Gene Stephens - 1959 Topps baseball card

Former Major League Outfielder
Gene Stephens Tied Major League Record
With Three Hits In One Inning In 1953

By Todd Newville

When former major leaguer Gene Stephens got his chances to play, he came through many times with a big hit or a good catch in the outfield. But, there was only one problem: he never seemed to get enough of those chances.

That’s what happens, though, when you’re playing behind one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game of baseball. And, for the 73-year-old Stephens, it was aggravating at times. He knew that he had the ability and the tools to play regularly in the major leagues. Yet, his spot was usually on the bench as a reserve.

And, so it went for Stephens during his duration with the Boston Red Sox as Hall of Famer Ted Williams patrolled left field and posted numbers most major leaguers could only dream about: 1,839 runs batted in, 521 career home runs, .344 lifetime batting average, a .406 average in 1941. Stephens played eight years with Boston and was often called upon in late-inning situations as a substitute for Williams.

Some people referred to Stephens as Williams’ “caddy.” From 1955 to ‘59, Stephens averaged nearly 112 games per season - but only 1.69 at-bats per game. It was not the ideal situation for Stephens, who dearly wanted to crack the lineup as an everyday player.

“I knew I could hit, run, throw, and field,” said Stephens, who now lives near a golf course in Granbury, Texas. “I didn’t have any weaknesses. I regret that I didn’t get to play as a regular.”

It’s hard to get any rhythm going as a hitter when you don’t get a consistent number of trips to the plate. But, for Stephens, on one particular occasion, he made the most of one of his rare opportunities on the field to tie a major league record that may never be broken.

On June 18, 1953, Stephens collected three hits in one inning for the Red Sox during a 23-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Boston’s Fenway Park. The Bosox exploded for 17 runs in the seventh inning - sending 23 batters to the plate during their 47-minute half of the frame.

Stephens had a double and two singles off three different Detroit pitchers. The 17 runs scored by Boston in that inning were two more than the previous major league record, set by the Brooklyn Dodgers in a May 21, 1952, contest against the Cincinnati Reds. The Red Sox had 14 hits to set a new modern major league mark.

Gene Stephens had more than just the proverbial "cup of coffee" in the major leagues, playing mostly as a reserve for 12 seasons. His biggest accomplishment was getting three hits in one inning for the Boston Red Sox on June 18, 1953.
The Red Sox led 5-3 going into their half of the seventh inning. Detroit pitcher Steve Gromek allowed nine of the 17 runs while Dick Weik and Earl Harrist each allowed four. Boston had 27 total hits in the game. The day before, they had 20 hits when they walloped Detroit 17-1.

The all-time record for most runs scored in an inning is 18, set by the Chicago White Stockings against the Detroit Wolverines on Sept. 6, 1883, in a National League affair. During that onslaught (also in the seventh inning), three Chicago players had three hits in the frame - Tommy Burns (two doubles, one home run), Fred Pfeffer (two singles, one double), and Ned Williamson (two singles, one double).

The only other hitter in modern baseball history (since 1900) with three hits in one inning was Johnny Damon, now with the New York Yankees. When Boston whipped the Florida Marlins 25-8 on June 27, 2003, Damon collected three hits (a single, double, and triple) in the first inning as the Bosox scored a record 10 runs before recording an out.

Players who have collected three hits in one inning, all-time:
Johnny Damon
Boston Red Sox 
June 27, 2003 
Boston Red Sox 
June 18, 1953 (Click
Here For Box Score)
Tom Burns
Chicago White Stockings 
September 6, 1883 
Fred Pfeffer
Chicago White Stockings 
September 6, 1883 
Ned Williamson
Chicago White Stockings 
September 6, 1883 
“I was the youngest ballplayer in the major leagues at the time,” said Stephens, whose three-hit performance was witnessed by only 3,108 fans that afternoon in ‘53. “I was 19 years old and I probably shouldn’t have even been in the major leagues at that time.

“Ted Williams had gone to the Korean War and, therefore, they gave me the opportunity to play. As soon as (Williams) came back, the Red Sox optioned me down to Triple A at Louisville, Ky. I remember it all vividly and it was exciting. Lots of things happened in that game.”

One might assume that Stephens and Williams were not the best of friends. However, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, in Williams’ 1969 autobiography “My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life,” he praises Stephens’ ability and says, “… He could run like a deer. If I had had that boy’s speed, I know my lifetime average would have been twenty points higher.”

“It was a very good relationship,” Stephens said of he and Williams. “At the time, I was wanting to play regularly. But, we had the greatest hitter of all time with Ted Williams in left field. Playing with (Williams) was great but we had some other great ballplayers, also.”

Indeed, the Red Sox had a powerful club in the 1950s. With an outfield of Williams in left, Jackie Jensen in right, and Jim Piersall in center, it would have been difficult for anyone (not just Stephens) to crack the lineup.

Jensen (whose career was prematurely cut short due to his fear of flying) was the American League’s MVP in 1958 when he hit .286 with 35 home runs and a league-leading 122 RBI. Jensen was a three-time American League all-star who also led the league in ribbies in 1955 (116) and ‘59 (112).

“He had a fear of flying and he quit baseball in the prime of his career because of it,” Stephens said of Jensen. “When we had an off day on Monday and, say, we played a doubleheader in St. Louis the day before, he would catch a train all the way back to Boston by himself to keep from flying. He just didn’t like flying at all.”

The quirky Piersall played a total of 17 years in the big leagues - eight with Boston. He led the Junior Circuit in doubles (40) and games played (155) in 1956 and three times he led the league in fielding percentage (in 1956, ’61, and ’62.) Piersall won two Gold Gloves for his fielding excellence (in 1958 and ’61.)

“Jimmy was probably the best center fielder I ever played beside of,” Stephens said. “I sure enjoyed his play and he could do a lot of things on the ball field. We weren’t the best of friends because he knew I was trying to get his position. But, he sure was a fine player.”

Stephens also played with one of the game’s best pitchers during that time. Mel Parnell, a crafty lefthander, succeeded in Fenway Park while other lefties struggled within its confines. Parnell is the third winningest pitcher in Bosox history with 123 victories. Cy Young and Rogers Clemens (192 wins each) are tied for first while current knuckleball specialist Tim Wakefield (130) ranks second in team history.

Gene Stephens (shown on his 1960 Topps baseball card) often was a late-inning substitute for Ted Williams while with the Red Sox. But, he did something not even the great "Teddy Ballgame" ever did.
“His wife and my wife would ride to the ballpark together sometimes,” Stephens said of Parnell. “In 1956, Mel pitched a no-hitter and was going to be on the Ed Sullivan Show that weekend. He took me with him to New York because we were going to play the Yankees anyway. We went to New York early and I went to the show with him. That sure was fun.”

Stephens played only one year in the Class D minor leagues before coming to Boston. He hit a robust .337 with 22 home runs, 118 runs scored and 112 RBI for High Point-Thomasville in the North Carolina State League in 1951 - at the tender age of 18. Expectations were high for Stephens.

“I had a good bat and I swung like Williams - or so they said,” Stephens remembered. “I was 18 when I went to my first Spring Training. (The Red Sox) sent me to Class D and I set some records. When Williams went to Korea, they gave me his locker in Spring Training the next year.

“Well, they started writing things like I had the potential to be the next Williams. I didn’t know about that, but I knew I could play. That’s all I wanted.”

In 1952 with the Red Sox, Stephens hit only .226 in 21 games. He split the rest of the season between Louisville in the American Association and Albany in the Eastern League, hitting .244 along the way. In ‘53, Stephens split the year between Boston (.204 in 78 games) and Louisville (.214 in 30 games.)

In 1954, Stephens began to hit his stride somewhat, raising his average to .286 as Louisville won the Junior World Series in six games against Syracuse of the International League at season‘s end. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Stephens made the Red Sox roster for good in ‘55 - playing sparingly in 109 games as he hit at a career-best .293 clip.

Stephens played in 104 games in 1956, 120 in ‘57, and 134 in ‘58 - getting a limited number of plate appearances but making the most of them. In '58, he had a career-best nine home runs. In ‘59, he hit .278 with a career-high 39 RBI in 92 games - including a sixth-inning grand slam on June 13 which highlighted Boston’s 13-3 victory over the Yankees to complete a five-game sweep. Stephens pinch ran for Williams and, when the Red Sox batted around, Stephens connected for his blast.

Gene Stephens goes to the wall in center field at Yankee Stadium and watches a 502-foot home run off the bat of Mickey Mantle sail into the wild blue yonder in August 1964. Mantle was a dear friend to Stephens, who calls the late Yankee great the best player he ever saw.
But, he sat out about two months because of a broken right wrist that was never really publicized. According to Stephens, he misjudged a fly ball behind second base in Chicago but dove and caught it for the last out in one particular game. Later at the hospital, X-rays didn’t reveal any broken bones but he was placed in a cast as a precaution and sent home to Oklahoma City to recuperate.

“I went back to Boston after about eight weeks or so,” Stephens said. “I finished the year and hit pretty well, thinking I finally had the (center field) job for the next year. My wrist was still sore, though, and they took another X-ray. There was a bone chip in there they overlooked about the size of a pencil eraser.”

Stephens played through the pain, but when the trading deadline neared on June 9, 1960, Boston traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Willie Tasby. Stephens’ wife found out about the deal before he did after hearing about it on the radio while she was shopping for groceries.

“I sat on the bench behind Williams for five or six years,” Stephens said, “and then I got hurt and they traded me. No one really knew I was hurt and you never said you were hurt back in those days. You had to play and they didn’t pamper you. But, they traded me with a bone chip in my wrist. My career was essentially over.”

Still, Stephens hung on and nearly got a chance to play in the World Series in 1960 with the Orioles. The “Baby Birds” featured a young infield of Brooks Robinson at third base, Ron Hansen at shortstop, Marv Breeding at second, and Jim Gentile at first. Gentile was 26 years old, while the other three were younger than 23.

The pitching rotation - Milt Pappas, Jack Fisher, Chuck Estrada, Jerry Walker, and Steve Barber - were all 22 years old or younger. But, the Orioles nearly stretched the Yankees to their limit as they moved into first place by a half-game after sweeping New York in a three-game series at Baltimore over Labor Day weekend.

Less than two weeks later, the Orioles were swept in a four-game series at Yankee Stadium. They eventually finished second with an 89-65 record, eight games behind the Yankees, who went on to lose the World Series in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“Some unbelievable things happened to us,” Stephens said of the four games lost in New York. “I think we dropped to third place for a bit because it shook us up so bad. We never regrouped, but we had a heck of a team.”

On June 7, 1961, the Orioles traded Stephens to the Kansas City Athletics for first baseman Marv Throneberry. A bad knee forced Stephens to the bench for nearly all of 1962. In ‘63, he was picked up by the Chicago White Sox but only got into six games (hitting .389) because of his knee. He played most of the year for Indianapolis, which won the International League title.

In 1964, Stephens got his final chance in the majors - hitting .234 in 82 contests. He played part of the year in Indy, but was brought up after manager Al Lopez kept a promise to him that, if he produced, he would bring him up to the Chisox.

Chicago won 10 of its last 11 games that year - but still finished one game in back of “those damn Yankees,” Stephens chagrined. “We got beat out the last day of the season. We had champagne iced down for four or five days - waiting for that magic number to disappear. But, it never happened. You can’t get any closer than that.”

Gene Stephens (shown on his 1962 Topps baseball card) was traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Kansas City Athletics on June 7, 1961, for Marv Throneberry.
The Yankees lost the World Series in ‘64 to the St. Louis Cardinals and it would be another 12 years until they made it back to the Fall Classic. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle was the heart and soul of the Yanks, but he was on the backside of his career.

The “Commerce Comet” hit 536 home runs and won three MVP awards for New York in his 18-year career. Mantle (born and raised in northeastern Oklahoma) won the Triple Crown in 1956 with a .353 average, 52 homers, and 130 RBI. He played most of the time in pain with numerous injuries to his legs that would have kept most anyone else out of the lineup for weeks. He often was wrapped nearly head to toe in bandages underneath his uniform.

But, Stephens thinks that is what willed the Yankees to win 12 American League pennants and seven world championships during Mantle’s tenure with the team. They watched Mantle’s determination to play with pain and his desire to win rubbed off on his teammates.

When Mantle was playing in the minor leagues at Joplin, Mo., Stephens was in high school in Gravette, Ark. Yankees scout Tom Greenwade invited Stephens to try out for the Joplin club and insisted he take batting practice with the team.

“That was the first time I met Mantle,” Stephens said. “When I made the big leagues, he befriended me. He was so nice to me you wouldn’t believe it. The two guys I liked best were Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle - two great guys and ballplayers. Mantle was a great friend and he could do anything he wanted on the field. He was something else.

Gene Stephens with the Kansas City A's in '62.
“What motivated the Yankees was how he performed on those bad legs of his. He would play when he could hardly walk out there on the field. But, he‘d bunt, run, and throw guys out on the bases. He made his team better just by his presence. I know he did things he shouldn‘t have done off the field, but he was a great guy and the best player I ever saw.”

After the Yankees ended Chicago’s season in 1964, Stephens said goodbye to baseball - or vice versa, depending on how you look at it. He appeared in just 964 games and had 1,913 at-bats in the majors. He ended with a .240 lifetime batting average with 37 homers and 207 RBI. Afterward, he worked for Kerr-McGee Corporation in Oklahoma City in the marketing department for 23 years until retiring from that job in 1991.

Gene Stephens (shown on his 1965 Topps baseball card) ended his baseball career in 1964 with the Chicago White Sox. He had a .240 lifetime batting average in 964 career games.
Stephens and his wife Jean have been married for 54 years. They have two daughters - Robin (54) and Kim (50) - who grew up in Oklahoma City and went to Heritage Hall High School. The family lived there for 33 years after former Red Sox announcers Curt Gowdy and Bob Murphy recommended it. That pair had some friends in Oklahoma who helped Stephens find work in the oil fields during the off-season.

Stephens admits that, for a long time, he wondered to himself what might have happened if he could have played every day in the major leagues as a regular starter for somebody. “It was tough,“ he said. “For about 15 years, I couldn’t talk about it after I quit playing. I was hurt. I wanted to play and I knew I could play.”

He may not have been a regular starter for anybody during his 12-year big league career. But, the record book says he was one of the most prolific hitters ever for one inning. That’s definitely an accomplishment to be proud of: three hits in one inning.

Now, that’s something not even the great Ted Williams could ever say he did.

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