"I was doing it for the fun of it. I wasn’t getting paid. I just loved it."
Those who are lucky enough to play Major League Baseball are in a very small fraternity. When you start breaking things down even further, one gains an appreciation for the near mathematic impossibility of finding yourself on the historic end of some of baseball’s curiosities.
For example, only 22,563 people in the history of everything can say they were Major League Baseball players. There are 30 active franchises in the sport, which means that only 30 out of those 22,563 can say they recorded the first win for any of those teams.
Jay Hook, the pitcher who recorded the first ever win in Mets history, is one of them and he joins us for a special two-part Spitballin’.
This week, the 85-year-old Hook remembers playing baseball as a kid growing up in the 1940s and 50s as well as getting his start as a Major Leaguer with the Reds at the age of 20. Next week, we’ll cover Hook’s time with the Mets and his place in baseball history.
There’s a belief in the world of sports recruiting that it doesn’t matter where you play, scouts will find good talent. Hook proved that adage was as true 70 years ago as it is today. The short story of it is that while dominating town baseball leagues in the mid-1950s, Hook was asked to throw batting practice for a Reds prospect. That led to a chance to throw in front of Reds brass the next time they came to Milwaukee, which led to Hook actually becoming a Cincinnati Red days later at the age of 20, skipping the minor leagues altogether as a Bonus Baby.
Hook’s tenure with the Reds coincided with their resurgence as the 1950s came to a close. When Hook joined the rotation for good in 1959, the Reds were led by young stars Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson and had the guidance of veterans Don Newcombe, Gus Bell and Joe Nuxhall. The team had won just three pennants since the team’s inception in 1882, but in 1961 they surprised by winning the National League by four games. Before that, the Reds had finished in 5th place or lower in 13 of the previous 16 years, including the year before when they logged a 67-87 record.
Hook played five seasons in Cincinnati before going over to the newly formed New York Mets in the expansion draft the day after the 1961 World Series. It was in New York where he would nail down his place in baseball history.
After the Mets started off the 1962 season by losing their first nine games, they faced the powerhouse Pirates who had started the season 10-0. Hook pitched a complete game, five hitter as the Mets topped Roberto Clemente and the Pirates 9-1 for the team’s first ever win.
Incidentally, Hook almost won his previous start when he pitched eight innings against the Houston Colt .45s and allowed just two runs. Bobby Shantz matched Hook though and the Colts eventually pulled out the extra inning win. An interesting postscript is that Shantz is also a member of the same small fraternity that Hook is in. He was the first pitcher to record a win in Houston Colt .45s history.
We’ll get into Hook’s Mets career next week, but for now, let revisit his childhood and time spent with the Reds as we go Spitballin´ with Jay Hook.
Tebbetts said, “Hook, you’re too young to pitch a no-hitter, so I’m taking you out.” I hadn’t given up a hit.
It’s such a huge honor to talk with you, Mr. Hook. I can’t wait to hear your stories. Let’s start out at the beginning. How did you get your start playing baseball as a kid?
I grew up in a small town called Grayslake, Illinois and my dad had a drug store there. It’s about half way between Chicago and Milwaukee. Baseball was a big deal in that town. There were different teams and of course the schools had a team. I played baseball ever since I was a young kid. I threw righty, but batted lefty. That came from when I was about four years old. My dad knew everyone in town and one day this guy walked by as my dad was pitching to me. He was a college coach in Central Illinois. My dad’s name was Cecil and this guy said, “Hey Ceece, make sure that kid bats lefty, he’ll get two steps closer to first base.” I tried it and always ended up batting left-handed.
As you got older, you were an outstanding all-around athlete. Could you talk about how you developed as an athlete in high school?
We had a wonderful baseball coach in high school named Paul Subject. A lot of my high school teachers were guys were veterans who had come back from World War II. He had been a bombardier on a B-17 and was just terrific. When I speak to people who teach high school I tell them that they’re really important in a kid’s life. They can really make a difference. I think about Paul Subject, who taught Math and coached baseball, and he was so encouraging. I developed into a good athlete and was honorable mention All-State in football, basketball and baseball. Those coaches were all war veterans and tough guys, but they were all so great with young people.
Did you have any favorite baseball teams or players you rooted for as a youngster?
My father was a White Sox fan and my uncle Everette was a Cubs fan. My uncle ran a lumber yard in town and I worked for him. I didn’t need to go through weight lifting because I was hauling cement, sheet rock and insulation. I loaded it on and off of trucks and railroad cars. There was an older guy who worked there by the name of John Olson. He loved baseball and the Boston Braves. That was before they moved from Boston to Milwaukee. Every day in the saw mill, there was a game on. At the end of the work day, John would ask us to have a game of catch. John’s middle finger was broken and he grip a baseball in a way to throw terrific curve balls. He was just another guy in my life who contributed to my love of baseball.
What was it like playing baseball growing up in the 1950s as you started to get a little older?
In the summers, I would get engineering jobs because that’s what I was studying. One summer, I worked in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The Braves had just moved to Milwaukee, so everyone was interested in baseball. I played baseball for a bar and we would have 200 people come to the games on Sundays. It was just local guys and guys out of college. The next summer, I worked in Milwaukee for a liquor distributorship company. The owner’s son played baseball and was a catcher at Northwestern University. That’s how I ended up there on a basketball scholarship. His father sponsored this baseball team and I played for them. I played ball from early March into September. I was doing it for the fun of it. I wasn’t getting paid. I just loved it.
From there, it wasn’t long before you ended up in the Major Leagues with the Reds. They signed you as a 20-year-old in 1957 and you went right to the Majors as a Bonus Baby. How did the Reds find you?
I was striking out a lot of guys playing those summers. Sometimes, 15, 18 or 20 guys in a game because I threw hard and had a good curve. The guy who had the liquor distributorship in Milwaukee was like a second father to me. After I had won a bunch of games for his team, he would call scouts when I was going to pitch. I didn’t know what an agent was at that time, but he pretty much acted like my agent. A Reds scout called me one day and said he was thinking of signing a guy and they wanted me to throw batting practice to him in Southern Wisconsin. I said I’d be happy to, so I went down to this field.
I threw batting practice to this guy and he didn’t hit the ball very well. I went back to work and I got a call from the scout again a few weeks later. He said the Reds were coming in to Milwaukee County Stadium to play the Braves and he asked me to come out and throw before the game. I thought, “Wow, terrific!” Of course I said yes.
That’s pretty amazing. So how did you make the jump directly from there to the Major Leagues?
I had never been in a clubhouse before, so when I went there to pitch it was a big thrill. I was like 19 or 20. I threw on the sidelines at first and a number of coaches and scouts came to watch me throw on the sidelines. After I was done, I went and took a shower and the scout said, “Jay, would you fly back to Cincinnati on the company plane tonight and throw batting practice to the Cincinnati Reds tomorrow afternoon?” I said, “Gee, I don’t know if I can. I have a job!”
I remember it was a Thursday night and I called my boss and he told me to go ahead and do it. He said it was a great opportunity for me. So, I flew to Cincinnati and the next day, I went to the ballpark and threw batting practice to guys like Ted Kluszewski, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Gus Bell and all those guys. They didn’t hit the ball very well and I thought later, why would they? I’m a guy that was a little wild and threw hard and was basically doing management a favor. After I took a shower, Gabe Paul, the general manager, asked me if my father could fly to Cincinnati tomorrow. I wasn’t 21, so I couldn’t sign a contract. My father had to sign, so he flew down and did.
The minimum salary was $7,000 and they offered me a bonus too. I would have signed for an old glove! My dad looked at the contract and said it would be great. Before we left Gabe’s office, he said it was a two year contract and they were subtracting my salary from the signing bonus. If I had an agent, they would have said no to that. One was salary and the other was a bonus. It cost me $14,000, but it was still great to sign the contract. It was more money than I ever thought I’d make coming from where I came from.
What was it like to go straight to the Major Leagues?
Back then, if you signed a bonus for more than $25,000, you had to go right to the Major Leagues. I didn’t sign it right then, but they told me they’d fly up to my home town in a week or two and have a ceremony. They did that and I had that baseball coach who helped me with the Reds. He was like another father to me. My dad was there and our family. I didn’t know that at the time, but I had to skip the minors and go right to the Reds. The month of September I spent travelling with the Reds. The first time they put me in to pitch in the Major Leagues, we were in St. Louis and I had to pitch to Stan Musial. Then we went to Milwaukee to end the season against the Braves. The Braves had clinched the pennant and were the best team in the National League. Before the game Reds manager, Birdie Tebbetts, said, “Hook, you’re starting today.”
It was the last game of the season. I’m thinking, “Oh man, I have to pitch against Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and all those guys.” I pitched five innings and came off the mound after the fifth. Tebbetts said, “Hook, you’re too young to pitch a no-hitter, so I’m taking you out.” I hadn’t given up a hit. I did that in County Stadium in Milwaukee and all the guys I played with that summer came out to the game. Tebbetts said that halfway in jest. There were a couple of other young guys he wanted to see too.
You mentioned you were only 20 and looking at the Reds roster around that time, they had a number of real good young stars who were under the age of 23. Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Curt Flood and guys like that. What was it like playing with the guys who were already there?
They had made their mark already by the time I got there. They were all great. There was one guy who made his mark with me that first year and that was their catcher Smokey Burgess. He was so kind to me. He and his wife had me over for dinner and they treated me decent. It was a good experience. I can’t say anything negative about that month I spent with them my first season.
(From l-r:) Jim Maloney, Claude Osteen, Jay Hook and Jim O'Toole.
That’s great to hear. You stayed with the Reds for five years and were a part of their World Series team in 1961, although you didn’t pitch. What was that season like?
I had a decent year in 1960. I lost a number of games by one run. In 1961, I had some bad luck. If anyone would ask me to come speak at an event, I would always say yes. It didn’t matter if they paid me or didn’t pay me. The old principal from our grade school in the little town I came from in Illinois had moved to Brea, California. Every time we came in to play the Dodgers, he would call me and I’d go to their house. One day, he asked me to come speak at his school and I said I would be happy to. I went to the school and they were having an epidemic of the mumps. We had gotten back to Cincinnati and then to Philadelphia and on the airplane, my jaw just swelled all up. I really had a bad case of the mumps. I was home for two weeks without doing anything and I was just wiped out. It was too bad, but I missed the rest of the season and World Series, although I got to be there to watch.
Most of us had never been to New York before that World Series. The Yankees had a wonderful team and they were decent guys too. We had a great team too and the guys were a lot of fun. One time we were signing baseballs and we were sitting in a row at these tables. I was sitting next to Gus Bell. Jay Hook has just seven letters and Gus Bell has seven letters. Next to Gus was Ted Kluszewski. All the balls got stacked up next to Ted because his name was so long. We had a laugh about that. That struck me as so funny. We had a great time.
Your Reds tenure ended when you went to the Mets as they were forming their inaugural team. What were the circumstances around that?
My wife and I were driving home from the World Series in my little Austin-Healey sports car. My in-laws had come to see me and taken the kids, so it was just me and her. I was listening to the radio and they announced that I got sold to the Mets. I didn’t get any kind of official announcement; I heard it on the radio. I got back to Chicago and the Mets called. They asked me to go to a hospital and get me checked out to see what kind of lasting effect the mumps might have had. That’s how I became a New York Met.
Wow, that’s some way to find out! That’s a good place to leave off, too. Let’s pick things up again next week when we can talk about your time with the Mets, winning the first game in franchise history and your place in Major League Baseball history.