Richie Hebner was a Major League baseball player, a professional baseball third baseman. He was also a batting coach / hitting coach in both the minor and major leagues. He was even a baseball team manager. But did you know his nickname, Gravedigger, was given to him because he was actually a gravedigger at a cemetery run by his father and brother? Baseball Almanac likes to take a look "beyond the stats" and we hope you enjoy the following historical baseball article about Richie "Gravedigger" Hebner:
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Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and the minimum salary for a major leaguer was a lot less than the current several hundred thousand dollars-a-year, most ballplayers needed to seek employment in the off-season to supplement their income. Young fans might find this hard to believe but as Casey Stengel once said, "You can look it up!"
Perhaps the most famous of these off-season jobs was that of Richie Hebner, who worked in the family cemetery as a grave digger. Even when salaries began to escalate in the 70s, Hebner kept digging those ditches for a few extra shekels. When Hebner was on the Phillies, a writer asked him if he still worked as a grave digger in the offseason. With a nod of the head and a solemn look on his face, the first baseman replied, "Don't close your eyes too long."
Other well-known players who punched a time clock from October until the start of spring training in February were Yankee stars Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra who sold men's clothes in a department store. Tiger great Al Kaline also worked in retail in a sporting goods store as a sales person.
Following Mark Fidrych's break-out 1976 season, one in which he posted a 19-9 record with a 2.34 era, "The Bird" pumped a lot of gas as an attendant at a service station in Massachussetts.
Imagine a "Rookie of the Year" doing that today in the off-season!
Long-time Red Ewell Blackwell sold cars, hurler Ted Wilks was a blue-collar guy in a power plant, and Detroit outfielder Davy Jones filled prescriptions as a pharmacist. Manager Hughie Jennings was a successful trial lawyer in the off-season. The highly-educated "Ee-Yah" could be quite a wit. Following an automobile accident in which he sustained serious arm, leg and skull injuries, he quipped:
"Life is full of trials, which is a good thing for lawyers."
The irascible Denny McLain couldn't stay out of the limelight in the off-season. Baseball's last 30-game winner worked as a lounge singer, accompanying himself on the organ, for several years in the late 60's and early 70s. Numerous people who saw McLain perform said that he was quite good as a crooner. It was at this time, however, that the troubled pitcher came in contact with underworld figures and other unsavory characters that eventually led to a suspension in 1970 and later, a stretch in prison.
There must have been something about playing for the Tigers that brought out the performer in a guy; McLain's Tiger teammate, Mickey Lolich worked one-off season as a lounge singer in Las Vegas. And in the 1920's, Earl Whitehill supplemented his income for a time as a professional musician. One of baseball's best-known pitchers at the time, Whitehill also made headlines when he married the lovely Violet Geisinger, the then-model for Sun Maid Raisins.
Several players played professional basketball in the off-season. Gene Conley had a six-year NBA career, garnering three championship rings as a member of the Red Auerbach's legendary Celtics. Ron Reed was a pro hoopster from 1965-67 and Dick Groat, a two-time basketball All-American at Duke, collected a hardwood paycheck following the 1952 baseball season. Outfielder Frankie Baumholtz and pitcher Steve Hamilton also helped pay the bills by playing a little round ball.
When Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin found out that his talented young shortstop Johnny Pesky was risking catastrophic injury by playing ice hockey in the off-season, he sent a telegram saying, "Get off the ice and stay off!"
These are some of the more-notable examples of ballplayers and how they supplemented their incomes in the off-season. The lesser-lights also sought extra employment as grocery clerks, security guards, insurance salesmen, foundry workers, bus drivers, and a myriad of other occupations.
Those days are gone forever. With that era's demise, baseball lost something, an intimacy that can't be manufactured or branded by high-powered advertising.
The old-time players seemed more like us. It was easier to relate to a guy with a family making a combined 7,000 dollars-a-year as a ball player and junior high school basketball coach than the mega-millions stars of today. We appreciate the skill of the modern player and want as many of today's stars as possible on our favorite teams.
But do we love them like fans loved the old-time players?
Yesterday's players were people.
Today's major leaguers are a commodity, available to the highest bidder.
Yesterday was better.
A Baseball Almanac exclusive written by Yahoo! contributor Chris Williams.
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