RIP to Bobby Mitchell, an outfielder and designated hitter in the early 1970s, and a league-leading slugger in Japan. He died in Sacramento, Calif., on September 29 at the age of 75, Mitchell played for the New York Yankees (1970) and Milwaukee Brewers (1971, 1972-75), as well as the Nippon Ham Fighters (1976-79).
Robert Vance Mitchell was born in Norristown, Pa., on October 22, 1943. He graduated from Norristown High School and signed as an amateur free agent with the Boston Red Sox in 1965. He got off to a torrid start in the minors, hitting .333 for Harlan in the Appalachian League and then .327 in the Florida Instructional League. He hit 7 home runs in his first full season in the minors for Pittsfield in 1966. He played his way up to AAA Louisville in 1968. Though his batting average dipped to .234 with the Colonels, Mitchell had a great season by any other measure. He hit 15 triples and 10 home runs, stole 42 bases and drove in 45 runs.
The New York Yankees claimed Mitchell in the 1968 Rule V Draft. He suffered a torn knee cartilage in 1969 Spring Training but recovered to hit .328 with 6 homers for AAA Syracuse. He was batting .261 for Syracuse when the Yankees called him to the majors on July 5, 1970. He replaced Bob Woods, who was sent to the DL with a broken thumb,. Mitchell went hitless in his first day in the majors, going 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter in game one of a doubleheader against the Senators and 0-for-5 with an RBI in game two. His first MLB hit came off the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar on July 7. He ended up with 5 hits in 22 at-bats over 10 games, for a .227 average in the majors that season.
Mitchell and first baseman Frank Tepidino were traded to the Milwaukee Brewers on June 7, 1971 for outfielder Danny Walton. He remained with the Yankees’ Syracuse affiliate until the Brewers recalled him about a month later. Mitchell hit .182 in 35 games for the Brewers, playing all three outfield positions and serving as a pinch hitter. He hit his first two major-league home runs in both games of a doubleheader against the Senators on August 1. Jim Shellenback and Bill Gogolewski were his victims, and both homers were the margins of victory in a Brewers sweep.
Mitchell spent all of 1972 in the American Association with the Evansville Triplets. He slashed .381/.459/.722, leading the AA in all three categories, while hitting 20 home runs. He did all that in just 77 games, as he missed time due to injuries suffered in a car accident. Though he missed nearly half the season, Mitchell was the team’s main offensive weapon as the Triplets won 83 games and finished first in their division.
In 1973, Mitchell got off to another good start and was recalled back to the major leagues in July. He would not return to the minor leagues again and played with the Brewers for the next two-and-a-half seasons. He spent much of that time as Milwaukee’s DH, though he also played in left field too. He hit just .223 for the second half of the 1973 season but raised his average to .243 and .249 in 1974 and 1975. He also provided a measure of power, homering 5 times in both 1973 and 1974 and 9 times in ’75. He had several clutch hits in those years, including a single that broke up a no-hitter by Detroit’s Woody Fryman in 1974.
Despite being part of a crowded outfield/DH group that included rookies Gorman Thomas and Sixto Lezcano as well as veterans Dave May, Bob Hansen and Hank Aaron, Mitchell played in 88 and 93 games in ’74 and ’75 and had OPS+ number of over 100 each season. He was the primary DH for the Brewers in 1974 and moved to left field the following season, when Aaron joined Milwaukee as a designated hitter.
Mitchell started 1975 as a pinch-runner for Aaron. The slugger got off to a horrific start to the season and benched himself briefly. Mitchell started in Aaron’s place on April 23 and hit two clutch doubles in an 8-5 win over Baltimore.
“I was definitely surprised, filling in for The Hammer and all,” Mitchell said of his rare start. “That’s the first chance I’ve had to hit since spring training.”
Despite seeing little use early on, Mitchell became a regular by season’s end. Some people thought he wouldn’t even make the team, with the arrival of Aaron and rookies like Thomas and Lezcano. But Mitchell had a fan in manager Del Crandall.
“I went to spring training with the idea he would make it. No one else on this team can hit with power and run like he can,” the manager said. “And he has a good attitude. He doesn’t grouse around. When he’s called upon to do something, he’s ready. You don’t always find those guys.”
Unfortunately for Mitchell, Crandall was let go after the ’75 season, and new skipper Alex Grammas had other plans. The outfielder was sent back to the minors in April 1976, as Grammas decided to keep outfielders Bill Sharp and Thomas over Mitchell and Vada Pinson. Mitchell, 32, was so disappointed that he said he wanted to be transferred out of the organization entirely.
“I was fifth or sixth in runs batted in last year,” he said. “So do I have to fight to make this club?”
The Brewers granted his wish, either through a release or by selling his contract. Either way, Mitchell spent the last four years of his professional career as an outfielder for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japan Pacific League.
In five MLB seasons, Mitchell slashed .235/.299/.406, with 29 doubles, 6 triples and 21 home runs among his 143 career hits. He had 91 RBIs and scored 86 runs.
Overseas, Mitchell homered in his first at-bat in Japan and ended his first season with 23 homers, tied for the team lead with fellow American Walt “No-Neck” Williams. He raised that number to 32 long balls in 1977 and led the Pacific League with 36 homers in 1978. He also hit .274 with 93 RBIs that season and was elected to the All-Star Team. He retired after the 1979 season. In his four seasons in Japan with the Fighters, Mitchell hit for a .250 average with 113 home runs.
According to his obituary, Mitchell worked for 16 years with the Department of Corrections before retiring. He enjoyed playing in celebrity golf tournaments and working at baseball clinics as well.