David Adam

The Summer of Kirby: Hall of Famer came to Quincy as unknown in 1981

Kirby Puckett rounds second base during his rookie season with the Minnesota Twins in 1984. Three years earlier, he was an unheard-of outfielder from inner-city Chicago playing summer baseball with the Quincy Rivermen. | AP File Photo
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 31, 2017 10:30 am Updated: Jul. 31, 2017 10:57 am

QUINCY -- Tom Niemann will never forget the first time he saw Kirby Puckett play baseball.

They were teammates for the summer of 1981 with the Quincy Rivermen, which was a member of the four-team Central Illinois Collegiate League. Niemann batted sixth in the order, one spot behind Puckett, for the season opener with the Danville Roosters.

It was an inauspicious debut. Puckett went hitless in five at-bats.

"He struck out three times on changeups," Niemann said with a laugh. "I think it made everybody wonder what the coach was doing.

"But I think it was the last time I remember him striking out all year."

That's not exactly true. Puckett had 30 strikeouts that summer. But as time has passed, many stories about Puckett have been embellished. One story has been told that Puckett hit two home runs in his next game after his 0-for-5 start. Actually, he finished a four-game season-opening series at Danville with four hits in 17 at-bats, and he hit his first homer of the year in the last game.

He then went on to dominate the league. Puckett hit a team-high .390 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs, and he caught the eye of a Minnesota Twins scout at a CICL game that summer. The Twins eventually drafted and signed Puckett, who went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Niemann, a catcher, went on to have a brief professional career and now owns a construction business based in Canton, Mo. He said it didn't take long that summer to know Puckett could be special.

"I didn't think he'd be a superstar, but you had a pretty good idea he was going to be a pro," Niemann said.

New coach replaces Finigan

Puckett was virtually unheard of when he arrived in Quincy that summer.

He was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, and he didn't play organized baseball until he was in high school. Puckett was a 5-foot-8, 165-pound third baseman when he graduated from Calumet High School in Chicago two years earlier, and he had taken a year off from school to work, installing carpets in Thunderbirds at a Ford factory to support his family.

Bradley coach Dewey Kalmer was a graduate of Quincy College and a former coach there as well. He had seen Puckett at a Kansas City Royals tryout and offered him a scholarship. Puckett batted .378 with eight home runs as a freshman, and Kalmer had moved him from the infield to the outfield.

Just before Puckett made the trip to Quincy, his father, William, had died. Puckett had made plans to stay closer to home his sophomore season and attend Triton Junior College in River Grove, nearer his home in Chicago.

His coach for the summer in Quincy was supposed to be Jim Finigan, a former major league infielder who was the baseball coach at Quincy College. However, Finigan died of a heart attack on May 18, only days before the season was scheduled to begin.

His replacement was 26-year-old Jerry Rashid, a coach at Princeville High School near Peoria.

"I had worked some of Dewey's camps and told him about some players," Rashid said. "He called me right after (Finigan) had passed and said, ‘I want you to do something. I want you to coach the Quincy Rivermen.' I said I didn't know if I was ready, but he said, ‘You'll do fine.'

"Coach Kalmer told me everything he knew about Kirby, and he said, ‘He's going to be a great player. He's going to have some times he doesn't look good, and other times, he looks remarkable.'

"Once he got locked in with Quincy, he was remarkable."

Twins scout stumbles on to Puckett

Puckett had one hit in his first nine at-bats before going on a tear that seemingly never stopped. He had 17 hits in his next 39 at-bats (.436 average), and he quickly moved into the No. 3 spot in the batting order for the Rivermen.

Niemann said Puckett could do more than just hit.

"He had a cannon from right field," he said. "Runners would go on him, and he would just make it easy to tag them out. And he could really run. That's one thing he really didn't do much when he got to the majors."

Rashid agreed with Puckett's talent, but he also noted his work ethic.

"You know how hot it can get in Quincy. The mosquitos are large enough to saddle," he said. "Well, the guys on the team were supposed to have jobs, but Kirby quit his job. He was painting rooms (in Quincy's public schools), but it just didn't suit him. So he'd come to my room (the players lived in the college dorms), and he'd knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, Skip, can you pitch batting practice to me?' So I'd throw batting practice in that ungodly heat, and I threw and threw and threw. He just hit them out and hit them out.

"He was just really dedicated to baseball, and he showed it every day."

The Major League Baseball season was halted on June 12 that season when the players' union voted to strike, and the work stoppage lasted 54 days. Big league teams were trying to save money during the strike, so scouts were being pulled off the road.

Twins assistant farm director Jim Rantz now had extra time on his hands, so he went to a game involving his son, Mike, who pitched for the Peoria Pacers, the best team in the CICL that season.

"I wasn't on assignment," Rantz was quoted as saying in Baseball America's Ultimate Draft Book, which was published in 2016. "But I guess when you're at a ball game, you're always working."

Rantz said he was one of a couple of dozen fans in attendance, and it wasn't long before his attention shifted to a player on the visiting team.

"Lo and behold, they had this guy playing for Quincy," Rantz said in the book. "He went 3 for 4, hit a home run, threw someone out at the plate and stole a couple of bases. I didn't know it at the time, but he was leading the league in hitting, too."

The player was Puckett.

"What impressed me the most was the way he carried himself on and off the field," Rantz said in the book. "It was like 90 degrees or more, and everyone else was dragging around. He was the first one on the field and the first one off. You could see he enjoyed playing. He was having fun."

‘Always had a smile on his face'

Puckett was starting to turn heads where ever he played, and he was doing it with a joy that continued throughout his baseball career.

"He was one of the happiest guys you ever met," Rashid said. "He was always smiling, always joking, always upbeat. His personality just drew people to him.

"His personality was magnetic. He made everyone feel good. You never felt like there was a bad day when you were around baseball. With Kirby around, it always was a good day."

"Soon as you knew him, you loved him," Niemann said. "He always had a smile on his face."

All of the smiles, however, couldn't mask the problems of a horrific pitching staff. The Rivermen had a team ERA of 6.30 and led the league with 219 walks, an average of nearly seven per game. Despite a team batting average of .305, the team had a losing record.

Also, the team played at what was then known as Q-Stadium, which was falling into disrepair.

"One thing I remember was the lights and how bad they were," Niemann said. "A popup would go up, and you'd just lose it, and it might land 20 feet from where you thought it was. They weren't high enough and not good enough."

The Rivermen went 7-15 during the first half of the season, then lost nine of their first 11 games in the second half. The team won seven of its last nine games to place second in the second half, and it finished with an overall record of 16-26.

So the team simply ignored the losses and made more of its own fun off the field and on the road.

"Kirby was from inner-city Chicago, so some of the guys took him snipe hunting," Rashid said of a prank pulled on people unfamiliar with the outdoors. "One day he went fishing on the Mississippi, and the guys went to Kmart to buy equipment. He said he wanted the biggest bobber. I asked him why, and he said, ‘I want to make sure I see it when it goes down.'

"Then I remember driving one of the vans to Galesburg one time, and the air conditioning didn't work. It was about 95 outside, and the guys were so hot that they just opened the side door of the van just to get some air circulating.

"The travel was brutal. The lights were horrible. But I wouldn't trade a second of it."

On the way to Cooperstown

Puckett played in every game and finished the season second in the league in batting average, first in slugging percentage and hits, second in triples and fourth in home runs.

Rashid says he'll never forget the last day Puckett was in Quincy.

"The kids were all going home, and Kirby was getting ready to take the bus back to Chicago," he said. "He says to me, ‘Where's JO (John Ortwerth, the Quincy College athletic director who also organized the Rivermen)?' I said I didn't know, and Kirby hands me 20 bucks. And I said, ‘What's this?'

"Kirby said that JO gave it to him when he first got here. He said, ‘I came here owing nobody nothing, and I'm walking out owing nobody nothing.' "

Tranferring to Triton made Puckett eligible for Major League Baseball's draft in January 1982. The talent pool typically consisted of high schoolers who had graduated early, all junior-college players and four-year college players who had turned 21 or completed their sophomore seasons. Players selected in the draft were referred to as "draft and follows."

On Rantz' recommendation, the Twins selected Puckett with the third pick. The Twins offered him $6,000, so he decided to stay at Triton for the spring semester. He led the Trojans to the NJCAA World Series by hitting .472 with 16 homers and 78 RBIs, along with 28 doubles, eight triples and 42 stolen bases. He was named the national juco player of the year.

He was no longer an unknown.

"Thank God we had the rights to him," Rantz said to Baseball America.

With the June draft coming up, the Twins upped their offer to $20,000. Puckett signed. Less than three years after his summer in Quincy, he was making his debut for the Twins.

He eventually played 12 seasons for the Twins and became the franchise's leader in career hits, runs, doubles and total bases. At the time of his retirement, his .318 batting average was the highest by a right-handed hitter in the American League since Joe DiMaggio.

His career suddenly ended in 1996 when he awoke with blurred vision, later diagnosed as glaucoma. Puckett was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility.

Puckett died in 2006, a day after suffering a stroke.

Rashid was among those who made the trip to Cooperstown.

"We kept in touch for a long time," he said. "I got to sit with him in a party box when he was inducted into the Bradley Hall of Fame, and I got to talk to him before he was inducted at Cooperstown. It was so exciting. He remembered his time in Quincy, and he remembered Dewey Kalmer.

"The neat part was that he's one of those guys I learned from. He made me feel really important."

Rashid, now 62, just finished his 40th year in coaching. His teams at Illinois Valley Central High School in Chillicothe made three state tournament trips, winning the title in 2006. He recently accepted the position to coach at Eureka College this year.

Asked if Puckett was the best player he ever coached, Rashid had a simple, yet pointed, reply.

"Absolutely," he said. "Without question."

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