Ron Hansen - 1965 Topps baseball card

Former Major League Shortstop Ron Hansen
Helped Redefine His Position With Fluid Grace

By Todd Newville

Former major league shortstop Ron Hansen helped redefine his position in baseball.

Before there was Alex Rodriguez or Cal Ripken, there was Hansen. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Hansen proved that big guys could play shortstop, too.

Tall but graceful, Hansen possessed soft hands and good range for a man of his size. He also was a powerful hitter at times, but it was his glove work between second and third base which brought him respect among his peers and admiration from the fans.

“I suppose I was the first of the big shortstops,” Hansen said. “I was compared a lot to (former Cardinals shortstop) Marty Marion who was also tall but didn’t weigh as much as I did. I had some agility and good range for a big guy. I also had some power because of my size which a lot of shortstops in that era didn’t have. They were smaller-type guys who were quick and could steal bases and were mostly good defensive players.”

Shortstop Ron Hansen (pictured on his 1960 Topps baseball card) was voted Rookie of the Year in '60 after hitting .255 with a .342 on-base percentage, 22 home runs and 86 RBI. He also started both all-star games that summer in Kansas City and New York's Yankee Stadium.
Indeed, until Hansen came along, prototypical shortstops were usually some of the smallest men on the diamond. More often than not, they were quick on their feet, swift in the holes, and able to scoot and move about on the base paths with a pesky penchant for scoring runs and creating chaos.

Luis Aparicio comes to mind as one such player. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, the 5-foot-9 speedster led the American League in stolen bases nine straight years and had 506 career thefts. He also scored 1,335 runs. Aparicio (a .972 lifetime fielder) was American League Rookie of the Year in 1956 and won nine Gold Gloves at his position.

Other players like Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto fit that mold, too. Scrappy by nature, they were viewed as sparkplugs for their respective teams. When Hansen came along, he broke the mold.

“It’s a lot more common now,” said Hansen of bigger shortstops. “Most of the shortstops now are taller and it’s a different era. You see a lot of shortstops now that are my size. I think clubs have found that taller athletes have just as good agility as smaller guys.

“In the past, you could have a shortstop who didn’t hit a whole lot. Mostly what clubs asked for was defense and strong defense up the middle is essential. But, the game has changed because you have to hit a little bit and not just play defense. Now, shortstops are bigger and they have more power.”

Born in Oxford, Neb., Hansen (now 68) was raised in California. He broke into professional baseball in 1956 with Stockton of the Class C California League, hitting .289 with 86 runs scored and 84 RBI.

In 1957, Hansen went to Arizona and made a big impression in spring training with the Baltimore Orioles. He had just made the club and was slated to be their starting shortstop when he hurt his back for the first time - something that hampered him for the rest of his career.

“I’m not sure how I hurt it,” Hansen said, “but I do remember what might have caused my back problems was a collision at home plate in an exhibition game. At that point, my back started bothering me and, consequently, I had surgery in Baltimore and missed the entire season.”

Hansen had surgery to repair a ruptured disk. He came back in ’58 and was a little rusty from the layoff. Playing for Knoxville (Tenn.) in the Class A Sally League, Hansen hit just .216. He also went 0-for-19 in 12 games for the Orioles.

Ron Hansen helped the Baltimore Orioles finish second behind the New York Yankees in 1960 on a team dubbed the "Baby Birds" which had an infield and starting rotation mostly under the age of 23.

But, in ’59, Hansen was back in form - hitting .256 with 18 homers and 61 RBI for Vancouver in the Pacific Coast League. He went hitless in two games with Baltimore but was primed to have a big year the next season.

In 1960, Hansen earned the American League’s Rookie of the Year award after hitting .255 with a .342 on-base percentage, 22 home runs and 86 RBI. He played in 153 games - second only to Minnie Minoso of the Chicago White Sox. Hansen ranked 10th in the Junior Circuit in homers and he started both all-star games that summer in July - in Kansas City and New York’s Yankee Stadium.

Hansen went 1-for-2 in the first contest and 2-for-4 in the second game. The American League lost both games, 5-3 and 6-0. But, the experience was much more than what Hansen had expected.

“It was a real honor,” Hansen said. “It was in an era when there were a lot of terrific players. I was just really honored to be selected at that particular time. It was voted on by players and managers. To have your peers vote you into the All-Star Game is really an honor.”

The 1960 season was a good one for the Orioles. The “Baby Birds” featured an infield of first baseman Jim Gentile, second baseman Marv Breeding, third baseman Brooks Robinson, and Hansen. Gentile was 26 while the others 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 swept a three-game series from the Yankees in Baltimore to move into first place after Labor Day Weekend.

Ron Hansen relays a throw to first base against a hard-charging runner to complete a tough double play.

Two weeks later in Yankee Stadium, the Orioles were swept in a four-game set and lost their momentum. They eventually finished second at 89-65 and eight games behind New York, which lost to Pittsburgh in the World Series.

“We were a young club,” Hansen remembered. “We had young pitchers like Jerry Walker, Chuck Estrada, and Milt Pappas. Brooks and I came up through the system together. Marv Breeding came along and Jim Gentile came out of the Dodgers system. They mixed in some veterans like Gene Woodling, Gus Triandos, and Jackie Brandt.

“We played well together and made a run at the pennant until late September. Those four games in Yankee Stadium cost us the pennant because we dropped out of first place and couldn‘t get back in a short period of time.”

Norm Cash of the Detroit Tigers (sliding) tries to break up a double play attempt by shortstop Ron Hansen.
The Yankees had stars like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Moose Skowron, Clete Boyer and others. In 1960, New York went 97-57 and captured its 11th pennant in 14 years.

“The Yankees were the Yankees,” Hansen said. “They were a good veteran club. They had a lot of stars. They were used to being in those situations. They had played in a number of World Series prior to that. Maybe it was their experience. All I know is that they beat us and they were a better club at that particular time than we were.”

In 1961, Hansen hit .248 with 12 homers and 51 RBI and he led American League shortstops in double plays with 110. After spending six months in the Marines, Hansen came back in ‘62 but hit just .173 in 71 games with the Orioles.

Baltimore traded Hansen (along with outfielder Dave Nicholson, third baseman Pete Ward, and pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm) to the Chicago White Sox for Aparicio and outfielder Al Smith on Jan. 14, 1963. That year, Hansen hit .226 with 13 homers and 67 RBI in 144 games. He led the league’s shortstops in assists (483) and had a .983 fielding percentage.

Playing with the White Sox gave Hansen a chance to play with Hall of Fame second baseman Nellie Fox for one year. Fox (a three-time Gold Glove winner) won MVP honors in 1959 with the Chisox and hit .288 lifetime.

“When I got traded to the White Sox from Baltimore, Nellie Fox and outfielder Jim Landis took me under their wing and took care of me,” Hansen said. “I was new to the city and I really enjoyed becoming friends with Nellie and Jim and playing with them.”

The Chisox never made it to the World Series but they were a contender during Hansen’s tenure with the club. Chicago finished second to the Yankees in 1963 and ’64 and was runner-up to Minnesota in ’65 for the AL pennant.

“We had a pretty good ball club in the years I was there,” Hansen remembered. “Ken Berry was a really good center fielder. We had Floyd Robinson who was a good hitter and outfielder. We had a whole lot of knuckleball pitchers like Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher. Later, we had Wilbur Wood. We also had other good pitchers like Gary Peters and Joe Horlen.”

In ‘64, Hansen posted career bests in several categories with his bat, hitting .261 with 85 runs scored, 150 hits, and 25 doubles. He also blasted 20 homers and had 68 ribbies. In the field, he continued his mastery with the leather, leading AL shortstops in putouts (292), assists (514), chances accepted (827), and double plays (105) while posting a .975 fielding percentage.

Ron Hansen (as he appeared on his 1963 Topps baseball card)
Hansen’s glove work was never questioned, but his defense tended to overshadow his contributions with a bat. He never claimed to be a speed demon or a high-average hitter. But, Hansen had his moments at the plate.

Ron Hansen in a classic pose.
“I was proud of some things I accomplished as a hitter,” Hansen said. “I had some power. I didn’t have great speed so hits were hard to come by for me at times. But, I had some power and I think pitchers looked at me as a guy who could break a game open sometimes. They pitched me a little more carefully than they would a singles-type hitter.”

With the Orioles, Hansen batted primarily from the eighth spot in the batting order. With the Chisox, he moved higher up in the lineup. His bat was strong enough to earn him respect among opposing pitchers.

“I didn’t hit up in the order until I got traded to the White Sox,” Hansen said. “I was a pretty good clutch hitter. I drove in runs and I could hit with men on base. I think that was one of the reasons I was moved up in the lineup.”

In ‘65, Hansen’s back held up and allowed him to play an entire season as he appeared in a league-high 162 games - tying Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito and Detroit’s Don Wert for the most games played. He hit just .235 but had 11 homers and 66 RBI.

On defense, Hansen continued to shine. He led the American League’s shortstops once again in assists with 527 and sported a .969 fielding percentage. One day in particular highlighted his ability with the glove.

On August 29, the White Sox swept a doubleheader from Boston at Comiskey Park, winning both games by identical scores of 3-2. The opener lasted 14 innings as Hansen handled 18 chances flawlessly at shortstop to tie an American League record. In the nightcap, he had 10 more chances. His 28 total chances in the twin bill set a major league record.

In 1966, Hansen played in just 23 games before rupturing another spinal disk. After undergoing his second back surgery on June 3, he was sidelined for the rest of the year. But, he came back strong in ‘67, playing in 157 games and leading AL shortstops again in assists (482) and double plays (91) while hitting .233 with a .964 fielding percentage.

Hansen was traded on Feb. 13, 1968, to the Washington Senators along with pitchers Dennis Higgins and Steve Jones for second baseman Tim Cullen and pitchers Buster Narum and Bob Priddy. It was a tough year for Hansen, who hit just .196 and was traded back to the White Sox in August for Cullen - making them the first players in history to be traded for one another twice in one season.

Right before the trade, though, Hansen made one of the most memorable plays in baseball history. On July 30, the Senators were playing in Cleveland. In the first inning, the Indians had no outs with Russ Snyder on first, Dave Nelson on second, and Joe Azcue at the plate.

With the Chicago White Sox, shortstop Ron Hansen led the American League twice in double plays and four times in assists. During a twinbill in 1965, Hansen set a major league record by handling 28 chances flawlessly.

On a 3-2 count, Nelson broke for third base as Azcue lined one up the middle. Hansen snared the ball and stepped on second to double up Nelson. Before he could turn around and head back to first base, Snyder was tagged out by Hansen for the third out.

And, just like that, Hansen had turned just the eighth unassisted triple play in major league history - the first in 41 years. The last to do it before him was Detroit first baseman Johnny Neun against Cleveland on May 31, 1927.

“I caught the ball running toward the bag,” Hansen said. “I came across the base and the runner from first couldn’t get turned around quick enough to go back to first. When he made a couple of steps back toward first, I tagged him.

“To be truthful, it was (a case of) being in the right place at the right time. Things happened really fast. It was not intended to be an unassisted triple play. It just happened that way for me.”

Washington lost to the Indians that day 10-1 and Hansen struck out four times against Cleveland’s hard-throwing ace Sam McDowell. Still, the game was memorable for Hansen and he ended up making a friend in Neun, who hit .289 in six seasons with the Tigers and Boston Braves. Neun died in 1990.

Ron Hansen (sliding) tries to break up a double play as Minnesota Twins second baseman John Goryl throws to first base to complete a twin killing during spring training in 1967.
“Johnny lived in Baltimore,” said Hansen, who lives in nearby Baldwin, Md. “I became friends with him after I made my triple play. We talked about our triple plays occasionally. It was kind of nice to have somebody else to talk to who did it. He was a first baseman so there was a difference in the way they were made. Mine was the eighth in the history of baseball and his just the seventh. So, it was nice to talk with somebody who had also made one.”

The entire week for Hansen was wacky. On July 31, he struck out two more times against Detroit’s Denny McLain before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. The next day, after walking in his first trip to the plate, he hit a grand slam against Pat Dobson in the fourth inning to break his string at six strikeouts and help the Senators to a 9-3 win.

The day after that, he was traded back to the White Sox for Cullen - and played third base for Chicago against Washington. Hansen went 2-for-4 with an RBI against his old teammates from the previous day as the Senators won 11-6 in a contest played at Milwaukee’s County Stadium.

Hansen played one more year for the White Sox. He played two seasons for the Yankees after that, then wound up his 15-year major league career in 1972 with the Kansas City Royals. A career .234 hitter, Hansen finished with 106 homers, 501 RBI, and a lifetime .968 fielding percentage at shortstop.

The big guy accomplished a lot during his stay in the big leagues. But, he never got to play in a World Series.

“We finished second a lot in my career,” said Hansen, who played all the infield positions at one time or another during his career, “but we never played in the World Series. It’s always been kind of a disappointment but never anything that’s really bothered me. I coached several years in the big leagues and got to the World Series that way. So, I got a feel for it when I did that.”

Hansen was a coach for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1980-83 and for the Montreal Expos from 1985-89. Milwaukee lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games during the 1982 World Series. The Brewers (95-67) were a memorable team with MVP shortstop Robin Yount leading the way.

They won the AL East by one game over the Orioles. In the playoffs, the Brewers came back after losing the first two games in the AL Championship Series against California to win three in a row for the pennant.

Ron Hansen in a Washington Senators uniform in 1968.

“We had an awfully good ball club there in Milwaukee,” Hansen said. “We had players like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Rollie Fingers, Gorman Thomas, and Ben Oglivie. We had a terrific team and it was just a real good year for us. It was a pleasure to be around those kind of guys.”

Shortstop Ron Hansen of Washington got star treatment on his hotel room door after turning the eighth unassisted triple play in history against Cleveland on July 30, 1968.
Hansen (who has been married for 47 years to his wife Dale) sandwiched a year of managing in the minors between his stints as an infield coach for Milwaukee and Montreal. Since then, he’s been a scout.

“I scouted for the New York Yankees for 14 years,” said Hansen, who has two daughters (Kerry and Kristen) and three grandchildren. “I’ve been with the Philadelphia Phillies for three years now. I mostly do major league scouting and look for ballplayers to help our club through trades or free agency.”

Hansen has seen a lot of baseball in his nearly 50 years in the professional ranks. He’s watched the game change dramatically over that time - and part of that change was due to his contributions on the field.

How? He made it cool to be a big guy at shortstop. That’s how!

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