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Mudville: June 22, 2024 9:27 am PDT

Mound Olympus

For a batter with a lifetime average of .244, Gus Triandos was involved in some notable events in baseball history.

In 1954, he was part of the largest and most complicated trade ever. According to Triandos’ page in Baseball Reference, here’s what happened:

November 17, 1954: Triandos was traded by the New York Yankees with players to be named later, Harry Byrd, Jim McDonald, Willy Miranda, Hal Smith, and Gene Woodling to the Baltimore Orioles for players to be named later, Billy Hunter, Don Larsen, and Bob Turley.

The New York Yankees sent Bill Miller (December 1, 1954), Kal Segrist (December 1, 1954), Don Leppert (December 1, 1954) and Theodore Del Guercio (minors) (December 1, 1954) to the Baltimore Orioles.

The Baltimore Orioles sent Mike Blyzka (December 1, 1954), Darrell Johnson (December 1, 1954), Jim Fridley (December 1, 1954), and Dick Kryhoski (December 1, 1954) to the New York Yankees to complete the trade.

It involved 17 players and took two weeks to complete.

Triandos led the Baltimore Orioles in home runs in the 1950s. From 1956 to 1959, he clubbed 95, and became only the fifth catcher in history to hit 30 or more home runs in a season when he belted that many (a career high) in 1958.

He also caught Jim Bunning’s perfect game on Father’s Day, 1964. Triandos remains one of only 12 players to hit home runs on three consecutive opening days (1957-60). Baseball author and statistician Bill James proclaimed him the slowest runner in baseball, but he did hit an inside the park home run at Fenway Park and scored standing up. He stole one base late in his career. He also banged out 17 home runs at Boston’s ballpark.

I think I first became aware of Triandos when someone asked me who caught Bunning’s perfect game for the Phillies. Clay Dalrymple was the team’s regular catcher, I knew, but that was too easy an answer, I thought. I told the questioner that I knew it was probably not Dalrymple, but didn’t know who did.

“Gus Triandos,” he said, smiling, happy he got one over on me. I made a note to remember Triandos for two reasons: in case anyone ever asked me who was the receiver for Bunning’s game; and he was the first player I had ever heard of who was of Greek extraction, which is my background. (NOTE: I played two years of baseball in a league organized by our township, but I had to give it up to work in our family’s business which was – what else? –a restaurant.)

Triandos was nicknamed “The Golden Greek” (a common moniker for any successful Greek at that time). The son of immigrant parents, Triandos’ father was a tanner (leather goods). He played third base for Mission High School in San Francisco, until his senior season, when he switched to catcher – probably because of his strong throwing arm.

At 17, Triandos signed with the New York Yankees for a $2,500 bonus. In his first season in the minors, he batted .323 with 18 home runs and 85 RBI in 297 at-bats. The following year, he hit .307 with 26 home runs and 100 RBI. Triandos missed the 1952 season because of military service. When he returned, he hit as high as .368 in the next few seasons. He hit with power and didn’t strike out that much. But all he had to show for his efforts with the Yankees were 55 at-bats in 1953 and one at-bat in 1954. Yogi Berra was the Yankees’ regular catcher, and Triandos wasn’t going to replace him.

Gus Triandos of the Phillies during spring training. April 1964.

Triandos also played first base, and the Yankees hadn’t had an All-Star first baseman since Lou Gehrig’s 1938 season. Players like Joe Collins and Johnny Mize were the primary first basemen during the time Triandos was in the Yankees’ system, and they put up respectable numbers, which apparently was enough for Casey Stengel.

After six years in the minors, the Yankees sent him to Baltimore, where he began to play every day.

I’ve written about how baseball was a way for immigrants – or, in many cases, the children of immigrants – to assimilate into American society (a trait I learned from history professor and baseball scholar John Rossi). Joe DiMaggio was a hero for Italian Americans, Hank Greenberg for Jewish Americans; baseball was dominated by Irish ballplayers in the late 19th century and onwards. But there aren’t that many major league baseball players of Greek-American extraction.

A site devoted to Greek-American ballplayers, Baseball Acropolis, reported the first Greek-American to reach the majors leagues was Alex Kampouris, who made his debut July 31, 1934 with the Cincinnati Reds. A second and third baseman, Kampouris played nine seasons with the Reds, the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Washington Senators, retiring with a lifetime batting average of .243.

Based on some personal observations, first-generation Greek boys were more likely to participate on their school’s wrestling team than on the baseball squad. They might have been inspired by Theodore Vetoyanis, who became a professional wrestler under the stage name George Zaharias, who was very successful in the 1930s, when wrestling was very popular. Zaharias gained further notoriety by marrying Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, an Olympic gold-medalist in track and field and later a top golfer, considered one of best women athletes of the 20th century.

Baltimore Orioles' Gus Triandos (11) at bat vs New York Yankees at Memorial Stadium. Baltimore, MD 9/3/1960 (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

At 6’3” and 215 pounds, Triandos was one of the tallest catchers in history when he began playing regularly with the Orioles in 1955. Many catchers during that era were on the small side: Berra was 5’7” and 170 pounds; Roy Campanella was 5’9” and 190 pounds; but Andy Seminick of the 1950 Philadelphia “Whiz Kid” Phillies might have started a trend: he was 5’11” and 197 pounds. Bigger catchers caught on with “giants” such as Milwaukee’s Del Crandall and later Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench, who were both 6’1”.

According to professor Rossi, Triandos ranked 10th among catchers in throwing out base runners; one year he threw out 66 percent of would-be stealers.

But even a strong arm couldn’t help him when it came to catching Hoyt Wilhelm and his knuckleball. In one game, Triandos had four passed balls while Wilhelm was pitching. Then again, Triandos caught the knuckler when Wilhelm tossed a no-hitter.

I found a list on the internet of about 50 Greek-American baseball players, most of whom you probably have never heard of. Rossi, the baseball scholar, took a look at the names and said, not one Hall of Famer on it. So I guess the next Greek superstar ballplayer will be the first superstar ballplayer.

You can make a case that the most successful Greek-American ballplayer was Nick Markakis, who is half German.

In 15 seasons, he batted .289, hit 189 home runs, and drove in 1,046 runs. He was selected for the 2018 All-Star game. Markakis was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the 2003 draft, making him the first of his ethnicity to be selected in the first round. (He was the seventh overall pick.) In his career, he won three Gold Gloves and set a record for the longest streak of errorless games by an AL outfielder for fewer than three teams.

In August, 2003, Markakis played for the Greek national baseball team in the European National Championships, winning a silver medal. He also played for the Greek baseball team in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Rules were changed to allow players with some Greek ancestry to compete for the Greek team. (Similarly, Mike Piazza was manager for Italy’s team in the World Baseball Classic.)

Nick Markakis against the Chicago White Sox July 30, 2006 in Baltimore. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Olympic squad was largely assembled by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos (also of Greek heritage) and his son Louis. Markakis led the Greek Olympic team with a .346 average in the games. And, according to the Washington Post, “for good measure, Markakis, a former pitching star, added a couple of stellar innings in relief, where he was clocked throwing a 94-mph fastball.”

He reached the majors in 2006, and had several solid seasons for Baltimore before entering free agency and signing with the Atlanta Braves. Starting in 2015, he played his last five seasons with the Braves.

Another successful Greek-American was Eric Karros, who batted .268 with 284 home runs and 1,027 RBIs. As a first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Karros slammed 154 home runs from 1995 to 2,000.

The most accomplished pitcher of Greek ancestry was Milt Pappas, whose record was 204-164 with an ERA of 3.40. A two-time All-Star, Pappas won 17 games in consecutive seasons for the Chicago Cubs. (Pappas and Triandos became the first Greek battery when they played together for the first time on August 17, 1957 in a game against the Yankees.)

Alex Grammas became the first man of Greek extraction to manage an MLB team, when he took over the Milwaukee Brewers for the 1976 season.

The first Greek-born player to play in the major leagues was Al Campanis, who was a late September call-up and played seven games at second base in 1943 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He later became the team’s general manager, but lost his job in 1987 when he made racially biased remarks on an episode of ABC’s Nightline. He was relieved of his job within 48 hours of the broadcast.

One Greek-American baseball player initially gained notoriety (and at times still does) for playing college football. Boston-area native Harry Agganis played on the gridiron at Boston University, where he was the school’s first All-American player. He was drafted in the first round by the NFL’s Cleveland franchise, and legendary coach Paul Brown offered Agganis a bonus of $25,000, a huge sum for the time. But Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey offered him $35,000 to sign with his club, probably knowing that while Agganis was an outstanding football player, his first love was baseball.

Ted Williams (left) and Harry Agganis of the Boston Red Sox, circa 1954.

In his only season in the minors, Agganis batted .281 with 23 home runs and 108 RBIs. He joined the Red Sox in 1954, playing first base, batting .251 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs.

In 1955, he got off to a fine start, hitting .313 and was batting cleanup behind Ted Williams. Then he became gravely ill and was hospitalized for two weeks with pneumonia. He rejoined the Red Sox for a single week before being hospitalized again with a viral infection. After showing some signs of recovery, he died of a pulmonary embolism on June 27.

Williams, it was said, told people he only cried twice in his life: when his mother passed away, and when Agganis died.

The Agganis Foundation was started in 1955 by the Red Sox owner Yawkey, the Lynn (MA) Daily Item newspaper (from where Agganis was born and raised), and Harold O. Zimman, a mentor of Agganis’. It offers scholarships for athletic and academic excellence. Boston Red Sox star Fred Lynn received a scholarship from the foundation.

Also in 1955, the Fraternal Order of American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association created an award named after Agganis to be presented to Greek-American athletes, coaches, officials, etc. Triandos received the award in 1959; Markakis received it in 2009. The last baseball player to receive it was Cody Bellinger in 2019. (Bellinger’s great-grandparents on his mother’s side were Greek. His father also played in the majors, so that makes them the first multi-generation Hellenic family.)

Agganis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974. Gaffney Street, near the former site of Braves Field in Boston, was renamed Harry Agganis Way in 1995.  Agganis Arena is a multipurpose sports facility at Boston University. In 2004, a life-sized statue of Agganis was unveiled at the University.

A mile west of Kenmore Square is Agganis Arena, one of the newest arrivals on the Boston sports scene. The home of Boston University's NCAA championship men's hockey team is named after Harry Agganis, BU football and baseball great, who was also a Red Sox first baseman until his death at age 26. In front of the arena is a statue of the ``Golden Greek.'' (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 2010, a documentary was made about Agganis, narrated by Oscar-winning actress and fellow Greek-American Olympia Dukakis, who grew up in the Boston area at the same time as Agganis. Like Triandos, Agganis was nicknamed “The Golden Greek,” but according to Professor Rossi, Agganis was quite handsome (unlike Triandos) and deserved the appellation.

Some of the members on that list of Greek baseball players don’t have Greek-sounding names because they’re half Greek (on their mother’s side). Former Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez is Constantino Martinez, because he’s partially Greek. Also on that list is George Theodore, whose middle name is Basil, which is a Greek name.

So now I – and I hope you – know something about Greek-American ballplayers. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know the answer to who caught Bunning’s perfect game; otherwise I might never have learned about Gus Triandos, the Golden Greek.

Postscript: On September 20, Ralph Evans, a dedicated and knowledgeable member of the Boston Braves Historical Association, passed away. Ralph gave tours of what remained of Braves Field, the home of the club when it was in Boston. It was later the football home of the Boston College Eagles. Ralph was also a long-time athletic trainer and a devout man who volunteered with his church. He became a friend and we shared many good conversations, on topics ranging from spirituality to Mad Magazine. Baseball has lost a valuable link to its past.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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