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Mudville: October 23, 2021 8:43 pm PDT
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Here Comes The Rooster

Doug Rader has one big regret when it comes to his baseball career.

Considering he played, coached and managed for more than three decades, it would be easy to expect that the former Houston star would have more about which to lament. Rader’s greatest disappointment, however, lies not with what he did on the field or what he failed to accomplish statistically. Rather, he laments something a bit more personal.

“I was raised and played in a time when fraternization between players and teams was forbidden,” Rader, 77, said. “I think about the all the wonderful guys I played against, all the tremendous people and I never got a chance to know any of them because we were forced into this fake familiarity breeds contempt mindset. I don’t know if anyone from my era feels strongly about that.

“It’s bothered me forever not being allowed to interact with people that I played against. You see how guys are now. That was absolutely forbidden. I think about people I never got to know or say two words to during my career is my biggest regret.”

Simply spend an hour or so with Rader, discussing life and baseball, and the picture becomes much clearer as to why he feels the way he does. His outgoing personality and warmth are quickly evident, even to those who have just met him, so the notion that this remains on his mind, some 40 years after his playing career ended, isn’t much of a surprise.

Mike Port, the former California Angels general manager who hired Rader to be the club’s skipper in 1989, believes that Rader may be just a bit hard on himself, pointing out that his friend’s impact on those around him more than makes up for those he didn’t get to know.

“The number of friends he does have as a result of his time in baseball and the people who were grateful about how he helped their career is incredible,” Port said. “He helped to make them better players and extend the careers of a number of them. I hope he is not underselling himself. He was very well-respected.”

It would be difficult for anyone, even Rader, to undersell what he accomplished in the game. He spent 11 years as a player, the first nine of which were with Houston. While the Astros were a second-division club for most of Rader’s tenure it was not because of him. He was a consistent force from his place in the middle of the lineup and on the field, winning five consecutive Gold Gloves [1970-74] at third base.

When age, along with wear and tear on his body, shuffled him out of the game following the 1977 season, he began coaching and managing, doing of what Port spoke – helping a generation of players hone their craft.

“As a manager, he could be whatever the situation required him to be,” Port said. “I consider him to be a brilliant individual in so many respects, not just baseball wise. If we required him to be hard-nosed, he could be. If we needed him to be compassionate, he was capable of doing that as well. He was able to put players in a position to succeed.”

It all added up to a very successful time in the game and it was a run that began in the suburbs of Chicago in the early 1960s.

“Whitey Diskin was one chromosome short of being a full-blown albino. He had really thick glasses, was a short guy and totally pale. He was drinking a Schlitz tall boy when I showed up at eight in the morning at Spring Training. He said ‘Who are you?’ I said I’m Doug Rader, the shortstop. He said ‘You might be Rader, but you ain’t no shortstop.’”

MAKING NOISE IN ILLINOIS

Rader, who was nicknamed The Red Rooster because of his hair color, starred at Glenbrook North High School as a shortstop and knew that he wanted to play ball at the next level. He was drawing attention from scouts but promised his mother and father that he would go to college. The question with which he was faced was where to go? The NCAA, at the time, didn’t allow freshmen to play. So, Rader headed to Illinois Wesleyan, an NAIA school, where he could play during the season and in local collegiate summer leagues.

Rader got the chance to play for long-time coach Jack Horenberger, who coached the IWU baseball team for 37 years and was the school’s first athletic director. Horenberger was instrumental in the founding of the Midwest Collegiate Baseball League and was also an integral part of the Basin League, a summer circuit that operated between 1953 and 1973. The exposure and experience that Rader got in school and in those summer leagues proved invaluable.

“We got to play as freshman against Big-10 schools and others like Ole’ Miss and Tulane,” said Rader, who was voted as the IW Most Valuable Player in 1964. “Then we played a 50-game schedule in the summer and we were all provided jobs over the summer. So basically, I got to play 100 games as a freshman in college. That wouldn’t have happened at an NCAA school. Plus, it was a really good school.”

Horenberger also thought highly of Rader, telling The Argus in May of 1963 that Rader was “one of the best prospects we ever had here and by prospect I mean professional prospect. He’s a good hitter with fine power but what I especially like about him at the plate is his attitude. He can look bad on one pitch but turns around and fights you on the next pitch. He’s a real competitor.”

The MLB First-Year Player Draft was on the horizon – it would begin in 1965 – but Rader wouldn’t be among the pool of eligible players. He signed with Houston in September of 1964 after traveling a winding road to get to that point.

“I had a chance to make the Olympic team in 1964 and at that point, it was still an exhibition event,” Rader said. “Scouts were evaluating everyone in conjunction with the Olympic committee and I was one of the last ones to get cut. At the end of 1964, I decided to start my journey. I was one of the last guys to sign before the draft.

“Everyone knew the draft was going to happen but I tried out that summer [of ‘64] and there were a number of teams looking at me [Houston, Milwaukee and St. Louis]. I worked out with Houston for scout Wally Laskowski in Chicago and did well. They wanted me to go to the Instructional League and play against other players who had already signed. I did and I went 5-for-5. [General Manager] Paul Richards was there and offered me a contract.”

Rader agreed to a deal but when he was on his way home, he spoke with his father, who told him that Milwaukee had called and offered to double what Houston was offering. Then St. Louis called and offered to double what anyone was offering.

“My dad had principles that were terribly old school but ethical,” Rader said. “I had already agreed to sign for $30,000 with Richards. So when my dad asked me what I was going to do, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have much money but to me, money has never been a big issue in my life. It wasn’t at that point and it still isn’t.

“So I signed with the Colt 45s and I was scheduled to go to Modesto of the California League. But by the time I got to spring training [in ‘65] they had changed their name to the Astros and I was headed to Durham [of the Carolina League].”

Doug Rader #19 of the Houston Astros make an off balance throw to first base against the Chicago Cubs during an Major League Baseball game circa 1970 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Rader played for the Astros from 1967-75. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

LIFE IN THE MINORS

Rader’s first experience as a professional came in Spring Training at a time when there were hundreds of players trying to earn a spot on the dozen or more affiliates of each Major League team. He was one of many and treated as such when he arrived in Florida in the spring of 1965.

“I actually signed as a shortstop,” Rader said. “[Long-time Astros clubhouse manager] Whitey Diskin was one chromosome short of being a full-blown albino. He had really thick glasses, was a short guy and totally pale. He was drinking a Schlitz tall boy when I showed up at eight in the morning at Spring Training. He said ‘Who are you?’ I said I’m Doug Rader, the shortstop. He said ‘You might be Rader, but you ain’t no shortstop.’

“He gave me uniform number 212. I asked him, ‘does this mean I’m not making the varsity?’ I played the year and came back the next spring and got uniform 55; that was a big jump. Then in my third year he gave me number 19. I’m making progress. When I made it to the Major Leagues, he was holding uniform number 12 for me. I went from 212 to 12. We had so much fun over the years.”

While Rader had fun with Diskin and on the field, he also experienced the segregation and racism in the South that he didn’t come across while growing up in Chicago.  His arrival at Durham brought with it a bit of a culture shock. He saw how African Americans and Latin players were treated in a manner that was inconsistent with the principles instilled in him by his parents.

Whitey Diskin: Almost an Albino and lover of Schlitz.

“When I went to Durham, on our first road trip, we were in the middle of nowhere,” Rader said. “We had two black guys on the team Charlie Murray, who is Eddie Murray’s brother, and Leon McFadden along with a couple of Latin guys. The bus pulled into the first place we stopped for lunch and they had to be careful where they went when they got off the bus. That was strange, to say the least, to me. So, I ate a lot of meals on the bus with those guys.

Talk about choking up.

“It didn’t anger me. The only thing I was concerned with was the feelings of the guys being affected by it. They were all pretty good about it but I’m sure it must have been terribly painful. I didn’t know enough to have empathy and feel what they were feeling. But I did recognize that they needed help and companionship that went with being a good human being.”

Rader, who was adopted, credits his parents with the values he has, adding that he was very fortunate to ‘fall in the lap of a couple who cared for me and structured me in a decent way’.

The lessons Rader learned off the field in Durham were akin to the lessons he learned on it. He hit .209 with 14 homers and 38 RBIs in 330 at-bats. It was a rather inauspicious debut but one upon which he built the following season with Amarillo of the Double-A Texas League. Rader hit .290 with 16 homers and 74 RBIs in 1966, finishing fourth on the circuit in both of the latter categories to help his team reach the playoffs.

That season in Texas set Rader up for what would be a memorable 1967. It not only enabled him to begin ’67 in Oklahoma City of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, it set him up for his big-league debut that would happen that summer. Rader was hitting .293 with nine homers and 44 RBIs through 75 games at OKC before Houston came calling at the end of July.

“Amarillo was good and I played with some cool guys but it was just part of the journey,” Rader said. “The only place that resonated with me was Oklahoma City. Our manager Mel McGaha called me into his office one day and said he had just gotten a call from Houston and they wanted me to be there that night. I had just gotten married and I was thinking that it couldn’t get any better than this [where he was]. I liked Oklahoma City. He said listen you stupid SOB, get on a plane and get your ass to Houston. That’s how much I liked Oklahoma City.”

Rader made his Major League debut on July 31 in the Astrodome against the Mets. He played first base and went 1-for-4, singling in his first at-bat off Ron Taylor. He stayed in the lineup, primarily as a first baseman, the rest of the season and hit .333 with a pair of homers and 26 RBIs in 162 at-bats. He wouldn’t see the minor leagues again.

“It was unbelievable to walk into the dome,” Rader said. “I had been in there before, after the 1965 season they had a few of us come in and work out while the club was there. Being on the field with that many people there was thrilling. I was floating on air.”

Doug Rader #12 of the San Diego Padres in action against the Philadelphia Phillies during an Major League Baseball game circa 1977 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rader played for the Padres from 1976-77. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Well, the problem wasn’t exactly with Rader it was more with the Astros. They were not a good team and changing the name from the Colt 45s did little to change what they were. It’s not as if they had poor players. They simply had poor management and cheap ownership and that led to some lean years in the Lone Star State.

Houston finished 9th, 10th, fifth [in the new divisional format], fourth and fifth in Rader’s first five seasons. If not for the expansion San Diego Padres they would have occupied the basement in the National League West. While Rader excelled, the Astros traded away a boatload of talent including Mike Cuellar, Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan, John Mayberry, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo between 1968 and 1971. While they received some quality in return – Jesus Alou, Lee May and Tommy Helms – it wasn’t enough to offset what they gave up or keep them out of the second division. The Astros finished third once during Rader’s nine years in Houston.

“Back then ownership was different than it is now,” said Rader, who hit .267 in 98 games in 1968. “The people that owned clubs were just trying to make a living. There weren’t huge television and radio revenues that were falling into everyone’s lap and keeping their doors open. Everything revolved around attendance, concessions, parking and the bottom line was always an issue. We were always cutting corners. We weren’t a rag-tag operation but we not first class either.

“You looked at other organizations and saw how differently they were run. There was a great deal of envy when looking at a team like the Dodgers. So when they traded those guys, you can feel why it happened. It kind of made you feel like a second-class citizen, to be honest with you. You didn’t feel worthy. I know the word swagger is overused but you could see it in other teams and we didn’t have it. It wasn’t the fault of the players or of other organizations. It’s what made them great and we never had that feeling.”

Rader added that players like May and Helms were fantastic and that he never dwelled on what-ifs. He simply enjoyed playing, pointing out that just being able to participate was enjoyable.

One trade that did benefit Rader, though, was the one that sent Bob Aspromonte to the Braves in December of ’68. Rader had been splitting time at third with Aspromonte, who had been the team’s full-time third baseman and the last original Colt 45 in the lineup. The deal allowed Rader to become the everyday third baseman for the next seven years.

Rader’s first “true full season” came in 1969 when he appeared in he appeared in 155 games and 569 at-bats. He hit 11 homers and drove in 83 runs. He followed that up in 1970 with career highs in at-bats [576] and homers [25]. He also drove in 87 runs and became the first Astro to win a Gold Glove, the first of five consecutive seasons he would be named the league’s top third fielding third baseman.

That he did so while dealing with shoulder issues and playing in the Astrodome – which was a notoriously horrible building to host a game – made his accomplishments that much more impressive.

“Fielding in the Dome changed from year to year,” Rader said. “It was the worst dirt in the history of the world. It was a very unpredictable infield. There was a reason why they had turf. They couldn’t grow grass or tend to it properly. It was not a good infield. They had groundskeepers that wore space suits so how could they take care of it.”

Hitting in the Dome was no easy task, either. Rader hit less than half [63] of his 155 career homers in the cavernous Dome.

“The original Dome was horrendous,” Rader said. “[Slugger] Jimmy Wynn was barely recognized for what he was able to do because of that park. Take a look at the power numbers for visiting clubs in the Dome. The Cubs would come in with 32-ounce bats and they couldn’t get it to the warming track. We had to use logs to get the damn thing out of there.

“Then you would go to Atlanta and Wrigley Field and I think that’s where the jealousy sets in. They get to play 81 games in these places and we’re just trying to get the ball to the wall in our place.”

Rader had two more 20-homer seasons [20 in 1972 and 21 in ‘73]. He also drove in a career-best 90 in 1972 and added 89 more the following year.

“I love Atlanta and Cincinnati was a hitter’s delight,” Rader said. “Look at how Morgan blossomed in that lineup and in a favorable environment. Philly, Atlanta, Wrigley and Cincinnati were pretty much the easiest.”

FLUSHING, NY - 1967: Doug Rader #12 of the Houston Astros poses for a portrait before a game against the New York Mets during the 1967 season at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)

PLAYING DAYS DRAW TO AN END

Rader won his fifth Gold Glove in 1974 but his production began to fall off the following year. He hit .223 and drive in 48 runs, both career-lows in Houston, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise that he was dealt to San Diego that winter. He welcomed the move to the West Coast as it seemed to rejuvenate him at the plate. He drove in 55 and raised his batting average by 34 points from the previous season.

“I liked the West Coast; it was refreshing,” Rader said. “I was delighted to go to San Diego. There were so many reasons. I got to play for John McNamara, who I adore, and go to San Diego, which was the coolest place on Earth back then. It was really good, I liked it.”

San Diego finished fifth in 1976, though, and was headed to another fifth-place finish in 1977 when Rader was purchased by Toronto in June. He said he never gave much thought to his career ending but Toronto proved to be the last stop. He had 13 homers and 40 RBIs in 96 games for the Jays hitting a combined .251 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs, which were still solid numbers. The 1,302nd and final hit of his career came on Sept. 28 at Fenway Park. He went 2-for-4 that day and scored a run. Rader had two singles, both off Bill Lee, the last of which came in the fourth inning.

“I never really thought about the end but by that point my feet were shot, my elbows were shot, my shoulders hurt and it wasn’t pleasant playing anymore,” he said. “I was also back on turf [in Toronto] and my legs were destroyed to begin with. And of all the destinations, Toronto would have been down the line for me because of the surface. And being on another expansion team was no fun. When I got released [the following spring] I didn’t care. I came home and started something else.”

Rader’s release, however, closed a chapter on his life that he thoroughly enjoyed. He had, by that time, picked up the reputation as someone who was a free spirit. Most newspapers that wrote about him used the term “flake”. The stories of his exploits were and continue to be well-chronicled, whether it was Jim Bouton detailing the story of Rader pooping on a teammate’s birthday cake in his famous book Ball Four, Rader later telling Bouton that Little Leaguers should eat baseball cards to retain the information on the backs of the cards or the time he took umbrage with then Padres owner Ray Kroc, who also happened to own McDonald’s.

The Astros and Padres met in San Diego’s 1974 home-opener and Kroc’s team was putting on a less than stellar performance. Kroc, who hadn’t been the team’s owner for very long, went on the PA system at San Diego Stadium and told the crowd “Ladies and Gentlemen, I suffer with you. I have never seen such stupid ball playing in my life.”

“The writers went to the Houston clubhouse after the game and Doug’s comment was something along the lines of ‘He’s dealing with baseball players, not a bunch of short-order cooks,” said Port, who at the time was San Diego’s farm director. “So Ray staged a short-order cook’s night the next time the Astros came to town and the only seats Ray could find were right behind third base where Doug happened to be playing.

“The promotion was that if you wore a chef’s hat, you could get in for free but Doug one-upped the promotion. Doug came out of the dugout wearing a chef’s hat and an apron and had the lineup card in a frying pan. It was of great irritation to Mr. Kroc. All of a sudden the guys behind third base were fast friends with Doug and Mr. Kroc was beside himself. Thanks to Doug’s initiative, the whole thing backfired.”

As for being labeled a “flake”, Rader doesn’t mind.

“I imagine that is correct, I did some flaky, stupid things,” Rader said. “But it was because of youthful exuberance so I look for special dispensation. We had fun, though.”

TESTING THE MANAGERIAL METTLE

Kroc didn’t hold a grudge, though, because Rader wound up playing for him two years later. The Padres would also give him his first managing job in 1980 with the Hawaii Islanders, who were San Diego’s affiliate in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Rader managed three seasons in the PCL, making the playoffs twice, including taking Hawaii to the league finals in his first season.

“I had the greatest bunch of guys you could ever hope for in Hawaii,” Rader said. “I managed Tony Gwynn there [in 1982]. It was difficult in a lot of ways because you would go on the road for a couple of weeks and then come home and you would do that five times. It got to be grueling but as far as being in Hawaii, that was a real treat.”

The Texas Rangers took notice of Rader as well and hired him to be their manager in 1983. It was a position he would hold for just over two years. Rader guided Texas to a third-place finish in his first season but slipped to seventh in 1984. He was let go when the club got off to a 9-23 start in 1985.

Rader did some coaching and had a two-game interim managerial stint with the White Sox in 1986 before the Angels came calling following the 1988 season. By that time, Port had become the general manager in Anaheim and looked to an old friend for advice.

“I had met Doug in in 1976 when he was with the Padres and, among my other assignments, one of them was signing him to a contract annually,” Port said. “He represented himself and I look back fondly on that. It was kind of an adventure. He made it fun and we go the job done. Fast forward 10 or 11 years and the bottom line was really the recommendation of Preston Gomez, who had managed the Astros and was the Padres original manager.

“Preston had been there [with the Angels] for the better part of the 80s as the third-base coach and then as a special assistant to me. I was very close to Preston. He had never steered me wrong. My reliance was almost entirely on what Preston told me. We knew of Doug’s reputation for frivolity but we also knew he was a hard-nosed player and an extremely bright individual. I considered him to be an astute baseball man and hired him strongly on Preston’s recommendation.”

Rader guided the Angels to a 91-win season and a third-place finish in 1989. He was 80-82 and finished fourth in 1990. The Angels were 61-63 in the summer of 1991 when Rader was fired. Port had been fired earlier that year and said that he would not have fired Rader had he still be in charge, adding that he had confidence that Rader would “right the ship”.

The move, obviously, didn’t sit well with Rader.

“I think the Angels pulled the plug a little quick,” Rader said. “I would have preferred to keep going. I had lost a dear friend of mine, Deron Johnson, who was a coach, to cancer and things weren’t the same after that. It takes a lot out of you. Guys who manage a long time are built differently than I was. I look at the ease with which they navigate things where I fought so hard and I am astounded by it and admire them greatly. I was not cut from that cloth.

“It was to my benefit, though, when it ended because it was not good for me. I did and I didn’t enjoy managing. My problem was I thought I could will things to happen if we had a lack of talent or not. I really thought I could will it and coerce them into getting good results and it was exhausting. When I went to Anaheim, I had learned a lot and I was lucky to be around great guys and the management people were phenomenal. I enjoyed Anaheim… Texas not so much.”

Rader would go on to coach for several more years, including spending time with the Florida Marlins. He said he enjoyed his time with the Marlins, particularly getting to know then Florida manager Rene Lachemann, who Rader said is “one of the sweetest guys on earth”.

There were many who felt and still feel that way about Rader.

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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