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Mudville: May 18, 2021 9:36 am PDT
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The Ike Futch Era

Ike Futch struck out four times.

Not in one game.

Not in one week.

Not in one month.

Ike Futch struck out four times in 1963, a season in which he had 559 at-bats for Augusta of the Double-A South Atlantic League. He followed that up by striking out five times in 505 Double-A Southern League at-bats in 1964 and five times in 569 at-bats in the Double-A Texas League in 1965.

That three-season stretch during which he struck out once every 117 at-bats was just a microcosm of Futch’s nine-season career. The scrappy infielder from Louisiana became a minor league legend in the 1960s after striking out only 59 times in 4,057 plate appearances [1.4 percent], according to Baseballreference.com.  That percentage equals Hall-of-Famer Joe Sewell, who had a 1.4 percent strikeout ratio during his 13-year career.

While Futch attributes his prowess to avoiding the punch out to some nifty games he played as a kid and terrific eyesight, he never reached the Major Leagues. The New York Yankees, for whom Futch played, didn’t have his vision, at least not when it came to promoting their own players, so the middle infielder languished in their farm system while a dynasty died in the Bronx.

Futch also fell victim to what many would call a cheap shot by a vindictive player one day in Oklahoma City just hours before he was set to make his big-league debut. He blew out his knee and never again approached the level of play that had made him one of the most talked about ballplayers throughout the small towns in the Midwest and the South throughout the first half of that decade.

“When I found out that no one had even been close to that [so few strikeouts] there was some pride,” Futch said. “I think about that record never being broken. I really hadn’t even thought about it before because I just never really thought about it until I started going through scrapbooks and remembering things I had forgotten about. After that I decided might have been a pretty good ball player.”

Futch didn’t have to pay attention to the numbers when he was playing, though. Others did that for him. And if they only knew how he honed his skills there would have been more young ballplayers raiding Coca-Cola machines across the country.

A COKE AND A SMILE

Futch wanted to be a baseball player from the moment he first picked up a ball. He had it in his blood. He had six brothers and three sisters and they all played ball in one form or another, whether it was formally for their school, little league, American Legion or simply in some neighborhood pickup game.

“We would play in the back yard and my brothers, who were two years younger than me, would go to the service station in town,” Futch said. “It was a small town and we had one of those old-time Coke machines outside the service station. We would gather up all the Coke tops [bottle caps] in the box and empty them out into a bucket. We’d take all the Coke tops and throw them to each other and try to hit them with a broom stick. You could make a Coke top do anything.

“You could make it rise, make it swivel, make it wobble like a curveball. We also did that with gumballs. We would play games and one of us would have the Giants and the other would have the Yankees and we would try to hit those things. I got to a point where I always had good hand-eye coordination because I could hit Coke tops when they were doing all kinds of stuff almost every time you threw them. Hitting a baseball with a bat was nothing compared to that. And, I was also blessed with good vision and that didn’t hurt.”

Futch’s ability made him a star on the Spearsville High School baseball team, a squad coached by his oldest brother, Frankie. His team won the 1959 Louisiana State championship and Futch went 8-for-13 in the tournament, once again wowing Atley Donald, the Yankee scout who had been following him all season. Donald knew a thing or two about winning players having spent the entirety of his eight-year career [1938-45] with the Yankees, for whom he won 65 games and was part of four World Series-winning teams while playing alongside the likes of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

While Futch had signed a letter of intent to play baseball and basketball for Northeast Louisiana University the Yankees weren’t about to let him get away. Donald was at his front door the morning after Futch’s high school graduation, contract in hand.

“Atley talked me into signing and said I’ll give you plenty of money to get your college education,” Futch said. “So I ended up signing the day after high school with the Yankees and they send me to [Kearny of the Class D] Nebraska [State League]. I just thought of it as extending my [high school] season. We were just coming off a state championship and I couldn’t have been more ready as far as that goes.

“I had never been away from home before. I hadn’t been out of the state probably more than a couple of times. Anyway, they sent me a ticket and my mom took me to the airport, which was about 30 miles away. I certainly had never been on a plane before. I got homesick but everything worked out okay.”

“You know I never did strike out very much any season, but I had those two or three years in a row there before the Yankees traded me to the Cardinals – and I only had five strikeouts with them. Until people started writing about it, though, I never paid attention or kept up with anything like that.”

It worked out just a bit better than okay. Futch hit .319 in the NESL and won the batting title. He appeared in 52 games and his keen eye was evident from the outset. He struck out eight times in 207 at-bats as an 18-year-old playing his first season in pro ball. He walked 34 times and had a .420 on-base percentage.

Futch also made the position switch that would ultimately contribute to the end of his career. Jerry Coleman, the infielder who was part of six Yankees World Series champions between 1949 and 1956, was serving as a coach and decided that Futch and the organization would best be served if he switched from shortstop, the position he played in high school, to second base.

“The Yankees sent a bunch of people there for rookie league and it was almost like you were having tryouts,” Futch said. “We were playing an intra-squad game one day and I went 4-for-5. Eddie Lopat was there working with the pitchers and Jerry Coleman was working with the infielders and the hitters. He told me, I know you want to play shortstop but I want to work with you on the pivot. We’re going to get you playing second base because it will get you to Yankee Stadium faster.”

Futch, however, would never see Yankee Stadium despite putting up some impressive numbers over the next five seasons. He began 1960 in North Dakota, playing for Fargo-Moorhead. He was 3-for-23 after a week, though, and in manager John Fitzpatrick’s office looking for some help.

“I won a batting title in 1959 but with the Yankees organization back then, when you signed a contract, you started out down low on the totem pole,” Futch said. “You would move up one classification at a time. That’s just the way they did it. So in my second year, they sent me to Fargo, North Dakota and the first day I was there, it was snowing. I started the season 1-for-19.

“So I went into the manager and said ‘Skip, I’m from Louisiana and I play baseball year round. I cannot play baseball in the snow. Is there any way you can get me to a warmer climate’. He got on the phone that day and the next day he had me on a flight to Modesto, California.”

Modesto was more to Futch’s liking. Though he whiffed a career-high 18 times in 470 at-bats, he hit .311 with a .378 OBP, drew 51 walks and stole 13 bases. He authored a 19-game hitting streak and earned a berth on the All-Star team as a second baseman.

Bob Arrighi, according to Baseballreference.com, struck out Futch five times in 1960 while pitching for Reno. BR quotes Arrighi, “I never got him twice in one game, do you believe that? I got him more than anyone else that season and probably anyone else in his career, but I couldn’t get him more than once in one game on strikes.” BR also quotes Visalia pitcher Jack Tupper, who along with teammate Larry Danforth, are the only two pitchers believed to have struck out Futch twice in one game. “I guess I cheated,” Tupper said, according to BR. “I pitched 11 innings that day and got him in the seventh and 11th.”

Futch continued his methodical climb up the organizational ladder in 1961, hitting .305 for Greensboro of the Class-B Carolina League. He struck out 11 times in 538 and once again had an impressive OBP [.363]. He earned another All-Star nod after leading the league with 164 hits.

The Class-A South Atlantic proved to be of little trouble for Futch in 1962 while playing for Augusta. He was an All-Star yet again after hitting .305 with a .361 OBP, striking out 11 times in 550 at-bats on a circuit with stars such as Pete Rose, Tony Oliva and Tommy Helms.

“Every year the strikeouts just kept going down,” Futch said. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I struck out in a season, though, if you wanted me to. I just kept playing; I didn’t think about it. Everywhere I played, I set a strikeout record.”

THOSE THREE YEARS

Futch’s run from 1963-65 has largely been forgotten because he spent three seasons in Augusta, Columbus and Tulsa and not New York or St. Louis. While the venues may have been in small towns throughout the Midwest and South what he accomplished is no less impressive, particularly what he did for Augusta, which had been bumped up to a Double-A team in the Sally League, in ’63.

Augusta was managed by future Mets pitching guru Rube Walker but the magic he would help bring to New York in 1969 was not evident during that regular season. The Yankees finished in fourth place, eight games under .500, but would go on to defeat Lynchburg in the finals to win the Sally League crown.

Futch certainly did his part. He led the circuit with 177 hits while hitting .317. Then there were those four strikeouts in 559 at-bats.

“I don’t think that half the people that see that number [four] think it’s possible,” Futch said. “I’ve seen some articles where the next fewest strikeouts for that many at-bats is nine so I don’t think anyone is going to be breaking four, especially the way hitters are swinging for the fences now.

“You know I never did strike out very much any season, but I had those two or three years in a row there before the Yankees traded me to the Cardinals – and I only had five strikeouts with them. Until people started writing about it, though, I never paid attention or kept up with anything like that.”

The following season for Columbus of the Double-A Southern League proved to be just as exceptional as Futch hit .313, was once again an All-Star while fanning five times in 505 at-bats. He had struck out nine times in his previous 1,063 at-bats heading into 1965 yet was still dealt to the Cardinals. The Yankees had Horace Clarke at second base and the malaise that engulfed the franchise would last for the better part of a decade. It is likely Futch wouldn’t have changed that but his presence in the Bronx would have been interesting.

Changing organizations did little to alter Futch’s approach at the plate. While he hit below .300 for the first time in his career [.290] he still managed to make the Double-A Texas League All-Star team while playing for Tulsa. He struck out five time in 505 at-bats, completing a remarkable three-year run, the likes of which probably won’t ever be seen again. He set Texas League records by going 418 consecutive at-bats without striking out and for fewest strikeouts in a season.

A local restaurant also put up a billboard at Texas League Park that read “Strike Out Futch and Win Hamburgers”. Future 145-game winner Jack Billingham, who was part of Cincinnati’s Word Series-winning teams in 1975-76, would get the burgers.

“One year they were going to give a free dinner to the pitcher that struck me out and they went on and on about it,” said Futch, who also set Texas League defensive records for fewest errors [five] and longest errorless streak [44 games] by a second baseman. Jack Billingham got me. I told them you’re giving the guy that strikes me out a free dinner but you ought to be buying me the dinner for not striking out.”

Futch’s future in St. Louis never materialized either. Oklahoma City, which was Houston’s Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, selected him in the 1965 Rule 5 Draft, a move that would put him on a path to the end of his career.

1966, The Takeout And The End

Futch had just turned 25 when he arrived in Oklahoma City. He was a breath away from the big leagues and was continuing to show the eye at the plate and the skill on the field that likely would have made him a solid Major League infielder. In fact, after Houston second baseman Joe Morgan was hit by a line drive during batting practice on June 25, breaking his kneecap, Futch was set to be called up to replace him.

He was scheduled to fly to Houston following his game the next day but he never made the flight. He never made it through the game. Futch was taken out at second base in a vicious slide by Tacoma’s Bob “Shorty” Raudman, destroying his left knee. Futch wouldn’t return to the field until the following May and he was never the same again.

“I was supposed to be going to the Astrodome to play for Morgan and their guy threw a block on me while making a play on a slow hit ball to third,” Futch said. “He tore my knee completely up. I was going to play in the Major Leagues the next day and he ended my career.”

Raudman, according to Futch, had been looking for payback against Tulsa for what took place in a brawl the previous season in a Texas League game that included many of the same players on the Oklahoma City squad.

“He was on first base and the batter hit a slow, high chopper to third that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a double play on,” Futch said. “I took the throw standing on the backside of the bag like a first baseman would and that was his chance to get me. He went airborne and threw all of his weight into my knee and it popped.

“After they got me off the field one of my teammates said it sounded like a thirty-aught-six [rifle shell] going off when my ligament snapped. He tore all the ligaments and took out the cartilage. I have had bone on bone in my knee since 1966. It made a believer out of me being in the right place at the right time because I wasn’t there because he got me good.”

Futch went to Spring Training with the Astros in 1967 but he wasn’t healthy. His knee was still stiff and he could hardly run at all. At one point, he walked off the field and into the clubhouse and began changing into his street clothes to head home.

“I could run straight but when I rounded the bases it would kill me,” he said. “I was in the clubhouse and the GM was in there and asked me what I was doing. I told him about my knee and that I couldn’t play anymore, that I was heading home. He said they’d send me back to the doctor and sent me to the same doctor that operated on Mickey Mantle’s knees.

“It helped out some but when I originally had my knee operated on, I was in a cast from my hip to my foot. They left the cast on too long and I was almost completely stiff when they took it off. Now, I only have about 30 percent motion in my leg.”

He appeared in 60 games in 1967, appearing in games for Houston, the Reds and the Cubs, all of which came at the Double-A level. He combined to hit .241 in 166 at-bats, striking out twice. His career, however, was done. He didn’t play again.

Futch went on to study at Louisiana Tech, the same school that produced NFL Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw. He worked full-time managing a local department store for 11 years after earning his degree and then worked as a sales rep for Buster Brown Apparel for 14 years.

“I never really told anyone about my career or anything like that,” Futch said. “Other than my family and the people from my hometown, no one ever knew I played pro ball.

“Sometimes I feel cheated, but you have to keep going.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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