14 July: (Photo credit: www.bleedcubbieblue.com)
Ok, with all due respect to Luis Aparicio -who would rival Kessinger in that regard- this is, after all, a Cub site. And Don Kessinger became a prototype for a certain type of shortstop to follow. The likes of Cal Ripken Jr, Robin Yount, and Derek Jeter followed the template the great Leo Durocher created.
He was scouted, recruited, and signed by Durocher, a former shortstop himself.
Kessinger was a four sport star in high school, and went on to star at the University of Mississippi as a basketball and baseball star, winning All Conference, All SEC, and All American honors at both. Keep in mind that this was an era (1964) where collegiate players were rare in the Majors.
Leo Durocher, who played on the great Yankee teams of the past, earning both the derision of Babe Ruth, who called him the ‘all American out’ and the praise of manager Miller Huggins, who saw the passion and desire -and seeds of greatness- that would make him a first rate manager, saw the same qualities in Kessinger.
He decided to make a project out of him. When he struggled offensively early in his career, Durocher suggested that he start switch hitting. The different look helped him; pitchers could no longer take advantage of his lack of bat speed.
He became a better than serviceable hitter; his career .252 average considered quite good for the position back then. When he came up shortstops had basically ONE function. Play defense.
The best in the game were Baltimore’s Mark Belanger and St Louis’ Dal Maxvill.
Belanger’s career average? .228. And Maxvill’s?
.217. So you can see where Durocher was going. He wanted plus defense, but also a lead off hitter. Kessinger fit the bill on both counts, with a .314 on base percentage.
These numbers might not sound like much in today’s more offensive minded game, but keep in mind current Cub shortstop Starlin Castro is well below Kessinger’s production and isn’t as good defensively, either.
What really set the man from Mississippi apart was his athleticism. He was the first to patent what has become a staple at the position, the field, jump, and throw.
Instead of fielding the ball, planting his feet, and coming over the top, which is fine for third but slows down a shortstop, he would field the grounder, jump in the air, rotate his body and throw in one move.
Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins named it ‘the down pat’ play.
It became a fixture on both diamonds and playgrounds everywhere. Jenkins, in an interview, credited the shortstop in an interview with none other than Harry Carey, then a Cardinal broadcaster, with that play.
Carey asked him ‘do you think it was because Don was such a great basketball player?’
Jenkins answered immediately.
‘In the past five games he’s made many great plays to his right. He has that play down pat.’
Ergo the name ‘down pat’. Durocher was always proud of him, and he should have been. Don Kessinger, who went on to become the last player/manager in the American League, was a game changer.
And is to be remembered for it…