road and I can go south about a half of a mile and I’m up in the mountains. It’s just so pretty here and it’s real handy to have horses.

“I bought a beautiful stud horse in 2004 - and he‘s a handful! I have been raising, breeding, and training quarter horses since then. I just got a new baby out of my stud, a little filly about two months old. We have three fillies and three geldings now.”

In addition to his steeds, Walton enjoys golfing, hunting and fishing with his family. He has two sons (Danny, 36, and Cody, 26) and two daughters (Denise, 39, and Amy, 31) from previous marriages. His oldest son played college baseball for a while at Louisiana State in 1991 until a shoulder injury curtailed his promising future.

“Danny could run like crazy,” Walton said. “In ‘91 when LSU won the College World Series, he was ranked among the top players in the country. Then, he blew his arm out pitching. He had a swing just like a mine. He was good.”

Today, Walton seems to have no regrets about his baseball career or life in general. “I wished we made the money in baseball then that they do now, though,” he said. “I think I would have more horses now if I made more money like that!”

Indeed, if the game paid then like it does now, Walton just might have a few more studs in his barn. But, with a treasure chest full of good baseball memories and a big family to share them with, Walton seems to be happy nonetheless.

And, that makes him a wealthy man in anybody’s book.

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