RIP to Andy Etchebarren, a two-time All-Star catcher and a long-time minor-league manager. He died on October 5 at the age of 76. Etchebarren played for the Baltimore Orioles (1962, 1965-1975), California Angels (1975-1977) and Milwaukee Brewers (1978). He managed in the minor leagues and in independent baseball until 2012.
Andy Etchebarren was born in Whitter, Calif., on June 20, 1943. He was an infielder on the La Puente High School baseball team, but he signed with the Orioles in 1961 as a catcher, for $100,000. He was assigned to the Orioles’ farm team in Aberdeen, S.D., and hit .224 in 29 games. Former Orioles exec Paul Richards, then with Houston, said he’d give Lee MacPhail $150,000 for Etchebarren and rated him above his own top prospect, first baseman Rusty Staub.
“He catches a whole ball game and you don’t even notice him. That’s the mark of a good catcher, he just catches the ball without a lot of fanfare. He’s strong, too. He’ll make a good hitter,” Richards enthused.
Etchebarren moved up to the Elmira Pioneers in 1962 and connected for two home runs off fellow bonus baby Lew Krausse in one of his first games with the team. The young catcher hit a total of 6 homers in 86 games, along with a .249 batting average.
With the 1962 season winding down, the 19-year-old Etchebarren was brought to the majors. He played in two games and singled twice in 6 at-bats. He wasn’t the only Oriole to make his MLB debut on September 26, 1962. The starting pitcher was Dave McNally, Etchebarren’s teammate on the Pioneers. McNally tossed a 2-hit shutout, and his catcher drove in one of the O’s three runs with an RBI single. The two would remain lifelong friends, and Etchebarren was the only Oriole to attend McNally’s funeral in 2002.
Etchebarren spent most of the next three seasons in the minor leagues, showing some decent power and good defense behind the plate. He got another trip to the majors at the end of 1965 and had just one hit in 6 at-bats. That one hit, though, was a 3-run, inside-the-park home run — his first MLB homer. He connected off the Yankees’ Bill Stafford on September 6 to wipe out a 2-0 New York lead. The Orioles won the game 6-2 to sweep a doubleheader.
Etchebarren was slotted to be on the Orioles’ MLB roster in 1966, as he was out of options. However, he was not supposed to play a significant role, due to continued questions about his offense. In the offseason, starting catcher Dick Brown was diagnosed with a brain tumor and needed surgery, and backup catcher Charlie Lau ran into arm problems. While Baltimore scrambled to find new catchers, Etchebarren stepped into the starting role and became a surprise hitting sensation. A 6-game hitting streak early in the season left him with a nearly .400 average. He tailed off to around .250 at the All-Star break and .221 by the end of the season, but he did hit 11 home runs and drove in 50 runs. He earned an All-Star selection for his play and even picked up a couple of MVP votes.
Etchebarren went just 1-for-12 in the World Series against the Dodgers, but he helped in other ways. “I have seen him throw out the best runners in the American League — fellows like Campy Campanaris and Jose Cardenal — and I think he is capable of throwing out some of the Dodgers,” commented his former teammate Brown, who never played again after his brain surgery and died in 1970. Brown was right about Etchebarren. The Dodgers stole just one base in four games, as the Orioles swept them to become World Champs.
Game Two of the Series featured a matchup of Jim Palmer vs. Sandy Koufax. Etchebarren batted against Koufax in the 6th inning and grounded into an inning-ending 5-2-3 double play. It was the last pitch Koufax ever threw in professional baseball, as he was relieved by Ron Perranowski and retired after the season.
Etchebarren was named to the 1967 All-Star Team, but his second season as a starter was worse by every offensive standard. He slashed .215/.298/.318 in 112 games, with 7 homers and 35 RBIs. On June 4, he caught the final 15 innings of a 19-inning game against the Senators. Etchebarren came up to bat in the bottom of the 19th with Brooks Robinson on first base. After failing twice to lay down a sacrifice bunt, he slugged a 2-run homer to win the marathon game, 7-5.
Etchebarren never caught more than 80 games in a season for the remainder of his time with the Orioles. He gradually lost playing time to Elrod Hendricks and settled in as a perfectly capable backup catcher. He also struggled with injuries — never a serious one, but a string of nagging injuries that kept him from being as productive as he was at the start of his career. He later admitted that he was never 100% healthy after 1967.
From 1968 through 1974, he played an average of 69 games a season and hit .240 during that span. He had a high of .270 in 1971 and homered 9 times in 70 games. Etchebarren also caught the final game of the 1970 World Series, as the Orioles defeated the Reds. He did it with broken ribs, though nobody knew it until after the game was over. He fell in batting practice before Game One and had to be heavily taped before he could catch Mike Cuellar in the clinching game.
Etchebarren wasn’t happy with his role as a backup catcher and demanded to be traded multiple times. After several seasons of conflict, things came to a head in 1975, when he threatened to retire and go back home to California if he couldn’t be traded to his hometown Angels. Just before his June 15 deadline, he was indeed sold to the Angels. He responded by hitting .280 for the Angels in 31 games, after batting .200 in 8 games for Baltimore.
Etchebarren played in 103 games for California in 1976 but hit only .227 with no power. He raised his average to .254 in 1977 as a backup catcher to Terry Humphrey. Etchebarren was acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers in December 1977 but barely played in 1978. After earning the job as the Opening Day starter on April 7 (He went 1-for-3 with a double against the Orioles), he was injured and spent most of the season on the disabled list. He underwent surgery in June to remove bone chips from his right elbow. Etchebarren ended up retiring because of nerve damage in his arm.
In his 15-year career in the big leagues, Etchebarren slashed .235/.306/.343, with 615 hits that included 101 doubles, 17 triples and 49 home runs. He had 309 RBIs and scored 245 runs. He had a lifetime .987 fielding percentage behind the plate and threw out 39 percent of baserunners.
Etchebarren and his wife bought a racquetball club in California after he retired, but after a few years, he decided to get back into baseball. Starting in 1984 with the Stockton Ports, Etchebarren would spend most of the next 30 years as a minor-league or independent manager. Most of the time was spent in the Orioles organization, and he managed from the Rookie League Bluefield Orioles to the AAA Rochester Red Wings. When he wasn’t heading up a team in the minors, he was working as a first base coach or a bench coach for the Brewers or Orioles. Etchebarren was one of 10 Brewers who was injured in a clubhouse natural gas explosion during Spring Training in 1986, suffering burns on his arms. In 2009, he became the manager of the York Revolution in the Atlantic League and guided the team to the league championship in 2010 and 2011. He retired at the end of the 2012 season.
Perhaps Etchebarren’s greatest play came off the field… way, way off the field. Back in 1966, as the Orioles were winning, a few players decided to have a party by a pool. Drinks were consumed, players were throwing each other into the pool, people were feeling pretty good. Then Etchebarren noticed that team superstar Frank Robinson, who couldn’t swim, was at the bottom of the pool in the deep end. He dove in to check on him, and Robinson grabbed onto Etchebarren. After resurfacing for air, the catcher dove down again and pulled Robinson to the surface. The last 50+ years of baseball history would look much, much different if Etchebarren hadn’t been looking out for his teammate that night.