Before I started reading up on the man a few nights ago, I didn’t know much about Larry Hisle. I knew he was a two-time All-Star with a monster peak in the late ‘70s, and that he had a great deal of both power and speed when he was healthy, which, unfortunately was a fairly short window. I also knew he grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, something I learned seven years ago when I happened to drive past the overgrown haven for drug use and illegal disposal, which is what became of the park bearing his name. What I knew nothing about was his difficult upbringing or the bevy of charity work he has immersed himself in ever since even before his first big payday.
Now that I have a fuller picture and a much greater appreciation of Larry Hisle, I bring you nine things we all should know about him — nine, of course, because of the number he wore in his heyday with both the Twins and Brewers.
1. Hisle was well-traveled before his breakthrough
Picked by the Phillies in the second round of the first-ever MLB draft in 1965, Hisle had a nice rookie season in 1969, then struggled through injury-exacerbated poor performance the next two years, after which he was traded to the Dodgers. Blocked there, he spent the entire 1972 season in AAA, and then was traded to St. Louis without playing a regular-season game in Dodger blue. He’d never wear a Cardinals uniform either, as they waited just a month to flip him to the Twins. It was in Minnesota that he reestablished himself as an everyday player, then developed into an offensive force and eventually an All-Star.
2. He was the first designated hitter
Sure, we all know that the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg was the first designated hitter to walk to the plate in a regular-season major league game, a mere inning before Boston’s Orlando Cepeda, but a little over a month earlier Hisle was the very first to do so in an exhibition game. Originally penciled in as the center fielder for his first game with the Twins, Hisle injured his toe while playing with his son immediately before the game. That got him the day off from fielding, but it didn’t affect his swing; he hit two home runs, including a grand slam, and drove in seven runs total. He didn’t DH in a regular-season game until 1975, and wasn’t used regularly as a DH until his final few seasons when he was battling the shoulder injuries that ultimately cut his career short.
3. He holds the Twins’ record for SB in a game
In a June 30, 1976 loss to the Royals, less than a month after becoming the third Twins player to hit for the cycle, Hisle stole four bases to set a new club record that has yet to be matched. 16 other Twins have stolen three bases a total of 31 times, led by Rod Carew and his eight such games.
4. Hisle earned two rings as a coach
Hisle was the hitting coach for the Blue Jays when they won back-to-back championships in 1992 and ‘93. Prior to that he coached in their minor league ladder, as well as in the Phillies, Astros, and Brewers’ systems. After his time in Toronto, Hisle returned to the Brewers organization, first as an instructor, then in a role that was the most perfect fit possible.
5. An orphan, Hisle never forgot his roots
Hisle lost both of his parents at a young age. When Larry was just 10 years old, his father suffered a brain hemorrhage that left him in a vegetative state for his few remaining years. Less than a year after his father was left clinging to what can only technically be termed life, Larry lost his mother to an untreated kidney infection. He then lived with an aunt briefly before he was adopted by a loving couple. Hisle began giving back during his playing days, in both time and money, and it snowballed from there. Most recently he has spent the past couple decades mentoring and assisting underprivileged, at-risk, or otherwise disadvantaged youths in the Milwaukee area, both independently and in an official capacity with the Brewers’ organization. “I always tell the kids, ‘This is a lifelong relationship,” Hisle told mlb.com’s Adam McCalvy in 2002. “In five years, ten years, I’m going to be calling, I’m going to be stopping by. That’s where I believe the challenge will be, because the goal is not for a kid to perform better than ever for six months, a year, but for year after year after year. I want the kids to do the things that are going to make his family proud. I’m only doing something for these kids that should be done for every kid in the country.”
6. Baseball might not have even been his best sport
During his time at Portsmouth High School, Hisle was an All-American in both baseball and basketball, and was recruited heavily by elite colleges to continue playing the latter sport. The in-state powerhouses put on the full-court press, with The Ohio State University sending John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, and the current Ohio governor, Jim Rhodes, to make their best pitches, while Oscar Robertson stumped on behalf of University of Cincinnati. All was for naught, as Hisle’s decision was made easier by the substantial bonus offered by the Phillies after they drafted him. He did attend both Ohio State and Ohio University in the baseball offseasons, solely as a student, and earned his degree while he was still working to make a name for himself at his day job.
7. His free agency decision wasn’t about the money
A free agent after the 1977 season, in the infancy of the practice, Hisle chose the Brewers from a pool of over a dozen suitors. As was general practice for the club at the time, his former team, the Twins, lowballed and disrespected Hisle repeatedly over the years, yet he was still ready to return on a new deal until they predictably nickel-and-dimed him at the last minute yet again. After Minnesota brass finally burned their bridge to him, the world was Hisle’s oyster as nearly everyone lined up to make their case to the reigning American League RBI leader. He promptly rejected both New York teams before considering the others and determining that Milwaukee was the right spot for his family which by then included his wife of seven years, Sheila, and their six-year-old son Larry, Jr.
8. His son has followed in his footsteps
Like his more famous father, the younger Larry Hisle was an outstanding baseball and basketball player who went on to devote his life to community enrichment and helping others. He was a starter for the University of Wisconsin basketball team in the 1990-91 season, then transferred to Dayton, where he was a three-time NCAA D-I All Conference player in baseball. In the late ‘90s, after three years of playing baseball in the Larry Jr. founded Directors of Continuing Services (DCS) in his longtime hometown of Milwaukee, with the aim of providing psychological, educational and mentoring services to those who could not otherwise access such things.
9. I literally could not find as much as one single solitary occurrence of anyone saying anything less than glowing about him
Hisle is beloved by everyone whose path he has crossed, and he is spoken of with the reverence usually reserved for a firefighter who lost a limb to save a goldfish. I’ll leave you with a small sampling of what those who have known him have had to say about him over the years.
“The kind of player kids should look up to…without a doubt, one of the nicest men I’ve ever known.”
– George Bamberger, former Brewers manager
“A wonderful human being…he is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”
– Bud Selig, former Brewers owner/Commissioner of Major League Baseball
“No matter what good things have been written about him, he’s even better…one of the nicest ballplayers ever to come in here.”
– Jim Ksicinski, former Milwaukee clubhouse attendant.
(those three were via his SABR Bio Project profile, which is a must-read, and was an indispensable help in putting this modest little listicle together)
“He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met in my life. He’s looking to put in his time with the kids who are really, really struggling. The thing that’s golden about Larry is that he keeps his commitments. If he says he’s going to meet with a kid once every two weeks, he’s coming once every two weeks. You just don’t see that.”
– John Boche, principal at St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee
“Larry Hisle has been a pure joy to work with because of his passion, the way that he loves, the way that he cares... He continues to be an all-star to every single person he meets and he has done this humbly and quietly.””
– Chuck Jones, Hope Worldwide
“I don’t think Larry is ever off the clock. I think if you asked him he’d say this isn’t a job, it’s his life. It’s his passion.”
– Tyler Barnes, former Brewers’ vice president of communications
“Larry, to me . . . gosh, it’s so hard to describe. There’s no one else like him that I’ve ever met in my life. Every time I’m in the hospital, he motivates me to want to get up and do that little bit extra. The cancer I have, the odds are less than 20% to live five years if you have it once. It’s come back three times and I think Larry is a big part of the reason why I’m still here. I can honestly say I love him.”
– Eric McLean, Wisconsin teen with recurrent leukemia
(those four were from this spectacular 2011 profile of Hisle by Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
So, did you learn something new? I hope you did.