Sunday, August 9, 2015

Meet the Brewers #7: Steve Hovley

For whatever reason, when I was putting together my list of "Brewers in Order," I jumped Hovley over Max Alvis. Alvis was the third baseman who fielded the final out of the top of the second inning, while Hovley didn't see the ball until he came to bat in the bottom of the second inning. But, I've done the research on Hovley already, so I'm not changing gears now.

I first read the book Ball Four when I was about 12 years old, I think. Maybe a little bit older, maybe a little bit younger. I know a lot of the references in the book went right over my head -- particularly the references to amphetamines, about which I had no clue what they were.  Perhaps I was a precocious child, because I had a really good idea what beaver shooting at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, meant.

My big regret in life is that I didn't try to get on the roof to check the views when I stayed at the Shoreham in 2013.

In any event, the description that Jim Bouton provided of one player always stuck with me: Steve Hovley.  Hovley had gotten a haircut that caused his hair to be tightly cropped. This led to the nickname of "Tennis Ball Head."  It's become a Pavlovian response for me -- if I hear the name Steve Hovley, I think Tennis Ball Head. In fact, when I hear someone mention the book, I think of Hovley immediately.

1970 McDonald's Brewers
Hovley is the answer to a great Brewers trivia question: he was the first Milwaukee Brewer to get a base hit in the regular season. In fact, during that opening day 12-0 debacle against Andy Messersmith and the California Angels, Hovley was the only ray of light on the Brewers team. Hovley went 3-for-3 with a walk. Other than that, the Brewers finished the game 1-for-28 with 3 walks (the only other hit belong to Tommy Harper).  He was the Brewers right fielder on the day.

Perhaps Hovley hit as well as he did because he still harbored some sort of strange resentment toward the Angels for allowing him to be available in the expansion draft in 1968.  Hovley is a California native who attended Stanford University.  The Angels drafted him in the 35th round of the 1966 draft; by the time he was selected, five teams had already stopped making picks.

The Pilots made him the 35th pick in the 1968 Expansion Draft, making him the 18th pick by the Pilots.  He split 1969 between Triple-A Rochester in the Orioles system because the Pilots did not yet have a Triple-A farm club for him to play for. As a side note, when Bouton was sent down to the minor leagues, he joined Vancouver which was not affiliated but had a number of Pilots players on the team.  Still, Hovley got called up in mid-June in 1969 and stayed with the team.

When the club moved to Milwaukee, Hovley was seen as a bright young hope. One rah-rah meet-the-team filler piece titled "Young Brewers Promising" in the April 16, 1970 edition of the Milwaukee Journal named Hovley, along with outfielder Danny Walton and shortstop Ted Kubiak as three young ballplayers "who should become prime favorites with Wisconsin fans."

The statements about Hovley in that puff piece was that he "rarely is fooled by a pitch and appears to be one of those rare left handed hitters who hits left handed pitching as well, if not better, than right handers. Moreover, he is at least a fair outfielder and should improve."  Reality check: he batted .173/.232/.231 against LHP and .262/.332/.301 against RHP in 1970; in 1969, it was .184/.206/.224 against LHP and .316/.390/.424 against RHP.  So, no, he was not one of those rare left handed hitters.

Nor did Hovley become a "prime favorite" with Wisconsin fans. He didn't stick around long enough for that to happen.  On June 11, 1970, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Tito Francona -- taking away Russ Snyder's "Oldest Brewer" tag in the process -- and Al Downing.  The "why" behind this trade is both fascinating and ridiculous.

1994 MGD Milwaukee Brewers Commemorative Set
The problems started on June 4. The Brewers had a day game scheduled with Cleveland in Milwaukee, and Hovley showed up almost a half hour late for the game. Hovley explained to Manager Dave Bristol that he overslept because his alarm clock didn't go off.  Bristol responded that Hovley would have to pay a fine "like anyone else."  Hovley refused.  From there, the account sounds like a playground disagreement -- something to the effect of, "yes you will pay it!" "No, I won't!" "Yeah you will" etc.

Marvin Milkes, the Brewers General Manager, was called in to get involved. Basically, we have the equivalent of Hovley getting sent to the principal here.  The quote in the news story from Milkes comes across as incredibly pompous to me:
We exchanged philosophies. Did he get through to me? I'd have to say not. Did I get through to him? Again I'd have to say no. I suppose he represents the new breed of athlete. Actually he's a very fine boy but there are certain baseball philosophies he does not believe in. Discipline is apparently one of them. Without discipline you have no organization and without organization I don't see how you can possibly have a ball club.
Milkes said he would trade Hovley and told Hovley that he would make an announcement to the press about it.  Hovley responded, "You go right ahead. I know the club has to make an announcement of some kind, but I don't read the newspapers anyway."

The response that Milkes gave to the press about why a trade would happen was just as arrogant:
I don't think he will [change his mind]. I think the boy does want to play baseball and I'll take the responsibility for putting him on the trading block. I'm not banishing anyone to the minors. I don't want the minor leagues to seem like a penal colony because I'm raising young people in the minor leagues for this organization.
I picture Marvin next to a baby Brewers player force-feeding the player a bottle like some sort of demented baby sitter.  Of course, the story closes by comparing Hovley to Jim Bouton -- with Milkes saying that Hovley and Bouton have a "definite kinship" of philosophy.

At that point in time, I'm siding with the players.

Anyway, long story about one single trade, but I found it fascinating.  Hovley's major league career did not last very long. He played parts of two years with the Oakland A's after the trade. The A's decided to leave him off their 40-man roster after the 1971 season, and the Kansas City Royals picked him up. After two seasons there, Hovley caught on with the Baltimore Orioles organization. At the age of 29, he found himself back in Rochester. This time, his .203/.338/.289 line in 154 plate appearances earned him a ticket back to California -- on his own dime, as his career ended.

Hovley worked back in Ojai and Oak View in California as a plumber and, from all appearances, he has retired from plumbing but still lives in California.

I think there are perhaps three or four items showing Hovley as a Brewer. There are the two I have here and I know that Hovley appears as a Brewer in the 1970 Mike Andersen postcard set. I don't know if Hovley is a Brewer or a Pilot (or an Athletic) in the 1970 MLB PhotoStamps set.  So, if you have that set, let me know the team on which he is pictured.


  1. I was a little younger than that when I read Ball Four, and before that Sparky Lyle's Bronx Zoo. I really thought they went in the woods after the game to hunt beavers.

  2. I need to read Ball Four again. Tennis Ball Head seems like an accurate name for Hovley!