Monday, July 9, 2012

Ken Guettler: 62 in '56

Ken Guettler
 (from Out of the Park
Baseball web site)
      The summer of '56 -- 56 years ago -- was the most memorable summer of Shreveport baseball, for one singular achievement.
      That year -- my family's first year in Shreveport, in the United States -- was the year Ken Guettler hit 62 home runs for the Shreveport Sports. In all the years of professional baseball in the city, there was no story to top that.
       So why write about it now? Because, 32 years later, it led to one of my favorite stories in my sportswriting career. More on that in a moment.
       The Shreveport Sports and Ken Guettler -- not the New York Yankees and Mickey Mantle -- were the biggest reason I fell in love with baseball. That year, 1956, was Mantle's greatest season -- the year he first had people talking about him breaking Babe Ruth's immortal record of 60 home runs in a season.
        But Mantle "settled" for 52 home runs that year. Guettler surpassed the magic number.
        Guettler's story was -- is -- remarkable. He never played in the big leagues. In fact, he never came close.
        But he was no one-year wonder. Eight times he led his league in home runs; no minor-league player ever topped that. He had been a legend at Portsmouth, Va., in the early 1950s; he became player-manager there, and the only reason he became available to be purchased by Sports owner Bonneau Peters before the '56 season was that the Piedmont League had folded.
        He wasn't that big (5-11, 190), he didn't run all that well, and he was an outfielder, but he couldn't throw well. Because of an ice hockey injury as a boy, he couldn't straighten out his right arm; it was shorter than his left.
        He wore thick glasses, really couldn't see well without them. In fact, those glasses mysteriously disappeared before a series in Houston, infuriating Sports manager Mel McGaha, who flat-out accused the Houston club of sabotage.
A familiar sight in 1956: Ken Guettler, right, congratulated
 by Shreveport Sports manager Mel McGaha after
 one of his 62 home runs (Texas League photo).
        But he could hit the ball, and hit it a long way. And in '56, at age 29, in his 12th minor-league season, he was magic. He got to be known as Kenneth the Menneth. Writers of the day described him as "the little guy with muscles."
        He hit a home run for Shreveport on Opening Day, then three more the next day. From May 7 to May 29, he hit 18 home runs; he had 25 by the end of May.
        They kept going out of Shreveport's Texas League Park and other TL parks through June and July and, on Aug. 12, with his sixth consecutive game with a home run, Guettler hit No. 56, breaking the league record of 55 that had been held by Clarence "Big Boy" Kraft of Fort Worth since 1924.
        There were 31 games remaining in the season. Imagine that.
        By the time, Guettler was done, he led the TL in homers, RBIs (143) and runs (115), batted .293 ... and -- surprise -- was named the league's Most Valuable Player.
          But here's a couple of strange twists: (1) He didn't even lead the minor leagues in home runs that year ... Dick Stuart -- later to be known in the majors as Dr. Strangleglove (he was awful defensively) -- hit 66 for Lincoln (Neb.) in the Western League; and (2) his great year didn't help the Sports much (they finished seventh in the TL, 16 games below .500, 27 games out of first) and seventh in attendance (an average of 1,115 fans per home game).
         And it was his last great season. Mr. Peters, the Sports' owner who was an independent operator (meaning the team didn't have a major-league tie-in; he bought and sold players on his own), sold him to the Milwaukee Braves' organization.
         But in 1957, Guettler was outmatched in Triple-A (at Wichita in the American Association), then hurt a shoulder diving for a fly ball, wound up back in Double-A (Atlanta, Southern Association) and back in the Texas League the next year (in Dallas). But he wasn't the player he had been. Three seasons -- and only 12 home runs -- after Shreveport, he was done.
         Maybe these days, with 14 more teams than existed then (with 350 more major-league players) and, with the designated hitter, he might've made the big leagues. As it was, he was simply Shreveport's Greatest Player.
           I really don't remember him that well; I was too young and too new to baseball that summer. But I certainly remembered the name, and the feat, and I'm sure I saw him hit a few home runs.
          My friend Jon Pat Stephenson remembers that Guettler "hit high fly balls, very high, and they just carried and dropped over the fence."
          Texas League Park, later to be called SPAR Stadium, was mostly a hitters' park, but home runs weren't that cheap. In the 1950s, the outfield fence was double-decked, so it had to be about 20 feet high -- which meant not many line drives would go out. Guettler had the right stroke, though.
          "He hit very few cheap home runs," Mel McGaha, the player-manager that year, told Rick Woodson for a Shreveport Journal column in the 1970s. "He hit the kind of fly balls that looked like the outfielders would catch. But pretty soon the outfielder would have his back against the fence and the ball would keep going."
          His legend would keep going, too.
          He retired from baseball after the '59 season, settled with his family in Jacksonville, Fla., and became a postman. As far as anyone knew, he never came back to Shreveport. He died in his sleep of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1977, at age 50. 
         In February 1988 -- during my one year as sports editor of The Shreveport Times -- I received a note (a postcard, I believe) from Selma Pett of Bay City, Mich., Ken Guettler's hometown. Selma was Ken's sister.
         "Inasmuch as we plan to be in the Shreveport area soon, could you give us information on how to find the Shreveport Texas League Stadium?" Mrs. Pett wrote. "We have never been there and would like to see the stadium as we pass through. It would mean a lot to us."
          It meant a lot to me, too.
          I called Selma and told her I would be honored to do it. She and her husband, Ollie, were on their way to Arizona on a baseball spring training trip when they came to town. I carried them to the place where Ken Guettler had that magical year in '56 -- it was a shell of a ballpark by then -- and then took them out to Fair Grounds Field, then only two years old.
          The resulting story, as I said, was one I'll always cherish. Not that it was that well done, but because it was on a topic -- a name -- I had always treasured. It was a story that found me, rather than me finding it.
          "He talked often of Shreveport and the year he had here," Mrs. Pett told me that day. "He was very proud of having done what he did here."
          For more on Ken Guettler, here is the link to a story on


  1. Nico - I loved reading this. Do you have a link to the article you wrote in 1988?

  2. From Bob Molcany: I remember Guettler very well. As a kid, I saw many a game that he hit balls out of the old Spar Stadium. I do have one GREAT memory. I still have in my possession the very LAST home run ball that he ever hit out of the stadium. It was a sky-high shot over the left field wall. Me and about six other kids searched in the weeds and blackberry patches behind the left field -- and I came up with the ball. I still cherish it to this day.

  3. I saw a lot of those home runs myself. Had a neighbor who was very good friends with a man who had a season box and we went to a ton of games over the years,and when I wasn't at the game I listened to Irv Zideman (IZ for 5D motor oil) calling the game on radio. Also Mel McGaha lived just a few houses away from me. He lived at Hearne Ave and Attaway St (which I-20 took out) and I lived at Coral and Hearne just one block away. For those who may not know those two streets existed between Claiborne and Kings Hwy but were pretty much wiped out by I-20